11/12/2020

Texas Climbers Embrace Mentorship in Route Development

Deep in the heart of Texas sits a pristine crag, untouched by even a trace of chalk. Amidst the hill country landscape of caliche and live oaks, the pink granite loaves and eggs promise outstanding climbing on everything from splitters to crystal-crimping slabs. But there’s a catch: As with 95% of the land in the Lone Star State, this dreamy crag is on private land.

Inks Ranch is located in Llano, TX, ancestral lands of Nʉmʉnʉʉ (Comanche). © Merrick Ales

When Brian Tickle, Access Fund’s Texas Regional Director, approached the owners of the Inks Ranch in 2017, control of the Ranch had just changed hands from the patriarch of the family to the children. This change in management presented an opportunity for climbers to potentially gain access to a trove of untouched Texas granite—something more rare than rocking-horse manure. After Tickle spent a sweltering July day walking the ranch and talking to the owners, the framework for climbing at Inks Ranch was set.

Having secured permission from the Inks family to access the land for a climbing festival, Tickle realized he would need to recruit route developers to start putting up new routes on the untouched stone. Access Fund put out an open call for route developers, and soon a posse of seasoned Texas first-ascensionists were ready to establish enough routes to make the inaugural festival a success.

There was only one glaring issue left to address. “Texas is one of the most diverse states in the nation,” Tickle says. “But historically, route development has been anything but diverse.” The climbing community has diversified to an incredible degree in the last 20 years, but it seems safe to say that the route development community has not kept pace with this change.

Access Fund wanted the crew developing Inks Ranch to reflect the diversity of the climbing community in Texas but had difficulty finding individuals with the gear and experience needed to put up safe, high-quality new routes who weren’t already a part of the long-established Texas route development crew. His solution? A mentorship event that paired seasoned veterans with psyched newcomers from communities traditionally underrepresented in new routing.

Matt Markell joins Bree Jameson, beaming after her first ascent of "Gotta Start Somewhere."

“First and foremost, we created this event because we believe in dismantling structures that create inequity and replacing them with ones that foster diversity,” Tickle says. “In the case of route development, there are many factors that have made climbers feel unable to get involved, from lack of access to land to financial barriers to a lack of mentorship. And the bottom line is it was just important to me personally.”

Tickle reached out to local Texas affinity groups like the Texas Lady Crushers and Brown Girls Climb to find participants. What these newcomers may have lacked in gear or experience, they more than made up for in psych to put up FAs.

“When I first was invited to the route development weekend, my initial reaction was childlike giddiness,” climber Alyssa Garza says. “I understood how unique this opportunity was; that, coupled with the realization that I had the chance of checking off a bucket-list item, made the anticipation of this event grow as its date neared.”

On a beautiful October weekend, veteran route developers paired up with a diverse group of mentees and got to work. The route development began with a short ground school that introduced mentees to the tools of the trade and also gave the abridged version of the history of route development in Texas. Afterward, everyone broke off into groups and disappeared into the boulders. Mentors offered advice about how to find quality lines, assess rock quality, and how to sparingly place fixed hardware when necessary. Mentees got hands-on experience cleaning routes, bolting, and going for FAs. Over the course of the weekend, these mentor-mentee teams put up dozens of routes, including traditionally protected splitters, bolted face climbs, and gnarly offwidths.

Mentors and mentees assemble at Inks Ranch for a ground school on route development, fixed hardware, and a brief history of first ascents in Texas.

For mentee Bree Jameson, the significance of the event went beyond the skills she learned. “I'm told by my peers and mentors that, to their knowledge, a black woman has never had this opportunity in Texas and perhaps even the U.S. I’m a mom of sons who are already growing up in a world where they are often pioneering right alongside me. We are regularly the only BIPOC people we see on the trails and at the crags. I want to instill in them the courage to boldly chase whatever endeavors impassion them, even if there is no one like them around, but especially if they are the first.”

Being an example for her kids was important to mentee Glenda Reyes-Ortiz too: “To be completely honest, I didn’t fully grasp the importance of diversity and inclusion when it came to route development until the event. After I bolted my first route and got the FA on it, I was so stoked and still in disbelief that it happened. As I was telling my husband and kids all about the day, they were all stoked for me, and I found myself choking up just talking about it. This needs to be available to anyone who wants to learn and put in the work—even to moms like me. Being a mom, balancing family life, work, and your passion is not easy. I want my daughter to see that you can be a good mom and still be a rock star!”

Glenda Reyes-Ortiz susses out a unique line tucked away in a maze of granite blocks.

Garza summed up the experience of the weekend: “We entered this weekend as motivated climbers and drove home that Sunday as route developers. We had the whole-hearted support of a crew of incredibly knowledgeable men that forewent their own glory to educate and empower a new generation. We are not the first women to develop routes, nor were they the first men to pass down knowledge. But the opportunity and privilege we were afforded that weekend is a signal that we are part of the catalyst of change. And that is an honor unlike any other.”

Beyond bigger themes of breaking through barriers, the event was also just plain fun. Garza led her first trad route—the fact that she also got to claim it as an FA, she says, “was icing on top of a most delicious cake.”

Tickle is happy with the event and eager to replicate it at other crags he has his eye on opening in Texas. He’s shooting high though: “If in 10 years, someone who learned to develop routes at the Inks Ranch goes on to establish an epic, 30-pitch big wall in Antarctica, then I’d say we were successful. And if in 40 years, the first person to establish a route on Mars is a person of color, that’d be even better.”

For the participants though, their goals are more immediate. When asked if she was interested in continuing with route development, the answer for Jameson was, “1000%, yes! I would like to develop more in areas that have features conducive to climbers congregating to chat and cheer each other on. I hope to name all the routes very provocatively to induce conversations around all the things we should be talking about in society to progress and grow.”

Garza, also “cannot put into words how fired up I am to do more route development. I have my eye on Mexico in particular. I have a lot of family in Monterrey and Guadalajara and would love nothing more than to get to spend time back in that country with a chance to develop new locations out there too.”

Alyssa Garza focusses in on a techy, unclimbed slab route at Inks Ranch.

The weekend at Inks Ranch is just one example of how much stronger the community becomes when we build bridges. Access Fund would love to see more climbers across the country embrace mentorship and share their years of knowledge and skills to protect and enhance climbing areas.

Reflecting on the relationships she built at the event, Jameson put it best: “I learned that folx on either side of every coin are all the same on the inside. We all get excited about climbing and want to share what we know or what we’ve done. We all feel best when we can contribute to the happiness of others.”

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