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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.