BTU #268 - How the Outdoors Saved My Life (Stacy Bare)

I want people to find a way to connect to beauty and joy. For some people that’s being in the outdoors, for other people that’s photography or even working on a car. Just find something that allows you to be more.
— Stacy Bare

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Why Listen:
This interview is unlike any I’ve ever done before. When they launch “The Stacy Bare Fan Club” one day, I’m signing up as a charter member. Stacy is awesome, and every military Veteran should listen to this episode.

About Stacy:
Stacy is the Principal at Bare, a boutique consulting firm working to grow healthy organizations, people, and places with an emphasis on health and adventure. He is also the Co-Founder of Veterans Expedition, the founder of Adventure not War, the previous Director of the Sierra Club Outdoors, a former Brand Champion for The North Face and the National Geographic Explorer off the Year for 2014. He served in the Army as an officer for over five years, and so much more.
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Selected Resources: 

Transcript & Time Stamps:


Joining me today from Sandy, Utah is Stacy Bare. Stacy, can you share with us a little bit about what’s going on in your life right now?

In the last couple days, we’ve lost some luminaries in the mountaineering community. It seems that Jess Roskelley, David Lama, and Honsjorg Auer died yesterday or Tuesday night in Canada during an avalanche. Then just a couple days ago Dan Treadway died in British Columbia. A lot of people look at these events and think that people are crazy for pursuing extreme sports. But for me they’re not crazy at all. They’re people that were incredibly humble and also driven to push themselves.

For me, the outdoors helped me out of a depression and suicidal ideology. The mountains give all that and they can also take away. That’s not unlike our experience in the military. It gives us so much and it also takes away in some ways too. What I realized is that this is a profoundly human experience. It’s up to us to try to build joy in our surroundings and protect those that are weaker than us and empower them and help them to be the best they can be.

None of us are going to make it out of this alive. The past few days have really driven that home for me. We see that in watching our parents grow old. When I look at my three year old, I have such a deep desire for her to explore new waves and new beaches and know that in part of that exploration, there is a very real risk.

Life is hard both also beautiful and wonderful. It’s from these depths of sadness and pain that we are fueled forward. We have to figure out how to continue to make life worth living. A lot of people leave their military service questioning how to do that. The VA is starting to grapple with the seriousness of helping military members and veterans with their mental health.

The military can be great in many ways because you’re told exactly what is expected of you. I was lucky enough that I was given the opportunity to explore various ways to achieve the objective that was given to me. Then when you step out of the military and you don’t have that framework and structure, that can be very difficult.


How did the outdoors become such a big part of your life?

One thing I’m more aware of now at the age of 40 is that many people their daily existence feels under threat. For me, I get up every morning and check the avalanche reports for the day. For a lot people - based off of their gender identity or sexuality - living their identity every day can be a struggle.

For me the outdoors is somewhere I can completely be myself. I grew up in South Dakota in a hockey town. My mom made me figure skate and I was tall and incredibly awkward. But the things that make you stand out when you’re a kid are things you can celebrate about yourself as you age. I was 6’4” and 160 pounds when I graduated. My recruiter lied on my ROTC scholarship to make me heavier than I actually was so that I could get in.

As a kid, swimming was a safe place for me. But I also did have a background playing in the outdoors. I remember during big snow storms, my brother and I would be outside for hours building forts.

Fast forward to 2009. I was back from Iraq and had moved to Boulder, CO for a job. I was suicidal and dealing with adjustment issues. A friend called me and offered to take me rock climbing. That day rock climbing really changed the course of my life.


What was it about that experience that changed things for you?

I think it was the total physical commitment that it required to climb the rock. A lot of the times we live in our head or in our phone. There’s a million different images and thoughts in our heads. Even if you don’t have trauma or PTSD, it’s normal to wonder what you’re doing with your life. In the military, it’s very clear exactly what you need to accomplish. For me, I felt guilty that I was no longer at war and that I wouldn’t live up to the standards that had been set by my fallen comrades.

But on that rock wall, I couldn’t have any of those thoughts. I had to be totally committed to what was in front of me. I remember getting to the top and then repelling down. My body was shaking and I think it was a lot of stress that had been trapped inside me being released. I made the commitment in that moment that I wanted to get more veterans outside.

I eventually founded Veterans Expeditions with Nick Watson. I was then hired by the Sierra Club to manage their veteran program. About a year ago, I quit my job and have been working on various consulting projects. I did an outdoor trek to Iraq and in March, I got home from a ski expedition in Afghanistan.

A lot of people tell me that I’m an adrenaline junkie. But when I’m really seeking is a profound stillness. To do a multi-pitch rock climb, it really takes time. There are moments of adrenaline but really there’s many more times of stillness and calmness.

For a lot of time, I believed that outdoor activities replicated the positive aspects of being in the military like teamwork and camaraderie. But when I realized over time is that war corrupts the most beneficial parts of being outside versus the other way around. For me I needed to reframe my outdoor experience from a war experience to an outdoor sport and activity experience.

We need to accept people where they’re at. What I hope is that people who are trying to relate everything back to war because they miss that experience feel accepted and supported by me. With that support, I believe they’ll start seeing their war experience as part of but not all of who they are.

I want to help people connect to beauty. That’s different for everyone - it could be the outdoors, or teaching, or working on a car. Just find something that allows you to be more.

After twelve years of doing different things, I finally feel like I’m starting to find my career. A Marine told me that getting out he thought the best was behind him. But the outdoors allowed him to continue doing things that inspired him. So I really just encourage people to find things that inspire them.

Life is difficult and painful and challenging. There are all kinds of reasons why we feel sad or anxious. But we have to find a way to discover joy and bring that to other people. Sometimes when people are really deep in their own head, you just have to let them know that you’re there with them.

In the outdoors, I’ve had broken skis and bindings. I’ve lost gear. You have to find a way to keep going. That process is one of constant growth and learning.


Are there any resources you would recommend?

I would highly recommend that veterans get a job that you think or know could be really fun. If you can, work at a ski resort, travel, take a road trip. This will allow you find what you’re really passionate about.

Veterans Conservation Corps, Outward Bounds, and No Barriers Warriors are all great organizations to look into.


What are you up to now?

I do two things broadly - Adventure Not War is one. We’re in post production now of a film featuring two Afghan skiers. That film will be out this fall.

Next winter, I hope to go to the Soviet state of Georgia for another Adventure Not War trip.

The other thing I do is consult for a number or organizations working on health and wellness in the outdoors. We have some really exciting things happening around land conservation. For me quitting my job was the best thing that happened to me. I’m certainly more relaxed that I’ve ever been.


How do you reconcile as a parent wanting to set an example for your child as far as making the most of your life but also wanting to stay alive to participate in your child’s life?

After my daughter was born, my wife encouraged me to go back to Iraq.

I have a tattoo of my daughter’s birthday. My ski gloves also have her initials. That reminds me of my daughter when I’m making decisions. So overall, I take less risks than I used to. What we talk about in our house is about dreams and passions. If something is a passion then you need to go do it. If it’s just something you think would be cool, maybe that’s something you don’t have to do. Being a father is hard but it’s also the coolest thing ever.

I have friends that don’t like their jobs but their jobs allow them access to other amazing parts of their lives. And that’s great. Sometimes we want everything to be working and perfect. But that’s not always the way it is.

Dean Potter was another person that I got to know. He unfortunately passed away in a BASE jumping incident. He was also really tall so we would also end up wearing the same clothes. He didn’t have a death wish. He wanted to live but he didn’t.