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Geonna Bowers, Get Outdoors Gear Library intern, cleans and applies lube to a chain April 9, 2021, on the Colorado Mountain College Campus in Leadville. (Hugh Carey, Special to The Colorado Sun)

LEADVILLE — Vanessa Saldivar was 5 when her father hiked her up the bunny slope at Mt. Hood Skibowl in Oregon. She didn’t have a fancy jacket. She used socks as mittens. Her dad gave her a nudge. And she was hooked. 

“All these barriers just broke down in that moment,” said the new executive director of Get Outdoors Leadville!, which last week opened a new gear library that lends outdoor equipment to Lake County residentsco. “The gear library is addressing those barriers. How big of a difference would this have made in my community growing up? I could have had gloves!”

Five years after the Get Outdoors Leadville! — or GOL — coalition secured $3 million from Great Outdoors Colorado’s Generation Wild initiative, the long-planned gear cache is opening its own facility on the Colorado Mountain College campus. 

Saldivar grew up in a tourism-dependent town in Oregon near the Mount Hood ski area. Both her parents worked as cooks in restaurants. “Financial and cultural” obstacles limited their opportunities to get outside and recreate, Saldivar said. 

“But my dad wanted us to know the outdoors was for us, too,” said Saldivar, an avid skier, snowboarder, rock climber and mountain biker. “When I look at the gear library I think about my early experiences in the outdoors and I know what kind of impact those experiences can have. Those barriers continue for low income families and immigrant families and families of color. The gear library … is totally addressing some of those barriers.”

The brand new two-story facility on the Colorado Mountain College campus above downtown Leadville will help lower barriers in Lake County. More than a hundred mountain bikes — about half with fat tires for pedaling on snow — are available for day or overnight trips. Shelves are stacked with helmets, snowshoes, snow boots, Keen hiking boots, cross-country skis, Osprey backpacks, camp stoves, Black Diamond snow jackets, sleeping bags and just about everything campers and hikers could need. 

Snowshoe equipment inside the Get Outdoors Gear Library on the Colorado Mountain College Campus in Leadville. (Hugh Carey, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Membership to the gear library costs $5 a month, $30 a year or $50 for a family, but a new plan asks residents who can afford it to consider paying more. The gear library is for everyone in the county and residents who can’t afford a membership still will get access, said Becca Katz, the interim director of Get Outdoors Leadville!

Geonna Bowers and Maya Mendoza work at the gear library. Last week they were working on bikes. Mendoza, 17, is eager to borrow gear and go camping this summer. 

“Look at how easy it is,” Mendoza said, gesturing to the racks of gear.

Bowers, also 17, likes watching younger kids come in and try the library’s collection of smaller bikes and skis. 

“This gives us such a good opportunity to get outside. We can try it, at least,” Bowers said. “Especially with all the sports getting canceled at school last year, it’s even more important for us to do something outside.”

Get Outdoors Gear Library interns Geonna Bowers, left, and Maya Mendoza pause for a photo on the Colorado Mountain College Campus in Leadville. (Hugh Carey, Special to The Colorado Sun)

GOL is part of the national Outdoors Empowered Network, which fosters better access and diversity in the outdoors by supporting gear libraries and outdoor leadership training programs. The network, which partners with major outdoor gear makers, distributes donated equipment to 20 libraries, most of them located near urban centers like Austin, Chicago, Detroit, Seattle and the Bay Area.

“We are definitely a funny fit in the overall network, but we have big ideas so we fit in fine,” Katz said.

When Rachel Pokrandt offered GOL a parcel of land for its headquarters, it wasn’t just about supporting a community amenity. The vice president and campus dean of Colorado Mountain College saw the facility as a real-life laboratory for students in the school’s outdoor leadership training program. 

Read more outdoors stories from The Colorado Sun.

“The idea of having it on campus was really twofold,” she said. “It was an opportunity for our students … to manage gear and work with the public and run outdoor programming, which is exactly what we are training them to do. We take our responsibility to our communities really seriously at CMC, and this was one of the ways we could help a community partner and get more folks up on our campus and on our trails so they can feel like their college belongs to them.”

There are about 50 students in Colorado Mountain College’s two-year outdoor leadership program. Those students may go on to support one of the country’s most vibrant industries. Their challenge as they enter the $788 billion outdoor recreation economy is how to increase diversity within the industry and build a broader base of public lands supporters. 

“We have a great responsibility as Colorado residents and people who enjoy the outdoors to make sure there is access to those amenities to everyone in our communities and we want to make sure that’s embedded in our programming for students to make sure they are actively engaged in diversifying the outdoor industry,” Pokrandt said. 

Maya Mendoza, Get Outdoors Gear Library intern, cleans and applies bike lube on a chain on the Colorado Mountain College Campus in Leadville. (Hugh Carey, Special to The Colorado Sun)

GOL’s Rockies Rock Adventure Camp always fills, with each two-week summer session packed with 100 local kids. It’s the only summer child care program in the area, so numbers mirror classroom attendance during the school year. This summer, the camp will include tutors helping students catch up after the pandemic year. Programs for older campers explore photography, mountain biking, gardening, cooking and fishing. This year’s winter break camps sold out as well, with campers building igloos and learning snow travel skills. 

The gear library, which has moved three times in Leadville in the last few years with gear spread across several storage spots, has not been as popular as the summer camps. Most programs required vans and trucks hauling kids and gear into the surrounding Sawatch Range. The headquarters and gear library gives the GOL program its first dedicated home, right in the middle of a maze of public hiking, biking and cross-country ski trails.

“This is going to be awesome for us,” Katz said. “We can do programs right out our front door.”

GOL spent many months studying outdoor programs as it built the proposal for GOCO support. One major barrier they identified in their research was the cost of gear. Another “fundamental barrier,” Katz said, is a sense of not feeling welcome on trails, rivers, trailheads and crags. 

“I think this facility has the potential to help with that,” she said. “We have room to grow but we are on the right track and … we are always trying to figure out how to better reach folks who haven’t felt welcome and haven’t felt the outdoor space was for them.”

Chris Castilian, the executive director of the lottery-supported Great Outdoors Colorado, created the Generation Wild program to connect underprivileged communities with outdoor recreation amenities like trails and parks. 

This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.

In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.

The first wave of Generation Wild funding directed $13.5 million into six communities, which matched the grants with nearly $10 million raised locally. The largest grant went to Lake County, where GOL had gathered 70 different agency and community members along with youth researchers to create a vision of a thriving, healthy community intimately connected to the vast outdoors that surrounds it. 

“Lack of gear. Access to nature. A feeling of being unwelcome in the outdoors. These are the barriers our Generation Wild coalitions are breaking down every day for Colorado’s diverse youth and families,” Castilian said. “At GOCO, we’re so grateful to play a small role in supporting youth in the outdoors and helping to grow the next generation of outdoor enthusiasts. We couldn’t be more appreciative of the amazing people and organizations in Leadville making equitable access to nature core to who we are as a state.”

Jason Blevins

The Colorado Sun — Email: Twitter: @jasonblevins