I have never regretted waking before dawn… Especially in the snowy months.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This article appeared in the Summer 2013 issue of Utah Adventure Journal.
After saying good night to my wife and twelve-year-old stepdaughter, and while breathing in the lupine scented air I sensed something new and musky. Unzipping the tent I peered out from the edge of a large alpine cirque to see the sliver of a crescent moon low on the twilit horizon. On a whim to get away and explore someplace new, beautiful and hopefully not too crowded, we chose to backpack into the southwestern corner of the Pioneer Mountains near Sun Valley, Idaho. It was late July and we had just settled down for the night in Hyndman Basin. Above us, in the purple hue of sky, stars winked alive while my eyes adjusted to the light. Soon the silhouettes of half a dozen elk materialized in the gloaming. Near a babbling brook they fed on grasses and flowers before passing through camp, so close I could hear their breathing.
Checking in with Joe Miczulski at the Ketchum Ranger District Office of the Sawtooth National Forest, he agreed that the Pioneer’s, or Pio’s, don’t see as much human traffic as the surrounding ranges. This makes sharing ventures in the region with wildlife that includes black bear, elk, deer, mountain goats, mountains lions, coyotes and wolves, more common. “Even at the peak of summer use it seems you can always find solitude up near Hyndman,.. even more so if you spend the night.” He explained.
Sun Valley Trekking co-owner and Wood River Valley resident for nearly 13 years, Francie St. Onge, echoed Joe’s claim of less traffic and more wildlife. She also recommended it as a place to bring the kids. Francie has been bringing her four-year-old daughter, Neve, to Hyndman Basin since she was an infant. “It’s a great place to bring the kids with several options depending on their ability.” She recommended, for smaller children, making the journey to Outfitter Meadow, which sits at the western foot of Cobb Peak between Big and Hyndman Basin. At 9,000 feet the meadow contains a pond, pine trees, has a small creek running through it and is filled with areas for kids to play and families to camp.
Older kids can make it another mile and 1,000 feet into Hyndman Basin proper. There they can wander through gnarled firs or run through spring fed meadows that overflow with wildflowers. Paintbrush, sunflowers, elephant head, blue camas are only a few of the flowers they can identify. If the kids are up for additional elevation gain and more adventure make your way to the saddle between Old Hyndman and Hyndman Peak and follow the second-class trail to Idaho’s ninth highest point at 12,009 feet. From the summit of Hyndman Peak they will be rewarded with a 360-degree panorama that includes the highest point in the state, Mt. Borah.
An alternative to going into Hyndman Basin is the historic Pioneer Cabin. Parents with older children can easily make it a day hike. Built in the 1930’s by Sun Valley ski instructors this pine cabin, located on the western edge of the Pio’s, is open to the public and may be used on a first come first serve basis. The simple structure, donning an aluminum roof, single pane windows and containing a wood-burning stove offers stupendous views of not only the Pio’s, but the surrounding ranges as well. You may reach the cabin via Corral Creek, Johnstone Creek or Hyndman Creek. These can be out-and -back, through-hikes, or loops.
We chose the basin. Leaving the Hyndman Creek Trailhead that morning the three of us crossed a footbridge heading east. Following a gently graded, abandoned mining road we wandered through fields of grass peppered with firecracker penstemons, sego lilies and dancing aspens. For three reasonable miles, that eased Josie, my stepdaughter, into the hike, we passed and were passed by a few others before the trail steepened. Here it quickly climbed 600 feet depositing us in a meadow filled with the blooming lupine. Strolling by the vacant Pioneer Yurt, which is operated by Sun Valley Trekking during only the winter months, we found a comfortable spot beside the creek. Taking shelter from the sun beneath the trees we discovered vibrant columbine flowers. Refreshed by the passing water and cool breeze we lunched and discussed camping in the meadow. Unanimously we chose to make the final push into the basin. There we found a secluded site for our camp, set up and immediately ventured to the frosty waters of a small alpine lake. As we waded and skipped stones, a string of hikers meandered by, emptying the basin as the hour grew later. It was here that we encountered our only neighbors for the night; a group of five who had come to summit Hyndman.
In contrast to their neighboring ranges of Boulder, Smokey and Sawtooth Mountains, the Pioneers tower above not only in elevation, but also in their geological variety. According to geologist Darlene Batatian, who did her graduate work mapping the range, the creation of the Pioneers left visible layers of gneiss, quartzite, schist and other rocks for those who experience the area. The edge of Hyndman Basin, hanging above the canyons below on the rising side of a detachment fault, is an example of a Mylionitic zone, the place where the shearing force of the land either pulverized the rock into tiny crystals or morphed its structure into something else; the result being an array of color in the land that is both amazing and breathtaking.
Back at camp we spread a geology map in a field of wildflowers. Doing my best to find our location then identify different rock types, the sun dropped lower in a royal blue sky. The deepening hues were a rainbow of earth tones in the setting sun. As I read each description Josie pointed to the areas that seemed to match. The main peaks of Cobb, Old Hyndman and Hyndman, serrated and jagged, appeared to be gneiss, grey, featured and beautiful. Tilting rapidly off the southwestern slopes of Cobb and Duncan Ridge was a softer layer of yellow dolomite, eroding its way down into the canyons below. Casting our gaze West, toward Bald Mountain, we saw layers of orange tinted quartzite glinting off the lesser peaks and points before being swallowed by the greens of sage, pines and aspens that blanketed the land below.
That evening, after the elk had moved on, I fell into a deep slumber only to wake in the wee hours of the night. I crawled from the warmth of my bag and tent and stood still as the breeze caused goose bumps to rise from my arms. Above our tent ran the span of the Milkyway, streaking south from the summit of Hyndman across a star filled sky. It seemed to touch down in the Snake River Basin. I heard the wind whirling around the peaks, the stream passing by and the breathing of my wife and daughter, deep in slumber. I had one thought in my head before returning to bed, “We should always go on a whim.”
Guide Book: Hiking Idaho Ralph Maughan and Jackie Johnson Maughan A Falcon Guide
Maps: Hyndman Peak USGS quadrangle
For current conditions and restrictions Sawtooth National Forest Ketchum Ranger District 208-622-0090
Sun Valley Trekking: 208-788-1966 www.svtrek.com
Elephants Perch 208-726-3497
Backwoods Mountain Sports 208-726-8818
When to visit:
Visit midsummer for the height of flowers season, bring bug repellant to ward off mosquitoes and deer flies, and then return in autumn when the aspens leaves have changed from their usual green to a vibrant tangerine.
Getting to the trailhead:
Turn off Highway 75 5.5 miles north of Hailey. Drive 6 miles East. Take a hard left at sign that reads North Fork of Hyndman Creek. Drive 3 miles to the crossing of Johnstone Creek. Cross Johnstone Creek and continue another 1.5 miles to the parking area.
Hyndman Peak = Latitude: 43-44’57” N Longitude: 114-07’51” W
Pioneer Cabin = Latitude: 43-44’35” N Longitude: 114-11’29” W
Old Hyndman Peak = Latitude: 43-44’27” N Longitude: 114-07’01” W
Cobb Peak = Latitude: 43-43’52” N Longitude: 114-07’35” W
Duncan Ridge = Latitude: 43-45’03” N Longitude: 114-08’43” W
Big Basin = Latitude: 43-43’33” N Longitude: 114-07’09” W