Helping the next generation of climbers ascend

Mention BJ Tilden to anyone who follows climbing and they will likely recognize the name.

His climbing resume showcases his versatility with high-level accomplishments in ice climbing and bouldering, said climber Steve Bechtel. But he’s known best for his accomplishments in sport climbing.

Kelsey Dayton
Kelsey Dayton

This summer Tilden claimed a first ascent on “Moonshine,” in Wild Iris, considered Wyoming’s hardest climb and rated a 5.14d.But on a Monday afternoon Tilden wasn’t working on a new climbing project, or pushing his body through one last pitch. Instead, he inspected knots tied by teenagers in the gym. His hands glided over the rope, showing them how to belay more efficiently. He called out encouragement and suggestions for hand holds.Tilden’s resume doesn’t impress the kids he’s teaching to climb.

“He’s just sort of ‘the guy,’” said Bechtel, who owns the gym.

Tilden has taken a custodial role in Lander’s climbing community, developing new routes, exploring new areas and now nurturing the next generation of Lander climbers.

The class Tilden is teaching is part of an effort in Lander to introduce local kids to a sport that draws people to the town from all over the world.

“For the most part, in climbing — and in a lot of sports — you don’t get elite level athletes interested in beginners,” Bechtel said. “It’s like having a PGA pro golfer teaching you golf.”

Tilden was born in Cody. A family friend, Bobby Model, introduced Tilden to the sport. Then, while visiting his sister in Bozeman, Mont., Tilden discovered the climbing gym, where he begged his sister to take him every day of his visit. He was hooked.

In Cody Tilden had a group of friends who got into climbing at the same time, something he took for granted. When he moved to Lander in high school, he started climbing with people like Andy Skiba, Bechtel and Todd Skinner. “It’s not even a hobby per se,” Tilden said. “It just becomes part of your lifestyle.”

Jake Calhoun, 13, practices climbing at Elemental Performance and Fitness' climbing gym in Lander. Calhoun is part of a class taught by climber BJ Tilden meant to get Lander kids excited and interesting in rock climbing. (Wyofile/Kelsey Dayton)
Jake Calhoun, 13, practices climbing at Elemental Performance and Fitness’ climbing gym in Lander. Calhoun is part of a class taught by climber BJ Tilden meant to get Lander kids excited and interesting in rock climbing. (Wyofile/Kelsey Dayton)

His life became dedicated to improving himself physically and mentally. It’s a constant in his life that has kept him focused even during tumultuous times. He took for granted he had people to mentor him and climb with. Climbing can be a tough sport to break into because you need instruction and a partner.While people travel to Lander from all over for the climbing often described as “world class,” many kids who grow up in town don’t pick up the sport.

“The kids have no idea what kind of resource they have right here,” Tilden said.

It was something Lander climbers noticed.

“It’s like living outside the Louvre and not knowing there’s a good art museum in your neighborhood,” Bechtel said.

It could be the lack of climbing role models, or intimidation of a sport that can be dangerous to novices, or even the lack of interest of getting outside, said Brian Fabel, director of the International Climbers’ Festival.

“We’re competing with video games, fast food and the internet,” Fabel said.

Climbing teaches focus and problem solving. It’s an individual sport, but one that comes with a strong sense of community, he said. It also fosters a connection with the outdoors and Lander. So many kids leave the state as soon as they finish high school, said Bechtel, a Wyoming native. Climbing is a way to connect them to their home state and maybe entice them to return.

It also is a way to keep kids out of trouble. Maybe a kid won’t go drinking if he or she knows the next day they are going to tackle a particularly challenging climb, Bechtel said.

The International Climber’s Festival offers two Fremont County youths a chance to climb the Grand Teton each year. But it’s only two people. Classes through the local parks and recreation program reach kids at young ages in the summer, but Fabel wanted to find a way to reach more kids and came up with the idea of indoor climbing classes for teens.

BJ Tilden talks to Noah Peschio about belaying at a climbing class at Elemental Gym. (Wyofile/Kelsey Dayton)
BJ Tilden talks to Noah Peschio about belaying at a climbing class at Elemental Performance and Fitness in Lander. (Wyofile/Kelsey Dayton)

Through grants aimed at getting kids outside, the class was subsidized. Kids pay $100 for six weeks of instruction twice a week, as well as climbing gear they get to keep at the end of the session.The class starts with the basics of bouldering where kids learn how to move on the indoor climbing wall without a rope. Bouldering teaches technique, but also is an aspect of the sport they can pursue on their own.

Later in the class they learn rope work; how to belay someone so they are caught by the rope if they fall, and how to climb higher than would be safe without the rope.

Kaili Hampton, 16, started climbing through a parks and recreation program years earlier, she said.  Not many kids at her school climb, so she’s always looking for opportunities. She took the class wanting to get better — bouldering especially improved her technique —  but also always looking for a chance to climb and maybe find a new climbing partner or two for the gym in the future.

Brothers Zach Calhoun, 18 and Jake Calhoun, 13, grew up climbing with their dad Mark Calhoun. Climbing teaches kids to set goals, gives them a sense of freedom and an outlet for their energy, Mark Calhoun said. Even with their experience with climbing with their dad, the boys were able to learn technique and safety steps.

The class was open to 10 kids, but Fabel had to recruit hard to get participants in the first session. Another session is planned to start in mid-February and the goal is to offer outdoor sessions in the spring. Fabel hopes word-of-mouth will get kids interested in the classes and the sport in general. It seems to be working. Class ends at 5:15, but most of the kids stay and keep climbing.

Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide...

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