Embracing Diversity in the Mountains Through Art

Discovering Mountain Sports

This is a guest blog by Mind & Mountain friend Mayhsa Deol. Mayhsa is a second-generation Indian immigrant who is passionate about outdoor sports and inclusitivioty in the outdoors. 

Read on for more of her story:

Coming from a non-outdoorsy, Indian family, getting involved in mountain sports has been a steep uphill learning curve. I got involved in mountain sports my senior year of high school. I had played soccer competitively for much of my life, but chose to not play in college, and was eager to find a new sport to devote my attention to. Through friends I tagged along with, I began dabbling in a myriad of outdoor sports ranging from climbing to trail running to mountain biking. I still remember my first experience mountain biking fondly. A friend from my soccer team offered to take me on a ride on our local mountain’s beginner xc mountain bike trails, and I eagerly agreed. Despite how hard it was, I knew I had found something I was deeply passionate about. 

My First Mountain Bike Ride

As we rode from the parking lot up the fire road, my t-shirt quickly grew drenched in sweat. My legs were strong from playing soccer, but not quite used to riding a bike up steep hills. I barely made it up the hill to the start of the trail network section which is now the easy, warm-up section of most of my rides. Then, when we started riding on the trails, I was clunky and uncoordinated, everything was so new to me. I couldn’t understand how you were supposed to stand up out of your seat, shift gears, and navigate the trail at the same time. I wasn’t great at it yet, but I was having the time of my life. I fondly remember pedaling past fields of bright pink fireweed and daisies to an overlook with the sun glittering over the San Juan Islands and Bellingham Bay. As my friend and I took a break to admire the views, I knew that mountain biking was something I wanted to start dedicating my time and resources to. I felt a special connection that I hadn’t felt in a long time. We then rode our bikes back through the fields of wildflowers and sped down the dirt road again, whooping with joy and laughter. My first memory of mountain biking is a special one that I will remember forever. Unfortunately, some of that innocent joy faded once I realized that outdoor sports are expensive, usually require knowing someone to “show you the ropes”, and are quite inaccessible and require a plethora of resources. It requires tenacity and grit to stick with them, as these spaces are not always welcoming to beginners, specifically young brown girls.

Through my ventures I discovered that I was most interested in mountain biking, backcountry skiing, and backpacking. Specifically, I enjoyed the endurance combined with the adrenaline aspect of these sports. Movements such as riding a bike up a steep incline or carrying a heavy pack up a mountain is not easy, but it is rewarding. Oftentimes, I have moments where my legs feel like they have lead in them, I feel out-of-shape and slow, and the summit doesn’t seem to get any closer. However, I have learnt how to push past the pain and learn to get comfortable with it. I found the more I did these activities, the more stamina I built and eventually started going further and faster in the mountains. This process of pushing past perceived physical limits in the mountains has been incredibly rewarding. I enjoy challenging myself to set new personal records and work as hard as I can on the uphill. Then, in the case of backcountry skiing or mountain biking, you get to enjoy amazing turns and the coveted feeling of “flow” on the downhill. Skiing perfect powdery snow with your friends and flying downhill through loamy dirt have encapsulated many of my best memories. In the case of backpacking, your efforts are rewarded with sunsets silhouetting the mountains turning the sky a purplish-pink, followed by a stunning display of stars and meteors, and then the mountains being bathed in golden light as the sun rises once again. 

Navigating Challenges and Promoting Diversity

In addition to this joy, I quickly found that it was difficult to progress in these spaces. Especially for sports such as skiing; many skiers started skiing as soon as they could walk, participated in ski racing programs for multiple years, and had family members that introduced them to backcountry skiing. Much of the knowledge in these sports is passed down from family members, like a father introducing his daughter to the backcountry. Coming from an Indian immigrant family, I didn’t have this kind of introduction to the outdoors and instead had to pave my own way into these spaces. In addition, I quickly discovered just how homogenous these spaces are. The vast majority of people that exist in these spaces are white, affluent, and have a network of friends and family from birth to mentor and support them. I found myself encountering the exact same kind of person over and over in the outdoors, and quickly grew frustrated by the inaccessibility and lack of diversity.

I stuck with these sports and over the course of many months involving a lot of trial and error, I was able to find a sense of community and increase my confidence and skills. I participated in an Intro to Backcountry Skiing program through a wonderful organization called Incluskivity, dedicated to increasing diversity in the outdoors. This was my first season backcountry skiing after skiing in-bounds for about 2-3 seasons. There, I was able to find some wonderful mentors, like-minded ski buddies, and shredded some of the best pow of my life. I started to mountain bike more, and quickly grew as a rider. I started racing and discovered that it was something that I am also deeply passionate about. I ventured out further, deeper, and faster in the mountains, exploring fire lookouts perched on peaks and swimming in aquamarine alpine lakes. I fell head over heels in love with exploring the mountains in a myriad of ways. But the lingering lack of diversity and sense of isolation I felt as an Indian woman lingered.

Fostering Diversity Through Art

I began to devote my attention to increasing diversity in these spaces. I had a fire in me to change the narrative of being “outdoorsy” and was eager to create change. A key way I found to do this is through art. I’ve loved creating art since I was a kid and it’s been incredibly rewarding to create change through one of my favorite creative outlets. One of my most memorable projects was creating a sticker with the faces of 3 women of color in ski helmets with the caption, “we all belong outdoors.” I created about 20 of these stickers and was blown away by the positive response I got to them. Dozens of people reached out about stickers, how to get them, and they started appearing on cars, phone cases, skis, and laptops. In addition, I started putting these stickers in public places that I’ve traveled to, such as on a bench outside a bagel shop in Jackson Hole and on the side door of a popular bakery close to my local ski resort. I’m currently selling these stickers pictured in the article. Interested in one? Get more info below! Creating art to increase diversity has been an incredibly rewarding venture for me and I’m so stoked to keep on using art to create change. The art project made me realize that much of the outdoor community as a whole is also eager for change based on the positive and energetic response I received to the stickers.

Being a second-generation Indian immigrant who is passionate about outdoor sports has not been an easy journey for me, it has had its ups and downs just like any venture in life. However, it has been an incredible journey and I’m thrilled to see what the future holds for me. Last summer, I hiked to a glittering, royal blue lake nestled in the heart of the North Cascades. There, a fire lookout perched on the top of a peak overlooking the lake and panoramic views of looming mountain peaks. I painted a watercolor of the lookout and surrounding peaks and left it on the wall of the lookout, as a gift for all who made the steep trek to the lookout to enjoy. I added my art instagram account to the painting, and since then, have received countless messages from hikers and backpackers, especially folks of color, reaching out about how they saw my painting and enjoyed it. All of these messages fill me with joy and touch my heart to hear. Recently, a couple got engaged at the fire lookout and asked me to replicate the painting I left at the lookout to commemorate the special occasion, an opportunity I was thrilled and honored to take. When I first started creating art inspired by my outdoor adventures, I never thought it would grow to be a tool to create change in the community. I feel grateful for the community’s response to my efforts; each person who reached out to encourage me or express their appreciation means so much to me, and is part of what fuels my passion. I look forward to growing as an athlete in these sports while simultaneously creating change. The outdoors are for all and I look forward to making my dreams of allowing every kind of person to feel comfortable outside become a reality!

About the Author:

Mayhsa is a trail runner, skier, mountain biker, backpacker and outdoor enthusiast from Bellingham, WA. She is passionate about advocacy for BIPOC in the outdoors. Follow her on instagram @artbymayhsa  

How to get a sticker: 

Please email Mayhsa at mayhsaa@ gmail.com, or dm her via instagram @artbymayhsa to buy yourself a sticker! They range from $3-4.


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