Sam Lightner: Professional Rock Climber, Author, & Historian

"I never intended to be a writer... it just happened. I fell in love with Thailand on my first trip to the country in 1989, and was so inspired that I had to put my experience down with pen on paper."

Sam was raised in Jackson, Wyoming. At different times he has been fortunate enough to also live in southern Thailand, Banff, Alberta, and Moab, Utah, but Wyoming has always been "home." Traveling and living  in such diverse places has helped Sam greatly as a writer. Not only has it provided a plethora of settings to build stories upon, but also given insight into diverse people and cultures.

Thank you, Sam!!!


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Emy diGrappa (00:00):

Hello. My name is Emy diGrappa. Each week, we bring you stories, asking our guests the question, "Why?" We learn about passion purpose and the human experience. Brought to you by Wyoming Humanities, with the generous support of the Wyoming Community Foundation, this is What's Your Why?
Today, we are talking to Sam Lightner, historian, writer, and avid outdoor climber. Welcome, Sam.

Sam Lightner (00:45):

Thanks for having me, Emy.

Emy diGrappa (00:47):

Tell us about growing up in Wyoming. You're a true Wyomingite, for sure.

Sam Lightner (00:52):

Well, I grew up in Jackson. This was '70s and '80s, just a slightly different Jackson than exists now. In fact, I tell this story, it wasn't until I was well into junior high that the Y at Albertson's was a stop sign and there was a time when I rode my bike from Teton Village to the Aspens. There was obviously no bike path back then. I rode to the Aspens, about four miles, and it was in October and I rode the entire distance in the middle of the highway because there was no traffic. It was a different time in Jackson.

Emy diGrappa (01:36):

Oh, definitely a different time. Oh, my gosh. Something that people probably can't even imagine these days, especially if they just moved here. But what did you find memorable about growing up in Jackson?

Sam Lightner (01:48):

How do you put this? Jackson didn't have cable TV and we didn't have... It was difficult to get from the village. I actually grew up out at the village, so a lot of my time was spent just playing outside or playing by myself. I think that sort of turned me into a bit of a more independent person, but also into a person just loves the outdoors.

Emy diGrappa (02:14):

Tell me about your climbing career. How did you start that? I mean, I know Jackson's known for climbing. We have the Tetons.

Sam Lightner (02:21):

Yeah, my best friend in elementary school, junior high, high school, was Mark Newcomb, who's, I believe, he's still a county commissioner in Jackson now. Mark's dad was a guide for Exum, so we were exposed to climbing at a young age and we didn't really necessarily get it, didn't understand what was going on in the climbing world, but these famous climbers would come by the house for dinner and stuff when I'd be staying over at Mark's house or something and so we were just exposed and there'd be climbing magazines laying around.
Our moms didn't really want us going climbing. Climbing was actually a bit more dangerous then, too, than it is now, and they didn't want us going climbing, but we would go, anyway. We had some boulders we would go to. We had some cliffs from my house that are at the village that we could hike up to. We would even do things like climb a tree in the neighbor's yard across, this enormous pine tree, it was the Satterfield's place, and we would climb that and we would do the north face or the south face and eliminate tree limbs and stuff, so we got exposed to it at a young age. We weren't really allowed to go out and do it.
Finally, oh, in high school, Mark's dad just said, "I got to get these kids to learn how to do this right," so Mark and I went out and were taught by his dad and guys like Chuck Pratt and Jack Tackle and various people how to climb. For me, it became, as it does for a lot of people, I believe, it just became a complete lifestyle. My whole life revolved around it. I wouldn't be a writer now if it wasn't for climbing because I got into writing because of climbing. My whole life has been involved in it, and yeah, it's a lifestyle.

Emy diGrappa (04:18):

Explain a little bit more about that because there's so many different kinds of climbing, like ice climbing. I mean, do you do it all?

Sam Lightner (04:26):

Yeah, I have. I've done it all. When I went off to school at Laramie, there were big changes taking place in the world climbing community, really. Sport climbing was starting, which was climbing on the faces, but trying to make it safer with fixed protection points, bolts, and that just opened up a whole bunch more cliffs to climbing, so the sport was growing really fast. I embraced it and was climbing more than I was going to school. Even in the winter in Laramie, I was trying to find ways to climb. I eventually took a semester off to just go climbing because that was what I was spending my time doing more than going to school. I'm now in like my 63rd semester off, by the way. I never went back. I just went off and went climbing and told myself, "Well, you wanted to study history. Now, you can do nothing but read history books and climb," and that's basically what I did. I didn't intend for it to become a career, either. It just accidentally happened.

Emy diGrappa (05:43):

How does climbing be a career for people? How do you make money climbing?

Sam Lightner (05:48):

You make money climbing, number one would be you become a guide, that would be the most common way. For me, then I had a number of sponsors who... Well, let me put it this way. Mark and I went to Thailand on a lark. He was in China studying, doing an abroad thing for his degree, and said, "Hey, you should come over here and we should go check out these cliffs in Thailand," because we had heard a group of climbers, of mountaineers out of the Himalayas had gone there.
I thought it was a pretty crazy idea. Thailand was not a place you thought of for climbing. You thought of Central Europe, maybe Australia, the Himalayas, and North America, maybe some areas in South America, but hmm, we'll go check it out and see if there actually is good climbing there. We'd seen pictures of these rocks in National Geographic, so thought we'd go.
Well, we had an incredible trip. We thought it was going to be pretty gnarly trip and it turned out to be paradise. I got on the airplane and started writing by hand an article. I'd never written anything for a magazine before, but then I sent that to Rock & Ice Magazine and they said, "We want to publish it, and if you ever want to travel anymore, we'll pay for more articles," and I said, "Great," so I started traveling a lot specifically to write these articles, but also because I just liked learning about the countries. By writing the articles, I was getting myself in the magazines a lot, which meant I picked up sponsors, so I had some sponsors, and for every photograph of me and article written, I would get paid thing for that. Obviously, I got free equipment and so forth and then I got paid for the articles and I also then wound up working for Exum, so that combination of things made me, for a lack of a better term, a professional climber. Didn't make a lot, but you did make money doing it. Nowadays, they're making quite a bit.

Emy diGrappa (08:01):

Well, it's become so popular, don't you think?

Sam Lightner (08:04):

Yeah, it's a mainstream sport. It's been in the Olympics now. Most midsize to large towns in America have a climbing gym and that's where most people now are getting started in the sport. They're not starting outside, they're starting indoors, and yeah, it's just commonplace to find climbers in every community in the country.

Emy diGrappa (08:29):

Well, I think that's super interesting and that it became your passion. Then when you started writing, that became, I guess it's a secondary passion, or it grew out of your climbing career.

Sam Lightner (08:42):

It grew out of the climbing. I would write these articles about, say, Thailand or Vietnam or Zimbabwe, places that we'd gone, Morocco, and the editors of the magazines were starting to complain because it wasn't just North American magazines. I was selling the articles to all the different European magazines. This being, as climbing was growing, but before there was really an Internet where information was shared, all the climbers would buy all the magazines that they could to gather as much information, either monthly or maybe four or five times a year, the magazines would come out, so you could sell them all over the place.
But all these editors were complaining that I was writing more about the history than I was about the actual rock climbing, and yeah, I said, "Yeah, that's pretty much true." It's left hand, right hand, left foot, right foot. That's kind of boring. But how the First Indochina War led into the Second Indochina War and drew the American military into it was pretty interesting in Vietnam, so yeah, I wound up focusing more on the history, and that then me to write my own books that were history-related. I still write climbing-oriented things as well, but I got into writing about history because I was studying history and trying to write about history, but actually writing for climbing magazines.

Emy diGrappa (10:15):

Tell me. Well, first, I want to know, what is your favorite mountain to climb?

Sam Lightner (10:20):

Well, I prefer rock climbing to ice climbing and mountaineering. Most people would say the same thing. I mean, you like getting on tops of mountains, but there's a lot more involved with mountains, so you can just go rock climbing much, much easier. My favorite climb in the world would be a climb called "Lord of the Thais" on this big tower called "The Taiwan" in Southern Thailand.

Emy diGrappa (10:47):

Why is that?

Sam Lightner (10:48):

Well, it's a beautiful piece of rock rising out of this bay that's been used in movies. The bay, the beaches, two of three beaches there have been voted at different times Condé Nast's most beautiful beach in the world. The tower rises about 600 feet almost right out of the ocean. In spots, it is right out of the ocean. On this particular climb, the rock is overhanging, so it's beyond vertical, so the exposure is really intense when you get up high. It doesn't start off really hard, it just progressively gets harder as you get higher, so you actually get warmed up as you get further up the wall. To go out and do it for a day project, it's an easy thing. You get your warm-up, you get your warm-down, you get a beautiful view, and yeah, it's a perfect piece of rock to climb on.

Emy diGrappa (11:48):

Obviously, you have no fear of heights. Is that right?

Sam Lightner (11:52):

No, I do have a fear of heights. Everybody has a fear of heights. You're born with it, actually. It's one of just a couple of fears you're born with, but you do have to overcome it. It's actually part of the training to be a climber is to train your mind to stay focused on the task, even though there's this giant void that's pretty much, you can't ignore it. I think it's pretty common, people say, "Yeah, well, you must not be afraid of heights," but I think if you're not afraid of heights, you should stop climbing because the fear of what could happen to you from that high place keeps you focused on being safe.

Emy diGrappa (12:37):

On not being dead, yeah.

Sam Lightner (12:39):

On not being dead, yeah.

Emy diGrappa (12:41):

Well, tell me a story of one of your most treacherous, or just, what's a big climbing memory in your mind?

Sam Lightner (12:48):

We did one thing. One of my best buddies, we met him on the first trip, Mark and I met him on that trip to Thailand, his name's Volker Schoeffl. He's now very famous as a doctor of climbing injuries. He lives in Baumberg, Germany. Volker and I started traveling all over the place together. This one day, his brother and I were in the Schweinfurt University library taking a rest day and we found this old book, an old book in a German library, a lot of them were destroyed in World War II, but we found this old book and it had this black-and-white picture of this amazing-looking tower and it just said, "Lawe, Borneo," that's all it said under the picture, so we went about, we spent a few years trying to find this thing. Of course, this is before Google Earth. You just didn't have all the resources you have now to go and find information out about remote places.
We eventually, I made four different trips to Borneo trying to find this mountain, and on the fourth one, we went with a film crew and we went to climb the mountain, we had found it. We knew where it was. It's in a place called the "Kelabit Highlands." They get about 400 inches of rain a year, so we were wet for two weeks, and we had pit vipers in the camp, and one in Volker's face while we were climbing, and lightning strikes on the mountain while we were on it, or actually, above a thunderstorm at one point, and watching lightning taking place maybe 100 feet below us and striking down.
It was an amazing thing because aside from the rock climbing, the actual location was just so unique and it was one of those places that's disappearing in the world. It was old-growth rainforest and we were getting to see it just before it was probably going to get cut down. I think that very little spot around that tower is still safe and been made into a national park, but at that time, it was not protected. We had to hike for four days to get into it and it was just an amazing trip because of what the location was and how unique of an environment it was to go to to go climbing.

Emy diGrappa (15:20):

I think I need to see some pictures of that. That sounds amazing.

Sam Lightner (15:26):

I did actually write a book about it. The way we found out about the place was through a story about Central Borneo written by a British major who had been dropped into Borneo to try and gather intelligence on the Japanese during World War II. The Japanese were getting their oil out of Borneo. He gets dropped in with four other guys and it's one of those crazy World War II missions where they're thinking, "All right, these guys are going to die, but hopefully they'll be able to tell us something before they die."
The main fear for them was the tribes of Borneo in the interior, well, they were headhunters, and five guys aren't going to make it very long with thousands of headhunters in the area. What he ended up doing was uniting all of the headhunters as a force against the Japanese. It's just an amazing story. But I rewrote the story in combination with our story as a historical fiction after that trip took place, but that's how we did the research was basically World War II information.

Emy diGrappa (16:44):

What's the name of that book?

Sam Lightner (16:46):

All Elevations Unknown. Came out in 2001. 2001, yeah.

Emy diGrappa (16:52):

Okay. Let's switch over to your writing career because that's equally as intriguing to me, and especially that you just recently wrote a book, Wyoming: A History of the American West, and in your own words, I read, "Wyoming defines the American West. It was the home of the mountain men, the emigrant trail, Red Cloud's War, and the birthplace of American women's right to vote," and so much more that you talk about. Tell us about how you started out researching writing and really delving into the history of the American West.

Sam Lightner (17:33):

Well, I suppose that really starts with, that book, that starts with Mr. Parrot's Wyoming history class in eighth grade, which Mr. Parrot absolutely loved the trapper era, mountain man era, and taught us a lot about that, but that probably started my interest in it way back when, 1979 or something like that. If you're interested in history, you don't need to look further. That's why I titled the book the way I did. You don't really need to look further to learn about the western, the history of the West, than to look at Wyoming and look at all the things that took place in Wyoming, or that something took place someplace else and it had a great reflection on Wyoming. Cortés coming ashore at Veracruz with horses and smallpox had just an enormous effect on the Western United States and still does to this day, but you can find direct relevance of Cortés in Wyoming's history.
I think all those places that I traveled over the years, I would do my research on those places when I was there. I would try and read every historical book and maybe some maybe geology stuff and all that I could on the location, but I would also reflect back on my own homeland and read Wyoming history books and books that maybe weren't Wyoming's history, but the history of, say, the mountain men, or history of oil, a bunch of that takes place, Teapot Dome scandal and things like that take place in Wyoming.
I think over the years, I collectively was just reading about Wyoming, and then when one day I just decided, "Wyoming does not have a history book that is real readable." It has a very thorough book done by Dr. John Larson. He was a professor at University of Wyoming. I believe he was one of my professors when I was there. Dr. Larson's book is extremely thorough, but it's a classic history tone with all of the information and not focusing on the most interesting stories. What I decided to do with Wyoming: A History of the American West was write the stories from Wyoming that were the most intriguing stories. Then I found they all tied together, so what was going to be a Wyoming storybook ended up being a Wyoming history book that tied everything together, and by the time I had gotten about halfway through my, my research specifically for it, I realized this is actually going to be a history book. It's just going to have all of these stories more focused on.

Emy diGrappa (20:52):

Really, when you're saying that you wanted to come from a place of a storyteller, rather than just writing down the dates and the history and what happened, but you wanted to tell a story within it.

Sam Lightner (21:07):

Yes. My main climbing partner here in Lander likes to say, and he's very much right in my ability to write things, "Sam, you're a storyteller more than you're a writer." I'm full of grammatical errors and I can't spell to save my life, but I'm fairly good at telling the stories, getting into the mindset of the people who were there, or mindset of lots of different people at a given time in history. I think that's probably my strength in writing, so yeah, I wanted to write those stories and I wanted to write them in such a way that people got an understanding of Wyoming and were actually drawn to it. The traditional history books that just follow a timeline, for a lot of people, people say, "I hate history. It's really boring." Well, it wasn't written for you to be entertained, most books are written to inform. I wanted to write one that did inform, but also was entertaining.

Emy diGrappa (22:16):

Well, I think that's a big drawback, I feel like, for young people is that history isn't boring.

Sam Lightner (22:23):


Emy diGrappa (22:23):

History is yesterday. People don't think of it like that. They think, "It's way back then. How does it affect me and why do I need to know that?" How do you respond to that?

Sam Lightner (22:40):

Again, it comes down to the way it's written. If what you're reading about is crop output year to year on average on homesteads and then how much is then lost as waste on the way to the railroad, where it's shipped out from, that doesn't sound very interesting. But if what you're reading about is the homesteads versus large cattle companies and what essentially amounts to a land ownership war taking place in the Western United States and how homesteads were pitted against these giant cattle barons in the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, that then becomes interesting and actually becomes more interesting as fact than fiction when you start finding out things like about the Johnson County War, as we call it, and the Wyoming Stock Growers Association essentially hired a bunch of gunmen out of Texas to come up and get rid of who they claimed were "rustlers," but the number one person on their list of rustlers was a guy who was trying to create a union for the cowboys working on all of these big ranches, you start to find out, "Okay, who would've dreamed this story up?"
It gets deeper and deeper and deeper. Finally, you wind up finding the president gets called in on it. I think it was Harrison was the president at the time. The truth is that fact is stranger than fiction in a lot of history, but you've got to look at it and you've got to write it in such a way that it tells that side of the story, the interesting stuff, and not just crop numbers and so forth.

Emy diGrappa (24:37):

Well, I think that's very true, and I think that's why when you make it a story, and those things, the Johnson County Wars, well, those things did happen, but when you put people and families and places and things that people can relate to, then it becomes interesting.

Sam Lightner (24:54):

Yeah. Yeah, the adage out of the writing industry is "books are about people," so if you tell somebody you're going to write a book, it's to be about a bunch of young witches going to school and they're going to learn all kinds of crazy little things and there's this horrible force that's going to possibly kill them and they wind up saving the world, okay, we all know that ended up selling more books than anything in all of history except, I guess, the Bible as the Harry Potter series.
But if you then delve a little deeper and you talk, "Well, it's about one boy, a little boy who finds out accidentally he's a witch and he falls into this position of being the reluctant savior of his people and having..." It's completely different when you start to focus on the human side of it, the personal side of it. That's what you've got to do when you're writing stories because then the rest of us can read the story and go, "Wow, what would I be doing if I was in that position?"

Emy diGrappa (26:03):

How are you inspiring young people to write, learn history, be engaged?

Sam Lightner (26:10):

I try to get the book out to people and tell the stories. How I'm inspiring them? I hope I'm just doing it through being entertaining, but I'm not sure. It's one of the difficulties in writing a book is marketing the book. That's really why you have the giant publishers because they can go out and market things, and so getting the word out there is the most difficult side of inspiring people.
I guess you could say the most difficult side is writing it so that it comes across as entertaining, but Wyoming's history is so interesting, I don't think that's that difficult. I think the difficult part is getting people to know that it's there. I hope that I am getting the word out enough for people to be finding out about this stuff and being entertained by it, but you never know how well you're doing. It is nice, though, when someone comes up and says something like, "I just read your book. It's great." But I do have to tell you, more often than not, what I get is, "I just gave your book to my dad and he loved it." It's very rarely did I hear somebody say, "Oh, I just gave your book to my ninth grader and he loved it."

Emy diGrappa (27:33):

That's funny.

Sam Lightner (27:37):

Kids aren't kids aren't as interested in history. Somehow we get more interested in it when we get older.

Emy diGrappa (27:41):

Well, I think because at that point, we're looking back and we're realizing what's your family history or how history does affect who you are and where you are right now.

Sam Lightner (27:54):

Yeah, you get a little bit of it behind you and you realize you're now a part of it. Therefore, everybody before you has been a part of it, so what were their lives like? I think you're probably right.

Emy diGrappa (28:06):

Yeah, exactly. Well, that's just part of growing and it's great that you have really embraced the Wyoming history and I'm really excited. Tell people how they can find your book.

Sam Lightner (28:22):

Well, we're published through Summits and Crux Publishing here in Lander. The book's available on Amazon, but for Wyoming folks, most of the Wyoming bookstores stock it, and I would always recommend you go to your local bookstore before you go online, but if you can't get it through your local bookstore, you can get it through Amazon.

Emy diGrappa (28:47):

How do they find out more about you and the other books that you've written?

Sam Lightner (28:50):

Well, like I guess every other writer, I've got my website, and that's got pretty much everything on it. I don't know. There've been some TV shows on PBS and so forth, but go to the website first. That'll probably be the best way to find out more about me, I guess.

Emy diGrappa (29:16):

Okay. Thanks, Sam. It's been great talking to you.

Sam Lightner (29:19):

Thank you.

Emy diGrappa (29:35):

Thank you for joining us for this episode of What's Your Why?, brought to you by Wyoming Humanities with support from Wyoming Community Foundation and generous supporters like you. To learn more, go to Subscribe and never miss a show.