Wild West Wyoming Winter Tour

Buffalo Bill – The Scout Statue outside the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, Wyoming.

Over the winters I’ve gone to Cody, Wyoming for the ice climbing in the South Fork of the Shoshone River. Each of these trips consisted of arriving to Cody well after dark, driving up the canyon before sunrise, whacking ice all day, returning to town late, eating one pot meals off a single burner stove in a motel room, sleeping, then repeating the process until I was too tired to continue. The trips always ended with a bleary-eyed drive home to Salt Lake City without ever exploring the town and its surroundings. This February I fell into an opportunity to fix all that.

The North Fork of the Shoshone River, Park County, Wyoming.

Travel Wyoming had put together a Wild West Wyoming Winter Tour through the northwest corner of the state. Two days in and around Cody and one day in Thermopolis. Through luck, persistence, and perhaps a lack of oversight from Travel Wyoming, I managed to get an invite and before they could rescind or catch their error I was on the road rolling north through the sage plains of central Wyoming.

Sheridan Avenue, Cody, Wyoming.

Below the eastern slopes of the Absaroka Mountains near the banks of the Shoshone River is the town of Cody. The main drag through town, Sheridan Avenue, runs east/west and is lined with western themed hotels, cafes, restaurants, bars, and shops, all tipping their hats to the area’s frontier past.

Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, Wyoming.

The tour began by meeting the rest of the crew of Brandon Eckroth, Courtney Steeves, Jenna Spesard, and Tia Troy at the Yellowstone Regional Airport then heading down Sheridan Ave to the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. At first glance you could easily write the center off as a tourist trap, but that would be wrong. Within its walls are five museums. And when I say five, I mean that each of them could easily be stand-alone destinations in any metropolitan area. The Cody Firearms Museum houses the largest collection of American-made firearms in the world. The Whitney Museum of Western Art is a fascinating look at the western United States through the eyes of numerous artists and mediums. The Plains Indian Museum is a comprehensive look into the evolving lives of the Plains Indians. The Buffalo Bill Museum is focused on the life of guide, scout, frontiersman, actor, showman, and founder of Cody who became an American icon. The Draper Natural History Museum is an in-depth journey that takes you deep into greater Yellowstone ecosystem. Our entire group agreed that there are so many things to see and study at the Center of the West that one visit is definitely not enough. Luckily, a pass to the center is actually good for two days. I will definitely go back.

English double barrel flintlock shotgun, Cody Firearms Museum, Buffalo Bill Center of the West.
The Scout Bronze Statue of Buffalo Bill Cody as seen from the Whitney Western Art Museum, Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, Wyoming.
Teddy Roosevelt bust from the Rough Rider bronze, Whitney Western Art Museum, Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, Wyoming.
Seasons of Life gallery, The Plains Indian Museum, Buffalo Center of the West, Cody, Wyoming.
Arrow Heads, The Plains Indian Museum, Buffalo Center of the West, Cody, Wyoming.
Dime Novels, Buffalo Bill Museum, Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, Wyoming.
A-Frame Western Saddle, Buffalo Bill Museum, Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, Wyoming.
Manaco Tree Slice, Draper Natural History Museum, Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, Wyoming.
Bobcat, Draper Natural History Museum, Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, Wyoming.

After having my mind blown at the Center of the West we drove down the avenue to the Cody Firearm Experience. The owner Paul Brock, a former curator for the Cody Firearms Museum, had the brilliant idea of combining the history of firearms in America with a gun range, giving visitors a one-of-a-kind interactive experience. A prominent display of replica firearms at the entrance shows the history and evolution of the guns in the West. Visitors have their choice of which firearms to use, ranging from way back up to the latest makes and models.  Under Paul’s supervision we were allowed to squeeze off a few rounds. Our group settled on a Colt Walker Conversion revolver (cowboy gun) and a Winchester Colt 45 Rifle. Paul offered up a Gatling gun to test out, but none of us had the nerve.

Paul Brock demonstrates how to fire at the Cody Firearms Experience, Cody, Wyoming.
Colt 45 Revolver, Cody Firearms Experience, Cody, Wyoming.
Paul Brock demonstrates to Courtney Steeves how to fire at the Cody Firearms Experience, Cody, Wyoming.
Brandon Eckrpth at the Cody Firearms Experience, Cody, Wyoming.
Courtney Steeves with her target at the Cody Firearms Experience, Cody, Wyoming.

Day two began in the dark with a predawn drive up the North Fork Highway, not too different from my previous visits to Cody. But for this early start we were rewarded with a technicolor light show above the Shoshone River. After a quick photo snapping session, we met Terry Dolan from Gary Fales Outfitting in the tiny town of Wapiti then headed west to where they stopped plowing U.S. Highway 14. Terry would be guiding us on a snowmobile tour of Yellowstone. We suited up as he ran us through the operations of the sleds and the do’s and do nots of a winter tour in the park. Stay on the road, single file, obey the speed limit, and pull over as far as possible when we stop.

Jenna Spesard photographs the sunrise above the North Fork of the Shoshone River, Park County, Wyoming.
Terry Dolan, Jenna Spesard, Courtney Steeves, Tia Troy, and Brandon Eckroth out for a snowmobile tour of Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.
Winter landscape of Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

Under cloudy skies we hummed into the park via the east entrance. Up to Sylvan Pass we wound our way along the snow-covered road and witnessed the scenery open up into swaths of evergreens, steep canyons, and stark ghost forests – loud reminders of wildfires from the recent past. Descending to Yellowstone Lake the horizon opened to an undefinable expanse layered with subtle hues of winter. Along the way Terry pointed out land marks and wildlife. Snowy bison, a lethargic coyote, trumpeter swans, and birds of prey. We stopped to eat lunch at the Fishing Bridge Warming Hut while Ranger Miller give us an update on the winter happening in Yellowstone. After lunch we made our way to the jaw dropping views of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. I’ve never really considered taking a snowmobile tour of the park before this trip but having experienced the undeniable beauty of Yellowstone in winter, without the crowds, the pressure, and expectations, I have to say that it’s something I won’t forget. If you have the opportunity I highly recommend it.

A frozen Yellowstone Lake in winter, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.
Two-headed bison, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.
It’s mating season for coyotes in Yellowstone National Park. This fellow was seen relaxing near a thermal pond in Pelican Valley.
A popular lunch spot, Fishing Bridge Warming Hut, Yellowstone National Park.
A winter view of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

The temperature plummeted going into the third day of our trip making it the perfect time to head to Hot Springs County. A short 85-mile drive through snowy pronghorn country landed us in the energy and tourism town of Thermopolis. Surrounded by mountains and sitting just north of the dramatic Wind River Canyon, Themop, as the locals call it, is home to one of the world’s largest natural hot springs and dinosaurs. That’s right, dinosaur remains were discovered in the area in the 1990’s and soon after the Wyoming Dinosaur Center was created. This paleontological gem is filled with life-size replicas, prehistoric skeletons, and numerous dioramas, a visit to the center is an awesome look back to a land before time and makes for a perfect pre-hot springs outing.

A herd of pronghorn in the sage plains between Thermopolis and Meeteetse, Wyoming.
Bronze cowboy and horse in downtown Thermopolis, Wyoming.
Wyoming Dinosaur Center, Thermopolis, Wyoming.
Wyoming Dinosaur Center, Thermopolis, Wyoming.
Wyoming Dinosaur Center, Thermopolis, Wyoming.
Wyoming Dinosaur Center, Thermopolis, Wyoming.

Water from the Big Horn Spring flows over beautiful mineral colored terraces into the river at the north end of Thermopolis. This spring, which has been used by native Americans for millennia, was sold to the government from the Shoshone and Arapahoe tribes through a treaty in 1896 with the condition they remain free to the public. Hot Springs State Park with it trails, swinging bridge, flower gardens, boat launches, bison herd, parks, picnic areas, and free public bathhouse is the result.

The terraces flowing into the Bighorn River, Hot Springs State Park, Thermopolis, Wyoming.
The terraces flowing into the Bighorn River, Hot Springs State Park, Thermopolis, Wyoming.

Full disclosure; I’ve been to Thermopolis several times during summer climbing and camping trips to Ten Sleep Canyon. At only sixty miles away the free bathhouse offered a great rest day recovery activity with the added bonus of a free shower! But, soaking in the public bathhouse’s outdoor pool in the middle of winter, with a water temperature near 104 degrees and an air temperature in the teens, was more refreshing than can be described. Doing it alone on Super Bowl Sunday, when everyone had gone home to watch the game, was more priceless than the admission.

The indoor pool at the free-to-the-public Bath House at the Hot Spring State Park, Thermopolis, Wyoming
Courtney Steeves and Brandon Eckroth enjoy the outside pool at the free-to-the-public Bath House at the Hot Spring State Park, Thermopolis, Wyoming

After having a good long soak, I opted for a quiet walk in the park while the rest of the crew headed into the Wind River Canyon. Watching the steam rise over Smoking Water Park is as amazing as the ice formations that cling to the mineral terraces. Making my way across the swinging bridge, over the Big Horn River I was given a fabulous vantage point of the entire park.

Trees at the Smoking Water Park, Hot Springs State Park, Thermopolis, Wyoming.
Bison silhouettes at the Smoking Water Park, Hot Springs State Park, Thermopolis, Wyoming.

The final morning of our trip was spent with Barb and Merlin Heinze at their place in Thermopolis. The visit was an incredible look inside the handcrafted fur and leather clothing trade. Merlin’s Hideout is a tannery, sewing studio, and custom clothing retail shop with a reputation for buffalo fur coats. Quick trivia: Merlin made eight buffalo coats for Kurt Russell’s character in the Quentin Tarantino movie “The Hateful Eight”. Stopping in and being shown around opened my eyes to a world I knew very little about and hearing Merlin’s story of making a pair of beaver gaiters for himself that quickly led to making a whole line of fur products for others was incredible. We concluded the visit with trying on a few of their jackets, being blown away by their warmth and comfort, and then promptly being turned down when asked if they would be willing to trade one for my nappy jacket.

Fox pelts at Merlin’s Hideout, Thermopolis, Wyoming.
Merlin Heinze at the sewing machine, Merlin’s Hideout, Thermopolis, Wyoming.
The sewing process at Merlin’s Hideout, Thermopolis, Wyoming.
Courtney Steeves with a coyote vest and hat, Merlin’s Hideout, Thermopolis, Wyoming.
Tia Troy with a suede jacket and coyote hat, Merlin’s Hideout, Thermopolis, Wyoming.
Jenna Spesard with a beaver vest, Merlin’s Hideout, Thermopolis, Wyoming.
Brandon Eckroth models a coyote fur coat, Merlin’s Hideout, Thermopolis, Wyoming.

And just like that the trip was ending. Back in Cody after loading up the car and waving good bye I asked myself “why”. Why come to the northwest corner of Wyoming in the dead of winter? By default I’d be coming back for the ice climbing, but would I return for the history of the Wild West, Yellowstone, paleontology, or the hot springs? Or might I come again to meet and be inspired by folks living their very own American dream? While these thoughts ran through my head I recalled a quiet moment from the first day of the trip.

Brandon Eckroth walking Sheridan Avenue, Cody, Wyoming.

Before meeting the rest of the crew, I’d walked east along Sheridan Avenue leaving the shops and restaurants behind. At the top of a short hill I looked west over town to the Absaroka Mountains then turned my gaze north to Heart Mountain. Soaking up the scene I was startled by a prairie falcon sitting on a fence post not 20 feet from where I stood. At first the bird gazed at me with one eye then rotated its head and looked at me with the other. It repeated this a few times shaking its head before taking flight.

Prairie falcon on a post, Cody, Wyoming.

I’ll definitely be coming back to Cody and Thermopolis for the climbing and so much more. And next time it’ll be for a lot longer.

#WildWestWY

Recommended lodging –

Holiday Inn Cody at Buffalo Bill Village

Best Western Plus Plaza Hotel, Thermopolis

Recommended restaurants –

Wyoming Rib and Chop, Cody, Wyoming

The Local, Cody

Irma Hotel Restaurant and Saloon, Cody

Brewgards, Cody

Rawhide Coffee Company, Cody

One Eyed Buffalo Brewing, Thermopolis

 

Made to Be Broken

This essay first appeared in the pages of the Utah Adventure Journal.

Zion National Park, Utah.
Zion National Park, Utah.

 

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.

Charlie rapping in Mystery Canyon, Zion National Park.
Charlie rapping in Mystery Canyon, Zion National Park.

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.

Charlie throws the rope on the Watchman, Zion National Park.
Charlie throws the rope on the Watchman, Zion National Park.

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.

Rock Lobster, Indian Creek, Utah.
Rock Lobster, Indian Creek, Utah.

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.

Lichen on Navajo sandstone, Zion National Park.
Lichen on Navajo sandstone, Zion National Park.

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.

Jacki topping out on Dihedral of Horrors, Death Canyon, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.
Jacki topping out on Dihedral of Horrors, Death Canyon, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.

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.

Fynn, Josie and Jacki on the shores of Deep Lake, Wind River Range, Wyoming.
Fynn, Josie and Jacki on the shores of Deep Lake, Wind River Range, Wyoming.

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.”

Arriving to the second belay.
Arriving to the second belay.

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.

High up on pitch three.
High up on pitch three.

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.

The summit of Carbuncle Buttress.
The summit of Carbuncle Buttress.

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.”

Copyright louis arevalo 2014.

Winter’s Sunrise.

I have never regretted waking before dawn… Especially in the snowy months.

Split board mission in Wyoming. Day after day of pre 4am wake ups definitely made a mark, but scenes like this one made everyone worthwhile. First light in the Grand Teton National Park.
Split board mission in Wyoming. Day after day of pre 4am wake ups definitely made a mark, but scenes like this one made everyone worthwhile. First light in the Grand Teton National Park.
March 2013. Wolverine Cirque sunrise mission take two. On our first trip the week prior clouds on the horizon obscured dawn. Second go, not a cloud in sight.
March 2013. Wolverine Cirque sunrise mission take two. On our first trip the week prior clouds on the horizon obscured dawn. Second go, not a cloud in sight.
December 2014. The iconic south face of Mount Superior is not a secret. It's been skied every which way and photographed as much… I sort of avoided shooting it until now… Don't ask me why.
December 2014. The iconic south face of Mount Superior is not a secret. It’s been skied every which way and photographed as much… I sort of avoided shooting it until now… Don’t ask me why.
January 2015. Morning twilight in the Little Cottonwood ridge line. The warm glow of the coming dawn makes it easy to forget that at the moment of this image temperatures were hovering in the single digits.
January 2015. Morning twilight in the Little Cottonwood ridge line. The warm glow of the coming dawn makes it easy to forget that at the moment of this image temperatures were hovering in the single digits.
April 2014. It's funny how much the Wasatch clears out once spring arrives. Luckily there are friends who take advantage of the deep snow pack and lack of crowds. Sunrise from Flagstaff.
April 2014. It’s funny how much the Wasatch clears out once spring arrives. Luckily there are friends who take advantage of the deep snow pack and lack of crowds. Sunrise from Flagstaff.
April 2014. The idea of connecting the seven ski areas of the Wasatch is not new. Last year there was new life breathed into it. If completed it would consume excellent backcountry terrain. Sunrise from Clayton Peak.
April 2014. The idea of connecting the seven ski areas of the Wasatch is not new. Last year there was new life breathed into it. If completed it would consume excellent backcountry terrain. Sunrise from Clayton Peak.

Mountain Mis-step. What mistakes have you survived?

Winter Sunrise in the Wasatch Backcountry.On November 13, 2011 I was involved in a backcountry skiing avalanche. Correction, I was actually avalanched. Throttled, beaten, damaged and at one point completely buried, I somehow managed to limp away. On that same morning 12 other avalanches were reported within the central Wasatch resulting in several close calls, a broken femur and one life lost.
I once heard avalanche specialist Jill Fredston say, ‘snow innately wanted to stay put… but the fact that it was constantly changing made it difficult to predict.’
After taking that 400-foot ride, receiving a broken finger, bruised pelvis, hips, elbows and knees along with some lacerations, her words constantly ran through my head. I knew the danger on that stormy day was on the rise. I’d received snow education and had years of experience, but still went out. Alone at the trailhead I followed a fresh skin track that ascended into steep terrain figuring there would be safety in numbers. At the point of catching the two creators of the track I decided against descending with them and exited from the lee side of the ridge into the wind exposed slopes to carry on and out alone.
Shuffling along my skin-covered skis clattered along snow-dusted talus before coming to a shallow pillow of wind deposited snow, perhaps twelve inches deep. Beneath the new winter deposits the gully held the rotting skeleton of October snows. Fifteen feet wide it terminated into rock rubble thirty feet below. Experience told me that it would slide, but the amount of running snow wouldn’t be much; maybe enough to knock me off my feet, not much more. Unknown at the time was how high the pillow ran above. Its top, obscured by the storm, tipped closer to 40 degrees and twisted to face north. All that was needed to release the wound up spring was me. After three steps onto the surface the snow beneath my skis settled. The echoing whoomph was felt in my chest. One beat of silence followed allowing me to reflect on my mistakes before being tackled by a wall of snow.
Since the avalanche I’ve found that snow, although complex, is not the hard thing to forecast, it’s the people who play on it that are difficult to predict.

Sailing?

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.larevalo_sail3_0914_0051

I believe in wilderness. What about you?

larevalo_perch_0814_0214-2In 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.Shiho Kobayashi and Bo Earle backpack into the Sawtooth Wilderness, Idaho.

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.larevalo_perch_0814_0031

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.larevalo_perch_0814_0051

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.larevalo_perch_0814_0103

From camp and the lakes I watched their progress as clouds rolled in. A brief shower fell from the sky.larevalo_perch_0814_0171 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.”

The Easy Shots

The Crown-of-the-head shot. Might be okay, but I really want to see who this is.
Easy shot. The Crown-of-the-head shot. Might be okay, but I really want you to see who this is.

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.

Two guidelines ignored. Shot from the anchors of the route and this thing has been photographed more than enough, but I still shot it.
Easy shot with two guidelines ignored. Shot from the anchors of the route and this thing has been photographed more than enough, but I still shot it and dig it. Swimming in the sea.

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.

Easy shot taken from the ground. Wish the climber were wearing brighter clothes.
Easier shot taken from the ground. Wish the climber were wearing brighter clothes and we could see their profile.

 

Easy shot from the bolts of adjacent route. Love the shot, wish he had a bright shirt on...
Easy shot from the bolts of adjacent route. Love the shot though it might be better if he had a bright shirt on…

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.

Easy shot from the top of a route way off to the side.
Easy shot from the top of a route way off to the side. This is not the Creek.
Easy shot from the route adjacent to.
Easy shot from the route adjacent to.

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.

Not as easy single pitch from tree off to the side.
Not as easy single pitch from tree off to the side.
Harder shot. Easier with someone rope gunning for me. 300 feet of the deck.
Harder shot. Easier with someone rope gunning for me. 300 feet of the deck.

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?

Hard shot? I think it qualifies. Five or six pitches of climbing with camera and rigging equipment, leading through and building a belay, lowering, then jugging and shooting… Never been used.
Hard shot? I think it qualifies. Five or six pitches of climbing with camera and rigging equipment, leading through and building a belay, lowering, then jugging and shooting… It’s never been used.

 

Plan B

Cindi Grant hikes along Mocassin Lake, Wind River Range, Wyoming.I just returned from a trip to Wyoming where I had a blast with split-boarders Kordell Black, Zach and Cindi Grant. With rain and snow happening in the Wind River Range for much of the month we waited for the forecast to improve. Unfortunately this also put us a few weeks late to enter the Wind Rivers from the Dickinson Park trail head. Starting at 9500′ we were in the mud and patches of slushy snow. After a few miles we got a view of Baptiste Cirque, nice and snowy, but the rest of our approach looked to be 15 miles of the same muddy and punishing terrain. With the addition of boards, skis and boots on our backs we decided to retreat to the Tetons for plan b.Zach and Cindi Grant and Kordell Black view the Tetons.Down time at Shadow Mountain Camp with Cindi Lou Grant, Tetons.
The fact that we could see plenty of lies from our camp at Shadow Mountain made choosing our objectives easy.
Day one was a four am start that put us 300 feet below the summit of Buck Mountain on its east ridge before turning around, concerned with daytime heating.
Day 2 was a 3 am start leading up the Spoon Couloir and on top of Disappointment Peak in good conditions and great views.
Day 3 We slept in until 330 am and leisurely made our way into Garnet Canyon for a stomp up and down the West Hour Glass Couloir.Dawn Patrol in the Tetons with Zach and Cindi Lou Grant.Kordell Black makes a stream crossing in Stewarts Draw, Tetons.Cindi Lou Grant on The boot track up the east ridge of Buck Mountain, Tetons.The boot track up the east ridge of Buck Mountain, Tetons.Korrdell Black on the east ridge of Buck Mountain, Tetons.Zach and Cindi Grant booting up Disapointment Peak, Tetons.Zach Grant rides the snowfields of Disapointment Peak, Tetons.Cindi Lou Grant drops the Spoon Couloir in the Tetons.larevalo_wyoski1_0514_0272

Maybe next year we can get into the Winds earlier, but first we’ll need to catch up on some sleep and get back to our summer work…God's light over the Tetons.

Chasing Inouye

Little Cottonwood winter morning skyline.Jared Inouye is known for his speed, endurance and efficiency in the mountains during both winter and summer months. The guy’s a rando-racing veteran, has done massive linkups and set speed records. This ski season I’d put off contacting him for months about the possibility of making photos. At first delaying it was easy. There wasn’t a lot of snow, avalanche conditions were touchy and I was very out of shape. Eventually it did snow, conditions improved, but I still wasn’t in shape. The touring days I’d hoped to put in never really happened. It’s easy to let work, life and play get in the way. Last week I finally reached out to Jared. Secretly I hoped he’d decline, but to my dismay, he didn’t and I suffered.

larevalo_tnnrtowht_0414_0005

“I should have started an hour before you.” I stammered between gasps. I’d finally caught up to Jared and Chad Ambrose on the summit of Dromedary Peak about half past 7. The April sun had crested the Wasatch Mountains and was falling down its canyons painting the snow covered ridges, rocks and trees with its warm light. They laughed then quickly skied down the east-facing slope. It really wasn’t that funny. I’d been serious. They’d floated up the 3,700’ of Tanners Gulch while I drudged my way to the top.Chad Ambrose and Jared Inouye skin toward a ridge in the Wasatch Mountains.

From Dromedary we carved tight turns on firm snow, down climbed a short rocky section and skied more fun snow into the open basin of south Mill B. Patches of dark slate emerged from the snow and a dramatic wall of quartzite loomed as a backdrop. As I put skins back on my skis, Chad told me to follow his track. I clicked in and took notice of our surroundings. Chad and Jared were immediately half a football field ahead. I put one foot in front of the other and wheezed my way upward. Jared waited for me at the Little and Big Cottonwood Canyon divide. From there I could see Chad had already made it halfway down White Pine chute. Huge wet slides had occurred earlier in the week leaving behind boulder-sized avalanche debris. We agreed upon the skeleton of a pine tree as our target among the warzone of winter and spring snow then slide into the chute. After scrambling down a rocky outcrop near the road I looked ahead to see Jared skipping through the final tailings of debris. I totally expected this, he would be way ahead, and I would be lumbering way behindJared Inouye down climbs a cliff band while skiing Whitepine Chute.Avalanche debris forces Jared Inouye to walk the bottom of White Pine Chute.

Lessons

Did I ever tell you I studied journalism in school? Yeah, and somehow I ended up taking more photography classes than writing classes. It was something I’d always been interested in and during school it became the fun easy class I looked forward to each semester.Skiing Seduction Drainage, Icefall Lodge, BC Canada, February 2014.

Out of school instead of finding a job at a newspaper or magazine to refine the writing and photo skills I chose to keep my job as a deliveryman and play hard. Climbing, skiing, backpacking and traveling became the main focus of life for over a decade. During this time I’d browse through magazines then say to myself, “I can do better than that.” It was complete arrogance and ignorance.

It wasn’t until my thirties that I decided to walk the walk. I blew the dust off my film camera then after much resistance, purchased a digital one and began writing regularly. I was going to do better. Guess what? I fell flat on my face.

Turns out making better photographs in the outdoor realm was not as easy as understanding iso, shutter speeds and f-stops. And writing… what can I say? Nobody wanted another trip report to Indian Creek and leads, nut graphs, body, structure, they all felt so impossible. I should have quit, but somehow didn’t.  One photo eventually turned out and one editor took pity on me so I slowly limped by.Skiing Seduction Drainage, Icefall Lodge, BC Canada, February 2014.

It feels like yesterday, but somehow years have passed. All the lessons from school make more sense. That whole shooting a white egg on a white sheet is brilliant. The mantra of one of my writing professors, “Focus! Focus! Focus!” is louder today than it was in the classroom. And the current lessons, the ones they couldn’t teach in a classroom are a daily occurrence.  The difference now, even though I still regularly stumble, is that sometimes I don’t, but mostly I still do.

Yeah, so I studied journalism in school and now I’m learning how to make better stories one face plant at a time.Skiing Seduction Drainage, Icefall Lodge, BC Canada, February 2014.