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Chelsea Griffie helps minorities open nature’s door

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Chelsea Griffie is a leading woman of color in the climbing world, and that reality is bittersweet.

“I’m one of the go-to women of color climbers,” she said. “Which is flattering, but it is sad that there are so few of us.”

Griffie was the first African American woman to climb El Capitan, in 2001. She also summited 20,328-foot Denali with the first-ever team of African American mountaineers in 2013. But Griffie’s lead climbs go beyond granite.

Chelsea Griffie climbs Separate Reality in Yosemite National Park. Photo by Greg Epperson
Chelsea Griffie climbs Separate Reality (5.11d) in Yosemite National Park. Photo by Greg Epperson

Dispirited by the cultural and financial boundaries that exist for people of color—anyone with an ethnic background that is not Caucasian—which make it difficult to be exposed to outdoor experiences, Griffie works to lower such barriers for minorities. In 2012, she founded Los Angeles Wilderness Training (LAWT), a nonprofit organization that teaches adult trip leaders—such as teachers, guidance counselors and after-school program staff—how to safely guide outdoor excursions for kids.

She was inspired to launch LAWT following five years of being the program director for a similar organization in the Bay Area. On average, LAWT leads 15 car camping and backpacking trainings a year with groups of 5 to 10 adults. To boot, she established a free-of-charge gear library for course attendees, which includes 120 sleeping pads, 100 sleeping bags, 60 backpacks, 40 tents, apparel, rain gear—for kids and adults—as well as adults’ down jackets. Folks that have taken a leadership course can use the library anytime thereafter for the trips that they guide. She has also led the nation’s only woman of color backpacking trip, the Women of Color Wilderness Retreat, for 12 consecutive years in Yosemite.

One motivation behind Griffie’s work is the positive transformation that she has witnessed in struggling youth after they’re introduced to the wilderness. One such story: Elizabeth Sy—Griffie’s former co-instructor of the Women of Color Wilderness Retreat—completed a Wilderness Leadership Training led by Griffie (when Griffie worked at BAWT, Bay Area Wilderness Training) in 2008. After the course, Sy co-launched “Girls Outside,” an all-girls outdoor program run by the Oakland-based nonprofit Banteay Srei, which works to empower young women of Southeast Asian descent that have been affected or exploited by the underground sex trade.

The Girls Outside initiative (no longer in operation due to lack of funding) led 3 to 8 high school girls on dayhikes and camping trips to develop their outdoor skillsets for an end-of-year backpacking trip. The solitude of the outdoors provided a safe space for the young women and girls to eventually—if they chose to—talk about their traumatic life experiences, which were most often related to sex trade, homelessness, rape, abuse and violence, said Sy. One girl stands out in memory. Eighteen-year-old Chanda (her real name has been changed for anonymity) was hopeless, introverted and difficult to help when she met Sy. Once Chanda joined Girls Outside, it was on a Santa Cruz day hike that she first spoke to Sy about being forced into prostitution. Gradually, she shared more about the abuse she received by her pimp, being shot, and watching a childhood friend die.

Later that school year, Chanda said to Sy that her time with the group and in nature created time for her to reflect on her future: “When I’m alone and it’s quiet, I think real hard about my life, like what I’m doing and what I want to do…I need to get a job and go back to school. When I finish hiking up a big hill and I’m all sweaty and stuff, I think—damn dude! Finishing school would be easier than that!…When I come back from camping, I feel relaxed and happy. It makes me want to do better for myself and my family. So when are we gonna go camping again?” Syd said.

People are often taken outdoors for the first time by family members or friends, Griffie said, and there are different reasons why certain cultures do not have a history of recreating outside.

“We need to start getting people of color in the outdoors, now,” said Griffie. The outdoors need to be protected, period, and people protect what they know and love. The fact that so few non-caucasion people are outdoor recreators—and the minority is supposed to be the majority by 2044—means that a huge slice of the potential protectors are being excluded. “[We] want the outdoors to be protected by people of color, too,” she said.

Both of her parents are African American with light-colored skin, she said. Ethnically, her mother’s side includes Puerto Rican descent, and her father’s genes have a portion of Native American, the specific tribe unknown. She grew up in the city with her mother and her first inkling to explore the outdoors came as a little girl. Griffie told her mom that she wanted to go backpacking, and her response was, “Oh, we don’t do that, honey.”

“For black people, there’s a history of being lynched in the outdoors, and there are a number of national parks that black people could not even go into until after the Civil Rights Movement,” Griffie said.

Raised in the suburbs of Chicago, Griffie started rock climbing when she moved to L.A. after she graduated from the University of California, Berkeley. Her first exposure was when she was vacationing in Brazil. From Rio, she went solo to Pão de Açúcar—”the Sugarloaf”—climbed a 5.4 route in sneakers, and descended via tram. She thought it was a blast. Then, back in California, she continued to pursueclimbing adventures throughout Joshua Tree, Sequoia & Kings Canyon and Yosemite national parks.

Much like Griffie’s first-ever scramble in tennis shoes, it takes just a taste to know what’s good.