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Commentary

Answering a Higher Climbing Call

Writer leaves for ministry, with final outdoors thoughts

By Gary Fallesen
Founding President, Climbing For Christ

[Note: This excerpt is from the final column Gary Fallesen wrote after more than 27 years at the Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle newspaper. It appeared on Jan. 7, 2007.]

I had grown tired of major-college and professional athletes who wouldn't give me the time of day. It was time for a change in my life.

A big change.

I approached then-managing editor Carolyn Washburn about revamping the Outdoors page. I wanted to write about people who did all sorts of outdoor activities for the love of sport or recreation. She was all for it.

It was 1996 and more was about to be altered than the beat I was covering here at the newspaper.

I went from being a spectator sports writer — a guy who had covered Section V high schools, local colleges, Syracuse University football and basketball, and nearly every major event as a daily sports columnist — to a participatory journalist. It was an odd way to follow in the footsteps of one of my boyhood heroes, George Plimpton, but as the outdoor writer I experienced a shift in lifestyle.

I climbed with mountaineers, bicycled with cyclists, fished with fly fishermen and bass fishermen, sailed with sailors, and paddled with sea and whitewater kayakers. I was blessed to tell the stories of some of the best at these pursuits, and to be taught by them along the way.

I used to say I was the only reporter who had to work out for work. I needed to be in shape to do my job. And what fun my job was the past 10 ½ years — the end run to a 27-year career at the Democrat and Chronicle.

I started here at the beginning of my junior year at St. John Fisher College. This paper was the only full-time job I'd known as an adult. That was until this past week, when I went from being a sports writer (what I'd wanted to be since I was 7 years old) to working full-time in ministry (something I never imagined until a few years ago).

I am now working for the Lord as the president and Chief Climbing Officer of Climbing For Christ Inc., a ministry I founded that has members in 21 countries.

I leave this beat in the very capable hands of my old friend Leo Roth, an outdoorsman who hunts, fishes, canoes and camps, and, like me, enjoys introducing these joys to his children.

We are both family men and that is one of the great benefits of writing about the outdoors. The outdoors is a family-friendly place. Once you've been out there, you'll never want to go back inside.

That's what I've been trying to tell readers for the past decade: Try it, you'll like it. Get out and explore the outside world while at the same time learning about what's inside you.

I did that on Mount Rainier in August 1996. It was my first mountain climb. I went with three friends — one of whom, Kevin Flynn, became my longtime climbing partner. Together we wrote the book Mount Everest: Confessions of an Amateur Peak Bagger.

If not for that first mountain, I would not be where I am today: climbing and ministering. Rainier led to California 14,000-footer Mount Whitney, which led to Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa.

Gary Fallesen, left, and Kevin Flynn on Africa's rooftop — the summit of Kilimanjaro — in February 1998.

In January 1998, while training for Kilimanjaro, I was struck with the idea of Climbing For Christ. I was running. It was a typical winter day — like we used to have — cold and snowy.

I wasn't thinking any deep thoughts or even dreaming of the summit. Just running.

That's when God placed on my heart the idea of starting a Christian climbers' organization. It took me several years to figure out what that meant and how to do it.

It wasn't until 2002 that we had our first public meeting and in 2003 went online at www.ClimbingForChrist.org. We were incorporated as a nonprofit organization in April 2004.

That's when things really started to happen. We call them “God things.”

We were led to a remote mountain village in Haiti that is not on any map. We built a church there last year, and now there is a school with more than 140 children who'd never been to school.

We are planning two trips to Haiti this year and missions to seven other nations (Tanzania, back to northern Mexico, Malaysia and Indonesia, back to South Africa and Lesotho, and Peru) as well as three U.S. states, including a return to Alaska.

I am living proof that you have no idea what you might be missing if you haven't ventured beyond your back door, if you haven't gone looking for a little adventure in your life. My story is not unique. At least it doesn't have to be.

On Sept. 3, I received an e-mail from Terri Burke, 35, of Brighton, N.Y., who wrote: “Thanks for all your columns that have made me stop, each week, and say, 'What am I waiting for?'”

She told me how she had decided, after so many years of not doing anything outdoors (beyond delivering mail for the U.S. Postal Service), to go on a backpacking and camping trip to the Grand Canyon with locally based Pack, Paddle, Ski Corp.

“Finally I can read the articles with a sense of satisfaction, knowing that I, too, am going to step out of that comfort zone, explore a little, and do what I have been waiting for for years,” Burke wrote.

Burke made the trip in September and came back an outdoor-adventure convert.

“My Grand Canyon trip still leaves me speechless,” Burke said recently. “There is no way that I can tell anyone who was not there about my experience.”

Welcome to my world.

This is what I got to do week in and week out, every Sunday and every Thursday, as the outdoor writer. But my job was to put into words the experiences I had enjoyed and those that were shared by others. From fishermen and hunters to skiers and skaters, from sailors and kayakers to mountain bikers and climbers. If it was done outdoors, I tried to write about it. And I tried to do many of the things I wrote about.

My goal was to encourage others to do it, too.

Burke read about it for many years. Then the former president of the Honeoye Falls-Lima High School adventure group finally stepped out. She went with Rick French of Pack, Paddle, Ski on a group trek to the floor of the Grand Canyon.

“We spent the greatest six days in the canyon,” Burke said. “Every second got better and better. I hated to go to sleep at night; it felt like I was wasting time while in the canyon.

“The day we came out, we all came out as a group. I looked at all the people (tourists) at the top, looking down over the wall, and felt sorry for them. There is no way they could possibly know what they were missing. They all just stared at us, like we were aliens or something.”

I have seen that look. I have heard it, too, in the questions people have asked.

I have felt sorry for those who could experience what I have, but hold themselves back. Forget the excuses, get out there and play hard. You never know where it might lead.

For me, it has led to another calling. I am climbing in His direction.

Gary Fallesen won numerous awards during his newspaper career, including top sailing writer in the U.S. and writer/editor of one of the top three outdoors pages in America for three consecutive years. But he happily trades those for the promise found in 2 Timothy 4:8: “Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day — and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”

Gary Fallesen is joined in Climbing For Christ and on Longs Peak by his family — (left to right) wife Elaine, daughter Hayley, and son Jesse.