2017 Color the Crag Climbing Festival Credit: Courtesy Damon Yeh

Every now and then, when Bethany Lebewitz went rock climbing outside, she felt the eyes of strangers weighing her down. She struggled to focus. She questioned her abilities. She had trouble shaking those feelings, but eventually, Lebewitz says, she learned to internalize them.

“I couldn’t unpack what it was that I was experiencing,” she says. “It was interrupting my performance as a climber. That was in my head instead of the climb. That was a big deal.”

Now she can trace those emotions, which she felt when she first moved to the D.C. area a few years ago, back to a climbing session at the New River Gorge National River in West Virginia. While pausing in the air to admire the stunning view of the park, Lebewitz scanned her surroundings and the group of climbers she traveled with, including her husband. 

“Oh, my gosh,” she thought to herself in the middle of a climb, “there’s like all white people except me.” Lebewitz, who identifies as biracial, realized she was the only person of color there. 

She confided in her brother and her friends, who encouraged her to start an Instagram account to share her story. On Oct. 31, 2016, Lebewitz posted the first photo to @browngirlsclimb, an image of her climbing at Red Rock Canyon in Las Vegas. A few weeks later, she included the handle as a hashtag in her photos. 

The account, which features Lebewitz and other female climbers of color, took off and currently has nearly 11,000 followers. Brown Girls Climb has become a movement and grown into a for-profit organization that hosts monthly events for female climbers of color, mostly in the D.C. area and Colorado, where Lebewitz, 30, now lives. Other groups and efforts like Outdoor Afro, Latino Outdoors, District of Color Climbers, and the D.C. chapter of the New York-based nonprofit Brothers of Climbing also exist to promote and increase diversity in the sport of rock climbing. 

Credit: Courtesy Doogie Roux

Recent racial demographic data reveal that in 2017, 20.01 percent of USA Climbing “stakeholders,” like members and gym owners, identified as non-white; 7.1 percent identified as African-American, 6.5 percent as Asian, and 2.5 percent as Latinx. The data, which were collected last year in a survey by Dr. Ryan Gagnon, USA Climbing’s research advisor and an assistant professor of parks, recreation, and tourism management at Clemson University, only reinforces what people in the climbing community already know. The sport, and the space it occupies, is visibly homogenous.

“We’re all skewed quite heavily to white men right now,” says Erica Espenak, the director at the Earth Treks Climbing Center in Rockville. “It’s blatantly obvious. You don’t really need the data to see that. But it’s definitely getting better.”

Gagnon’s numbers show that to be true—to an extent. Four years ago, the number of non-white “stakeholders” within the USA Climbing community was 11 percent. “Contextualizing this deliberate shift in representativeness provides some hope for the sport, and demonstrates progress is possible,” says Gagnon.

But while participation by people of color may be up among those affiliated with USA Climbing, the national governing body of competition climbing, some climbers are still questioned about their presence in outdoor spaces.

When Gabrielle Dickerson first started climbing about three years ago, she climbed outside almost every weekend. She liked how she got stronger at each climb and the physical act of ascending a rock, but occasionally, she felt like she didn’t belong. Often, Dickerson says, she was one of only a few women at these climbs, and almost always the only black woman. Some of Dickerson’s peers made assumptions about her that only deepened her isolation.

“There would be people coming up to me to ask if I was the girlfriend of a friend climbing,” she says. “They’d assume I was sitting there just to take pictures. They didn’t think I was climbing at that high of a level or that I was capable.”

Dickerson, 21, leaned on the Brown Girls Climb community and is now the group’s social media manager. For inspiration, she clicks through the hashtag and sees women of color that she has never met before succeeding in a space that often doesn’t have representatives that look like her.

“To be able to see other people of color climbing, crushing at climbing, and be able to meet up with people and have this safe space and this representation is so important,” says Dickerson, a resident of Waldorf, Maryland.

Once a month, Brown Girls Climb hosts a meetup at a local climbing gym where members can work on techniques, learn about historic climbers of color, and find the confidence to excel as climbers and leaders in the industry. One of Lebewitz’s primary goals, she says, is to help place women of color in leadership positions in the climbing world and beyond.

Lebewitz met Brittany Leavitt at a local Mappy Hour event, the outdoor enthusiast’s take on a happy hour. The two immediately connected through their shared interests and both speak passionately about their efforts to bring more people of color into climbing. Leavitt, 29, currently lives in Hyattsville and is the regional director of Brown Girls Climb and a community leader for Outdoor Afro in the D.C. area. She’s also an Outdoor School instructor for REI. 

“Being a part of these community spaces has been so helpful,” Leavitt says. “It’s helped me with my own personal experiences not to close the door on people and making sure they leave the door open for others. There’s an infinity line of opportunity and knowledge to spread down.”

On a Wednesday in mid-October, Lebewitz’s mind is racing. In a day, she will host the second annual Color the Crag, which bills itself as “the most diverse climbing festival.” The event has attracted high-profile supporters like title sponsor The North Face and featured sponsor REI Co-op. She has to call food vendors and volunteers, and coordinate with her fellow leaders to make sure everything is ready to go for the four-day festival in Steele, Alabama.

The first night opens with a tamale dinner, a welcome message from the leaders, and a meet-and-greet. About 200 people are in attendance.

“We all know each other from Instagram” says Lebewitz, “but seeing them climb is really transformative. …It’s like, ‘Whoa.’ It’s not just having black and brown faces on the crag. There’s a cultural shift of having leadership from these communities.”

Color the Crag formed out of a partnership between Lebewitz, now the executive director of Brown Girls Climb, and Mikhail Martin, the co-founder of Brothers of Climbing. Lebewitz first got to know Martin, who started his group with friends David Glace and Andrew Belletty in 2012, on a video chat with other climbers and outdoor athletes of color. Martin suggested they should meet up. They chatted, and floated the idea of hosting a festival. The #browngirlsclimb hashtag had gone viral and REI featured Brothers of Climbing in a 2017 YouTube video. 

“He was like, ‘I think we have enough people to show up. Let’s do it.’ We started planning right away,” Lebewitz says. 

Darious Phillips Credit: Courtesy Doogie Roux

Climbing, says Jess Yang, is a sport that teaches athletes to persevere, whether that’s by breaking through mental blocks, or figuring out the right position to place your feet to get to the next hold. It’s in that same vein that she is approaching her role as lead ambassador of Brothers of Climbing. The 28-year-old Annandale resident wants to “remove any sort of barriers coming into climbing.”

Gym memberships can be pricey (it costs $120 for a 30-day membership for individual Earth Trek members and $100 for the same amount of days at Sportrock), and that doesn’t include certain gear. Learning all of the requisite skills in the variety of disciplines and terminology can be daunting. Bouldering is different than sport climbing, which is different than top rope climbing, which is different than lead climbing. 

In this sense, Yang says, she wants everyone, not just minorities, to feel comfortable and welcomed. Brown Girls Climb and Brothers of Climbing can provide an instant sense of community.

“We want to make this space an open space to everyone, no matter your race, ethnicity, or background,” she says. “For me, the people who I climb with become like family to me—the whole support system, not just in climbing, but within your life too.”

Those in charge of the sprawling gyms like Sportlock, which has two locations in Virginia, and Earth Treks, which operates four Maryland centers and one in Crystal City, are starting to offer incentives for groups that promote diversity. 

Sportrock in Alexandria offers free and discounted programs and non-profit groups can apply for discounts, says assistant director Leah Thomas. There is also a free event for adaptive climbers once a month that is run with the help of volunteers. The gym also provides internship programs and works with groups that benefit local youth like Second Story or City Kids Wilderness Project, according to Molly Donelan, Sportrock’s director of programs and events.

“Of course it is part of our mission to bring in more people of color, since it is part of our mission to make climbing accessible to everyone,” Donelan writes in an email. “Sportrock has a place for everyone, regardless of color.”

Earth Treks has also partnered with a few groups, but on a more informal, gym-level basis, meaning that there is no uniform outreach program across all of the centers. But inclusivity, says Espenak, the director of the Rockville gym, is on everyone’s minds. It’s one of the company’s core values.

“It’s an action item,” she says. “We’re making the effort to go find people to work with and make the gym a more welcoming place.”

Darious Phillips, another local ambassador for Brothers of Climbing, was working out at the Earth Treks in Columbia, Maryland earlier this month with a friend. The two had recently returned from Color the Crag, and felt empowered through four days of climbing, eating, dancing, and attending workshops with other climbers of color. Phillips had just come down from a climb, and the two were standing under a steep wall, when a young black girl ran past her instructor and other people in staff shirts to ask them a question.

She too wanted to know if she could go to the top of the wall. She was asking for their help. Phillips, who lives in Baltimore, believes she chose them because they look like her. His friend blushed. Of course, they told her. The little girl then sprinted back to her aunt, leaving the two 20-something men speechless.

“I mean, that is why we do this,” Phillips says.

This article has been updated to clarify Bethany Lebewitz’s experiences climbing outside when she first moved to the D.C. area.