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New org aims to get people of color climbing

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Climbing has always been second nature to Abdoukarim Njie.

“I grew up in Africa,” he said. “I’ve been climbing things.”

But rock climbing as a sport became a more serious passion in 2012, when he and his wife Sheba McCants got a Groupon for Boulder’s Climbing Gym on Madison’s East Side.

“She looked at me when we were climbing and she goes, ‘You’re never going to leave, are you?'” he recalled with a laugh. “I said, ‘no.'”

Njie lived in Madison for 14 years before moving to Colorado with McCants four years ago. While living in Denver, Njie got involved with an organization called Cruxing in Color, founded in 2019 to encourage more people of color to get into the sport. The couple recently returned to Madison where no such organization exists — so Njie decided to start one.

Madison Climbers of Color will have its first meet-up at 6 pm on Tuesday, July 27, and Boulders Climbing Gym at 3964 Commercial Ave, just off Stoughton Road. The cost is $10 and includes all gear. No experience is necessary and kids are welcome, with a parent or guardian. You can register at this link.

In fact, Njie said, he especially encourages people who have little or no experience.

“As far as my vision is concerned, I’m actually more interested in people who have no experience at all, but are interested to explore something new,” he said. “I’m trying to build a community. So, the people who have the experience, I definitely want them to come, that way we can help the beginners and the new people together. But, it will be my pleasure to have people who have never actually climbed or been into the gym.”

Njie said it’s rare to see people of color at the gym, or climbing at parks like Devil’s Lake and Governor Dodge, where he climbs regularly. The sport just hasn’t created a welcoming space, he said.

“Could be people not feeling comfortable in those spaces. But also, there is this notion of, we don’t do this. Right? Black people, we don’t do this. This is not for us,” he said. “Which is interesting, because to me, it’s a reverse thing. How can you tell someone of African descent, or someone from that African lineage, that they don’t climb? You do realize that sometimes our source of food is from us climbing? Who is to tell us today, ‘Oh no, this is not for you’?”

For Njie, climbing isn’t just about physical activity — he referred to it as “troubleshooting, as in, just figuring stuff out and figuring how you’re going to move. How you’re going to hold the hole, how you position your body.”

“Figuring out stuff, like how to get to something. It’s not always something physical you have to grab. Internally it’s an accomplishment. Challenging your body to do things that you otherwise would think that you’re limited to,” he said. “The way I look at it, the physical exercise just comes with it.”

Njie, a network engineer by trade who’s currently working as a full-time dad to two-year-old twin boys, said he hopes to host meet-ups at least monthly, and to get out to do some climbing at gyms across the state, as well as outdoors.

“Wisconsin has some gems,” he said of the outdoor climbing opportunities here. “The vision is to just have the community come in, and at some point, it’s just going to be the community’s voice. I’m just trying to just push this vehicle forward, so that the community can know what we have here and how much we can utilize it.”

Njie is also the guest on this week’s Black Oxygen podcast. Find it wherever you get your podcasts, or at this link.