Out, Loud, and Proud on the Peaks of the Pacific Northwest
Mountaineering instructor Bam Mendiola—aka Backwoods Barbie—creates a space outdoors for queers and people of color.
It’s a bit of a cliché to say that scaling a tall mountain to its summit will somehow change your life. And when Bam Mendiola got their start as a climber, it didn’t. “I used to see mountains as my gym,” they say. “I used to see them as extra validation in my life.”
Mendiola has worked as a volunteer instructor for The Mountaineers, a Seattle-based outdoors and conservation group, since 2013. During their first summer of climbing, they managed to log 300 miles on mountain trails and bagged 20 summits. They went on to conquer most of the stratovolcanoes in Washington’s mighty Cascade Range (these cone-shaped peaks, some of our planet’s grandest mountains, are also composite volcanoes known to be episodically active). Each climb was a short-lived high, they say, and then it was on to the next.
But something truly transformative happened in 2017, during a two-day trip Mendiola made up Mount Rainier, the fifth-tallest peak of the contiguous United States and regarded by climbers as technically challenging. Equipped with an ax and crampons, Mendiola inched up the icebound mountain, climbing over glaciers and deep crevasses. As dawn approached and the summit neared, the blood-orange aura of the rising sun filled the sky. “I don’t know how to describe it,” they say of the emotion they felt that day. “People call it an out-of-body experience, but I say the opposite. I felt at that moment that the whole world was inside my body, and that I was the whole world.”
With each step, Mendiola, now 30, recited aloud the barriers to success and happiness they had encountered as the gay child of struggling Mexican migrant workers. They recalled that they hadn’t felt fit enough. That they hadn’t felt white enough. Or skinny enough. “All the messages that I received from society, I said them out loud. I held them in my hands and released them back into the world,” they say. In a photo taken of them atop the mountain that day, their eyes are red from sobbing. “I remember somebody asking if I was OK, and I remember saying that I’d never been better.”
On the mountaintop, Mendiola felt they’d found their place in what they now call the more-than-human world—a phrase coined by American philosopher and ecologist David Abram to describe a realm in which human beings consider themselves part of nature, without feeling a need to dominate plants and animals, rivers and mountains. “We share this planet and these lands and these resources,” Mendiola says. “We’re the minority of life on the planet, yet we act like the most privileged. By calling nature the more-than-human world, we uplift and honor other forms of life. They are more than us.”
As an instructor and conservationist, Mendiola strives to share the strength they found on the mountain with others, especially those who look and talk like them. “I was always an interloper,” they say of being raised in the Mexican migrant workers’ barrio of Yakima, Washington. Their mother picked apples for a living and their father spent six months of the year on a fishing boat in the Bering Sea. Certainly no other member of their family had ever taken up climbing, but beyond that, few queer people of color had gained much recognition as part of the outdoors community associated with the trails and summits of the Pacific Northwest.
“Mountaineers can come in all different shapes, sizes, and colors,” they say. “To the next generation of queer people, I want to say, ‘Look beyond the horizon; you may see yourself reflected in my face on the mountain.’ I want them to know that they’re not alone.”
Representation of marginalized communities in a hobby and sport that has traditionally been dominated by white heterosexuals is crucial, says Pinar Ateş Sinopoulos-Lloyd, cofounder of the Colorado-based environmental advocacy group and conservation services provider Queer Nature. “Bam’s leadership is so important because of what they're bringing as a queer person of color, as a child of immigrants, and just all the intersections they hold. It’s very inspirational for people, especially Latinx youth,” Sinopoulos-Lloyd says, using a gender-neutral version of Latino.
Kristina Ciari, The Mountaineers’ director of membership and communications, agrees. “The outdoor industry, which we are part of, has traditionally operated in an environment that isn’t open and inclusive. Bam is such a talented storyteller, they have helped us make diversity and equity on public lands part of our mission.”
Mendiola’s journey from bookish nerd (“that kid who wore a suit and tie to high school,” they say) to outdoors activist was gradual and, at times, painful. During their childhood in eastern Washington, nature was not their wonderland. “In the migrant Latino community, being outdoors means you’re a farm laborer breaking your back all day for minimal pay,” they say. They remember their mother coming home from work sunburned, her eyes tired, and her hands calloused after 12 hours of picking apples. Their parents were outdoorsy in one sense, they say, but they didn’t teach them to backpack or canoe.
They also didn’t initially approve of who their son was, after they came out as gay at age 17. They were forced to move out of the house. Despite these early challenges, however, Mendiola went on to study political science on a scholarship at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, after which they settled in Seattle. There, seeking an alternative to the city’s gay bar scene, they took up hiking in the Cascade and Olympic Mountains. “None of my gay friends wanted to go hiking, so I just went by myself,” they say. Thanks to a course offered by The Mountaineers, they mastered outdoor skills such as Alpine rock climbing with ropes, wilderness navigation, and avalanche hazard management, and now they teach them to others. (Their relationship with their parents is still healing, they say.)
Today, Mendiola hikes the region’s trails with a black and pink “Backwoods Barbie” flag they unfurl on summits and post on Instagram. The nickname, given to them by a friend, embodies the two seemingly contradictory aspects of their life—the feminine side and the rugged side. On social media last year, they described what it’s like to bring that message to the world: “I met 3 strangers at the Hoh River Ranger Station at 7 a.m. on Sunday morning. I was wearing my Baby Gap shorts and my nails were painted in a sparkling coat of nail polish aptly named Grape Shifter . . . ‘I hope they're cool,’ I thought, as I considered the prospect of spending the next 4 days with people I had just met in a parking lot.”
By the end of the climb, Mendiola and their fellow climbers were a “wolf pack,” they wrote, parting ways with a full-throated howl.
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