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.

Threadbare Part 1of 3

This was first published in the Utah Adventure Journal Summer 2012

 

I never apologized to my dad before he passed away in August 1997. To say we didn’t get along during my teenage years would be putting it lightly. Before our troubles began, I recall working together on a project. Clumsily, I positioned a nut at the end of a bolt and started torqueing it down with a wrench. He noticed my shaking arms and stern face.

“Luis, stop! Don’t force it. Never force anything.” Being from Peru he spoke English precisely, but with a heavy accent. Reversing the nut with his fingers, he seated it correctly and signaled for me to try again. It tightened with ease.

This past June a weekend family trip to the City of Rocks was whittled down to my stepdaughter and me when my wife and stepson stayed home for an impromptu soccer tournament. On a Friday afternoon Elizabeth and I left Salt Lake City. Barely across the Idaho border we stopped on Strevell Road beneath the Raft River Mountains. I snapped photographs of abandoned ranch buildings while Elizabeth darted back and forth screaming, trying to avoid swarming mosquitoes. Down the road I spotted an eagle perched on a telephone pole. Pulling over I grabbed the camera.

“Do you think it will fly?” As we walked toward the pole it spread its wings and swooped down between the wires. A few flaps and it soared through the evening air.

“Whoa… That’s huge!” Elizabeth blurted. I had to agree.

 

arevalo_cityjosie1_0611_0045

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was eleven the first time I climbed. A rope, anchored to a tree 50 feet up a very low angle bluff, served as the route. I had joined my older sister for her senior spring break in the mid 80’s and for a few days I ran about the deserts of southern Utah with a diverse collection of teenagers. With one VW bus and one Trans-Am, the group of seven wisped me from the hoodoos of Goblin Valley, the radical entrada formations of Arches, the endless vistas at Dead Horse Point and to the quiet beauty of Canyonlands. One of the teenagers explained to the rest how he had rappelled off a feature in a hidden corridor of Goblin Valley. I was intrigued.

The following evening we pulled off Highway 191 south of Moab and cruised along the rolling plains beneath the dark Abajo Mountains. After passing vacant cattle buildings the road began to descend, winding its way into faded sandstone. Our destination was Newspaper Rock and for a moment I was entranced by the collage of images scratched into the vanished rock, but 50 feet to the right the climber of our group had rigged a top rope by using a juniper growing out of the Navajo sandstone. When he asked if anyone wanted to climb I jumped at the opportunity. Wearing a pair of Tough Skins with holes in the knees, a Cheerios Kid T-shirt and Payless running shoes, I clambered quickly up the rock. Sitting back, weighting the rope and lowering were the hardest parts.

Regardless of its difficulty, the hook was set. From then on my free time was devoted to the rock. Since I didn’t have any real equipment the majority of it was spent soloing at fourth and easy fifth class crags in the Wasatch Mountains. Only on occasion was I lucky enough to hook up with a friend’s older brother and actually climb on a rope.

During those rope free days I developed an identity. The uncertainty of being on the rock without any protection cut through all my insecurities. In moments of doubt, when I was sure my forearms would give into the building pump and my fingers would open involuntarily, I could visualize the fall. It would be quiet at first, then my body, striking a ledge below, would spin wildly out of control until the ground suddenly stopped it, broken beyond repair. These thoughts paralyzed me. The flashes were terrifying to the point that I would swear to never climb again until the day I discovered I was the only solution. Left or right, up or down, my fate was in my hands. Each solo outing on the rock began to feed my confidence and character. At home things were different.

larevalo_Thtroshdwsfj_0612_0329

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Do not speak to me like that. Have your mother cut your hair. Boys do not wear earrings. Sunday is for worship. You will obey.” Questions were not tolerated when my dad laid out his directives. Step outside his line and you were forced back in.

When I was twelve he let it slip that he was listening in on my phone calls. He explained that in his house it was his right to do so. In search of privacy hours were spent away. On a number of days he’d have to drag me home in order to spend time with the family. This led to more time away and more time in the Wasatch.

Once, while he demanded that I cut my hair, he snapped and wrestled me to the ground.

“Take that thing out!” He screamed while tearing at my earring. My older brother intervened and afterward, I added two more piercings to spite him. This cycle continued into high school. He would demand and I would refuse. Taking steps in the opposite direction of what he wanted seemed the best reaction. Each exchange made it easier to stay away and hanging with all the kids he didn’t want me to be with became easy.

It was with these friends I discovered yet another identity. Booze, Speed, Weed, Hash, Mushrooms, Acid, Coke, etc.; we dabbled with it all and it all blew my mind. At first, I got high occasionally, then weekly and, eventually, daily. Faster than you’d think, the substances took over. I found myself searching the canyons near Salt Lake for places to get high instead of places to climb. Drifting from one friend’s house to another I’d stay away from home for days never contacting my parents. Nights were spent in nearby canyons and glens, hidden among the granite or quartzite boulders.

We partied until it wasn’t fun any more. There were Speed and LSD binges so intense I would smoke pot or drink just to keep the edge off. These long highs always ended with severe lows, where the guilt and shame of what I was becoming pushed me to stay away even longer, which led to getting high again. Several arrests and court appearances along with slipping academics labeled me a delinquent. Wanting to climb was replaced by the urge to get high. The soothing canyons of the Wasatch that had given me some much went the same way the best friend you had in grade school, ignored and mostly forgotten. Trapped in a cycle of hormones and mind-altering chemicals, I began to lash out at everything and everyone. I wanted to stop, but didn’t know how.

 

Part 2 will be published next week.

copyright louis arevalo 2012