This profile appeared in the the November 2016 Family issue of Backcountry Magazine
The two days before the April 2015 storm had been perfect—sunny skies, stable snow and endless Tordrillo spines. On the third day, the wind began to blow and the skies grew overcast. Spouses Zach and Cindi Grant, along with longtime friend Kelly Gray, went to work, digging a cave and building walls around camp, later taking turns shoveling and listening to avalanches when the snow began to fall.
On the sixth day, an aircraft was dispatched to retrieve them, but there was a problem—the soft landing and takeoff conditions required a lighter plane, a Super Cub, with room for only one passenger. And in this case, there was only time for one trip during the break in the weather. At first Kelly insisted Cindi go, but when the bush plane lurched upward into the clouds, Kelly was aboard, leaving Cindi committedly standing beside Zach on the Triumvirate Glacier, hoping the weather would hold.
“They’ve been like that ever since the beginning,” says Sheila Roller, Cindi’s mom. In 2001, when Zach and Cindi, met as high-school freshman in the Salt Lake suburbs, Sheila was concerned with how inseparable they were. Over time her concern has faded as she’s realized just how aligned they are. And what started as a friendship became an affair that revolved around snowboarding.
The duo began exploring the Brighton and Snowboard sidecountry in high school, but their interest in riding backcountry lines became ignited while attending Salt Lake Community College.
One of Zach’s first bigger Wasatch descents was the Northwest Super Couloir on Box Elder Peak, a 2,700-foot, 50-degree line that he brought Cindi to the same season for one of her first tours. “I felt like I had been snowboarding with blinders on,” Cindi recalls. “With a splitboard my peripheral vision opened to all the possibilities.”
Over the next few years the couple took avalanche classes, gained experience and ticked off lines in the Wasatch and across the Intermountain West almost always together. Then in 2011, after a 10-year courtship, they tied the knot below the peaks of the northern Wasatch and began dreaming and living bigger, driving from Utah to Alaska the following March to ride around Haines, Valdez and Anchorage. “That trip put the Wasatch in perspective,” Zach shares. “We realized that there’s so much out there and that we needed to travel and explore more.”
Back to the Wasatch the couple settled into careers – Cindi as a programs director of a guide service and Zach signed on to a trails and grooming crew at a local resort – that maximized their time on snow. In summer 2012, they purchased a backcountry cabin that was in bad shape and had no running water but was located in a basin surrounded by backcountry terrain. With the help of friends and family, they rebuilt. “Someone once told me that if your marriage can survive a remodel, then you have a solid relationship,” Cindi says. “It was definitely a test,” admits Zach, “that took us back to the fundamentals where we had to focus on communication and working as a team.” Four years later their simple shed-frame home, nestled off unimproved roads, has running water, is filled with natural light and beckons visitors to rethink their city lives.
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.”
I’ve been out of the country for three weeks, two of which were spent sailing from Holland to Portugal on the Anne Margaretha. I am not sure what I expected from the voyage, but what it was was something completely new to me.
Visited family in the Uintah Basin for the holiday. I was surprised by the wave of emotions. Here’s a excerpt from my journal.
July 5th, 2014
The burnt aroma of sage mixed with the musky-sweet of the cottonwoods fills my chest. The summer’s morning light casts fading shadows along cliffs of gray sandstone. Fields of sweet grass and alfalfa wink droplets of dew. Irrigating sprinklers tisk in rotation. Stands of tamarisk shield the meandering path of the stream. I bend and touch the warming earth, letting the breath escape my lungs. “Hello Earth.” A tiger stripped mosquito flaps its wings near my ear. “Hello family.” There is no wind to cut the coming heat. Memories pulse through my battered soul… the sticky affection of family and the longing to feel her love. Above clouds spread thin and useless against a pale sky. I press my hand firmly to the ground searching for a pulse.
This is an essay that was first published in the Summer 2012 issue of the Utah Adventure Journal.
Sunday morning, with the smell of juniper and sage in the air, Elizabeth and I ran to Flaming Rock. Last year she had backed off Rain Dance, the two-pitch route to its summit. This year she cruised it, only hesitating at an overlap on the second pitch. Getting her down the backside was a bit touchier. She crawled to the edge of the face then wrapped her arms around my neck. I gently set her below the anchor and told her it would be fine. Releasing her arms from my neck her lips quivered for a moment then relaxed as I let out rope.
To the Bread Loaves, we chose Twist and Crawl. As she jammed her tiny hands into the finishing crack her face pinched into a scowl.
“Liz, you look like a crack climber!” She responded by sticking out her tongue.
No one was on Skyline at 11 am Sunday morning so I made my way up. Only wanting to take her to the edge of comfort I had some doubt on this one. Steep and precarious, it might’ve been enough to unnerve her. As I neared the top a group of climbers appeared and asked Elizabeth when we would be done. Feeling awkward she asked not to climb it. I felt relieved.
The last formation of our trip was Elephant Rock. We arrived to an empty parking area and saw no climbers. To have the place to ourselves was a gift.
“It wont come out!” Elizabeth was having trouble removing the first cam.
“Take it easy. Squeeze the trigger then ease it out.” She got it and moved on to the next one. It was no problem.
“This is… scary!”
“You’re almost here. It’s the last climb of the trip.”
“I can’t get it!” 30 feet below me and 80 above the ground she was fussing with the final tcu. I had finessed it into a pod and now it’d require some guidance to retrieve. I took up the slack and had her sit on the rope. Her arms jerked up and down as she tried to pry the cam from the crack.
“Stop! Take a breath, Liz. It’s not a big deal.” Tears were falling; I could hear it. “Okay, now nice and easy, move it bit by bit.” It was my father’s voice. “Don’t force it. Never force anything, Liz.” She was trembling when she arrived to the belay. I hugged her tightly and told her she’d done awesome.
I’d like to say the institution was a silver bullet, but it wasn’t. While I never returned to partying like I’d done in the past, time was needed to clean up. Rehab did, however, have an effect on the relationship with my dad. Although neither of us was able to speak about the past, we did develop a distant respect for one another. He no longer demanded anything from me and I took full responsibility for my actions. It seemed like this was a descent outcome to our differences, but after his death depression grabbed hold. It felt as if a dark and toxic cloud was suffocating me. For years I struggled to rectify these issues. At first I suffered from nightmares that revisited our altercations, then after time I began having dreams of regret where I was unable to speak, to tell him that I was sorry. And now, more than decade later, I’m finally being comforted with dreams of his love.
As a young asthmatic I recall several trips to the emergency room. My dad would sit next to me speaking softly with his Peruvian accent. “Luis, I want you to count backwards from the number ten. At each number we will take a breath.” Sometimes he would count in Spanish, “Diez… Nueve… Ocho…” He would calmly walk me through relaxation exercises while my mom, near hysterical, would be demanding the doctors make me “breath like a normal child!” I struggle with this. Why is it so hard to get along with the ones we care most for?
The last memory I have of my dad is being in his room. I was 20 years old. After having his stomach removed in order to stop the spread of cancer, a procedure that his body didn’t accept, he had withered away and now his time was up. Afternoon light crept through thin drapes covering the windows. I sat next to his emaciated body. My weight was the only impression on the mattress. His eyes rolled in their sockets when I touched his hand.
“Dad…” they half opened. “How do you know you’re ready to have kids?” His lolling head snapped straight and the clouds vanished from his sunken eyes. Blinking in astonishment he feigned a smile. “How do you know?” I repeated.
“No one is ever ready for children, Luis.”
On a Sunday afternoon in June I sat with Elizabeth on the top of a granite formation in the City of Rocks. Other rocks rolled away from us, down into Circle Creek Basin. Smokey Mountain sat quietly, covered in dark pine. Turkey vultures floated in a blue sky with the sun beating down.
The fear I’ve known through climbing; embracing uncharted rock, getting buzzed by lightening, rolled over by refrigerator-sized blocks or falling, pales in comparison to the knowledge that I’m capable of despicable behavior. I worry about cross-threading my relationship with these children.
This was only climbing. How would I handle the kids when it became serious?
The thought paralyzed me. Elizabeth, no longer trembling, looked at me and smiled. My father was right. Considering my past I would never be prepared, but right or left, up or down, the next move was up to me.
This is part two of an essay that was first published in the Summer 2012 issue of Utah Adventure Journal.
Saturday I rose before dawn in the City of Rocks to the song of birds. In the cool air I ran quietly past the patina covered formations. Swifts darted along the walls of Flaming Rock then Morning Glory and others. This was my first weekend alone with Elizabeth and I needed to strategize; get things properly threaded.
Liz wants to go to the hot springs today; it’s closed on Sunday’s… I want to explore Castle Rocks State Park… She wants to climb… I have to figure out what routes those would be… She should have fun… I should do everything I can to make that happen.
We settled on Castle Rock. Lower in elevation than the other crags the iris blooms were out in force. Snowfields on Cache Peak stood out against the green pastures below. We hiked by lonely rocks and through pines until we found a crag near a stream with aspens that provided shade. I draped a rope over its steeper side and rappelled slowly, inspecting possible holds. Elizabeth hopped from one side of the stream to the other. The air smelled musky and the lawn near the rock was pressed flat.
“Looks like deer have slept here, Liz.” I pointed at droppings and waved to the grass. “Can you smell that?”
The worst of my adolescent angst still haunts me. It occurred one autumn day after holiday shopping with my dad at the request of my mom. I was venomous the entire time. Back home, the middle of suburban sprawl that is Salt Lake, consumed with the desire to get high, I demanded he drive me to a friend’s house. Reluctantly, he started for the car then, reconsidering, pointedly asked what I was up to. He knew my intentions. Unable to give him a practical response he turned back to the house. Something inside me cracked. In a flash I was swinging. He recoiled, trying to retreat, but I caught him inside the door. I was a flurry of fists and feet, a barrage that only stopped after he lay beaten on the steps with a look of horror on his face. As the anger drained from my soul the realization that I’d just lashed out because I couldn’t face the truth and disappointment of what I’d become dawned on me. Never once during the altercation had he fought back. Arms were used to deflect the blows, but nothing answered the onslaught. His face had a sobering effect. What kind of a son beats down his father? The urge to get high, to step away from this reality, grew stronger than ever. That evening I ran as fast and far as possible. I was fifteen years old.
Saturday afternoon returning to the City of Rocks, after a stop at the hot springs, I suggested to Elizabeth we climb Bath Rock. She belayed me attentively then followed, all while speaking to herself. I couldn’t make out the words. At the top she claimed it was the hardest thing she had ever done and I was taken back to my first routes and the fear of the unknown. Elizabeth had no idea what she was capable of and it wasn’t up to me to tell her. I could only offer love and support; the rest she’d discover on her own.
That evening, while Elizabeth slurped hot cocoa, we devised a plan to climb to the top of other formations in the City. Sunday we would attempt Flaming Rock, Bread Loaves, Morning Glory and Elephant Rock. It would be cool to see how many we could climb together in a day.
In their final attempt to turn me around my parents committed me to an institution. After putting on a compliant face and letting a few days pass, I escaped by hopping over the cafeteria counter and running through two secure exit doors that were propped open by a custodian taking out the trash. Wearing a t-shirt, jeans and sneakers, I ran onto a snow-covered field. I didn’t look back, certain that if I did someone would catch and return me to that prison. Once again I ran as far as I could.
I’m fifteen… have no warm clothing… No money… My friends can’t help… I’ve escaped to nowhere.
Stopped for a brief moment, somewhere in the Salt Lake Valley, I saw the peaks of the Wasatch. Their snowy summits hovered in the night sky. I couldn’t recall the last time I’d climbed. Considering all the money wasted on partying I could’ve amassed a huge stash of gear and traveled anywhere. Instead I was there, at the bottom of a very deep hole, which had just gotten deeper.
That night on a pay phone I promised my mom that things would be different. I would go to therapy, communicate more, do anything not to be locked up. I planned to straighten up and when that happened return to climbing. For less than one hour I was warm at home. When three large men showed up to take me back to the institution I felt completely betrayed.
Days later my dad came to visit, my mom couldn’t look me in the face. He explained how the insurance would be void if I didn’t finish the prescribed rehabilitation. Outpatient therapy was not an option. Either I stayed, however long it took, or my parents would have to pay over $5,000 dollars. It was money they didn’t have.
The room spun as I fractured and fell to pieces and the cool demeanor worn to defy the institution knowledge that they were breaking me evaporated instantly. Dressed in only a hospital gown, I shook irrepressibly and bawled like a baby. I wasn’t in control of this. There was no way out but one and it wasn’t a choice. It felt as if I’d lost everything.
That winter night a father wrapped his arms around his quaking son. That night a son felt undeserved love from his father.
This was first published in the Utah Adventure Journal Summer 2012
I never apologized to my dad before he passed away in August 1997. To say we didn’t get along during my teenage years would be putting it lightly. Before our troubles began, I recall working together on a project. Clumsily, I positioned a nut at the end of a bolt and started torqueing it down with a wrench. He noticed my shaking arms and stern face.
“Luis, stop! Don’t force it. Never force anything.” Being from Peru he spoke English precisely, but with a heavy accent. Reversing the nut with his fingers, he seated it correctly and signaled for me to try again. It tightened with ease.
This past June a weekend family trip to the City of Rocks was whittled down to my stepdaughter and me when my wife and stepson stayed home for an impromptu soccer tournament. On a Friday afternoon Elizabeth and I left Salt Lake City. Barely across the Idaho border we stopped on Strevell Road beneath the Raft River Mountains. I snapped photographs of abandoned ranch buildings while Elizabeth darted back and forth screaming, trying to avoid swarming mosquitoes. Down the road I spotted an eagle perched on a telephone pole. Pulling over I grabbed the camera.
“Do you think it will fly?” As we walked toward the pole it spread its wings and swooped down between the wires. A few flaps and it soared through the evening air.
“Whoa… That’s huge!” Elizabeth blurted. I had to agree.
I was eleven the first time I climbed. A rope, anchored to a tree 50 feet up a very low angle bluff, served as the route. I had joined my older sister for her senior spring break in the mid 80’s and for a few days I ran about the deserts of southern Utah with a diverse collection of teenagers. With one VW bus and one Trans-Am, the group of seven wisped me from the hoodoos of Goblin Valley, the radical entrada formations of Arches, the endless vistas at Dead Horse Point and to the quiet beauty of Canyonlands. One of the teenagers explained to the rest how he had rappelled off a feature in a hidden corridor of Goblin Valley. I was intrigued.
The following evening we pulled off Highway 191 south of Moab and cruised along the rolling plains beneath the dark Abajo Mountains. After passing vacant cattle buildings the road began to descend, winding its way into faded sandstone. Our destination was Newspaper Rock and for a moment I was entranced by the collage of images scratched into the vanished rock, but 50 feet to the right the climber of our group had rigged a top rope by using a juniper growing out of the Navajo sandstone. When he asked if anyone wanted to climb I jumped at the opportunity. Wearing a pair of Tough Skins with holes in the knees, a Cheerios Kid T-shirt and Payless running shoes, I clambered quickly up the rock. Sitting back, weighting the rope and lowering were the hardest parts.
Regardless of its difficulty, the hook was set. From then on my free time was devoted to the rock. Since I didn’t have any real equipment the majority of it was spent soloing at fourth and easy fifth class crags in the Wasatch Mountains. Only on occasion was I lucky enough to hook up with a friend’s older brother and actually climb on a rope.
During those rope free days I developed an identity. The uncertainty of being on the rock without any protection cut through all my insecurities. In moments of doubt, when I was sure my forearms would give into the building pump and my fingers would open involuntarily, I could visualize the fall. It would be quiet at first, then my body, striking a ledge below, would spin wildly out of control until the ground suddenly stopped it, broken beyond repair. These thoughts paralyzed me. The flashes were terrifying to the point that I would swear to never climb again until the day I discovered I was the only solution. Left or right, up or down, my fate was in my hands. Each solo outing on the rock began to feed my confidence and character. At home things were different.
“Do not speak to me like that. Have your mother cut your hair. Boys do not wear earrings. Sunday is for worship. You will obey.” Questions were not tolerated when my dad laid out his directives. Step outside his line and you were forced back in.
When I was twelve he let it slip that he was listening in on my phone calls. He explained that in his house it was his right to do so. In search of privacy hours were spent away. On a number of days he’d have to drag me home in order to spend time with the family. This led to more time away and more time in the Wasatch.
Once, while he demanded that I cut my hair, he snapped and wrestled me to the ground.
“Take that thing out!” He screamed while tearing at my earring. My older brother intervened and afterward, I added two more piercings to spite him. This cycle continued into high school. He would demand and I would refuse. Taking steps in the opposite direction of what he wanted seemed the best reaction. Each exchange made it easier to stay away and hanging with all the kids he didn’t want me to be with became easy.
It was with these friends I discovered yet another identity. Booze, Speed, Weed, Hash, Mushrooms, Acid, Coke, etc.; we dabbled with it all and it all blew my mind. At first, I got high occasionally, then weekly and, eventually, daily. Faster than you’d think, the substances took over. I found myself searching the canyons near Salt Lake for places to get high instead of places to climb. Drifting from one friend’s house to another I’d stay away from home for days never contacting my parents. Nights were spent in nearby canyons and glens, hidden among the granite or quartzite boulders.
We partied until it wasn’t fun any more. There were Speed and LSD binges so intense I would smoke pot or drink just to keep the edge off. These long highs always ended with severe lows, where the guilt and shame of what I was becoming pushed me to stay away even longer, which led to getting high again. Several arrests and court appearances along with slipping academics labeled me a delinquent. Wanting to climb was replaced by the urge to get high. The soothing canyons of the Wasatch that had given me some much went the same way the best friend you had in grade school, ignored and mostly forgotten. Trapped in a cycle of hormones and mind-altering chemicals, I began to lash out at everything and everyone. I wanted to stop, but didn’t know how.
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