The yellow school bus left downtown Pittsburgh and headed south, toward the wilderness of Ohiopyle State Park. None of the students on the bus were going to be in their element—precisely the point of the field trip, which was organized by The North Face, the Student Conservation Association, and Public Lands, a new outdoor retailer that recently opened its doors in Pittsburgh.
The three organizations, which share a mission to make the outdoors more accessible for all, had a simple goal for the trip: introduce a handful of local students to the transformative power of outdoor exploration. To mentor the students, TNF tapped athletes Ashima Shiraishi, Manoah Ainuu, and Tom Wallisch—each of whom credits this kind of early experience outdoors with changing the trajectory of their lives. To dig into the topic, we asked Shiraishi, Ainuu, and Wallisch about how their childhood experiences shaped them into the athletes, leaders, and advocates they are today.
Mentors Make the Difference
Ashima Shiraishi, who grew up in New York City, says her climbing career began as a stroke of serendipity. Her favorite playground sat next to a large boulder called Rat Rock, and when she was six, Shiraishi saw some men climbing and decided to join them. “One was a 70-year-old Japanese man named Yuki,” Shiraishi says. “He introduced me to climbing and gave me guidance. If it wasn’t for him, I would have scrambled up the rock, but I wouldn’t have realized there were more possibilities on that boulder than just the easy way up.”
After climbing for 14 years, the Olympic athlete has stepped into the mentor role herself, working with a climbing gym in Long Beach to create a free community wall and seeking out opportunities like the field trip. “Climbing isn’t going to fix all the problems in the world, but for some kids, climbing can be a place of solace, something they can look forward to and find a flow state in,” Shiraishi says.
Community Is Everything
Compton, the Los Angeles neighborhood where Manoah Ainuu was born, is not known for its outdoor recreation opportunities. But when his parents took him skiing at Big Bear Mountain when he was five, Ainuu was instantly hooked. “I remember being so excited, I went to bed in all of my snow gear,” Ainuu says. “My parents weren’t outdoorsy, but they saw value in the outdoors.”
When he was nine, Ainuu and his family moved to Spokane, Washington, where he got to ski and climb more and more. But Ainuu understands that not everyone can live in a mountain town, so he believes it’s on athletes, brands, and communities to bring the outdoors to more people. “It’s so important for us to create a welcoming environment,” Ainuu says, citing programs like sliding fee scales at climbing gyms as an example of how to do just that. “Personally, being able to ski and climb as a kid—that solidified my love for the outdoors.”
The Children Are Our Future
Tom Wallisch has a soft spot for the kids on the field trip. Like them, he’s from Pittsburgh, far from the great outdoors. His parents made skiing, hiking, and camping priorities, though, so Wallisch grew up exploring local parks and skiing a humble hill on winter weekends. And from that tiny mountain, he built a professional freeskiing career that took him to the top of the X Games podium. More important, he built a respect for the outdoors.
“Many of my best memories are from places that were protected and preserved,” Wallisch says. “Not everyone has that kind of childhood, and it’s hard to love and protect something you’ve never seen. You need to develop that bond.” That’s why Wallisch jumped at the opportunity to help a group of kids from Pittsburgh start developing their own bonds with wild places. “Ideally, this introduction leads them to explore parks close to home. We’re just planting little seeds, and those seeds will grow.”
The field trip was rooted in a simple premise: that if you get kids outdoors, they become better versions of themselves, today and tomorrow. Shiraishi, Ainuu, and Wallisch are living examples of how an early relationship with the outdoors can build lifelong passions. And with more role models like them, the future is bright.
The North Face is the world’s leading outdoor brand with a mission to provide the best gear, support the preservation of the outdoors, and inspire a global movement of exploration. Public Lands, a new outdoor retailer by Dick’s Sporting Goods, has a purpose to celebrate and protect public lands for all.