Building a Climbing Community

When mornings are draped in a frosty haze and nights require adornment of a trusty puffy jacket, you know autumn is in full on go-mode in Colorado. And what better way to stay warm this season, than by seeking solace upon and within sun-soaked canyon walls.

On the weekend of October 14-16, 2022, the San Luis Valley (SLV) Climbers Alliance hosted their second annual True Penitence Climbing Festival (Fest) at Penitente Canyon in Colorado’s San Luis Valley (SLV). This year’s competition brought together over 75 climbers across several categories including Recreational, Intermediate, Advanced, Elite, True Penitence Enduro, Trad Master Crust, and Top Rope Hero.

But this weekend isn’t just about climbing – it’s also about stewardship, conservation and inclusivity in the climbing community.

The SLV Climbers Alliance – the entity that hosts the annual event – is a grassroots organization that aims to “promote stewardship, conservation, access, and safe climbing through education and engagement of our local community”. 

Angela Lee, President and Founder of SLV Climbers shares that she and co-founder/Vice President Wes O’Rourke started the Alliance in 2019 to bring together the climbing community in the San Luis Valley and repair routes within Penitente Canyon. “We spent quite a bit of time making all those older routes that hadn’t been climbed in decades, safe to climb again”, shares Lee; including the “Rock Garden”, a key area for the Fest. What was once completely inaccessible due to overgrown vegetation, and unsafe to climb due to broken bolts and anchors, is now the backdrop for their weekend-long event. 

“In the back of our minds, we always had an idea to put on a festival”, continues Lee. Inspired by events that they knew of and attended across the country – like Hueco Tanks in Texas – Lee and O’Rourke wanted to run something similar at home in the San Luis Valley. “The Canyon really lends itself to this kind of competition space…and we have such a good relationship with the BLM and other land managers, thanks to our stewardship work that we started with, we felt super supported”; so much so, the festival’s 2-year probationary period has just transitioned to a full 10-year permit.

“This year”, continues Lee, “I was so proud to see the local community step up”. As she notes, “a lot of these other climbing festivals are so corporate [with] corporate brands running the event”. But, while the SLV Climbers Alliance Fest has larger corporate sponsors, it “is really unique and just so grassroots – we literally built the stage by hand that we haul into the canyon”, she continues. 

The Alliance also shares that they are “committed to embracing JEDI (Justice, Equity, Diversity, Inclusion) principles throughout our work as part of an ongoing effort to dismantle systems of oppressions within the rock climbing community”. And it’s obvious that community is one of their highest priorities. “We’re so insulated here in the valley, being inclusive, especially in the heat of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, there was this call in the climbing industry for JEDI work and a better focus on these equity issues in the community.” 

Since then, the Alliance has taken a lot of action – including small steps like providing Fest attendees with the option to self-select pronouns at registration and providing opportunities for lower-income attendees to exchange volunteer hours for reduced registration rate to larger initiatives like working on route name changes to help rename oppressive, racist and misogynistic routes. 

It’s obvious that Lee and O’Rouke are intentional with their inclusivity and community building through the SLV Climbers Alliance and the success of their efforts show through the events and meet-ups the Alliance hosts through the year. They’re aware, as Lee put it, “you can’t build community for everyone if you’re only catering to a small population…and a lot of these marginalized populations need that extra step to even get them there in the first place”. 

For more information about the SLV Climbers Alliance and the annual True Penitence Climbing Festival, visit www.slvclimb.org.

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