Over the shoulder of Nikki Smith and the 2020 Open Aperture participants
OPEN APERTURE PHOTO CLINIC
2019 participants
Sam Ortiz
Founder of Climb Big,
Photographer (she/her/hers)

I grew up in the small town of Winchester, Kentucky, not far from the Red River Gorge, a world class rock climbing location. I was somewhat familiar with climbing and was even invited to climb on a couple of occasions but always turned it down because I didn’t think it was something that someone like me could do. I realized later that I’d never considered it because I never saw climbers who looked like me: plus sized or of color. I spent all this time living next to this international climbing area yet never thought it was accessible to me.

But I’d always been a mountain goat and it wasn’t until I lived in Seattle that I decided to try it out. The first time I got on the wall was at my local YMCA. I got two feet up before coming back down. My hands were unbearably clammy and I cried because I was afraid of heights. But I kept going, climbing higher on the wall each time, and eventually, I got better. Once I did all I could do at the YMCA, I joined the local climbing gym. My transition outdoors began with a sport climbing course with The Mountaineers. My whole life opened up after that.
portrait of Sam Ortiz
IMAGE BY NIKKI SMITH
Atim and Cody sit back to back wearing the Ghost Whisper hoody, taking in the views around them
IMAGE BY SAM ORTIZ
But after a while, I was tired of being the only plus-sized person in a climbing class, at the gym, in the alpine, or at the crag. A major barrier of entry for plus-sized climbers is worrying about whether or not the harnesses will fit. Imagine trying to visit a climbing gym with your friends and not being able to get the harness up over your hips… It can be humiliating to be singled out and left out like that. I worked with my gym, Edgeworks in Tacoma, to get a set of harnesses that would fit plus-sized bodies, and it was way more successful that I thought it would be. Since I’m plus sized, I became a resource for gear, and we now have a group, Climb Big, which creates community and provides resources for plus-sized climbers who identify as female or non-binary.
But I’d always been a mountain goat and it wasn’t until I lived in Seattle that I decided to try it out. The first time I got on the wall was at my local YMCA. I got two feet up before coming back down. My hands were unbearably clammy and I cried because I was afraid of heights. But I kept going, climbing higher on the wall each time, and eventually, I got better. Once I did all I could do at the YMCA, I joined the local climbing gym. My transition outdoors began with a sport climbing course with The Mountaineers. My whole life opened up after that.

My call to action to our climbing community is to not assume someone’s climbing ability, status, or knowledge based on how they look. People assume that I’m a first time climber because I’m plus-sized and of color, but I’ve been climbing for years now, and I teach classes. I want other BIPOC friends to get the same treatment.
Atim and Cody look out into the distance while at the photo clinic
IMAGE BY SAM ORTIZ
Mineral King tent in the distance, under a starry night
IMAGE BY SAM ORTIZ
three climbers on a rock wall during the open aperture photo clinic
why open aperture matters