Access for All

Categories: Perspectives , Community

By James Edward Mills

Like most teenagers, Aden Conrad has difficulty expressing himself. Words don’t come easily to him. Over the summer, on a visit to the Memphis Rox Climbing Gym in Memphis, Tennessee, I simply asked him, “What do you like about rock climbing?”

After a moment’s hesitation, he wrapped me up in a bear hug. Pinning my arms to my sides, he crushed the air from my lungs as he lifted me up off the ground and kind of wiggled me. He giggled, proud of his display of strength and enthusiasm. When he set me down, the smile in his eyes above his face mask told me everything I needed to know. As I recovered from his powerful grasp, I could see his joy and excitement, a deep abiding passion. Aden doesn’t just like rock climbing. He loves it.

Aden Conrad (left) gets personal instruction from his friend and mentor Kai Lightner. © James Mills

In the mostly Black community known as Soulsville, the Memphis Rox Climbing Gym is at the center of a remarkable transformation. Just a few miles from the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, and in a town that erected a monument to the Ku Klux Klan founder, Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, a culture is emerging centered around equity and inclusion.

In the summer of 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, this state-of-the-art facility offered area residents more than the distraction of a compelling recreational activity. Set in the heart of the most economically challenged neighborhood in the city, the gym provided local folks with free meals, gently used clothing items, sundry toiletries (including hand sanitizer), and, of course, hope.

Established just two years ago, this pay-what-you-can operation is run as a nonprofit. Here, unlike at other climbing gyms, social status and economic stability are not barriers to access. As members of the community struggled through unemployment, housing insecurity, and limited health care, Memphis Rox modeled practices of human decency that created a safe environment for kids like Aden to manage the stress and anxiety of uncertain times and forge a pathway toward a more positive future. Though his education might have suffered during school closures through the pandemic, the gym’s staff members volunteered to tutor Aden in math, art, and science between coaching sessions that nurtured his talents as a rock climber. And whenever possible, program managers create opportunities to take him and other aspiring young athletes to nearby climbing areas outside.

Aden works a few moves on a boulder problem at Horse Pens 40, ancestral lands of Shawandasse Tula (Shawanwaki/Shawnee) and S’atsoyaha (Yuchi). © James Mills

Efforts to overcome the many cultural divides that for decades have limited the diversity of outdoor recreation in general and rock climbing in particular are beginning to expand. Initial exposure to the sport among communities of color in urban areas like Memphis are going a long way toward identifying, engaging, and encouraging young climbers such as Aden. He and others like him are being given the chance to not only embrace the physical challenge of ascending vertical walls and deciphering complex bouldering problems indoors, but also to seek out and experience natural features and surfaces outdoors. Through programs like Memphis Rox, the outdoor industry can deliberately and proactively inspire a new generation of avid enthusiasts who will work to protect and preserve the many wild places we all love.

Aden loves rock climbing because it has given him a place where he belongs. Despite the differences that separate him from his peers and had left him vulnerable to teasing and derision, Memphis Rox is where he feels “normal and happy.” The field of outdoor recreation can learn a valuable lesson through this example of how we can achieve a radical transformation by simply meeting the needs and interests of those in our community most desiring of common compassion.

Armani Conrad (left) with Kai Lightner getting ready for a bouldering session at Horse Pens 40, ancestral lands of Shawandasse Tula (Shawanwaki/Shawnee) and S’atsoyaha (Yuchi). © James Mills

Those who truly aspire toward diversity, equity, and inclusion in the outdoors must insist that our natural areas are indeed for everyone. As we see more people of color, the differently abled, members of the LGBTQ+ community, the economically disenfranchised, and other marginalized groups venture out onto stolen land once occupied by Native Americans, we must demand that every cultural expression of humanity be recognized as equally valid. Only then will the outdoors be accessible to all.

About James Edward Mills

Mills is a freelance journalist who specializes in telling stories about outdoor recreation, environmental conservation, acts of charitable giving, and practices of sustainable living. He has worked in the outdoor industry since 1989 as a guide, outfitter, independent sales representative, writer, and photographer. He is the author of the book The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors and the co-writer/co-producer of the documentary film An American Ascent.

James has written for the Wisconsin State Journal, Madison Magazine, and Wisconsin Trails. He is currently a contributor to several outdoor-focused print and online publications such as National Geographic Adventure, Rock & Ice, Alpinist, SUP, Elevation Outdoors, Women’s Adventure, the Clymb, Park Advocate, High Country News, Land & People, Outside Magazine and The Guardian

Credit Photo Courtesy of:
Irene Yee

Why Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Matter for Climbers

Many folks—whether because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, or other identities—do not feel able to, or even safe, participating in climbing and other outdoor recreation activities.
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