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.

March 23, 2015

Morning above the San Rafael River, Utah.
Morning above the San Rafael River, Utah.

I slept in this Sunday morning. By the time I heard Chip roll out of the back of his car everything was illuminated. Unzipping the tent I saw the sky was glowing pink. I dressed quickly then grabbed the camera and tripod. The shutter snapped as Chip walked down toward the San Rafael River and the color in the sky faded.

Window Blind Peak and Assembly Hall held court above the grey and meandering creek bottom. Thin clouds had moved in over night holding on to some of Saturday’s heat. It felt relatively warm for March. Soon water was boiled and coffee was brewed…

Honestly

“Truth is a point of view, but authenticity can’t be faked.” Peter Guber.

I have always wanted to share stories. In school I chose journalism as my focus, but the idea of becoming a copy editor at the local paper was unappealing so I embraced blue-collar work and played as hard as I could.

For ten years I bumped along occasionally having a story or essay published, but mainly just struggled to find my voice. During this time I would consume periodicals and throw them to the recycling bin in disappointment. While there were a few writers and magazines that totally blew me away the majority of what was read felt disingenuous. I craved and still crave things that are genuine. Anything that resonates or connects with me is a winner. We could all use more honesty in our lives.

I totally agree with the quote above. Although my work fluctuates at times in its truth the pursuit of the authentic is what motivates me to continually improve my writing and photography.

Setting sail in the North Sea onboard the Anne Margaretha.
Setting sail in the North Sea onboard the Anne Margaretha.

What are your passions?

Zach Grant exploring the wintery Wasatch Range.
Zach Grant exploring the wintery Wasatch Range.

“What are you passionate about?”

My wife asked while skinning up a winter trail in the Wasatch Mountains. As she passed through the arch of an aspen tree that bent over the track I paused. A wave of snow clung to the trunk’s upside only inches wide and at least twelve inches tall and serpentined the entire length of the arch. Its position on the tree defied gravity and the sun.

Jacki Arevalo during a post climbing yoga practice, Red Cliffs Desert Reserve.
Jacki Arevalo during a post climbing yoga practice, Red Cliffs Desert Reserve.

I wouldn’t describe my youth as happy. In fact, looking back it was a very tumultuous time filled with angst and bad choices. My twenties were mainly a dark depression that to this day still tugs at me from the shadows. When my wife asked me that question I had an answer.

Jewell Lund takes on the crux of Fine Jade, Castle Valley.
Jewell Lund takes on the crux of Fine Jade, Castle Valley.

“You know that feeling when you’re climbing and you’re afraid but somehow you keep climbing and push through that fear? You’re still nervous, and still struggling, but for some reason you’re slightly removed from the situation? Like you’re seeing yourself from the outside? Aware of the acute nature of the situation; a small human dangling on a big cliff in the middle of a forest, in the western US, on the planet Earth, within the Milky Way, somewhere in a fold of the Universe?”

My wife shuffled ahead entering a stand of snow flocked spruce trees.

“Okay, it doesn’t have to be climbing. It can be skiing in the backcountry, hiking, running, yoga, sailing… any activity, anywhere outside. I’m talking about those moments where, while still being present, you see a bigger picture of everything and your place within it.”

Zach Grant snowboarding deep in the Wasatch Mountains.
Zach Grant snowboarding deep in the Wasatch Mountains.

One kick turn after the other we switched-backed up a ridge passing the gnarled and twisted bodies of dead limber pines.

“It doesn’t even have to be outside, but for me, during my youth and after my parents’ death I found these profound moments occurred out in the wild… It’s not necessarily about how hard, how fast, whether I was first or whatever. All that stuff is great, but it’s much more rewarding to have these moments to connect with each other, other people. What’s the point if it’s not shared?”

Jenny Powers chasing the sun along the crest of the Wasatch Range.
Jenny Powers chasing the sun along the crest of the Wasatch Range.

At the crest we quickly transitioned; skins ripped from skis, jackets, gloves and goggles on, we were ready to ski.

Hans Koomen navigates the Bay of Biscay on the Anne Margaretha.
Hans Koomen navigates the Bay of Biscay on the Anne Margaretha.

“Do you remember the bent aspen tree we walked though down below? How the snow was still hanging onto it?” I asked.

She smiled, “It was beautiful… and amazing!”

Caroline Gleich on the summit of Reids Peak, Uintah Mountains.
Caroline Gleich on the summit of Reids Peak, Uintah Mountains.

My passion is sharing the outdoor life.

 

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.