Advocate Spotlight: Angela Lee

President of Colorado’s San Luis Valley Climbers Alliance (SLVCA), Angela is a dedicated climbing advocate, as well as an organic farmer and attorney. Alongside her partner, Wes O’ Rourke, Angela founded the climbers alliance last year, recognizing the need for a climbing community hub and rallying point for access, stewardship, and youth education. The group has already helped to organize rebolting events—replacing more than 100 bolts so far—and is forging relationships with local land managers, both public and private, to preserve access, protect peregrine falcons, and facilitate trail and stewardship work at the valley’s many climbing areas. Angela brings a strong community-building focus to SLVCA, hosting movie nights, offering youth programming that focuses on minority kids, and organizing women’s and gender nonconforming climbing events. She is committed to ensuring climbers of all backgrounds are welcome, and she recently launched a custom SLVCA decal to raise money for NAACP’s legal defense fund.

© Nate Liles

5 Questions for Angela:

What’s your favorite cause in climbing advocacy right now?
I am more driven than ever to work toward social equity in our outdoor spaces. We want SLVCA to actively engage in anti-racism and anti-sexism work to make the valley a safer place for all climbers. The recent Black Lives Matter revolution and the international call for social and racial justice has allowed me to look at climbing with a more critical eye, educate myself, and take action. As the voices of minority climbers are being amplified, it has become clearer than ever that oppression within our outdoor climbing spaces and industries is pervasive. From white, male-dominant social dynamics and lack of diversity at the crags to toxic route names and first-ascensionists with a “god complex,” these issues are finally being named and called out at a national level. I think that now is the time when all local climbing organizations must step up to have conversations about social injustice and take real action. At SLVCA, we are currently working to change racist and misogynistic route names in the upcoming guidebook. We are holding a decal-sale campaign on our website and donating to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. We are celebrating the diverse representation among our board members and local membership. And we will be hosting Women and Gender Nonconforming Climbing Nights after the pandemic. We also look forward to hosting socially conscious events like the No Man’s Land Film Festival. Finally, we want to take strong action toward empowering youth by providing young minority children with access to experience the valley’s beautiful climbing areas. This is just the beginning for us to prioritize and make space for social justice issues in climbing.

What does it mean to you to be a climbing advocate?
For me, it’s about giving back and making a difference. It’s about being a steward of the land and recruiting your community to join a collective effort to give back to the natural world. I believe that rock climbing is inherently a selfish pursuit. As climbers and users of the outdoors, we take so much from nature. Our presence leaves an impact, whether we like it or not. But we have a choice to offset negative impacts with positive ones! Yeah, we might create further erosion with each footstep, but we can also do sustainable trail work to minimize our impact. For all the bolts we clip and the anchors we lower from, we can put in some hours to replace aging bolts or donate to a bolt replacement fund. We can hold inclusive group climbing days to celebrate our diversity and dedication to be an inclusive community. All climbers can take action —with their time or their coin—to give back. The many forms of local stewardship create a sense of ownership and respect for your local area. It makes a big difference and feels really, really good.

What’s your advice to new advocates?
Start at a place of self-reflection and mindfulness. Think beyond the routes or your project, and simply observe. What are your environmental impacts? Are there access issues in the area? Who put in these bolts? Do they need to be replaced? Am I seeing oppression at the crag, and is there something I can do about it? Ask questions and pay attention to the needs of your local climbing areas. Then, meet the people in the community who are already doing the work; connect with past and current stewards. Reach out to folks at Access Fund to see how you can help. In our case, we looked around and couldn’t find any locals doing the work that the SLV climbing areas so desperately needed—so we rose up to fill that need. We couldn’t have gotten where we are without Access Fund, which helps LCOs around the country tremendously. There are so many resources and opportunities already out there to become a local climbing advocate.

What surprised you the most about getting into the advocacy world?
Modern life ain’t easy, and advocacy work can be—well, a lot of work. For me, it’s juggling being a homestead farmer, a marketing manager, a graphic designer, a lawyer, and a local climbing advocate. Starting an LCO, recruiting a board, navigating the 501(c)(3) world, calling meetings, and organizing stewardship days—it’s definitely a lot to do on what little free time I do have. Luckily, like many climbers, I have an undeniable passion and love for rock climbing. It has taken me out of a dark and depressive state. It pushes me to my limits and takes me to that wild place where growth occurs. In short, climbing has given me a lot. So it only makes sense to give back what I can. And it feels good!

Who is another climbing advocate whose work is really inspiring you right now?
I am really inspired by the work and voice of Kathy Karlo and her podcast, For the Love of Climbing. I am really saddened by the pervasive attitude of “climbing is just climbing! Keep [XXX] out of it!” Insert racism. Sexism. White supremacy. Many folks see climbing as an “escape” from these societal issues. However, some folks do not have the privilege to leave their gender or their race at home. And oftentimes, these issues show up at the crag itself. I think Kathy’s work has done a great job to create space for these conversations in the climbing world and normalize the discussion of these topics that we can no longer ignore and push out of our scene. It’s time to switch up the climbing narrative, and she’s really spearheading that change.