Life During Lockdown: Steve House

When I met Steve at the Outdoor Retailer show in Salt Lake City

In a previous life, before I became a father, I spent a lot of time climbing: in Joshua Tree, in the Tetons, in Alaska and other places. I became obsessed with the sport and some of the great climbers around the world. In the 2000s, Steve House rose to the top of that list, for a few reasons. First, he helped pioneer a fast-moving, low-impact style of climbing on huge, hard routes. This allowed him to succeed on routes like the Rupal Face of Nanga Parbat (with Vince Anderson), the Slovak Direct on Denali (with Mark Twight and Scott Backes), the Southwest Face of K7 in Pakistan and the Emperor Face of Mount Robson (with Colin Haley) in Canada. Second, Steve was one of the first climbers to use contemporary endurance training techniques (like periodization) for alpinism. His book (written with his coach Scott Johnston) Training for the New Alpinism provided a road map for any climber looking to succeed at any level. I read it cover to cover as soon as it came out. If you’re not familiar with some of the big routes Steve has climbed, it’s hard to convey the scale, exposure and danger they present. When I climbed Denali (via the easiest route) in the late 90s, I remember standing near the summit and peering over the edge of the Slovak Direct route Steve would climb a few years later (in just 60 hours total). It was terrifying and looked completely impossible: 8,000' of near vertical rock and ice all the way down to the glacier at the bottom. Steve lives with his wife Eva and their two children in the mountains of Colorado. To learn more about his background, his guiding, his coaching and his biography, here’s his website, his twitter page and Instagram feed.

Give me some highlights and lowlights from your first month and a half in lockdown mode.

Professionally, I think the lowlight was the week of March 20th, believing that my coaching business, Uphill Athlete, was going to lose all of our athletes, The highlight was coming out of April with a couple more athletes than we had March 1st. We lost a lot of athletes in the first couple weeks of the crisis really hitting home here in the US, but most came back as soon as their financial pictures were clearer or they were able to re-establish new expedition and/or race goals.

Personally, it’s been a slog not to be able to get out as much as I’d like. Though living in a small mountain town in Colorado I’ve had continuous access to trail runs, so I can’t really complain.

Steve on a mixed climb
The giant Slovak Direct route on Denali

How have you grown personally and professionally during the crisis?

I’m not sure yet, so I only have educated guesses.

Personally we have our two boys at home, but only one is school-age, and kindergarten age at that. So in many ways having them home isn’t that big of an adjustment. That, and our small-town is well set up for this kind of thing, we still can take them outside and the wild asparagus still grows in the ditch by our house and the deer still come to graze on the alfalfa across the street, these two things account for a good amount of entertainment for our young boys.

As a family we made a big effort to tighten our belt back in March. Not because we were broke, but because we don’t know what the next three months to 5 years might bring. It was pretty scary there for a couple of weeks. Doing more with less is something I’m happily re-learning. Also it helps us as a family re-focus on experiences over possessions, so we’re planning more nearby-camping trips, even within 20 minutes of our home we have great kid-camping. There will be a lot less destination-road-tripping in our future. These are a few things that, as a family, we will continue even after we have a treatment and a vaccine for Covid-19.

Professionally I’ve re-asserted a leadership role as the face of Uphill Athlete. I’ve done this through weekly Zoom Hangouts where I’ve done a variety of things from slide shows of past expeditions to brain-dumps on how to climb Denali. Additionally my co-founder and former coach, Scott Johnston, and I rallied our coaches to help us put together and publish a bunch of free at-home/no-gear training plans for the sports we cover (rock climbing, mountaineering, mountain running, ski mountaineering/touring). Scott and I didn’t take any pay the last two months in order to fund all of this outreach and freebies, but we did pay our coaches at their normal rates. And what is interesting was that we’ve seen a massive uptick in traffic to our website due to those efforts. We had one day with 25,000 unique visitors, which is a huge record for us.

Uphill Athlete is a funnel business model, so although most of those people were interacting with our brand and our knowledge for the very first time in order to get something for themselves for free, our experience is that a lot of them will be back to buy a training plan or hire a coach. That, and our coaches are as, or more, employed than they were pre-Covid. In short, we have earned the loyalty of our coaches and the gratitude of our customers. As a small-business owner, that’s a great position to be in right now.

On the summit of Nanga Parbat in Pakistan after climbing the legendary Rupal Face

Has your relationship with climbing, the mountains and your community changed as a result of the pandemic?

Yes, but I don’t yet know how. I want to believe that life will never return to the ‘normal’ we had pre-Covid as it pertains to consumer culture. I hope that I, and my community, learns that we can live with less. Less travel. Less new stuff. Less spending.

My climbing has been put on hold, or at least regulated to time in my garage climbing-gym. The mountains are always higher risk, but lately, felt like they were much too high of a risk to be climbing up there. But honestly, at this stage in my climbing career, that doesn’t change much for me at this time.

My community feels tighter, at least with the ones I’ve been able to connect more with. I’ve been closer with my close friends, and not interacted at all with acquaintances. In a way, both of these are nice trends that I’d like to continue.

Can climbing and the outdoors create positive change during a crisis like this?

I think the outdoors and climbing can create positive change at any time. Recently I have seen a lot more people on the trails than normal. And in my observations, there is a wider demographic than normal getting outside now as restrictions are being loosened. I hope that those connections inspire them to take on a positive role in fighting climate change.

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