Maybe you’ve heard of them, and maybe you haven’t. Either way, you’ve felt their impact. These six peo­ple have changed the face of out­door sports for­ev­er, each in their own way.

Galen Row­ell
Before Row­ell, pho­tog­ra­phy was slow, staid and clunky, with big cam­eras, set com­po­si­tions, giant tripods, and sta­t­ic land­scape images. After Row­ell, it was a par­tic­i­pa­to­ry dance with the ele­ments, expe­ri­enced as a par­tic­i­pant rather than an observ­er. With over 100 first ascents and sig­nif­i­cant expe­di­tions to his name, Row­ell was a climber first and a pho­tog­ra­ph­er lat­er. He used light new 35mm gear with inter­change­able lens­es (heavy by today’s stan­dards, by light for the 1960s) to cap­ture climb­ing and moun­taineer­ing like only a skilled climber ever could, doc­u­ment­ing ascents in Yosemite, the Himalayas, and Alas­ka with stun­ning imagery that immersed the view­ers in the expe­ri­ence. He passed away in a plane crash just as the dig­i­tal era was begin­ning, still very much at the top of his game. We can see his impact in the dynam­ic, par­tic­i­pa­to­ry vibe of today’s sports pho­tog­ra­phy and point of view cameras.

George Mal­lo­ry
The famed British moun­taineer dis­ap­peared high on Ever­est in 1924. He wasn’t found until 75 years lat­er, ignit­ing a mys­tery about whether he and Sandy Irvine had reached the sum­mit before they fell. But Mallory’s impact has noth­ing to do with whether he and Irvine, or Edmund Hillary and Ten­z­ing Nor­gay were the first to stand on the sum­mit: he made out­door adven­tures hero­ic. In a Britain shocked by World War I, Mal­lo­ry turned moun­taineer­ing from the sport of a few tweed-clad enthu­si­asts into a pub­lic sen­sa­tion, and launched an out­door hero mythol­o­gy that endures to this day. Telegrams from the 1924 expe­di­tion were fol­lowed much like today’s expe­di­tion blogs. His dis­ap­pear­ance caused nation­al mourn­ing in Britain and start­ed an obses­sion with Ever­est that’s both inspir­ing and dan­ger­ous, which con­tin­ues to this day. His apoc­ryphal “because it’s there” state­ment sums up the hold that moun­tains have on the human soul more than vol­umes ever can.

Jus­tine Cur­gen­ven
Before Cur­gen­ven pro­duced This Is The Sea in 2004, sea kayak­ing was about peace­ful pad­dles to enjoy nature.  Curgenven’s first-per­son action video of sea kayak­ers in tide races, surf, and the pad­dling lifestyle, shot a rock­et up the bum of the kayak­ing world, which hasn’t been the same since. It inspired a gen­er­a­tion of pad­dlers seek­ing white­wa­ter-lev­el thrills, and bring­ing white­wa­ter-lev­el ath­leti­cism, to ocean surf, rock gar­dens, and wilder­ness coasts. That in turn launched a range of new kayaks designed to surf and play in rock gar­dens, and sent a decade’s worth of adren­a­line cours­ing through the sport. Curv­gen­ven, through her pro­duc­tion com­pa­ny Cack­le TV (named for her mani­a­cal laugh) con­tin­ues to churn out videos and adventures.

Tom Ritchey
There’s lots of debate about who built the first moun­tain bike and when. But Tom Ritchey, along with Gary Fish­er and Char­lie Kel­ley, pro­duced the first mass-mar­ket moun­tain bike that cre­at­ed a new sport. Back in the days when Moab, Utah was still a ura­ni­um-min­ing town, the stur­dier frames, wider tires, and flat han­dle­bars were tak­ing form in Marin Coun­ty. Many com­pa­nies thought moun­tain bik­ing would be a fad that would quick­ly fade, and ignored the new designs and kept mak­ing light rac­ing and road bikes. How wrong they were. Even today’s urban com­mut­ing bikes, with upright geom­e­try and a wide range of gears, can trace their her­itage to Ritchey.

Yvon Chouinard
First, he was part of the gold­en age of Yosemite climb­ing, mak­ing the first ascent of El Capitan’s North Amer­i­can Wall in 1964 with Roy­al Rob­bins, Chuck Pratt, and Tom Frost. Half a cen­tu­ry lat­er, Chouinard is most famous for what he’s done with his feet on flat ground: mak­ing pitons and hex nuts and sell­ing them out of the back of his car, and con­vert­ing Scot­tish rug­by shirts into tech­ni­cal out­door cloth­ing. The results were two com­pa­nies: Chouinard Equip­ment (now Black Dia­mond) and Patag­o­nia. Patagonia’s envi­ron­men­tal­ism launched the cor­po­rate social respon­si­bil­i­ty move­ment, going beyond char­i­ta­ble con­tri­bu­tions to prod­uct life cycles, eth­i­cal sourc­ing, envi­ron­men­tal audits, and employ­ee involve­ment. Chouinard is now as well known in busi­ness board­rooms as he is in Camp 4.

Alan Watts

Watts, who grew up in Cen­tral Ore­gon, is respon­si­ble for far more than mak­ing Smith Rock Oregon’s climb­ing mec­ca. In 1983, he put up the route that has adorned the cov­ers of climb­ing guides and cal­en­dars, and even the front page of Newsweek, ever since: Chain Reac­tion, a stun­ning and pho­to­genic over­hang. He also put up Just Do It on the east face of Mon­key Face, 5.14c that was con­sid­ered the hard­est climb in the US for many years. Bolt­ing was con­tro­ver­sial at the time, and Watts put up bolt­ed routes that cre­at­ed a vast array of short, chal­leng­ing, and acces­si­ble climbs at Smith. Amer­i­can sport climb­ing was born. At that time, the icon­ic climbs were big-walls, drawn out affairs that last­ed days or weeks: the myths of the sport were War­ren Harding’s 45 days climb­ing El Capitan’s Nose and 27 days on the Wall of Ear­ly Morn­ing Light. Watts shift­ed rock climb­ing to some­thing that could be done in an after­noon, and put Bend on the map of out­door sports to this day. The next progression—climbing and boul­der­ing year-round in indoor rock gyms—would nev­er have occurred with­out Watts.

by Neil Schul­man