Wanderer of the wild

World traveler and sportsman John Mattson shares his stories in hopes of a better world



Floating downstream on the Colorado River between the red limestone walls of Marble Canyon on a makeshift raft, John Mattson spots a big drop. The rushing waves of Badger Creek Rapid are ahead. He and his friends scout the rapid for a clean entry. A more experienced paddler breaks from the group and slides down the middle of the river into a big eddy at the bottom. With little time to contemplate, Mattson drops into the surge, trying to follow the same easy path.

“All of the sudden we were in there, and the waves were huge,” Mattson says. “It was just like a wild roller coaster ride.”

His nervousness becomes an adrenaline rush as he flies over the towering waves. The raft flips from the pressure and he manages to paddle the deep waters until he reaches the eddy, completing his first descent through his largest rapid yet.

That was the moment the climber and ski junky from the Midwest fell in love with kayaking.

“It’s a beautiful sport — it’s like you become a fish or something,” Mattson says. “You can just dance in the river.”

This inspired the title of the semi-autobiography he published in 2008, Dancing on the Edge of an Endangered Planet. The trip to Grand Canyon is only one among a collection of stories about skiing, climbing and kayaking around the everchanging world. Mattson will give a talk about the book at Neptune Mountaineering on July 23.

“In the early ’70s, I could sense the problems with the environment,” Mattson explains. “It was becoming obvious already to me, and I just decided that I wanted to pursue nature instead of business.”

On that trip down the Colorado River in late spring of 1983, Mattson traversed 280 miles to Lake Mead with a 14-person crew in less than a month. Since then, he’s traveled down rivers and canyons from Chile to Tibet. But the trip through the Grand Canyon still stands out in his memory.

“I was in my boat everyday for 23 days, and it did wonders for my technique. I’d just turned 30, I was going through my first life crisis,” he says. “The new energy … I felt like I was 20 again.”

The Grand Canyon not only taught him to love the unpredictable nature of whitewater but also invigorated his passion for travel.

But it took some persuading to get the 30-year-old to greet those rapids. Years earlier, his climbing partner talked him into signing up for the trip, but they had to wait for the permit. At the time, Mattson was in his early 20s and studying computer science at Arizona State University. That’s where he discovered skiing, a sport that eventually put school on the backburner and occupied most of his time for the next 15 years. He became a carpenter and worked as a gold miner in South Dakota to fund his three-month alpine excursions along the West Coast. Then he moved to Aspen, Colorado.

“When you move to a ski town, you move there for the skiing,” Mattson explains, “and then you discover kayaking and mountain climbing, and next thing you know you’re 64.”

There, he competed in ski jump contests and even attempted professional-league Western rodeo. Later in his 30s, he started to get serious. He moved to Boulder and finished school at the University of Colorado Boulder — earning a bachelor’s degree in architectural engineering. Mattson started his own design and building company soon after graduation. The business took off fast and funded his first international trip to Peru in 1978.

“I had to save for a year to get enough money to [go to Peru] as a carpenter, and then I just totally lucked out.” Mattson explains. “I met all [of ] these other climbers from Canada and the U.S.”

He climbed some of the Andes’ highest peaks and a 20,000-foot summit in Bolivia while visiting, he says, and has been to Peru six times since then.

On a kayaking trip in Peru in 2009, Mattson survived an earthquake while camping near one of the world’s deepest canyons in the Colca Valley in the city of Arequipa. His crew cautiously ran through Class V rapids down a narrow stream that offered no chance of escaping via foot. Andean condors circled above him, creating a glimpse into the prehistoric. The descent is one of Mattson’s scariest and most beautiful memories, he says.

He felt like he was “dropping into a whole other world,” he explains. “The whole thing was kind of mind shattering. I’d never do it again.”

Mattson recently returned from a trip to Arequipa earlier this month, where he climbed and skied down Coropuna, the largest volcano in Peru, with his longtime ski partner James Brooks. The team didn’t summit the 21,075-foot peak, but reached their goal of 20,000 feet and turned back when conditions became dangerous.

“If you get caught in a bad storm … he’s the guy you want to be with,” Brooks says of Mattson. “He’s got a very enduring quality about him that just makes you want to go spend time in the mountains with him.”

To Mattson, the experience of being in such a wild place trumped all else. Coropuna was one of the many climbing and ski trips Brooks and Mattson have enjoyed over the past 18 years. Their first skiing trip in Patagonia, in 2003, sparked a passion in Brooks to explore. And their years spent trekking across remote mountain ranges, skiing volcanoes, mountain biking and rock climbing has led Brooks to keep seeking out wild places. Brooks says, Mattson inspired him to ride his motorcycle from arctic Alaska to the Southern-most tip of South America.

“It’s easy to get lazy and stay at home and watch other people do things on TV or see nature from afar,” Brooks argues, “but [Mattson] has been a tremendous inspiration in getting me to delve deeper into nature and develop my own spirit for adventure.” 

Brooks, who is 20 years younger than Mattson, has benefited from Mattson’s honed high-altitude mountaineering and climbing skills. The physical and mental strength 64-year-old Mattson gains from doing extreme sports is another fuel for his travels across the globe.

“I’m a confessed adrenaline junky,” Mattson admits. “I really think it maintains health. I think that small doses of reasonable amounts [act] kind of like the Fountain of Youth. It definitely seems to have that kind of affect for me because I hope to be doing this when I’m 80.”

He’s eager to share the ways adventure and extreme sports have kept him healthy and fit. The challenges he encounters on mountaintops and along deep rivers keep him pushing on through the years. Between his time spent writing and working on home-building projects, he takes classes in inspirational speaking.

“[Adventure] pushes you beyond what you normally think you can really do,” Mattson says. “My advice for people is: Get out of your comfort zone.”

The lure of wild and remote places is another reason why Mattson continues to take lesstraveled roads. One of his most strenuous excursions was a 17-day kayaking trip across Nepal along the Huma Kernali. Pummeling through Class V rapids was well worth the tropical scenery the group found along the banks of the river.

“The boats had to be dragged up a steep, 30-foot bank, but the reward was an absolute paradise,” Mattson wrote in his book. “We spent the night in an irrigated orchard, with a flat terrace, running water, and hundreds of blooming plants and chirping birds.”

That adventure, one that released Mattson from the grasp of industrialized American society, eventually brought him back safely to the reality he struggles to accept.

“The voyage suddenly ended at a large suspension bridge, which marked our passing back into the Twentieth Century,” he wrote. “It came complete with all the noise and fumes and madness that modern technology has brought to this endangered planet.”

He found a similar but sadder scene in 1998, on a return visit to the Bío-Bío River in Chile. Mattson had kayaked the river in 1985 with a group of friends who made a documentary film about their journey through remote tropical forests and volcanoes. The river was dammed in 1996 — in a spot that was known as the Valley of One Hundred Waterfalls — ending rafting on the river and displacing the indigenous Pehuenche people.

The scene from Mattson’s 1985 trip “had been replaced by a large lagoon full of noisy jet skis,” Mattson wrote. “It was enough to make an old man cry.”

His reverence for the natural world began at a young age while growing up in a small farming community in North Dakota, but his concern for the environment grew as he continued to see human development increase on a global scale later in his life. Dancing on the Edge of an Endangered Planet sprung from his need to share the beauty of his experiences traveling the world.

Seeing paradise lose to development is really sad, Mattson says. “It really motivates me to try to do whatever I can because the more people that are inspired to do stuff like this, the better our chances are of turning things around. … The planet will recover very quickly if we started using it wisely.”

He hopes to use his book to catalyze change in another way, too. When the author heard the Colorado Mountain Club hosted a fundraiser for Pemba Sherpa, the owner of the Boulder restaurant Sherpa’s, in an effort to help rebuild the rural village of Sengma in Eastern Nepal, Mattson stepped up. He is now donating 100 percent of his book sales to the relief fund.

The author now lives in a solarpowered home he built on the outskirts of Nederland writing a second book of adventures.

“I just kind of followed my dreams,” Mattson says, “and they took me on a great journey — and they still are.”


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