“I didn’t bring them the right kind of diversity,” she said, “they needed girls who could code-switch.”

These words have stuck with me long after my coworker first told me this story about recruiting diverse youth for an outdoor program. She described her excitement as she signed up two “very urban” African American girls for a kayaking trip, followed by her realization that the program was not ready to support them and communicate with them effectively. The program wanted to increase access to diverse youth, but had not examined its own way of communicating and operating to function as an inclusive space. It couldn’t code-switch very well, not yet.

Code-switching is defined by linguistics as using multiple languages at a time to communicate. The term has been broadened and popularized by NPR’s blog and podcast Code-switch to refer to the way we adapt our language styles to communicate with different groups of people. It often refers to communication between different ethnic groups, but code-switching could also occur geographically, between gender identities, across class divides, and among niche or fringe communities (the climbing community, for instance). And the reasons why someone might code-switch are just as broad. When I go back to visit my extended family in Milwaukee WI, I unconsciously start to draw out the “a” in my “ya’s,” and I start drinking more Miller Lite. When I worked in Minneapolis with mostly small-town Minnesotans, my “o’s” got embarrassingly long, I never asked for anything directly, and nobody knew what I was talking about when I offered them a “baig.”

Code-switching is also what gave me, and continues to give me, access to climbing. I’ve always been pretty comfortable in male-dominated or even all-male environments. Remember Thomas and the trucks? I don’t change my name to fit in with boys anymore, but when I’m climbing I often find myself in situations in which I’m the only female around. And whether it’s subconscious or not, I do change the way I communicate. I learned this lesson the hard way when the same childhood best-friend who played trucks with me when I was four told me when I was eight, “you were cool until you realized you were a girl.” (That’s not to say I put up with much bullshit, and I’ve had plenty of experiences like the ones described here, that I can’t just let roll off my back).

Blending in from a young age: can you tell which kid is me and which is my brother?

Code-switching relates to access when I consider the available mentorship in the climbing community and the mentorship I have received. So far, the people that have taught me the most climbing technical skills have been men. White, straight, cis-gender men for that matter. And many of them have been friends of mine. And I also haven’t been dating any of them (which is another topic related to mentorship and gender and climbing which might need its own post). And I am immensely grateful to all of the friends who have taught me about climbing and helped me pry open its iron gates (thanks, you guys are fun and cool and I like climbing with you!) In climbing contexts, my ability to code-switch in male spaces has given me the privilege of greater access to climbing and knowledge of technical skills. My comfort in male-dominated spaces also allowed me to feel confident, while travelling alone in the Southwest, that I would find climbing partners wherever I went. (I should add here that my comfort in white spaces contributed to this confidence, though this doesn’t require code-switching for me, since I am a white woman.)

Nathan checked my gear on my first trad lead, then went on to swap leads with me on a 14 pitch day (much later). He did not teach me how to make those useless tape-gloves and would not claim responsibility either.

The problem is not the straight, white, cis-gender men who like to climb. The problem is that members of this population usually are the gatekeepers to the climbing world; they hold the bulk of the knowledge, so therefore determine how it is shared. Climbing is, by nature, a discipline spread through mentorship, which perpetuates this gatekeeping phenomena. Straight, white, cis men are just more likely to hang out with, and climb with, other straight, white, cis men. But if those who possess the knowledge are aware of their position as gatekeepers, they may be a part of opening up those gates.

A couple years ago, on my first visit to Red Rock Canyon, I followed my friend Andrew up the classic five-pitch traditional route, Birdland. I hadn’t placed much gear at that point and was still getting the hang of it on single-pitch terrain, but I was psyched to get up high off the ground and had a great time. Last summer, Andrew and I swapped leads on a six-pitch alpine climb in Washington Pass. By chance, I ended up leading the two best pitches of climbing, while Andrew was tasked with the run-out, wandery pitches. To me, this is a metaphor for allyship within a climbing context. If those with knowledge in the climbing community are willing to mentor, then give up leadership, to those unlike themselves, access and inclusion can expand, and the gates can creak open a bit more.

Me leading the classic “Bear Hug” pitch on South Early Winter Spire while Andrew belays

But what about those who can’t code-switch? How do I use my access to share climbing spaces? Is this my responsibility? Does my presence as a female climber make the space more inclusive to other women? Is this enough, or should my fight be more active? What about climbers of color? If climbing is mostly made up of male spaces, I must acknowledge that it is even more dominated by white spaces. Also, do we need to rely on straight, white, cis men to open the gates? There are several groups out there who create female-only spaces or spaces for people of color to come together and climb as a community of their own, with leaders that represent them. I don’t think there’s one right answer within climbing or our broader community; increasing access and removing barriers is a messy process of trying and failing and making improvements, just like climbing. And just like climbing, it takes commitment and “try-hard.”

2 thoughts on “Code-Switch

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