Meet Lester Arguelles, FA Member since the beginning and constant presence around all of the FA Chicago gyms! Lester climbed for the first time in Denali National Park, and he often ponders the paradox of wild places: places we love to be in but want to keep wild. Read more about his climbing journey below and say hi next time you see him around FA!
1. How did you get into climbing?
After teaching English for a year in Taiwan, I went to Alaska to make beds and clean toilets at the chalets in Denali National Park. There I met a mountaineer who set up a top-rope on what he decided was a 5.10, and he invited me to try it. True to every beginning rock climber, I tried to campus it — all 20 meters of it. I tried very hard.
2. What do you love about climbing?
Puzzling over how to move across vertical or overhanging terrain with my hands and feet, and learning how to enjoy a good long fall. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve taken long falls. It’s that I have yet to enjoy them.
3. Bouldering or sport climbing?
Sport climbing because I love long format storytelling, which allows for diversion and detours that set you up for the unpredictable plot twist. Similarly, a sport climb meanders between easy and impossible, and, if you’re reading it for the first time, you just don’t know when the crux is coming, or even if you do, you don’t know how difficult it will be relative to the state of fatigue you’re in. Much like a good story, it offers states of euphoria and despair and everything in between. Besides, the views from up high can be truly breathtaking.
4. What is your favorite place to climb outdoors? What other outdoor activities do you participate in?
The Red River Gorge in Kentucky—it’s the world-class crag that is closest to me, and its development has just been superb. Apart from climbing, I enjoy swimming, biking, and running.
5. Do you have any particular climbing projects or fitness goals for this year?
Yup. My perennial goal is not to get hurt, either by climbing or running. I’m currently nursing an Achilles tendon injury, so my running goal of a sub-3 marathon is kaput for this year. But that does let me focus on my climbing goals for this fall, which is to break into the 13’s on sport, and perhaps even flash a 13a. I’ve got a couple of candidate routes picked out at the Red.
6. What keeps you busy when you’re not climbing?
Home life, work, ceramics, and friendships.
7. What do you love about Chicago?
Deep down, I am a city person, and I love that Chicago is an affordable, world-class city with great food, music, arts, public transit, architecture, academic institutions, and ethnic diversity.
I love Millennium Park. The Frank Gehry designed bandshell is an architectural wonder with a first-rate sound system to convey the free Grant Park Orchestra concerts across a lawn sprawling with picnickers. On the south end of the park is the Lurie, which has been referred to as a “model of responsible horticulture.” Community gardens have become kind of a big thing in Chicago, and it has been shown that the floral diversity in cities make them places where bees can proliferate, unlike the monocultural wasteland of our industrial farms that use enormous swathes of land to grow 1 or 2 things. Big urban centers, such as Chicago, can be a powerful mechanism for environmental protection, and the Lurie Garden is indicative of that.
Finally, I love Lake Michigan, with its many moods. It is, without a doubt, one of the best swimming holes in the world.
8. What is your favorite Chicago spot for food, music, art, or culture?
I love Ethiopian food, and for that, I go to the Ethiopian Diamond in the Edgewater neighborhood. All the music venues in town are great, but if you’re a Jazz fan, the Green Mill is the best. I spend a lot of time making pottery, so I have to shout out to the Lill Street Art Center, which has a ceramics facility that is one of the best in the country, but when I want to veg-out in art in general, it’s the Art Institute all the way.
9. What is something about you most people don’t know?
I tend to be solitary, and I play the piano. Very badly.
10. Anything else you want to say to the FA Community?
I have this belief that our wild places hold spiritual and aesthetic importance. There is a paradox in that our desire to experience wild places feeds a desire to make them less wild and more accessible. So I wonder where the proliferation of climbing as an outdoor activity will fall in the paradox. Falling in love with the outdoors puts one in the center of this paradox, and acquiring the skill of climbing more so because it brings the power to explore more and more remote places of the world — more of us in places that used to have none of us. So, I suppose what I’m saying to the FA community is that being in nature is not simply about being outside; it is about where you see us, humans, in relation to nature. What does wilderness mean? How do you define it? Why are wild places important, and how do we experience these places without removing the unbridled thing that drew us to them in the first place? What is our role?
Photos by FA staff member and photographer Sandy Morris. See her work at sandymorris.com.