Cruxing in Community
portrait of Shara Zaia during the Open Aperture clinic in fall 2021
A cold bitterness soaks my face, slipping off my chin like raindrops. I exhale. Blinking, I spot the empty cup of beer gripped tightly in a stranger's pulsing fingers. I blink again, eyes focusing on my own three fingers settling gently on the sharp crimp next to my shoulder. Inhale. My face is dry. My eyes flicker down at my feet balancing on what feels like thin air. Exhale. All I feel is my body and the rock underneath. I feel weightless. Free.

In a world where being anything but the dominant culture not only puts you at a constant disadvantage but also in possible harm, this brief moment of freedom on the wall offers a much needed reprieve to many. That is, if you are lucky enough to have the opportunity to find yourself on the wall equipped with hundreds of dollars worth of gear. If you grew up Black, Indigenous, or a Person of Color in America, you could probably use more moments like these.
It is our collective responsibility as a society to create spaces that provide freedom for those who have systematically had theirs withheld.
Freedom to play should be an indisputable right for both children and adults. Our outdoor spaces provide the opportunity for historically mistreated individuals to reclaim the playfulness of youth that may have been taken from them prematurely.
Ayo and Caleb belaying and chatting during the Open Aperture clinic
Caleb putting on his climbing shoes, looking up
While there is no physical barrier keeping folks from stepping outside, there are many factors that limit their access or even their desire to enter those spaces. Take a moment to think back to when you started climbing. Who took you to the crag? Taught you how to tie knots? Which gear to use? Climbing is a mentorship-based sport and knowledge is passed down from others. That means if you don’t feel welcome in that space or have anyone to show you the ropes (literally), you may find yourself hesitant to jump in.
When I started climbing, I was lucky enough to have fantastic and patient mentors and I knew I wanted to share that access with other folks who may run the risk of missing out simply because of their racial or ethnic identities. So in 2020, I had the opportunity to create Cruxing in Color—an organization in Colorado’s Front Range aiming to connect, support, and empower self-identified climbers of color.
If you’re not familiar with the term, a crux is the hardest move or sequence on a climb. If you’ve ever cruxed out on the wall, you’ve felt the effects: gut-wrenching fear, panting, possibly tears while you frantically search for anything to hold onto for safety.
Now imagine the relief you feel when you finally grab hold of something sturdy enough to slow your heart rate and feel your belayer braced to catch your fall. I don’t know about you, but life can feel really cruxy sometimes and it can become difficult to remember that you’re not alone when you don’t know where that safety jug is—I’ve been there. In fact, when the isolation of COVID dug up that familiar fear, I knew it was important to make sure folks, including me, didn’t feel like they were going through the cruxy parts of life alone. So, I decided to bring back the meetups that always provided me with something to look forward to and people to meet.
Shara climbing during the clinic
Group shot of folks participating in the Open Aperture clinic
Our first meetup was just 7 of us, drinking seltzer waters in the park from 6 feet apart.
That was last November. After pairing up with Menesha Mannapperuma, the group’s following now consists of almost 3,000 folks and has created indoor and outdoor programming around the greater Denver area as well as a community scholarship program and gear support. As Cruxing in Color has grown it is not without its challenges. BIPOC folks often grow up internalizing shame built on years of being taught that we don’t live up to American standards. This leads to a tendency to hesitate while others take up space that we don’t believe we deserve. I have personally turned down too many opportunities out of fear of not being worthy. Even now, as someone who is still fairly new to climbing, it is challenging to fight off the notion that someone else should be doing this work - a stronger climber, a better speaker, a more experienced leader.
Plus, it can feel overwhelming to take on the needs of a community—it is often really challenging to know where to start. Every individual community faces unique contexts and intersecting needs and there is no one size fits all approach to success. Focusing on this work also can make it difficult to prioritize your own needs. Cruxing in Color is run on a strictly volunteer basis and our leaders wear many hats—all on top of full-time jobs.
But still no matter how hard you try, some people will not believe in the work you do. Many people continue to voice concerns that these affinity spaces may actually be more divisive than inclusive.
Some point fingers and argue over whose hurt is worse. It can be extremely discouraging. But in my time as a preschool teacher, I was constantly reminded of our innate tendency towards inclusion. Unfortunately, the result of our social conditioning is the trauma experienced by folks from a wide range of racial and ethnic histories. So, while these affinity spaces are exclusive by definition, the reasoning behind that intentional exclusivity is to heal a collective group rather than to simply harm others and protect power.
Open Aperture Photo Clinic group shot of several participants climbing and taking photos
Two participants laughing and looking up at the climbing wall
These spaces are a chance for BIPOC folks to stop feeling like they need to prove they belong. To finally take their assimilation suits off, stop code-switching, and exhale a deep breath of relief.
BIPOC and other historically excluded individuals need and deserve space to heal, experience joy, and learn together. Because of this, CIC will not allow any policing of anyone’s racial or ethnic identities or engage in comparative suffering.
You can find communities working hard to make this happen all over the U.S.: Climbers of Color (WA), Color the Wasatch (UT), Madison Climbers of Color (WI), Eastern Sierra Climbers of Color (CA), and many more. These affinity groups aren’t trying to convert BIPOC folks into climbers. In fact, at the end of the day these groups aren’t even really about climbing. Most often, when someone shows up to a meetup, it is to find community and mentorship.
We all deserve to find spaces that make us feel safe, supported, and empowered enough to step into the truest version of ourselves. In the end, that is the most important thing climbing has given me.
portrait of Shara
the open aperture
photo clinic
No one can better tell the story of an underrepresented
group's experience better than those directly affected.