Portland Alpine Festival | Nov. 13–18, 2017
See the Portland Alpine Festival's full lineup of 8 athletes here!
by Karoline Gottschild
You began climbing in your early teens, and started adding incredible and death-defying exploits soon thereafter. Do we have to go back to diapers and toddlerhood to find you holding on to someone’s hand for safety, nervous or otherwise feeling incapacitated in some ‘non-badass’ ways?
I was very athletic right from childhood into adulthood. I recall one time, when we were about 11, my brother and I saw a zip line on a TV show. We promptly found some rope and made our own line. This didn’t go so well…but it was the start to new adventures. In high school, I played soccer, a runner, track and field, football, and power-lifting.
Could you tell us a bit about your early, formative years? Did you spend your entire youth in Texas? Did your parents or other family members positively influence your athletic direction in any way?
Growing up in Texas, I had to learn to be diverse. My brother and I grew up with divorced parents that moved around a lot. We were extremely poor, and we had to make do with what we had. I would see my mom work hard to give us what she could, and she always told me ‘you can do anything if you just put the work into it’. This stuck with me. Both my parents were once athletes, but growing up, I lived mostly with other family members, in a small town.
My family influenced me; but the neighborhood kids affected me the most. We grew up like in the movie The Sandlot. We always were doing something, but our biggest activities were seasonal sports. We played football, soccer, explored in the creeks, and basketball—every day after school and all summer long.
Once I started high school sports, my coaches became my mentors. They gave me direction and support. During these years, my parents could not afford to house me, so I ended living with my uncle.
He gave me the security that I had a real home to come home to. He also encouraged me in all of my athletic endeavors. Some mornings, he would get up at 5 a.m. and take me to school for the power-lifting workout that I did before my track workout. I also did my first climbing road trip with my uncle. But to be honest, it was the support I got from the kids I grew up with that truly helped define me as an athlete. Friends can have a monumental effect on a young person’s life. I am trying to give that back with the Youth Climbing Team program I have.
I know you mentioned before that one of your most memorable climbs was in 1997 climbing on El Capitan. Your late friend and mentor fell 70 feet below you, zippering all equipment on the way down. Yet once the dust and rock bits settled—and even—thanks to El Nino—the ice—you both forged ahead and made summit. If that isn’t badass, I don’t know what is, yet to others it might seem foolhardy. What elements in your upbringing and gave you the quality of mind and spirit to prepare you for such focus, determination and character?
I wrote this quote, “one must learn to live with fear and not in fear,” and I took that to heart. Years later, after that defining trip on El Capitan, I wrote it down. I still live by it ... and suffering ... this is what makes us sometimes.
Perhaps, at this point, we need to define the term badass. After all, one person’s badass could be another person’s “day at the office.” How would you define it?
To me ‘badass’ is a term given to someone who is in control of his or her own adventure. Anyone can be a badass as long as they accept to live with fear and not in fear. Learn to live as if you are going to die tomorrow, and dream as if you are going to live forever. This is my motto in life.
Clearly, given that I have been asked to interview you, the Mazamas considers you a badass. Do you view yourself the same way?
I do not consider myself a badass. I just enjoy doing what I do. I do what I do for myself, as it gives me life and meaning. I am a visionary—like the character in the movie Walter Mitty. This helps me see what is possible; then it is up to me to make it happen.
Who are the main people in your life you look up to, or who have played a significant role in making you the man and climber you are today?
As I mentioned, my mom, my uncle, the neighborhood kids, and the coaches played an important role in my young life. Later, this would be Brian Clark and my late friend Jimmy Ray Forrester. Being tied together into the same ropes for years, you build a lasting bond and a trust that you know that person has your life in their hands. This allows you to climb at your best. Jimmy was a purist that would never give up. Our epic big wall trip on The Shield was a moment in my climbing life that defined me. That is what climbing is about for me, the adventure of the unknown.
What is it about climbing that gives you that “rush” or that feeling of connection to life that your other sports such as soccer did not?
The adventure I go on that tests me both physically and mentally. I love the fact that it is up to me to get the rope up to the anchor, and sometimes to get us back safe.
What different direction do you think your life would have taken if you had not discovered climbing at 13? You also had a soccer scholarship at one point, but then the school dropped its program. Was this event pivotal in starting your climbing career?
I would have tried to be a professional athlete. I was big runner and a multi-sport athlete. Recently I found a quote in my high school yearbook: “My dream is to be an Olympic athlete and to have a gym of my own.” Funny, here I am—I’m a climbing gym owner, and I coach the USA Youth Ice Climbing team as an Olympic Development Team.
What do you think were some of the major life changing events that you are grateful for, but that also were the toughest?
One life changing event occurred during that epic climb Jimmy and I had on The Shield. After we had cleared the ice from our ropes, sipped the water off the lichen covered wall, and popped a few of our last M&M peanuts, we looked at each other and made a promise that if anything were to happen to one of us, that we would each bring the other home. Well, after we topped out, I fractured my foot, which dropped me face first in a pool of water that nearly drowned me. I was too weak to push myself up. Jimmy rushed over and pulled me out of the water. He then kept a watchful eye on me during our entire decent.
When I heard of his death that occurred during an annual trip to El Portero Chico, Mexico, (a trip that he and I did together for years establishing routes ground-up, until I became a father), I happened to be in Fort Worth visiting family. Jimmy was from Fort Worth too. That’s when I got the call. I had to do the hardest thing in my life. I drove to his mom’s house, who had not seen me in a long time. I was like her other child. When she opened the door, she knew instantly. Still to this day, I find myself in tears telling this story. (And this November will be the 11th year anniversary.)
After I told his mom, I immediately got on a flight with just the clothes on my back and a camera. I had to fly down to ID him and claim the body, and escort his body back home. I kept my promise we made years ago. I also had to climb the route that he died on, to retrieve parts of him and his belongings. I buried what the Mexican rescue team left behind under the Virgin Mary that stands over the approach to the route.
You have indicated in other interviews that climbing allows you to focus and to find your spiritual balance to take on life’s other daily challenges. What do you consider are your most trying ‘daily challenges’?
“Adulting.” I am going through a divorce. I have daughter who lives in Atlanta, Georgia now. Trying to be a long-distance parent over the phone is hard. I am also in the process of rebuilding my gym after we were forced to move out of the building we were in for years. Dealing with politics and not having real answers for the members of the gym who are waiting patiently.
I have seen your videos climbing desert towers, ice climbing and setting unprecedented new routes. Has having a family changed your priorities and risk-assessment?
We just had a good friend suffer a serious climbing accident. My daughter and my soon to be ex-wife were upset. Because my daughter is now old enough to understand what could happen, I talked to her about it. I want her to understand that these things happen, but that I am always thinking about her. I also have a check system that keeps me safe.
Some climbers eat, sleep and ... well eat and sleep climbing! They live out of their cars, or from their sponsor’s, family’s or significant others’ largesse. I’m sure a lot of people think of them as the real badasses. What is your opinion?
To me what defines you as the real badass, is what you do with your life. It’s not what you have, or what you sleep in, but it’s the adventure you dream and live.
Is perhaps the ultimate badass someone like you—a person who has defied death on many occasions, someone who has managed by skill and luck (probably by a serendipitous combination of both) to reach incredible new summits, to develop popular new routes, create a family, and a successful climbing-related business? Well, unless you object—I think that will be my definition of a bad ass: Marcus Garcia.
Thank you for your words. I wish my marriage would have been successful, but life has a way of teaching and showing us that we have and will always be learning and growing. This is what makes us successful. To be able to persevere in life.
Is there something else you would like me to ask you or that you’d just like to share to give a more complete picture of who you are or strive to be?
To me being a mentor is the most rewarding part of my life. I love teaching and sharing my skills and dreams with others. It is up to the more skilled climbers like myself, and the gym owners, to help educate others, and to share what climbing is about—the life adventures that climbing takes us on. Climbing to me is a lifelong sport. In a way, it is a way of life for me. It helps me to understand life and deal with the challenges it presents.