Climb the Hill goes virtual: Zoom panels focus on public lands and DEI

Posted on: September 26, 2020


A screenshot of the Climb the Hill panel that took place on Zoom, Wednesday, September 23. The discussion focused on public lands and the environment. Normally, Climb the Hill is an in-person event that takes place annually in Washington, DC. This year was a virtual gathering because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Clockwise, from top left to right, are professional climber Alex Honnold, gym owner Abby Dione, pro climber Tommy Caldwell, Congressman Joe Neguse, Access Fund Policy Director Erik Murdock, and American Sign Language interpreter Norma Villegas. [Photo] Derek FranzA screenshot of the Climb the Hill panel that took place on Zoom, Wednesday, September 23. The discussion focused on public lands and the environment. Normally, Climb the Hill is an in-person event that takes place annually in Washington, DC. This year was a virtual gathering because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Clockwise, from top left to right, are professional climber Alex Honnold, gym owner Abby Dione, pro climber Tommy Caldwell, Congressman Joe Neguse, Access Fund Policy Director Erik Murdock, and American Sign Language interpreter Norma Villegas. [Photo] Derek Franz

As with so many other events around the world, the annual Climb the Hill was held virtually this week. Climb the Hill is an event organized by the American Alpine Club and Access Fund in which climbing delegates lobby officials on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. It grew into a high-profile event in May 2017 and has continued in the same fashion until it went online this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Two discussion panels were open to the public (online) on September 23 and 24.

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For the first panel, on public lands and the environment, the panelists included professional climbers Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold, climbing gym owner Abby Dione, and Colorado 2nd District Rep. Joe Neguse. Access Fund Policy Director Erik Murdock served as moderator. An American Sign Language interpreter was also present.

Caldwell and Honnold have made groundbreaking ascents around the globe, including a sub-2-hour speed record on the Nose of El Capitan in 2018. Caldwell famously free climbed El Cap's Dawn Wall in 2015. Honnold is probably most well known for his free solo of El Capitan's Freerider (5.12d/13a, 3,000') in 2017, which appeared in the Oscar-winning documentary, Free Solo. Caldwell and Honnold recently teamed up for the Continental Divide Ultimate Linkup in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

Dione became the first Black woman to own a climbing gym in the US when she opened Coral Cliffs Climbing Gym in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. She was recently interviewed for a story in the Climbing Life section of Alpinist 69 (Spring 2020) titled "Your Climbing is Political Whether You Like It or Not" by Anaheed Saatchi. Dione's gym is special, Saatchi wrote, in that "her approach to creating a community is holistic; she wants to make sure that no one feels alienated who walks through those doors.... She wants it to be 'a place of learning and growth and nurturing.'" Dione is AMGA certified, and she is a climbing coach who has taught clinics at climbing festivals such as Color the Crag and Flash Foxy.

Neguse became the first African-American member of Congress in Colorado history when he was elected to his first term in November 2018. He serves on the House Judiciary and Natural Resources committees as well as on the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. Neguse's state district "might have the most climbers, the most climbing advocates, the most climbing gyms, the most climbing guides, perhaps of any district in the country," Murdock said. [This has statement has not been completely verified, but it is safe to assert that there is a very high concentration of climbers and climbing activists in this region, which contains Boulder, Fort Collins, Estes Park and a swath of the central Rockies, including Grand and Summit counties.]

Climber delegates pose at the nation's capitol in Washington, DC, during the Climb the Hill event in 2018. [Photo] Stephen GoslingClimber delegates pose at the nation's capitol in Washington, DC, during the Climb the Hill event in 2018. [Photo] Stephen Gosling

The following is an edited and abridged version of a close-captioned transcript that was provided to people who attended the Zoom panel.

Murdock: America is experiencing an unprecedented period right now. Unemployment is high. We're experiencing civil unrest. We're in the midst of a pandemic with little end in sight. A lot of people are really downtrodden because they don't know what to do and how to improve the situation.

[Addressing Neguse] When I see you, Congressman, speak on the house floor, you're not just going through the motions. You're speaking with passion. [I'm] wondering what keeps you so optimistic and passionate during these difficult times?

Neguse: Uh, well, that's a great question.... As you said, we live in a very trying time.... The combination of the COVID-19 public health emergency [and] the economic fallout we've experienced as a result. The very, um, contentious and, uh, dare I say, toxic political culture that we find ourselves in, the echo chambers...that perpetuate so many of the divisions and folks who...inflame those even further. [It] leaves a lot to be desired.... And yet there is still so much to be hopeful about.... How lucky we are to have these treasured public lands that have been handed down from generation to generation. That gives me hope. It gives me hope...that we can continue that battle into the future.... We have far more in common than we realize. And so, part of our...work is to continue to knit the fabric back together in our country.... When I think of the singular values that we all share as Americans, I think one of them is this passion and commitment for our wild places, for the natural places in our country—to be able to enjoy them. That gives me hope.

Murdock: Tommy, I know that you've done some really local activism in your hometown [Estes Park, Colorado], trying to protect an open space. Can you talk a little bit about that and...what you learned from that experience?

Caldwell: The thing that surprised me and that was really nice about local activism is that it feels like you can make a really big change without a whole lot of effort.... I think the [local activism] that you're probably alluding to, Erik, is the Thumb and Needle project at my hometown here in Estes Park, where there was one person—Erik Murdock—who kind of spearheaded the effort to save this mountain from development that had a bunch of climbing on it. And it had a bunch of opportunity for outdoor recreation in a really accessible way to, like, school kids. And so we just showed up at a couple of town hall meetings and there was a whole contingent of people there [who] didn't want change. And they didn't like the idea of turning it into a public park. And then we showed up and a couple [of]...school kids showed up and really, it was just like a handful of people, and [they] said, "...This could really make my life better." And those homeowners [who] surrounded that mountain changed their minds and suddenly this mountain is preserved and saved.... That kind of stuff is so quantifiable and so exciting.

Murdock: [addressing Neguse] What is the CORE Act? [Neguse introduced the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act to the House of Representatives in January 2019 with Sen. Michael Bennet as a co-sponsor. It was passed and has seen five roll-call votes in the Senate so far, according to Congress.gov. The legislation involves "approximately 400,000 acres of public land in Colorado, establishing new wilderness areas and safeguarding existing outdoor recreation opportunities to boost the economy for future generations," according Bennet's website.]

Neguse: The CORE Act in some respects [is] a reflection of just how important local activism and community activism is and can be.... It is a compilation of four different public land measures that have been introduced over the course of the last decade, impacting different parts of our state....

Murdock: Abby, what gives you hope?

Dione: It was actually a worldwide demonstration of love and support for me in the gym.... About two months ago my partner started a Go Fund Me for the gym, and in the space of a few days, it raised six figures.... What makes the whole thing impressive for me isn't...the dollar amount—[which] is nothing to sneeze at—it's the fact that the average gift was $20. That means a lot of folks showed up for me and my local climbing community. So that is what really...resonates for me. That is what has the biggest, um, punch, if you will. It actually helped me realize—and I hope it's something other gym owners realize—is that the leadership in the community that we build is way more important than the gym walls themselves. So I'd encourage you to invest in your community anyway, you can.

Honnold: I shared all the information about [Dione's] gym...across my channels because I thought it was a valuable project. I thought that it was important for the climbing community to come together to support something that matters. I feel like when we're talking about funding the CORE Act and protecting public lands in Colorado, again, that's the American public coming together to support something that matters. And, you know, I kind of hate the narrow vision of, "Well, this doesn't benefit me personally, so I don't want to pay for it." I'm kind of like, all the things that we love in America have been passed down to us from generations because previous generations did care enough to protect them.

Murdock: There's several Congressional members that are introducing these concepts about the Civilian Conservation Corps. And I was wondering, Congressman, if you could speak a little bit about this concept of helping our public lands, creating jobs and helping local economies through an incredible program that was really quite effective back...in the 1930s until the mid-1940s.

Neguse: The original Civil Conservation Corps was really this visionary concept, right? Implemented by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to address what was then one of the most existential crises that this country faced: the Great Depression. And here we are now some 90 years later, faced with a confluence of different crises, all that happening simultaneously. Obviously the public health emergency presented by COVID-19, the economic fallout, where you have...upwards of double-digit unemployment, the worst contraction in our GDP in over 70 years from a quarter-to-quarter basis. And of course you have the threat of climate change, right? And there is no threat more existential than that. So the 21st Century Civil Conservation Corps bill that we introduced...tries to address each of these crises, re-imagining the Civil Conservation Corps for the 21st century....

Honnold: When we're talking about the CCC and the legacy of the CCC, the historic one...I don't know how many listeners are all climbers, but...some of the most iconic trails in the US that we hike on to get to, and from various crags, like, you know, when you climb Moonlight Buttress and you hike down, you're hiking through trails that were built by the CCC. And they're among the most inspiring trails in the country.... I think that it's one thing to talk about federal bills and how to fund it and all that. It's another thing to remember that these programs build the coolest things in the country. You know, like when we go out and we climb in these iconic places, they're incredible and they're accessible because of programs like the CCC.... This kind of goes back to what I was just talking about with funding...sometimes it's worth spending some money to do really cool things, you know? I mean, America's supposed to be the richest country in the world. Why not use that in a way that actually makes the country better, you know, [a way that] allows people to enjoy their lands and appreciate them? Like all of us have grown up enjoying these trails, thinking that our national parks are incredible. And they're incredible because somebody freaking built the trails.... We have to pass that legacy onto the next generation as well.

Murdock: How can people get engaged on some of these issues?

Neguse: I'd say vote....

Caldwell: Yeah, voting is definitely the low-hanging fruit. Everybody should be doing that. I can't believe that more people don't. Beyond that, I think local advocacy, getting involved with the nonprofits that are in your community, is really the best portal. Not only because it helps those nonprofits, but it also gets you surrounded with people that are close to you in proximity that are thinking about how to make the world a better place all the time.... Patagonia has a good resource for this called Patagonia Action Works.... You can just type in your zip code and [it will show] all the local nonprofits...in your area.

Dione: I'm going to go a little bit more granular. I would say I encourage folks to kind of be a bit more self-aware.... Look at how [your behavior] affects those around you in the space around you. And in those little acts I think you might find some good results, whether it be through educating yourself, or like Tommy mentioned, reaching out and surrounding yourself with people who are like-minded and wanting to preserve this beautiful planet of ours.

Honnold: I feel like the other panelists have already said roughly what I would say...so I'll, use this opportunity to just respond to the random participant who keeps trolling.... When you have a viewer complaining that there's no conservative voice on the panel, it sort of upsets me because...it's not our fault that for whatever reason, conservatives in this country have completely given up on this issue. I mean, fundamentally, protecting public lands should be a conservative issue.... It's built into the name of conservation.... One wing of this country has just given up on the environment because basically it's easier to cater to big business interests. I'm like, that's crazy because the vast majority of Americans do want to protect public lands.... We all take pride in our heritage and in parks....

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

A screenshot of the Climb the Hill panel that took place on Zoom, Thursday, September 24, discussing topics of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). Clockwise, from top left to right, are moderator Katie Boue, professional climbers Meagan Martin, Margo Hayes and Kai Lightner, an American Sign Language interpreter, and Access Fund Executive Director Chris Winter. [Photo] Derek FranzA screenshot of the Climb the Hill panel that took place on Zoom, Thursday, September 24, discussing topics of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). Clockwise, from top left to right, are moderator Katie Boue, professional climbers Meagan Martin, Margo Hayes and Kai Lightner, an American Sign Language interpreter, and Access Fund Executive Director Chris Winter. [Photo] Derek Franz

Professional climbers Meagan Martin, Margo Hayes and Kai Lightner were the featured panelists of the September 24 discussion about DEI topics within climbing communities. They were joined by Access Fund Executive Director Chris Winter, with Katie Boue serving as moderator. Boue is the founder of Outdoor Advocacy Project, an organization focused on educating and empowering outdoorists to take political and social action. Pro-bono American Sign Language interpreters were present, but there was no closed captioning, so no transcript was available.

With the discussion unwinding at a rapid clip for more than an hour, Boue invited all the panelists to share how they discovered climbing and the difference it has made in their lives.

The three young professional climbers all discovered the activity through gyms. Martin and Lightner had a hard time imagining where they would be today if they hadn't discovered their talents and passions through happenstance.

"A lady saw me climbing a 50-foot flagpole [at age 6]," Lightner said, "and instead of yelling at me, she gave me the address to a climbing gym."

Since then, Lightner has won 12 National Championships (two adult; 10 youth), six Pan-American Championships, and five Youth World Championships, and he has gone on to become a promising young leader, writing numerous articles that pertain to the difficult issues we are experiencing today (you can find some of his writing here on Alpinist.com, and his interview for the Alpinist Podcast here). He launched a nonprofit, Climbing for Change, and he recently published an article with Outside Online titled, "How Outdoor Companies Can Back Up Their DEI Pledges."

Martin, who is now an ESPN commentator, Athleta model and a star on American Ninja Warrior in addition to her professional climbing, said that when she started, climbing gyms were smaller and not yet as mainstream or as easy to find as they are now, especially where she grew up in Florida. She said a group of visiting friends invited her along to a gym and that's how she found a joy that changed her life.

Hayes acknowledged that she was lucky to grow up in Colorado, where it was easier for her to access the outdoors as well as top-notch gyms. "It's been such a big part of my life; what if I hadn't discovered climbing?" she said.

Winter recounted how he spent the first part of his childhood in Seattle, Washington, and how seeing Mt. Rainier stoked a curiosity for wild places that has given him meaning and direction all through his life.

"I have personally gained by being outside with friends and family," he said. "It's been a way to heal and deal with trauma, a way to find resilience.... If I hadn't had that opportunity, where would I be? What about the kids? I think kids need a chance and deserve that."

At one point Martin shared how there can be some barriers to climbing areas that not everyone sees.

"Some of our best climbing areas are in places that aren't as welcoming," she said. "I've been to places where I don't feel as safe—and if I feel that way after growing up in the [climbing] community..."

Hayes chimed in: "Kai said this issue can be invisible if you're not a person of color. Being white, it's important to listen."

That statement tied in to the main message that Boue emphasized throughout the discussion.

For those who are "white, or white-passing," said Boue, who identifies as Cuban-American, "it's our job to fix these problems.... This is our work to do."

As for how these issues pertain to climbing communities, everyone agreed that if climbing has helped them become better people, then surely it is a good thing to share in hopes of making a better world. Winter acknowledged that not many people like to see the growing number of crowds at the crags, but we would do well to remember that we have power to shape our communities for the better or worse. He observed how he often meets people at the crags whom he sees elsewhere in the community where he lives. If climbers are more welcoming toward newcomers, the places we climb will be more positive environments and society is likely to improve by extension. Or it could go the other way if climbers shun people who are different. Besides, if there are more people who love climbing and the outdoors, there will be more people fighting to protect those places.

"What can climbers add to the [national] discussion?" Winter said. "We have a platform [that attracts interest]. It draws attention."

That platform translates as an opportunity to direct attention to other topics. "What does it mean to be a climber?" Winter said. He later added, "We have to encourage businesses, brands and organizations to evolve and lead the way."

"It's not just about climbing anymore," Boue said. "It's so intersectional."

The Washington Monument during the 2017 Climb the Hill event. [Photo] Derek FranzThe Washington Monument during the 2017 Climb the Hill event. [Photo] Derek Franz

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