Alumnus Donates Joshua Tree Property

Brian Rennie (BS ’70) and his wife, Lori, will donate a 5-acre Joshua Tree property plus an adjacent 15 acres of vacant land and 10 years of maintenance costs to the College of Natural Sciences & Mathematics.

Brian Rennie (BS '70) enjoying the view from the summit of the Matterhorn in Switzerland.

Brian Rennie (BS '70) enjoying the view from the summit of the Matterhorn in Switzerland.

Climbing mountains, flying planes, building his own Joshua Tree home: Brian Rennie (BS ’70) has led a full, adventurous life. With a multitude of life-changing experiences and a deep love for the natural world, he plans to leave behind a rich legacy. In February 2023, he and his wife, Lori, announced that they’re leaving a significant part of that legacy to the College of Natural Sciences & Mathematics.

Their eventual donation includes the 5-acre Joshua Tree property, the Sante Fe pueblo-style home that Rennie custom-built on it in 1994, plus an adjacent 15 acres of vacant land. It’s a selfless gift that will aid in the study and preservation of the desert environment, opening doors for new research and educational opportunities for NSM students.

From Orange Groves to Oceans: A Tale of Mentorship, Marine Science, & Soaring to New Heights

Brian Rennie graduated from CSUF in 1970 with a degree in biological science with a focus on marine science. His love for nature can be traced back to his childhood spent among the orange groves of Anaheim, playing with friends, catching insects, and observing the world around him. However, what really pushed him to pursue his biological science degree was his high school biology teacher, whose class Rennie describes as “tough but very good.”

After high school, Rennie attended Fullerton College, where he spent two years taking biology classes on top of required courses. He did very well, but ultimately transferred to CSUF, due in no small part to the late Donald Bright, then-chair of the Department of Biological Science at NSM. Bright would quickly become Rennie’s mentor and a significant figure in his life.

“We want the study of the Mojave to educate people on the importance of the desert ecosystem and help them respect it more.”

Brian Rennie (BS ’70)

“My brother-in-law introduced me to Bright when I was in my first year at Fullerton, and Bright guided and prepared me for my transition to CSUF,” Rennie says. “Bright had the most impact on me while I was at CSUF. He would take me on research trips on the USC marine ship Velero, and he got me a grant to conduct my master’s thesis research at the USC marine lab in Catalina after my undergraduate studies.”

While at CSUF, Rennie pursued passions beyond education. He was the photographer for the Department of Biological Science on campus and was a local photographer in Fullerton. He also learned to fly planes, an activity that he still finds joy in, spending roughly 100 hours each year in the air.

Though Rennie excelled in his field of study, his experience working as a graduate assistant encouraged him to pivot away from that path for his career.

“I saw what my future would be as a professor, and it just wasn’t what I wanted long-term,” Rennie says. “I liked the outdoor and research elements of it, but I didn’t want to be locked into a job that could be repetitive.”

Instead, Rennie pulled from his previous experiences and passions to found two companies of his own: Benchmark Studios, a photography and advertising business that would grow to be one of the largest in Orange County, and Benchmark Aviation, a small private flight company.

Scaling Heights & Defying Fear: An Unforgettable Experience

In the 1970s, Rennie started rock climbing, particularly at Joshua Tree. The location was introduced to him by a group of world-famous climbers called “The Stonemasters,” whom Rennie fell in with.

“They took me to another level of climbing,” he says. “Like with most things I do, I immersed myself in it.”

Once Rennie started climbing, he gained experience quickly, climbing parts of Yosemite, ice waterfalls, and ice- and snow-covered mountains in the Sierra Nevada range. His climbing excursions, combined with interests like flying, would be called dangerous by many people – but he has a unique take on fear and danger.

“I’ve seen so many things that have opened my eyes to the world and life. People would think some things I did were dangerous, and I see their point, but I always felt confident because of how I approached doing them,” Rennie says. “I believe my education at CSUF and my personality helped teach me that. For instance, I have 7,000 hours of flight time, some of which were during extreme weather, but I never flew when I thought it was truly unsafe or beyond my abilities. The same is true with climbing or business.”

Man in brown overalls standing on snowy mountain

Brian Rennie poses in front of the Matterhorn the day before beginning the climb.

One exceptional example of Rennie’s level-headed approach to taking risks is when he climbed one of the most dangerous mountains in the world in 1983 – the Matterhorn in Switzerland, which has an average of 12 deaths per year.

“My sister and I walked through the climber’s cemetery in Zermatt, the village at the base of the mountain, and saw the graves of all the climbers who’d died on the mountain,” Rennie says. “My sister then said, ‘This is not a good idea.’ It does make you think.”

Rennie and the guide he chose, Max, climbed up the mountain in an astonishingly short four hours, despite a dangerous rockfall caused by off-route climbers and the impenetrably hard slope of ice near the summit. They snapped photos and walked along the summit ridge before beginning their descent.

Rennie and Max made it to a narrow ledge just below the icy summit when everything went wrong.

“It was a vertical drop to the glacier below, more than 4,000 feet,” Rennie says. “The wind was blowing at probably 30 knots, and I couldn’t hear anything.”

Rennie had just begun to down-climb the near-vertical rockface when he looked up and saw Max, who was supposed to be hip-belaying him, leaning over, blood dripping from his mouth.

“He wasn’t anchored to the wall, and when I called to him, he didn’t respond,” Rennie says. “Then he started to fall.”

Thinking quickly, Rennie hoisted himself upward and pushed Max back against the wall with one hand. When Max was still unable to stand, Rennie – holding Max up with one hand – pulled himself onto the ledge with him.

“Max wasn’t responsive,” Rennie says. “I checked for a pulse and found a good one, but he wasn’t responsive.”

The danger of the situation sunk in for Rennie. They were only 100 meters below the summit, and Solvay Hut, the highest emergency hut on the mountain at 13,000 feet, was still 1,500 feet below them. Rennie couldn’t carry Max down the mountainside without risking death for both of them, but they couldn’t just stay put, exposed to the elements, overnight.

“I decided to start lowering him. If we could get to Solvay Hut, I could call for help.”

Brian Rennie (BS ’15)

He lowered Max by roughly 80 feet, then climbed down – unsecured – to tie him to the mountain. He climbed back up to retrieve the gear before climbing back down to Max.

“I did this one time before I realized how long it was going to take,” Rennie says. “I knew that, eventually, I would have to leave Max to down-climb by myself or we would both freeze to death. It was just a matter of deciding if I should go now or get Max further down the mountain first.”

As Rennie was weighing his options, a helicopter appeared above the cloudbank below them. Rennie signaled for help, but when the helicopter disappeared back into the clouds, he was convinced they hadn’t seen him. After lowering Max yet another 80 feet, Rennie watched as the helicopter appeared again – with a full-body harness dangling from it.

Though precarious, Rennie was able to clip Max safely into the harness, and the helicopter took off with him in tow.

“I never felt such relief,” Rennie says. Despite the dangerous and icy conditions, Rennie restarted the down-climb on his own, confident it was within his abilities. Then, 40 minutes later, the helicopter reappeared to fly him down, which Rennie says was “a beautiful sight.” He also got an incredible view of the mountain and the snow blowing off the summit as he was pulled away from the Matterhorn.

When the helicopter landed safely at Hörnli Hut – a unique building erected at the start of the climbing route by the Swiss Alpine Club in 1880 – the Hüttenmeister approached and said they’d watched everything through the telescope. While Rennie was down-climbing from the narrow ledge, a climber farther up the mountain fell, and the resulting rockfall struck Max in the back.

“The climber must have fallen to the glacier below,” Rennie says. “I didn’t hear or see anything when it happened. If I had been just a little lower when Max was hit, I wouldn’t have been able to stop his fall, and he would have pulled me off with him. We weren’t anchored to the rock. We were all very lucky that day.”

That’s not the only close call Rennie has had, but it is one that has stuck with him. Despite it, he’s never backed down from a challenge or risk that he was confident he could handle – a grit that he credits in part to his education at CSUF.

“Everyone experiences fear in every part of their life,” Rennie says. “I think most use it to back away from the opportunity or adventure, but I believe fear is just your inner voice saying, ‘This is something unknown, proceed with caution.’ I would always complete research and training before deciding to do something, but I never backed away unless it was outside of my scope. There were many climbs or flights which I did not do because training or assessments said they were outside my abilities. I had climbing partners that could not do that, and some are dead now.”

Transforming Love for the Desert Into a Legacy for Education

The time that Rennie spent climbing in Joshua Tree deepened his respect and love for the world around him.

“Being in Joshua Tree constantly makes you realize how subtle and fragile the desert is,” Rennie says. “I bought my first 5 acres at the park’s gate in 1985, and I built our home here in 1992.”

Man in blue jacket standing on top of snow covered mountain

Rennie, true to form, researched thoroughly before designing the home on his computer, and he used tape on the floor of his studio to help him visualize and perfect the rooms. After a plan drawer examined and adjusted his finished design, Rennie began construction. The home is built with authentic materials from Albuquerque and Santa Fe, and it features a courtyard, roof deck, separate bar, and studio.

Once donated to NSM, the property will be used to support desert studies, conservation efforts, and climate research.

“We want the study of the Mojave to educate people on the importance of the desert ecosystem and help them respect it more,” Rennie says. “We’re confident that NSM will respect the land and use it in ways that align with our values and intentions.”

“Lori and I agreed it should go to desert studies,” Rennie says. “We’re both strong believers in education – and particularly in science. I remembered flying Bright to Zzyzx Springs when it was first given to CSUF for the Desert Studies Center.

“We’ve been very impressed with the depth and professionalism they’ve shown,” Rennie continues. “They were very involved and interested in us, much more than I thought we deserved. We have also indicated that the residual from our trust will go to Inland Empire Community Foundation for STEM or trade scholarship grants.”

Rennie insists he’s not a good source of advice, but he does have one bit of helpful information for students: pay attention to the destination.

“In hindsight, I’d say look at what your final position will be when committing to something, like my experience as a grad assistant,” he says. “For me, photography and advertising were the right career choice, though I loved and was good at biological sciences. Photography kept me involved in the ‘real world.’ I created things and got immediate feedback from clients. What I created either worked or clients wouldn’t come back. I never saw getting that type of black and white response from being a professor.”

Though Rennie didn’t pursue a career in biological science, his time at CSUF still shaped his life, from introducing him to influential figures like Bright to helping to change his aspirations and perspectives on the world around him. The college is honored to be trusted as the custodian of the incredible Joshua Tree property, and we are thrilled at the unlimited possibilities it can offer NSM students, environmental efforts, and local communities in the future.

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