Senator John Hickenlooper climbs a crag over Clear Creek Canyon in Golden, Colorado. (Photo: Alton Richardson/Protect Our Winters)

A Morning Scramble with John Hickenlooper and Tommy Caldwell

Colorado’s John Hickenlooper has straddled the divide between industry and the environment. Now the U.S. senator is trying to create a climate-oriented voting bloc comprised of outdoor enthusiasts.


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Colorado senator John Hickenlooper only climbs with the best. He first hit the rocks a decade ago in Boulder with a friend of a friend named Lynn Hill, who is best known for making the first free ascent of the Nose on El Capitan in Yosemite. The second time the senator went climbing, on a chilly morning this September, his belayer was Tommy Caldwell, a man widely considered to be among the best climbers of all time.

After Caldwell helped Hickenlooper tie into his harness and informed the 69-year-old that no, you shouldn’t put orthotic inserts in climbing shoes, he demonstrated an ascent of a slab of rock overlooking the newly opened Clear Creek Trail in the Denver suburb of Golden. Caldwell bounded up the section, rated 5.4, like a spider climbing a wall. Then he made his way back down, belayed by Norie Kizaki of the Colorado Mountain School, and it was the senator’s turn.

A small group of spectators formed as Hickenlooper scrambled up the rock, using his hands, feet, and knees—which can be considered an “advanced technique,” he reminded me afterward. He got about ten feet high, by my estimate, before declaring, “I think this is good.” When his feet touched the ground, everyone cheered, including three women in pink jackets who had paused their morning stroll to watch.

Hickenlooper told me he’s afraid of heights, and that the morning’s climb required “a tremendous amount of courage.” Then, like a good politician, he used the topic of courage to segue toward the item topping his political agenda this year—climate change.

“I think when you’re talking about climate change, and trying to get the country to have the courage to face the issue head-on,” he said, “me overcoming my innate fear and kind of digging deep, that’s sort of what the country’s gotta do.”

Climate change is what brought Caldwell and Hickenlooper together for the climbing session. The two met through Protect Our Winters, an environmental nonprofit that seeks to form a climate-oriented voting bloc of outdoor enthusiasts. The group organized the climb to draw attention to President Biden’s infrastructure bill and to urge senators like Hickenlooper not to back down on the climate provisions in the reconciliation package.

Hickenlooper was one of 22 senators who drafted the infrastructure bill, which calls for billions of dollars in new federal spending on roads, bridges, and trains, as well as investments in public transit and electric-vehicle charging stations. That bill passed on August 10 with bipartisan support in the Senate.

But many of the measures needed to curb greenhouse-gas emissions have been shunted to the $1.85 trillion budget package that Democrats are currently trying to pass through reconciliation, a process that allows Congress to pass budgetary measures with a simple majority. Even a simple majority is tenuous for Democrats, who control half the Senate, with Vice President Kamala Harris potentially acting as a tie-breaking vote. The biggest thorn in the party’s side is moderate West Virginia senator Joe Manchin, whose insistence that Democrats lower the package’s price tag stripped it of one of its key climate measures, a $150 billion program that would have paid utility companies to switch to clean energy. The plan is set to include billions of dollars of tax incentives for clean energy and electric vehicles.

For Caldwell, a switch to clean energy cannot come soon enough. Climbing may not be as climate dependent as snow sports, but he’s noticed his share of environmental changes during his decades outdoors. It’s now too dangerous to climb in places like Patagonia, Chile, because of increased rockfall during thaws, and the climbing season in Yosemite has been pushed back by a month in the past decade, he said. “I used to go in October,” he noted. “Now I don’t even bother going until November, because it’s too hot.”

That’s not to mention the personal effects of a warming world. Caldwell said he and his family have been evacuated from their Estes Park, Colorado, home three times in the past five years due to wildfires, and another blaze ripped through the forest surrounding his house in Yosemite.

Hickenlooper, for his part, fell in love with the outdoors while studying volcanic rocks in the Absaroka Mountains north of Yellowstone National Park for his master’s thesis. He went on to work as a petroleum geologist for an oil and gas company after graduating—“the greenest oil and gas company that you could ever imagine,” he said—and he continues to maintain strong ties with the industry. He upholds his position that fracking is safe and necessary, and he’s accepted donations from oil and gas companies throughout his political career, including at least $325,000 from Anadarko Petroleum and Noble Energy during his second term as governor, according to the Colorado Sun.

The senator views these ties as an asset in the fight against climate change. “No matter how big their company is, no matter how strongly they want to grow and find new reserves, we’re going to transition to a clean-energy economy,” he said. “It’s happening now. It’s going to accelerate. They should be part of that.”

Hickenlooper’s ties to oil and gas have opened him up to his fair share of criticism, and he knows it. “They still call me Frackenlooper,” he said. As recently as 2010, he expressed doubts about the catastrophic nature of climate change. More recently, he’s been a vocal critic of the Green New Deal, which he says sets “unachievable goals.” But now Hickenlooper appears to be straddling the line between progressivism and industry, touting his climate bona fides without committing to the type of clean break from fossil fuels that environmentalists demand.

Both the senator and the climber believe that the transition to green energy should be fueled by industry. While Hickenlooper sees a carbon tax or a clean-energy standard as a free-market solution to the climate crisis, Caldwell and Protect Our Winters are relying on the millions of people around the world who work in the outdoor industry to effect change.

Caldwell, an ambassador for the eco-friendly apparel brand Patagonia, said that his work with the company has showed him that advancing environmental issues “isn’t only great for the world. It’s great for business, too.”

Even as the reconciliation bill faces an uphill battle in the Senate, both Hickenlooper and Caldwell find solace in how the conversation around climate change has shifted in recent years, from debates over whether the earth is really warming to solutions for curbing emissions. And while he doesn’t get to spend much time outdoors these days, Hickenlooper relishes any chance he gets to enjoy nature, even if it’s just an hour on the rock.

“Wilderness allows me to have a certain optimism and belief in our future,” he said. “We’re at that cusp of a new awareness that we are one of many species on this planet, and that the ecosystem needs a balance and diversity to be successful.”

Lead Photo: Alton Richardson/Protect Our Winters