Of Breath and Bears Ears: A Fight for Public Lands

A number of years ago, I received an email with nothing else than a link to a video. It was a TED Talk given by professional climber Tommy Caldwell recounting his story.

It was the first time I had heard it and I hung on every word, fascinated by each and every one.

While on a climbing trip in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan, Tommy, his then-girlfriend and the remainder of their climbing party were caught at a point of war and taken hostage by militants. It was Tommy who, in the middle of the night, pushed their captor off the cliff so the team could escape to freedom.

What stuck with me most, however, was his grit. As a young and passionate Yosemite climber, Tommy lost the majority of his pointer finger in a tablesaw accident. Instead of letting it hinder his climbing career, he went on to establish one of the hardest and longest routes in history. It took him seven years to do so.

After watching the video, I remember feeling a spark within me. There was no doubt as to what that spark had ignited: I was inspired.

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‘Inspiration’ is a word whose meaning has undergone, century after century, significant evolution.

While it is now considered the someone or something that affects an influence, what interested me was its ancient usage: ‘to inspire’ was, quite literally, ‘to draw air into the lungs.’

To inspire therefore meant to breathe. To breathe means to live. I wondered, then, if somehow these concepts were interrelated?

Reflecting on the question, I began to research how, as humans, we become inspired. What seemed like a simple question turned into a lengthy day of pouring over paper after paper in search of that one perfect answer.

No ground-breaking revelations were made and no perfect answers were found, but it did allow me to reflect on the things I find inspiring.

As a trail runner, those close to me often wonder about my impulsive race registration habits, each one seemingly bigger than that which preceded it. I can explain: Once I discover a new course, a new beautiful place to explore, I am then overtaken by the prospect of being on it. I am inspired to run.

As a climber, the feeling is much the same. However, as with running, it’s not just the route or course. It is also the beauty of a vast and open landscape; the essence of a unique environment; the comfort of such a supportive community.

The spaces that provide such an experience, however, are few and very far between.

Lo and behold, when skimming list after list of inspirational sources, there was one item that recurred in nearly all of them: the outdoors. Whether that be a walk around the block or a walk into the wilderness, on some level, many of us find inspiration in outside spaces.

I’m not the only one.

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I will always remember the day Bears Ears introduced itself to me, the part of which is best known to us as Indian Creek. When the canyon opened up and my eyes fell on that first towering buttress, there was a moment spent in genuine disbelief. How could a place harbour such raw natural beauty?

After reorganizing my trip to spend more time there, its impact only grew. Although the climbs were gut-wrenchingly difficult, I had an insatiable yearn to conquer them. 

I left knowing I had to go back. And I did.

There hasn’t been one day in two years that I haven’t thought about that magical pocket of Utah. Indian Creek has become such an important part of who I am and the climber I have become.

And so despite living north of the border, my inbox and social media feeds are filled with updates on the fight for this National Monument. With each one, my heart sinks a little deeper; the knot in my stomach cinches a little tighter.

Despite the letters that have been sent, the phone calls that have been made, the voices that have spoken out in defense of our beautiful spaces… we are, somehow, still losing.

The story might be old, but to me these feelings are new.

The preemptive feeling of grief and loss… what is to become of a place that is so well loved?  The surging feeling of anger… why aren’t we being heard? How can such ignorance and carelessness prevail? The wrenching feeling of hopelessness… What will it take to make them see?

And finally, the desperate feeling of denial… I don’t want to envision a world where Indian Creek is no longer what it is today.

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As a Canadian, I know this is a stark awakening to issues closer to home that also need our attention. But that’s how it all starts, isn’t it? Discovering that one thing you care deeply about, and letting that spark spread the fire of awareness and advocacy.

A price tag is being placed on a piece of land whose gifts cannot be quantified: The confidence it has instilled; the passion it has drawn; the inspiration it has sparked.

If the administration won’t listen, I hope our land will: I care.

And I know I’m not the only one.

A little piece of me was left in Indian Creek the first time I visited, and a little more was left with the second. A little piece of breath; a little piece of life…

In times such as these, I am grateful for the one thing they cannot take away: The inspiration that land has instilled will remain with me for a lifetime.

Indian Creek, Bears Ears, Public Lands, Friendship
Photo courtesy of Max Robertson Photography

Want to stay informed? Follow Outdoor Industry Association for the latest updates on Bear’s Ears National Monument.

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