Three Days at Refuge Outdoor Festival

In September 2018, Refuge Outdoor Festival, a three-day camping and music event welcoming people of color to "celebrate nature, diversity, and life", was held in Carnation, WA. Hear from Mariko Ching, an attendee and Program Director with Climbers of Color, on her experience.

It's autumn in the Pacific Northwest yet sunshine still warms a constellation of colorful tents. Black, brown, Asian, and indigenous folks sit around a bonfire by a grassy meadow along the banks of the Snoqualmie River. Some have traveled across the region and some across the country by car, bicycle and plane.

Communities of color and allies gathered for the Refuge Outdoor Festival, a three-day camping and music event welcoming people of color (POC) to “celebrate nature, diversity, and life” in the outdoors. This was the festival’s inaugural year, taking place at the Tolt-Macdonald Park and Campground in Carnation, WA.


Photo courtesy of Refuge Outdoor Festival.

Climbers of Color (CoC), a nonprofit that increases access and develops leadership in the sport of mountaineering for communities of color, hosted a workshop where participants reflected on barriers to outdoor sports like mountaineering.

It’s too expensive” said one participant.

“I don’t feel like I belong,” said another.

These statements could not be more true. Mountaineering is a sport of privilege, requiring money, time, and ability. The tools that allow you to safely ascend and descend steep snowy slopes and survive in the cold are prohibitively expensive. The time spent driving to these remote mountainous locations could be time spent working. Furthermore, the act of trekking with a 50-pound pack is strenuous and selects for able-bodied individuals.

Secondary to these barriers, many of the workshop participants pointed out that the folks seen on the summit are often white, straight, cisgender males. While the draw of sublime alpine peaks may be enough for some, the lack of community and understanding in mountaineering deters many.



Stereotype threat was also discussed during the CoC workshop. As one participant with extensive mountaineering experience explained, “We think in our heads that we don’t belong, so we obsess upon buying the fanciest equipment and over prepare… In the end, we still feel inadequate.” Other seasoned climbers nodded their heads vigorously in agreement. How much top-of-the-line gear had we purchased to feel qualified to be on the mountains?

Then there came the significance of summiting. For myself, summiting has always meant more than just a successful weekend adventure. Walking uphill, I feel like I carry more than just the gear on my back. I carry the hopes and dreams of generations of hard-working women, who up until recently, had no idea that mountain climbing was a “hobby.”

I feel a huge amount of pride with summiting but also intense guilt. My great-grandmother did not cut sugar cane for decades, nor did my grandmother work tirelessly to send my mother and uncles to college, so that I could climb to fantastical and perilous heights.


PHOTO COURTESY OF Climbers of Color.

I know my story is not unique. Many POC or low-income folks had similar thoughts: How can I justify mountaineering in the context of my family’s struggle to survive? This makes investing in an ice ax or gore-tex jacket seem absurd, let alone enrolling in a mountaineering course. Having a community of individuals with similar histories is necessary to process this barrier. This workshop at Refuge Festival provided an opportunity for dialogue to begin and the beginnings of a community to form.

Not everyone at the festival was interested in climbing mountains, but we easily bonded over our mutual love for the outdoors. Late-night conversations around a bonfire nurtured emerging friendships, and during the silent-disco, we did not hesitate to let our hair down.

The way home from the festival took us on roads I had never traveled before, passing herds of sheep and rivers flanked by red maples. For a moment, it was hard to imagine our lives before the festival - before we had reinforced old friendships and created new ones.

Thinking of all the work we had accomplished and all the work that still needs to be done, I wonder what next year’s Refuge Festival will bring.

Refuge Outdoors Festival was held in Carnation, WA, in September 2018. Organized by Chevon Powell, the 3-day event created a very important space for people of color and underrepresented communities in the outdoors. The Mountaineers were proud to sign on as a sponsor, sending two members of The Mountaineers and two folks from Climbers of Color and Outdoor Asian to attend. If you're interested in being involved in or supporting these efforts as a Mountaineer next year, please contact If you're interested in sponsoring the event, please contact Chevon at

Main image  PHOTO COURTESY OF CLIMBERS OF COLOR from a recent workshop.