Becoming a Queer Climbing Guide w/ Thomas Bukowski (he/they)
Original interview with Thomas Bukowski on June 30, 2022 by Jay Louie
Updated May 16, 2023
@neodude AMGA Assistant Rock Guide & Single Pitch Instructor
Thomas grew up in Hong Kong and moved to the US for college. They started climbing in high school 17 years ago, some alpine and ice climbing. They spent a lot of time in the mountains, walking around and hiking.
Image description: Thomas with bright magenta hair in a city street. Photo credit: @neodude
Can you introduce yourself?
‘I’m gay, I’m queer, so I’ve really focused my time into bringing more queer people to climbing and the outdoors. In the outdoors there’s few people that are queer. There are queer folks, but they tend to be closeted and or quiet about it. Being BIPOC, an immigrant, it’s similar in a way - I want others to have an easier time, struggle less than what I had in accessing the mountains and outdoors.’
Why is access important to you?
Climbing is still a very community or apprenticeship based sport. It matters that you get along with other climbers. It’s very heteronormative and white. It’s a struggle to not feel lonely or have whole parts of yourself left behind. However, we also need to fit in the community because you need to find partners, and it’s rarely a solo adventure.
Tell me more about the struggle.
‘I’ve spent a lot time climbing in Yosemite, it’s famous for being elitist and insular. To break into that and feel that I belong, there’s always this tradeoff where you can choose to really emphasize your differences, “I’m here, but I’m different, and I’m here!’” or, “You better assimilate as an immigrant!” I’ve fallen on the more assimilation side of the choice. When you assimilate, it’s a little easier for you to hang with everyone else. But it moves the struggle to be internal, struggling to be really seen. Yes I had a great time hanging out at the campfire…”, but inside, I wonder, “But was I really seen? And did I really have fun?” It can sound abstract and existential, but I almost stopped climbing and stopped going to the Valley many times.’
Image description: Thomas cleaning the traverse on ‘Lurking Fear’ in Yosemite (Ahwahnee Land). Photo credit: @tylerkarow
What kept you going?
‘I just really like climbing. The movement, the kinesthetic. I’ve been climbing for so long and in so many places. What’s kept me doing it is how much fun it still is. I keep coming back to it, even if I had a weird experience at a crag a weekend ago, I eventually forget about it. I got pretty lucky early on in my climbing career, how I fell into a group of friends in San Francisco and we learned how to do everything together…climbing 5.7’s in Yosemite, then climbing 5.8’s…finding that community really helped me not fall off the wagon.’
‘Moving to the US has been a bit of a lonely experience. I just want to hang out with queer people. I don’t want to just stop doing something because I feel a little lonely about it sometimes. Let’s try to fix that. The problem isn’t climbing, it’s the people around climbing. So let’s work on that. Climbing itself is great.’
How would you describe the community?
‘For many years I was like, “Where are all the queer people?” There’s mostly a small cluster of lesbians that boulder very hard. My running joke in the valley was, “Please be on the lookout for gay people for me!” Jordan Connan came out in 2021. There’s literally no one else and it’s 2022. We’ve gone from 0 to 1. It’s still very underrepresented. I just had someone come out to me over Instagram. They’re also an immigrant, they felt that their family wouldn’t accept them if they came out publicly. So I’ve always had this theory that queer folks are out there. Climbers love to think of themselves as inclusive - that’s great - but nonetheless I think there’s a lot more folks out there that are queer that are just on the downlow.’
Tell me about your current guiding status.
‘Mostly I’ve been instructing at climbing festivals and affinity groups like Flash Foxy. I got an opportunity to teach an intro to climbing for queer college students. I also do multi-pitch guiding, which is different. Guiding splits into instructional skills (e.g. rappel, big wall), verses the classic version of guiding is where people want to, say summit Everest. They don’t want to learn a lot about how to navigate glaciers, or climbing system, etc. They just get on top of the mountain and they don’t care as much about how they get there. They want the photo. So there’s these two separate mindsets about guiding.’
What transitioned you from being a recreational climber to guide?
‘I was looking for more meaning than just starting at the bottom of the route, climbing to the top, day after day, month after month. Is there more connection I can build towards this sport and to this world? I’ve always been making jokes there being no queer climbers. I started thinking, “Well, I’m not exactly visible out there either. What maybe has to happen is more community building.” 2021 was the second time the AMGA offered a queer single instructor course, and I never thought I could be a guide. I just didn’t see myself as that, but then, they were specifically offering a queer affinity group. “Maybe I don’t want to be a guide, but just to hang out with other queer climbers, that might be fun.” That was the gateway.’
‘When I did the course, I indeed found it really fun. I love nerding about these systems. I met other queer guides, and I got the feedback that I could be good at it. Having someone that you look up to, who you have these shared life experiences with, to get that validation from someone like that is hard to come by, and is very powerful.’
Image description: Thomas smiling at sunset in front of sandstone cliffs in the desert. Image credit: @neodude
So AMGA’s affinity group offering is what really led you to this path.
‘That was really the ticket.’
What made the queer guide’s affirmation so powerful for you?
‘As I was trying to find more meaning in climbing…I considered it, but I just didn’t think I could be a guide. There are some toxic expectations around being a strong enough climber, but then, being a strong climber has nothing to do with being a good instructor. If you’re naturally talented, it’s harder for you to explain how to do something to someone that’s not as naturally talented as you. Guiding is also an old boy’s club. The guiding companies are very white. The rock guide course I just did, everyone was white. All white guys, and there’s little me. It was kind of absurd how homogenous it was. “How will I ever get a job as a guide?” I couldn’t figure out the path and the path seemed to involve fraternizing with lots of old white climbers to get the gig. It all felt very unapproachable, beyond whether I thought I would be good enough.’
What is your style or approach to guiding like?
‘I think my style is informality. The big thing to remember is that we’re just going climbing. We put in all this effort and and all this risk, and we go up and then just come back down. So that’s why I want to create an informal environment. People can take it very seriously. Self-worth, demonstration of masculinity, the guiding profession, “that’s why I’m better than you”, all these kinds of seriousness. My approach is let’s just have a fun time, be comfortable. Selfishly, I just want to meet more queer climbers. There’s so much discomfort in climbing both socially and climbing itself. It’s uncomfortable, cold, hot, afraid of heights, hand jamming hurts, shoes hurt…it’s already challenging! Let’s make the vibe as comfortable as possible. Let’s focus on what’s inherently difficult about the sport.’
Image description: Thomas and the group leading a trad clinic. Image credit: @lani.jpeg
If you want to hire Thomas as a guide, contact @neodude!