The Solace of Vertical Places

Me bouldering in Minnesota.

I’ve always been attracted to vertical places. As a kid I climbed trees in the woods behind my house. I used a special crooked stick to get to the branches I couldn’t reach. I would climb the stick, reach up, hook another branch, and climb again. Mom said I could climb high enough to break my legs but not kill myself. We never knew where that threshold was exactly, but it meant I could climb pretty high — high enough to get a tingling feeling of exhilaration and fear, high enough to gain a different perspective on the world below, high enough to be out of the reach of adults and normal life.

When I was in my teens, I had my first experience with rock climbing. There were some old limestone railroad pylons near my hometown in Minnesota. One day, an experienced climber saw my friend and me climbing around on them — without ropes — and said, “Guys, that’s really dangerous. You shouldn’t be doing that.” Using an antiquated technique that predates the climbing harness, he wrapped his climbing rope around our waists several times and tied a special knot — a bowline on a coil — to secure us. Then he belayed us up. It was our first taste of climbing without the fear of getting hurt from a long fall to the ground. The rope made it way more fun.

Family outing in Yosemite with my brother and my dad.

We headed to the local REI store, bought our own rope, some very basic gear, and a few how-to books by Royal Robbins and taught ourselves how to climb. We strung up reclining lawn chairs with cord and slept hanging over the edge of our local cliff, simulating the big-wall bivouacs we hoped to experience in earnest one day. Eventually I convinced a small boy’s camp in the Poconos to hire me as a climbing instructor. That was where I met my first climbing mentor, who brought me up my first hand crack and taught me how to climb routes longer than the length of my rope.

I have always been drawn to life’s big questions. So, naturally, I studied philosophy. But after a few years, I realized that behind every question was another question. I became disillusioned with academia. I wanted to do something more tangible with my life, to make a dent in the world, no matter how small.

In the backcountry, you don’t need to read Aristotle to understand the virtues that lead to successful group and interpersonal harmony.

Searching for a new direction and a reprieve from college, I took a semester-long course with the National Outdoor Leadership School in Lander, WY. The instructors there seemed to have such wild lives of outdoor adventure! Their hair was unkempt and their faces tan, but their eyes were clear and wide with excitement and energy. It was the first time I had ever met people I wanted to be like when I grew up. Finally I saw a path in which my career and my passion for high outdoor places would sync up.

Me and Jimmy Chin in Joshua Tree National Park, California.

As I neared graduation, I felt more and more urgency to figure out my next move. I applied to work at Outward Bound, begging for a chance. I told the hiring director I would happily wash dishes my whole first summer, anything to get started on the right path toward a life in the outdoors. I was hired as an assistant instructor and began a 13-year journey in outdoor education. To my surprise, the philosophical principles I had studied in college played out organically on expeditions with students. The secret sauce to any outdoor course is to put a group of people in an unfamiliar setting and give them the tools and resources to overcome increasingly difficult challenges, which leads students to learn more about themselves and how to best interact with others. In the backcountry, you don’t need to read Aristotle to understand the virtues that lead to successful group and interpersonal harmony. I found more inspiration and educational fodder in a steep hike, a rainstorm, and a half-eaten bag of gorp than I did from a more than 2,000-year-old treatise.

My career in outdoor education and climbing brought me all over the world. I climbed in the Karakoram mountain range of Pakistan and taught in Patagonia. I had many great adventures with people who would become lifelong friends. And I got a chance to see people from different cultures living on the land in different ways.

Me, Conrad Anker and Jimmy Chin celebrating surviving a failed 15-day attempt on the SE face of K7 in Pakistan.

As I took on greater responsibility at Outward Bound, I started thinking beyond my students’ experiences to the impact they were having on the land. During a course area reconnaissance in Chile with the woman who would later become my wife, we found a stand of 1,000-year-old alerce trees near a remote mountain pass. There was no sign of human activity anywhere nearby — no litter, no trails, no fire rings, no nada. Lucia and I agreed that though my students would be deeply moved by the pristine and timeless beauty of the place, their passage would forever change the landscape as well. We kept the location secret and routed the course elsewhere.

By 2007, my passion for climbing and the outdoors landed me at the Access Fund, the organization that keeps climbing areas open and conserved in the United States. Since then, I have served as executive director. We build and maintain trails, buy climbing areas, and support a network of 100 local organizations that work to take care of their beloved climbing and bouldering areas. We also have a strong policy program to address public land issues, which are often fundamentally philosophical in nature. For instance, what is the proper role of humans in natural spaces? How do climbers fit in with myriad other user groups and interests vying for access to public land? Who gets to determine what is in the public interest and how is that assessed? These questions and many more are played out on our public lands every day.

Climbing the classic Wheat Thin in Yosemite National Park, circa 1997.

Federal and state land management agencies are staffed by thousands of dedicated, talented individuals who chose to spend their careers overseeing and caring for the places we love. They are also behemoth bureaucracies. A bureaucracy often behaves like water; it finds the path of least resistance. Sometimes that means doing nothing, as water in a pool. Sometimes that means rushing through weaknesses between solid rocks. In the past, before climbers were well organized, the climbing community would often be one of those weaknesses if there was any sort of conflict about public land. My job isn’t to make sure climbers always get their way, but to ensure that climbers are strong enough to be taken into account. We’re at our best when we help land managers make better decisions, and help translate and communicate those decisions back to the climbing community.

People sometimes ask me if climbing advocacy is important. Invariably I say that it is. If you believe that climbing is a legitimate and important activity, if you think that future generations should have the same opportunities we have to explore and enjoy the outdoors, then you have to agree that climbers need a voice. The Access Fund is the voice of climbers. But for me it goes beyond that. People build connections to the land through their experiences; the more intense the experience, the more intense the connections. Recreation plants the seeds of future conservation support — today’s fun hog might become tomorrow’s conservationist. If it hadn’t been for those early experiences climbing trees in Minnesota, I might never have joined the many voices advocating for the protection of our nation’s cliffs, trails, rivers, and outdoor places. Outdoor experiences build better people who are healthier, who make better decisions, and who can take other people, other creatures, and other perspectives into account.

Spending time outside is pretty much the opposite of standing in line at a store to get a discount on something you probably don’t really need. That’s why I’m such a fan of taking Black Friday, or any day really, as a chance to step away from our materialistic urges and connect with the outdoors and the people and places we care about. Thank you, REI, for giving us a gentle push in that direction.

Me and my younger brother Jordan on a canoe trip in Minnesota.