Wasatch People

The Wasatch Mountains
The Wasatch Mountains

I often tell my wife that I’m not a people person. I  don’t like crowds and minimize time spent in public. The truth is I totally get a kick out of the diversity and energy most folks have to share.

Peter Metcalf
Peter Metcalf CEO Black Diamond Equipment

After Ski Utah announced the One Wasatch Concept in March there was a flurry of articles and blog posts. There’s opposition to ski resort expansion and the loss of open space in the small Wasatch Range. There’s also support to grow skier traffic and Utah tourism. People have chimed in from local and national scenes.

Laynee Jones program director of Mountain Accord
Laynee Jones program director of Mountain Accord

When the editor of the Utah Adventure Journal asked if I had any interest in writing about the issue I said yes, but was unsure it would pan out. I figured it had been done and until something changed there might  be nothing new to talk about. Despite this doubt I picked up the phone.

Carl Fisher director of Save Our Canyons
Carl Fisher director of Save Our Canyons

It didn’t take many calls to find out that there was more to the story and more passionate voices to be heard. I feel grateful to the people from Black Diamond Equipment, Mountain Accord, Save Our Canyons and Wander Lust Images who took time out of their schedules to help me better understand this concept. Despite what I tell my wife and myself, there are some pretty cool people in this world. Look for the article in the next issue of the Utah Adventure Journal.

Howie Garber, physician, photographer, conservationist
Howie Garber, physician, photographer, conservationist

Turn Community Services

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Angie

Two weeks ago I received an email from Kesha. Could I come to her place of work and shoot portraits for an hour? Kesha works at the Provo Turn Community Service Center that offers day programs for adults with mental and physical disabilities. She informed me that the following week they would be teaching photography and thought it would be awesome if I could make photos of the participants before the classes. They would then use the images as examples and the class would have the added benefit of seeing the process of shooting photographs. I was immediately in, but at the same time I was nervous. This was not something I wanted to fumble.

Eric
Eric

Monday morning Kesha led me into an empty classroom and laid out the plan. She would bring each subject in to be shot solo then, after everyone was done, we would shoot the group as a whole.  “Okay, I’ll get the first person.” I swallowed the lump in my throat and went to work. Talking, joking, laughing and a little chasing ensued.

Brian
Brian
Jenny
Jenny

I could go on about the shoot, but want to keep it simple. My nerves were quickly put at ease by the awesome staff at Turn and how great every person I met was. Portraiture can be difficult especially when the subject puts on a front; the canned smile, the faked stoicism, the whatever. This day was unique in that everyone who came in front of the camera was completely genuine from the get go. I wish it were always this easy. You may see the rest of the photos here.

The group at the Provo Turn Community Center.
The group at the Provo Turn Community Center.

Chasing Inouye

Little Cottonwood winter morning skyline.Jared Inouye is known for his speed, endurance and efficiency in the mountains during both winter and summer months. The guy’s a rando-racing veteran, has done massive linkups and set speed records. This ski season I’d put off contacting him for months about the possibility of making photos. At first delaying it was easy. There wasn’t a lot of snow, avalanche conditions were touchy and I was very out of shape. Eventually it did snow, conditions improved, but I still wasn’t in shape. The touring days I’d hoped to put in never really happened. It’s easy to let work, life and play get in the way. Last week I finally reached out to Jared. Secretly I hoped he’d decline, but to my dismay, he didn’t and I suffered.

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“I should have started an hour before you.” I stammered between gasps. I’d finally caught up to Jared and Chad Ambrose on the summit of Dromedary Peak about half past 7. The April sun had crested the Wasatch Mountains and was falling down its canyons painting the snow covered ridges, rocks and trees with its warm light. They laughed then quickly skied down the east-facing slope. It really wasn’t that funny. I’d been serious. They’d floated up the 3,700’ of Tanners Gulch while I drudged my way to the top.Chad Ambrose and Jared Inouye skin toward a ridge in the Wasatch Mountains.

From Dromedary we carved tight turns on firm snow, down climbed a short rocky section and skied more fun snow into the open basin of south Mill B. Patches of dark slate emerged from the snow and a dramatic wall of quartzite loomed as a backdrop. As I put skins back on my skis, Chad told me to follow his track. I clicked in and took notice of our surroundings. Chad and Jared were immediately half a football field ahead. I put one foot in front of the other and wheezed my way upward. Jared waited for me at the Little and Big Cottonwood Canyon divide. From there I could see Chad had already made it halfway down White Pine chute. Huge wet slides had occurred earlier in the week leaving behind boulder-sized avalanche debris. We agreed upon the skeleton of a pine tree as our target among the warzone of winter and spring snow then slide into the chute. After scrambling down a rocky outcrop near the road I looked ahead to see Jared skipping through the final tailings of debris. I totally expected this, he would be way ahead, and I would be lumbering way behindJared Inouye down climbs a cliff band while skiing Whitepine Chute.Avalanche debris forces Jared Inouye to walk the bottom of White Pine Chute.

Lessons

Did I ever tell you I studied journalism in school? Yeah, and somehow I ended up taking more photography classes than writing classes. It was something I’d always been interested in and during school it became the fun easy class I looked forward to each semester.Skiing Seduction Drainage, Icefall Lodge, BC Canada, February 2014.

Out of school instead of finding a job at a newspaper or magazine to refine the writing and photo skills I chose to keep my job as a deliveryman and play hard. Climbing, skiing, backpacking and traveling became the main focus of life for over a decade. During this time I’d browse through magazines then say to myself, “I can do better than that.” It was complete arrogance and ignorance.

It wasn’t until my thirties that I decided to walk the walk. I blew the dust off my film camera then after much resistance, purchased a digital one and began writing regularly. I was going to do better. Guess what? I fell flat on my face.

Turns out making better photographs in the outdoor realm was not as easy as understanding iso, shutter speeds and f-stops. And writing… what can I say? Nobody wanted another trip report to Indian Creek and leads, nut graphs, body, structure, they all felt so impossible. I should have quit, but somehow didn’t.  One photo eventually turned out and one editor took pity on me so I slowly limped by.Skiing Seduction Drainage, Icefall Lodge, BC Canada, February 2014.

It feels like yesterday, but somehow years have passed. All the lessons from school make more sense. That whole shooting a white egg on a white sheet is brilliant. The mantra of one of my writing professors, “Focus! Focus! Focus!” is louder today than it was in the classroom. And the current lessons, the ones they couldn’t teach in a classroom are a daily occurrence.  The difference now, even though I still regularly stumble, is that sometimes I don’t, but mostly I still do.

Yeah, so I studied journalism in school and now I’m learning how to make better stories one face plant at a time.Skiing Seduction Drainage, Icefall Lodge, BC Canada, February 2014.

The Quiet Man

This profile appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of the Utah Adventure Journal

 

Salt Lake City, Utah September 2013   Chris Thomas stood awkwardly in the kitchen of his modest Sugarhouse home. “Okay,” he told me, “I’ll just do this in brackets.” He straightened his lean frame, turned his dark eyes and tilted his pronounced chin to the left. Moving his gaze toward me in small increments I snapped away with my camera. He once told me he was 5’10”, but the fact that I’m boosted up on a bar stool to be at eyelevel makes me think he’s closer to six feet. We’d been at this for over an hour and he was only now beginning to relax. He’d just returned to Salt Lake after winning the 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell climbing competition in Arkansas. At the comp he’d teamed up with Hayden Kennedy and together they’d broken records set by big names such as Tommy Caldwell, Alex Honnold and Sonnie Trotter. Hayden and he had climbed a combined 402 routes, 201 each, up to 5.12 in difficulty. And although his hands were too sore to make a fist they were able to hold beer. This helped Chris ease into one of his least favorite subjects; himself.larevalo_cthomas_0913_0004

I first met Chris in the Fall of 2004 just months after he had moved to Salt Lake City from Howard County, Maryland. At the age of 21 he had already climbed 5.13, established ice routes up to WI-6, done first ascents on traditional mixed routes and been on multiple trips to Alaska and Peru, but you wouldn’t have known it. He didn’t talk much about what he had done and only did when he was asked and even then he usually found a way to flip the focus back to the person who asked.

In the nine years since moving west, Chris has quietly continued his journey by free climbing El Capitan, red pointing 5.14, authoring more ice and mixed routes and establishing hard new routes locally as well as abroad. All this and more, yet hardly anyone has ever heard of him. After a few more photos in his kitchen I set the camera down. Somewhat relieved to no longer have a lens in his face, Chris took another swig from a rapidly emptying glass of beer and braced for the onslaught of questions.

 

Beginnings   Chris was raised in Columbia, Maryland and had what he described the typical suburban childhood along with his younger brother Jon. Chris explained that he did participate in organized sports, but didn’t excel at any until he found hockey. Then for a few years it was hockey 24/7. So passionate about the sport that at thirteen years old he developed his own training regiment and followed it without anyone keeping track.

“Hockey was an obsession that was almost as strong as climbing, but after my first taste of the vertical I knew there was no going back.”

His mother, Brenda Hawkins, recalled that he was fifteen when he told her he didn’t want to play hockey anymore. She was floored. Hockey in Maryland was not a mainstream sport. Practices and games occurred at outrageous hours of the night and morning, so when Chris first took an interest in the game Brenda had been cautious. But once she saw how good and graceful he was on the ice her reticence evaporated and the entire family jumped on board. When Chris came to his mother with a lengthy argument, where he compared all the negatives for hockey against the positive attributes for climbing, she could see that Chris had made up his mind.

After quitting hockey the next hurdle Chris faced was not having a car. Maryland doesn’t have a lot climbing to offer so in order to climb outside he had to rely on older partners with vehicles. Brenda insisted on meeting his partners and getting their license plate numbers before letting them take her son to the backwoods of the East, but Chris endured and these road trips paid off. It was during these weekends to Seneca Rocks, the Gunks, the Adirondacks and New River Gorge and with these folks that Chris developed a huge respect for ground up ethics and a solid mental reserve for his own climbing.

“All my climbing partners were much older. For them climbing was about preserving the adventure… where style was more important than the climb itself.”

Another trip he called a turning point was to the Tetons as a teenager. Chris proposed that his parents buy him a plane ticket to Jackson, Wyoming as a high school graduation present. Brenda recalled that she was initially opposed to the idea, but Chris was persistent. He researched, compiled logistics and countered any negative aspect of the trip until his parents agreed. Living out of the Climber’s Ranch that summer Chris was able to climb with a few friends, but mainly soloed around.

“Coming from Maryland the routes in the Tetons were wild… being alone, scared and hanging out on ledges in the Tetons solidified my love of solitude and wild places.

 

Ice   A ghostly image of Cerro Torre in a magazine motivated Chris to ice climb. Once he had access to a car he spent many winter weekends in the Adirondacks. A typical trip to the ‘Dacks involved an eight to ten hour drive from Columbia, Friday after work, climbing as much as possible Saturday and Sunday, then rallying home to make a Monday shift. While staying at the Bivy, a hostel for ice climbers in Keene, New York, Chris fell in with a great crew of climbers. Among them was Will Mayo.Riding the ice wave.

New Years day 2004, less than 24 hours after having first met, Chris and Will agreed to go work on a standing mixed project. The climb was a massive ice dagger hanging off the lip of a giant roof with a finger to fist size crack leading directly to the ice. Both Chris and Will took a lap on the crux pitch, hanging to work out the gear and tool placements. Feeling good Chris decided to give it a red point go.

“In classic Ian Boyer style (Ian was an east coast climber who Chris had climbed with in the ‘Dacks), I went up “bare handed and bloody knuckled.” Chris related, “Ian always said that cold hands would help keep you awake, alert and hungry, and without gloves you’d have better dexterity and get less pumped.” Chris went into the zone, tuning out his fear, and committed to the climb. He gave the rock section a huge effort and was surprised to find himself staring at the dagger of ice. “I battled from the overhanging rock onto the dagger.  I had an ice screw or two, but there was no stopping to place them.” He was told afterward that he got pretty “Neanderthal” by screaming, swearing, and chanting. Will recalled it as being, “the most impressive lead I have ever witnessed.” After topping out he noticed blood on the snow. His knuckles had been pulverized, but he was too amped to feel the pain. “The Fecalator”, M-10, is the most difficult traditionally protected mixed climb in North America.

 

Graduation   When Chris decided to live in Utah his mother knew he wouldn’t be moving back. Chris knew it as well. Climbing in the east involved tons of travel. In Salt Lake City he found rock/ice/mountains/skiing all within minutes of his front door. In the west Chris continued to execute trips in the states and around the globe.

In 2009 he returned to the Ruth Gorge of Alaska for a forth time to complete the goal of climbing Mt. Huntington. He along with fellow Salt Laker, Rick Vance, did the Harvard route in a 30-hour push. Afterward they spent one day drinking whiskey in celebration of their achievement then the next day, went out and put up a new route on Mt. Huntington named “Community College Couloir” M-8, WI-5.Chris Thomas mixes it up behind the Donorcicle, Joes Valley, Utah.

Another benchmark for Chris happened last January. Taking advantage of stable weather in Argentina, Chris flew to Patagonia. Within hours of arriving to Chalten he was on the move. He and Jonathan Shaeffer climbed the “Red Pillar” on Aguja Mermoz in a three day round trip. Back in Chalten the forecast called for continued stable weather so after a few hours of rest he headed back out. This time, with Ben Ditto as his partner, they climbed to the summit of Cerro Torre via the “Ferrari Route”.

“Climbing the final pitch to the summit of Cerro Torre… recalling the photo from the magazine… it felt like I had finished my apprenticeship.”

That wasn’t enough for Chris. Still in the region for a few more days and with a reasonable forecast, Chris teamed up with Whit Magro. Knowing the weather window was closing down they decided on a single push effort for the “Southeast Ridge” of Fitz Roy. Most parties take five days round trip, they planned for two. Their gear was one 8mm rope, a set of cams, one pair of crampons, an ice tool, tiblocs for ascending and no ice screws. The approach went well, but the climbing was tiring. The leader wound up climbing with a small pack while the second jugged with the full pack. Within two pitches of jugging they had torn the sheath of their rope. Twelve pitches later they hit another snag. The lower angled rock pitches near the summit were now full on WI-4, but they pushed on. Two pitches of ice later and they lost their only tool, but somehow continued. Leading out 150 feet above a sketchy belay anchor on low angled ice with no ax, no screws and no chance of rock protection, the crampon on Chris’ right boot popped off the sole and dangled useless, attached only by the webbing.

“Looking at a 300’ fall onto a marginal belay, I was certain I was going to kill us both.” Chris related. Frozen in time his left calf cramped then seized. Riding endless waves of emotions he screamed then cried, but eventually pulled himself together. Using a cam he chipped a hold into the ice then took the dangling crampon and used it as an ice tool for his right hand. He hopped his left foot, bit by bit, onto the hold. From there he was able to reattach the crampon and move to a band of rock and relative safety. Having been on the move for more than 30 straight hours, the weather deteriorating around them and surviving this episode, there was no need for a discussion. Less than 200 feet below the summit of Fitz Roy they retreated, lucky to be alive.

 

Motivation   In his kitchen that night I asked what was next, thinking that his hunger for adventure may have been sated. It wasn’t. He spoke about returning to Patagonia this coming season, a possible spring trip to Morocco, “but for now a little sport climbing in Spain”.

In a follow up to the interview I asked this determined, modest, loyal, climber’s climber, why? What drove him to push his limits? This is a paraphrased response from an email I received.

“The rewards (of climbing) are impossible to quantify. They are illogical. They don’t make us rich or famous. As an animal-like creature pursuing its basic needs to survive, these activities are extremely counterproductive, but I can’t help myself (and neither can you, or any of our friends for that matter).

If it weren’t climbing it would be something else. Some people find their purpose in career, politics, family and religion. I’ve never found a better way than in climbing.  If I hadn’t stumbled across this crazy sport and lifestyle, who knows what would have been?  But I can say with certainty that whatever else it may have been it would have just as much energy, love and focus thrown at it.  In other words, the climbing isn’t the essential part, it’s just the outlet…  And a goddamn good one.”