At the beginning of May Jacki and I traveled to Bend, Oregon where we rented a small bungalow near downtown. Having been in ski mode since December I’d been struggling with the concept of actually doing other activities. It sounds funny, but by nature I am a one sport focus kind of a guy and only by extreme effort am I able to mix things up. A vacation was the perfect time to help in the transition. Taking the lead, Jacki orchestrated each day in Bend for a different activity. Tuesday we skied, Wednesday we climbed, Thursday we mountain biked, and Friday we ran. Sounds somewhat busy right? Actually it was the exact opposite. The key was that other than those activities we had nothing else planned. This allowed for plenty of reading, writing, walking, talking, visiting friends, exploring and sleep.
Of course when I go on vacation there’s always a little work tied in. Since we were going to be doing all these activities I knew it would be a great chance to create new images of a place I’d never been and add to my stock archive. What do I consider a little work? It began with research and talking about some likely possibilities with Jacki, scheduling the outing for ideal lighting, doing the activity (anywhere from 2-5 hours), shooting a few frames, returning to the bungalow, downloading the files while enjoying dinner, editing, and repeating the process. Not too stressful since there was no client involved. Shot less than 100 images per outing, closer to 50 each, which for me is way low, but makes editing easier. Will any of them be money makers? Who knows? This was a great way to break away from my winter routine, which allowed Jacki and I to slow down and discover new things. – More t
This essay first appeared in the pages of the Utah Adventure Journal.
I was late.
Charlie, Bowe and I had started the day in the half occupied Watchman Campground. After breakfast beneath the yellow cottonwood leaves we obtained a backcountry permit then found our way into Mystery Canyon. Following the government shutdown last September, where visitors were forced to make other autumn travel plans, the park felt vacant. Hours later, after wandering through the solitude of a narrow fold in the desert; following eight rappels, a swim and plenty of wading, one final abseil remained to escape. The clock was ticking. I’d agreed to pick up my wife in the town of Hurricane at five. Perched 130 feet above the Virgin River in the shadows of the November afternoon Charllie threaded the anchor then Bowe tossed the rope. I watched as its coils butterflied open between walls of water-carved sandstone. Wading the final leg of the trek five o’clock came and went. Ignoring the sunset sky, I stepped out of the river, peeled off my wet suit, and began jogging toward the car.
The clock read six as we pulled up to the dark factory. Headlights illuminated the doorway and Jacki’s solemn face appeared. “I’ve decided to work tomorrow,” she announced over dinner. She was not happy. Sometimes this happens. When asked if we could talk about it she simply said, “later.” Our relationship, like climbing, is not always easy.
The day prior to Mystery Canyon, Charlie, Bowe and I had bushwhacked through sage, salt and rabbit brush, eventually finding our way to the base of the Watchman and a route named The Vigil. The initial pitch began as many Zion routes do, moss-covered, sandy, loose and awkward, but somehow it was manageable. The off-angled fist crack of the second pitch looked intimidating, but with a little work it unfolded. During the third pitch, which cast out onto wild features in the Navajo sandstone leaving the crack behind, the sun crested the summit of the Watchman and began warming the rock. Then we hit a snag.
The first of two dead ends had me climbing a flared, lichen-filled crack that I repeatedly greased out of. The second involved traversing over a section of loose blocks to access a fingertip dihedral. 30 feet higher the seam petered out with nothing on the horizon. Slowly and deliberately I made my way back to the belay. After consulting the topo and I discovered an unlikely escape to our right bolt out right. Heads-up, run out climbing on delicate patina edges and shallow cracks put us back on track. Dirt and brush rained down the cliff as I clambered to the shelf above.
From the halfway ledge on the Watchman we sized up the five remaining pitches. In the light of the setting sun the stone appeared immaculate. Below the village of Springdale hummed with traffic, the cottonwoods lining the Virgin River shimmered with golden leaves and the park’s canyon walls held an inviting glow. A late start followed by a longer than expected approach combined with my poor route-finding skills equaled we’d run out of time. Without a word we exchanges a look then descended.
I first met Jacki during a weekend trip to Indian Creek. I recall thrashing my way to each set of anchors only to have her come along and casually float up the cracks. What had taken me half a life to obtain as a full time devotee, Jacki appeared to have been born with. Over the course of the weekend I learned she was a recent divorcee, mother of two and had just begun climbing. She was way out of my league.
Friday in Zion, after delivering Jacki back to the factory, we pulled the car over near the entrance to the Mt Carmel Tunnel. Bowe wanted to photograph Charlie and Paul climbing so I offered to rig the rope up The Headache, a classic three-pitch route. I reached my hand into the splitter crack and flexed. The sandy grains set into my skin and I stepped up. Shuffling quietly through a wider section, letting my feet do most of the work, I noted the wavy nature of the rock then changed corners and settled into the belay. Bowe followed, occasionally sagging onto the rope to snap frames. Across the way shadows swept their way from left to right along the flanks of East Temple Peak. Below, cars crawled up the road, winding their way through hairpin corners before vanishing into the mountain. I could hear the camera’s shutter open and close.
More than half a year passed before I mustered enough courage to ask Jacki out. One of the first dates was a weekend in the Tetons. The forecast called for afternoon thunderstorms so we settled on an alpine start. Morning light hit the tents in Garnet Canyon as we walked quietly by. Above the Caves, up the talus, we found our way onto the folds of golden quartz and grey gneiss of Irene’s Arête. Swapping leads we made our way quickly and quietly up. Scurrying along the knife-edge ridge as it joined the main body of Disappointment Peak the clouds that had been filing in from Idaho became energized. Carabiners buzzed and hair stood on end. Without a chance to enjoy the top Jacki and I dashed down the decent gully.
The next day in the Tetons the weather had worsened so we hiked. From a perch among ancient spruce trees Jacki and I looked down to Phelps Lake. The sky flashed white followed by a clap of thunder. Turning from me Jacki spoke. “You should move to Jackson.” The wall of mist, obscuring the mouth of Death Canyon, rolled toward us. Cool drops of rain penetrated the thin canopy above. “Someone like you shouldn’t be tied to me and the kids. You should be here, in these mountains…” Water dripped from her chin.
Jacki reluctantly joined our group Saturday for some Zion cragging. Blowing from the west the wind pounded us at the Confluence Crag. As part of a group of five, Jacki and I avoided sharing a rope. After a quick lap on Salty Dog Arête, Gunslinger and Crimson King, Jacki chose to leave when Bowe and Paul announced they’d had enough of the wind. I was not invited. Feeling left behind I continued climbing with Charlie.
The wind tugged at the rope incessantly while we explored the two pitch bolted line named The Tribute. Large elephant ear holds aided in not being blown off as we scrambled to the top of the climb. I threaded the chain then Charlie threw the rope. We watched as the wind bustled it into a twisted mess. Charlie lowered himself down, cleaning the rope from its tangles one foot at a time.
After five years full of wrong turns and plenty of backtracking, but double the amount of happiness, Jacki and the kids allowed me to join their family. Under an autumn sky in Salt Lake we fastened our hands to the kid’s in a union where we promised to listen and understand.
“Are you busy today?” I asked early Sunday morning. “Um, kind of,” Jacki replied her eyes still closed. “I was wondering if we could go climbing together, just the two of us?” “Mmm, maybe… but first I have to share something with you” I listened. “Sometimes I feel like you put my needs behind everyone else’s,” Jacki’s voice was soft, “and I hate the fact that it bothers me.” I apologized again for being late. “Waiting for you the other night I realized that I rely on you and it pisses me off. No matter how much I fight it and hate to admit it… I need you.”
The shuttle bus was nearly empty when we boarded at the visitor center. “I can’t remember the last time we did a route together,” Jacki spoke over the announcements. I couldn’t either. Getting off at the Zion Lodge we found a trail among cactus and beneath limbs of gamble oak. Flaking the rope at the base of “Made to Be Broken”, a five pitch bolted route on the Carbuncle Buttress that requires no gear other than quickdraws, Jacki was skeptical. It had been described as quality face climbing containing run-outs on delicate rock. I saw it as having set anchors that would be easy to bail from. “Let’s find out just how hard it can be,” I suggested. “We’ll just take it one pitch at a time,” she reminded me.
Leaving the ground I high stepped my right foot then rocked up committing to a meandering path from bolt to bolt. Smooth, clean features emerged from the lichen-covered stone revealing the way. Jacki, who stands 62 inches tall, struggled to leave the ground. After several attempts to smear her feet high she accepted a boost from the rope then eased her way up. At the end of the first pitch she reluctantly weighted the anchors. “I hate hanging belays,” she shuttered. I wrapped an arm around her. “Should we rap or do you want to see about the second pitch?” I told her it was up to her. She studied my face then after a few deep breaths nodded and we continued.
The sequence above the belay, out right then traversing left, unsettled me. Stepping up then down repeatedly my legs began to quiver. Reverting to a common saying when climbing together, knowing that she would have no problem following, I quipped, “Come on Jack. How hard could it be?” She smiled and I went on. Joining me at the next anchor her worry was gone. From there our conversation tapered being replaced by the movement and exposure. Tension, frustration, and anger were released and floated freely up the rust colored walls. Right foot, left foot, right hand then left. It could have lasted ten minutes or ten hours, but after losing track of time the five pitches were suddenly below us. For a brief moment we were surprised to be standing together on the prow of the Carbuncle Buttress soaking up the autumn sun.
While Jacki and I shared a bench in front of the lodge waiting for the next shuttle to arrive a pair of kit foxes emerged from a stand of oak, their large ears calling our attention. Glancing at us and the other tourists they soon faded back to the brush. I smiled. The two climbers we passed while rapping Carbuncle could be heard yelling to one another in the distance. The colors of the canyon walls shifted in the afternoon light. I cradled Jacki’s hand gently in mine. As a bus pulled in I leaned forward to stand. “Where are you going?” Jacki asked. I told her I didn’t want to be late. Pulling me back to the bench, allowing the shuttle to pass, she smiled. “You already are.”
Friday evening November 8th, 2013 Jewell Lund and Kim Hall were crushed into the backseat of my station wagon while Julia Geisler was snuggled up front. The rest of the car was bursting with boxes, gear and whatever else three ladies and a guy needed for a weekend of climbing and foolery. I’d offered to drive to Castle Valley and assured everyone that all four of us would fit. And we did… just barely.
When the women invited me along to photograph this trip, where they planned to climb desert towers, practice yoga and enjoy cocktails, all on the rocks, I was a bit uncertain what I’d signed up for. They told me it wasn’t going to be a weekend filled with cutting edge ascents or futuristic ratings and that was fine by me. Sure, there’re many people setting themselves apart by pushing the limits of the sport through amazing feats, but really, how does that relate to me or you and the majority of people participating in climbing? So with the car riding low we made our way south, out of Salt Lake, and into the autumn night hoping to find something that we could all share.
Blue skies greeted us Saturday morning in Castle Valley. Camped among the junipers we watched sunlight wash its way down the exposed faces of the sandstone formations of Castleton, the Rectory, Nuns and the Priest. Sometime in the night Julia’s boyfriend, Blake Summers, had arrived. Between sips of coffee and bites of breakfast burrito he and I arranged to climb together with the intent of staying just ahead and out of the way of Jewell, Kim and Julia. For that day the girls chose the fists, hands and fingers of the classic route Fine Jade located on the south end of the Rectory.
With the sun soaring low along the horizon I dangled from a rope fixed at the top of the first pitch and made images of Kim climbing. Shadowboxing her way through the tight hands section of the initial rope length I felt envious; her hands sank into the crack where my large mitts had been denied. Next, with wisps of strawberry-blonde hair escaping from beneath her helmet, Jewell left the belay and moved up the second pitch. Following twin cracks she made her way toward a bulge that was split by a one-inch break. She plugged in a cam then clipped the ropes. Smearing her feet high she swung into a lie-back position then with little sign of struggle she fell. The cam held in the crack and the rope went tight as the harness cradled her at the waist.
Falling was a good sign. Earlier Jewell admitted to not feeling very secure on sandstone. The majority of her climbing so far had taken place in the high country on the more granitic-type rock. Having tested the system she pulled herself back on and continued with more confidence. When she arrived to the end of that pitch she was beaming. As I belayed Blake and she belayed the two girls, we exchanged only a few words. The experience was written all over her face.
Higher up on the pitch she found herself staring at a tipped out camming device with no other options for protection. Too nervous to weight the cam and not willing to climb down she took a breath and chose to go higher hoping that things would work out. By moving up she devoted herself to what lay ahead. Regardless of it being good or bad it was coming and she accepted that. Jewell let her worries go and was able to transform the process of climbing into a meditation on clarity. Totally engrossed and at the same time completely removed she was simply scaling a sandstone mesa in the setting sun with snow capped mountains to the south, water flowing in a river to the west and a waxing moon hanging in the sky above.
As the three ladies gathered at the top of the second pitch the sun winked out beneath the western rim. Thin clouds radiated above as house lights appeared along the distant valley floor. It was Julia’s turn. Her dark eyes read the rock above. She’d hoped to lead the traversing original finish, but rope drag and being out of sight from the belay were drawbacks. The more direct, shorter final pitch variation would fit her tall, dancer’s physique and although technically harder might be faster.
“I’m not known for being bold, but it was my turn. My goal for the trip was to lead one pitch each day. Just step up and lead something and hopefully it would be easy,” Julia explained. Feeding off of Kim and Jewell’s infectious energy, she moved up in the fading light. Following a low angle corner the crack eventually petered out. She stood at the bottom of a bolted face twenty feet below the summit. Looking at tenuous moves with potential for hitting a ledge there were several minutes of up and down before Julia requested Blake lower a rope from the above. Standing on the summit I made out her silver helmet cresting the edge of the mesa followed by her smile. Once we were all on top the double rye was passed around. Between healthy pulls straight from the bottle laughter burst out as stars pierced the evening sky.
During the drive down from Salt Lake Kim explained that she had some unfinished business on Castleton. A few years back, in the valley for a friend’s birthday, Kim volunteered to rope-gun up the four-pitch Kor-Ingalls route. She handled the first two pitches well, but half way up the third pitch her momentum slowed. Despite the crux being bolt protected it still required committing, run-out moves. Seeing no other option but to lay it back, Kim’s confidence evaporated. After falling repeatedly she was spent. Luckily a party climbing the North Chimney, an adjacent route, was able to lower her a rope and help get her past the heady crux.
Saturday night, after making our way down back to camp in the dark, a small fire illuminated the women’s faces. The day was relived with animated gestures, stories and jokes. Each of us agreed that despite having the easier rating, the first pitch of Fine Jade was definitely the crux. Over dinner it was decided that tomorrow we’d climb Kor Ingalls on Castleton and take care of Kim’s unfinished business.
Before dawn coyotes yapped to one another across the valley as I gazed toward the Big Dipper hovering over the black silhouette of the Castleton group. It had been years since my last visit here. Despite the numerous weekends spent here I still felt the allure of this place. I hoped the rest of the group was feeling it too. By six the water on the stove was boiling. With the stars fading and only a hint of light above the La Sal’s I placed mugs of coffee next to Kim and Jewell. They had slept out and the frost that now covered their bags shimmered in the light of the lantern. One knock on Blake’s car and Julia emerged bundled against the chill of the clear, November air.
Continuing with her goal of taking the sharp end at least once a day Julia racked up for the beginning pitch of Kor-Ingalls. If she’d been fazed by the outcome of last night’s final pitch it didn’t show. In the full sun it was now warm enough to be in a t-shirt. Chimneying past stacked blocks, weaving in and out of the huge dihedral, she made quick work of the first pitch. Jewell handled the second. Then came the crux pitch and round two for Kim.
“You’ve totally got this! I’m right with you!” Jewell sounded from below. Kim had climbed her way to the crux, but after some hesitation was faltering. From above I watched her blonde ponytail sway back and forth as she scanned the rock for possibilities.
“Actually, I don’t have it,” Kim responded, the stress obvious in her voice. She was on the verge of lowering down. I’d been climbing around Kim long enough to know that this crux definitely fell within her ability. “Why don’t you give it ONE good go and if it doesn’t work I have an idea that might be helpful,” I offered encouragingly.
After resting at the bolt Kim put the uncertainty on mute and committed. Pulling her right side out of the yawning crack she made a lie-back move that led to an arm-bar and pathetic left-hand crimp. Deliberately placing her left toe onto a polished, calcite knob she shifted her weight and stood up, pulling her right arm out of the crack. Rocking her body ever so slightly, once, twice, three times, she willed her left hand to bump. The meat of her fingers bit into the stone and her arm engaged. With the business beneath her she rested for a moment then moved on.
Once she arrived to the belay I admitted to Kim that I really didn’t have any tricks to help with the crux. She laughed. All she really needed was the idea of an out before she was able to cast off. “The head game in climbing is the hardest for me,” Kim shared. “I knew that physically I could climb it, but…” She didn’t need to finish the thought. The head game in climbing is hardest for everyone.
On the summit of Castleton, after leading the final pitch, Julia guided Kim and Jewell through a yoga practice while Blake lunched and I made photos. Hip openers followed sun salutations. Shoulders and backs were loosened then came heart openers. Ultimately the girls found themselves seated, gazing over the valley to the mountains. Beneath a comforting sun, perched on top of a pinnacle in the desert, they slowed down, brought awareness in and found the pulse of their surroundings.
Back at the tower’s base the girls mixed whiskey gingers, Blake coiled the ropes and I scrambled around with the camera pressed firmly to my face. Laughter floated lightly through a golden light. Afterward, as we weaved our way down through layers of sedimentary rock, boulder-strewn draws and smooth washes I listened to the red earth crunch beneath our feet. What was the weekend about? Fear, courage, and beauty shared with people cut from the same cloth. The weekend for me was not action at the forefront of climbing. Instead it was pure enjoyment at its heart.
Getting there – Castle Valley is located about 20 miles Northeast of Moab, Utah. Follow River Road, State Highway 128, north of Moab. Turn right onto Castle Valley Road after passing mile marker 15. Follow road for 4.5 miles. Turn off for parking and camping will be on the left after crossing a cattle guard.
Camping – Camping is allowed at the trailhead where there is also an outhouse. It is a dry camp so be sure to bring water.
Guidebook – Rock Climbing – Desert Rock III, Eric Bjornstad, A Falcon Guide.
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.
I had been sitting on my hands for most of the summer. With a large sailing trip planned for September I convinced myself to lay low for the months of June and July. By the time August rolled around I could sit still no longer. I reached out and invited myself along for a few climbing trips. One to Saddleback Peak(Elephants Perch) and the other to Tensleep, Wyoming.
As the dates grew closer for the Tensleep trip the forecast took a turn. A few people backed out, but others, having taken time off from work were committed. As for me, my schedule was clear because it was a week before the trip to Europe and besides I was excited for time away from the desk and nights of sleeping on the ground. The morning we left the Salt Lake Valley it was raining heavily. Into Wyoming on I-80 we managed to pull out in front of the storm. Knowing it would eventually catch up to us we decided to take it slow and made a couple of stops along the way.
Just west of Lander, Wyoming are the small mining villages of South Pass and Atlantic City. I’d driven to Lander, Cody and the Wind Rivers before and each time had ignored these signs. My impression was that it would be a tourist trap. This time driving to Tensleep, knowing a rainy camp was the only thing we had to look forward, I figured, “Why not?”
The Carissa gold Mine of South Pass City was our first stop. Mining in the South Pass erupted in the 1860’s. The Carissa Mine operated into the 1950’s. At the turn of the 21st Century the State of Wyoming purchased the mine and reconstructed it for the public to see. During the summer months they offer tours. Turning off the main highway we rolled down the improved road until this mine interrupted the horizon of the high plains.
After Carissa we made the short drive to small collection of old cabins and eclectic homes in Atlantic City, where the city sign read, “Population about 54.” We stopped at the Atlantic City Mercantile for sarsaparillas. This bar and grill is filled with antiques and memorabilia and was brought back to the public’s attention by Robert Redford and National Geographic. Built in the late 1800’s it was shuttered in the first half of the 20th Century then reopened in the 1960’s with its original name and look. Dave, the barkeep for the last twelve years, informed us they were fresh out of sarsaparilla so we had to settle for barley pops instead. Yes, it felt like I was tourist, but man it was till cool to stop and check out the history.
We did eventually make to Tensleep Canyon and did wait out the rain for another day before actually climbing. I stayed away from the desk, slept in the mud and did get a little climbing in to boot.
In 2014 the Wilderness Act celebrated 50 years with 109,511,966 million acres of protected wilderness in the United States.
“If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them something more than the miracles of technology. We must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it.” Lyndon B. Johnson
This August I had the chance to head into the Sawtooth Wilderness of Idaho for an alpine climbing, backcountry camping and hiking experience. Joining organic chemistry PhD student Shiho Kobayashi and English Professor Bo Earle at the Redfish Lodge near Stanley, Idaho we boarded a motorboat carrying packs filled with food, camping gear, ropes and random items to see us through the next few days. Dropped at the Redfish Lake Inlet we entered the Sawtooth Wilderness Area and began the approach to Saddleback Lakes home of Saddleback Peak, aka Elephant’s Perch.
On the trail our conversation drifted from literature to poetry to philosophy and even to beliefs. When asked what I believed in I could only respond, “Energy.” Personally, I lean toward the Buddhist thought that everything in the universe is connected. I even wear a tattoo on my back of an endless knot as a reminder.
In the morning twilight we awoke in camp high above the lowest of the Saddleback Lakes. Coffee was brewed and our spirits were high. Up to the golden wall we started up the line named Myopia. Climbing as a party of three could have been a struggle, but it wasn’t. “We’re a well oiled machine,” became our mantra as we managed the constant cluster of two ropes, dehydration and nerves while committing to the climb.
Looking out from the belays we could see the other lakes and marveled at their marine color rimmed by a surreal turquoise. The jagged ridgelines surrounding us held occasional pine tree that stood in utter defiance of the inhospitable terrain.
The next morning had us up early and to the rock for another route. I traveled only a couple pitches up before descending. I’d climbed the Beckey route before and with a forecast of afternoon thunderstorms I didn’t want to slow Shiho and Bo down.
From camp and the lakes I watched their progress as clouds rolled in. A brief shower fell from the sky. Thunder rumbled from the unknown to the south. Pitch after pitch they continued up. The thunder ceased and the ceiling of clouds lifted some. As they disappeared on the summit dome a gust a wind rippled over the dark surface of the lakes. Hail fell from the sky then the sun appeared. The west face of Saddleback Peak burned amber in the late afternoon light while they made their final rappel.
The following day we managed one pitch before being rained off the wall. We rolled our camp into our packs and shouldered the weight. Walking down, out of the Sawtooth Wilderness we wore content smiles. I was still thinking about the question of what I believed and recalled a quote from Aldo Leopold.
“Land, then, is not merely soil; it is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants and animals.”
A few years back I attended a presentation by Dave Stoecklein. (If you are not familiar with his work you should check it out.) As a photographer of western lifestyle Dave has thousands of authentic images of people living their country ways. Wrangler jeans to handlebar mustaches he’s got images of beautiful people and full-on characters. Somewhere in the presentation the subject of model releases came up and he pulled up a slide of a “photographer agreement” that he had been asked to sign by some the folks at a ranch he was shooting. It was humorous, something about not making them look any dirtier or more ugly than they already were. Once the laughter quieted Dave explained. As a photographer you have a responsibility to represent the people you are shooting in the correct light. Most if not all of the folks he shoots are real-life ranchers, cowboys, cowgirls, horse people, etc. Being allowed into their lives he explained it would be in poor taste to show the awkward images that are part of the job. (We’re talking about the shots where their eyes are closed, mouth mid-word, weird stride, or the stuff between that makes you look off. He wasn’t talking humor.) For Dave it’s about building trust.
This is a subjective guideline, but it’s something I constantly consider in my work. From portraits to skiing I recall Dave and try not to make anyone look any worse than they really are.
A few months ago I had a great conversation with a friend of mine who happened to be a photo editor. I was looking for feedback and he was willing to help. One nugget of wisdom he gave regarding climbing photography was not to shoot the easy stuff. It was something about not sending him images from Indian Creek. He said, “People shoot it because it’s easy,” or close to that. I believe the editor was implying that he sees tons of shots from the Creek and that if an image of a single pitch route from the area had a chance at being used it had better stand out otherwise it would be swimming is a sea of similar photos.
This is kind of a subjective. I have peers who believe fixing a line and jugging it at any crag is too much work. Whether it’s up the talus cone in the Creek or at your local roadside crag they would consider it more effort than it’s worth. I take the stance that it doesn’t take too much energy to set up a fixed line for single pitch routes, but do believe if you don’t practice shooting “easy” climbing shots now you’ll be unprepared when you go out to get the harder ones.
The first images I took from a fixed rope didn’t turn out. In fact they are totally forgettable. In the beginning I was so excited to be shooting from above and so focused on the mechanics of ascending and descending that I let composition and peak action fly out the window. I quickly realized that if I were going to be any good at this I would have to put some thought into it.
I started by asking questions before I left the ground. Has this route been photographed before? (As a rule I try not to shoot routes that I have seen photos of, but make exceptions from time to time.) Are there interesting angles to shoot from the ground? Does the route favor one side of the climber or the other? How’s the light? Where’s it coming from? How’s the background? Will it be distracting or will it add something? What color is the rock in relation to the climber? Will they stand out enough? The next lesson learned was that shooting from a line fixed to the anchors of the route you are shooting doesn’t (most of the time) really work. There’s a lot of talk about the dreaded butt shoot, but have you heard about the crown-of-the-head shot? There’s nothing more disappointing after you have set up your line and jugged repeatedly to only come home with countless images of faceless climbers. Yes, one of these shots might be interesting, but a whole day of shooting these will bum you out. Getting to the side, clipping a bolt, placing gear and using the anchors of the route next to it or even further seem to do the trick.
Practice, practice, practice on the easy shots translated well when the shots became harder. I recall shooting a route in Death Canyon. Our party of three climbed up five or six pitches before I set up my line. As I weighted the equalized anchor of cams and lowered out over a 1000 feet of air I was happy to have spent so much time shooting the “easy” stuff. It may not be the best shot, but I am certain I have never seen this image before…
What do you think the difference between an easy and hard image is?