June 19, 2024


sights and trips

Mountain athletes with roots in Washington join mentorship program hoping to make the outdoors more inclusive

PORTLAND — On a sunny spring weekend, Theresa Silveyra took her dog Cassie for a Sunday stroll around Portland’s leafy Columbia Park. The day prior, she found herself hanging off an ice bulge and trying to dislodge a stuck ice tool some 10,000 feet up Mount Hood on one of the volcano’s more technical ascent routes.

That combination of high-stakes alpine climbing and hanging out in the neighborhood is a typical weekend for the 30-year-old piano teacher, who climbed Mount Hood 30 times before she turned 30 as a mountaineering spin on the convention of checking off life goals before completing one’s 20s.

But for Silveyra, who was born and raised in Chehalis with Filipina and Mexican heritage, the path to elite-level alpine climbing was a lonely and expensive one as a woman of color scraping by in the far-from-lucrative world of music education. Although she could see Mount St. Helens from her hometown, she did not grow up in an outdoorsy family. Silveyra only began hiking and climbing after some white male classmates, also from Washington, invited her on an outing during her undergraduate years at Chapman University in Southern California.

Theresa Silveyra smiles from the end of a rope while climbing the Reid Headwall route on Mount Hood.  (Mallorie Estenson)

In June 2020, with her Mount Hood goal in sight and the Black Lives Matter movement sweeping through the nation, Silveyra turned her 30-under-30 quest into a fundraising opportunity for the organizations Outdoor Afro and Climbers of Color. Later that month, with just two summit pushes remaining, Silveyra put out a public call for more women of color to join her in the historically white and male mountaineering scene.

“I’ve climbed with [only] one woman of color,” Silveyra said. “I want to see more women that look like me to come out and go climbing.”

Silveyra wasn’t the only one reflecting on the outdoor industry’s diversity problem in 2020. Her personal aspirations for the outdoors community received a major boost when Italian footwear company SCARPA selected her earlier this year as one of 31 participants in its first-ever athlete mentorship program focused on cultivating athletes from backgrounds that historically have been underrepresented in the outdoors in order to create a more inclusive mountain sports community.

“I have always been aware that I’m a person of color and it’s not a very diverse industry or community,” said SCARPA U.S. CEO Kim Miller, who was born in Korea and adopted by American parents. “All my career I’ve been trying to move this [issue] along but last year was my tipping point. In this moment, I asked myself, ‘Can I really make a difference?’”

The footwear company’s mentorship program may be the biggest tangible contribution yet by the outdoor industry in the year since the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor sparked a global movement for racial justice and inclusion. Dozens of gear companies and outing clubs issued solidarity statements — some, though not all, with pledges to take specific actions. Salt Lake City-based Voile was an early adopter, announcing a new annual BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) scholarship to outfit recipients with expensive backcountry ski gear. (Seattle snowboarder Layla Anane was one of two winners of the inaugural giveaway.) Seattle-based Outdoor Research upped its financial support and gear donations to Colorado-based Women’s Wilderness, which allowed the organization to add a climbing component to its BIPOC affinity group. With 10 years of grants to nonprofits under its belt, North Face’s Explore Fund sharpened its equity focus by appointing an advisory council with a $7 million budget led by Emmy-winning screenwriter and actor Lena Waithe and Oscar-winning filmmaker and mountains athlete Jimmy Chin.

SCARPA paired 31 mentees with professional climbers, skiers and trail runners from the company’s stable of sponsored athletes, most of whom are white, who underwent 20 hours of training to unpack their own privilege and unconscious bias before preparing to mentor athletes who generally come from very different backgrounds.

Several months into the program, SCARPA has learned the mentoring relationship goes far beyond imparting mountain wisdom or coaching someone through a technical climb. The mentees have asked for advice on athlete agreements and contracts, building their brands through personal websites and social media, breaking into the outdoor industry as a guide, and starting an outdoors affinity group for their identity.

“We realized a lot of our mentees’ aspirations were way bigger than their climbing or skiing,” Miller said.

Such is the case of Cal’ Smith (Yakama/Lower Cowlitz), a 24-year-old who grew up on the Yakama Reservation with a partial view of Mount Adams and Mount Rainier from his childhood home. “Every now and then I’d be in the living room, looking out and wondering what goes on up there,” he said.

Cal’ Smith poses from the summit of Grand Teton in Wyoming in March 2021 wearing a ribbon shirt made by his mother. (Dae Wunt)

Smith’s ancestors knew these mountains by the names Pahto and Tahoma, respectively. He is a proponent of using traditional Indigenous names for mountains, a habit that is slowly rubbing off on his family. “In the past few days, my mom and her partner have started saying Pahto and it’s so endearing to hear them say that now,” he said. “I think back to before contact, these words and sounds are a small connection between then and now that have transcended time and all of the atrocities that have happened to our people.”

Currently in his third season of guiding, Smith is an accomplished trail runner who has ticked off major objectives like tagging the summit of Mount Olympus (Sunh-a-do) in a single 15-hour push to cover the 40-mile round-trip distance from the Hoh Rainforest up to the highest point of Olympic National Park.

In 2018, Smith took a University of Washington summer course in Glacier Bay, Alaska, where he met Owen Oliver, son of acclaimed Native American artist and UW professor emeritus Marvin Oliver (Quinault/Isleta-Pueblo). The younger Oliver encouraged Smith to focus less on peakbagging and more on his heritage. When Smith took a guiding job on Mount Rainier, he dived into the park’s mountaineering history and began seeing himself as a spiritual descendant of Sluiskin, the Yakama/Cowlitz guide who assisted Hazard Stevens and Philemon Beecher Van Trump on the first known ascent of Mount Rainier.

Last year, Smith and two of his fellow guides pushed their employer and Mount Rainier National Park’s biggest climbing concessionaire, RMI Expeditions, to take a hard look at the demographics of the company’s guides and overall staffing as well as to incorporate land acknowledgments into the methods by which they introduce clients to the mountain. Smith sees his goal as nothing less than decolonizing mountaineering, a pastime that in North America is at least partially predicated on turning Indigenous land into wilderness reserves regulated for human recreation.

“I feel my best stance to do that is going to be as a guide,” he said. “I’m realizing and unpacking what it means to be an Indigenous guide.” For Smith, that mindset de-emphasizes summit fever and reframes a guided expedition as a journey where reaching a summit is only one component — and perhaps not the most important one.

Theresa Silveyra walks the summit ridge of Mount Hood during a climb of the Leuthold Couloir route.  (Mack Robertson)

Silveyra likewise sees the guide path as the best way to create more opportunities for women of color to feel welcome and encouraged in mountain pursuits. In just the last few months of working with her mentor, climber Shelma Jun, Silveyra won the Liz Daley Scholarship from Bellingham-based American Alpine Institute to take a 12-day alpine mountaineering and technical leadership course at the end of the summer. In April, the American Mountain Guides Association accepted Silveyra into its 3-year-old and growing affinity scholarship program, which will offer her the association’s alpine skills course, at the end of which Silveyra will be able to work as an apprentice alpine guide. (Smith will also take that course.) That month she also squeezed in her umpteenth Mount Hood summit for a special occasion: a mountaintop wedding ceremony.

When Silveyra eventually takes a leadership role on trips into the mountains, she will set a different tone than the mountaineering courses she has taken thus far, which have been exclusively taught by white men. That setting can lead to unintended microaggressions, like the Alpinism I course on Mount Baker with American Alpine Institute for which she maxed out her credit card in 2016. “We have a woman on the course, we need to be on our best behavior,” she recalled the instructor saying on Day 1. “I loved the course, but I walked away feeling like I didn’t belong in the space,” she said. “I wasn’t able to really focus on what I was getting out of the course because I was too busy making sure I wasn’t seen as a weak link.”

Cal’ Smith grasps his rope while ski mountaineering on Mount Rainier in June 2020 with Mount Adams and Mount Hood looming in the background.  (Micheli Oliver)

Mentor Jesse Huey, 42, is a professional climber based in Boulder, Colorado, who grew up in Arlington, Snohomish County, and rowed for the University of Washington. He was bitten by the mountain bug at age 14 when he saw climbers sleeping on a portaledge high on the Liberty Bell as his family drove over Washington Pass. He understands this dilemma and his role in it. “If you only see a 42-year-old white guy climbing in the Himalayas, you’d think that’s something only for 42-year-old white guys,” Huey said via phone from a teahouse in Nepal where he and his climbing partner were resting while they awaited a weather window to attempt the first ascent of a new route on Tengkangpoche, a nearly 6,500-meter peak (21,283 feet).

As an athlete sponsored by the likes of SCARPA, Arc’teryx and CAMP, Huey was privy to the internal discussions of outdoor gear companies whose core clientele were pushing brands to adopt progressive stances on racial equity in the wake of Floyd’s murder, but whose broader customer base may look askance at mixing climbing and politically charged social issues. Like many companies during the heady days of June 2020, SCARPA finally issued a public letter of support for the ongoing racial justice movement roiling the nation, which included a line item announcing the mentorship program.

Huey is mentoring Stefan Hadeed, the son of Syrian immigrants, and advising him on a career path into professional climbing through brand sponsorships and guiding. With years of experience alpine climbing in Alaska, Huey is helping Hadeed work his way up to tackling the Moonflower Buttress on Mount Hunter in Denali National Park. While that type of mentorship is fairly conventional — an experienced climber helping a younger climber tackle a big objective — Huey nevertheless appreciates the mentorship initiative’s bigger picture.

“I’ve thought at length about what my goal is through this whole program,” Huey said. “When I’m 65, I want my kid to take me up to the Diamond, one of the biggest and most popular walls in Colorado, and I want to look across the wall and see every color of climber. This [moment] is the starting point that this is actually going to happen and it’s going to happen way faster with a program like this.”