Climbing in Color

Friday, May 7th, 2021

By Eagle Climbing + Fitness member Cristian Ortega

Join us for our inaugural “Climbers of Color” event from 10am-1pm on May 8th!

Did you know that Colorado has approximately 5,700 climbing routes, or 3 of the 50 classic climbs of North America? I sure didn’t growing up. I never even knew about the sport of climbing.  Growing up in the mountains, I never realized how amazing we have it. People move here simply to be closer to all these sports. Many of us are raised here never experiencing them. Sure, there are other things keeping us from knowing about a sport like rock climbing, like simple exposure and resources. Climbing is not cheap and it is not easy, but it truly is amazing. 

The first time I ever heard about rock climbing was through a couple of my friends in school. One of my friends was an active climber and would always tell me about his latest climbs and the places he had traveled to climb, while another would always tell me about his dad who climbed frozen waterfalls! We got to hear even more of these incredible stories as our school brought in people to talk about climbing Mount Everest or ski mountaineering in the high peaks. How amazing is it that my 10-year-old self was amazed by these stories? I always had an interest in these sports but never knew how to try them or even get involved, so I never pursued it. I got to go on a few adventures when my school would organize them, but that was about it. Thankfully as I got older I got to participate in SOS Outreach where I learned how to snowboard and got to snowboard year after year. SOS then offered a backpacking opportunity, which I got to join with a bunch of my friends and became one of the greatest experiences I have ever had. I continued to find myself drawn to these things over the years, and during middle school experienced my first multi-day snowshoeing trip to the 10th Mountain Hut.


Throughout high school I unfortunately did not do as much of these sports. Most of my friends played soccer and baseball, so I did too. I was part of the TRIO/Upward Bound program where we had a program dedicated to help us get into college. In the beginning I had zero interest in even going to college. Graduating high school would have been enough for me. Neither of my parents went to high school so I figured even that would be enough. As I got closer to graduation, I realized I did want to leave. I wanted to see what life was like beyond the mountains. Thanks to TRIO, I felt confident in going to college, but still did not know what I wanted to study. I ended up going to CMC Leadville and I loved it. I changed my degree three different times there. Leaving high school, I thought I wanted to be an engineer because I was good at math and science. But once I arrived in Leadville, I heard about this degree field Outdoor Recreational Leadership and Outdoor Education. I had no idea what that involved but I had a TRIO teacher, Allen Burch, who lived and worked around CMC Leadville and encouraged me to take some classes. Thanks to this program I got to go backpacking all across Colorado and Utah, climbing in Wyoming and Colorado, ice climbing in East Vail and Ouray Ice park, even sea kayaking in the San Juan Islands out in Washington State. These classes were teaching me all about leadership and how to set up these trips. They were challenging but rewarding. Many of the other students were much older than me – I was 18 while everyone else was 23 or older. My favorite trip ended up being a backcountry ski class where we got to tour up to a hut named after Sangree M. Froelicher.  There we spent three days planning and touring every day. I had found my passion.  

I eventually also became a raft guide. Rafting is simple and fun. I worked for Blue Sky Adventures for about three years. I got to take all kinds of people rafting from beginners to some more experienced clients. What made this job fun was the fact that every time it was a completely new person from a different part of the country or even the world which helped me realize how big the world really is.

After graduating I did not know what to do with myself yet so I went to CMC Steamboat to get my EMT certification as well as a ski guide certification that they offered. I ended up meeting my future wife there and some lifelong friends. I ended up getting my EMT license but no official certification. For a second I wanted to be a nurse, maybe even an official EMT. But ultimately I knew what my passion was. So, after graduating with an EMT license and an Associates in General Studies, I had to decide where to go next to finish my Bachelor’s. I was set on going to Western State in Gunnison. However, my wife, girlfriend at the time, kept on mentioning a school in Alaska – the state all the way in the middle of nowhere, the one we always forget. I was not convinced because it was a big leap. It takes eight hours to fly there and over a week to drive there from Colorado. It takes 48 hours to drive to my hometown in Mexico. I had a year to decide.

Meanwhile I took a couple classes at CMC Edwards and CMC Spring Valley. There I ended up finishing my third Associates in Outdoor Education.  I also got to meet a great professor, Johan Aberger, who told me about his time in Alaska. After talking to him, I was finally set on Alaska Pacific University as my next destination. That summer felt long and I did not know what to expect, because I had never lived more than two hours from my family. Family means a lot in a Hispanic household, so this was hard.

But this soon turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life. At first it was hard to fit in, being the only Hispanic studying Outdoor Education. You never truly feel like you fit in. It took a while to find a group of people that would soon turn into my new Alaska Family. While looking for a job for the summer I stumbled across a position in the Outdoor Adventure Program at Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson, the Airforce base outside of Anchorage. I met  my future boss at an avalanche safety workshop there. Soon after I applied and beat out ten other applicants. I did not yet know what I was going to get myself into. Once the summer came around and we started guiding, I knew this would turn out to be the best job I have ever had. The crew was diverse and amazing: we had two female guides, two retired Army Veterans and two Hispanic guides. We got to guide everything from rock climbing, ice climbing on a glacier, mountain biking, ATVing, and more.  We mostly guided Airforce and Army soldiers and their families. We got to meet so many incredible people from across the US and the globe. 


During this time, I was still working on graduating from Alaska Pacific. As part of one of my classes, I had to research a topic involving snow science. Little did I know that this class would take me across the world to Austria. I had picked a topic on social media’s media influences on backcountry travelers. I interviewed fifty people on how prepared they were and how much they used their phone while in the backcountry. One of my professors, Eava Latosuo, encouraged me to submit my paper to the International Snow Science Workshop, an international conference held every two years where professionals and scientists meet up and talk about snow sciences. My paper was selected out of a thousand submitted across the globe, and I was one of 140 that got to present. The conference was held in Austria, and I wanted to go but had no idea how to get there. Through scholarships and GoFundMe Ifound my opportunity. I felt out of place as soon as I got there, because I was the only Mexican at this conference as far as I knew until I met one other Hispanic from Puerto Rico. My time there was well-spent, and my only wish was that I had even more time to explore.

These experiences have taken me to so many places across different parts of the world. I once had the goal of becoming an international guide and traveling the world in this way, but I realized that the people I wanted to teach to climb, ski, or bike were not the wealthy and rich. I wanted to teach other kids like me, who came from beautiful locations like Colorado but never had the opportunity to try these activities.

imageI want to work with the Eagle Climbing + Fitness and the local community to introduce our population of kids, and even adults, to climbing. For me, climbing has given me an opportunity to travel and experience places I would have never known about. Climbing is one of the fastest growing sports in the world now, and is even becoming a part of the Olympics this year. It’s the perfect time to raise more awareness about the sport. I hope to be the seed that can help get more kids and adults of color interested in such an amazing sport.