A Bengal in the Statehouse
As a teenager, Mat Erpelding looked forward to February when he’d travel from Denver, Colorado to Pocatello to participate in the Simplot Games at Idaho State University’s Holt Arena.
“I became enamored by that indoor track,” he said.
So enamored, that he enrolled in ISU in 1993 and ran track for a couple of years before graduating with a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1997.
Erpelding never worked as a licensed psychologist—sitting in an office talking to people just wasn’t his thing. Instead, he spearheaded his athleticism and passion for the outdoors into businesses that focused on leadership, communication and experiential education.
Since 2012, Erpelding, a Democrat, has served in the Idaho House of Representatives, representing District 19 in Boise and a portion of neighboring Garden City. He is the house minority leader, a position he relishes despite being outnumbered by Republicans 59 to 11.
“I may not make huge sweeping policy reforms because I don’t have the votes, but I push a lot of issues and I force the conversation on those issues,” he said during a recent interview in his Statehouse office. His committee assignments include Revenue and Taxation, Resources and Conservation, and Agricultural Affairs.
Erpelding, owner of the Boise-based Experiential Adventures, LLC, and co-owner of Idaho Mountain Guides, says his experiences at ISU helped shape his professional and political life.
He developed a passion for experiential education—learning by doing—by working with students in ISU’s outdoor program (now the Outdoor Adventure Center) and C.W. HOG, a nationally acclaimed program which provides recreational opportunities for people of all abilities.
Erpelding, a retired high-altitude mountaineer, has climbed Denali in Alaska—North America’s highest mountain—five times, reaching the summit on four of those trips. So what does the world look like 20,310 feet above sea level?
“It’s a pretty cool thing. The physical aspect of getting to the top … then you’re looking down on the clouds,” he said. His first Denali climb was in 2000 with buddies from ISU.
What’s impressive is that Erpelding didn’t start climbing until 1995 when a friend invited him to go rock climbing in Ross Park. Sidelined by a running injury, Erpelding gave the sport a shot.
“I loved it,” he said. The physical and mental demands coupled with “the freedom of being outdoors” were a perfect fit for him. After all, this was the same guy who road his bike from Denver to Pocatello a few months earlier, a 582-mile trek that took him 10 days.
After graduating from ISU, Erpelding taught and worked in outdoor education programs at various universities.
In 2006, Erpelding moved to Boise. As an instructor at the College of Western Idaho, he trained teachers to use experiential education in the classroom. He’s also an adjunct faculty member in the Leadership Studies Program at Boise State University’s College of Innovation and Design.
As a lawmaker, Erpelding says his goal is to serve his constituents to the best of his ability and never yield on values he thinks are important to the state.
“Being in politics is much like mountaineering,” he said. “It’s often inclement weather. You’re often in ambiguous situations, and you have to persevere if you’re going to find success.”