Free… Free… Freezing! Why would you want to do that?

ranger peak2010 089“It’s cold!” Charlie states through a clenched face while dropping his pack on the summit.

Lower down the ridge we had noticed the temperature fall drastically.  Now, on the summit of this dome shaped peak above 11000 feet, the temperature is, at best, in the low single digits.  I have on every scrap of clothing possible, but can still feel the chill touching me with its deadly fingers.  I look to the sun for comfort, but it is hidden by a blanket of grey clouds.  Behind us lies the canyon from which we came and now two other canyons fall dramatically below as I stare into the frozen wilderness of the northern Teton’s.

Only a day into our self imposed adventure, to explore and bag as many peaks as possible for three days in the middle of February, uncertainty is weighing on me.  On one hand, I want to be here, but on the other, I’m having a hard time convincing myself that it is worth it.  Pull the plug and go running home.

I conceal my discomfort and mutinous thoughts with the reply, “At least there’s no wind.”  I chastise myself.  You are NOT pulling the plug!  What are you?  Some kind of princess!

Two years ago Charlie, our friend Anna and I tried to pull off another escapade in the same area of the park.  The plan then was to load up sleds, drag them across the lake and ski up to and climb some frozen waterfalls.  From the get go we were doomed.

ranger peak2010 014 We arrived late to our launching point then wasted more time rigging the sleds before crossing the lake to set up camp during an unusually warm day.  In the canyon, sunny skies that felt soothing during the lake crossing turned oppressive.  While we were sweating the snow on the surface was melting and adding weight to the snow beneath.  Soon we began to see wet avalanches on the south-facing walls.  We stopped to reevaluate our plan when we arrived at a point in the terrain that would take us directly through a steep slope which had cliffs above and below.

I was not enthusiastic about continuing.  The slides we had seen so far were small, but were still large enough to take one of us for a ride. Charlie and Anna were more optimistic so I stayed back and spotted for them in an area well out of harms way.

Anna began up first and then after about 50 yards Charlie followed.  While I twiddled my thumbs and tried to stay positive I saw snow pour off the cliff above Anna.  When it crashed into the slope it triggered a slide.  I yelled, Charlie froze and Anna screamed for direction.

The slide was not fast, but there was no time for Anna to retreat.  Instead, she did her best to point her skis down.  The slide fanned out, gained momentum and scooped her up in the direction of Charlie.  She fought to stay on her feet, but the heavy wave she was riding forced her back and when it stopped, only yards from Charlie, her legs and right arm were cemented in the debris.

Useless, I stayed put while Charlie helped extract Anna.  They rejoined me and together we retreated down canyon to stop and watch nature at work.  That afternoon we counted over twenty separate slides before returning to camp.

Back on the summit, the clouds have thinned allowing more light to cast a warming color about.  It has transformed the cirque of the canyon into a beautiful wonder.  I gaze south and begin to see the possibility of traveling from this summit and tagging several others before ending on a peak Charlie and I had tried to ski up two years ago.  We discuss traversing the cirque then decide that for today we have gone far enough.

ranger peak2010 090 I watch Charlie skiing effortlessly.  Few people have sat on this summit and fewer, possibly none, have done this traverse in winter.  I consider the opportunity I have and then the regret that would follow if I allow myself to cave in.

I follow Charlie’s tracks.  Fast, re-crystallized snow feathers my legs as I let my skis carry me gently down the slope.  I feel myself floating from turn to turn.  I imagine what we must look like from the summit; two small beings, calmly swooshing deeper into an astounding canyon underneath a glowing evening sky.  Smiling, skiing, making their way back to camp.

The night after Anna’s close call was miserable.  We were jolted awake at four by the inversion creeping up from the lake bed.  Its subzero claws surrounded the tent and grasped us in its frozen grip.  The thermometer on the watch screamed negative fifteen degrees Fahrenheit.  We tossed and turned praying for the sun to release us from the chill, but being entrenched in pines there was no direct sunlight after dawn.  Eventually, we sprinted out of the tent, strapped on our skis and raced up a ridge into warmth.  200 feet of elevation made a thirty degree difference.

During our retreat the afternoon before we had devised a plan “B”.  Skin up a ridge to a worthy looking summit and ski its 3500 foot east face.  After we allowed our bodies and equipment to thaw we stomped our way toward it.  Just like the day before we ran into a dead end.  A technical rock step that led to a knife-edge ridge with extremely steep snow fields on both sides.  In our rush to get warm we had left our climbing gear at camp.  Even if we had brought the gear the razor-sharp edge would have been a huge undertaking.  Before skiing back to camp we agreed that the peak was something we would return for.

ranger peak2010 099 Seven AM.  Charlie unseals the tent.  The frost that is caked to the interior sprinkles onto my face as the sun breaks on a clear horizon.  Direct light falls rapidly around and illuminates us.  Glowing blue skies, stark fields of snow and definite warmth from the sun shed hope on our plan.  The night wasn’t that bad.  I might be ready for more.

ranger peak2010 158 Back on the crest we can see into the Snake River Basin, north into Yellowstone Park, east to the continental divide, and south to the major peaks of the Teton’s.  Uninterrupted wilderness in every direction.  Openness so large it makes me feel trivial.  I have the desire to cast out even further.  Why stop here?  Why not continue on?  Turn away from the ridiculous daily grind.  Embrace more of the beautiful silence in this place… Because you are weak and scared.  Out there is the unknown!

We rapidly reel in a handful of peaks while heading south toward our plan “B” peak of two years ago.  At the third summit of the traverse we discern a possible weakness to that peak, a short couloir on its southwest side.

ranger peak2010 195 To avoid the dangerous north facing slopes of the ridge we keep to the south.  Here, the snow is only a few inches deep, too thin for skis so we leave them behind.  What was simple terrain to cross on skis becomes tediously uncertain in ski boots.  Each step is a wobble and we fight for solid ground in the loose talus below the snow.

My thoughts float from the task at hand to the questions.  Why would someone spend three nights out here?  Why suffer, feel cold and continue?  Why not be home in a warm bed?  Why am I doing this?…  Listen Princess!  Stop asking so many questions!

I struggle with answers.  When my wife asked I told her it’s because I had to.  I told Charlie it’s comforting to see and know there are still places that are empty of development.  I know the truth.  I have no answers.

At the entrance to the couloir I find a pillow of wind deposited snow, 50 feet wide, 200 feet long and a couple of feet deep sitting around 40 degrees.  Turn around. I consider going below and stomping up its far side, where the snow looks thinner, but if it slid I would have the whole thing on top of me.  I decide to ascend, hugging the large rocks on this side of the couloir.  I cross the slab of snow near its top where it is only 20 feet wide, hoping that if it does slide it will only go below me.  I kick my way slowly in the firm snow.  Half way my heart jumps.  The snow cracks.  This is it! I flex all the muscles in my body in anticipation of the whole thing moving.  I have a vision of being swept down with the snow.  It’s a gentle ride at first, but when I reach the end of the snow slab I tumble through the jagged talus.  Not death, but tears and bruises.  I watch the crack shoot from me to the edge of the slab.   I blink, but nothing else happens.  I peer down in the crack.  I can see rocks.  Go back!

ranger peak2010 207 “Heads up Charlie.”  I take another step and then another.  I am across with my heart in my throat.  Charlie dances across with no hesitation.

“Did you see the crack?”  “What crack?”  “In the slab we just crossed.”  “No, didn’t see anything.”

As we pick our way to the summit my legs wobble while I suck in air.  That was terrifying!  I pushed too far.  I could have tumbled down.  I could have torn my clothes…  Do I have to be such a drama queen… eerr princess?

On top of our peak I manage to gather myself from the far reaches of the park and realize that we had made the traverse without any real hitch.  Satisfaction replaces my doubt.  See, it wasn’t that bad.  All that worrying and here you are.  Glad to see you finally sacked up.

ranger peak2010 209 I gaze east to see our high point from two years ago and I hear my wife’s voice, “Silly boys.”  Not only is there a technical ridge from where we turned around leading to a summit east of us, but an even longer, more difficult ridge from there to the one we are on.  I am relieved with the simplicity of our present course, but this other route has me intrigued.  Maybe next year or in the summer we could give it a go.  Yeah right.  Keep talking.

ranger peak2010 224 Returning to our skis Charlie passes me while I rest.  It’s icy, the lighting has worsened and for the first time I’m relaxed.  I’m no longer worried.  I eat a piece of chocolate and breathe in the cool air and wonder.  Who else has been here?  Who else has shivered here from the sweat on their backs? Who has spent nights, seen the sun and the moon rise, watching the light reflect off the untarnished finish?

In a rush to get to the last peak we had passed below a less pronounced point which was now only 100 feet above me.  Giddy up, Princess. I trudge up to the final summit of the trip.

ranger peak2010 233 ranger peak2010 243 Sticking to north facing slopes and keeping the angle low, we find the skiing is better than the previous day.  We make turns toward a line we had eye-balled from camp.  Lost in the canyons of the park we find our exit.  1200 feet of knee deep consolidated powder.  A cherry to finish off the traverse and our day.

ranger peak2010 121ranger peak2010 258The coldest and windiest night went barley noticed.  Charlie was snoring by seven and I woke only once, so hot that I was sweating.  By sunrise we are heading back up for one final run.  I let Charlie go ahead.  I look across the cirque trying to see our tracks from the previous days.  Searching for proof that we had danced our way around this corner of the world.  Some of them have survived the wind while others are latent images in my head.  Tomorrow there will be no sign that we were ever here.

ranger peak2010 249I was never too cold.  I was never too tired and my only regret is that I am leaving too soon. Why did I do this? I tell myself I did this because I needed to find myself.  To recall that feeling of being small and insignificant.  I came to find a place so quiet that I am forced to listen to myself.  I did this to see the world as it truly is; a wonder beyond explanation.  I came here to explore and be reborn.  I did this because I can.

Copyright 2010 Louis C Arevalo

To see more photos from the story check out the Waterfalls Canyon Gallery in the Photos page.

Why do you get out?  Let me have it.

Fallen Arches: Is it possible to balance obsession with life?

greena2010 067

October 10th, Little Cottonwood Canyon:  I had spent the morning having fun climbing with friends and was feeling good.  So good I thought would try my mettle on Fallen Arches, a stout crack climb in the canyon.  I managed to get about fifteen feet up the crack with my fingers locked in place and my rope secured, but that was where the fun stopped.  I couldn’t seem to climb past that point.  The only movement I mustered was down.  I twisted my face.  I paddled my left foot and grunted.  I squeezed every muscle in my body.  I  hoped it might help, but…  NO! My body drooped, I fell onto the rope and looked to my belayer for some direction.  She had nothing.  I rested briefly and repeated this again and again.  Grimace, paddle, grunt and fall.  I was dead weight.  By the time it was over I had stunk it up so much my belayer’s nose was crinkled by the reek.  How could I have been so foolish?  I had set a goal of free climbing Fallen Arches this fall, but after my performance I had serious doubts.

That night I had to decide if I was willing to take the time and expend the energy necessary to learn how to climb it.  Was I willing to sacrifice time with the family?  How many soccer games and sour-jack breakfasts would be lost?  I was willing to give up a few hours a day from the family, but not much more.  Also, could I pass up beer and get up early?  Sure, but I might get a little grumpy.  If I got grumpy I would be able to keep it checked and not unload on the family?  Maybe.  Having only weekends free, less one for a trip to the Adirondacks, that left two in October and maybe one in November before the snow.  Three weekends if I was lucky. Was that enough time?  I didn’t know.  Another question I had to ask was could I keep my obsession in check with these limits or would I blow it by staying out longer, getting irritated and thinking of no one other than me?

fallenarches 002October 16th, Little Cottonwood Canyon:  Earlier that week I had sent emails and left pathetic phone messages to several people.  The responses were either they had some rare infection or had to stay home to wash their cat.  By Thursday I was ready to throw in towel when I bumped into Andrew.  My timing was perfect.  He had just run the St. George Marathon and was now content to focus on things other than running.  Having a wife and two kids Andrew was sympathetic to my schedule and immediately agreed to join in my obsession.  We met in the morning and warmed up by climbing some easier routes in the dark.  We swapped stories and laughed at each other as the sun rose in the canyon.  Leaves that were green last week had now given way to shades of yellow, orange and red.  Andrew repeated a few of his favorite routes and I set up some top ropes on some he had never done.  Despite his focus on running he seemed to be climbing better than ever.  He worked out a few of the cruxes and then told me it was time to get to work.

I had envisioned a possible sequence to get through my crux and now put it to the test.  I climbed up near the section and rested on the rope.   I studied the crack and chose a place where my last piece of protection would go before I committed to my sequence.  Andrew gave out slack as I pulled my reluctant body back to the rock.  I grabbed a cam from my harness and placed it high.  Slowly, as if I were actually going in reverse, I clipped the rope.  My heart raced while my body moved, sloth-like, up the crack.  I was certain every finger I placed in the crack was going to slip out, but with every centimeter gained I was still hanging on.  In what must have seemed like eternity to Andrew, I finally made my way past the high point from the previous week and was staring at Salvation, an actual hold that would allow me to stop and put in a cam.  I wound up, squeezed with all my might and stabbed my left arm upward.  My finger tips grazed Salvation while I let out a high pitched scream.  I dangled, once again, from the rope.  Soon I was back on and stuck the move to Salvation and fell once higher up.  I had gained new ground and built up some much needed confidence.  We returned to the parking lot before 1pm leaving us plenty of time to take care of the stuff that guys take care of when they are home.  Mow the lawn, fart, scratch, lift things and put in valuable face time with the family.

fallenarches 015October 17, Little Cottonwood Canyon:  Another early morning and this time I have some how convinced my wife to right off sleep in exchange for belay duty.  In spite of my purely selfish motives, Jacki managed to lead her hardest climb in Little.  Seeing her float gracefully up the rock I am inspired.  I moved slightly faster than Saturday, but only slightly.  I placed the cam in its new high spot and committed to the new sequence.  Without really knowing how I got there my next move was to Salvation.  I squeezed and stabbed only to fall onto the rope.  There must be something else.  After resting and getting encouragement from Jacki I am at it again.  I concentrated on my body and added a touch of my left hand on its way to Salvation.  It almost felt easy.  This time I worked on the upper difficulties.    I felt confidant that I would soon be victorious.  I added a beer to that list of stuff guys do when they get home.

October 19, Little Cottonwood Canyon:  Late in the afternoon Tuesday, Jacki and I have returned.  We were flying out of town Friday and we both wanted me to finish this so that I wouldn’t obsess the entire trip.  Jacki was certain it was the day.  I put on my best face, but deep inside I worried that it wasn’t.  I moved smoothly up to the crux.  I felt solid locking my fingers in the crack.  I was staring at Salvation and was actually thinking, “this is it.  I’m going to do it”.  I set up and my mind raced ahead.  I imagined how good that victory bottle of wine would taste.  I licked my lips and with that… I fell.  There was not enough light left in the day for me to try again.  I did my best not to obsess in New York.

October 30 & November 1:  6am Saturday Andrew had decided to join me once again despite my lack of progress.  It was overcast and cool.  We climbed more routes in the dark and joked about scratching and farting.  Today it was Andrew’s turn to be certain that I was going to do it.  I smiled as best I could, but it had been over a week since my last visit and I was worried that I may have lost something.  I slipped in the first ten feet.  I tried again but failed to get to my crux before I grabbed a cam.  Andrew gave me the “keep at it” speech after my botched third attempt.  I felt the doubt well inside.  Once again we wrapped it up by midday.  I didn’t add beer to the list.

broadsfork 080Monday morning I pulled out all the stops.  If I was going to succeed I needed something special.  I had a really big bowl of cheerios and then I meditated.  I envisioned myself naked.  I saw myself naked, weightless and floating in space.  Then I was naked, weightless and floating up to and past the crux, eventually reaching the anchor.  That was something special.  At ten I joined Chye for what I hoped would be my final attempt.  He told me that he normally wouldn’t climb in Little, but today he was there for me.  I spent twenty more minutes meditating at the base of the climb.  This time I wasn’t naked.  I tried to clear my mind but thoughts of Jacki, Andrew, Chye and others kept forcing their way into my head.  It was good that I wasn’t naked.  All of these people believed that I was going to succeed.  How did that happen?  How could they all be so sure of my ability.  My ability to persist to the point of obsession?  My ability to focus so much on myself?  I was astounded.  All of them had given me hours of their time in hopes that I would succeed.  What had I given them?  The pressure was too much.  I waffled, stuttered and grunted my way off the climb.  I could smell that familiar scent in the air.  Me stinking up the whole place.  I managed to relax some on my third attempt and fell only once at the lower crux.   I took care on the upper section, nailing it.  It was progress, but pathetically slow.  That afternoon I could practically hear the clock ticking.  Time was running out.  I needed something else.  I knew that my problem was in my head, but what could I do?

greena2010 071 November 6th, Little Cottonwood Canyon:  Earlier in the week I received news that a dear friend’s mother had suddenly passed away.  Instead of obsessing about climbing I spent time sending energy her way and energy to other people in my life.  It felt refreshing to be focused on something other than me.  I did not meditate on the climb.  Saturday I had no expectations.  It was another perfect day in the canyon.  Mike was my partner and we warmed up slowly.  When it was his time to get on route he had been eyeing he tried to convince me that he was just here to belay me and that he really wasn’t feeling up to it.  I countered that I had hoped we could share the day and not just focus on me.  He shrugged.  Having not climbed in Little for a while he was a bit shaky.   He ended up hanging a few times, but he did all the moves.  While he rested we chatted about an old friend who had died the previous spring.  The stories we shared reminded me of his energy.  Mike tried again and this time he turned on the flow.  His movements were deliberate and precise.  Nothing looked forced as he glided through the crux.  With only a few heavy breaths,  Mike had his hardest send in Little!

There was no naked floating that day.  I fell on my first try above my crux, but I wasn’t concerned.  I thought about all the people in my life, living and beyond.  I joked with Mike and I took in the fresh air and saw the beauty surrounding us.  I thought of my friend who’s mother had just past.  I thought of Jacki, Andrew and Chye.  I recalled all of their warm energy.  I felt no pressure from them.  I only felt them.  When I succeeded I talked to Mike continuously.  I talked to him while I passed my crux, I talked while setting up for the upper crux and I gave him the play by play before I arrived at the anchors.  That day there was no doubt.  It was just the two of us having fun while climbing in Little Cottonwood Canyon.

November 13, North Salt Lake:  I sat in the bleachers at Ultimate Indoor and watched Fynn score four goals in his soccer game.  Josie sat on my lap and Jacki was beside us.  That morning I had woke up with all of them and made sour-jacks for breakfast.  That afternoon we would spend more time together while I did some of that stuff that guys do which included a beer or two.