I had never climbed ice before.
I live in the city of Oakland located just across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco, CA. Our closest Ice Climbing crag is Lee Vining which is a 5 and a half hour drive to get to in the winter.
I’ve been dreaming about climbing steep couloirs in remote regions ever since my Annapurna Circuit trek in 2019. I had yet to swing a tool into any ice. Not only due to the long drive, but also the cost of obtaining all the gear. There are other barriers to entry too, the most cumbersome that I have been overcoming is the lack of community.
“What does it mean to go all in?” was a question asked continuously throughout the duration of the festival. The answers to the question varied, and I was glad that they did. We’ll take a look at what some of those answers were, but first, let's start with what All In Ice Fest is all about on paper.
All In Ice Fest held its inaugural gathering centred around the experience of LGBTQIA2S+, Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC), and adaptive climbers to create a platform to focuses on marginalized groups and creates opportunities to develop as climbers. The event was held at Ouray Ice Park from January 7th-9th, 2022 with clinics geared towards beginners and advanced climbers alike.
The ice abruptly appeared after hours of driving through grasslands. My eyes were able to make out the canyon walls thanks to the contrasting snow that covered them, but I would have to wait until the morning to satisfy my burning curiosity of what the town of Ouray, CO had in store for us all. After 16 hours of driving, we pulled had into town at 2:30 AM, just enough time to get a few hours of sleep in.
At 7:30 AM, we marched up the Ouray Community Center steps to set up the coffee station provided by Red Bay Coffee Roasters. The room was filled with gear from event sponsors to make sure that attendees were prepared for the weekend's activities. The Rab table was up and distributing hardshell jackets, gloves, and puffies of varying weights, while the Scarpa crew laced boots onto climbers' feet for the perfect fit. Ice tools hung in neat rows along storage bins awaiting suitors who would wield them honorably. The sign-in table welcomed guests with gift bags, name tags, and button bins with preferred pronouns. In the open hall stood the COVID-19 testing station, that staff and participants were required to access upon arrival. The clinics began each day in this same room at circular tables spread apart and labelled. A shuttle bus waited outside for transport to Ouray Ice Park about a mile up the road. The atmosphere was filled with excitement as old friends were reunited, and new acquaintances were made.
The goal of the day for most was to get on ice. On the first day, we marched to the back of the park to an area called South Park. A canopy of ropes extended from belayers to climbers, which we meandered through in order to reach our clinic. Here is where I started to feel my normal anxieties surface. Trying something new that involves risk of injury is one element to process, but another complex layer exists.
Entering a new context can bring up several emotions for people, regardless of race, gender identity, and/or ability. For some, it is a difficult task to meet new people. Others may have fears about acceptance and belonging. I believe these are very human feelings that are valid. What makes these situations for marginalized communities complex, is the experience of our identities historically being vilified, unwelcomed, excluded, and violently suppressed. My climbing partner and I were the only black individuals at the crag at that point, which is a typical experience. I feel every ounce of my blackness when I enter spaces that don’t represent my demographic. It is normal to feel tension in any situation where cultures converge and a new atmospheric dynamic is formed. What should not be normal are the presuppositions that come with being BIPOC, LGBTQIA2S+, or persons with disabilities. My entry into the space transforms me into the black ambassador for all black people who ever “blacked”, and I have an uphill battle just to find common ground. This is true for all marginalized groups - fighting through all the muck because of our marginalized identities - on top of fighting through all the emotional work typical to the human experience. It is a work of labor to show up, but we feel the hunger for the outdoors so strongly that we face our adversities head-on.
When I got to the back end of South Park, I slowly felt my guard lower. I watched as instructors encouraged through strength-based practices. I witnessed individuals asking for support without having to qualify their ask. Climbers were able to express their fears and then allow the community to respond with care and consideration. I had stepped into an emotionally intelligent space that was a breath of fresh air from what I have experienced climbing culture to be. I'm not talking about a watered-down, inauthentic, stifled community centered around being politically correct. This was a group of bad-asses that sought to mitigate harm, live in courage, and place people at the center of the experience.
Liz Sahagun, All In Ice fest Program Director, passed out sandwiches to staff before finally taking a moment to hop on a climb. It took a bit of encouragement as she had been working tirelessly to make sure all the details came together, and she wanted to make sure that everything continued to run smoothly. That night, she shared how the vision for the festival came to fruition. The idea came about out of an organic desire to meet a need that arose while she was learning, and then, through teaching others about ice climbing. “What does going all in mean to you?” She was asked. Liz shared how the concept should be approached from different angle. The event would introduce ice-climbing to many new adventurous souls, but the opportunities extend beyond the activity alone and into professional development, increasing representation, improving diversity and equity, and creating an inclusive space for climbers to enjoy.
Day two was filled with another day of clinics spread out throughout the Park.
I spread out to get a broader view of the event. I watched the Parks to Peaks clinic extend their slings as they racked up their gear; sat in on conversations by the coffee station as stories were told about wild adventures; and observed climbers below, down in the Scottish Gully as they climbed longer pitches. I decided that I would spend the day down in the gully, buzzing from group to group as a fly on the wall.
Eventually, I got to climb a few routes as the day was winding down. By that time, it was snowing pretty heavily and the area was clear when I got down from my final climb. I turned the corner and saw someone who I hadn’t met yet. I asked, “Who’s that?” Eddie Taylor, belaying at the time, responded, “Phil.”
I had been waiting to meet Phil Henderson the whole trip. The snow fall dampened any resounding disturbances in the air. It was quiet, aside from the zipping rope that slid through the belay device as Phil was lowered. He smiled big while trudging through the snow. He was the keynote speaker that night and later inspired all who attended his speech with how the idea of Full Circle, the organization that he runs, began for him.
The final day of the festival felt focused and pointed. It was the last day for organized clinics, and the desire to glean as much information as possible was strong. Many began their day at the Kiddie Wall to warm-up before transitioning to the day's activities. I was back in the Scottish gully, this time dry tooling. The stream that ran through the gully was calming, along with the sunlight that peaked over the ridge. Plumes of snow would occasionally feather up and glow as the sun rays passed through them. The time flowed by with ease as climbers attempted to hold on to every minute.
“What does going all-in mean?”
Making up one’s mind with absolute resolve is a tough endeavor. Flashes of failure, success, trauma, elation and every cost are attempted to be weighed. Going all-in to me is facing all the fears, weighing all the costs, and choosing to set and stay the course.
Many will read this and automatically think of performance goals, but I challenge you to also think in terms of equity. Have you acknowledged the work that must take place to create equitable change? Do you understand the cost that it will take emotionally, mentally, physically, and monetarily? Can you commit to seeing the process through?
The All In Ice Fest has brought to the surface, many discussions that needs to be had regarding diversity, equity, and representation specifically for Ice Climbing.
Links to Websites and Instagram
All in Ice Fest
Red Bay Coffee Roaster
Full Circle Everest
Ouray Ice Park
Words by | David Lee
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Words & images by | Athlete Name
Words and images by David Lee. Co-founder of Negus In Nature, who seek to increase representation for Black folks in outdoor activities.
Read more about Negus In Nature here