There was a storm coming and, without an open sky, it was a terribly dark night. The flicker of far off lightning would periodically light up more than 1,000 feet of granite cliff that fell straight below me. It had been four days since I started up the sheer walls of El Capitan. I found myself alone, hanging in slings, and struggling to set up my portaledge on the side of Yosemite’s biggest piece of granite. A clap of thunder echoed across the granite alcove to the West. Rain was imminent. It had taken me longer than expected to reach my bivy site, a hanging belay above the famous “nipple pitch” on the Zodiac route. After more than an hour in a frustrating wrestling match with my portaledge, I finally had a bombproof shelter and eased into it so not to lose equilibrium of its single pivot point. Laying back in my hanging cot, I could finally breath deep. As I decompressed I began to realize just how bad my poison ivy outbreak had gotten … my entire right leg was covered in hives. I was scared, exhausted, lonely, and itching like crazy.
Three days later I topped out after making my first solo ascent of El Cap. My friend Dain met me on top and helped me carry down my load. I was a wreck and covered in poison ivy, but it was one of the happiest moments of my life. I don’t think I really had that much fun up there, but what I learned while on my solo climb I keep with me everyday. Climbing as a metaphor for life has been played out time and time again, but it certainly seems to have prepared me for the challenges I have encountered on my way. It certainly has helped me through some tough decisions and climbing has become a key tool I draw upon.
While I was climbing El Cap solo, I would wake up with hands swollen like balloons, fingers colored metallic with grime from the rope and carabiners, legs blistering from the poison ivy, a head full of doubt, a terrified heart, a mind playing tricks, and simply a yearning to go down to have a beer and a shower. But I would make myself lead one more pitch before throwing in the towel. I would do that every morning while hanging from that wall and somehow, I got up that granite behemoth all on my own. I am no Alex Honnold or Cheyne Lempe, I actually kind of suck at climbing considering how much time and effort I have put into it. But that doesn’t really matter. Climbing showed me how to find determination, confidence, and even how to communicate better in stressful situations. Climbing has made it apparent that I can accomplish things by sticking with it and believing in myself.
For every pitch I climbed while solo on El Cap, I had to fix my rope, rappel down to retrieve my gear and then re-climb my line, effectively climbing each pitch twice. I was able to achieve something that I certainly did not believe I could. I was able to push my limits, find the strength and the confidence to continue onwards. When life pushes me around these days—which it does often—I look to my time alone on El Capitan, and I realize I have what it takes to make it through.
And the thing is … we all have what it takes, and climbing is a tool to help reveal that to us. And it certainly doesn’t stop with climbing. There is something special about outdoor adventure that pushes us to our limit and beyond. That shows us what we are made of. This transformative power of adventure is clear in its positive effects on me and those around me. It has become my passion to focus on this power of adventure and spread it as best I know how.
Last summer, I got a tip from a friend that I had to meet a brilliant guy who had similar interests to use adventure for good. This guy was 24-year-old Mike Sagan. We teamed up as business partners within BeyondGear, a start-up supporting the Centro de Escalada Urbana (CEU), a climbing outreach program for youth from Rio de Janeiro’s favelas (slums). Shortly there after, we found ourselves at lunch with Walter Isaacson, the writer who penned the Steve Jobs biography and President of the Aspen Institute. He knew about our work with BeyondGear and our mission to spread access to outdoor adventure. At that lunch he challenged us to explore the possibility to launch a “Teach for America of adventure.” One look at Mike and I knew he was on board. We both decided it was time we worked on a program in our own community here in Colorado, especially with this new found support.
I was 30 years old, fresh out of an MBA program, and piled with debt. I had a high-opportunity position at General Electric. My path was leading me toward a corporate job, but the energy of this meeting triggered an emotion in me that brought me right back to that ledge on El Cap. The truth is, all young people are at risk, and our generation in particular is at risk of losing its connection to the natural world. I know the power of adventure to heal, to teach, and to transform. The possibility to create a scalable program that brings adventure to those who need it most lit me up like lightning on El Cap’s walls. I decided to forsake my job, defer my debt, and take the chance. The Adventure Forward Service Corps was to become a reality.
Mike and I teamed up with Yoni Geffen, a Teach for America alumn and Denver climber to officially create Adventure Forward, a new service corps initiative of the Aspen Institute. Adventure Forward integrates academic and adventure education to promote opportunities for success among under-served youth. Today, children across the United States spend approximately seven hours each day using electronic media but only seven minutes outside. Furthermore, only eight percent of students from families in the bottom income quartile obtain a bachelors degree. These are stats that seriously depress me. At Adventure Forward, we take a new approach to confront these issues by utilizing national service to promote an active, healthy culture of outdoor adventure while simultaneously facilitating academic enrichment through mentorship and tutoring. This is our response to Walter’s challenge to create the “Teach for America of adventure.”
Adventure Forward aims to provide the tools I learned while on my solo climb of El Capitan to under-served youth. However, instead of taking them up multi-day big wall climbs, we will stick to top roping to start and other simple adventures like hiking and backpacking. The pilot program launches this summer in the Denver Public School system. We are accepting applications for summer corps members until March 31 so go to our website and apply to help under-served kids get outside, get paid, and do something good for your community!
Sources: National Recreation & Parks Association; KIPP Schools; US Census ACS