Strawberry Point

Last May/June I had an assignment to travel to and document, both words and photos, 44 separate locations across Utah. On one had it was a dream gig, on the other hand I had about 44 days to meet the deadline. It was kind of crazy. Days began well before sunrise and finished after dark. Somehow I managed to slow down enough each day to meditate and try not to miss the beauty around me… and I made the deadline.
This image was created on the edge of the Virgin River Rim. The location is out a nondescript dirt road. I would have never in a thousand years discovered this without my work…

Strawberry Point, Dixie National Forest, Utah. Strawberry Point is the beginning of the Virgin Rim Rim Trail and the headwaters of the Virgin River.
Strawberry Point, Dixie National Forest, Utah. Strawberry Point is the beginning of the Virgin Rim Rim Trail and the headwaters of the Virgin River.

Who really wants to make the Wasatch one massive ski resort?

A version of this article first appeared in the pages of the Utah Adventure Journal and again online for Backcountry Magazine.

A ski lift frames the central Wasatch Mountains, Utah.
A ski lift frames the central Wasatch Mountains, Utah.

“Who wants this expansion?” Salt Laker, physician and photographer Howie Garber wondered aloud. He was talking about Ski Utah’s March announcement of their intention to make lift connections that would enable a person to ski all seven Central Wasatch resorts in a single day. They’re calling it One Wasatch, and claim the process will occur through a collaborative effort representing the federal, state, city, county, business and private sectors, all part of Utah’s Mountain Accord process, a regional planning effort. And the map highlighting possible connection zones shows three that stir conflict with backcountry users.

Howie Garber.
Howie Garber.

 

Howie’s been active in local preservation efforts for more than 30 years, so I stopped by his place to get his read on the concept. Sighting the Wasatch Canyons Tomorrow 2010 survey in which locals gave input on future development in the canyons of the central Wasatch, he continued: “Ninety-four percent of citizens support limiting resort expansions…. When do local populations get an opportunity to determine how much takes place in their backyard?” He was right, and I needed to find out more.

 

Personally I love both resort and backcountry skiing, but more development makes me cringe. Open space simply seems more valuable to me. But it’s not just up to me.

 

I got Ski Utah’s Nathan Rafferty on the phone to answer Howie’s first question, who wants this? Nathan pointed to Utah’s tourism industry. He said that, by creating this unique skier experience “unlike anything in North America”, he, along with the areas’ GMs, believes it will grow tourist dollars, which would benefit the state’s economy. I asked about backcountry users, and he acknowledged the value of both in- and out-of-bounds skiing experiences. He assured me that this concept would not make that go away: there are no plans for lodges, parking lots or other developments. “Chairlifts and ski runs only,” he said.

 

In an e-mail from Park City Councilman, Andy Beerman, he declined to take a position on One Wasatch. He did concede that their resorts could be connected with minimal impact since they already share boundaries and suggested that linking the three Park City Resorts—Canyons, Deer Valley and Park City—would likely receive community support. Then, he noted that connecting to the Cottonwood Canyons would be more difficult because, he said, “they involve Federal lands, sensitive watershed areas, and potential recreational conflicts.”

 

To me, the connection from Alta to Solitude—the Grizzly Gulch to Twin Lakes Pass area—will raise the most objections. It’s popular among backcountry users but also one of my “go-to” places as a photographer. Converting it and other zones to inbounds terrain would not only cut away from the backcountry, it would impact my wallet.

Carl Fisher
Carl Fisher

 

Carl Fisher, director of Save Our Canyons, is also against the One Wasatch Concept. “We’ve received over a thousand comments since One Wasatch was announced,” Carl said. “Even out-of-state visitors say it will ruin why they come; which is easily accessed resorts and easily accessed backcountry.” He believes skier days in Utah are on the rise due to increased backcountry use, and thinks that the plans wont even make it through the Mountain Accord process.

Laynee Jones
Laynee Jones

 

The Mountain Accord is Utah’s effort to develop a planning blue print for the Central Wasatch that includes federal agencies, local governments, businesses and organizations with a huge public component. “When are you going to write an article about the Mountain Accord?” The Accord’s program director Laynee Jones had caught me caught off guard. As I stammered she continued, “We have the decision makers at the table. It’s a real powerhouse and they’re here to find solutions and willing to compromise. The ski areas are just one part of the equation in the future of the Wasatch.” She had a point. Through the Mountain Accord Laynee sees an opportunity to do something remarkable that could preserve the Central Wasatch for generations. They are currently developing blueprints in the four systems groups of transportation, economics, recreation and environment. Each group has been tasked with coming up with an idealized scenario, which then will be brought to the board where a consensus will have to be met before it can be approved. She suggested One Wasatch could be part of a proposed scenario, possibly coming from the economic group.

Peter Metcalf
Peter Metcalf

 

Next, I spoke with Peter Metcalf, CEO of Salt Lake-based Black Diamond Equipment, and while BD no doubt benefits from both resort and backcountry, Metcalf has always been a vocal proponent of preserving Utah’s open spaces and believes we currently have a good balance between developed and undeveloped terrain. Peter sees the One Wasatch Concept as a marketing move, but doesn’t buy it. “Who’s really going to ski all resorts in one day and is it even possible without sitting on lifts all day long AND doing mediocre traverses?”

 

Knowing the resorts’ desires to expand will not go away, Peter has given some thought to an arrangement. Speculating that if these connections were worked through the Mountain Accord Peter shared a possible scenario. “Approval of the interconnect as part of a much larger Wasatch agreement would include the following: a route that was the least impactful to the existing Wasatch backcountry ski experience, minimal & defined prepared piste on the sides of the lifts, guaranteed access to backcountry skiers of the linked zones, full support of the expanded Matheson Wasatch Wilderness Bill, a giving up of all future development rights via conservation easements on all private lands surrounding the new lifts, and binding agreements between the ski areas and the forest service to never expand the ski areas beyond their current boundaries.” This wasn’t the resounding objection on all fronts I imagined Peter to give on ski area expansion in the canyons. After letting this seep into my brain I began to understand how this concept and any other development might be handled.

 

When I shared Peter’s scenario with Nathan, he agreed that if One Wasatch were to become a reality, compromises would have to be made. “[Ski Utah] can’t have this conversation without putting something on the table,” Nathan said. And while he’s excited about One Wasatch he admits that it’s a complicated idea. There are, after all, seven areas with seven separate owners, he reminded me, and each link would have its own issues.

 

Eventually, I was back where I began, talking with Howie.“The bottom line, Louie, is that it’s about the preservation of powder skiing,” he said, “which I truly believe is a dwindling natural resource!” We both laughed, but Howie was serious. For him it’s preservation, for Ski Utah it’s about growing the economy. Is it possible to do both?

The central Wasatch Mountains from Clayton Peak, Utah.
The central Wasatch Mountains from Clayton Peak, Utah.

 

To find out more about One Wasatch and stakeholder counter arguments, visit TK, TK, TK.

 

mountainaccord.com

saveourcanyons.org

onewasatch.com

wasatchbackcountryalliance.org

copyright louis arevalo 2014

The Quiet Man

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.larevalo_cthomas_0913_0004

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.Riding the ice wave.

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.Chris Thomas mixes it up behind the Donorcicle, Joes Valley, Utah.

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.”

Rustico. How small is the world?

“Weer yew frome?” asked the tall chain-smoking Italian sitting across the granite table from me.

“The United States.”

“No, weer en da yew ess?”

“Salt Lake City, Utah.”

“Ah! Yew-tahjazz. Kahl Malon… eh… Joan Stoct-tone… Coach Sloan.” He smiled and pulled on his cigarette. I smiled back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was just past seven in the morning at the Campana Efra, a small stone hut along the Via Alta Vercasca, an alpen wandern or alpine walk in the Swiss Alps with a rating of 6 that equates to easy fifth-class scrambling with the aid of iron ladders and cables attached to the most exposed sections. I, along with my great friend Stephan, who was still asleep, were three days into the five-day trek and until last night had not shared a hut with any other hikers. After three days of solitude I was open to the companionship of the two Swiss and four Dutch we had shared the bunkhouse with last night.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The man wasn’t really Italian. He was Swiss from the Ticino Canton. In a slow accented drawl he told me how years ago he had played college ball in New Jersey. Maybe before his hair began to grey and he smoked like a chimney, he had played professional ball in Europe. I didn’t ask. As the cigarette in his fingers burned low he removed another from the pack and lit it with the butt of the one in his hand.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We both looked west. The new dawn was creeping slowly down the horizon. The waning moon hung high in the blue sky. First distant glaciers dispersed between summits lit up. Then the sun line crept lower into the valley below. Passing the rugged grass covered peaks it traveled down to tree line and deeper. It seemed strange to have a tree line below 7000 feet, but at this latitude it was so. Old ranch houses constructed from granite sprung out of the golden grasses of September.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Speaking again he explained how the cheese makers of the past would leave the tree-choked villages below and gather their stock of cows and goats from the high grasslands. From these quaint mountain buildings that are only accessible on foot, they would make an aromatic cheese that contained hints of herbs, alfalfa and flowers during the summer and fall months. Once a week the women would come from below with loads of wood and food for their men. The word “romantic” came to mind.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rustico, country style, cheese from Ticino is still being produced by driving the cattle down into the villages below where the dairies are near the roads and modern conveniences. Most of the mountaintop dairies are no longer used save a few that we have seen. Many of the stone structures have been transformed into huts and private cabins and some have gone into disrepair.

“Wow! That’s amazing.” I thanked him for sharing. We sat there in silence while he smoked his cigarette down. From below in the village of Frasco the church bell rang 8.

The Ticino man snubbed his butt into the ground and stood up. Pausing, he turned to me with a huge smile.

“Yew-tahjazz!”

I smiled back, “Utah Jazz!”