Part I: The Warm Up
authoring A year in the sierras
Tell us a little bit about yourself: Where are you from? How do you feel your upbringing has shaped you into the person you are today?
I was born and raised in LA, with my older sister (2 year gap) and my older brother (6 year gap). We were all pretty intelligent, super sporty, and competitive so that laid the groundwork for who I am. By the time high school came around, I was running track and cross country and getting good enough at it to consider it for college. During this time I was at Loyola High School in LA and was fostering a bunch of great friendships with some amazing individuals, both classmates and faculty. I really learned a lot during this whole section of my life, as I started to think of my personal progression as a human and started to focus really what I think of as self-improvement, self-betterment, however you wanna look at; I wanted to constantly improve in whatever I was stoked on at the time. Leaving high school that was photography and running.
I ended up running for UCLA for my first 2 years in college and that didn’t end so great. For a bunch of reasons I wasn’t happy, but above all I really lost confidence in competition, and I got dropped from the team because I was racing so poorly. Looking back, that was the best thing for me because I wasn’t happy or fulfilled by running anymore and when you’re spending over 5 hours a day on something and it’s not adding positively to your life anymore it’s time to drop it.
The aftermath of that happening is really what got me mountaineering and that’s really what my book: A Year in the Sierras is about, finding a family who just support the hell out of you and that just happens to be through this medium of being outside doing, as a buddy of mine would classify it, “mountain shit.” At the same time as all this mountain stuff was going on, I started to progress artistically into 3D and all that jazz and I got a lot of key opportunities that allowed me to get where I am now: studying game design, specifically the more technically minded 3D art side. And it just happens to be in Salt Lake City, Utah which means more mountains, more climbing, and more beauty for me.
What gets you stoked in life?
A bunch of things is the shortest answer. If I was to boil it down, I think creating gets me stoked, beauty gets me stoked, challenge gets me stoked, and improvement gets me stoked. Yeah I think if anything can fit into one or more of those categories, it can get me pretty stoked, maybe improvement needs to be paired with something I’m already interested in, but hey I’m way overthinking this part anyway.
Can you trace your passion for the outdoors back to one particular moment or trip? If not, how did your passion come to be?
I guess the first time I caught the bug bad was my first backpacking trip ever, which was an attempt to summit Middle Palisades in the Eastern Sierras. Now if you’ve been there, you know that is a terrible first mountain to try and summit, and that’s why it’s an attempt and not a success. But yeah I’m pretty sure the moment I laid my eye on Finger Lake, where we camped that night, I was hooked; if not probably around 11am a little after I started making my way back down the tallus slope I definitely got hooked. I had spent so long logging massive mileage while running that there was something so gratifying about slowing down and making the traversal of it all more involved. I was definitely hooked after that.
Describe your ideal day in the wilderness. Who are you with and where?
My most ideal day in recent memory was probably the last time I was in the Sierras. I was with my friends Dan, Carter, and Ben, and we weren’t able to attempt the summit we were going for because there was an avalanche in the shoot, so instead we slept in and then just messed around this glacier rim for a few hours before heading back down to the cars. It was carefree, the weather was great, the snow was pretty decent, we had some great glissades, and overall super solid day outside. Only thing that could’ve improved it would be if somehow a part of it would’ve been a solid bit of scrambling.
Part II: Summiting a Passion
Holds, Lines, and chutes
How did you get exposed to photography and videography? Any particular role models that influenced you along the way?
So I started photography when I was in highschool, I took digital photo my Sophomore year and I was hooked. Without a doubt one of my role models both in life in photography was my teacher from that class: Father John Quinn, SJ. He is an amazing human, so much so that I could not do this man justice. He studied photography at Brooks Art Institute in SF back in the day, he’s a Jesuit priest, he’s a retired Army Chaplain who served 2 or 3 tours in Iraq, and above all he’s exceedingly kind. Father Quinn taught me some great life lessons, as well as getting me started along my life’s journey. Photography got me into my major in undergrad and that exposed me to coding and 3d modeling and has pretty much been the catalyst to much of my life, so without Father Quinn instilling this love of photography in me from the get go, I sincerely don’t know where I’d be currently. So yeah here’s to you FJQ.
What inspired you to write a book about your experiences mountaineering in the Sierras? How did your idea turn from intangible to tangible creativity?
It actually started with a class. I was taking a bookmaking class, but we got to learn real binding techniques, as well with just producing books so it was sick. It happened to be right after I went on that first Middle Palisades trip, so obviously my knee jerk reaction was I have all these great pictures, photo books are easy, lets do that. We had 3 projects to do and the final one ended up becoming the first section of A Year in the Sierras.
From then on after I went on a trip I would do a trip report and organize it in that format and had an inkling of doing something with them eventually, but not really knowing when I’d really do it. A little over a year later, it’s time for my senior project and I was really burnt out from a 3D project I had made the quarter before, so creating and compiling the book was the perfect solution to me.
As far as why I was inspired by these events in the first place, I think it really comes down to the relationships I was forming and how it was really a surreal change in the direction of my life. The friendships I was making through climbing, mountaineering, and backpacking were my safety net that I didn’t even know I’d need, but without them I don’t know how my mental would’ve handled the extreme change of losing running and not being on the team anymore.
How do you feel difficult treks change the way you see the landscape around you?
I think the way I look at rock has certainly changed drastically. Climbing really does that to you, like the way you naturally see holds, lines, chutes, features, etc. I really didn’t have any conception of that before I started climbing and mountaineering and really experiencing it first hand. That knowledge really feeds into your photography as well. You view rockfaces differently, there’s really a shape language to each area and the way the rock forms there. That’s really interesting to me, especially as an artist, the start contrast that you can observe on different micro and macro sections of any area is just super interesting to consider. Take something like Mount Whitney during the winter, the thing is caked in snow and there are these natural curves and bowls that form throughout the terrain that is contrasted so starkly by the ridge Mount Russell in the background. I’ve been really interested in comparing the Sierras with the Wasatch, the range just east of Salt Lake City, and I’m really appreciating just how open the Sierras are, like hiking in the Wasatch feels narrow to me sometimes which it has no right to, but relatively it feels sort of narrow and cramped to me.
How difficult is it as a competitive person and former track athlete to turn around on a trek? What do you have to tell yourself to understand when the tipping point for courage and safety is crossed?
I’ve never really had a problem with turning around on a trek. I kind of don’t like that side of mountaineering culture. For me my first priority is always safety and the sort of toxic bitterness accompanied with having to turn around on an attempt has bummed me out, sure, but I’ve never seen a trek as a competition. Being out there among nature is a privilege above all, and I see it as you’re constantly betting your skills against what you’re facing plus whatever freak bad luck you encounter, so getting the chance to turn around and having the luxury to make that decision isn’t a defeat in my mind. Having said that, I have been in situations when I’ve had to understand okay no there is no turning around at this point like you’re finishing because turning around is more dangerous regardless of the fear I had been experiencing in that moment, and in those moments you just put your head down let everything go and grind until you get the chance to process the fear when you’re safe.
How does having a mentor on the trail play out? Do you feel there are times when you teach them just as they teach you? How do you balance a friendship with a reliance in this role?
So my mentor, Ben, happens to be one of my best friends and there’s always been balance in our relationship, which I think really helps. Because we’re friends outside of our shared outdoor pursuits there's a good amount of communication of both of our comfort levels and we’re pretty open with each other about our feelings while on the trail. Whether that be regarding the level of difficulty and safety of what we’re doing or how we’re feeling emotionally and physically, we’re extremely open about that and there’s no posturing or macho bullshit that happens, and that openness is essential I think. I think a willingness to take a break and withdraw from each other is super important to keep friendships that are tied to a mentorship like this healthy. Spending too much time in that mentor/mentee space when you’re also just friends can get kind of toxic and being able to just step back, take a trip off, and refuel for a bit is super helpful and can keep your friendship healthy.
You mention in the San Jacinto trip that it was the first time you hated being on the trail a bit. What does that feel like and what thoughts does that provoke in your mind? Feeling that way, what keeps you going?
So when I start hating a trip, I just kind of treat it the way I used to a bad workout and that’s head down and go focus. Just moving and doing the necessities, usually silently and with a decent amount of anger stewing. I’m a pretty reserved person with my emotions at times, so the way I cope is usually to withdraw into myself and that holds true during trips. So without a good support system on the trail what keeps me going is necessity and stubbornness. What was good about the San Jacinto trip is I had a good support system. I was hating part of that trip, but thankfully I wasn’t hating it alone and instead of withdrawing into myself, I got to sing and yell and blow off steam until I got back to the car, while balancing dehydration and just overall tiredness.
How does looking back on trips change as time goes on? Do you feel the same way about them now as you did when you wrote the book?
I think I look more fondly back on the shit trips to be honest. Which is pretty disgusting because some of those really were the bane of my existence for a bit, specifically summiting CloudRipper. The book was a pretty great tool to reflect on everything so not too much has changed because I’ve already had to unpack and think on the trips so many times, while I wrote and rewrote parts. But yeah, a general nostalgia definitely engulfs some of those trips, which I think is a good thing, why hold on to the bad parts ya know?
How do you feel your journey in discovering your place in the world has been aided by your journey mountaineering?
For me mountaineering is a balance. As 99% of the work I do is sitting behind a computer, going outside helps me to really stay sane. Day to day bouldering in the gym keeps me going pretty nicely, but every couple of weeks I need to get outside or I go a little mad. Having these multifaceted interests is really allowed me to be comfortable with the type of person I am. The communities I’m involved in can be pretty different at times and being comfortable with expressing every part of me by constantly trying to find intersections between my interests has been a pretty fruitful exercise.
Part III: Finale Fire Round
MORE FROM John
Ocean or mountains?
Hunter or gatherer?
First time reaction to snow?
Wait but it’s like still warm out how is this here
What is one quirk you have that you feel compliments your passion?
Favorite song to sing to get you through tough mountain times?
I work nights and you work days - To Kill a King
Where do you feel a deep desire to summit in your future travels?
Is writing a book like A Year in the Sierras something you plan to continue to do as you gather more experience and ascents?
I think photography will always be a part of my life, but I’m not sure if writing trip reports will continue to be.
Where is Your Goodland? Why?
Anywhere that’s high and lonesome where I can a good vista and a crisp breeze
Any final thoughts or things about yourself you’d like to share with The Goodland?!
Super stoked on what you guys are doing and seeing how far you guys can take this!