Discovering a passion is one of the most overused keynote speech topics around. It seems there’s always someone on a stage with a PowerPoint trying to help you “Unlock Your Passion” or “Find What Drives You.” While the topic is great in theory, it often falls flat because true inspiration is extremely hard to find; some people go their whole lives without ever pinning it down.
Gus Barber found his within three hours. One afternoon during his junior year of high school, Barber followed his dad to the gym and happened to walk in on a ropes competition in which a group of competitors was tackling an increasingly difficult set of routes up the gym’s rock wall. “I just kind of walked in there, having no idea what was going on, and I saw this wad of people in the gym, and they were doing all these intricate moves.” Watching the climbers, he realized there’s “a weird grace to climbing, where things are sequential, movements are precise and ever so rarely you see someone execute something perfectly, and it’s really beautiful to see.”
This technical execution drew him in, and after watching for three hours Barber decided he wanted to give it a try. “I asked for a job on the spot and started washing the floors so I could climb for free, and about six months later I was on the climbing team.” Climbing, something that had never before seemed interesting, soon became one of Barber’s primary passions; since that day he has begun to pursue a medical career and has climbed some of the most awe-inspiring rocks in the western United States and Canada—just an average guy pursuing the things that drive him.
Rock climbing, as Barber describes it, is “an endeavor into the ridiculous.” There are many types of climbing—ice climbing, bouldering and trad climbing to name a few—but Barber believes that climbers of all sorts share the same guiding principle: “We climb up things with sometimes specific rules that we sometimes break.” It’s a sport of exploration and discovery, but while other athletes are constrained by the rules of the game, climbers encourage approaching their craft in new ways.
While different climbers tend to gravitate towards different types of rocks, Barber is drawn to big climbs with high aesthetic value. “The climbs that inspire me tend to be bigger—big mountain lines and long crack systems,” and those require a wide variety of skills. “I’ve had to learn to be a solid all-around climber to do those lines because I never really know what I might get into. I may have sections that are hard, that I need to be really strong and bouldery for, but I also need to know the gear enough so I can be a really good trad climber as well.”
This openness to different climbing techniques has allowed Barber to tackle a wide variety of climbs all across the western half of North America. Last winter, he bought a van in Arizona while on a short climbing trip and left it parked at his grandmother’s house in Tucson; this spring he needed to get it home to Alaska. “So the big project was to drive the van from Tucson, Arizona to Anchorage, Alaska. I took five weeks to do it and I ran through some of the best granite climbing in North America.” On his trip, Barber went through Yosemite National Park in California, Index in Washington and Squamish in British Columbia, as well as a slew of other climbing locations in-between.
One of his favorite memories from the trip came while climbing “Stawamus Chief,” a granite dome just outside of Squamish. “It’s this really gorgeous pillar of rock that just towers over this town, and there’s a lovely little bay right in front, and the whole thing is tucked into a valley, so it’s a really scenic area,” Barber remembers. He and his climbing partners started at the bottom of the dome at seven in the morning, ahead of most of the crowds, which gave them a front-row seat to the sunrise. “Every once in a while, I would turn and start to see the sunrise coming up over the mountains with the sunlight reflecting off the water,” says Barber, “I could see the town lit-up below, and then I’d look up and see all that was left to do as the sun slowly came at us from above.”
Moments like these are the reason Barber puts so much time and energy into climbing, and they make the hundreds of hours of practice worthwhile. Climbing, however, isn’t Barber’s only passion; career-wise, he hopes to become an emergency room doctor. Working in an ER, he explains, “you see people at the worst time of their lives and you get to make them better.” He discovered his desire to practice medicine in an emergency room setting while volunteering at his local hospital and decided to pursue a biology/pre-med major based on the experience.
While emergency medicine and climbing may seem like completely separate interests, the two have some surprising similarities: Both require a fair amount of acting and reacting in high-pressure situations, something Barber has always been good at. “I’ve always had a good head for situations with consequence, whether that’s in the mountains or hav(ing) to make a decision and someone will either live or die by it.” Each of these endeavors require quick, reflexive decisions that are only possible as the result of hours upon hours of hard work and study; though they may seem different, they are actually incredibly similar.
Barber spends a lot of time in the worlds of climbing and medicine because those are areas he is passionate about. When it comes down to it, he’s simply striving to excel at the things he loves. “I’m really just a guy who got inspired by something and decided to do it. It’s not that I’m inherently better than anybody else, I just happened to find the thing that inspired me and I ran with it. People who are willing to invest their time and energy into the things that inspire them can do things that are just as amazing, if not far more amazing, than what I’m doing right now.”