His first attempt that day wasn’t great.

Kai Lightner was in Hurricane, Utah, attempting a first ascent of Death of Villains (5.15a). Because the route is so demanding, he knew he would only have two, maybe three attempts max before he’d have to call it a day. And he’d already used up one attempt.

To add onto that pressure, this was his last climbing day. Tomorrow, he’d have to drive home to Denver.

Kai sat down and took an hourlong break. He had never trained for a climb this hard, but when he showed up to Death of Villains earlier in the week, he knew he was prepared. Every attempt made him feel closer to the send.

But that day, everything was going wrong, and he fell during his warmup. Now with a cut on his pinky finger, he had to decide whether to tape the finger – not only can tape be distracting, but it can also mess with his grip on the rock. He decided he’d rather feel pain than feel like something was in his way.

He stood up, finishing his break, and walked up to the climb. “This is it,” he thought to himself. “This is the only attempt I have left, so I have to give it everything.”

And this time, it was different. As he climbed, he felt like he was in a “flow state,” and everything just connected.

After a lengthy 180-degree bouldering section that tested his endurance to the limit, there was a spot where Kai could do a toe-hook sequence and take a break. He took a moment to rest there, hanging upside down by his toes. As he looked out over the Utah desert, he felt overcome with a sensation of peace and calm.

“I just remember resting, taking in my environment, and just feeling happy, feeling blessed that I get to be in nature and have my job be in spaces like this,” he said.

When Kai felt rested enough, he finished up the climb and finally clipped into the chains at the top.

“It was this feeling of such satisfaction,” he said. “The fact despite all the pressure I felt, I found that perfect balance of mental and physical strength to hone it in and get it done.”

Kai is no stranger to feeling pressure. As one of very few Black professional climbers, he calls himself a “statistical anomaly.”

He started climbing in 2006 when he was 6 years old. He was an active kid, constantly climbing things he wasn’t supposed to — “so it should be no surprise,” he said, “that I found this sport by climbing something I had no business climbing: a flagpole at my mom’s job.”

While his mom was distracted talking to her boss, Kai shimmied up the 50-foot flagpole, much to the distress of the onlooking adults.

“A lady helped me down and told my mom, ‘He should try rock climbing. It’s a lot safer.’”

The next day after school, his mom took him to the local climbing gym, The Climbing Place in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Kai was hooked.

That same year, he began competing in the USA Climbing organization. By 2010, he won his first sport climbing national championship. Then in 2014, he earned the gold medal for his age category at the Youth World championship in Noumea, New Caledonia, becoming the first American Lead World Champion since 1995.

Overall, Kai has earned 12 national championship titles (10 in youth categories, two in the adult circuit) and is a five-time youth world championship medalist.

From the beginning, he knew he was different from the majority of the pack. He was the only Black climber on the wall – often, the only Black person in the entire gym. On top of that, he was bigger than his peers and struggled with an eating disorder. He was reminded on a constant basis: “We’ve never seen champions that look like you.”

When Kai first began rock climbing, his peers teased him for “acting white.” He felt pressure to play a “real sport,” like basketball or football, instead of chasing a hobby.

That’s why in 2020 he created Climbing For Change, a nonprofit that encourages people of color to enter the outdoor space.

“We want to make sure there’s representation at every level – from the people in the board rooms making decisions; the people working at the front desk of these facilities; and people coming in to recreate for the first time — so we can make the outdoors a more inviting and accepting place.”


In the climbing world, it’s customary that the person who makes the first ascent on a climb gets to rename it. But when Joe Kinder told Kai about Death of Villains, a route Joe had built, Kai knew he would keep the name.

In fact, Kai committed to the project because of its name. Joe explained to Kai that Death of Villains represents reclaiming your own narrative and not letting your past, or the pressures in your life, prevent you from moving forward in a positive way.

“The name was very transcendent to me,” Kai said. “Everybody can relate to the sentiment of feeling like you were held back by circumstances, insecurities, or villains that are outside of your control. Feeling like you’re not good enough. Feeling like there are doubts in your head that are keeping you from moving forward.

“I want people to be inspired by my story and the name of this route. There is a path forward if you allow yourself to mentally break through those barriers, which are arbitrary and self-inflicted.”

His next challenge? Kai will compete in the Deep Water Solo competition at The Whitewater Center’s annual Tuck Fest celebration on April 19. He hasn’t competed in a Deep Water Solo competition in about 10 years, so he’s both excited and nervous for the challenge, he said.

“There’s a lot that goes into deep water solo climbing, and I never wanted to hit the water wrong and get injured in the middle of a competitive season,” he said. “But now that I’m not competing as much and I’m focused more on outdoor climbing, I thought it’d be something cool to try.”

To watch Kai compete in the Deep Water Solo competition, visit The Whitewater Center in Charlotte, North Carolina, for Tuck Fest on April 20. There will be an athlete meet and greet at 12:30 p.m., and the Deep Water Solo finals start at 4:30 p.m. Tuck Fest is free to attend and spectate. Learn more at the Tuck Fest website.