A conversation about rock climbing, art, and living (well) with David Bonan

By Jack Russillo · 2 years ago

One of the keys to college is balancing academics and extracurricular activities and upholding one’s sanity by finding ways to unwind and relax. David Bonan is a sophomore at the UW who’s done a rock-solid job at attaining that balance.

During a conversation over coffee with him last week, he told me that he actually wanted to bring his homework with him more often—not because he felt he needed to dedicate more time to his studies, he said, but because he loved combining his love for outdoor recreation and learning about the environment more thoroughly. An atmospheric sciences major with an applied math minor, David has found ways to enhance his knowledge of climate while rock climbing competitively around the country.

And why not toss in another hobby into the mix? David also draws images of the landscapes that he sees when he’s out on his adventures. Aside from us at Voyage finding him and his work intriguing, he’s also cooperated with the American Alpine Club to release a line of t-shirts printed with his artwork that will be released this summer.

David Bonan
David Bonan

Here are some of the best takeaways from my discussion with David last week:

JR: When’d you start rock climbing and drawing?

DB: I started climbing my freshman year of high school, right after I quit lacrosse. Art started coming into my life more right about then too, and they paired really well together. Everybody’s always trying to find themselves in high school, right? Well I quit lacrosse, started climbing and art, and it was just perfect.

JR: What got you into climbing and art?

DB: Lacrosse was always very douchey to me. I’d have parents calling me an asshole or something that they shouldn’t be doing. When I was in art class in eighth grade, there was a girl I knew who told me she was on a climbing team and I thought, “Whoa, that’s cool, I want to join a climbing team,” and I joined a climbing team soon after that. And as soon as I joined, I knew it was right for me to quit lacrosse. After nearly ten years, I was tired of all the douchery of lacrosse. As a family, we were over the mean aspect of it. Like, even when you’re competing in climbing, you’re right next to each other climbing for that spot in finals and only one of you can get it. But the next day, regardless of who got it, you’d be out climbing right alongside them again and I loved that camaraderie aspect of the sport.

Also, my dad is an atmospheric ecologist for NCAR, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, so that was a lot of climate and it’s been stuck in the back of my mind…So, the mix of that, climbing, art, and living in Boulder, which is really ecocentric, all combined into one and helped form who I am.

Then, during long climbing road trips, I’d always go to the river or something during rest days and I’d always bring my notebook with me, and I started drawing. I’d always been interested in drawing. When I was in second grade, my brother and I bought a Homer Simpson cartoon coloring book and we’d draw in that religiously. Then, my drawings started to have a kind of cartoon-outdoorsy style. And every time I’d go on an outdoor climbing trip, I’d always draw, and I kept progressing. But the only reason I could go on those climbing trips was because I was doing well in school, and my parents made sure of that, so I really had to try hard to do well at all three.

JR: When was your first climbing competition?

DB: My freshman year of high school. One of my best friends and I were on the climbing team and we each got last and second-to-last in our first comp, but at least we were together. I’m still a skinny kid, but I was even skinnier back then. But then I took a year off from comps to climb outside a lot and when I came back, I fell in love with the competition scene—probably only because I started to do a bit better than before.

The Flatirons in Colorado, as depicted by David.
The Flatirons in Colorado, as depicted by David.

JR: What was your most recent competition?

DB: Ah, that was so much fun. It was in San Diego and this was a national competition. Some friends and I went down there and we competed, but we were also able to spend a good amount of time hanging out, meeting new people, and surfing. It was just such a fun environment.

JR: Tell me about your road trips you went on in high school.

DB: Most of them were in Colorado, and primarily for bouldering or sport climbing. A lot of people out here are mountaineers or trad climbers, but I did a lot of sport climbing out in Rifle, which is a huge destination for that. I started exploring the trad route of things out in Eldo—last summer, my friend and I did 43 pitches in a single day and that was really fun. It’s mostly just a lot of spontaneous trips with friends.

This summer, after school is out, I’m going to the Enchantments for a week. I’ll be doing some glaciology research during the summer, but I’ll be able to get the week off to go out there. That will be a lot of fun. I’m also excited for the summer so I can devote some more time to art. Sometimes school puts a dampener on your life, so I’m excited for that.

JR: How’d you get involved with the American Alpine Club?

DB: That’s actually a funny story. My friend, Paul, who used to work for them, was my climbing coach in high school. Moreso, he’s just known throughout the climbing scene there and he’s a great guy. One day, he messaged me and told me to do a peak of some iconic Colorado or Utah peak because the AAC was taking design submissions. I did it for free and, after I did it, I had an in there, but they were also really stoked with how it turned out, so it turned into a spring line for six different regions that will be coming out in June. So, that was really cool. I’m still not sure how it happened. I guess it was just one of those moments when you know someone and take advantage of an opportunity.

Half Dome in Yosemite, as drawn by David.
Half Dome in Yosemite, as drawn by David.

JR: How do your academics and climbing intersect?

DB: This is where it gets really fun for me. I’m planning on doing atmospheric sciences and math, which I guess is in the pursuit of climate change. When I would go out climbing with my dad—because only he would know this stuff—we’d be out on a ledge on belay and I was always curious about why I would look out and see clouds forming in one spot but not another. Why was it raining here and not there? Where’s all the water going when it hits the ground? I just started thinking more critically about the environment and studying and drawing it since I was already in it. When I came to Seattle, I started taking atmospheric science classes and I thought it was really beautiful stuff. You know, you’re considering geothermal properties and math and physics within the environment. And then I’d learn about something and be able to go out on a hike or something and actually observe it—and I could draw it too—and it all melded really well into one.

Glaciers especially interest me because I’m more into the cryosphere on the ice side of things, and there’s already many people within that field that are already artists that take the beautiful glaciers that you see when you go climb and they’ll draw them in a scientific way, but with an artful purpose. I think a lot of people think that science is really boring, but the professor that I’ll be studying with this summer has been talking to me about art pieces that he wants to use for the presentations that we’ll do because it’s a way to describe something to people in a really simple way but also catch the audience’s attention. You’re just trying to tell a story with your science so art is the perfect medium to tell it with. It’s the same thing with climbing, like when you go out and do something cool, instead of of being like, “Oh yeah, me and my friend just did this rad thing,” I can draw my experiences and hopefully tell the story and share it that way. They’re all connected for sure.

JR: Would you say that when you’re drawing mountains, that they have mathematical influence?

DB: I wouldn’t say intentionally, but probably subconsciously. When I draw a glacier, for example, it’s rolled over a rock and one side will be really smooth and polished and the other side will just be this till of rock. And so when I draw that, of course those aspects of nature will be there, but I’m also keeping in mind the physics and why that happens and it starts to influence my art. I still want to be realistic but still have it be this fun-looking cartoon.

JR: What’re some of your wildest climbing memories?

DB: Oh, this is always my go-to one to tell; I’m not sure if it’s legal to say. A couple of my good friends from Colorado and I were out at Rifle—both of them are out here in Washington—and since we were all on the quarter system we had some time to climb together. So, we finished up early and we we went into town to buy some beer, but we found a four-pack of stout and it was so alcoholic, like 10.5 percent or something like that, that they could only sell them in four-packs. And so we got those and went back to Rifle with the goal to climb a route nude after shotgunning a beer. It was in the back of our heads and we all just thought whatever. We had to go for it, we had to do it. So I just chugged this 10.5 stout, stirpped down nude, and sent a 5.12 and I got down and everything was spinning. They were each stoked but it was just the best moment because, you know, climbing is fun and everything but you never want to take it so seriously that you don’t have fun. It’s just me and my friends out in the mountains trying to have some fun.

So, there’s that story but then there’s also the story of when my friend, Justin, and I went and did 43 pitches in a single day. That was like a mission. We woke up, were in the park by five, and we didn’t stop climbing until 9:30. We were wearing headlamps for both times. We were just drinking Pedialyte just to get the electrolytes back into our bodies. It was just a mission and an athletic feat. So there’s the fun, kid side of climbing and then there’s also the mission side of it that I like too. You have to have both.

Torres del Paine by David
Torres del Paine by David

JR: How do you keep up the mentality of “study–train, study–train, repeat, repeat”?

DB: It’s pretty hard actually. When I went to the competition in San Diego, I bonded with some kids and learned from them. There, if you make it to the finals, you’re in isolation and the whole crowd backs off and you’re just in isolation warming up until they call you over to climb. But I was in isolation with like ten people and when I was back there, there were kids from Stanford and Dartmouth that were doing their homework and I was just there. I didn’t bring my homework because I knew I wanted to warm up and everything, but I realized that this was the picture of what I have to be too. Bring the homework everywhere I go. I’m in love with my climbing and I’m in love with my work so I can do them both. Sure, there are moments when I have to dedicate more or less time to one, but it’s about constantly finding that balance. Like I would love to go out to Index on weekends, but with the courses I’m in, I just can’t do that. But I know that if I stay strong in the gym, by the time summer happens, I can just go to the Enchantments and it’ll all be worth it. As long as I maintain that strength.

JR: How often do you climb?

DB: I have the goal of climbing everyday. I wake up and I think about climbing that day, but I know that things change and that doesn’t always work out. A professor might need research done or I need to get a homework assignment done or something like that, and it changes. I’d say that I climb like five or six days a week though.

JR: What summer plans do you have?

DB: Well, aside from a trip through the Enchantments, I’m going to be doing some glaciology research with a professor of mine, which I’m very excited about. Also, a friend of mine is coming up from Boulder so we’ll hopefully get some climbing trips in together. Pretty much, my free time away from research will be climbing and backpacking trips, which I’m really excited to have time for…And when I was in San Diego for the competition, I got more into surfing so I’d like to explore more of that while I’m up here. We’ll see. I am trying to keep my summer plans pretty loose because I want to be able to wake up one day and not have anything to do. Plus, I want to be able to be free at least a couple times when people approach me with spontaneous plans.

Mount Rainier by David
Mount Rainier by David

JR: What do you want to get out of climbing?

DB: Well, I guess the three things that I’ve always got out of it was socializing, destressing, and getting fit, and that’s all in one. I have a friend back home who’s a neighbor of mine who’s a father, an engineer, and a professional rock climber—he won’t say he is, but he’s definitely a super athlete. I think it’s really cool when people are able to meld the boundary between these big things that take all your time and incorporate them into their lives well. I’d definitely like to keep climbing but also including those other aspects in my life. I want to be the best at all three. I also think that climbing can help to get past obstacles in other areas of my life, too, so that’s always an important aspect to take into account.

I’d like to become a professional artist, climber, and scientist—really all three. I admire all the professional climbers in the world, but they’re much more involved than I am. My expertise within climbing isn’t even close to the professional side, but at the same time, I’m not exactly aspiring to be a professional climber. I just want to do the best that I can. I think that it would be super cool to do the Renan Ozturk path and include climbing and art while doing science and sharing it all together with people in National Geographic. That guy is amazing. He’s a professional climber, artist, and is doing scientific journalism. Like, why can’t those all be mixed more? It’s all so cool. That would be amazing.

JR: Where do you dream of climbing?

DB: Well, Patagonia is definitely one. No specific routes or mountains, but just to explore the whole area. I’m hoping that the quarter system will allow me to take winter quarter off my senior year, when it’s summer down in Patagonia, and I can just take the whole quarter to go down there and check out the area. This summer, I’d like to go to the Bugaboos up in Canada. In the Reel Rock series, there’s a bit about the Bugaboos and some climbers who go up there to send some really hard stuff and just chill too and I want to do that. I want to get more involved in the alpinist style of climbing, but put the bouldering and sport-climbing aspects into that so I can get up to higher, harder routes.

JR: What’s something that you include in your drawings that people may not realize right away? For example, I see the long strokes you use and I assumed those to be climbing routes. Is that intentional?

DB: Yeah, that’s not always the case, but I have definitely done that before. Also, another thing is that I take a lot, formatively, from the Homer Simpson art book that my brother and I bought. We traced over characters a lot and drew a lot of cartoons, and I still draw a lot of cartoons. But when you look at Renan’s work, it’s so beautiful and realistic and it has this mystical feel to it. I feel like mine is pretty cartoony. So when people tell me that my stuff is landscape realism or something like that, I can agree a bit, but the cartoon aspect is actually a big inspiration for everything that I’ve done. I don’t think a lot of people realize that. Other than that, the climbing aspect of drawing routes is definitely there too at times.

The Castleton Tower in Moab, by David.
The Castleton Tower in Moab, by David.

For more of David’s work, check out his website here. All images courtesy of