Photo: Wes O'Rourke

How To Build a Climbing Community

Colorado’s rural San Luis Valley didn’t have much of a climbing community—then Angela Lee started making moves.

When Angela Lee first started climbing in Colorado’s San Luis Valley, she experienced what many climbers dream of: perfect solitude. Crags all to herself. No crowds anywhere.

“It was basically just me and my partner Wes at every crag we went to,” she recalls. But for Lee—a community organizer, farmer, licensed attorney, and sponsored climbing athlete quickly gaining renown in the West—this wasn’t a dream come true. It was a problem.

“The San Luis Valley is a really small, rural community, so the climbing community was really fragmented,” she says. “There was no hub.”

That meant no centralized group to help build trails, maintain crags, or update climbing hardware. It meant no consensus on how the area’s public lands—a critical resource that all climbers depend on—should be managed and cared for. It also meant there was no sense of togetherness or camaraderie—the very things that made Lee fall in love with climbing in the first place.

For Lee, it felt like wasted potential. After all, the San Luis Valley is home to cliffs of high-quality volcanic tuff, a type of welded ash that lends itself to pockets and crimps. There are sport lines, plentiful bouldering, and striking cracks. She knew it was too good not to share.

So, in 2019 Lee and her partner Wes started reaching out to local climbers as well as prominent climbers from earlier generations who had made the area’s first ascents. Those connections provided a deeper sense of what the community needed. Then, the duo co-founded the San Luis Valley Climber’s Alliance, the area’s first climbing stewardship nonprofit. The organization helped unite the Valley’s climbing community and give it a voice, plus it provided a contact point for local climbers looking to volunteer or help out.And for Lee, it was also a way to give back to the sport that saved her life.

Rock Bottom

The daughter of Korean parents, Lee spent most of her childhood growing up in Uijeongbu, just north of Seoul. When she was in the sixth grade, her parents moved the family to California, hoping to give Lee and her brother access to better education.

“They sacrificed so much to get me and my brother here to the States,” she says.

Growing up, Lee says she didn’t always grasp the depths of that sacrifice. Instead, she tried hard to fit in at her American school. She refused to eat Korean foods like kimchi and did everything she could to separate herself from her roots.

“I had a lot of identity crises,” she says. “Because growing up, you always just want to assimilate and be as white as you can so you can pass through.”

When she graduated college, Lee jumped straight into law school, hustling hard to fulfill others’ expectations. Partway through, suffering from burnout and spiraling deep into depression, she realized she wasn’t sure who she was deep down, or what she wanted from life. She found herself on the verge of a breaking point. She didn’t know what to do.

So, on a whim and desperate for change, she moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to finish her law degree. That’s where she discovered climbing.

“When I deep-dove into climbing, it helped me crawl out of my dark place,” she says.  For one thing, the climbing community taught her that there were avenues to success byond a fancy job or a hefty salary—there were other ways to live a good life. For another, climbing brought her to remote landscapes and into contact with soaring cliffs and twisting rock formations. It brought her close to nature in a way she’d never been able to experience before. She fell in love with the land. For the first time, she started to feel connected to something greater than herself. It was exactly what she needed.

“Now, I feel this need,” Lee says, “like I need to give back to this thing because it’s given me so much.”

Photo: Angela Lee

Creating Community

Shortly after finishing law school, Lee moved from Albuquerque to southern Colorado’s San Luis Valley. There, not far from the headwaters of the Rio Grande, she started working on a 40-acre plot called the Sol Mountain Farm. It felt like a good way of staying close to the land.

Today, Lee, who’s in her early 30s, works part-time as a civil attorney. With the rest of her time she helps raise pork, CBD hemp, and organic produce, including a number of Korean crops. She also makes her own kimchi; since graduating from law school, Lee has come to embrace her roots, and has made peace with many of the foods she’d rejected as a kid in California.

Lee has also become a bit of a professional event organizer. Each year, Sol Mountain Farm holds two big community events: a harvest festival and a mountain bike race. Both have been big hits—and have provided a much-appreciated sense of connection and community to the area. So it wasn’t long after founding the San Luis Valley Climbers Alliance that Lee began to wonder: How hard would it be to organize a climbing festival? 

“We thought it would be a really good way to get the community together and hopefully not lose money,” she laughs.

So, Lee and SLVCA rounded up some volunteers, a band, and an event permit for Penitente Canyon. Last October, she hosted three days of climbing, live music, film viewings, games, and competitions and dubbed it the True Penitence Climbing Festival. It was the first of its kind ever held in the San Luis Valley. More than 120 people attended.

“It was about half locals, which is really cool. Local kids came and brought their whole families. There were even non-climbers who just came to party and check out the scene,” Lee says. “But the magic behind it wasn’t about the attendance necessarily. It was the energy—it was just so full of love and connection, and everyone was so psyched.”  

With farming, as in life, you can make something out of nothing if you try hard enough. You can pull magic from the rocks and the soil. You can create something new. 

In Penitente Canyon, Lee had done exactly that. By the end of the festival weekend, something was different about the San Luis Valley. Before, there had been only a loose collection of cliffs and sand and strangers. Now, there was a community.

If You Go…Here’s your cheat sheet to climbing in Penitente Canyon.

How To Get There

The San Luis Valley is southwest of Denver, nestled between the Collegiate Peaks and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Penitente Canyon, the area’s most popular spot, is just off U.S. Route 285, west of Great Sand Dune National Park and Preserve.  

When To Go

Early summer and fall are the most popular times to visit Penitente. The 7,500-foot elevation makes for sharp temperature swings, so be prepared for hot days and cold nights.

Where To Camp

Penitente Canyon campground has 23 group sites ($5 per night) and two group sites ($15 per night).   

Learn More

Get local route information at mountainproject.com, and camping and access information at the land manager’s webpage (fs.usda.gov).

Give Back

Join the San Luis Valley Climber’s Alliance for a trail day, or use Access Fund’s climbing organization finder to contact a climbing coalition near you about volunteer opportunities.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.