Brett Nelson aka “Bird” spends a lot of time with his feet off the ground. Not flying — climbing. Bird owns Ascension Rock Club in Fairbanks, spending his days managing the climbing gym, teaching, and getting other people “stoked” about the gravity-defying activity.
“I really get a lot out of introducing people to these experiences and teaching people how to feel comfortable in the outdoors,” Bird said.
His journey with rock climbing started as a teen in the Lower 48, where he found community with other kids of color in a rock-climbing group. The group became a place of comfort and support, helping him navigate those difficult teenage years when he started thinking more about his racial identity. But, as Bird grew in the sport, he felt more alone. What was once a space where he found common ground with people of similar backgrounds and through a love of the outdoors had become much more White. And color became more of a factor.
“A lot of people participating in the sport are people who have never dealt with the concerns that the Black community has,” Bird said. “I don’t always feel as comfortable as other people traveling through rural areas and I have dealt with racist comments being made to me while climbing with a group of people.”
There’s a stereotype that Black people don’t like the outdoors, but Bird says people often don’t consider where that idea comes from. It doesn’t acknowledge how people of color have been shut out. Outdoor activities can be expensive and have historically been inaccessible.
“There’s a very good reason why no Black people were doing acid and climbing rocks in the golden era of rock climbing during the ‘60s and ‘70s,” Bird said. “We were busy getting water hosed and run down by dogs trying to fight for the ability to be treated like human beings.”
Bird still sees that attitude show up. He watched peers go on a climbing trip while he went to George Floyd protests and tracked down supplies after his neighborhood was looted. During the pandemic, he heard people complain that their gym was closed while he collected donations for food banks. But he isn’t so concerned about that anymore. Now his focus is on making the outdoors a place where more people of color, many who have never rock climbed before, have a chance to make connections and find support the same way he did as a kid.
“Not that long ago, I was only trying to climb with other people who are pretty elite,” Bird said. “That’s much less appealing to me now. I’m more interested in showing people that this is a lifestyle that is available to them and trying to provide as many people as I can with that opportunity.”
In Alaska, where outdoor activities are so popular, Bird is making the outdoors more welcoming through his service, mentorship, and teaching. Through his work, Bird is helping more people of color in Alaska climb toward their highest potential.