Climber Damion Estrada heard the mountains calling all the way down in the limestone flats of Texas. An architecture major, he knew he’d never follow down such a path after he spent most of his time in class daydreaming about mountains out west or climbing at the climbing gym that his college had built, which in the early 90’s was an almost unheard of venture.
So if not architecture, then what? Estrada wasn’t sure yet, but it’d have to be in the mountains. He explored Yosemite’s heralded rock faces and boulders, free to evolve and progress as much as his young body could take. He settled in Lake Tahoe and fell in love with the region and was amazed at the vastness of problems the region possessed, especially considering how little attention it seemed to garner among the greater population of climbers, boulderers and rock enthusiasts in the country.
He met local legend Dave Hatchett serendipitously at a climbing spot called Middle Bliss and was welcomed into a small community of climbers who were starting to really develop and chart the boulders and routes of the area for the first time, which were later published in the famed Tahoe bouldering guide book series. By chance and curiosity he received an education in climbing, nature and personal limits unlike any other he’d ever received in a classroom.
So what has Estrada done with this education? He’s given it back to his community. For the last 15 years he’s been an outdoor educator and leader at Lake Tahoe Community College’s ever evolving Wilderness Program, where he is now the Program Coordinator. In the last couple years he’s also been training and leading a climbing team of adolescents at Blue Granite Climbing Gym in South Lake Tahoe developing a unique curriculum that fuses physiology, psychology and physical awareness. He’s been around long enough to see climbing gyms go from niche to the epicenter of education and development for a new generation of climbers and has watched unknown Tahoe become a growing hot spot for professional climbers to live and train.
At 46 he’s climbing the highest rated routes of his career, which he attributes to having never stopped learning and evolving, constantly trying to reach that flow state. Ultimately, he wants whatever wisdom he passes along to stress the importance of people’s connection to nature and the power it has to improve ourselves and our communities. He knows the environment is the ultimate teacher and in better understanding it’s lessons and complexities we can better understand ourselves.
For Damion Estrada the mountains are still calling and you better believe he’s taking notes so that he can use it later in class.
The following is a conversation with Damion Estrada. It has been edited for length and clarity.
What experiences, moments or accomplishments of yours have you valued within climbing over the last couple years?
I’m really happy with this curriculum I’ve developed for climbing and movement. I’m also happy about having more of the mentality of being relaxed while climbing, I’m trying to get that flow state and it takes a lot of mileage to learn about that. There’s this great book called Heart Breath Mind by this sports psychologist Dr. Leah Lagos which claims this breathing pattern will put you into that flow state. It’s a ten-second breath of a four-second inhale through the nose and a six-second exhale through the mouth. You are supposed to do it for 10 weeks, 20 minutes twice a day, which I haven’t done yet. It basically changes your physiology and puts you at this optimal heart rhythm for heavy stress situations.
Can you explain a little bit about this curriculum you’ve developed for the climbing team you lead at Blue Granite Gym in Lake Tahoe?
It’s a set of drills and then mix them up with some training tactics that deal with aerobic threshold, so you are really learning how to move that body over time. It applies pretty strongly and it applies to all the students I’ve worked with, they just climb so much better. One of the foundations of it is really learning your center of gravity and that awareness really directs your movements.
It’s been a process of reading and learning and using this training team to act, jokingly, as my guinea pigs. I see what works and the progression of it and every year I get a little better. A big part for me as an outdoor leader is learning group dynamics. One of my specialties is outdoor leadership and I try to refine this leadership model called the WALC, wilderness adventure leadership compass. They come from the Jungian archetypes and the Meyers-Briggs personality test, with types being the visionary, the driver, the collaborator and the organizer.
What I’m also working on is movement patterns associated with those personality traits. For instance, the collaborator is the people person and someone who wants to connect with others. Their body pattern is that they want to be more playful and they like to swing their body around, which is huge for momentum and steeper climbing and having fun.
How would you compare the climbing experience you had while you were first starting out in Texas and the one you are now fostering at Blue Granite and this younger generation?
When I got into climbing in the early 90’s gyms were just getting started, you didn’t really see kids in gyms or in climbing at all. With the advent of how popular gyms are now you definitely see more kids. Every year it grows and gyms are getting more sophisticated with generating routes and kids are in all of these programs. It’s producing amazing climbers because they get to start so young with so many advantages. There weren’t coaches when I was doing it, it was all trial and error and climbing books and learning with your climbing partners.
What do you see as advantages and disadvantages to this climbing evolution?
It’s producing such good climbers at such a good age, so the boundaries of climbing will keep on expanding. But because of that all of our climbing places will be impacted and will be more heavily trafficked and I’ve seen that already in the last couple of years. There are way more people climbing and I’ve been a part of that, the amount of people I’ve taught and instructed is probably in the thousands.
What have you seen as critical to you being in a good place to teach?
You have to have an awareness of your abilities. The ego gets you in trouble in climbing and having awareness of those thoughts is hard as a human. In climbing situations change and you can move yourself three or four feet up and put yourself in tremendous danger where you weren’t there before. You are always playing on that line and the more I climb it becomes easier to recognize. It’s so easy to push that panic button because it happens naturally and your body knows it’s in danger. It’s about trying to regulate that and staying as stress free as possible.
Speaking more broadly about outdoor education in general, what is the value you want to instill and pass along to the people you teach? What’s the value of outdoor leadership?
Ultimately connecting with nature. There’s this great book Consciousness in Action that talks about this theory where the more you connect people with nature the less harm they’ll do to everything: nature, themselves, others. That’s the number one tenet. Your collaborating in these classes but you also don’t want to get in the way of that natural experience. Climbing is a great one because it forces you to be in the present moment and two of the greatest things for humans is to connect with nature and being in the present moment. Those are the two main things for me as a leader.
What developments or evolutions would you like to see in outdoor leadership around Tahoe? How can the communities that benefit from this education as a whole better invest and better support the instructors and programs that supply this knowledge?
The college had this hiring process for their first Wilderness Director and I was lucky to sit in on this committee. This position had more PhDs that applied than the President did and I got to watch all these great outdoor educators from around the country, which was a great experience. One of the candidates had his studies in the psychology of your experience in the wilderness and we are just on the cusp of realizing the wilderness as medicine for the human body.
We all know this, we all know this is the best thing we can do for ourselves. But he really studied the physiology and science of time spent in nature and the psychological things it provides. Often as a modern human we have so many fake things to worry about and the wilderness is what grounds us and brings us back to our connection to the earth. It’s really the key to humanity, we don’t connect with nature and we are destroying it at a really rapid rate. Yes, we want to have some sort of wilderness education for everyone because it is part of being a human. If we don’t connect with nature we will destroy it and ourselves.
What are you excited about over these next couple weeks? What’s the next adventure?
I have this trip to the Dakotas and going to the Sundance Ceremony for the Sioux. The Sundance I believe honors Crazy Horse and I’ve always had an affinity for him from being a Native American myself. It’s not a climbing journey but a spiritual journey. In 2020 I dug into knowing who I am better and knowing my purpose and why, I think everybody did with more isolation time. This is the next step for me in understanding my roots and I think it’s going to reflect in my life somehow. It will put me even deeper into knowing nature better and in doing so knowing myself better.