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Family remembers man who gave back to his community

By: Matt Steiner
March 20, 2014
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Phil Hesse spoke fondly of his brother Mark during a recent phone interview.

The 55-year-old, who lives in Idaho, described his older sibling as an "adventurous" man who "gave back a lot to the community and to the family." He said Mark Hesse, who died last month at a Boulder climbing gym, was a lifelong climber, a motivator, an educator and, most importantly, a well-respected steward who devoted the last 30 years of his life to trail work and environmental stewardship.

"He was deeply, deeply passionate," said Rebecca Jewett, the executive director of Rocky Mountain Field Institute, which Mark Hesse founded. "He believed that as users of these lands, we need to step up and protect them. He really believed that hands-on involvement is the vehicle for environmental education."

Mark Hesse, 63, was found lying alone and unresponsive near the bouldering area at the Boulder Rock Club on Jan. 27. The Boulder County Coroner's Office has not determined the exact cause and manner of his death, but another of Mark's five siblings, Jon Hesse, said Mark likely died from injuries related to a fall from one of the adjacent climbing walls.

News reports from shortly after the Colorado Springs native's death say that he was wearing a harness and shoes but was not believed to have been using a belay.

According to Jewett, Mark Hesse was heavily involved in the American Mountain Foundation in the early 1980s and became president of the organization in 1987. The AMF was a nonprofit that helped climbers find and organize international climbing expeditions.

Mark gave the AMF a makeover in 1989, forming the Rocky Mountain Field Institute, which initially focused on building sustainable access trails for climbing areas in the region. "And that morphed into areas beyond climbing spots," Jewett said.

In the Pikes Peak region, Mark Hesse's impact has been felt mostly in Garden of the Gods.

In 2002, Mark and RMFI launched a restoration program in the city park in western Colorado Springs. Jewett said the focus was to "leverage a very small amount of money into a large amount of work and value."

During the past 12 years, the Garden of the Gods initiative turned $350,000 into what Jewett called about a $1.5 million value in volunteer work on trails and on land in the park.

"It was Mark's vision that started that," she said.

Mark Hesse was part of another vision in the early 1990s when the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative began. The nonprofit, which has a mission to "protect and preserve the natural integrity of Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks through active stewardship and public education," still is going strong today.

A recent post on the organization's Facebook page said Mark Hesse was one of the founders of the initiative. But according to Jewett, Mark's pet project with fourteeners was in the South Colony Lakes Basin in the Sangre de Cristo Range.

Jewett called the work that Mark led near Crestone Needle, Crestone Peak and Humboldt Peak a model of what can be done on Colorado's majestic peaks.

"It was in terrible shape in the '90s," she said. "And over the course of a decade, it was totally transformed. Now it's in very good shape from an ecological perspective."

Mark Hesse served as executive director of RMFI, which has its headquarters on South 25th Street in Colorado Springs, until 2008 and sat on the board of directors until 2012.

Jewett said Mark moved from the Pikes Peak region with his wife of 30 years Julie Hesse and landed in Boulder in 2013. The couple has two grown daughters, Hartley and Laurel Hesse who were both born in Colorado Springs.

Mark continued to help with RMFI projects until his death. Before the move, he began a consulting firm called Wildscapes Planning & Design.

Mark Hesse and Wildscapes most recently were involved in work on the Top of the Mountain project at Cheyenne Mountain State Park south of Colorado Springs.

Abbie Walls, a spokeswoman for Colorado Parks & Wildlife, said Hesse did a lot of design work on a trail system that will one day go to the top of Cheyenne Mountain. The proposed trail system is part of a state park plan that was unveiled in November 2012. Walls said Colorado Parks & Wildlife is aiming to have the trails open in four to five years.

Phil Hesse said the work his brother did on the Top of the Mountain project is important to him, his mother, Florence, and the rest of the Hesse family because it will be "one of the last things that he accomplished." Along with Phil and Jon Hesse, Mark had another brother, Paul Hesse, and sisters Maria Hesse-Vassey and Annie Ness.

Phil said the family might even take steps to make sure Cheyenne Mountain is a prominent part of Mark's legacy.

"We're thinking about trying to see if the state would dedicate the trail to him," he said.

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