Profile: Thomas Bukowski

Profile: Thomas Bukowski

Profile by Hannah Truby

This profile was originally published in the Mountain Gazette Sunday email. Subscribe to our weekly email

This last February, The North Face announced that it would be expanding its world-renowned athlete team with the launch of their Athlete Development Program, a two-year mentorship program designed to offer inclusion and accessibility to a wide range of athletes from around the country. 

“It’s really intended to recruit and foster emerging, athletic talent,” says Esther Kendall over at The North Face. “It came from a lot of different conversations, especially in terms of inclusivity of the outdoors, and asking how we can bring that next generation into the outdoors.” 

Esther says the program offers a kind of structure to young athletes who show high potential, but might lack the guidance or resources needed to get started. “For a lot of people, there are barriers – location, financial, maybe they don't know anybody to help show them the way. And so the program aims to tackle some of those barriers.”

I was really intrigued by the program, and wanted to learn more about it, so Esther put me in contact with one of their current athletes, who I am pleased to introduce to in this week’s newsletter: meet Thomas Bukowski (he/they). Thomas is a Chinese-American climber from Hong Kong, and identifies as non-binary, using he/they pronouns interchangeably. 

From the road, inside his renovated van, Thomas carved out some time to chat with me about how his upbringing and travels led him to find passion and community in the sport of climbing, and how the program allows him to foster further self-confidence as an athlete.

Growing up in a city like Hong Kong, Thomas didn’t exactly have a wide array of outdoor sports to choose from. 

“I was a big swimmer growing up, kind of against my will”, Thomas jokes. But that changed when they moved to Norway for their last two years of high school, where they met 1980’s British climbing icon Chris Hamper, who, along with the student climbing community, introduced Thomas to the sport.

“I was such a noob, I could lead maybe 5, 10 sport lines, if that. So it was an easy welcome to this new thing for me, and it was a really magical experience.”

Thomas’ fire for climbing continued to be stoked during his time at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, where he met his “first climber dirtbag-friend”, who unlocked a newfound confidence in Thomas and his climbing abilities. 

“I’ll never forget, at one point he said to me: ‘If you try hard at this thing, you could get really good.’ No one had ever really said that to me before. Chinese culture isn’t very positively encouraging like that, so that moment just really struck me.”

After his time at Dartmouth, Thomas went west to San Francisco. “Mostly because I had been good with computers and programming since I was young, and obviously that was the place for that…I also heard there were a lot of gay people there – those were my two criteria – so I said, ‘Sweet! Let’s move to San Francisco!’”

The west coast proved to offer a lot to someone like Thomas, and it wasn’t long until they had found friends in the climbing community, who introduced them to Yosemite. 

“I’ve climbed all over – I’ve done two seasons in Patagonia – and all around the world people hear I’m from California and they say, ‘Wow, so you’ve climbed in Yosemite!’”

Thomas has since spent nearly a decade climbing all around the Yosemite valley, and is stoked to be so close to the hotspot of the climbing world “I mean, it really is the mecca of climbing.”

This past June, Thomas helped to manage United in Yosemite, a festival-style mentorship program that offers “a straight-forward introduction” to climbing, and celebrates diversity in the sport. A kind of full-circle moment for Thomas, they were able to introduce others to the sport that he at one point felt outsider to. “It speaks to me so personally, and I feel very fortunate to have been a part of that. It went really well, and everyone had a great time.”

Thomas is currently traveling to Pakistan for some world-renowned climbing, and both he and myself are excited to see what else is in store for him!