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.

Bam Mendiola on the summit of Mount Baker, July 30, 2017

All photos courtesy Bam Mendiola

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 his start as a climber, it didn’t. “I used to see mountains as my gym,” he says. “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 his first summer of climbing, he managed to log 300 miles on mountain trails and bagged 20 summits. He 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, he says, and then it was on to the next.

Mendiola on the summit of Mount Rainier, July 23, 2017

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,” he says of the emotion he 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 he had encountered as the gay son of struggling Mexican migrant workers. He recalled that he hadn’t felt fit enough. That he 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,” he says. In a photo taken of him atop the mountain that day, his 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 he’d found his place in what he now calls 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.”

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As an instructor and conservationist, Mendiola strives to share the strength he found on the mountain with others, especially those who look and talk like him. “I was always an interloper,” he says of being raised in the Mexican migrant workers’ barrio of Yakima, Washington. His mother picked apples for a living and his father spent six months of the year on a fishing boat in the Bering Sea. Certainly no other member of his 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,” he says. “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 he’s bringing as a queer person of color, as a child of immigrants, and just all the intersections he holds. 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, he has helped us make diversity and equity on public lands part of our mission.”

Mendiola as a child

Mendiola’s journey from bookish nerd (“that kid who wore a suit and tie to high school,” he says) to outdoors activist was gradual and, at times, painful. During his childhood in eastern Washington, nature was not his wonderland. “In the migrant Latino community, being outdoors means you’re a farm laborer breaking your back all day for minimal pay,” he says. He remembers his mother coming home from work sunburned, her eyes tired, and her hands calloused after 12 hours of picking apples. His parents were outdoorsy in one sense, he says, but they didn’t teach him to backpack or canoe.

They also didn’t initially approve of who their son was, after he came out to them as gay at age 17. He was 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 he settled in Seattle. There, seeking an alternative to the city’s gay bar scene, he took up hiking in the Cascade and Olympic Mountains. “None of my gay friends wanted to go hiking, so I just went by myself,” he says. Thanks to a course offered by The Mountaineers, he mastered outdoor skills such as Alpine rock climbing with ropes, wilderness navigation, and avalanche hazard management, and now he teaches them to others. (His relationship with his parents is still healing, he says.)

Today, Mendiola makes himself even more visible on the region’s trails with the black and pink “Backwoods Barbie” flag he unfurls on summits and posts on Instagram. The nickname, given to him by a friend, embodies the two seemingly contradictory aspects of his life—the feminine side and the rugged side. On social media last year, he 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 his fellow climbers were a “wolf pack,” he wrote, parting ways with a full-throated howl.

Mendiola in the Glacier Peak Wilderness, September 2, 2017

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