Locals up for National Geographic’s Adventurers of the Year

Tommy Caldwell and Scott Jurek reflect on their accomplishments and community

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Scott Jurek running in the San Juan Mountains. Grant Swamp Pass, CO.
Fred Marmsater

The old saying, “there must be something in the water,” seems oddly true considering five of the 2016 National Geographic Adventurers of the Year honorees happen to be Coloradans.

This is National Geographic’s 11th year of selecting this honorary group in which they search across the world for “individuals that personify the adventurous spirit in unique ways,” according to National Geographic’s Adventure editorial director Mary Anne Potts in a press release.

The American ski mountaineer trio, Chris Davenport, Christy Mahon and Ted Mahon, all from Aspen, Colorado, made the list by successfully climbing and skiing Colorado’s 100 highest peaks. Boulder’s own Scott Jurek made the honorary list by breaking the Appalachian Trail speed record in July. Tommy Caldwell, a Colorado native who calls Estes Park home, became the first to be selected for National Geographic’s honor two times in a row, last year for his Fitz Traverse accomplishment with Alex Honnold in Argentina, and this year, for completing his sevenyear Dawn Wall climbing project with Kevin Jorgeson.

It comes as no surprise to Scott Jurek that so many Adventurers of the Year come from Colorado. “The beauty of a place like Boulder or the Front Range in Colorado here, is that it encourages people to explore there own dreams and go after their own adventures,” he says.

Caldwell compares what Boulder means to climbing to what New York is to dancers. He admittedly notes that the Front Range doesn’t have the best actual rock climbing. Rather he attributes Boulder’s prevalence in the sport to its extensive indoor scene and motivated community.

Both Caldwell and Jurek say they are honored to be included in such a group as National Geographic’s Adventurers of the Year.

“I’ve always been inspired by Adventurers of the Year, even those that are not in my own sport,” Jurek says. “I feel like that outdoor mentality and that inspiration can go for all different levels. You don’t have to be some hard core athlete, you can just be that person who goes out to do what you want outdoors.”

Jurek ran, on average, 50 miles a day south to north on the Appalachian Trail, completing his record-breaking run in just over 46 days while battling a quad injury and logistical pace issues.

“My take away from this — the Appalachian Trail had been on my list, so never let those dreams stay idle for too long. Go after and chase them,” Jurek says.

Fellow ultrarunner, longtime rival and friend Karl Meltzer came out to support Jurek once he heard that Jurek had fallen behind record pace. Meltzer took over logistics and started making pace plans several days out.

“I remember a day when he had gone 42 miles and it was starting to get dark, and I had to tell him to go 16 more. And I know that’s hard to hear. That’s like five hours,” Meltzer says. “I told him, this is the shit that’s going to get you the record.”

According to Meltzer, who unsuccessfully attempted the record himself two previous times, Jurek ran a 2.27 mph pace toward the end of his journey, which is slow by Jurek’s standards. At that speed though, there can be more mental challenges because it doesn’t feel like your going anywhere.

“There were problems along the way, but he never gave up when he fell behind or had some really rough patches where he wasn’t feeling well,” says Bart Yasso, editor of Runner’s World. “That impresses me the most, when he stuck to it, and refused to give in.”

The exposure and position of this climb were part of what attracted Caldwell to it. “Surprisingly, I never saw the climb as dangerous,” Caldwell recalls of free-climbing—using ropes just to protect in the event of a fall—the 3,000-foot granite wall. “For me it was the perfect combination of adventure, but with the boundaries of safety that I am willing to accept as a father.”

Forty-Six days sounds like a pretty long time to be invested in an adventure journey, but rock climber Caldwell put in seven years of exploring and mapping out El Capitan’s Dawn Wall in Yosemite National Park. Declared “the hardest climb of all time” by Rock and Ice, Caldwell successfully summited after a 19-day push this last January. He fervently states that it was a group triumph, not an individual achievement.

“Our whole community was rallied around us. My parents came out, Chris Sharma, Alex (Honnold), one of my best friends, my wife came up on the wall for 10 straight days one time and belayed me,” Caldwell says. “All these people were both curious and inspired by the project, and wanted to come be apart of it. That was really the thing that kept me going for all those years. I felt like I owed it to them.”

Jorgeson partnered with Caldwell after he saw the movie Progression, which shows several segments of Caldwell working his Dawn Wall project, in 2008. After many years involved in the highball bouldering scene, Jorgeson was ready for a new challenge in a completely different discipline of climbing and, from the movie, it looked like Caldwell needed a partner.

The skin on Jorgeson fingers became the crux of the Dawn Wall climb for him, causing a four-day delay until he finally finished the difficult sequence to complete the 15th pitch.

“The hardest part is moving through that self doubt into a place of genuine confidence,” says Jorgeson. “Tommy helped by staying super light hearted, positive and optimistic. Without his attitude and support, there’s no way I could have finished pitch 15. After all, one of the biggest sources of pressure was my feeling of holding Tommy back.”

Runner Jurek also was surrounded by a community of supporters who contributed to his success. His wife, Jenny Jurek, provided vegan meals, as did 25 to 30 supporters who also ran the trail with him sometimes. Plus, he stayed connected to the public through Instagram, Twitter and even conveyed his position with a GPS tracker.

“They don’t look at him like he is crazy, but years ago they would have,” Yasso says, reflecting on how media coverage has changed the perspective of ultrarunning. “They absolutely respect what he does, but they may never do it. Since it was instantaneous, it really made it more interesting.”

Likewise, the Dawn Wall media coverage was an anomaly that broadened the public’s experience of adventure sports, according to Caldwell. It was the first time people could watch a climb as if they were tuning into a football game. Caldwell, being a bit of a purist, reflects about the constant connection while on the wall.

“I did drop my phone on accident, but it was a blessing in disguise absolutely,” Caldwell says. “You know I’ve always had this funny thing about it, all during the Dawn Wall trying to show everything, it felt a little weird for me. But on the other hand, the fact that we were able to keep contact from on the wall was what got so many people excited about our climb, our project.”

Although the media coverage got plenty of people interested in the climb, Caldwell feels like the media definitely got it wrong several times, especially in the States. He particularly dislikes how they dramatized the whole experience, and made himself and Jorgeson out as adrenaline junkies and thrill seekers.

“When we’re up there, it’s very calculated, and we manage the risks. But the truth of the matter is that there are risks, just like anything that you do,” Caldwell says. “I think there are more resources now than there ever were in the past for being able to go out to the rock educated.”

Like Caldwell, Jurek has become an ambassador of his sport. He lives by and supports his motto that anyone can run. He recommends the Sunshine Canyon above Boulder to those interested in starting to run because it’s quiet and gradual. He enjoys the Sunshine Canyon himself because of its accessibility to downtown, so that he can indulge in the diverse vegan foods of Boulder’s Farmer’s Market after his runs. You’ll even see him drop in on some shop runs, such as the one that the Flatiron Running Inc. puts on.

“One of the biggest things is holding you accountable, and making it a little more fun. Once you’re out there, I think there are just so many resources, running with others, meeting up, you can ask questions, get information about events, or training,” Jurek says about Boulder’s running groups. “Having that network I think is really key in making a fitness program something that you’re more consistent with.”

Caldwell on the other hand wants to step out of the spotlight for a bit, although, he is keeping an eye out for more adventure climbing projects to possibly take on in the future. He hopes to give his son, Fitz Caldwell, the tools to prepare him for an adventurous life, and to have him see the wealth of endless possibilities if he doesn’t walk through life in fear. He looks forward to spending time with his family outside, developing Fitz’s ski skills by taking advantage of Rocky Mountain National Park and Eldora Mountain Resort this season.

“I think the outdoor life is an incredibly healthy way to live, and Colorado has got more opportunity for that than anywhere,” Caldwell says. “The mountains just provide a lot of ways to go out and play. People should take advantage of that.”