Am I a Skier?

“Oh, you’re that climbing photographer,” is the usual response I get when I meet skiers for the first time. I try to explain that I am a skier, climber, runner, biker, father, husband, brother, son, etc. who takes photographs, but it tends to get lost in the exchange.Icefall Lodge february 2014.

Saturday morning March 1st came clear and cold. The thermometer read -26 Celsius. My nose hairs froze and the wind stung my cheeks on the walk from the small bunkhouse to the main hut at Icefall Lodge. Changing shoes I heard the crackle of wood burning in the stove. Up to the dinning room and kitchen the smell of coffee made me smile. It was the eighth and final morning at the lodge. The week had comprised of perfect weather, non-stop skiing and unbelievable company. Coming to an end the long days, incredible scenery and constant laughter made an impression on me.larevalo_bcski6_0214_0005

After breakfast I sat at the table sniveling about what to do this final morning. I had originally thought I’d pack then relax until the helicopter arrived, but another bluebird day was tugging at my sleeve. The next question was, if I did ski would I bring the DSLR? For seven days I had carried it with me and shot non-stop and more. If I didn’t bring it would I miss the ultimate shot? As I voiced my inner struggle Pierre, the senior guide for our trip, looked at me. “What’s the problem? Let’s just go skiing.” The big camera would stay behind. Maybe today I would actually be a skier.larevalo_bcski6_0214_0069

As a group of four, Pierre, John, Tina and I, we made our way toward a ridge connecting Kemmel Mountain with La Clyte Mountain. We were gunning to drop into one of the small chutes off of the dividing Espresso Ridge, dubbed the Espresso Shots. I struggled to regulate my temperature. The March sun was strong, but any part of the body not in its direct rays frosted over. Up to Troll Pass the wind picked up. With no shelter we quickly bundled up and glanced north toward the skiing terrain that is the Canadian Rockies. My toes went numb immediately (a side effect from receiving second degree frost bite in the Teton’s in January is that they are now more susceptible). Heavy coat on, balaclava, heavy gloves and hood up, I marched in place willing the blood back to my toes. Tina brought up the rear and we all chipped in to get her wrapped up. Skis were strapped to our packs and we stomped on.

John gives me a frosty smile.
John gives me a frosty smile.

Constant movement was the only thing that would keep the chill at bay. Gusts of wind came so swift and cold they would steal your breath. I was worried about Tina. I think we all were. We continued up the sun-crusted ridge, booting easily for most and wallowing at times. Just below the ridge’s crest Pierre led us into a col and out of the wind. Tina’s hands had gone numb. I ripped open and shook warmers then handed them to her while she snacked on candy that John provided. Things were looking good… Just cold. We unloaded skis from our packs and got ready.

John, Tina and Pierre head up the ridge.
John, Tina and Pierre head up the ridge.

Pierre slid across the crusted south-facing slope to gain access to the main Espresso Shot. Tina slowly inched her way to Pierre. John and I exchanged a look. One false move would result in a slide for life into the Kemmel Basin. I pushed the negative thought away. Soon she was onto softer snow and standing next to Pierre.

Tina gets ready for her morning cup of espresso.
Tina gets ready for her morning cup of espresso.

Into the chute Pierre cut the top of the shot then skied down and out of sight. Tina followed linking strong alpine turns on her telemark skis. John offered for me to go, but I declined. He smiled then dropped out of view for a moment then appeared lower carving big turns into Seduction Drainage. It was then my turn.

Seven days of sidestepping and getting into position for the photos were behind me. No camera, no reason to hold back. I doubled checked my boots, buckled down, ski mode then synched the straps on my pack. I looked back to Icefall Peak, the Rostrum, Mount Arras, Kemmel and then over to La Clyte. A week in this place was not enough time.

I leaned forward rolling into the chute. Crust gave way to wind affected snow and soon creamy, consolidated powder. I let my skis respond to the slight drag and angle. Linking one wide turn to another I was clear of the chute and onto the apron. The skis opened up as I eased off the brakes. Floating right then eventually left I glided effortlessly over the Canadian snow. Down to John and Pierre we waited for Tina who gave us a Nordic-style finish by falling at our feet completely exhausted. Pierre was smiling, John was smiling, Tina was smiling and so was I.  Smack dab in the center of perfect ski country we all were flying high. And for a brief moment I really did feel like a skier.

Pierre, Tina and John beneath the Espresso Shots.
Pierre, Tina and John beneath the Espresso Shots.

Threadbare part 3 of 3

This is an essay that was first published in the Summer 2012 issue of the Utah Adventure Journal.

Sunday morning, with the smell of juniper and sage in the air, Elizabeth and I ran to Flaming Rock. Last year she had backed off Rain Dance, the two-pitch route to its summit. This year she cruised it, only hesitating at an overlap on the second pitch. Getting her down the backside was a bit touchier.  She crawled to the edge of the face then wrapped her arms around my neck. I gently set her below the anchor and told her it would be fine. Releasing her arms from my neck her lips quivered for a moment then relaxed as I let out rope.

To the Bread Loaves, we chose Twist and Crawl. As she jammed her tiny hands into the finishing crack her face pinched into a scowl.

“Liz, you look like a crack climber!” She responded by sticking out her tongue.

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No one was on Skyline at 11 am Sunday morning so I made my way up. Only wanting to take her to the edge of comfort I had some doubt on this one. Steep and precarious, it might’ve been enough to unnerve her. As I neared the top a group of climbers appeared and asked Elizabeth when we would be done. Feeling awkward she asked not to climb it. I felt relieved.

The last formation of our trip was Elephant Rock. We arrived to an empty parking area and saw no climbers. To have the place to ourselves was a gift.

“It wont come out!” Elizabeth was having trouble removing the first cam.

“Take it easy. Squeeze the trigger then ease it out.” She got it and moved on to the next one. It was no problem.

“This is… scary!”

“You’re almost here. It’s the last climb of the trip.”

“I can’t get it!” 30 feet below me and 80 above the ground she was fussing with the final tcu. I had finessed it into a pod and now it’d require some guidance to retrieve. I took up the slack and had her sit on the rope. Her arms jerked up and down as she tried to pry the cam from the crack.

“Stop! Take a breath, Liz. It’s not a big deal.” Tears were falling; I could hear it. “Okay, now nice and easy, move it bit by bit.” It was my father’s voice. “Don’t force it. Never force anything, Liz.” She was trembling when she arrived to the belay. I hugged her tightly and told her she’d done awesome.

A father's hand reaches towards his son's hand.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’d like to say the institution was a silver bullet, but it wasn’t. While I never returned to partying like I’d done in the past, time was needed to clean up. Rehab did, however, have an effect on the relationship with my dad. Although neither of us was able to speak about the past, we did develop a distant respect for one another. He no longer demanded anything from me and I took full responsibility for my actions. It seemed like this was a descent outcome to our differences, but after his death depression grabbed hold. It felt as if a dark and toxic cloud was suffocating me. For years I struggled to rectify these issues. At first I suffered from nightmares that revisited our altercations, then after time I began having dreams of regret where I was unable to speak, to tell him that I was sorry.  And now, more than decade later, I’m finally being comforted with dreams of his love.

As a young asthmatic I recall several trips to the emergency room. My dad would sit next to me speaking softly with his Peruvian accent.  “Luis, I want you to count backwards from the number ten.  At each number we will take a breath.” Sometimes he would count in Spanish, “Diez… Nueve… Ocho…” He would calmly walk me through relaxation exercises while my mom, near hysterical, would be demanding the doctors make me “breath like a normal child!” I struggle with this. Why is it so hard to get along with the ones we care most for?

The last memory I have of my dad is being in his room. I was 20 years old. After having his stomach removed in order to stop the spread of cancer, a procedure that his body didn’t accept, he had withered away and now his time was up. Afternoon light crept through thin drapes covering the windows. I sat next to his emaciated body. My weight was the only impression on the mattress. His eyes rolled in their sockets when I touched his hand.

“Dad…” they half opened. “How do you know you’re ready to have kids?” His lolling head snapped straight and the clouds vanished from his sunken eyes. Blinking in astonishment he feigned a smile. “How do you know?” I repeated.

“No one is ever ready for children, Luis.”

 

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On a Sunday afternoon in June I sat with Elizabeth on the top of a granite formation in the City of Rocks. Other rocks rolled away from us, down into Circle Creek Basin. Smokey Mountain sat quietly, covered in dark pine. Turkey vultures floated in a blue sky with the sun beating down.

The fear I’ve known through climbing; embracing uncharted rock, getting buzzed by lightening, rolled over by refrigerator-sized blocks or falling, pales in comparison to the knowledge that I’m capable of despicable behavior. I worry about cross-threading my relationship with these children.

This was only climbing. How would I handle the kids when it became serious?

The thought paralyzed me. Elizabeth, no longer trembling, looked at me and smiled. My father was right. Considering my past I would never be prepared, but right or left, up or down, the next move was up to me.

copyright louis arevalo 2012

Threadbare Part 2 of 3

This is part two of an essay that was first published in the Summer 2012 issue of Utah Adventure Journal.

Saturday I rose before dawn in the City of Rocks to the song of birds. In the cool air I ran quietly past the patina covered formations. Swifts darted along the walls of Flaming Rock then Morning Glory and others. This was my first weekend alone with Elizabeth and I needed to strategize; get things properly threaded.

 

 

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Liz wants to go to the hot springs today; it’s closed on Sunday’s… I want to explore Castle Rocks State Park… She wants to climb… I have to figure out what routes those would be… She should have fun… I should do everything I can to make that happen.

 We settled on Castle Rock. Lower in elevation than the other crags the iris blooms were out in force. Snowfields on Cache Peak stood out against the green pastures below. We hiked by lonely rocks and through pines until we found a crag near a stream with aspens that provided shade. I draped a rope over its steeper side and rappelled slowly, inspecting possible holds. Elizabeth hopped from one side of the stream to the other. The air smelled musky and the lawn near the rock was pressed flat.

Wild Iris below Cache Peak.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Looks like deer have slept here, Liz.” I pointed at droppings and waved to the grass. “Can you smell that?”

The worst of my adolescent angst still haunts me. It occurred one autumn day after holiday shopping with my dad at the request of my mom. I was venomous the entire time. Back home, the middle of suburban sprawl that is Salt Lake, consumed with the desire to get high, I demanded he drive me to a friend’s house. Reluctantly, he started for the car then, reconsidering, pointedly asked what I was up to. He knew my intentions. Unable to give him a practical response he turned back to the house. Something inside me cracked. In a flash I was swinging. He recoiled, trying to retreat, but I caught him inside the door. I was a flurry of fists and feet, a barrage that only stopped after he lay beaten on the steps with a look of horror on his face. As the anger drained from my soul the realization that I’d just lashed out because I couldn’t face the truth and disappointment of what I’d become dawned on me. Never once during the altercation had he fought back. Arms were used to deflect the blows, but nothing answered the onslaught. His face had a sobering effect. What kind of a son beats down his father? The urge to get high, to step away from this reality, grew stronger than ever. That evening I ran as fast and far as possible. I was fifteen years old.

 

Saturday afternoon returning to the City of Rocks, after a stop at the hot springs, I suggested to Elizabeth we climb Bath Rock. She belayed me attentively then followed, all while speaking to herself. I couldn’t make out the words. At the top she claimed it was the hardest thing she had ever done and I was taken back to my first routes and the fear of the unknown. Elizabeth had no idea what she was capable of and it wasn’t up to me to tell her. I could only offer love and support; the rest she’d discover on her own.

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That evening, while Elizabeth slurped hot cocoa, we devised a plan to climb to the top of other formations in the City. Sunday we would attempt Flaming Rock, Bread Loaves, Morning Glory and Elephant Rock. It would be cool to see how many we could climb together in a day.

In their final attempt to turn me around my parents committed me to an institution. After putting on a compliant face and letting a few days pass, I escaped by hopping over the cafeteria counter and running through two secure exit doors that were propped open by a custodian taking out the trash. Wearing a t-shirt, jeans and sneakers, I ran onto a snow-covered field. I didn’t look back, certain that if I did someone would catch and return me to that prison. Once again I ran as far as I could.

I’m fifteen… have no warm clothing… No money… My friends can’t help… I’ve escaped to nowhere.

Stopped for a brief moment, somewhere in the Salt Lake Valley, I saw the peaks of the Wasatch. Their snowy summits hovered in the night sky. I couldn’t recall the last time I’d climbed. Considering all the money wasted on partying I could’ve amassed a huge stash of gear and traveled anywhere. Instead I was there, at the bottom of a very deep hole, which had just gotten deeper.

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That night on a pay phone I promised my mom that things would be different. I would go to therapy, communicate more, do anything not to be locked up. I planned to straighten up and when that happened return to climbing. For less than one hour I was warm at home. When three large men showed up to take me back to the institution I felt completely betrayed.

Days later my dad came to visit, my mom couldn’t look me in the face. He explained how the insurance would be void if I didn’t finish the prescribed rehabilitation. Outpatient therapy was not an option. Either I stayed, however long it took, or my parents would have to pay over $5,000 dollars. It was money they didn’t have.

The room spun as I fractured and fell to pieces and the cool demeanor worn to defy the institution knowledge that they were breaking me evaporated instantly. Dressed in only a hospital gown, I shook irrepressibly and bawled like a baby. I wasn’t in control of this. There was no way out but one and it wasn’t a choice. It felt as if I’d lost everything.

That winter night a father wrapped his arms around his quaking son. That night a son felt undeserved love from his father.

The final part will be posted next week

copyright louis arevalo 2012.

Threadbare Part 1of 3

This was first published in the Utah Adventure Journal Summer 2012

 

I never apologized to my dad before he passed away in August 1997. To say we didn’t get along during my teenage years would be putting it lightly. Before our troubles began, I recall working together on a project. Clumsily, I positioned a nut at the end of a bolt and started torqueing it down with a wrench. He noticed my shaking arms and stern face.

“Luis, stop! Don’t force it. Never force anything.” Being from Peru he spoke English precisely, but with a heavy accent. Reversing the nut with his fingers, he seated it correctly and signaled for me to try again. It tightened with ease.

This past June a weekend family trip to the City of Rocks was whittled down to my stepdaughter and me when my wife and stepson stayed home for an impromptu soccer tournament. On a Friday afternoon Elizabeth and I left Salt Lake City. Barely across the Idaho border we stopped on Strevell Road beneath the Raft River Mountains. I snapped photographs of abandoned ranch buildings while Elizabeth darted back and forth screaming, trying to avoid swarming mosquitoes. Down the road I spotted an eagle perched on a telephone pole. Pulling over I grabbed the camera.

“Do you think it will fly?” As we walked toward the pole it spread its wings and swooped down between the wires. A few flaps and it soared through the evening air.

“Whoa… That’s huge!” Elizabeth blurted. I had to agree.

 

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I was eleven the first time I climbed. A rope, anchored to a tree 50 feet up a very low angle bluff, served as the route. I had joined my older sister for her senior spring break in the mid 80’s and for a few days I ran about the deserts of southern Utah with a diverse collection of teenagers. With one VW bus and one Trans-Am, the group of seven wisped me from the hoodoos of Goblin Valley, the radical entrada formations of Arches, the endless vistas at Dead Horse Point and to the quiet beauty of Canyonlands. One of the teenagers explained to the rest how he had rappelled off a feature in a hidden corridor of Goblin Valley. I was intrigued.

The following evening we pulled off Highway 191 south of Moab and cruised along the rolling plains beneath the dark Abajo Mountains. After passing vacant cattle buildings the road began to descend, winding its way into faded sandstone. Our destination was Newspaper Rock and for a moment I was entranced by the collage of images scratched into the vanished rock, but 50 feet to the right the climber of our group had rigged a top rope by using a juniper growing out of the Navajo sandstone. When he asked if anyone wanted to climb I jumped at the opportunity. Wearing a pair of Tough Skins with holes in the knees, a Cheerios Kid T-shirt and Payless running shoes, I clambered quickly up the rock. Sitting back, weighting the rope and lowering were the hardest parts.

Regardless of its difficulty, the hook was set. From then on my free time was devoted to the rock. Since I didn’t have any real equipment the majority of it was spent soloing at fourth and easy fifth class crags in the Wasatch Mountains. Only on occasion was I lucky enough to hook up with a friend’s older brother and actually climb on a rope.

During those rope free days I developed an identity. The uncertainty of being on the rock without any protection cut through all my insecurities. In moments of doubt, when I was sure my forearms would give into the building pump and my fingers would open involuntarily, I could visualize the fall. It would be quiet at first, then my body, striking a ledge below, would spin wildly out of control until the ground suddenly stopped it, broken beyond repair. These thoughts paralyzed me. The flashes were terrifying to the point that I would swear to never climb again until the day I discovered I was the only solution. Left or right, up or down, my fate was in my hands. Each solo outing on the rock began to feed my confidence and character. At home things were different.

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“Do not speak to me like that. Have your mother cut your hair. Boys do not wear earrings. Sunday is for worship. You will obey.” Questions were not tolerated when my dad laid out his directives. Step outside his line and you were forced back in.

When I was twelve he let it slip that he was listening in on my phone calls. He explained that in his house it was his right to do so. In search of privacy hours were spent away. On a number of days he’d have to drag me home in order to spend time with the family. This led to more time away and more time in the Wasatch.

Once, while he demanded that I cut my hair, he snapped and wrestled me to the ground.

“Take that thing out!” He screamed while tearing at my earring. My older brother intervened and afterward, I added two more piercings to spite him. This cycle continued into high school. He would demand and I would refuse. Taking steps in the opposite direction of what he wanted seemed the best reaction. Each exchange made it easier to stay away and hanging with all the kids he didn’t want me to be with became easy.

It was with these friends I discovered yet another identity. Booze, Speed, Weed, Hash, Mushrooms, Acid, Coke, etc.; we dabbled with it all and it all blew my mind. At first, I got high occasionally, then weekly and, eventually, daily. Faster than you’d think, the substances took over. I found myself searching the canyons near Salt Lake for places to get high instead of places to climb. Drifting from one friend’s house to another I’d stay away from home for days never contacting my parents. Nights were spent in nearby canyons and glens, hidden among the granite or quartzite boulders.

We partied until it wasn’t fun any more. There were Speed and LSD binges so intense I would smoke pot or drink just to keep the edge off. These long highs always ended with severe lows, where the guilt and shame of what I was becoming pushed me to stay away even longer, which led to getting high again. Several arrests and court appearances along with slipping academics labeled me a delinquent. Wanting to climb was replaced by the urge to get high. The soothing canyons of the Wasatch that had given me some much went the same way the best friend you had in grade school, ignored and mostly forgotten. Trapped in a cycle of hormones and mind-altering chemicals, I began to lash out at everything and everyone. I wanted to stop, but didn’t know how.

 

Part 2 will be published next week.

copyright louis arevalo 2012