WORTHINGTON, Minn. — An outdoors enthusiast has discovered a unique way to travel the United States: in a rock climbing harness.
Jeremiah LeTourneau of Worthington began rock climbing several years ago as a student at Winona State University. He and a friend liked to backpack together, and they set a goal to visit the highest topographic point in every U.S. state.
While working on this feat, they realized that to see the highest points of some states, they'd have to learn to rock climb and navigate ice. So they did.
From there, LeTourneau developed a passion for the sport, and now plans his life around when he can climb.
Just this spring, LeTourneau reached a new milestone toward his goal: a visit to Humphreys Peak, Arizona means that he's now seen the highest point of each of the contiguous United States, leaving only Alaska (highest point: Mount McKinley) and Hawaii (Mauna Kea).
These trips are largely about rock climbing, but LeTourneau also makes each excursion a cultural experience, too — he dives into local culinary offerings and gets to know the residents of the places he visits.
As a high school math teacher, he schedules climbs around school breaks. Long weekends allow him to explore the Northland thoroughly, including the Black Hills in South Dakota; Devil's Lake State Park in Wisconsin; Minnesota's North Shore; and remote areas of North Dakota. Longer breaks take him a little farther afield.
A native of Hinckley, Minn., LeTourneau never traversed the nearby Robinson Ice Park while growing up, but now he frequents the former sandstone quarry when he goes home to visit family.
"Rock climbing brings you to places that nobody else gets to see," LeTourneau said.
He also loves the meditative aspect of the sport.
"Your mind is quiet," he said. "So much of the sport is mental."
It's mental in a different way than a sport like running, which participants frequently report is an avenue of active emotional processing. Rather, there's a sense of flow — foot, foot, hand, hand — that allows LeTourneau to be present in the moment.
Camaraderie also plays an important role in LeTourneau's passion. He's met folks from all over the place during his travels. Rock climbing can be dangerous, so having a friend that you trust can be the difference between life and death. When a climb gets tough, he has to be vulnerable and say to his buddy, "I'm scared." Climbers help each other manage their emotions through difficult spots.
Climbers are an inclusive group, LeTourneau said. The community wants to share knowledge and is invested in safety. Anyone who wants to learn, can — and climbing is for everyone, he said. There's a common misconception that only people with a certain body type or age can be successful climbers, but LeTourneau has worked with a wide range of new climbers.
To get started, all anyone has to do is go to a local climbing gym and ask for help, LeTourneau said. Seasoned climbers will be glad to pass along what they've learned over the years.
Climbing takes up a lot of space in LeTourneau's mind, as his students can attest. While writing quadratic equations for his Algebra 3 or Applied Math students to practice, he often features climbing in word problems. At a recent climbing event, his worlds collided in reverse — while explaining his job to a group of climbers, he taught them about how quadratics might apply to rock climbing, such as by calculating the trajectory of a belay off of a cliff face.
School hours also make it convenient for him to spend evenings at the climbing gym in Sioux Falls, S.D., meeting other climbers and practicing skills, especially in the winter, when it's more difficult to get out to climbs.
In order to fully center climbing in his life, LeTourneau has decided to bring his home on the road. Wherever he goes, he brings his cargo van, in the back of which he's set up a queen-sized bed, a makeshift closet and everything he needs to live his life. He does laundry at a friend's house while he's home in Worthington.
Living the simple life has been freeing — "I can only wear one shirt at a time," LeTourneau noted, adding that his extreme space limitations help him avoid accumulating too many possessions.
After school lets out in a couple of weeks, LeTourneau will try a new kind of climb — Big Wall in Yosemite National Park, a multi-day climb that will require him to sleep propped up on the rock face. He's excited for the new adventure.
Although he's been to many places over the years, LeTourneau said his favorite place to return to is the Black Hills.
"Nobody knows about the great spots (there)," he said.
At the time of publication, LeTourneau is actually in the Black Hills, climbing Devil's Tower May 15.
Eventually, he'd like to take his passion abroad and explore vistas all over the world, but it's important to him to get as much as he can out of his native country's grandeur.
"I want to really appreciate what the U.S. has to offer first," LeTourneau said. "I don't want to take what I already have for granted."