“So I’m in a new boat, thinking ‘I don’t know. Maybe I shouldn’t do this’. But I’m in it. The first big rapid: 35 foot falls. I went down the first 10 feet, it flattens out for a moment—just long enough for me to hit a boulder and flip and do the rest of it on my shoulder.”
When Sam’s not climbing, he’s getting after whitewater and waves. His basement in his Philly home is well stocked with all his outdoor toys—kayaks, canoes, surfboards, and a dirt bike among other things. He rarely sticks around town on weekends and works overtime in order to accrue vacation days for big trips across the country. He and his girlfriend, Megan, bought a van and he’s slowly been building it out with the plan for them to eventually travel in it full-time.
I first got to know Sam when we were regulars at the same climbing gym in Philly. I appreciated that he’d go out of his way to invite everyone he knew that might be interested in going out for an outdoor climb or a post-gym-session beer. About a year ago, he took me to upstate New York for my first trip to the Gunks. I was new to trad climbing, but he taught me a few things about placing trad gear and encouraged me to try leading my first trad route. He’s a laid back dude, but when he’s in mentor-mode he’s patient, supportive, and insightful.
Sam and Megan came out to Arizona this past January for the latter half of a surfing and climbing trip, which they almost had to cut short. An interview for a job transfer that Sam had been waiting for was suddenly scheduled to take place a couple days before his return flight. The interview couldn’t be rescheduled, but instead of going home early he figured it wasn’t meant to be. Thus, the two of them met me and my climbing partner, Lauren, in Sedona and we got our desert tower climbing on. Afterwards, the four of us got cozy in my van with beer and snacks, and I asked Sam about his outdoor accidents, what attracts him to individual sports, and what he loves about the outdoors.
When would you say you first had a connection to the outdoors?
I was always spending time outside growing up. When I was like 12 I bought a canoe and my parents drove me around to drop me off and then pick me up downstream.
College was when I really got into white water kayaking, I had a local release near where I was at and that was probably my first outdoor action sport.
Do you have a favorite outdoor area?
A spot that drew me into it with both climbing and whitewater is Ralph Stover State Park in PA. They do releases twice a year. The first time I just showed up with my rec boat canoe, a wetsuit, and a life-jacket from like the 1950s; I realized it was a little out of my paddling skills and equipment. Me and my buddies jumped right in there and kind of swam and bounced off rocks for a few rapids and realized it was a little too cold and not all that much fun without a boat.
The climbing there’s polished and doesn’t really take gear. Many local climbers won’t climb there unless you’re one of the few people that trad climbs there and swears by it as long as you don’t fall. So maybe it’s not my favorite place, but I have a special place in my heart for it.
I remember your old roommate mentioned you had a warehouse or something filled with all your outdoor gear. Is that true?
Oh, it’s just my basement but it is pretty ram packed with all the outdoor toys. I have three whitewater kayaks, an old white water canoe, a regular canoe—you gotta have your rec boat canoe. I got a dual sport dirt bike that’s street legal and hasn’t run in a while.
I didn’t know they could be street legal, do you ever drive around Philly with those dirt bike gangs?
I never rolled with any of the crews that ride in Philly in their quads and dirt bikes. But yeah, I definitely crossed paths and gave them a nod. We’re doing the same thing, I just got a helmet on, ya know? [Laughs]
A peek at Philly’s dirt bike scene in the movie Creed.
Which outdoor sport are you the most passionate about?
It’s whatever seems best at the time. If the white waters up, you try to get after that. If it’s the waves, you go surf. But it’s been climbing for the last couple years; I’ve been getting more focused on that. It’s the thrill of it and enjoying the battle of a challenging section that pushes you, and seeing yourself improve and get better at something.
You’re not competing against anyone but yourself or you’re competing against the route or the rapid or whatever it is, to get through it and get to the top or the bottom.
Have you ever had any bad injuries from climbing or kayaking or anything?
I’ve had a bunch of injuries, some minor, some less so. One that I always remember is dislocating my shoulder going down a cascading waterfall. That was my introduction to class V whitewater, and it was before anyone ever introduced me to class IV whitewater. So I was in over my head.
That was Ohiopyle in western PA, when I went out to be a raft guide. One of the younger guys—a teenager, pretty gung ho, grew up paddlin’ whitewater—was like, ‘Yeah, it’ll be fine. Jump in this creek boat, your boat might not make it over those falls very well’. So I’m in a new boat, thinking ‘I don’t know. Maybe I shouldn’t do this’. But I’m in it. The first big rapid: 35 foot falls. I went down the first 10 feet, it flattens out for a moment, just long enough for me to hit a boulder and flip and do the rest of it on my shoulder. I could see my shoulder floating where it shouldn’t have been, I completely freaked out. I actually threw it back in place swimming to shore.
Then I was in the wrong side of the river. And my two buddies, they went after the boat, I waited for a while. I figured maybe they had their hands full just getting the boat back. The other side of the stream is towards town, but there was nowhere to cross it. So I started hiking out and I ended up gettin’ lost. Eventually I hiked to a house and I talked to this guy, he was like, ‘Are you Sam? They’re on the radio for you’. They were worried I fell back into the river or something. It was rough. Eventually got out of there, and drove home using one arm.
What do you love about the outdoors?
I used to love the way my hair would blow in the wind when I had long hair. But yeah, getting back to the earth a little, taking it in and moving with it or over it, and up it and down it. I just feel trapped when I’m inside sometimes. And there’s a freedom to it that I really love.
Is that freedom the reason why you got the van?
I’d love to ditch the 9 to 5, the monotony of the day to day, not having the freedom to pursue the things you really want to do. I hope I get there and join you out on the road.
This interview has been trimmed and edited to fit this format. If you would like to access the unedited interview audio and unposted photography, see my Patreon page.