On the morning of April 15, 2015 I was up around 430 AM. I couldn’t sleep. Looking out the window I saw that a blanket of fresh snow covered the lawn. I brewed coffee, surfed the daily headlines and tapped my fingers waiting for Snowbird to update it’s overnight storm totals.
24″ and still snowing! I immediatley loaded up the car and met Hannah Follender at Snowbird’s tram. These are a few of the images from throughout the day. When it finally stopped coming down it added up to 40″ in less than 24 hours. Not bad for Tax Day!
I slept in this Sunday morning. By the time I heard Chip roll out of the back of his car everything was illuminated. Unzipping the tent I saw the sky was glowing pink. I dressed quickly then grabbed the camera and tripod. The shutter snapped as Chip walked down toward the San Rafael River and the color in the sky faded.
Window Blind Peak and Assembly Hall held court above the grey and meandering creek bottom. Thin clouds had moved in over night holding on to some of Saturday’s heat. It felt relatively warm for March. Soon water was boiled and coffee was brewed…
“Truth is a point of view, but authenticity can’t be faked.” Peter Guber.
I have always wanted to share stories. In school I chose journalism as my focus, but the idea of becoming a copy editor at the local paper was unappealing so I embraced blue-collar work and played as hard as I could.
For ten years I bumped along occasionally having a story or essay published, but mainly just struggled to find my voice. During this time I would consume periodicals and throw them to the recycling bin in disappointment. While there were a few writers and magazines that totally blew me away the majority of what was read felt disingenuous. I craved and still crave things that are genuine. Anything that resonates or connects with me is a winner. We could all use more honesty in our lives.
I totally agree with the quote above. Although my work fluctuates at times in its truth the pursuit of the authentic is what motivates me to continually improve my writing and photography.
My wife asked while skinning up a winter trail in the Wasatch Mountains. As she passed through the arch of an aspen tree that bent over the track I paused. A wave of snow clung to the trunk’s upside only inches wide and at least twelve inches tall and serpentined the entire length of the arch. Its position on the tree defied gravity and the sun.
I wouldn’t describe my youth as happy. In fact, looking back it was a very tumultuous time filled with angst and bad choices. My twenties were mainly a dark depression that to this day still tugs at me from the shadows. When my wife asked me that question I had an answer.
“You know that feeling when you’re climbing and you’re afraid but somehow you keep climbing and push through that fear? You’re still nervous, and still struggling, but for some reason you’re slightly removed from the situation? Like you’re seeing yourself from the outside? Aware of the acute nature of the situation; a small human dangling on a big cliff in the middle of a forest, in the western US, on the planet Earth, within the Milky Way, somewhere in a fold of the Universe?”
My wife shuffled ahead entering a stand of snow flocked spruce trees.
“Okay, it doesn’t have to be climbing. It can be skiing in the backcountry, hiking, running, yoga, sailing… any activity, anywhere outside. I’m talking about those moments where, while still being present, you see a bigger picture of everything and your place within it.”
One kick turn after the other we switched-backed up a ridge passing the gnarled and twisted bodies of dead limber pines.
“It doesn’t even have to be outside, but for me, during my youth and after my parents’ death I found these profound moments occurred out in the wild… It’s not necessarily about how hard, how fast, whether I was first or whatever. All that stuff is great, but it’s much more rewarding to have these moments to connect with each other, other people. What’s the point if it’s not shared?”
At the crest we quickly transitioned; skins ripped from skis, jackets, gloves and goggles on, we were ready to ski.
“Do you remember the bent aspen tree we walked though down below? How the snow was still hanging onto it?” I asked.
I recently watched this interview with Utah Avalanche Center’s Bruce Tremper. In it he talks about risk in avalanche terrain. About half way into it something he said stuck with me. Paraphrased, “There are three types of people in the backcountry; those who don’t know they are at risk, those who know and go and anyway and then there are the people how go because there IS risk.”
Reflecting on time spent in the mountains it’s fair to say I have fallen into all three categories at one time or another. I shudder at the memories of a teenager rambling through the mountains completely ignorant of the dangers. Through my twenties I was trying to prove something and made terrible choices. (What was I trying to prove? I am not sure, but for some reason it felt like time was limited and the need to catch up was great.)
Another note from the interview that hit home was the possibility of having a lifetime in the sport. I like this. Numerous close calls and the accumulation of time in the hills have begun to change the way I approach avalanche terrain. Education, choosing the right partners, patience and having a willingness to walk away have all become part of the process. Don’t get me wrong; I still have my eye on steeper lines it’s just now I am more willing to wait for better conditions. Hopefully this will lead to a long and rewarding outdoor life.
On November 13, 2011 I was involved in a backcountry skiing avalanche. Correction, I was actually avalanched. Throttled, beaten, damaged and at one point completely buried, I somehow managed to limp away. On that same morning 12 other avalanches were reported within the central Wasatch resulting in several close calls, a broken femur and one life lost.
I once heard avalanche specialist Jill Fredston say, ‘snow innately wanted to stay put… but the fact that it was constantly changing made it difficult to predict.’
After taking that 400-foot ride, receiving a broken finger, bruised pelvis, hips, elbows and knees along with some lacerations, her words constantly ran through my head. I knew the danger on that stormy day was on the rise. I’d received snow education and had years of experience, but still went out. Alone at the trailhead I followed a fresh skin track that ascended into steep terrain figuring there would be safety in numbers. At the point of catching the two creators of the track I decided against descending with them and exited from the lee side of the ridge into the wind exposed slopes to carry on and out alone.
Shuffling along my skin-covered skis clattered along snow-dusted talus before coming to a shallow pillow of wind deposited snow, perhaps twelve inches deep. Beneath the new winter deposits the gully held the rotting skeleton of October snows. Fifteen feet wide it terminated into rock rubble thirty feet below. Experience told me that it would slide, but the amount of running snow wouldn’t be much; maybe enough to knock me off my feet, not much more. Unknown at the time was how high the pillow ran above. Its top, obscured by the storm, tipped closer to 40 degrees and twisted to face north. All that was needed to release the wound up spring was me. After three steps onto the surface the snow beneath my skis settled. The echoing whoomph was felt in my chest. One beat of silence followed allowing me to reflect on my mistakes before being tackled by a wall of snow.
Since the avalanche I’ve found that snow, although complex, is not the hard thing to forecast, it’s the people who play on it that are difficult to predict.
Somebody once said that climbers DO get scared because if they didn’t, they wouldn’t continue climbing.
The sun sagged toward a forest of juniper and pinions that surrounded the rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. It was the first week of October and having passed the Fall equinox, daylight had transitioned to the lesser half of 24 hours; this fact had been ignored when Paul and I decided to climb Scenic Cruise, a thirteen-pitch route that slithered up to the north rim. Cams slotted into granite eyelets and small flakes for my over gripping fingers kept my exhausted body from falling 1300 feet to the river below. Pausing beneath a bulge and asking no one in particular, “When will this climb end?” I extended my hand West measuring two fingers between the sun and the horizon. It would be less than 30 minutes before it set.
I was nervous about falling from the bulge, but I was more worried about being stuck on the wall after dark. Out of water and food and with only light jackets we’d survive, but it wouldn’t be fun. So with arms cramping I groveled upward. Paul arrived as the sun set, quickly took the rack, and beneath a sky of glowing pink clouds stretched the 70-meter rope to its max. Squinting in the pale light we wandered through cactus-filled ledges, squeaking onto the North Chasm View Trail as the rising moon bathed us in its cool, indifferent light. The moon didn’t care whether we spent the night on the wall or not.
Some climbers say they’ve never been afraid, but I don’t know them.
A few days after escaping the Black Canyon Paul and I joined some friends in Castle Valley, Utah. One pair in front of the other we all climbed a route named Crack Wars on the west side of the Rectory. The first three pitches were quality. Only a little dirty and if you’re into wide hands and fist cracks it could be described as enjoyable. Then above a roof on the fourth pitch the solid sandstone gave way to something closer to the consistency of Graham crackers. After tiptoeing through 50 or so feet of crumbling rock only a short bulging off-width remained. Moving gear, adjusting my knot and thinking of skinny things, I repeatedly tried to squeeze into the slot. It was useless. A bold lieback was the only option I could fathom. Falling from the lieback would be messy. If the cam wedged in soft stone at the base of the bulge actually held then the flake that I was standing on would likely grab a leg and try snapping it. Down-climbing could provide okay rock to build an anchor affording the possibility of a retreat to the ground, but failure would be a disappointment.
Trying one more time to fit inside the slot I recalled a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Always do what you are afraid to do.” Damn it! Would Emerson really tell me that if he saw the situation I was in? I took a deep breath, pulled my head out of the slot and told myself not to fall. The slowest moving lieback possible commenced, which if anyone had been watching they would have mistaken me as a statue attached to a cliff, but after what felt like an eternity the lip was reached. Once we were all on the summit plateau I joked about the climbing phenomenon of moving at a snail’s pace when you’re petrified, “I climb that slow so I can savor the moment… To be sure and never forget that six feet of rock.” I am certain within a matter of months that sections will be buried and forgotten by better memories.
The following weekend on Bottleneck Peak in the San Rafael Swell Paul and I received yet another lump from climbing. Torrential rains from September, which flooded the town of Price 30 miles to the north, had left the cracks frosted in layers of sand. Jams that typically felt bomber were now insecure. Leaving our egos at the base we immediately resorted to pulling and tugging on gear to get through the first two pitches. But it was the third and final pitch, which was rated the easiest, that proved most memorable.
Above a fist-jam roof, which I stuffed full of gear leaving little for the remainder of the pitch, one six-inch cam protected twenty feet of climbing above a flake that sounded like a gong when I tapped it. Next was a choss-choked corner. The stacks of rubble that were loosely collected in cracks and on shallow ledges required precise movements and my undivided attention. A tipped out cam was followed ten feet higher by a tcu nested beside a chockstone that appeared to be floating in the crack without a single point of contact. If there was faith in any of the cams to hold body weight I would have bailed immediately. Falling was way too gnarly to think about so instead, while stemming gingerly upward, I began a conversation with Bottleneck.
“I think a break would be healthy. Really… It’s not you, it’s me… It’s over between us.” Passing the hallowed chockstone I placed my foot on it; at first with no weight, but slowly, ounce by ounce, I transferred onto it. To both my disbelief and relief it stayed in place.
From the summit we soaked in the day’s light, which cast a warm glow to the surrounding peaks and walls. Below, in the shadows, was the glimmering water of the San Rafael River reflecting back to us through stands of cottonwoods and tamarisk. Despite the drama of the climb everything in the world around us carried on as if nothing was wrong.
Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Do one thing every day that scares you.”
Back at the car, after rappelling the north face of Bottleneck Peak using corroded ¼ inch star-driven nails and homemade hangers from the 1973 first ascent, each station backed up by a single 20+ year-old oxidized 3/8” inch bolt, I asked Paul what he had planned for the next weekend. “Sport climbing!” he replied speaking over the last couple words of the question. I was in complete agreement, but I wonder if Mrs. Roosevelt would approve?
At the beginning of the year I was asked to write about my work and how it corresponds to adventure by my agency Tandem Stock to go along with their new book “The Art of Adventure, Outdoor Sports from Sea to Summit”, which I am honored to have a handful of images in along with some truly talented folks. As I am sure it’s the same for everyone we all have our reasons and motivations for doing what we do, but being asked to share and clarify these things was a little intimidating. Ultimately the following essay didn’t make the cut, but it was good exercise that helped me focus on what was important.
Looking for Common Ground in the World of Adventure – Louis Arevalo March 2014
“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity…” John Muir.
Undertaking adventures outside, in the wild, far from the safety of civilization brings profound moments of clarity. There’s something about a pursuit in which the outcome is uncertain that not only drives adventures, but also compels, through image and story, narratives that inspire those who otherwise might never venture beyond their comfort zone. An image of a skier slashing deep powder, a climber cresting the summit, or a runner on a sunlit trail might be all it takes to evoke a long-dormant desire to get outside and explore, and it’s this collective desire that unites us into a community. John Muir understood this connection, explaining, “When we tug at a single thing in nature, we find it attached to the rest of the world.”
For me, it was a conscious decision to pursue a career as an outdoor writer and photographer. It’s only through getting out, off the beaten path and into nature that I regain the simplicity needed to live a beautiful life. The focus of my writing and photography is to make something honest in the same way that connecting with the outdoors makes me honest. I’m continually striving to generate work that will resonate true to everyone. From the sponsored athlete to the armchair enthusiast, if they can see a little bit of themselves in the work then it’s a success. It may be an unobtainable objective, but everyday, week, month and year, as soon as I have revised the last draft or edited the last image on a project I always see room for more authenticity in the work. The desire for this truth, that we all are connected, drives me to go out and produce more.
I’ve been wandering through forests, mountains, rivers and deserts for most of my life. I’ve climbed, skied, boated, swam, surfed, biked, loved, hated, and slept outdoors. Through all of these escapades I’ve found the most enjoyment in doing them with those who have the same passion and sharing them with everyone attempting to have an outdoor life.