What a piece of climbing equipment can teach us about creating community outdoors

From GRIGRI to gris-gris.

My climbing partner moves doggedly up the inclined face of “Steel Monkey,” a difficult climb up a granite face that arcs over a clearing in the woods near Lake Tahoe, California. After the brittle heat, we appreciate the cooler air in the evergreens’ dense shade — as do the mosquitoes. I stand in rapt attention, belaying and watching my partner’s every dancing step across scarcely visible chips on the rockface. She reaches behind her to pull at the rope tethering her weight to mine, ready to clip it through the carabiner “quick draw” dangling before her. That’s my cue to further slacken the rope so she can pull it and secure herself to the draw. This route is just beyond our comfort level, difficult enough to make it both an enticing challenge and slightly nerve-wracking. I’m not the only one watching; two white men are also working on the same route. I am acutely aware of my own discomfort under their gaze, my desire to prove that we, two women of color, are wholly competent climbers.


Just as my partner is about to clip the rope into the carabiner, two things happen: Her foot slips, and a mosquito pricks the soft skin beside my ear. Instinctively, I yank on the rope in my right hand to take out some of the extra slack now snaking through the other quickdraws before slamming my fist downwards into a “brake position.” This is a trained response designed to “catch” a falling climber with any belay device. My instinctive swat at the mosquito with my other hand was a potentially dangerous distraction. However, a second later, the mosquito is dead, and my partner dangles, disappointed but unharmed. 

That day, I was using a belay device known as an ATC, which uses friction to arrest a falling climber. The climbing pair beside us had made pointed comments about it, favoring Petzl’s ubiquitous assisted braking belay device, the GRIGRI. Had I been using a GRIGRI, the mosquito would not have posed a threat. If I had let go of the rope with my right “brake hand,” it would have braked in response to the sudden jerk of my partner’s fall. But, similar to the Voodoo practitioners from whom the device gets its name, I had been trained not to trust my life solely to a mechanical device or lucky charm. 

Unless the knowledge-keepers of those traditions are consulted and heeded, such commodification further obscures the cultural significance of the names.

A gris-gris — both the spiritual item and the piece of climbing equipment — provides protection. The gris-gris talisman is a small leather pouch, usually worn around the neck, believed to have originated in Ghana, with connections to Islam and West African Ifá. Enslaved Africans who brought their beliefs with them incorporated it into their practice of Voodoo in Haiti and Hoodoo along the Gulf Coast of the United States. In the context of enslavement, a gris-gris offered more than just good luck. It symbolized  agency, the spirit of rebellion and the desire for freedom.

According to Petzl, the GRIGRI was “named after the Voodoo amulet … believed to protect the wearer from evil or bring luck.” The device got its name after product developer Michel Suhubiette asked at a meeting, “So, have you gotten anywhere with your gris-gris?” Suhubiette’s comparison of the device to what he described as an “African good luck charm”  caught the attention of Paul Petzl, perhaps because “GRIGRI” is just strange enough to Western vocabulary to be “exotic,” and just familiar enough to tap into the fear that pervades this sport. 

Neu Tokyo/High Country News

Climbing gear brands often reference alpine landmarks. The exceptions tend to tokenize poorly understood spiritual icons: Evolv’s “Shaman” climbing shoes, “Totem” cams for traditional climbing, and Five Ten’s long line of “Anasazi” moccasin-style climbing shoes.  Unless the knowledge-keepers of those traditions are consulted and heeded, such commodification further obscures the cultural significance of the names.

The GRIGRI’s origin story — and the term “gris-gris” itself — are relatively unknown in much of the United States. It wasn’t until a recent Halloween party in Texas that a witch-costumed La’Kayla Williams told me more about the gris-gris. Similarly to the way the GRIGRI is fed rope, the hand that “feeds” a gris-gris bag determines whether positive or negative work is being done. The talisman transcends its physical form, too, having become a part of the vernacular of the Gulf. Summer Winston, co-founder of The Brown Ascenders, a Bay Area climbing affinity group, says that “gris-gris” can be a jocular reference to someone’s bewitching allure or wrathful vengeance. 

 Focusing on one another’s safety conjures a kind of magic that isn’t for public consumption; it is, they say, “for us.” 

Black, Indigenous and POC activism in the climbing world is another kind of gris-gris. The spaces of refuge, connection and empowerment that people like Winston create through meet-up groups are talismans that ward off exploitation. In most climbing spaces, instances of appropriation are unsurprising, and climbing routes are still saddled with offensive names. “We live in a world where (BIPOC) lives and existences are treated like jokes … like something that doesn’t have value,” says Winston. Instead of pushing white-dominated industries to take action on these issues — an exhausting and often futile mission — Winston encourages mutual support within POC climbing communities. Focusing on one another’s safety conjures a kind of magic that isn’t for public consumption; it is, they say, “for us.” 

Similarly, Erynne Gilpin, co-founder of Indigenous Women Climb, understands climbing as an opportunity for relationship-
building. Her climbing practice includes connecting with local Indigenous communities and inquiring about the kind of protocol needed to enter the space respectfully. Climbing activism by non-Native groups like the Access Fund have historically fought to protect open spaces for both recreational interests and environmental conservation. Since the Access Fund and other climbing groups joined a lawsuit to defend Bears Ears National Monument against restrictions proposed by President Donald Trump in 2017, however, climbing advocacy has shifted its focus from rights to relationships and encouraged climbers to respect Indigenous customs and cultural sites. Gilpin urges climbers to critically reflect on their relationship to the land and its stewards, asking what one ought to give before receiving the pleasure of outdoor recreation. Changing our literal and figurative approach to climbing in community is an embodied experience of making space and forming connections, one that Gilpin says is “very much at the kitchen-table level. … That’s really where the monumental change happens.”

In his novel, Flight to Canada, Ishmael Reed says, “A (person’s) story is (their) gris-gris. Taking (it) is like taking their gris-gris.” Likewise, taking a community’s gris-gris through a branded word or image means taking and profiting from that community’s stories and lives. 

Like learning to belay on an ATC, protecting others is a learned, embodied and habituated response to the need to care for one another, rather than relying on what Audre Lorde famously called “the master’s tools.” Instead of using a GRIGRI, participate in gris-gris by cultivating safety, protection and well-being for those who have been exploited. Instead of settling for representation, demand or provide reparation: Ask what it would look like to not only acknowledge Indigenous stewards, but redistribute the resources that companies like Petzl have accrued while appropriating the unacknowledged icons of Black and Indigenous peoples. And, in so doing, conjure a reality that catches everyone who has fallen through the cracks.    

Kaily Heitz is a geographer, climber and longtime supporter of organizations advancing DEI in the climbing community. You can find more of her work at kailyheitz.com.

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