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

gmGeorge Mal­lo­ry is most famous for three immor­tal words he spoke to a New York Times reporter in 1923 — “Because it’s there” — which have echoed through­out west­ern cul­ture. They are invari­ably trot­ted out when­ev­er some­one tries to jus­ti­fy an unjus­ti­fi­able ambi­tion. Why trav­el to the moon? Why explore the depths of the ocean? Once you unrav­el the tele­o­log­i­cal thread of these ques­tions, you’re left with the sim­ple fact that Mal­lo­ry leaves us with.

But Mal­lo­ry was more than a wit — he was a moun­taineer of the first order, the rare climber whose elo­quent words matched the bold style of his climbs. He cut his chops on climbs in his native Eng­land and the Alps, but it wasn’t until 1921 that he found his rai­son d’e­tre, the moun­tain that would con­sume his ambi­tion — Ever­est. His first attempt was a fail­ure; his sec­ond, in 1921, was a tragedy: sev­en porters died in an avalanche.

Fail­ure only seemed to steel his resolve. He returned to Ever­est in 1924 for his fatal third attempt. He was last seen on the way to the sum­mit along with his part­ner Andrew Irvine. Mallory’s frozen body was found by climbers on the Mountain’s north ridge in 1999.

Mal­lo­ry lives on in the fol­low­ing bril­liant­ly elo­quent quotes.

“Because it’s there… Ever­est is the high­est moun­tain in the world, and no man has reached its sum­mit. Its exis­tence is a chal­lenge. The answer is instinc­tive, a part, I sup­pose, of man’s desire to con­quer the universe.”

Edward Abbey in Desert Soli­taire alludes to Mal­lo­ry as a “frost-bit­ten… inar­tic­u­late” moun­tain climber in ref­er­ence to this famous quote.

But what the quote lacks in poet­ry, it makes up for it with bald truth. No one has ever quite cut to the mat­ter of moun­taineer­ing — the sport’s sim­plic­i­ty, the almost exis­ten­tial absur­di­ty of it all.

“Have we van­quished an ene­my? None but ourselves.”

After a climb in the Alps, Mal­lo­ry wrote about his ascent in the Alpine Jour­nal, an account that con­tains this mem­o­rable quote. He had­n’t yet attempt­ed Ever­est, the moun­tain to which his lega­cy would for­ev­er be tied, but already viewed moun­taineer­ing in terms of a roman­tic strug­gle with the self.

“It has always been my pet plan to climb the moun­tain gas­less… The gas­less par­ty has the bet­ter adventure.”

Mal­lo­ry went with­out sup­ple­men­tary oxy­gen on his first two Ever­est attempts, despite its use by oth­er climbers in 1922. He wished to accom­plish the feat on his own terms, to pre­serve the sanc­ti­ty of the adven­ture. This antic­i­pat­ed the mod­ern climbers like Rein­hold Mess­ner who believe the only fair means ascent of a moun­tain is one where no sup­ple­men­tary oxy­gen is used.

Fail­ure, how­ev­er, encour­ages com­pro­mise. In his third and final Ever­est attempt in 1924, Mal­lo­ry fol­lowed the advice of oth­er climbers and lugged the bulky oxy­gen can­is­ters with him toward the sum­mit, suck­ing the gas out of the prim­i­tive mask. If he could­n’t do it with­out oxy­gen, he would do it by any means nec­es­sary. “The con­quest of the moun­tain is the great thing,” he said.

“My inten­tion is to car­ry as lit­tle as pos­si­ble, move fast and catch the sum­mit by surprise.”

This could be the cre­do of the mod­ern day alpine-style climber, whose goal is to trav­el light and fast and gain the sum­mit in one push. The siege tac­tics that Mal­lo­ry and oth­er climbers of his day used on Ever­est, how­ev­er, is a far cry from this ide­al. Dozens of peo­ple and thou­sands of pounds of sup­plies were used to ensure that two climbers would have a chance at reach­ing the summit.

“[Ever­est] was a prodi­gious white fang excres­cent from the jaw of the world… We were sat­is­fied that the high­est of moun­tains would not dis­ap­point us.”

Mal­lo­ry had a way with words. His Ever­est jour­nals are filled with mel­liflu­ous — yet hard edged — descrip­tions like this one. This is no sur­prise, con­sid­er­ing he stud­ied at Cam­bridge and was well acquaint­ed with the lit­er­ary clas­sics. Report­ed­ly, he would recite Keats to his fel­low climbers at camp on Everest.