Climbing Activist Mark Hesse Dies at Boulder Rock Club

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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.