For the people drifting in rafts and kayaks through the vast silence of Desolation Canyon, the circling plane must have been a puzzle. A King Air turbo prop, it flew low over the canyon rim, dipping its wings to make wide loops over the Tavaputs Plateau and the Green River.
Below, boaters slid along the muddy surface, snaking down one of the longest stretches of wild river in the Lower 48. Desolation and its downstream cousin, Gray Canyon, are not that hard to paddle, but if you want to get away from it all, there's no better place to do it. Deso-Gray will swallow you whole, then spit you out five days and 80 miles later, sun-baked and sandy and feeling as if you've emerged from a rust-tinted dream.
So what was up with the plane? It was too big for a search plane, and too far from anywhere to be an air-tour company from Moab, away to the south. Its passengers were staring down on a fractal landscape of canyons and creek beds and mile upon mile of wind- and sun-blasted desert. What were they looking for?
The plane, as it turns out, belonged to the governor of Utah, who at that time –– in 2004 –– was Olene Walker. Walker had given permission for a delegation of land managers and business representatives to make a reconnaissance flight over Deso-Gray. The group included a representative from the governor's office, high-ranking officials with the federal Bureau of Land Management, and major outdoor-industry delegates, including Peter Metcalf, CEO of Black Diamond Equipment, a Salt Lake City-based gear company. They were there to consider protecting the land along the river corridor from the oil and gas development that was marching steadily in its direction.
The flight represented a remarkable turnaround for Utah. In May 2003, Metcalf, whose company makes equipment for mountain climbers and telemark skiers, went toe-to-toe with Walker's predecessor, Michael Leavitt, over a backroom deal Leavitt had made with the Bush administration that stripped temporary wilderness protection from 2.6 million acres of federal lands and paved the way for roads through some of Utah's last wild places. Backed by the Outdoor Industry Association, a gear manufacturers' trade group, Metcalf gave Leavitt an ultimatum: He could either end his assault on the state's wild lands or say good-bye to the twice-a-year Outdoor Retailer show, which injects tens of millions of dollars a year into Salt Lake City's economy.
The showdown pitted conservative Western politics and traditional extractive industries against a new generation of business leaders and an economy nourished by backcountry recreationists. "For boating, backcountry skiing, hiking and climbing, our natural resource is wild landscapes -- the ones that are left," Metcalf says. "If we want to have a sustainable industry 20 years hence, we need to have these environments."
Remarkably, Leavitt listened to Metcalf. He agreed to moderate his position in the roads fight and not pursue rights of way through national parks and monuments or areas deemed worthy of wilderness protection. He also created a new outdoor industry panel to advise him on land-management decisions and develop a list of outdoor "gems" worthy of protection. Walker, his successor, followed suit.
The very fact that Metcalf flew in the governor's plane that day indicated the power that the outdoor industry can wield for conservation –– if its proprietors are willing to fight for the landscapes to which they owe their existence. But now, eight years later, many conservation efforts in the West have faltered, while the outdoor industry still searches for a unified voice. And Metcalf, the industry's most aggressive leader, has begun to wonder about his own involvement. Should he keep on struggling as an inside player, or can he accomplish more as an outside agitator?
Peter Metcalf grew up on Long Island. His mother was a German Jew who came to the United States after World War II, and his father was born in China and brought to the U.S. as a youth in the late 1930s, when the Japanese bombed the city of Guangzhau. During the McCarthy era, Peter's father lost a government job for being a suspected communist, but he later found work as an economist at First National City Bank in Manhattan.
Peter's boyhood heroes –– Huckleberry Finn and Spanky from The Little Rascals –– inspired him to follow a different path. He got his first taste of rock-climbing as a teenager on a weekend trip to the Shawangunks with the Appalachian Mountain Club. In 1973, as a senior in high school, Peter and three friends piled into a 1966 Volkswagen van and drove from Long Island to Prince Rupert, British Columbia. Outfitted with wool pants and shirts and leather boots, they pioneered a new route up Mount Fairweather, a 15,600-foot, ice-capped monster that looms over Alaska's Glacier Bay.
Over the next two decades, Metcalf tackled famously forbidding peaks in North America and Europe, making the first alpine-style ascent of Denali's Southeast Face and the first climb of Mount Foraker's Highway of Diamonds. To support his climbing habit, he did odd jobs, selling suits at J.C. Penney, working as a chain hand on oilrigs on the Overthrust Belt in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah, and leading trips for the Colorado Outward Bound School.
At Outward Bound, Metcalf met Congressman Mo Udall's son, the future Sen. Mark Udall. "Peter was a real risk-taker in the out-of-doors," Udall recalls.
Udall mentions one incident in particular. In 1980, he was at a base camp near Denali, preparing to climb nearby Mount Foraker. Almost two weeks earlier, Metcalf and two climbing partners left to attempt a daring first-ever alpine-style ascent on the 14,000-foot Mount Hunter. They were traveling light, with only six days' worth of food. Twelve days had passed since a bush pilot had dropped them on the glacier at the foot of Hunter's south face.
"People had begun to think they had met their end on the mountain," Udall recalls. "The only way to get off of that route was to go over the (mountain's) top. It was impossible to rappel back down once they were on the route."
But the next day, "these guys stumbled into camp looking like skeletons," Udall says. Their climb (which one of Metcalf's climbing partners, Glenn Randall, later described in a book called Breaking Point) was "a metaphor for Peter as a businessman," Udall says. "He's going up and over the top."