Peter Mayfield

Climbing mountains and accompanying others towards a better health, through nature and adventure

He is the founder and executive director of Gateway Mountain Center in California, an innovative program for helping youth heal and thrive.  A world’s top mountain climber, has over 40 years of experience guiding mountain experiences and entrepreneurial ventures. Research and a mission of inspiring youth through ability and strength  in nature.

First Climbing Gym and transformational experiences in nature

“So my first business was the first climbing gym, the first full service climbing space in the world. It was a big effort, but you know, 10 or 8 year old girls are gonna do something they never dreamed of in my space. That’s what I’m. This is for thousands and thousands of people who never would have done this. So that was my vision, and we did it.

“I got very interested in the positive impact on children and youth and then increasingly on youth who are suffering. So youth from the drug treatment center would come, or from the juvenile detention camp with an armed guard. And that interested me the most. And so that just has been my  life’s work.

“This young man was so troubled and he had assaulted the principal of the school and broke the nose of the principal. At 12 years old he was sent away to a therapeutic boarding school for two years, and right away he got referred to us. He was our first case in the Medical system.

“He was very fearful. He was in a special school for emotional disturbance, just known to be super prone to triggering, anger and violence. I just tried to see what he might be willing to try, and he said mountain biking. And I was like, oh, let’s go do this. And he was willing to try it, and we did it, and this 14 year old boy was really out of shape, and he couldn’t keep up. But I stayed with him, and then one in the race said who wants to do the trail again? And he did that, and we did that actually every week for a while.

“Seeing what he went through by building some strength and ability. And I worked with him for about 18 months, and he definitely got a lot better. He got a job and didn’t have any violent incidents. I guided him through these terrains. And he also got off medications. He was so medicated when I started with him he called it a zombie pill”.



“We observe the change in our youth clients in their kinetic expression, how their movement changes over time and how even their posture changes, how they hold their bodies. But we take a kid and week after week we do these challenges on rough ground in nature that activate the vestibular, the proprioceptive, the sensory motor, they move differently, and they hold themselves differently.

“And their embodied confidence, the growth of their embodied confidence is matched by improvements in emotional regulation, increased resilience, and even improved relationships. And literally, they make eye contact because they hold themselves like this instead of like that. The direct observation really led me and then us to that conclusion.

“A lot of our kids are very disconnected from their bodies, so we’re holding their hand, walking through rough ground, but two months later, they don’t need our hand, and six months later, they are like, watch how fast I can run across that log, and that progression is amazing. So we’re doing research on this, actually. UCSF is submitting a grant to the National Institute of Mental Health to study our method. We’ll track kids over time and see as their kinetic quality improves, kinetic expression quality improves. That will be assessing their emotional regulation and other things.

“My particular passion is definitely around youth. The stress they have been under, they suffer from mental illness symptoms and how ineffective and sort of harmful in a lot of ways the systems of care are. The medicalization of suffering, of emotional suffering, is a problem around the globe. We’ll reframe this whole thing, and mental illness will be like soul suffering”.

Relationships and Missions

The actual healing is relationship. So our time with a youth in nature is a setting and a context. And we absolutely appreciate and understand the very specific beneficial impacts of the phytoncides floating in the air from the trees and the sensory inputs. But if they just went out alone, they probably wouldn’t heal in the way they do because we’re sharing an experience. We’re authentically relating, we’re caring for them, we’re consistent. We’re shoulder to shoulder exploring the world instead of being on the couch like this. And it really works. And so it’s nature.

A lot of mental illness is caused for children by relational problems, relational breaks, or what they didn’t get when they were 1 year old when they needed it. And now they’re 10 and freaking out every day, triggering and so. I think the system of behavioral healthcare really needs to be transformed, reformed, evolved.

“As long as I have the energy I have, which is a pretty high amount of energy and passion, I want to do my part to contribute to that evolution. And I’m very happy that I am connected to the forest therapy hub and you’re spreading in the best way so I’m excited to join your efforts or link my efforts to your efforts.

“Youth are very far less likely to stay engaged with traditional therapy. And the traditional therapy they can engage is often in these government buildings, which is very stigmatizing or even traumatizing. Like the therapy office is right next to the police and the sheriff and the courts. And it’s terrible. So this potential to help these kids access nature and many for the first time in a lot of cases is so powerful and positive”.

We could do nature therapy for rich people and have a comfortable life, but we are doing that work, and it’s so important to do this work in communities and for groups of people and for children who just do not have that opportunity. I have the privilege of having a life of nature immersion, but our work is so focused on children who do not have that privilege. And then it makes a big difference”.

The first thrill

“I was a very independent child. When I was six years old, I got invited to go skiing by some people, and I remember I just, in the dark at 05:00 a.m. like, hi, met these people, got in their car, that was 1968, I loved it. I love skiing. I remember probably being four years old, and my parents bought this land in the foothills. Before I even went skiing, there was a creek, and I spent a lot oftime playing and by myself. So I enjoyed a lot of time alone in nature.

“And then at nine, I did climbing in the summer program. I have a photo of that day and I really love it. I think my main path into nature has been this kind of intense, embodied peak. We call this in our method, embodied peak experience. And I found joy in embodied peak experience. Skiing and then rock climbing. Between 15 and 19, I was one of the top rock climbers.

“And that’s also my passion is cross country skiing. And I race, pretty seriously. Nature at my house is really glorious and it’s 2 km from the lodge that we run our programs. There’s a town 18 minutes down the hill called Truckee. And so we work there too. We have a youth wellness center there and our offices.

When I was a teenager, I was really struck by the incredible transformation, transformational power of an immersion in nature experience. And then I would come back to high school and the physical education program could be so cool and impactful and wonderful, and was not.

“It’s so intense when people go rock climbing and you’re making it safe for them, supporting them on the best moments of their life and the worst, the most fearful, they’re frightened. You’re sort of nurturing an experience that, to make sure it’s not traumatic, there’s a lot of healing that people go through on an intense nature experience”.


Ph: Courtesy Peter Mayfield

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