Outdoor Role Models


If you could think back to your childhood room, what would you remember? Apart from the sneakers that smell like a dead animal, and the sock stuck under the corner of your bed for eternity. Can you recall what books you had on the shelf? Or the posters that covered your walls? Some people might have had a picture of Tom Brady after his third Superbowl, or a vintage Porsche. Others might have an old library copy of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban that never got turned back in.

 Nevertheless, your childhood bedroom surely tells a story of who you are. The people we looked up to, and the things we surround ourselves with as kids helped mold us into who we have become. 

If you are reading this because you too have a fondness for the outdoors, then maybe you will understand where my story is coming from.

When I was a kid, going to my friends’ houses was the best. I’d get so excited to go to the cool, and sometimes over-the-top rooms my peers had. One had neon lights, a poster of Messi next to their 1000-piece Ninjago Lego set, a mini-Nerf basketball hoop, and a PlayStation. Another had a Call of Duty poster over the X-box we used to play for long stretches at a time until our eyeballs felt like they’d fall out of our skulls. 

However, the excitement wouldn’t be reciprocated when they came to my house. The posters I made by cutting out pages from National Geographic, and old climbing magazines from the gym were not nearly as thrilling to my friends (companies don’t make cool climbing posters like they do ski racing, snowboarding, or soccer). Not a lot of twelve-year-olds got excited about the speed record on El Cap, or the danger and mystery surrounding Mt. Everest. My friends didn’t find as much joy in hanging off my Metolius rock rings, or looking at the plastic crimp I stole from the local climbing wall. But climbers and mountaineers were idols in my eyes. They were the role models that made me, me.

One of my first role models was Alex Honnold. Seeing his free solo of Moonlight Buttress in Zion National Park was awesome. Jamming his fingers into the splitter crack to ascend the thousand-foot sandstone monolith, with nothing but the still air and cold ground to catch his fall. Where every step up is one step closer to the razor-thin edge that blurs the line between sport and suicide. 

There was also Conrad Anker and Alex Lowe who made first ascents in exotic lands like Antarctica. I dreamt about being part of the action. I pictured myself in their shoes, leaving camp every morning for a new adventure. Cross-country skiing through the arctic abyss while the winding quartzite mountain ranges tower above you, like a giant spined dragon hibernating in the earth. I imagined what it felt like to be 2,000 feet off the ground, with the bone-chilling winds pounding on your back, as if to punish you for intruding into their domain. 

As I grew, these role models changed too. I got into writing and cinematography, and I was drawn to others in the community. Climbers like Jimmy Chin and Cedar Wright, who were just as impressive on rock as they were behind the camera. As I read all their articles and watched all their movies, I got more invested in the life of an outdoor filmmaker. I wondered how fit you’d be from taking all your camera supplies thousands of feet into the mountains. Or rigging up fixed lines all day to capture the perfect shot. How cool would it be to make a living writing about these expeditions?

I am grateful for the role models I’ve found in climbing; without them, I imagine I’d be pretty boring. In hindsight, I owe a lot of positive attributes to mirroring their examples. I pick up trash when I see it because climbers are environmentally conscious and wake up early because mountaineers “wake up with the sun.” In my eyes, these people embodied all the tough and hardcore I wanted to be. Cutting my teeth in the mountains, living out the back of a beat-up civic, and drinking jet-black coffee every morning, all so I could spend every waking minute climbing. That’s what I want.  

My story is certainly not unique – I grew up around plenty of people who shared similar passions. As the outdoor sports world garners more mainstream media attention, I see a lot more opportunities for role models to be coming out of the industry. I know there will be more kids that share my story, or stories like it. What ten-year-old wouldn’t be impressed and inspired to see Cody Townsend dropping the DOMY line, or Rafael Ortiz kayaking the stoutest white water on earth? As a matter of fact, who wouldn’t be impressed, period.

With this somewhat celebrity status that comes with being at the top of your sport, comes the opportunity for a lot of positive impact. Being able to reach a wide audience means you can influence others for the better. Say a kid’s favorite backcountry skier is also an advocate for equal rights. As a result, that kid is likely going to associate the two, realizing that just like skiing, equal rights are pretty cool. For example: in my community, climbers like Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold are very politically active, speak up about climate change, and own or endorse various environmental non-profits. 

I think a lot of people can see the appeal in the simplicity that a lot of outdoor athletes represent. Making just enough money to get by and do the things they love. No extra distractions, and no passionless work. There is a lot of merit to that way of living. In fact, it is what prompted me to write this, as I think about where I want to be after college, and what I want to represent. From being a dorky kid seeing professional climbers as superheroes, to becoming a somewhat less dorky older kid, I’ve come to appreciate what they have done for me.

So, who was it that you looked up to? It may not feel like a very meaningful question until you dig a little deeper. Because everyone has a person or picture from when they were a kid that remains crystal clear in their memory. Someone whose example lives on, in pieces through you. One that had such an impact, that the shockwave is still being felt today.