A charcoal-gray residue coats the surface of the palms of Eric Barnard’s hands. White creases poke through the grime as he repositions them. A navy blue helmet is snapped securely around his head.
He keeps a tight grip on the blue-green ropes clipped through his harness. His eyes remain fixed on the climber.
“Do what feels natural,” Barnard says to a climber preparing to scale Sugar Loaf on Tuesday afternoon. “You should be looking down more than you’re looking up.”
Barnard established the Outdoor Education and Recreation Center at Winona State University this fall, which offers regular outings such as open rock climbing, as well as workshops, clinics and professional training opportunities throughout the Winona area. Most events are free and open to the public.
“The fact that WSU does this is way sweet,” said Karl Pold, a WSU senior.
Before Barnard opened the center, there weren’t many such events for the public.
“I really saw a need here,” Barnard said. “Outdoor recreation in the West is very obvious, but here it’s camouflaged.”
Barnard climbed his first rock 17 years ago. He’d just returned home to Baraboo, Wis., from a yearlong road trip through the western U.S. He was 20 years old and hadn’t a clue what he wanted.
Barnard went for lunch at nearby Devil’s Lake State Park, where a bartender, Jeff Peters, asked him how his day of rock climbing went. He told Peters he had never climbed before and agreed to join him on a trek the next day.
Barnard climbed for 21 consecutive days, some days more than once.
“He gave me the best gift possible,” he said. “He gave me my purpose in life. Rock climbing saved my life.”
Barnard obtained a bachelor’s degree in outdoor education in Idaho and became an instructor at the National Outdoor Leadership School. He earned his certificate as a climbing instructor and worked one on one with new and experienced climbers.
“I love seeing that moment when the switch flips,” Barnard said. “And you see that pure smile and sparkle in their eye because something magical just happened.”
Barnard moved to Winona in 2009 with a plan to create an outdoor program at Winona State University. He pursued his master’s degree in outdoor education and adventure-based leadership at WSU and quickly got started writing business plans, taking surveys and performing research.
His studies found that 98 percent of students were in favor of the program.
“It was a good idea,” Barnard said. “And good ideas are hard to say no to.”
His deadline to establish the program was two years. In 21/2 it was done.
Barnard now operates the Outdoor Education and Recreation Center full-time and works as an instructor teaching wilderness ethics, safety and survival classes at WSU.
“Here we are. It’s a reality,” Barnard said. “In a room filled with tents and backpacks.”
His passion for rock climbing is stronger than ever. Barnard is on a quest to conquer the world-renowned Fisher Towers in Utah and takes advantage of every opportunity he can to climb.
“It’s been absolutely amazing working with Eric,” said Jordan Yankowiak, an Outdoor Education and Recreation Center graduate assistant. “Every day I learn, even if we’re just sitting around talking.”
Barnard is dedicated to inspiring people to get outdoors and build relationships with the land. Through that he hopes to create new advocates for outdoor recreation.
“You don’t have to be an outdoor person to appreciate it,” he said. “You just have to be alive.”
Back at Sugar Loaf, Barnard steadies his stance as he helps his climber down. He congratulates him for reaching the top and encourages him to try again.
He disconnects the rope from his harness and wipes his hands.
A smile spreads across his face as he gazes up at Sugar Loaf.
“I am just as excited about rock climbing as I was 17 years ago,” Barnard says. “This is what I want to do every day for the rest of my life.”