In the summer of 1986, a young man named Saul Gilbert arrived in the Yosemite Valley with $60 in his pocket to call his own.
At 20 years old, the climber made his way to the High Sierra mountains after flunking out of college on the East Coast. There between the towering walls of granite stretching thousands of feet into the sky, he sought his friend, Frank Stratton.
Gilbert hoped to join Stratton and work in the valley, but in a matter of a few weeks, the pair stood beside a road near Suicide Rock, 420 miles south, depleted of food and money in the Southern California heat, thumbs in the air.
Now, at 54 years old, Gilbert lives in Utah, working as a painter for Salt Lake Community College. It’s not his dream job, but it allows him to fuel his passion for rock climbing and the outdoors, something for which Utah is renowned worldwide. As long as he has this, he finds himself happy.
“I’m excited about life,” says Gilbert. “I’ve got a passion.”
Utah, a hub for those seeking outdoor excitement in the West, draws people from all over the country.
“Utah leads the nation in outdoor recreation. Opportunities for outdoor recreation in Utah are as diverse as the people who enjoy them,” states the Governor’s Council on Balanced Resources and the Outdoor Recreation Advisory Group.
From skiing on the “Greatest Snow on Earth” to backpacking its backcountry, Utah offers something to everyone. In 2018, between the state’s national parks, state parks and ski resorts, visitors spent $9.75 billion, according to the David Eccles School of Business. Utah’s five national parks alone recorded 10.7 million visitors.
On top of these parks, the state lures Gilbert with its numerous offering of climbing.
“I’m happy with life,” says Gilbert. “I’ve got something that I love to do. That’s all there is to it.”
Gilbert understands there is no need to wish for anything more.
“Once you start wishing, you might as well wish for 100 million dollars,” he says.
His positive attitude reaches more than just himself. His boss at the college, MJ Thompson, admires his consistently positive attitude and openness.
“He lives a life he loves,” she says. “I find that very appealing.”
As a kid, Gilbert never could have imagined how life would turn out. In fact, he once wanted to be a veterinarian. Nevertheless, his adventurous and free-spirited soul always allowed him to find enjoyment in the outdoors.
“I always loved to play in the woods,” he says. Gilbert recalls exciting days in his childhood on which he would ride down his hometown’s Saddle River and climb into the wealthier kids’ backyards.
In high school, Gilbert’s friend Ken, who had taken a course with the National Outdoor Leadership School, introduced rock climbing to him. Gilbert and his friends would then climb anywhere they could, often on railroad bridges because of the lack of mountains in Illinois, or at Devil’s Lake, Wisconsin, a few hours north from their home.
Paul Mazzie, one of Gilbert’s high school climbing friends, met him at a summer camp in their youth and they have continued to climb together for many years since.
“He is my closest, longest friend,” says Mazzie. “I really don’t have any parallels to him.”
When the time came, Gilbert went to Boston to attend Brandeis University. Initially, he wanted to become a teacher to have the summers off for climbing. However, he recalls having too much fun and flunking out in 1985, then living out the summer in Madison.
He then decided to set his sights on Yosemite National Park, hoping to reach Stratton, a friend he had met while taking his own NOLS course, who was working for Curry Village in the valley.
“I had half a round-trip ticket left that I used to fly out to San Francisco,” says Gilbert.
From there, he took a bus across the San Mateo bridge and hitchhiked all the way to Yosemite.
“Hitchhiking … you definitely can’t do it anymore,” he says. “There are too many crazies.”
When he arrived in Yosemite, Stratton had just quit his job at Curry Village the day before.
“He was going on this climbing tour of California,” says Gilbert. “I was like, ‘alright.’” So he, Stratton and another friend headed south.
The following weeks were spent traveling through California, eating ramen and mac ’n’ cheese, and climbing in Tuolumne, Joshua Tree National Park, Taquitz Peak, and Suicide Rock.
“It was the dream,” he says, “going around, climbing places.”
However, when Gilbert lost his wallet to a thief in Venice Beach and the third friend on the tour left them, things began to get tricky. He and Stratton soon found themselves near Suicide Rock, out of food and money, “eating ketchup packets and whatever was free from 7-Eleven,” according to Gilbert.
Eventually, another climber by the name of Alex Hogle picked them up and drove them to Park City.
“It was a small, beautiful mountain town,” says Gilbert. “Mountains everywhere.” He lived there for the next four years, working restaurant jobs at night and playing during the day. Mazzie eventually moved out west and lived with Gilbert in Park City for a time.
In 1990, Gilbert moved to Salt Lake City where he returned to school, attending both the University of Utah and Westminster College, getting a degree in English and a teaching certificate.
Gilbert went on to teach at Granite High School and Matheson Junior High School, but found it was not something he wanted to continue.
“Some people can do it,” he says, “but I couldn’t.”
After having a job with Salt Lake County Parks and Recreation for some time, Gilbert saw an opening for a painting job with SLCC’s Facilities Department. He began that job in 2006, and he continues it today.
“It’s an honest job, that’s something I like about it,” says Gilbert.
Today, with Utah as home base, he climbs and travels all over the world with his partner of four years, LeAnn Jones, having visited Belize, Guatemala, and Thailand.
“We have lots of fun rock climbing stories,” says Jones. “Sometimes we get into some sketchy situations, but so far we’ve lived to laugh about them later.”
Always coming back to Salt Lake, Gilbert finds time to experience Utah’s great outdoors in the Wasatch Mountains, going climbing and exploring on the weekends.
“You need the outdoors in some part of your life,” he says. “That’s where I personally experience spirituality.”
Throughout his life, Gilbert has centered himself in this passion for climbing and the outdoors.
“You need something to care about,” he says.
For those who know him, Gilbert embodies the spirit of experiencing life to its fullest.
“He wrings the most out of every experience,” says Mazzie. “He has a zest for life I definitely admire.”