It’s not unusual for me to stay in complete ski-mode well into the month of May, but this year was different. By April I was beginning to feel stale on the creative front and the fact that we had such a low snow year in the Wasatch Mountains I was looking for something new to focus on. So when my friend and fellow photographer Dane Cronin invited me down to Moab, Utah for a long weekend to create a batch of new biking imagery I didn’t even have to ask about the details, I was in.
I waved farewell to wintery peaks of granite, limestone and shale and said hello to towers, walls and buttes of sandstone. Gone were the snow-covered slopes and glades of pine. They were replaced by dirt, water, and rock. Instead of sliding over a frozen surface we pedaled our knobby tires over waves of stone, along narrow trails and through rust colored talus cones peppered by twisted junipers and the faded green of sage. All beneath a tumultuous sky.
Halfway though our third day, while waiting out a slight drizzle, I noted the vibrancy of the blooming cacti, penstemons and paintbrush opening their petals to the drops of rain. Spring had brought a new season of growth to the desert and to me as well.
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.
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.
“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.”
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?”
At the crest we quickly transitioned; skins ripped from skis, jackets, gloves and goggles on, we were ready to ski.
“Do you remember the bent aspen tree we walked though down below? How the snow was still hanging onto it?” I asked.
A few months ago I had a great conversation with a friend of mine who happened to be a photo editor. I was looking for feedback and he was willing to help. One nugget of wisdom he gave regarding climbing photography was not to shoot the easy stuff. It was something about not sending him images from Indian Creek. He said, “People shoot it because it’s easy,” or close to that. I believe the editor was implying that he sees tons of shots from the Creek and that if an image of a single pitch route from the area had a chance at being used it had better stand out otherwise it would be swimming is a sea of similar photos.
This is kind of a subjective. I have peers who believe fixing a line and jugging it at any crag is too much work. Whether it’s up the talus cone in the Creek or at your local roadside crag they would consider it more effort than it’s worth. I take the stance that it doesn’t take too much energy to set up a fixed line for single pitch routes, but do believe if you don’t practice shooting “easy” climbing shots now you’ll be unprepared when you go out to get the harder ones.
The first images I took from a fixed rope didn’t turn out. In fact they are totally forgettable. In the beginning I was so excited to be shooting from above and so focused on the mechanics of ascending and descending that I let composition and peak action fly out the window. I quickly realized that if I were going to be any good at this I would have to put some thought into it.
I started by asking questions before I left the ground. Has this route been photographed before? (As a rule I try not to shoot routes that I have seen photos of, but make exceptions from time to time.) Are there interesting angles to shoot from the ground? Does the route favor one side of the climber or the other? How’s the light? Where’s it coming from? How’s the background? Will it be distracting or will it add something? What color is the rock in relation to the climber? Will they stand out enough? The next lesson learned was that shooting from a line fixed to the anchors of the route you are shooting doesn’t (most of the time) really work. There’s a lot of talk about the dreaded butt shoot, but have you heard about the crown-of-the-head shot? There’s nothing more disappointing after you have set up your line and jugged repeatedly to only come home with countless images of faceless climbers. Yes, one of these shots might be interesting, but a whole day of shooting these will bum you out. Getting to the side, clipping a bolt, placing gear and using the anchors of the route next to it or even further seem to do the trick.
Practice, practice, practice on the easy shots translated well when the shots became harder. I recall shooting a route in Death Canyon. Our party of three climbed up five or six pitches before I set up my line. As I weighted the equalized anchor of cams and lowered out over a 1000 feet of air I was happy to have spent so much time shooting the “easy” stuff. It may not be the best shot, but I am certain I have never seen this image before…
What do you think the difference between an easy and hard image is?
Last week I had the opportunity to work with my friend and photographer Dane Cronin. We were shooting mountain bike athletes riding their bike sponsor’s new 2015 line. It was a great experience in which everyone involved learned a great deal. Sometime in the week Dane and I began comparing the experience to ski photography. He was in the camp that skiing was easier to shoot. I asserted they might be about the same, maybe skiing slightly more difficult. There are definite similarities. What do you think?
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.
“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.
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 waybehind.
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.
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.
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.
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 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