Climbing Activist Mark Hesse Dies at Boulder Rock Club

Mark Hesse at Shelf Road, CO, where he was instrumental in building trails and forging good climber relations with the BLM. Photo courtesy of RMFI.

Mark Hesse, a longtime Colorado climber, trail builder, and wilderness educator, died from unknown causes at the Boulder Rock Club on Monday. Hesse, 63, was discovered alone and unresponsive beside the bouldering area in the back room of the rock gym. It is not known if he was bouldering or climbing one of the nearby lead walls. He was wearing a harness and shoes but is not believed to have been using an auto-belay.

Long based in Colorado Springs, Hesse made first ascents throughout the world in the 1970s and 1980s, from the South Platte and Rocky Mountain National Park to the Utah desert, and from the Canadian Rockies to Nepal. In 1982 he soloed the south face of Denali via the Scott-Haston Route. In 1986, he and Craig Reason, Jay Smith, and Paul Teare did the alpine-style first ascent of the very steep northeast buttress of Kangtega (22,241 feet) in Nepal. As recently as 2006, Hesse was still doing major routes in the mountains: That summer, he and Chris Alstrin and Andrew Frost completed a very hard new route on a 20,000-foot peak in Peru.

Hesse was a leader in the Outward Bound system for many years, culminating in his work as program director of the Southwest Outward Bound School in the early 1980s. He created the American Mountain Foundation, whose original mission was helping U.S. climbers doing overseas expeditions, and ran it from 1989 to 1998. That organization morphed into the Rocky Mountain Field Institute, which he ran for another decade. These non-profits became leaders in the stewardship of climbing areas, building extensive trail networks in Indian Creek and Castle Valley, Utah; Shelf Road, Colorado; and on the Colorado 14ers and other high peaks. Hesse received the American Alpine Club's David Brower Conservation Award in 1995.

Hesse had moved to Boulder and was working on a stewardship manual for the Access Fund, said Brady Robinson, executive director.  He also was working on trail and stewardship projects with the Boulder Climbing Community.

"It's so terrible," Robinson said. "I climbed with him in Patagonia in 1999 and was so psyched to have the chance to work with him at the Access Fund. I had showed up in Patagonia with no partner, and he and his buddies John Catto and Peter Gallagher invited me into their tent, gave me a glass of wine, and were super welcoming. When they didn't send their project, Mark broke off and we made an attempt on Fitz Roy together. We got bouted, then went up Guillaumet, summitted, and hung out on top. I was a nobody, and it was so cool to get the chance to climb with a seasoned legend. He was very kind to me and didn't have to be."

More information will be provided as it becomes available.



Previous Comments

I knew Mark from the early 70's. Truly a nice guy, one of the solid non-crazy climbers hanging with the crazies. I don't think I've ever met person with his toughness. Even tho I haven't seen Mark in 40 years, he will be missed - he left a big imprint.

Chris Nelson - 02/09/2014 8:28:08

My sincerest condolences to Mark's family and friends. Mark had such a positive influence on so many peoples' lives. I worked with him and Rocky Mountain Field Institute for years setting up service projects for my students at Outward Bound and it was gratifying to see the progress we made over the years at Indian Creek and elsewhere. The climbing community will be forever indebted to Mark for the incredible trails and restoration work he accomplished. He worked harder than anyone during these projects and they were always substantial and meaningful. I recall the irony in once driving my truck to camp in Donnelly Canyon, only to be restoring that same camp site to its more natural state the following few years. I hope you all remember the articles in the climbing mags that said this is your last year to climb Supercrack, and then through the work of various conservation organization, including Mark and RMFI, the area remained opened and a very impressive restoration effort was undertaken. Mark was instrumental in preserving this natural resource for all climbers and provided meaningful service work for so many students of Outward Bound and others. He has left an inspiring legacy and I am so sorry it was cut too short.

Markian Feduschak - 02/07/2014 10:36:49

Climbed a new line on Bugaboo Spire with Mark back in mid 70's. He was a great guy and a great partner. I remember him catching me on a pendulum fall when a big flake pulled on that route leaving me dangling for a moment till I could swing back in to the wall. He handled that so if it were just regular business, and we went on to complete the route; laughing and enjoying the day.. Sorry to hear of his death

Thomas Beck - 02/05/2014 3:08:04

I did not know Mark well at all, bouldering and climbing with him only occasionally during the early 70's. I remember wanting to climb more with him - he was one of the nicest guys I could imagine. May he rest in peace and in the memories of all who had the pleasure and privelege of knowing him better than I.

Tom Gries - 02/04/2014 7:44:10

On behalf of my family, I would like to thank you all for the outpour of kind words and stories about my dad that you have shared over the past week. Your memories help us to commemorate his legacy and the spirit of stewardship that he exemplified through this work. We invite you to join us for a celebration of his life that will be held in Boulder at Centerplate located in the Folsom Field Stadium Club on the CU Campus at 2085 Colorado Avenue on Saturday, February 8 at 1PM. Sincerely, Laurel Hesse

Laurel Hesse - 02/03/2014 5:22:42

Mark worked with me at Holubar, stuffing goose down into the packets for the clothing kits circa 1973. The packets were constantly exploding when they blew the down in the same way they did for regular clothing channels, until Mark gave up and simply crammed the down in totally by hand - suddenly, the workflow boomed, the other. down stuffers switched to his technique, and for a brief time all were making triple the money by the pre-set piecerate. He belayed me on "Umph Slot" and patiently saw me through at least a dozen failed tries before success, without a single grumble, or anything but positive advice. I saw him rarely then until his recent move back to Boulder, and shared a few belays at the BRC. Such a shock, and loss for so many.

Eric Aldrich - 02/01/2014 11:55:04

Such a loss.... Mark gave us climbing bums a chance to give back to the outdoor world we loved and got so much from. Mark truly led by example. In everything he did, he lived large. He is a constant reminder for me to get off my ass and do something with my life. Thank you Mark! Not only for being such a great guy, but for motivating so many of us to give back. You are missed my friend.

Ed Pearsall - 01/31/2014 7:19:43

Dear Julie and Family: I am devastated to learn of the loss of your beloved Mark. Please know so many of us in Colorado Springs have you in our hearts. If there is anything I could possibly do, please let me know. Linda Sutton 2/1/14 719-640-9272

Linda Sutton - 01/31/2014 5:43:44

Mark was an incredible brother and friend. As a younger sibling growing up I was always amazed at Marks accomplishments from his early climbing in Yosemite and in Colorado to the mountains all over the world. My entire life has fantastic memories that if not for Mark would never have happened. I am so incredibly lucky and blessed to have had such a great man as my brother. Beneath the humble and gentle exterior was a man of incredible confidence, determination and skill. He was a dedicated son and father. A true champion for the wildlands and true inspiration for all lucky enough to have known him . For me he will always be the brother who made my life so much richer and I will miss him dearly.

Phil Hesse - 01/31/2014 11:56:00

Although I only knew Mark for a few short years, he touched my life, the life of his brother Philip (my husband) and the lives of our three children in ways that transcend time. He was tirelessly available for playing some silly game with the kids, ready with a quick smile and calm sentiment, and always up to hiking or recreating with our family, even though we all knew he could hike/climb us into the ground any day of the week. We will miss his beautiful smile, soft words, his humble and gentle spirit. We love you Mark.

Rachel Hesse - 01/30/2014 9:26:33

Such awful news, to learn yesterday afternoon from a close friend that Mark is no longer with us. I was the Director of the Southwest Outward Bound School based out of Santa Fe from 1978 until we closed down in 1982. The Senior Program Director position became vacant in 1980. From a pool of strong applicants I selected Mark and in the final two years Mark did much to inspire and train a new cadre of instructors who quickly learned to admire and respect his leadership and supreme mountaineering/rock climbing skills. While Mark climbed and led with such power and elegance, it was his humility and compassion that shone through in all that he did and his quiet confidence and commitment to the care of the environment and the education of his.students were truly inspiring. It is an honor and a privilege to be counted among his friends. I can only begin to know the depth of sorrow and sense of loss that Julie and his children must feel. My heart goes out to them all. .

Rafe Parker - 01/30/2014 7:48:14

I had the priviledge of knowing and sharing time with Mark for over 30 + years. We bouldered, climbed , ran, skied, worked OB off and on in the 80's but mostly worked together closely from 1999-2007 when he created RMFI. At the time I had been mostly teaching climbing lessons / guiding and he hired me as his sidekick. I had no clue about building trails nor restoring alpine enviornments. I was even more clueless about the politics between land managers and recreational users - the relationships that keep beautiful places open for us all to appreciate and enjoy. Mark, opened that up for me and I believe helped keep unique places open for us all. Educating and building relationships were only two of his many talents. He was a hell of an athlete. He climbed rock, ice, alpine - ran, bicycled... all with quiet endurance and passion. He worked hard when building steps and walls on trails and was hard to keep up with. You might say he left no stone unturned.... In fact he was a bit of a rascal in that he would grab the best squarecut building stones on a site for his structures - if you were a little slow to it yourself - build and grin - a little. He delighted in working with his hands and perhaps subtle competition. His quiet sense of humor you couldn't deny. He was having fun and doing good work at the same time. He inspired a lot of volunteers into doing the same on trails and in the mountains, deserts and climbing areas of Colorado and Utah as well. His quiet passion reached far. All this said about his career, the thing that would really light his eyes and make him grin was talking about his wife Julie and girls Hartley and Laurel ( tomatohead). He loved spending time with them in general and on vacation / rainforest adventures. My heart goes out to them. I can't imagine their loss.... Perhaps though... we 've all gained. He was here. He was quite a guy. You couldn't beat his easygoing manner and spirit. I'm grateful to call him a friend and mentor. His legacy lives on - gentle and grinning.

Bryan Becker - 01/30/2014 7:41:00

I was lucky enough to count Mark as boss, mentor, and friend during my two years at RMFI ('08-'09) and in the years since. It saddened me greatly to hear today that he's gone. My heart goes out to Julie, Mark's daughters, and his entire family. Even more than his many bold, historic ascents, I think Mark's legacy will be his tireless stewardship of high and wild places in Colorado and Utah and the countless people he inspiired to get involved and take care our public lands. I know he inspired me. I'll remember his wry grin and sense of humor, his relaxed, patient style of leadership, and his love for exploring the natural world. We'll miss you, friend.

Rich Brereton - 01/30/2014 4:54:48

I met Mark more than 30 years ago because his wife and my wife are lifelong friends. We have spent many wonderful times with Mark and his family, including a memorable trip to Ecuador where Mark was so enthusiastic about his connection to a native family. It is a measure of his humility that, although I knew him to be an excellent climber, I am only now learning of his many accomplishments in that world. He always seemed more interested in what I was up to than in what he was doing. He was a gentle, humble guy and a great father. I will miss him greatly.

George S - 01/30/2014 3:34:21

I was the Canon City BLM Recreation Planner in the late 80's, early 90's when the Shelf Road Climbing Area was just being discovered. Mark and I spent many many days hiking the backcountry, laying out trails for access to the rock. Mark and I sponsored many volunteer trail building projects and also laid out the Sand Gulch and the Bank campgrounds. Mark taught me a lot over the first few years of my BLM career. Mark was instrumental in making Shelf Road what it is today. A premier sport climbing area... I will miss him!!!

John "nomi" Nahomenuk - 01/30/2014 2:27:33

I was honored to have Mark as my brother and one of my best friends. He challenged (sometimes terrified), inspired, amused, and loved me, and my wife and two kids. I had some of the best and most adventurous times of may life with Mark. My mother, bothers, sisters, his and our families will miss him terribly. Paul Hesse - 1/30/2014

Paul Hesse - 01/30/2014 1:01:57

I knew and work with Mark back in the late 80s....Our kids are the same age. I can not imagine the pain his family must feel. As many have already said, I have never met a climber and mountaineer so humble and inclusive yet so strong and talented. I remember the person... not the reputation.

Henry Browning - 01/30/2014 12:05:56

I worked with Mark for almost 10 years at RMFI and I have to say I have never met anyone who was as passionate and dedicated to caring for our natural landscapes as Mark was. Mark loved a good challenge and would take on restoration projects that others thought were either too hard or just plain impossible to complete. I learned from Mark that with perseverance and hard work you could make a real difference no matter how hard the circumstances appeared to be. Mark's legacy will live on for generations to come as we all enjoy the fruits of his labor in areas like South Colony Lakes Basin, Shelf Road, Indian Creek, and the Garden of the Gods. I am proud to have been able to work with Mark for so many years and he will be sorely missed.

Eric Billmeyer - 01/30/2014 10:29:55

I worked with Mark for many years while with the Colorado Mountain Club. He was a great man and so dedicated to the mountains we play in and pray in every day! He will be missed.

Bryan Martin - 01/30/2014 8:25:46

Mark was one of the great climbers of his generation and always fun to be around. I really enjoyed the times we climbed together.

David Harrison - 01/30/2014 8:05:24

In 1982 I was climbing a ice ribbon on Mt Antero; the Sword of Damicilius. I was pretty strung out leading the vertical thin ice and dropped my wart-hog ice screw. Then I caught a glimpse of Mark smoothy coming up the ice fall with his new curved pick Chacals. He was smooth, in control and quiet. I always remember that smooth, in control and quiet - that was mark

Ed Quesada - 01/29/2014 9:52:59

Sad news. Mark was a visionary, compassionate leader, and a true explorer. I heard of him long before landing in Colorado Springs. Honored to follow him at Outward Bound. He had a huge influence on so many and was a tireless advocate for conservation and the importance of adventure in all. Travel well.

Brad Webb - 01/29/2014 8:46:44

Mark was a remarkably kind and generous man. I climbed quite a bit with him in the 1970s around Boulder. People who knew Mark will recall that he lost parts of several fingers in an accident but it never stopped his enthusiasm and love of climbing. Mark was also quite humble and gentle. I recall being in a bar with him on the Boulder mall when a huge fat drunk man threatened us. The man grabbed Mark by the arm and Mark, who could have taken the drunk out with a single blow, didn't make the slightest move to protect himself. The drunk took one look at the huge climber's muscles rippling up and down Mark's arm and he instantly dropped the arm and fled the bar. While I could see that Mark was amused, I could not detect a shred of anger in his face.

Denis U - 01/29/2014 8:00:05

Mark, Henry Browning and I worked with the US Junior Olympic swimming team many years ago to help them become better team players/swimmers. We climbed 4 fourteener's in 5 days with these juniors and listened to them whine. Mark cracked the whip in such a gentle manner with these young pups. After probably 20 years, I was happy to reconnect with him at CityROCK where he regularly worked out. I will miss his warmth and and humble manner.

Garcia Wood - 01/29/2014 7:41:41

I have great memories of Outward Bound trips for the scholarship kids in 85-86 with Mark and Bryan Becker. It was a real honor to be part of the AMF early on. I learned so much about climbing and life from Mark.

Greg Johnson - 01/29/2014 7:15:49

CIP : Climb in Paradise now Mark ! While working at the AF in the 90s I had met him several times and was always eager to hear what he and his organization was up to. He was well known as a serious conservationist and when it came to the mountains, he loved them with great passion. Sad to hear this But though it is an oft used cliche I'll say it here: He died doing what he loved, albeit indoors.

Stu - 01/29/2014 6:43:40

Mark gave so much back to the mountains and wild places he loved... No better example of an environmental steward,friend,or rope patner or dive buddy can be imagined... Condolences to Julie, Hartley , and Laurel. Rick Meinig and family

Rick Meinig - 01/29/2014 5:08:12

In the late 80's Mark did some first accents at Shelf Road with Carrie and I. He like doing things outside that people could enjoy.

Bob Robertson - 01/29/2014 4:09:55

No bueno. Sounds like he lived quite the adventurous life though.

Emily Bassett - 01/29/2014 12:28:40