UMaine alum David Anderson, former Maine Bound student and instructor who has carved a name for himself in mountain climbing and outdoor photography in the last 30 years, has traveled, climbed, filmed and led mountaineering expeditions around the world. His photos have appeared in Climbing Magazine, Rock and Ice Magazine, The American Alpine Journal, National Geographic, and the Patagonia catalog. Also an author and videographer, he has received numerous climbing grants, which have enabled him to explore and make first ascents in 13 countries on four continents. From speed ascents of Yosemite Valley’s El Capitan and the Wyoming’s Wind River Range to winter ascents of Himalayan peaks and Alaskan mountain ranges, his adventures have resulted in as many forced bivouacs, stuck ropes, numb fingers and humorous situations as the mountains he has climbed. Anderson is a senior instructor of rock-climbing and mountaineering courses at the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) in Wyoming and associate director of LittlePo Adventures, an environmental education group offering trekking and climbing experiences in China and Taiwan.
Hometown, then and now?
I was born and raised in Simsbury, Conn. I now live in Seattle.
Why did you decide to attend the University of Maine?
There are several reasons why I choose to pursue a wildlife management degree at UMaine. In grade school, I developed a keen interest in the outdoors, especially in birds. In junior high, I decided I wanted to be a wildlife biologist and UMaine has a great program. Growing up, I spent almost every summer camping alongside East Pond, one of the Belgrade Lakes. In addition, my mom grew up in Waterville and also attended the University of Maine, so that was also a big influence.
How did your UMaine experience shape who you are now?
My time at UMaine — all seven years of my undergrad — was by far the most influential time of my life. Like many kids who graduate from high school and go to college, I was still trying to figure out who I was. At UMaine, I learned a lot in the classroom, but the general college experience of making friends, trying new experiences, working hard and having success, and dealing with failure, are all life skills I gained during my time at UMaine.
How does UMaine continue to influence your life?
One of the ways I judge how important a place or experience is to me is through the connections I make with other people. I do not stay in touch with any of my high school friends, but the people I met at UMaine, especially the people I interacted with through Maine Bound, are still some of my closest friends.
What is the most important thing about what you do now?
As an outdoor educator and guide, I have the opportunity to share with young people my knowledge about the natural world and technical outdoors skills, such as backpacking, rock climbing and mountaineering. Most of my students and clients start the course with the goals of mastering specific outdoor skills, but what they also come away with are life skills such as dealing with adversity, communicating, getting along with other people and being a leader in a peer group. These are all very important skills that they can apply to their everyday lives.
What is the most rewarding part about what you do?
As a photographer and writer, I not only capture images and write observations during my assignments, but I also attempt to learn about the people and cultures I visit. In addition, I try to clarify some of the common misconceptions other people have about the U.S. and our culture. Sometimes the most rewarding and exciting times in life are unexpected. In 2000, I was granted a permit for an expedition to a previously closed mountainous region of Pakistan near the Indian border. I became good friends with the general in charge of the region and the Pakistani special forces troops stationed nearby. My friends and I ended up teaching the special forces troops some technical climbing systems and although we had no real desire, the special forces troops showed us how to properly handle and shoot AK47’s. However, the most important information exchange occurred in simple discussions about family values both cultures share. I have also maintained contact with the general, who is one of my most prolific Facebook friends.
What are some of the challenges with what you are trying to accomplish?
I have little tolerance for close-minded people who are not invested in the future of this planet. I feel our world is so interconnected today that we cannot afford to isolate ourselves by ignorance, prejudice or shortsighted environmental policies.
What is your next project?
In late August 2011, I will travel to China to attempt to ascend two unclimbed peaks in Himalayas. The area is located in a remote valley next to Tibet and is home to a Lenggu Buddhist monastery, one of the few monasteries not destroyed during China’s Cultural Revolution. However, the 300 monks who lived there were taken away and imprisoned and, as a result, the local community disappeared as well. Recently, the people and monks of the Genyen region have been trying to rebuild their community and culture. We plan on make a documentary, not only about our climb, but the struggles of the people living in the area.
Your most memorable UMaine moment?
As the result of being a poor student academically early in my college career, I ended up having to take several classes over. After five years, I still had two more classes to complete before I could graduate. However, I was burnt out on school and wanted a break. I then got the bright idea of faking my graduation. I went to the bookstore and bought a cap and gown and marched onto the football field with the real graduates of the College of Forestry. Steven King was the commencement speaker (2005). That summer, I ended up getting an entry-level job with the Geology Department. After few months, I was offered a professional position at UMaine. One of the perks of the position was free tuition for a few credits each semester, and over the next two years, I eventually completed my degree, but I never did tell my parents.
Favorite place on campus?
Fogler Library. That’s probably not the answer you would expect from a student who at one time was on both disciplinary and academic probation while attending UMaine. Since the Internet did not exist, to learn about the world outside of campus, when it was 20 degrees below zero outside, I would spend hours in the stacks with old issues of National Geographic and other periodicals dreaming of future adventures in far of locales.
While in Orono, I spent too much time … at the Bear’s Den (when it first started selling beer). In the fall of 1984, hurricane Gloria wrought havoc up the Eastern Seaboard, all the way to UMaine. Classes were cancelled and radio and TV broadcasts advised people to stay inside. In the evening at the height of the storm, my friends and I wandered around campus in the 50-mph gale and torrential downpour. The strong winds knocked down electrical lines, but surprisingly one of the few places on campus that had power was the near-empty Bear’s Den. We called all of our friends and we enjoyed a private party in the midst of the hurricane.
Favorite professor or mentor?
There are two people at UMaine who strongly influenced who I am today. In terms academics, Pat Brown, one of my wildlife biology professors, was a key figure in shaping my ideas about the environment. During a field course near Cobscook Bay, he talked about his role as a teacher. As a graduate student in the Midwest, Pat had a professor who studied directly under Aldo Leopold. Leopold and his books about the environment brought the concepts of ecosystems out of the laboratory and into the minds of the general public. One day Pat told me his goal as a teacher was to pass on Leopold’s ideas about conservation and environmental stewardship to the next generation of students. I remember a warm feeling in my hands as the torch of responsibility was passed to me. However, as a reckless mediocre student, I was not sure if I was worthy of keeping Leopold’s ideas alive. Twenty-five years later, I still lead expeditions for the National Outdoor Leadership School in the Gila Wilderness Area of western New Mexico, where Leopold’s book, the Sand County Almanac is based, and I continue to pass on his message to another generation.
However, it was Jon Tierney, whose teaching and mentoring had the biggest impact on me. Jon was one of the founders of the Maine Bound program at the University of Maine. It was through him that I learned about traveling in the backcountry, wilderness medicine, rock climbing, ice climbing and mountaineering. When I began work for NOLS, the skills I learned at Maine Bound enabled me to move quickly to the level of senior instructor. From Jon I learned the importance taking advantage of opportunities, because we only get a short amount of time on this planet and at the end of your life, you do not want to look back in regret at the things you wish you had done.
Class that nearly did you in?
Calculus at 8 a.m., but luckily there were a few students who were less “gifted” in mathematics than I was, and I survived on the curve.
Best UMaine tradition?
Bumstock. Inevitably, it would rain before or during the outdoor music festival held at the end of the spring semester. As a result, people would end up covered in mud, much like the original Woodstock. While somewhat uncomfortable at first, the wetness and mud seemed to connect people and make the event more real and raucous.
If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t have … wasted so much time trying to fit in with the “cool” crowd, who turned out to be very “un-cool” in the end.
Advice to UMaine students today?
UMaine, and college in general, is a great place for you to be the person you want to be. Growing up, you are often placed into certain boxes by your parents, peers or teachers, and these stereotypes follow you from elementary school through high school. College is the time to break free of the old and discover for yourself what truly interests you. UMaine is a large enough school that allows you to have some elbow room, to hang out with people from different backgrounds, learn new academic subjects and take advantage of the amazing outdoor opportunities nearby.
Image Description: David Anderson