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Grassroots initiative calls for diversity, inclusion and accessibility in mountains

"This is pretty cool, starting a community and encouraging people to get outside and take up space."

BOW VALLEY – On a perfect summer day in the Bow Valley, a group of rock climbers at Cougar Creek Canyon figure out their next move on House of Cards. Five kilometres away at the Canmore Nordic Centre, mountain bikers test their skills on Eye Dropper’s vertical plunge; and westward in Banff National Park, hikers share a laugh trekking along the dirt path riverside of the Hoodoo Trail.

In each scenario, the participants are Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC). But is that what you pictured when you read it?

In Canada, BIPOC communities are under-represented in outdoor spaces, and local grassroots initiative Darken The Mountains is looking to change that narrative, and bring more diversity, inclusiveness and accessibility to Alberta’s outdoor spaces.

Led by Canmore’s Rebeccah Kellman, founder of Darken The Mountains, she hopes her message creates a safe and inviting community that challenges the status quo.

“I would love to, if I can, inspire, especially Black girls to be like 'I can be successful' or 'I can try anything new' – that would just make this complete,” said Kellman.

“And I want people to see like a group of Black people or BIPOC outside, and it’s not like a second look of like 'who are these people, why are they out here?' ”

It was a racially-driven remark in Canmore that started it all.

As a child on the slopes, Kellman and her family were absolutely aware they made up the majority – if not all – of the people of colour out there.

That didn’t matter for Kellman though, because a love of the mountains had been instilled in her at an early age.

Kellman said she remembered thinking “I want this to be my life.”

When the young family had seen other BIPOC skiers on those rare occasions, it always prompted a shout out of solidarity.

“We’d yell, ‘darken the mountains,’ and … we were like, ‘we’re darkening these spaces,’ ” said Kellman.

As an adult, Kellman realized her hometown of Edmonton was too far away from the mountains for weekend trips – every weekend – so Kellman packed up her stuff and moved to Canmore in 2016 to become more connected to the outdoors and its various communities.

It was a decision that would ultimately make her happier in life.

“As I was doing that, I kind of experienced the, I don’t know, the racism, I guess,” said Kellman.

Her bubble popped shortly after, during a day of rock climbing at the popular Grassi Lakes area.

It was painfully obvious that eyes had narrowed in on her, and snarky under-the-breath comments were being directed at her.

“There was a group of people next to me, and they were like, ‘she’s not going to be able to do it,’ ” said Kellman. “I crushed this climb, and this girl came up to me and put her arm against mine and was like, ‘I don’t usually see people darker than me climbing out here.' ”

A confused Kellman didn’t know how to respond, and later that day, she realized that not everyone was going to feel the same way about the space she was taking up, or think she belongs there.

It made her think about her own community and what they think, too.

“I want BIPOC folks to feel like they do belong outside because I even feel like in my own community, they’re like 'black people don’t do this,' and I’m an example of someone who does it and I love it,” said Kellman.

This is why she began speaking up.

Kellman took to social media, calling out big mountain brands for a lack of diversity in advertising, and started a blog, with a name inspired by the phrase from her youth.

“Looking at brands and thinking there’s no one who looks like me, and I was like 'you know what, I’m going to start a blog and call it Darken The Mountains,' ” said Kellman.

“I would just like to see the narrative change.”

In addition to Darken The Mountains, Kellman created Darken The Slopes, a pilot project for the BIPOC community to have accessibility to local ski resorts, which can be expensive and lack representation.

Two one-day Darken The Slopes programs were held in January and March at Mt. Norquay Ski Resort, where small groups received gear and lessons on skiing basics from an expert.

Kellman said it was a mix of beginners and those seeking a community to go out to the hills.

From her own experience, Kellman often notices she might be the only black person, or black female on the mountain.

“I recognized with my own privilege being able to afford these activities. It’s not cheap living in the mountains and it’s definitely not cheap getting into these sports. They can be intimidating, especially if you don’t know what you’re doing, or if you feel like you’re not welcome,” said Kellman.

Kellman added that one of the major comments that resonates with her is many participants of Darken The Slopes had always wanted to try skiing, but didn’t have the means to go about it.

“The one lady, she told me she always wanted to try skiing and was like, ‘I can’t afford it; I live in Canmore and I have a daughter,’ and this is a dream out of reach for her right now, so she was so excited. She took the day off work to come and try,” said Kellman.


A post shared by SkiBig3 (@skibig3)

Darken The Slopes is supported by SkiBig3, representing Banff-based ski resorts Mt. Norquay, Lake Louise, and Sunshine.

Sarah Pearson, director of marketing for SkiBig3, said she could see the program expanding in the future across all three resorts.

“I think by working with Rebeccah, we were able to really support and amplify her voice and her welcoming messages of inclusion, and by doing that it helps everyone build a better, healthier, more connected community,” said Pearson. “Because this is grassroots organization, it allows [Kellman’s] voice to be the most important voice and that we’re just supporting it.”

There were a few limitations due to COVID this season, such as group sizes, but Kellman hopes Darken The Slopes continues for years to come.

"This is pretty cool, starting a community and encouraging people to get outside and take up space," said Kellman.

Jordan Small

About the Author: Jordan Small

Jordan Small joined the Outlook in 2014 and covers the vast world of sports in the Bow Valley. A Barrie, Ont. native, he also wrote for RMO's Mountain Guide section and the MD of Bighorn beat.
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