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From the inner city to the Grand Teton, this climber inspires diversity in mountaineering – The Mercury News


There aren’t many mountaineers where Malik Martin grew up in South Memphis. His parents were drug addicts, “victims of the crack epidemic,” as he puts it. He was adopted at age 2. A cousin was killed at 18. Just before he left Tennessee and relocated to Denver, his truck was stolen and his ex-girlfriend’s mother was killed in a carjacking.

“Where I’m from, there are no rock climbers,” said Martin, a professional mountaineer, filmmaker and storyteller who moved to Denver in December of 2022. “I was the first ice climber from my ‘hood. I’m the first big-mountain climber from my ‘hood.”

Martin, one of the outdoor industry personalities who will play important roles at the inaugural Outside Festival next weekend at Civic Center park, was exposed to indoor climbing by chance in Memphis. He wants to help more people of color get that chance.

“I can’t imagine my life without being able to go to Chautauqua and hike,” Martin said. “If I feel bad, I drive to Winter Park. Movement is my medicine, and I need to be able to recreate. It is fun, but that’s not why I’m doing it. I’m doing it for healing. I’m doing it to feel alive again. I’m doing it to reignite my passions.”

Martin’s climbing credentials include the Grand Teton in Wyoming, one of the classic gems of American mountaineering. He hosts a show for OutsideTV called A Walk in the Park. His movie credits include Black Ice, which follows a group of aspiring ice climbers from the Memphis Rox gym to the wilds of Montana, where the young climbers are mentored by mountaineering icons Conrad Anker, Manoah Ainuu and Fred Campbell. During the Outside Festival, where he will serve as an “ambassador,” he will be the announcer for a climbing exhibition and will take part in a panel discussion about “mentoring in the mountains,” with Anker and Jimmy Chin.

The festival takes place June 1-2 at Civic Center park and includes two days of live music, adventure films, speakers, gear demos, booths, a climbing wall and other activities and experiences.

“Malik is such a multi-talented and interesting character who has found his way in the sport of rock climbing, a sport that’s not always been welcoming (for people of color), but he has developed a strong following,” said Jon Dorn, chief entertainment officer for Outside Interactive Inc., which is organizing the festival. “He’s done it on his own terms. He’s done a really good job of getting to the human aspects of what it means to be a new face in the outdoor category, and to chart your own path.”

Martin was introduced to climbing through a stroke of good fortune when he was working as a photojournalist and got an assignment to shoot a non-profit Memphis climbing gym. Intrigued by what he saw there, he started climbing and got a job working at the front desk. While watching the classic climbing film The Dawn Wall one day while at work, he wondered aloud how it was shot. Was someone shooting from a helicopter to get those incredible shots? No, a man walking by said, there are people who climb to make mountaineering films. Martin was stunned, sparking a new career path.

“I often tell people the golden age of climbing was in the 1960s, and in the 1960s my people had a little more to be worried about than climbing El Cap or whatever,” Martin said. “The importance of diversity in the mountains is like, just for me being from the inner city, greenspace is calmness. We build parks you can go to and sit in and make you feel better, lower your blood pressure.

“But just imagine if you were immersed in it,” Martin continued. “What does that do for your health? I’ve lived a quite traumatic life. At this point in my life, I can run to the mountains for leisure, to rest, to escape. I want more and more Black and brown people to be able to have those same type of experiences, to feel safe, to know what peace is, to hear the silence of snow.”

At 5-foot-8, he concedes he was never going to excel at basketball because he couldn’t dunk. Climbing helped him elevate in other ways, though, and now he can do 360s on a snowboard. He just finished his first season as a rider and got in 27 days. He wants kids to hear stories like that.

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