Photo Credit: Jared Ogden

Rock climber and explorer Mark Synnott on conservation and the importance of getting kids outdoors.

Mark Synnott has explored some of the most challenging mountains on Earth. Now, he is using his rock climbing expertise to help science and inspire kids.

Next Generation Science Standards:

  • HS-LS4-1. Communicate scientific information that common ancestry and biological evolution are supported by multiple lines of empirical evidence.
  • HS-LS4-6. Create or revise a simulation to test a solution to mitigate adverse impacts of human activity on biodiversity.*

Key Vocabulary: evolution, genetic isolation, common ancestor, biodiversity

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MolecularCladogramStudentSheet

For over 30 years, rock climber Mark Synnott has been exploring some of the most remote places on Earth. From scaling a 6000-foot wall in Pakistan’s Karakoram Mountains to spending 36 nights in a row ascending the Polar Sun Spire on Canada’s Baffin Island, Synott’s travels have taken him to parts of the planet no human has ever been. This lifetime of adventure has fostered an unparalleled sense of environmental stewardship in Synott. Many of his recent expeditions have guided ecologist Dr. Bruce Means through the table-top mountains (called tepuis) in South America to catalog previously undiscovered species of frogs.

Synnott’s new book, The Impossible Climb: Alex Honnold, El Capitan, and the Climbing Life, explains the gritty subculture of rock climbers through Honnold’s ascent of El Capitan’s 3,000 feet of sheer granite without the use of ropes, harnesses or other protective equipment. I spoke with Synnot recently about what his adventures have taught him about conservation and how we can inspire the next generation of explorers. The following interview has been edited lightly for clarity.

Chris Anderson: You’ve been to some of the most remote places on the planet. How has the wilderness changed since you’ve first started exploring?

Mark Synnott: My experience has been that there is so much more wilderness left than we thought. I can’t say that I’ve noticed a huge amount of encroachment and that’s a positive and hopeful thing. I’ve lived in the White Mountains of New Hampshire most of my life and I’ve spent a lot of time in Yosemite and it’s the same thing. There are places under threat, but the places I’ve spent a lot of time have been maintained and protected.

The biggest thing you notice is the crowds. While it’s definitely a problem in some places, it’s also a good thing. It means that people are going to see and appreciate these beautiful places. It’s way better than the other way around – if the national parks weren’t being visited it would mean no one cared. We want people to care, especially kids. They are the ones we are passing the torch to and if they don’t care, we are in serious trouble.

Synnott, camping on the sheer face of a mountain (Photo Credit: Mark Synnott)

CA: On that note, how can get kids who don’t have easy access to public lands or experience in the wilderness to care about conservation?

MS: More than anything, we’ve got to get kids outdoors. It doesn’t have to be a national park, even Central Park would work! Let’s go look at nature! Let’s do some bird watching! Let’s learn how to identify trees! The most important thing is to get kids into nature any way we can.  

Another thing we should keep in mind is that you can explore no matter where you are. Even if you live in a city or if you don’t have access to outdoor opportunities, you can still explore! And the coolest thing about exploring is the people you meet. In all the crazy places in the world that I’ve been to, people have been living there.

CA: Some of your adventures have involved helping ecologist Bruce Means find and catalog some of the rarest frog species on Earth. What has that taught you about biodiversity?  

MS: Bruce, by cataloging species in the Amazon, understands the health of the ecosystem and has taught me the biodiversity of our planet is under threat. We are losing species, and in some cases, we are losing species before we even have a chance to discover them. It’s a really sad thing. We don’t know what they might have been or how they fit into the web of life. So while there is a lot of wilderness left out there, ecosystems are under threat and most of the changes are subtle that you can’t notice with your own eyes. It’s a real thing that is happening on our planet.

Where Bruce and I have been exploring is particularly under threat because of the incredible natural resources in that area, mining for diamonds and forestry and in particular. I believe a road is currently being built, and as soon as it’s built, the miners and loggers will come in and start tearing it up. It’s what has been happening all over the Amazon jungle and species are dying off. I don’t see a lot of that in New Hampshire, but down there, it’s like the Wild West.

One of the things I want people to take away from my talk that if you get out and explore the natural world, you’ll love it – because it’s natural to protect the things we love and care about. If we don’t know what’s out there, most people aren’t going to care. But if you go out it for yourself, it’s a different story.

Synnott and Alex Honnold, who was the first person to climb El Capitan without the use of ropes or harnesses. (Photo Credit: Mark Synnott).

CA: So how can we keep inspiring conservation and adventure in young people during the age that places a high value on “clicks” and “likes”? Is it harder to protect the environment if people are going out into nature for the sake of the social media post?

There might be some people that go out to the mountains for the picture, but, hey, at least we got them out the mountains! They didn’t take a selfie of themselves playing video games. My son sends a thousand Snapchats a day, if he went out into the woods and took one of those Snapchats, I’d be psyched!

My observation of this new, digital world is that it sucks people in so deep, they don’t go outside. They interact with people virtually instead of in the real world. A few months ago I was giving a talk in Kansas City and one of my climbing friends brought his 12-year-old along. At first, his kid was insistent on staying home. But afterward I spoke with him and he loved the talk and was even kind of inspired by it. What scares me is that people are so addicted to the stimulation from their screens that they stay inside.  If we get kids outside, we are winning.

Synnott’s new book.
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