A Culture of Climbing: An Interview with Len Necefer

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“I try to pursue my enjoyment with the idea that folks care and love for the land the way I do for my own home. I try to model a way of approaching the sport that doesn’t re-create the conflicts (between climbers and Navajo people) that occurred decades ago—to model a culture of reciprocity with the land rather than that of extraction. I often see experiences that are taken without much consideration of giving back. In my opinion, this is not sustainable, and it’s something we need to address to ensure the places we climb aren’t destroyed.” —Len Necefer

by Sara Aranda (note: this piece is published in Volume 13, now available in print) Banner photo of Shiprock by Steve Eginoire 

Climbing’s Destructive Past

Len is Diné (Navajo), of the Tachiinii and Naakai Dine’e clans from his mother, and of Scottish and Romanian heritage from his father. I chat with him over a period of several months, curious about him and his perspectives.

“I grew up in Kansas for the first decade or so of my life,” Len says. “Living in the Midwest, the outdoors were fairly difficult to access compared to where my mom’s family is from in Northern Arizona, where my grandparents still retained many parts of ranching and farming in the Chuska Mountains and Red Valley.”

For his mother’s community, being outside is an ingrained necessity. From gathering herbs and plants, grazing sheep, to fetching water, there is often little differentiation between activities of sustenance and activities of outdoor recreation.

“It was during these summer outings, of collecting plants and grazing, that we were told stories about the land and the history of the place we lived,” Len says. “I never associated going outside with hiking, or scrambling around on rocks as bouldering. However, this was my first exposure to these things.”

In his youth, the larger world of climbing was revealed via the anger of relatives. Outsiders were trespassing to climb Shiprock, a sacred volcanic outcropping on the Navajo Nation. The sacredness of this area is depicted in the many stories and ceremonial practices regarding the monster-fighting Navajo Hero Twins, Len explains: Nayainazgana­, Slayer of Alien Gods, and Tobadza­scha­ina­, Born From Water. Of tradition, Shiprock is where a grand fight occurred between the twins and a large, people-eating bird. Many ceremonies still take place on this iconic formation.

In the early 1970s, a man died while climbing Shiprock. This incident only helped the case for a climbing ban across the entire Navajo Nation. “Death in these sacred areas can ‘contaminate’ the space in the Navajo worldview. It’s unfortunate that one white guy, failing to heed the warnings of local Navajos, decided to climb the peak anyway, died, and essentially closed all climbing for generations of Navajo kids to come,” Len says.

A young Len Necefer and his cousins in Monument Valley. Photo: Maggie George (Len’s mother)

Remembering his own youthful climbing, he sees it as epitomizing “one of those first challenges” one encounters, where you are internalizing “something incredibly scary.” He and his cousins would often dare each other to scramble and climb various rocks while out grazing sheep. “It was a lot of fun peer pressure then,” Len says, “but, my my relationship with climbing in the traditional sense is complicated.”

In the context of rock quality, he considers Shiprock to be a choss pile. “But I can kinda see why there’s a thrill and something about [climbing it],” he says. Still, the community’s perspective on traditional climbing was one of taboo. It was something that Navajos didn’t partake in and was deemed a practice of conquest and disrespect for sacred areas. “Obviously that’s not my opinion now,” he says, “and as I learned more and more about the history [of climbing]—you know, it was the time of Fred Beckey and guys like that. There was just this general fuck you to authority, and whether it was the federal government, or whomever, it didn’t matter.”

While there is much respect for those early climbers and all they’ve done for the lifestyle and sport over the years, “they also did an incredible amount of damage,” Len says. “[The founders] are applauded for their achievements, but not necessarily for their faults. That’s history…but it’s a mixed bag,” he adds, since vandalism and the leaving of trash near Shiprock has also been committed by Navajos themselves. “So one good thing from the climbing scene is that there is also a lot of general ethics of keeping areas clean. I think there’s a way to climb the rocks, but you just need to take care of them. But many people [from here or not] do not share this opinion,” Len says, laughing.

When Len first came to Colorado, where he lives now, climbing was, of course, the thing to do. Destiny or not, one of his initial trips outside was with Steve Bartlett, aka “Crusher.”

“He did first ascents on many desert towers. That’s his claim to fame.”

“How did you meet him?” I ask.

“I connected with a Navajo guy that had done some of the guiding for Honnold and Cedar Wright. He had said, ‘Hey, you should go climbing with my friend.’”

Len met with him in Eldorado Canyon, “having only just figured out how to use one of those nut tools.” Seeming antics aside, they inevitably discussed the history and politics of climbing from their varying perspectives.

Necefer climbing Calypso on the Wind Tower in Eldorado Canyon, Colorado. Photo: Steve “Crusher” Bartlett

“Steve talked about his time climbing on the Navajo Nation. He gave pause, and I interpreted that as possible guilt for it. That he realizes, in retrospect, it probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do. But it was nice to have a conversation with him while sharing in something that we both love. It was neat—and I don’t want to say that it’s come full circle, but some of the anger that my relatives felt and some of the anger that I had too—it really comes down to hearing the other side, and that [the history] is complicated from his perspective as well.”

I emailed Crusher regarding this very conversation. “Guilt may be right,” he says, “Though, as Len suggested, it comes within a larger, nuanced context.” The pause, for him, was a definitive questioning of his own thoughts, acknowledging how they have changed over time. “I don’t think I’d agree to guilt in the sense of the act [of climbing] itself being wrong,” he continues. “It is more the approach and attitude toward the act.”

Crusher recognizes the wondrous, although often oblivious, intentions that surround mainstream climbers, that “if the approach is respectful, then there should be nothing to be guilty about. If the approach is acquisitive, selfish, conquering, ‘getting something for nothing,’ then it becomes part of the old pattern of abuse between Anglos and indigenous people. I can see that now. I could not see that so clearly a long time ago.”

The conversation Crusher and Len had in Eldorado gratefully added a layer of depth to the sport for Len. Still, it has become an arduous task of bringing light to all the historic subtleties and newfound benefits of climbing to his own culture. The biggest obstacle is one of bridging the gap between the older generation’s disapproval and his own generation’s adaptive views.

“There are a ton of Navajo climbers now—well, not a ton, but there are more than three,” Len says with a laugh. “Things are changing. We’re making it our own thing. We’re doing it in the way that we want to do it.”

In the past, there hadn’t been as much of a concern about youth spending time outside. “Today, the conversation is a lot different,” he says. “There’s a whole generation of kids that don’t speak Navajo.” Motivation for Len stems from this blaring case of his own people not interacting with nature. “The outdoors is where we learn our cultural traditions and learn the language and learn the importance of this land.”

He regards climbing as an incredible self-esteem booster, particularly in the way one can use their body to ascend challenge. “For native kids, it’s more about doing things that empower them to feel strong, confident, who they are, and to know where they come from.” The allure, he echoes, is one of getting up and personal with the rocks, while also participating in something physically demanding. Couple all of this with events like, “climbing day with an elder,” and Len thinks these growing gaps in their traditions and culture can be actively mended.

These very benefits outweigh the potential for damage to the rocks themselves, he expresses. “Granted, it’s not a lot—it can be, but in terms of creating a coal mine, it’s pretty minimal.” To him, the trade-off between raising kids to be connected with a place and potentially damaging the rocks and land is worth it.

“Do you fear that people will take on climbing for the wrong reasons? Such as catering to egoism and these old, conquer-ous viewpoints?” I ask him.

“I don’t think so,” Len replies. “The culture of climbing is basically the legacy of who created the culture. It’s very unique to the history. There’s always going to be people that will feel that way, but for us, that will never fly…I think the reason why there’s a lot more Navajo climbers now is because they’re finding ways to do it that fit within their own way of being.”

When I ask what type of climber he describes himself as, he responds, “I really enjoy the cold,” he says, laughing. “It’s fun being really uncomfortable—not fun, it’s never fun. But I enjoy those big, big mountains. I like the feeling of being this insignificant, tiny speck. I think being reminded of the power of these places is something I really take a lot out of. In terms of what I’ve been doing and what’s next, alpinism is where I’m headed.”

Leading a New Wave of Awareness

In 2017, Len created an Instagram handle, @NativesOutdoors. The handle gained tremendous momentum, and NativesOutdoors quickly became a company dedicated to the talent and creativity of indigenous people in the outdoor space. They have become a liaison between the outdoor industry and indigenous communities, providing advisory and consultation services. Heavily involved with tribal governments and organizations, with a mission to increase recreation access for indigenous peoples, Len, needless to say, has become quite the public figure.

Len obtained his PhD in engineering and public policy from Carnegie Mellon University and has a BS in mechanical engineering from the University of Kansas. It was while attending graduate school in Pittsburgh that Len had first sought out membership at the local climbing gym.

“Given that backdrop of climbing on the Navajo Nation, I had to discover it for myself elsewhere.” Exposing himself to the mainstream climbing arena, however, only brought into perspective the numerous ways in which his culture is fundamentally different. While bouldering in the gym, he couldn’t help but notice “the testosterone and the dating scene and people posturing.”

On a much deeper plane, there are blatant tendencies within the mainstream climbing culture to be possessive, ego driven, and capitalistic. “If we want to address larger environmental issues, we have to address the way in which we are interacting with nature,” he says. Within Navajo culture, “things don’t happen by chance or divine intervention,” he says. “There’s a phrase we were told growing up constantly, when we were whining. ‘T’aawho ajitee’go,’ which translates to something along the lines of, ‘if it’s meant to be, it’s up to me.’”

While these notions of hard work and autonomy exist in other cultures as well, there is something about the way Len addresses the act of experience that I found particularly interesting. During a podcast with 21st Century Native Leaders, he had mentioned leaving an offering before ascending Blanca Peak. During our interview, I ask him to explain this tradition more:

“It’s an offering of corn pollen, usually. Did you ever see Avatar?” he asks, then laughs.

“Well, anyway, those creatures had this braid they could plug into the earth with. Corn pollen serves the same purpose. When corn pollen is laid down, it’s basically opening up the communication pathway between you and the earth, figuratively speaking.

“In my view, that’s just one way to do it. More than anything, it’s just simply, mentally, getting into a space of saying, ‘I’m going to take something from here,’ and that’s usually a taking of an experience. So, if I don’t have corn pollen, I’ll put down a piece of hair, or I’ll just think about it mentally. It’s about giving and taking and reinforcing that relationship with the environment—rather than just going and taking an experience and not giving anything back.”

Shiprock. Photo: Steve Eginore

I ask him if there is ever this sense of a reply from the land and nature that is to be expected, or if it’s just a matter of reverence.

“It depends on who you talk to,” he replies. “I’m not the most superstitious person, I guess. I’m trained as an engineer, so it’s kind of hard for me to be that way,” he says, chuckling. “Some of our ceremonies we do outside, for example; and one of them, I remember, was near Mount Taylor in New Mexico—which is one of our sacred mountains. We were doing it within eyesight of the mountain, and right as the ceremony was wrapping up, four or five eagles came up over the ridge and started circling over us. So it’s like, okay, maybe it’s coincidence, but then, more than anything, when nature speaks back to me, it’s how I feel when I’m done, when I’m coming back—that’s what I took, that feeling.”

When Len talks about what Navajo culture is and how he feels they traditionally address the environment and self autonomy, there is this sense of equality and mutual communion with what surrounds them—and this is what he regards as the most drastic distinction between the general culture of the US and Navajo culture. It is also what he feels is at risk of being forgotten, particularly with the lack of youth spending time outside and learning.

“Part of it,” he says, “is that I see a lot of mainstream recreation occuring in a way that is replicating the culture of extracting industries.” While, at large, this can be deemed true, there are noticeable efforts being made by mainstream climbers, such as Alex Honnold, to acknowledge and address disparities of privilege. Through his own nonprofit, the Honnold Foundation, solar panels have been installed on various homes to aid the estimated 18,000 Navajos without access to power. This act of giving is an ongoing project for Alex. Media exposure surrounding these efforts took place place after a desert-tower trip with Cedar Wright, wherein they both biked and climbed forty-two towers across a particular Southwest region. With the use of Navajo guides when on the Nation itself, this is an example of how a dialogue was respectfully created with the local indigenous communities. A film was created for Outside TV, known as Sufferfest 2, and Alex rightfully spends a good portion of the film discussing the issues of power access and his nonprofit incentives and ideologies.

Still, there is a particular way in which Len approaches his climbing that sets him, and others like him, apart. “I’ll do some risky stuff,” he says, “but sharing the experience, for me, is one of the most important things.” Meaning, while it is important for people to seek first ascents “and all that, the relationship to risk is that I will take it if I see there is a larger purpose in me doing so; not for my own personal being, but maybe there’s a story to tell that is worth the risk. That the story to tell is more important than me…”

An example he gives is of Blanca Peak, a sacred mountain known as Sisnaajiní. Indigenous peoples used to go to the top, he explains, to catch eagles. “There’s one climbing route up the mountain, an alpine climb, like 5.6…[me doing] that sort of climb would have significance for telling that kind of story, of that process. That these people were going up there before the ‘climbing route’ was ever established.”

There are many places that echo this truth, where climbing is and was the only means of access for people long before Anglo climbers came about. Bears Ears, for instance, contains ruins high up in the cliffsides. “They used yucca-root rope,” Len explains. “Now, I’m not going to belay off that”—he laughs—“but I’ve thought, ‘Wow, that would be cool to re-create that,’ to try to make the rope.”

“So, in your aim to be this storyteller,” I ask, “do you see yourself as an interpreter for the land? That you’re revealing this story of the mountain, of nature?”

“Yes, and of restoring the chapters that were ripped out of the book,” he replies, chuckling. While these indigenous stories of the land “are old things, they do have a lot of valuable lessons we can draw from and how we can manage these places for the future.”

Len’s participation in land politics and the various spheres of the outdoor industry is a testament to how he sees himself as this mediator and as an educational resource. His dedication has undoubtedly sparked many to follow their own paths forward and cultivate platforms that didn’t exist before, particularly for those of indigenous descent and other peoples of color.

But the road for Len and others hasn’t been so easy. There are many stereotypes that they are constantly having to combat. “Me actively participating in outdoor activity,” he says, “results in contending with this image of Native Americans struggling” with things like health, alcohol, and mal-education.

“It seems that folks don’t know what to do with me,” he adds. “I often feel like I have to introduce myself as Dr. Len Necefer, as this confers a level of legitimacy that otherwise would not be afforded to a native person.”

It is this inherent aspect of discrimination and judgement that his mission and participation in the outdoor recreation realm is unfortunately subjugated to. “In my own community even,” he says to me, “I’ve been rhetorically asked why I do all the things ‘white people’ do, like climbing, skiing, and cycling. It is obviously a passion of mine, is something that is empowering, and has also allowed for me to maintain cultural connections to the land that are difficult to maintain living in urban environments.”

While his own parents have been incredibly supportive and understanding, numerous glaring obstacles remain.

“For us, as Navajos, most of our sacred spaces are off reservation,” he says. This inevitably lends itself to inherent conflict between tribes and the US government, let alone the conflict of outdoor ethics and environmentalism itself.

There is already access to many sacred areas, and “there are already a ton of people that climb [our sacred mountains], but they don’t understand that it is a sacred place. On Blanca Peak, for example, there’s really awesome alpine climbing there, and there’s also a massive jeep trail. People dump trash, party up there. And it’s like, okay, maybe they don’t know.”

When I ask him how he defines sacred space, he explains that the US reveres wilderness spaces and national parks in a similar way to how “native cultures—not all, but some—treat sacred spaces. Except the lines on the map don’t exist in the same way. The landscapes are related to each other.” Being related is to see these ecosystems, these places, as being intrinsically connected, he clarifies.

The challenge of conveying to outsiders why a place is important is seemingly endless without proper outdoor education, access to that education, and exposure to indigenous worldviews to begin with. “It’s important that native presence is known,” Len says. “One of the things I’ve realized is that we’ve all received pretty bad education about indigenous peoples and history in this country, and a lot of these [destructive] things happen where remedial education is needed most.”

Overall, compared to other spaces, Len argues the climbing and outdoor community is fairly welcoming and perceptive to change. “That being said, I think the climbing community has blind spots when it comes to inclusion and awareness of racial, gender, and class challenges, which is gratefully being addressed on a systemic level right now.” The blind spots he mentions are references to the status quo of the outdoor industry as a whole, how even the climbing dirtbag lifestyle here in the US was birthed by white male egos and privilege. While there is much dialogue and progress, there is resistance and ingrained malbehavior, such as white elitism and misogyny.

Len envisions a future where the equal consideration of indigenous people in the outdoor industry is a commonplace habit, particularly as allies in protecting public lands. This also means a future where “designs, art, and culture are not appropriated to make a quick buck.” His biggest motivations are of course centered on the immersion of culture and language with outdoor recreation, and how it is important to remember, no matter what we’re doing—whether we’re climbing or hiking a trail or having a conversation—we are having an impact and likely taking something. It is on us to acknowledge this, to make sure whatever we are taking is minimal, out of respect, communal, and forward-thinking.

(Portions of this interview were originally published in a piece for BivyTales.com.)

Natives Outdoors. 

Sara Aranda somehow took a liking to writing at a young age, composing terrible stories about mermaids, love in the Wild West, and portals to alternate happy-land dimensions. She eventually pursued a degree in creative writing, with an emphasis in poetry, at the University of California, Riverside, which is also where she discovered trail running, climbing, and ultimately the great wild world of everything outdoors. She also really likes peanut M&M’S and baby sloths. You can read about other adventures and musings at www.bivytales.com.

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