Brought to you by
Living in Boulder, Colorado, a place that almost seemed to be one with nature, it would be difficult not to be interested in the outdoors. In this episode, Rick Saez is joined by Professional Rock Climber Jonathan Siegrist. Jonathan shares how his family influenced him to love the outdoors. He takes us to his journey of making a living out of his passion for outdoor activities, especially mountain biking and rock climbing, and why he decided to live by himself outdoors through a camper van. Join in this conversation as Jonathan tells us his incredible journey of turning passion into living. Tune in to discover how you could make your life brighter too with the outdoors!
Outdoor Living: A Modern-Day Nomad With Professional Rock Climber, Jonathan Siegrist
Welcome to episode 303 with Four Wheel Campers ambassador and professional rock climber, Jonathan Siegrist. Long before he started rock climbing, Jonathan had a passion for the mountains. He says, “Nothing can humble, invigorate and inspire me like the experience of interacting with the grand mountains of the world.” Although his dad encouraged him to explore climbing for years, it wasn’t until age eighteen that he fell in love with rock climbing. Welcome to the show, Jonathan.
Thank you. I’m happy to be here.
It’s good to talk with you. We’re pretty close. Too bad, we couldn’t have met somewhere in the middle and done this. That would have been fun. You’re over in Vegas and I’m in Bishop.
I know. Three and a half or four hours.
You know how it goes. Everybody’s busy and we got a lot going on. I always like to start off with, how were you introduced to the outdoors?
I was born in Madison, Wisconsin. I traveled quite a bit with my family as a young kid. My parents were interested in the outdoors, either be it boating in Wisconsin or doing some rock climbing at Devil’s Lake. We went outside quite a bit when I was a kid. When I was in middle school, we moved to Boulder, Colorado. My dad had a job opportunity there. At that point, in Boulder, it’s impossible not to be interested in the outdoors. I got involved in mountain biking when I was younger. After I graduated from high school, I got motivated to start climbing, which was around the age of eighteen.
Boulder was where you picked up climbing then?
Live at a certain standard so you don’t end up disappointing yourself.
Do you still do any boating at all? Do you do canoes on the great lakes there in Wisconsin? What kind of boating?
I can’t say that I was ever interested personally, that was just a family thing. I’ve done a little bit here and there. I love to do kayaking and stuff like that. If I’m in an awesome spot where renting a kayak is an option, I’ll go out. It would be a lie to call myself any kind of boater.
You’re a professional climber now, so once you pick up one of these sports and do it professionally, it pretty much takes over your whole life. You don’t have a lot of time for other things.
That is true, which is one of the least cool things about it, to be honest. I have been about mountain biking. I used to be into running in the mountains and sometimes going on hikes or whatever. For that matter, even like easy, whatever climbing. I’m quite ambitious. It’s hard for me to stray too far away from focusing on goals and pushing myself as much as I can. It tends to push away a lot of those other peripheral activities.
You said your dad encouraged you to explore rock climbing, but you didn’t act on that until you were eighteen. Was it the lack of opportunity in Wisconsin but in Boulder, it was in your face? You had to do it.
It was a little bit of that. We’re talking many years ago, when I was a kid. The landscape for climbing was different. The type of climbing my dad did is mostly trad climbing. It’s very slow. The leader does not fall. It was interesting but being a kid, I wanted to go fast and jump off things. Mountain biking was emerging as its own pursuit and climbing wasn’t so dynamic or rad as it is now. There weren’t gyms and youth teams everywhere. It was a different landscape. If I grew up now, I’d probably be way more interested at a younger age but back then, mountain biking and skating were interesting to me. Climbing had to wait until I had enough patience before anything else.
That’s pretty accurate. All these sports have changed. These climbing, mountain biking and things were like fringe sports back then but now, they’ve exploded on the scene. It’s great to see some of these things in the Olympics too.
I have mixed feelings about climbing in the Olympics, to be honest. Generally speaking, I love more people being outside, finding love and enjoyment for the natural world. Also, there are plenty of ways to waste time as a human being. At least, in my opinion, being outside, doing any activity is not one of them. I’m happy to see people getting more interested in these sports.
Don’t sit around watching the tube, get outside. I also read that you’re recovering from an injury. How’s that going?
It’s good. Thanks for asking. At the height of COVID, I crashed on my mountain bike. I separated my AC joint badly on my left shoulder. I had a couple of months there where I had to be low-key. Now, I forget which side of my body it was even on. Nothing residual at all. Ironically, my left shoulder is stronger now because I spent so much time and energy rehabbing the left side. I often notice that my right side is the one that holds me back. It’s hilarious how that stuff ends up.
You put so much time and attention in that left shoulder probably, so that’s what happens. Tell our audience how you became a professional rock climber. What was the inspiration for that?
It was never like, “Climbing is my passion and that’s what I want to do for a career.” It evolved slowly and organically. I was going to college in Boulder. I went to a college called Naropa University, a private school there. I loved my time there. I was climbing more or less recreationally but I discovered that I was pretty good at it. I’m not going to say that I was some savant but I was good at it. On top of that, I enjoyed it and I fell addicted to it like so many people have. It all started with a friend of a friend who had a shoe sponsor and they got me in the back door. It truly evolved from I had sponsors where I was getting a couple of free things a year, to then I had a little bit of a travel budget.
Eventually, after some time, I was able to sign on with companies and get actual retainers and started paying the bills with climbing money. It couldn’t have happened more gradually. It was like one year, I’d make a couple of thousand dollars. The next year I could be like, “Now, I can quit my part-time job but I have to live in the truck.” The next year, it was like, “I can afford to rent an apartment and not live in my truck.” I never necessarily saw that as an opportunity. Every year, it got a little bit better until gratefully very much so, I’m at the point now where it’s my total income.
Since it grew organically like that, it probably kept you more focused on it as opposed to the pressure to make money or perform for a sponsor or something.
I think so. Mainly, the other thing that it did for me was that I learned to live at a certain standard. For a long time, I lived in my pickup truck on probably $10,000 a year. Despite making more money, I’m not making a ton of money by any means, but making more than that, I’ve been able to live well below my means. That’s given me the opportunity to save a lot of money and make some smart moves with my money and stuff, which for a professional athlete, especially in an industry like climbing where you barely make that much. I am in a good position now to where hopefully, if I can keep things up for another five years or so, I should at least have something going on for myself other than just the climbing thing because I have to assume that I’m not going to get another two decades out of this.
It’s always changing. You never know. In 2011, you said you became a full-time nomad also. You’re on the road or living out of the truck. What was the catalyst for that?
It was the situation where I had a part-time job working at a climbing gym. I was making enough money between the part-time job and the sponsors to pay the bills. I realized that if I move into my truck, I can live on $8,000 a year. Not only that but also, there are so many areas and so much awesome stuff to do in this country. That is the best way for me to be free, mobile, climb and experience all these different areas. More or less, from 2011 until 2018, I lived in my truck. Occasionally, I crashed at my parents’ house or a friend’s house but for the most part, I was living on my truck that whole time.
Did you travel around the US?
I travelled the US a ton. I visited a lot of the best climbing areas and spent lots of great nights outside. It was an incredible time in my life and I’m grateful for it.
There are a lot of stories to tell when you experience living outdoors.
Are you a photographer? Do you take photos?
I take some photos. I’m an Instagram photographer.
We all are these days.
I couldn’t claim myself the proper photographer but I do enjoy taking photos.
You got some pics on your trips, though, in the places you’ve climbed and all that stuff.
I always try and get photos. That’s always helpful for my sponsors too. It’s a fun thing to do on a rest day. It’s a fun way to have another goal or task or activity in between climbing.
You can do all the editing on rainy days. How did you get involved with Four Wheel Campers?
I had been living out of a truck with a normal cab, nothing fancy at all. I was camping, cooking and living outside of the truck. The only thing you do in the truck is sleep. It was quite interesting because a couple of years ago, I went to an area called Rifle Mountain Park, which is in Colorado. It’s a super famous rock climbing, sport climbing area. I was there with my girlfriend and we were doing it like living in the back of the truck. We always were camping or cooking outside in the rain and all this.
It used to be that even having a truck was a luxury because you’d be in a tent. Here I am in Rifle and every single person in Rifle is in a van or some kind of sweet setup. Mostly vans, to be honest. I said, “I’ve got a little bit of money now. It’s time to properly upgrade my situation. It would be nice to sit inside. It’d be nice to have a refrigerator.” I’ve been dealing with swapping over ice in coolers for too long. Four Wheel Campers, I’ve known of them forever because it’s the gold standard for badass trucks.
I reached out to them and I said, “I’m deeply involved in the industry. I’m living out of my truck. If I’m not in Europe, I’m pretty much in my truck traveling around. I’d love to get together and figure something out and work out some partnership.” They were awesome. They started to push into the rock climbing market. The timing couldn’t have been any better. I was ambitious to help them out. They were psyched to have a partnership with me too. I got the camper last September 2020. I bet I’ve spent 6 or 7 months in it in 2020. I’ve put a lot of wear and tear on it in the best way. I love that thing.
I was over at the factory. My brother lives in Folsom and my dad’s over there. I went over there for a visit and talked to Dan and he was around. I put my head in there. It was full of campers. It was pretty impressive in size, but their quality and workmanship are beautiful.
It’s impressive. The first step for me was to go to Sacramento and go to the factory to properly see everything being done. I watched them forklift the camper into my truck. It was cool. I’ve done a couple of trips with the Four Wheel Campers Squad. Everybody’s rad. There’s a lot of passion there. It’s one of those things that it’s so easy to dork out on. It doesn’t matter if you’re a climber, a fisherman, a mountain biker or you’re just a guy or a girl who wants to go hiking, sightseeing or whatever. Everyone can dork out on, “How nice it is to have a shower. What color are the seats?” It’s a fun community to be a part of, for sure.
It’s so much more comfortable, you’re right. I have a little Subaru so I sleep in the Subaru sometimes, which is great and getting out but you’re still living outside. You’re cooking outside. Whatever the weather is, you got to cook in it. You are not cooking in the back of the Subaru. It’s tricky. What are the three things you like most about Four Wheel Camper? I don’t know the feature sets that they come with, but Dan walked me through a few things and it’s impressive.
Mine is tricked out. We got a nice one that I’m proud of. The three favorite things, one is quite simple and that is their refrigerator. I’ve got a refrigerator and a freezer. It’s simple, but so much of the time that I was living out of my truck, I was intentionally choosing vegetables that were hardy so that they wouldn’t go bad. The thought of having blueberries, for instance. That’s a very foreign thought. I was never thinking about that. The other thing that’s quite nice is when you’re done climbing, you’re guaranteed to have a cold beer waiting for you and stuff like that.
I got hot water on mine. It’s an expensive option, so I wasn’t sure about it but my girlfriend and I both agreed that it’s an absolute must because there’s an outside shower, which I use every night. The hot water tank is plenty big enough. I’ve done trips where I’ve spent 4 or 5 days out and taking showers every day and had no issues with it. That’s awesome.
The third one is a pretty simple one, but being able to stand up. I spent a lot of time in my truck. When the weather’s bad, I would go up in the front of the truck to do some work or to hang out or whatever. Having the ability to stand up and to stretch. The inside of mine is like 6’4”. I’m only 5’6”, so it’s plenty of space for me. I can do yoga there.
Do pull-ups and stuff.
In that regard, those three things are life-changing. I can’t even tell you the level of comfort that comes along with it.
I’ve seen some of the group trips that they go into. Those look pretty fun. It looks like a fun group. What are those experiences like? There must be a bunch of other climbers and outdoor folks along, fly fishermen or whatnot.
It’s so fun. We did one with a good buddy of mine who’s an excellent photographer, mostly a skateboard photographer but he’s crossed over into the outdoor space as well. His name is Matt.
We have to get him on the show. Let him come on the show.
I can connect you. He’s awesome.
That would be great. Let’s do it.
He and I, a number of other photographers, a couple of other people from the Four Wheel Campers family, we did a trip up to Tahoe. We did some climbing and took photos. We did some paddleboarding. It’s awesome. It’s so fun with everybody. It’s a cool feeling to be in your truck. You have all that you need for 4 or 5 days. You can go off-road if you need to. Wherever the wind takes you quite literally, you’re going to be comfortable. It’s a feeling of freedom that having a tent or the normal trucks set up or whatever does not afford you.
You nailed it with the living inside because you’re in a truck or a Subaru. You have a nice chest. You got the ice and the water, melt that ice, stuff goes bad, the cold beer. I’m envious of you being on the road all the time. It’s always been my dream. I’m a little older now but I’m still trying to pull it off at some point.
I’ve seen plenty of people out on the road that are retired or are on their way.
There is a feeling of freedom in having a tent set up that does not afford you.
Age is just a number. It means nothing. Let’s shift gears a little bit again. What other outdoor activities do you participate in besides climbing? You mountain bike a little bit, obviously.
Mountain biking is the one that I’m the most passionate about other than climbing. I love it. I used to live in Colorado. Now, I live in Las Vegas. When I lived in Colorado or when I parked my truck in Colorado, I did quite a bit of riding there. I miss riding in Colorado.
What’s it like in the summer? Is it too hot?
It’s hot but we have some mountains, even up to 10,000 feet, 12,000 feet that are nearby that offer quite a bit of reprieve. Other than that, I used to ski quite a bit but I don’t do as much of that anymore.
Do you fish?
No. The closest thing to being active in any other realm is going on hikes and walking up mountains and being outside. For the most part, it’s rock climbing and occasionally some mountain biking.
Those are good activities. Where are you headed next? What’s your next adventure out of Vegas?
I’ll leave for Italy. I am celebrating the ability to travel internationally again. Since COVID, I was doing a ton of time in the truck in and around the US. I got back from France. I was there for about a month. Now I am leaving for Italy. I’ll be there for five weeks or so. After that, I’ll be back around Las Vegas and a little bit in Colorado. I’m going to do some climbing in Texas. That’s as far as I got things planned out.
That sounds like a good fall and early winter. That’d be great. Italy is a great place.
Staying busy for sure.
Do you have any suggestions or advice for folks wanting to get into rock climbing or become a pro athlete like you are?
For people that want to get into rock climbing, there are 450 climbing gyms in the country now. That’s a good place to learn and to meet people and get proficient. There’s also a lot of people out there that live in places like Madison, Wisconsin. You’ve got Devil’s Lake close by and that’s an awesome place to learn if there’s an outdoor club or something like that. In places like Salt Lake City or Bend, Oregon or Boulder, there are tons of climbing nearby. Depending on the type of climbing you want to get into, no matter what, you need friends that are into it as well. The best place to meet friends and people is at the climbing gym and take it from there. If you choose to go outside and check some stuff out, that’s a great way to start.
A climbing gym is a good place to learn too.
It’s a super good place to learn. It’s pretty safe. The key component of enjoying climbing and doing trips and improving as well is to meet a good group of people that are motivated as you are.
How about becoming a pro? What do you think about advice on becoming a pro? It’s got to be a pretty big commitment and dedication.
Yes. The industry is changing quite a bit. When I first started climbing, the only way to be a professional climber was to be one of the best in the country or in the world. Now, it’s a little different because ultimately, being a professional climber is about inspiring people and helping brands create marketing material. For myself and for some people who have spent a little bit more time in the industry, it’s also for research and development, helping those brands create products, and make those products last and perform the way that you’d want them to.
There are ways to be a professional and tell stories that are interesting. You don’t necessarily have to be of cutting-edge ability. One great example would be you live in your Four Wheel Camper and you travel all over the US. You’re not one of the best climbers in the world but you go to a lot of places that people are interested in. That’s a great story. That’s something that companies could align themselves with. There are more ways now to be a professional. To be an athletic professional, it’s like anything else. It’s grinding, being patient, and putting in the work.
You’re right because when I first got into the outdoor industry, there weren’t that many ways to be a pro. If you’re a sponsored athlete and a badass climber, you were a pro. Now, there are a bunch of ways for you to go make a living at climbing, skiing or fishing than there were back then. That’s good advice.
What it all comes down to is that there are a lot of stories to tell. The story of being a bone crusher and a strong rock climber. That’s an interesting story. That’s one that I’m interested in and a lot of people are interested in that. I even think of an interesting story as, “This is me and I’m a new climber and here’s my perspective of being a new climber.” Another story would be, “I’m a seasoned climber and I’ve been everywhere. I might not be the strongest, but I can relate to the history and all the context of all these different places that I’ve been to.”
Do you have any other daily routines you use to keep your sanity?
The things that keep my sanity more than anything are my dogs. We’ve got two dogs. I’ve got one that’s a beagle, border collie mix and one that’s like a little kelpie. They both look quite similar. They both look like herding dogs. They’re the best. Taking them on walks and keeping them happy. They keep me sane. They provide a laugh every single day, no matter what my mood.
Dogs can be goofy sometimes. Do you have any favorite books or books you give as gifts?
I like Tommy Caldwell’s book, which is called The Push. He’s a friend of mine and someone that I’ve looked up to for my whole life. It’s interesting what experiences he’s been through that have molded him into the incredible athlete and person that he is. My favorite book of all time is Ishmael. It’s often like college reading, but it’s an interesting perspective environmentally on the role of human beings on Earth and the effect that human beings can have on Earth, animals and culture. I go back to it quite a bit. Those are probably my faves.
How about your favorite outdoor gear purchase under $100?
What I got in 2020 that I enjoyed, MSR makes it, it’s $45 and it’s a super tiny water purifier. It’s like a hand pump. You have a little hose and you dump it in a stream. It all packs up in your bag. It’s really small. I love it because a lot of the climbing areas I go to, there’s a stream close to the cliff. Sometimes even at the cliff. If I’m normally carrying 2 liters of water and all of a sudden I’m not and I’m carrying this tiny thing, I can fill up crystal clear cold mountain water whenever easily. It’s great. That’s been one of my favorite things. I don’t buy a whole lot these days because my brands take care of me pretty well, but that one I paid for and I enjoyed it.
To be an athletic professional is all about grinding, being patient, and putting in the work.
As we wrap up, is there anything else you want to ask or say to our audience?
Not at all. I appreciate the opportunity to chat with you. I’d love to grab a coffee or something next time I’m in the Eastern Sierra. I go out there.
You go to Bishop and look me up. That’d be great.
I love climbing up there and hitting the hot springs up there and stuff. I will look you up if I’m in the area.
There are lots of fun stuff to do. Where can people find you if they want to follow up?
Instagram is the best. I used to maintain a blog but people’s patience ran thin. It seemed like it was better to post a photo. I don’t do Facebook at all anymore or Twitter. Instagram is the way and it’s my name. It’s @JonathanSiegrist. I post on there a bunch, so that’s the best way to keep up.
Thanks, Jonathan. It’s been good chatting with you. I look forward to seeing you over here in the Eastern Sierra sometime.
Thanks so much. I appreciate it. Thanks for the opportunity.
Take it easy.
About Jonathan Siegrist
Long before I started rock climbing, I had a passion for the mountains. Nothing can humble, invigorate and inspire me like the experience of interacting with the grand mountains of the world. Although my Dad had encouraged me to explore climbing for years, it was not until I was 18 that I fell in love with rock climbing after trying bouldering as a form of cross training for downhill mountain bike racing.
From the very beginning of my journey with climbing I have continually pursued my limits and raced after goals. The experience has been life changing, and as a result I feel deeply indebted to the community and the natural world. Now climbing has emerged as a vehicle for travel (another strong passion of mine), a dynamic set of challenges and a lifestyle I very much enjoy.
During the summer of 2011, I took the logical next step in my pursuit of climbing by giving up any fixed address, buying a pick-up and hitting the road indefinitely. Now, with the helpful support of my sponsors, I’m motivated more than ever to stay traveling and climbing all year.
Since I started in 2004 my climbing has been in constant evolution. I’ve really learned to love the process involved with setting goals and striving to achieve them. Hard climbing is invariably defined by more failure than success, but every once and a while I manage to get things done– the feeling of hard work rewarded with accomplishment is incredible; it’s what keeps me going.