Over the last few years, the outdoor industry has become increasingly impactful. It contributes a larger percentage of revenue to the national gross domestic product than the oil, gas, and even auto industries. With this new status as a lucrative business comes new responsibility for the outdoor industry; it is no longer just about outdoor recreation, but is now wrapped up in policy and discussion on a global scale.
On Monday evening, Jonah Seifer, project specialist for State of the Rockies, introduced Luis Benitez for his talk on the outdoor recreation industry. While Benitez is perhaps best known as “the mountaineering guy who got a blind person (Erik Weihenmayer) to the top of Everest and down,” he is more recently recognized as a strong presence in the economic sector of the outdoor industry. He’s also the Director of Colorado’s Office of Outdoor Recreation Industry. Though he was once an incredible mountain guide, Benitez’s true passion for the outdoor industry began at his grandfather’s family-owned retail shop in the Midwest, a sort of “hook-and-bullet” shop. As a child, he was inspired to do the same thing as his grandfather—except, instead of serving the fly-fishers of the Midwest rivers, he chose the mountains.
A self-proclaimed “Latino hillbilly,” Benitez felt a pull from his Ecuadorian roots to the mountains. This led him to the Colorado Outward Bound School: a formative first job experience with the Colorado outdoor industry that emphasizes self-awareness, leadership, and communication skills in addition to skill mastery as a guide. “Forced” to sit in a circle and talk about how climbing made him “feel,” Benitez realized that feelings had an impact on his job—a realization that stuck with him. “Passion is at the cornerstone of everything in the outdoor recreation industry, especially in this economy,” Benitez said.
As a mountaineering guide, Benitez had some incredible opportunities, summiting mountains that many mountaineers only dream of, and he was paid for it. In addition to accomplishing challenging physical feats, he also learned important lessons along the way. Summiting Mt. Elbrus, which lies between Georgia and Russia, he witnessed an intersection between the outdoors and politics firsthand when he saw soldiers lining the border. On Mt. Vincent in Antarctica, he felt the importance of a self-imposed ownership, as no single nation owns the continent, and sense of responsibility for maintaining the mountain’s pristine condition. Simply enjoying the outdoors is a beautiful pursuit, but an awareness of policy and politics is also necessary for continued enjoyment of natural spaces, such as on Mt. Kilimanjaro, where newly enforced policies for mountain guides allow the mountain to remain a beautiful space.
Leading a dazzling life as a mountain guide, Benitez thought that his life was near perfect. His only professional aspiration had been to become a mountain guide, and he had fulfilled his dream. Then in 2007, while he was leading an expedition on Mt. Cho Oyu—the sixth tallest mountain in the world—things changed drastically for Benitez.
On this expedition, the pass of Mt. Cho Oyu was filled with refugees fleeing Tibet. One morning, the camp where Benitez, his clients, and other expedition groups were sleeping was awakened by firecracker-like sounds. When Benitez and his group went outside, they saw border patrol shooting at refugees who were fleeing up the 18,000-foot mountain. Thinking that someone else would report the event, they left camp, summited Mt. Cho Oyu, and returned four days later to find that the other mountain guides had decided not to talk about the “incident” internationally because they wanted to keep their permits to enter Tibet.
Benitez made a choice that has affected the rest of his career path: he decided to report the event. Almost immediately, things blew up; the other mountain guides were angry at him for stirring up trouble, he lost credibility as a mountain guide, and it seemed that he had made a huge mistake.
Later, as he was preparing to summit Mt. Everest, he got a call from the Dalai Lama’s special envoy. Instead of pursuing Mt. Everest, he flew to Dam Sala, India, to talk about culture and community with the Dalai Lama. During this conversation, he began to complain about the possible end to his career; the Dalai Lama laughed. Through the translators, he explained that he, too, would like to be in Tibet instead of in exile in India. You can’t always get what you want, and sometimes you can’t choose your path, but rather, it chooses you. Benitez realized then that his life as mountain guide was over, and now it was up to him to engage. He began to look to innovation and its potential to change the outdoor industry.
Cultural perspectives seem to be slowly shifting more focus on the importance of cultivating outdoor lifestyles. In Japan, for instance, doctors are now prescribing time outside. Benitez claims we are at a point that we have never been at before: we are wrestling with old ideas, fewer resources, and the best way to utilize those resources. The outdoor industry can support 7 million American jobs and can bring in $2 billion through state and local tax revenue; we just need to invest resources in workforce training and deepen educational opportunities.
Many of us find solace and comfort in nature; it is a place to escape politics, policy, and the complications of our daily lives. However, we may need to start being more involved with logistics of outdoor policy in order to preserve the sports and outdoor scene that we love. Benitez left his audience with a final question from the father of his beloved Sherpa friend: how is what you do every single day going to make my grandchildren’s world better? In other words, we must shift the narrative for who comes next.
Driven by genius and passion, we can bring the outdoor industry to the forefront and continue to enjoy the outdoors in a way that benefits everyone.