Oakland is home to three indoor rock-climbing gyms: Pacific Pipe in West Oakland, Great Western Power Company downtown, and Oaktown Boulders in Jingletown. Brittney Butler is one of the many avid rock climbers who’ve enjoyed these facilities. But Butler couldn’t help but feel discouraged by the lack of other Black and brown people in these spaces when she’d visit. 

“This gym is taking up space in this very Black neighborhood,” she recalled thinking to herself during one climbing session at Pacific Pipe. 

The Bay Area already had a network of groups that climbers of different races and genders could join. But Butler wanted to form a group where Black folks new to climbing could get support learning the sport and eventually make the leap to climbing outdoors.

Rather than wait for someone else to create an affinity group, she decided to do it herself.

In December 2021, Butler founded the Black Rock Collective to build a community with other Black climbers in a historically white-dominated sport.

When Butler herself had started climbing outdoors, she’d quickly noticed there weren’t as many women—let alone Black women—climbing. She knew that accessibility to indoor climbing gyms was the first step to changing this.

Once she began advertising Black Rock Collective, it wasn’t long before other local Black climbers took notice and wanted to partake. Jasmine Spitzer-Smith, Lehnen Brown, and Philip Lang joined as founding members. 

“In joining Black Rock, I’m making friendships and connections,” said Spitzer-Smith. “I want to hang out with them outside the gym.”

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Lehnen Brown and Philip Lang lead a group stretch before a rock climbing session. Credit: Amir Aziz
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Delvon Hogg (right) teaches a new member how to properly put on the harness. Credit: Amir Aziz

Since launching 18 months ago, the collective has hosted events in Oakland and San Francisco, inviting seasoned and new climbers. The group hosts three monthly meetups: on the first Thursday of the month at Great Western, the third Wednesday at Pacific Pipe, and every fourth Tuesday at Dogpatch in San Francisco. The latter is hosted by Spitzer-Smith.

“It’s tough to find Black people who climb and who are as friendly as everybody is in the collective,” Lang said. “Rock climbing is not as inclusive as it seems.”

Butler agrees that rock climbing is a “hard community to get into and feel accepted,” particularly with outdoor climbing. It’s a narrative that she and other collective members want to see change.

The collective has an active group chat on WhatsApp that members use to organize meetups and climbs, even apart from the collective’s planned events. 

“We all just wanted cool friends, cool people that would show other people how to climb,” Butler said. “It’s hard for me to say I started it because it felt like a group effort.”

Butler recently moved out of state but has been supporting the group’s efforts from afar while keeping up to speed on how the collective is growing. Meanwhile, the other three founding members are sharing the legwork of organizing events and teaching new climbers the sport: Everything from adequately stretching to putting on a harness correctly to bouldering (unroped climbing where you fall onto a mat) and top roping (where the climber is attached to one end of the rope and the person who manages the rope, called a belayer, protects the climber from falling). 

As of now, the collective has grown to over 80 members.

Above all, members of the Black Rock Collective want Black climbers to have a safe space where they will be cheered, no matter how inexperienced or afraid of heights. 

Brown, one of the founding members, has helped to facilitate the monthly meetups at Pacific Pipe in West Oakland. 

“It’s been so powerful because we are helping to build a welcoming and encouraging environment. That can be tough in spaces where there are so few people of color,” Brown said. “If there’s ever perceived judgment trying a new thing, it’s especially in an environment like that, without people who look like me.”

For Brown, getting to see families join the events and younger Black kids get excited to experience climbing for the first time—even those who are afraid of heights like he is—is rewarding. He said about 50% of the people who join the collective are new to climbing. 

“I’d like people to know that we are fostering an environment of trying new things and overcoming fears,” he said. “And building a community within this larger culture.”

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Black Rock collective member Shido climbing to the top of the wall. Credit: Amir Aziz
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Philip Lang acts as the belayer for a fellow climber. Credit: Amir Aziz

Langstyn Avery and Delvon Hogg are two seasoned climbers who would often run across each other and other members of the collective during outdoor climbing sessions and at local gyms. Now, they attend every collective meetup and are part of the WhatsApp group chat. Avery also founded Nēgus In Nature, a group that focuses on getting Black folks outdoors, climbing included. 

The founding members call Hogg an “honorary” collective member for the way he helps new members feel at home. He said that meeting the group was “serendipitous” and stressed how important it is to grow rock climbing in the Black community. 

“Rock climbing is a good way to build trust and community in partnership. It’s a good way for you to learn how to navigate fear, how to navigate through anxiety, how to push yourself,” Avery said. “There are many life lessons in climbing, but camaraderie amongst your community is the biggest.”

They both see value in learning how to climb as a sport, whether it’s to be done professionally or simply as a life skill that can be used in different situations. 

“If you’re in a case of emergency and there’s rope and a harness available, can you get yourself out of a dangerous situation?” Avery said. “And it’s one hell of a workout. If you don’t feel comfortable lifting weights or going on a run, this is a good substitute. You’re getting stronger mentally as well as physically.”

While the group has found camaraderie amongst themselves, they understand there’s still a lot of work to be done before rock climbing becomes an inclusive sport. Avery wishes rock climbing gyms in neighborhoods with large populations of Black and brown residents did a better job reaching out to those communities besides just offering affordable monthly memberships

“What does that ripple effect look like when we can have a program that is sponsored and funded for people who might not be financially able to provide $100 a month or coming here at $20 a day?” Avery said. “Sometimes, people just need a place to go to, and this could be that place. That’s what I see in the future.”

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Lehnen Brown (left) fist-bumping a fellow climber after coming down the wall. Credit: Amir Aziz

Hogg is doing his part by talking to people and providing information about Black Rock and rock climbing as a whole while stressing that you don’t have to reach the top of the wall to feel accomplished when trying out climbing for the first time.

“You can get a harness and get two feet off the ground. You climbed. You can’t take that away from a person. I always stick with the mindset of positive reinforcement,” Hogg said. “There’s no comparison; everyone reaches their own peak.”

As Black Rock continues to grow and Butler sees her idea foster an inclusive and supportive community, she wants others to see what a great sport rock climbing is and how it is for everyone. 

“We cultivate a welcoming, non-intimidating space to try out this vulnerable sport, in a space where people are there to support you,” Butler said. “Having other Black people who are so psyched about the sport is so special. This is why I’m doing it.”

Azucena Rasilla is a bilingual journalist from East Oakland reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.