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Azissa Singh feels lucky she had a supportive group of teachers while learning how to climb at the University of South Carolina and here in Colorado. “I was surrounded by a strong community willing to invest time in me,” she says. “The university covered my AMGA Climbing Wall Instructor program. Ron Funderburke, now the Director of Education at Colorado Mountain School, took me under his wing to learn everything I needed to teach climbing professionally at a local guide service. I had an exceptional experience.”
Singh’s appreciation for that learning environment was bolstered by seeing what others struggled with while trying to get into climbing. The Boulder-based climber says she noticed the space lacked female mentorship, especially from women of color, and an industry dialogue around the issue of diversity. She also saw that white, male-led organizations offered charity to undeserved communities—like LGBTQ and female climbers—rather than supporting the involvement of those groups on a leadership level.
In an effort to help make climbing more accessible to women and marginalized gender identities, Singh signed on to be an instructor for new climbing classes from Flash Foxy. The organization and nationwide network, which was founded by rock climber and advocate Shelma Jun in 2016, is famous for launching the first climbing festival for women. Prior to the pandemic, Jun started developing a new education arm of Flash Foxy to teach climbers how to safely and sustainably participate in the sport, as well as welcome people who have traditionally faced barriers to access and lack of acknowledgement. After a pandemic-induced hiatus, the courses finally launched in the Denver-Boulder area this August and September.
“No one should be an asterisk. Socially, saying ‘women’ signifies cisgendered, able-bodied, and white. In line with our mission, we want our education program to create community spaces for women, genderqueer, and intersecting identities. We want all of these identities to be heard,” says Singh, who is an American Mountain Guides (AMGA) certified instructor and serves as the Education Manager for Flash Foxy. Their efforts includes explicit outreach to underserved communities, hiring staff from within those lived experiences, and representing the demographics through marketing materials. The group also offers a scholarship fund for women and genderqueer climbers interested in their courses, with an additional fund for climbing festival scholarships currently in the works.
Inclusive climbing programs are more in demand than ever. Following climbing’s debut at the Summer Olympic Games last month, interest in the sport has boomed. El Cap, one of the largest climbing gym networks in the country, has seen visits rise at its 20 locations, including five facilities peppered across the Front Range. The on-site gear shops exceeded 2019 sales, specifically in shoes and harnesses, a possible indication of more newcomers. The company’s website traffic also jumped 45 percent the week the Olympics aired.
Furthermore, in the past two years indoor climbing has grown year-over-year. There are currently more than 5.5 million athletes roping up or bouldering indoors nationwide, according to the 2021 Outdoor Participation Trends Report released by the Outdoor Foundation. That data doesn’t parse out the ethnic makeup of the climbing community, nor climbers’ gender identities. It did note, however, that Black and Hispanic people remain significantly underrepresented in the outdoors as a whole: 72 percent of recreationists nationwide were white in 2020.
Following last year’s protests against police brutality and racism, the climbing community has become more proactive about addressing issues within the sport. For example, Duane Raleigh, the owner of Big Stone Publishing and longstanding editor-in-chief of Rock and Ice, apologized for establishing racist names for climbing routes in the 1980s. He also resigned. According to the 2020 Gyms and Trends report, published by Climbing Business Journal, gyms and brands across the country launched diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, such as the LGBTQ climbers nights at the Stone Age Climbing Gym in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Flash Foxy hopes to further catalyze change. First off, at least one AMGA-certified instructor will be present at every educational course, which is noteworthy, given no federal laws require climbing instructors to be credentialed, let alone trained. Flash Foxy also developed a standardized curriculum to ensure each teacher follows the same protocol, a variable most guide companies overlook. This formulaic training process adds quality control and assures the same learning objectives will be delivered to each student by every instructor. “We want our hired, qualified guides to have a really clear direction about what needs to happen in each class, how the material has historically been taught, and how it could be taught,” Singh says.
The organization also launched online learning modules that cover topics such as landscape and resource stewardship, including Leave No Trace principles, and tools for managing impact, which are reinforced in each field course.
After the initial launch phase, Flash Foxy aims to expand their instructor pool. The organization is also soliciting as much feedback as possible to inform their growth. So far, the input has been positive. “Climbers have shared heartfelt thanks for the expanded mission statement, especially for female-bodied and non-binary people,” Singh says. “[It] allows them to feel seen and respected.”
If you go: Flash Foxy’s Intro to Trad Climbing course ($350) will be held September 11–12 in Golden; The group’s Intro to Outdoor Top Roping course ($350) will be held September 18–19 at Clear Creek Canyon in Golden. Find more information and updates on upcoming Flash Foxy courses online.
(Read more: A Beginner’s Guide to Rock Climbing in Colorado)