The first time Eric Barnard went climbing, he was hooked.
“This is what I want to do every day for the rest of my life,” Barnard remembered thinking at the time.
And while he may not have done it every day of his life, Barnard has turned his passion into a rewarding career. Barnard is the director of Outdoor Education and Recreation Center at Winona State University, an instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School in addition to owning a rock- and ice-climbing guiding business.
He recently visited Lisa Palkowski’s sixth-grade language arts classes at Winona Middle School and had the students’ attention from start to finish as he shared stories from his climbing experiences, showed off his equipment and answered questions — like what happens when you have to go to the bathroom and you’re on the side of the mountain.
“The goal is to leave it better than how we found it,” Barnard said, adding that he and other climbers strictly adhere to the “leave no trace” principles. Yes, you have to take it with you, just like the gear, food, water, clothes and more in a bag that can weigh hundreds of pounds.
Palkowski’s classes have been studying exploration and Mount Everest, which made Barnard’s visit appropriate to expand on their lessons.
“Why do think people climb?” he asked the students.
“The thrill of exploring,” was the first answer.
It hasn’t stopped being a thrill for Barnard, starting with that first climb years ago.
He shared his experiences climbing Grand Teton in Wyoming, Denali in Alaska, and El Capitan in Yosemite. His favorite climbing, though, is ice climbing, and he showed the students the equipment needed to dig into the ice.
He shared that the actual climbing is the easy part of the adventure. The hard part, he said, comes in the preparation, from training properly to studying the elements.
“Climbing is about 15 percent of it,” Barnard said. “The other 85 percent is what gets you to the top.”
Climbers also have to “listen to the mountain,” he said, recalling his experience in Denali when he was close to the summit, but the winds made the conditions too cold to make it to the top. He said that most fatal accidents occur when climbers don’t listen to the mountain.
Barnard has fallen a few times himself, but nothing serious. He injured his shoulder on one. He said he has known climbers who haven’t been so fortunate.
“Climbing is not for everyone,” Barnard said, adding that it takes a lot of work. But the views, he said, are worth it.
He was asked if he would ever climb Mount Everest. Barnard said he would think about it if someone offered to pay for him — it can cost about $65,000 — but that the time involved (it takes at least two months) away from his family doesn’t make it worth it. He would rather climb El Cap or a renowned alpine climb, anyway. He also enjoys climbing with his three boys, all of whom are students in Winona Area Public Schools.
He told the students if they were interested in climbing, they could check out the Winona State University Climbing Center — one of the largest university climbing walls in the Midwest. The center is open to everyone and can be reserved for special events, such as parties.
If they’re really interested, he said, they could turn it into a career, just like he did.
“You can go to school and learn how to do this,” he said. “This was college for me. You can get a job as a climbing guide or work in outdoor recreation.”