When Heath Rowland goes to Big Soddy Gorge, his favorite local place to climb, he rarely sees a Black person, he says.
While listening to the "For the Love of Climbing" podcast this summer, he gained some perspective on why that might be.
Host Kathy Karlo was speaking with Atlanta climber and social advocate Brandon Belcher. The conversation centered around race and the outdoors, and what Rowland heard shocked him. He thought of all the Confederate flags on the way to Big Soddy.
"I was probably one of those people like, 'Anybody can go to the woods. The rock doesn't care if you're Black or white,'" he admits. "But it's not an equal experience.
"When I heard that, it really called to me to use my connections in the outdoor industry to make a program that could make a change."
To do that, he is looking to partner with a Black climber who can be a mentor for others. Though his eyes have been opened, Rowland recognizes that he cannot authentically relate to the kinds of experiences shared by Belcher, which may keep many from venturing out in the first place.
His idea is to launch a Black-led guide service, supporting two experienced climbers as they work toward their Single Pitch Instructor certification, while also offering scholarships for Black climbers to remove other potential barriers.
"To start a guide service, the gear is really expensive to buy — all those helmets, all those ropes," says Rowland. His Ground Up Sales company connects retailers with gear to help outfit all kinds of outdoor experiences. His client list includes brands like Petzl, Scarpa and Exped, giving him access to the essentials at cost.
In love with the sport since high school, Rowland says he just wants to share all the benefits the rock has given him with others. "We want whoever does this to be in control; we don't want to manage it. But we also want to ... leverage our relationships with climbing brands to help support this project."
With all the world-class rock just outside his door, the Soddy-Daisy resident is planning to launch the new effort in Chattanooga, which also offers proximity to other cities including Atlanta and Nashville. He's set a target date of spring 2021, but ultimately his biggest goal is to lay a solid foundation for something that outlasts him.
"Doing social media posts is like bellowing into an echo chamber; there are enough voices out there," Rowland says. "I don't think that's actionable. And some other efforts are essentially tokenism. I want to try to find something that is sustainable. I want something that is going to continue to give to the Black community."