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Local Hero: Cameron M. Burns on Todd Gordon

Posted on: November 6, 2015


Portrait of Todd Gordon. Burns says, "Gordon's life philosophy holds that people have to share—in general—the same 60 to 90 laps around the sun. And you do that by inviting people in, not pushing them out." Gordon has made hundreds of first ascents, many in the desert Southwest. [Photo] Greg Epperson

APRIL 11, 2015: About 100 people maneuver around a crowded driveway a mile from the entrance to Joshua Tree National Park. Carpentry lamps illuminate the night. A swirl of dust lingers in the air. An unassuming man dressed in a worn grey hoody, grey sneakers and dark-blue shorts daubed with chalk settles the crowd. "As you all know," he says, "this is a fundraiser for Tom Gilje, who fractured his neck mountain biking near Moab. He's confined to a wheelchair and has no income, so anything you can do is appreciated. There are souvenirs and pieces of gear on the tables that you can bid on, and plenty of beverages, so help yourself."

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WITH THAT, TODD GORDON leaves to attend to disasters that only arise when an entire town descends on your home for a Saturday night of frivolities. You see, it's a typical fundraiser at the Gordon "Ranch." Often called the Mayor of Joshua Tree, Todd is known for his thousands of climbs, his hundreds of new routes, and his addiction to getting on the rock with anyone—as well as for his generosity. This fundraiser will pull in $29,000 for Gilje, a climber. Not bad for a collection of desert rats who carry on with their beer-enhanced stories.

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Todd and Andrea and Beck Gordon. [Photo] Cameron M. Burns

TODD IS A SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA LAD who learned to climb on the crags and walls of J-Tree, Yosemite, Southern Sierra, Tahquitz and Idyllwild. You could say he's partial to slabs, yet every kind of climbing is his kind. His worldview—that we're all part of an experience focused on sharing—is what sets him apart. After earning a teaching certificate in 1980, he worked on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota for a year, then the Navajo Reservation for two years. He earned about $1,000 a month teaching, but government housing siphoned off about $350 a month. Todd's solution was to move into a hogan, a small, traditional mud hut costing $15 a month. "Just dirt walls, dirt floor, dirt ceiling...it was just mud and dirt," he recalls. "No running water, no electricity...it was fine." (He used a neighbor's trailer for the essentials.)

In 1984, Todd moved back to SoCal and into a small home in J-Tree. It soon became a free hostel for climbers. "It was warm there," Todd notes, "and there was a washing machine so you could do laundry. They'd hang out and play Scrabble or cards all night." And heck, the landlord was almost never home. Todd was generally away teaching during the day, climbing in the evenings, and traveling during J-Tree's long, hot summers. In his absence, several visitors rebuilt sections of the house to their liking. One well-known climber lived there for six years.

During an expedition to Pakistan, Todd and his partners met some Europeans who said they'd stayed at a friend's house in J-Tree.

"Who was it?" Todd asked. "I know most of the climbers there."

"Todd Gordon," one answered.

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TODD IS A SAGE, a builder of camaraderie. Several of his colleagues have called him the most "inclusive" climber they've ever heard of: a typical day out for him could include half a dozen people—be it a new route or some toprope laps. (In fact, Todd only agreed to this mini-profile so he could help me rebuild a mothballed freelance career—he'd never seek this kind of publicity for himself.) After seeing all the fundraisers that he held for other climbers in need, the J-Tree community eventually held one for Todd, which helped him and his wife, Andrea Gordon (then with three young babies), make the down payment on a used minivan and fix the roof and the septic system at their house.

Late into a summer night, 2015, Todd is still chatting with me online. "Climbing for me is about the human element—the connection, the shared experience...and the interaction taking place in a beautiful, wild setting. Now, with kids, it's about getting exercise at my age, being fit, and setting an example for my kids.... Dad gets out, mixes it up, gets exercise, has fun, travels, works out, and does some rad shit... to have a progressive, fun, sharing, healthy and exciting lifestyle." A little while later, he adds: "I'm available to my friends. I'm available to strangers, too. I'm available to all humans."

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