Visibility Matters

What does a climber look like? It’s not a trick question, and there – of course – isn’t a right answer. Climbers come in all shapes and sizes, from all backgrounds. Climbers are simply people… maybe with slightly broader backs and more defined forearms than the general populace, but people all the same.

Except, walk along your local crag on any given Sunday. Flick through the pages of a climbing magazine (particularly one that was published more than a decade ago). The climbers that you see are likely to be less representative of the population as a whole. Predominantly male, predominantly white, predominantly straight…


It’s an observation that isn’t lost on Thomas Bukowski. “Things are slowly changing”, he tells me, “I know more and more people from previously marginalised groups that are either starting climbing for the first time, or feel more able and empowered to be open about their identity.” And that matters; visibility matters. There’s a saying: ‘you cannot be what you cannot see’. If you open the magazine, watch the film, observe others and there is no one there that you identify with, where is the inspiration, where is the tacit nod that tells you that people like you can do this?

“Visibility isn’t always about what you look like, either. I’m mixed race and you can tell that when you see me. But being queer is a part of my identity I can choose to hide; and there have been plenty of times in my life that I have. I’ve felt the need to consciously hide my sexuality for my safety or to just get by and I think I developed a natural subconscious motivation to hide it for a long time. Now, I want to be visible, and not just for my well-being, but to be able to inspire others.

“I think growing up, I felt alone for much of the time. It took me a long time to find my communities. And even longer before those communities intersected. The climbing community is very welcoming, but there’s a difference between feeling welcomed and feeling represented.”

Bukowski is a guide and instructor and I talk to him early in the morning before the final day of All In Ice Festival in Ouray, Colorado. The festival aims to ‘elevate and highlight marginalised communities– including black, indigenous, and people of colour (BIPOC), LGBTQIA2S+ communities, and adaptive climbers’. It is an opportunity for him to use his visibility and expertise to encourage, inspire and support others.


A couple of weeks later and Bukowski is once again scraping the ice from the windshield of the van that he calls home. This time it’s in the early morning half-light of a January day in Utah. The sky is only just beginning to lose it’s inky blackness, pastel oranges beginning to creep into the indigo.

“I was actually born in Arizona, but I grew up in Hong Kong for my first sixteen years. My mother is from Hong Kong; born and raised. We lived on the twentieth floor of an apartment block, surrounded by other apartment blocks, so climbing really wasn’t part of my early youth at all. I’d occasionally hike in the hills beyond the city, but that was as far as it went. It was only when I went to boarding school in rural Norway that I got my first introduction to climbing.”

Arriving at the base of the route, Bukowski puts his rainbow trekking poles to one side. He pulls the hood of his mid layer over his bleach-blonde hair and puts on his helmet before racking ice screws and quickdraws to his harness. The frigid scene belies the relatively mild conditions and the poor state of the ice. 

It must have been near impossible not to be inspired by the remote, rugged beauty of west Norway, but Bukowski happened to have a physics teacher with a passion for climbing. Chris Hamper had been a star on the eighties Sheffield rock scene and brought his enthusiasm to Scandinavia. Bukowski would climb in the small bouldering gym built by Hamper and lead his first route on the local crags. Yet there wasn’t an instant resonance for Bukowski. He enjoyed climbing, but he also loved photography, hiking and programming. 


“I have this childlike sense of curiosity. While I love the movement and physicality of climbing, it is the simple sense of exploration and discovery that, to me, is the essence of my love.”

“It was only after I moved to the US that climbing became a larger part of my life. I’d made the decision to drop out of college and work as a programmer in San Francisco. It was a genuinely formative time in my life. I think it was the first time I truly felt part of wider communities; the gay scene in San Francisco and then I found that working a nine-to-five gave me all this time on the weekends so I decided to start climbing again. I’d travel up to Yosemite each Friday after work. Until that point, I had only really sport-climbed, so I slowly learned to trad climb and work multi-pitch routes. I was, and still am, drawn to the big lines. It’s why I’m also drawn to running long distances and ultra marathons; there’s always another hill to crest or something to find around the next corner.

“I have this childlike sense of curiosity. I just want to see what’s at the top. I want to climb all day, for multiple days and completely immerse myself in the task. And while I love the movement and physicality of climbing, it is the simple sense of exploration and discovery that, to me, is the essence of my love.”

Bukowski sets off up the route, regardless. Tentatively, checking and rechecking the solidness of his axe placements. Water trickles everywhere. Small threads of melt water drip and splash. A larger torrent still flows further along the crag. Elsewhere, cake-icing blobs of thick white ice cling to the bare rock.


“Over time, climbing went from being a hobby to being an almost all-consuming passion. Over the next ten years or so, I quit my job in tech (it had lost the sense of innocent discovery and innovation that attracted me) and moved to working for a non-profit. A few years on and I took a break from that, after feeling utterly burnt out. Last year I moved into my van and decided to get my guiding qualification. 

“It felt like a big step; I questioned whether I – or someone like me – should or could be a guide, despite years and years of knowhow and hands on experience. In the end I found a queer specific course, which was a reaffiriming moment. Not only did I have the capability and competence, it was another introduction to new communities. Contacts and friendships; the comfort blanket of knowing that you are not being yourself alone.”

“I went on my first remote expedition in 2019. Travelling to Baffin and climbing there really opened my eyes to bigger things still. I’m now preparing for a six week trip to Patagonia in February. There are so many new challenges for me there. I feel like my climbing to date has been about these building blocks; the basics in Norway, through to everything I learned in Yosemite, to my experience in Baffin. Relatively speaking, I’m probably least experienced on ice, so that is my real focus now. I love that the trip will need me to place together every single one of those building blocks into a firm foundation.”

Trusting the process

Simply mentioning Patagonia to a climber will elicit an emotional response. It is impossible not to be awe-struck by the pinnacles and spires of Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre, or to be enraptured by the legendary tales attached to them and the surrounding range. Equally, there are the stories of climbers spending entire weeks in the village of El Chaltén hemmed in by storms, and leaving having never even glimpsed the massifs from behind the clouds. 

“I’m genuinely curious, I’m going with no real objectives other than to feel my way. I’ll start on smaller things and see where I go. I feel like I have a lifetime of experience when it comes to stepping into the unknown. I have learnt to trust the process.”

The sun threatens to break free from the grey skies that have sat over Provo Canyon all day as Bukowski coils his rope; briefly bathing him in orange light. He smiles and turns into the evening light before pulling on his belay jacket and preparing to leave. 

We end our conversation where we started and come back to why visibility is so important for under-represented groups. After over an hour of talking about the joy and life experiences that climbing has brought Bukowski, but also the moments of self-doubt and questioning his belonging the answer feels self-evident. 

The rock faces and icefalls, the landscapes and sunsets don’t care discriminate based on skin colour or sexuality or anything else. But society does and therefore the climbing world does. So Bukowski and many others like him are changing that world, simply by being visible and supportive.

Produced by: Coldhouse Collective

Words: Tom Hill

Photos: Ted Hesser

2 December 2023