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

 

New season

Dane Cronin takes in the view from Captn Ahab Trail, Moab, Utah.
Dane Cronin takes in the view from Captn Ahab Trail, Moab, Utah.

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.

Ben Duke mountain biking Captn Ahab trail, Moab, Utah.
Ben Duke mountain biking Captn Ahab trail, Moab, Utah.

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.

Dane Cronin riding HyMasa Trail, Moab, Utah.
Dane Cronin riding HyMasa Trail, Moab, Utah.

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.

Snack time at the Slick Rock Trailhead. Dane Cronin and Ben Duke take a break between rides.
Snack time at the Slick Rock Trailhead. Dane Cronin and Ben Duke take a break between rides.
Ben Duke riding near Castle Valley, Utah.
Ben Duke riding near Castle Valley, Utah.

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.

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.

The Quiet Man

This profile appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of the Utah Adventure Journal

 

Salt Lake City, Utah September 2013   Chris Thomas stood awkwardly in the kitchen of his modest Sugarhouse home. “Okay,” he told me, “I’ll just do this in brackets.” He straightened his lean frame, turned his dark eyes and tilted his pronounced chin to the left. Moving his gaze toward me in small increments I snapped away with my camera. He once told me he was 5’10”, but the fact that I’m boosted up on a bar stool to be at eyelevel makes me think he’s closer to six feet. We’d been at this for over an hour and he was only now beginning to relax. He’d just returned to Salt Lake after winning the 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell climbing competition in Arkansas. At the comp he’d teamed up with Hayden Kennedy and together they’d broken records set by big names such as Tommy Caldwell, Alex Honnold and Sonnie Trotter. Hayden and he had climbed a combined 402 routes, 201 each, up to 5.12 in difficulty. And although his hands were too sore to make a fist they were able to hold beer. This helped Chris ease into one of his least favorite subjects; himself.larevalo_cthomas_0913_0004

I first met Chris in the Fall of 2004 just months after he had moved to Salt Lake City from Howard County, Maryland. At the age of 21 he had already climbed 5.13, established ice routes up to WI-6, done first ascents on traditional mixed routes and been on multiple trips to Alaska and Peru, but you wouldn’t have known it. He didn’t talk much about what he had done and only did when he was asked and even then he usually found a way to flip the focus back to the person who asked.

In the nine years since moving west, Chris has quietly continued his journey by free climbing El Capitan, red pointing 5.14, authoring more ice and mixed routes and establishing hard new routes locally as well as abroad. All this and more, yet hardly anyone has ever heard of him. After a few more photos in his kitchen I set the camera down. Somewhat relieved to no longer have a lens in his face, Chris took another swig from a rapidly emptying glass of beer and braced for the onslaught of questions.

 

Beginnings   Chris was raised in Columbia, Maryland and had what he described the typical suburban childhood along with his younger brother Jon. Chris explained that he did participate in organized sports, but didn’t excel at any until he found hockey. Then for a few years it was hockey 24/7. So passionate about the sport that at thirteen years old he developed his own training regiment and followed it without anyone keeping track.

“Hockey was an obsession that was almost as strong as climbing, but after my first taste of the vertical I knew there was no going back.”

His mother, Brenda Hawkins, recalled that he was fifteen when he told her he didn’t want to play hockey anymore. She was floored. Hockey in Maryland was not a mainstream sport. Practices and games occurred at outrageous hours of the night and morning, so when Chris first took an interest in the game Brenda had been cautious. But once she saw how good and graceful he was on the ice her reticence evaporated and the entire family jumped on board. When Chris came to his mother with a lengthy argument, where he compared all the negatives for hockey against the positive attributes for climbing, she could see that Chris had made up his mind.

After quitting hockey the next hurdle Chris faced was not having a car. Maryland doesn’t have a lot climbing to offer so in order to climb outside he had to rely on older partners with vehicles. Brenda insisted on meeting his partners and getting their license plate numbers before letting them take her son to the backwoods of the East, but Chris endured and these road trips paid off. It was during these weekends to Seneca Rocks, the Gunks, the Adirondacks and New River Gorge and with these folks that Chris developed a huge respect for ground up ethics and a solid mental reserve for his own climbing.

“All my climbing partners were much older. For them climbing was about preserving the adventure… where style was more important than the climb itself.”

Another trip he called a turning point was to the Tetons as a teenager. Chris proposed that his parents buy him a plane ticket to Jackson, Wyoming as a high school graduation present. Brenda recalled that she was initially opposed to the idea, but Chris was persistent. He researched, compiled logistics and countered any negative aspect of the trip until his parents agreed. Living out of the Climber’s Ranch that summer Chris was able to climb with a few friends, but mainly soloed around.

“Coming from Maryland the routes in the Tetons were wild… being alone, scared and hanging out on ledges in the Tetons solidified my love of solitude and wild places.

 

Ice   A ghostly image of Cerro Torre in a magazine motivated Chris to ice climb. Once he had access to a car he spent many winter weekends in the Adirondacks. A typical trip to the ‘Dacks involved an eight to ten hour drive from Columbia, Friday after work, climbing as much as possible Saturday and Sunday, then rallying home to make a Monday shift. While staying at the Bivy, a hostel for ice climbers in Keene, New York, Chris fell in with a great crew of climbers. Among them was Will Mayo.Riding the ice wave.

New Years day 2004, less than 24 hours after having first met, Chris and Will agreed to go work on a standing mixed project. The climb was a massive ice dagger hanging off the lip of a giant roof with a finger to fist size crack leading directly to the ice. Both Chris and Will took a lap on the crux pitch, hanging to work out the gear and tool placements. Feeling good Chris decided to give it a red point go.

“In classic Ian Boyer style (Ian was an east coast climber who Chris had climbed with in the ‘Dacks), I went up “bare handed and bloody knuckled.” Chris related, “Ian always said that cold hands would help keep you awake, alert and hungry, and without gloves you’d have better dexterity and get less pumped.” Chris went into the zone, tuning out his fear, and committed to the climb. He gave the rock section a huge effort and was surprised to find himself staring at the dagger of ice. “I battled from the overhanging rock onto the dagger.  I had an ice screw or two, but there was no stopping to place them.” He was told afterward that he got pretty “Neanderthal” by screaming, swearing, and chanting. Will recalled it as being, “the most impressive lead I have ever witnessed.” After topping out he noticed blood on the snow. His knuckles had been pulverized, but he was too amped to feel the pain. “The Fecalator”, M-10, is the most difficult traditionally protected mixed climb in North America.

 

Graduation   When Chris decided to live in Utah his mother knew he wouldn’t be moving back. Chris knew it as well. Climbing in the east involved tons of travel. In Salt Lake City he found rock/ice/mountains/skiing all within minutes of his front door. In the west Chris continued to execute trips in the states and around the globe.

In 2009 he returned to the Ruth Gorge of Alaska for a forth time to complete the goal of climbing Mt. Huntington. He along with fellow Salt Laker, Rick Vance, did the Harvard route in a 30-hour push. Afterward they spent one day drinking whiskey in celebration of their achievement then the next day, went out and put up a new route on Mt. Huntington named “Community College Couloir” M-8, WI-5.Chris Thomas mixes it up behind the Donorcicle, Joes Valley, Utah.

Another benchmark for Chris happened last January. Taking advantage of stable weather in Argentina, Chris flew to Patagonia. Within hours of arriving to Chalten he was on the move. He and Jonathan Shaeffer climbed the “Red Pillar” on Aguja Mermoz in a three day round trip. Back in Chalten the forecast called for continued stable weather so after a few hours of rest he headed back out. This time, with Ben Ditto as his partner, they climbed to the summit of Cerro Torre via the “Ferrari Route”.

“Climbing the final pitch to the summit of Cerro Torre… recalling the photo from the magazine… it felt like I had finished my apprenticeship.”

That wasn’t enough for Chris. Still in the region for a few more days and with a reasonable forecast, Chris teamed up with Whit Magro. Knowing the weather window was closing down they decided on a single push effort for the “Southeast Ridge” of Fitz Roy. Most parties take five days round trip, they planned for two. Their gear was one 8mm rope, a set of cams, one pair of crampons, an ice tool, tiblocs for ascending and no ice screws. The approach went well, but the climbing was tiring. The leader wound up climbing with a small pack while the second jugged with the full pack. Within two pitches of jugging they had torn the sheath of their rope. Twelve pitches later they hit another snag. The lower angled rock pitches near the summit were now full on WI-4, but they pushed on. Two pitches of ice later and they lost their only tool, but somehow continued. Leading out 150 feet above a sketchy belay anchor on low angled ice with no ax, no screws and no chance of rock protection, the crampon on Chris’ right boot popped off the sole and dangled useless, attached only by the webbing.

“Looking at a 300’ fall onto a marginal belay, I was certain I was going to kill us both.” Chris related. Frozen in time his left calf cramped then seized. Riding endless waves of emotions he screamed then cried, but eventually pulled himself together. Using a cam he chipped a hold into the ice then took the dangling crampon and used it as an ice tool for his right hand. He hopped his left foot, bit by bit, onto the hold. From there he was able to reattach the crampon and move to a band of rock and relative safety. Having been on the move for more than 30 straight hours, the weather deteriorating around them and surviving this episode, there was no need for a discussion. Less than 200 feet below the summit of Fitz Roy they retreated, lucky to be alive.

 

Motivation   In his kitchen that night I asked what was next, thinking that his hunger for adventure may have been sated. It wasn’t. He spoke about returning to Patagonia this coming season, a possible spring trip to Morocco, “but for now a little sport climbing in Spain”.

In a follow up to the interview I asked this determined, modest, loyal, climber’s climber, why? What drove him to push his limits? This is a paraphrased response from an email I received.

“The rewards (of climbing) are impossible to quantify. They are illogical. They don’t make us rich or famous. As an animal-like creature pursuing its basic needs to survive, these activities are extremely counterproductive, but I can’t help myself (and neither can you, or any of our friends for that matter).

If it weren’t climbing it would be something else. Some people find their purpose in career, politics, family and religion. I’ve never found a better way than in climbing.  If I hadn’t stumbled across this crazy sport and lifestyle, who knows what would have been?  But I can say with certainty that whatever else it may have been it would have just as much energy, love and focus thrown at it.  In other words, the climbing isn’t the essential part, it’s just the outlet…  And a goddamn good one.”

Am I a Skier?

“Oh, you’re that climbing photographer,” is the usual response I get when I meet skiers for the first time. I try to explain that I am a skier, climber, runner, biker, father, husband, brother, son, etc. who takes photographs, but it tends to get lost in the exchange.Icefall Lodge february 2014.

Saturday morning March 1st came clear and cold. The thermometer read -26 Celsius. My nose hairs froze and the wind stung my cheeks on the walk from the small bunkhouse to the main hut at Icefall Lodge. Changing shoes I heard the crackle of wood burning in the stove. Up to the dinning room and kitchen the smell of coffee made me smile. It was the eighth and final morning at the lodge. The week had comprised of perfect weather, non-stop skiing and unbelievable company. Coming to an end the long days, incredible scenery and constant laughter made an impression on me.larevalo_bcski6_0214_0005

After breakfast I sat at the table sniveling about what to do this final morning. I had originally thought I’d pack then relax until the helicopter arrived, but another bluebird day was tugging at my sleeve. The next question was, if I did ski would I bring the DSLR? For seven days I had carried it with me and shot non-stop and more. If I didn’t bring it would I miss the ultimate shot? As I voiced my inner struggle Pierre, the senior guide for our trip, looked at me. “What’s the problem? Let’s just go skiing.” The big camera would stay behind. Maybe today I would actually be a skier.larevalo_bcski6_0214_0069

As a group of four, Pierre, John, Tina and I, we made our way toward a ridge connecting Kemmel Mountain with La Clyte Mountain. We were gunning to drop into one of the small chutes off of the dividing Espresso Ridge, dubbed the Espresso Shots. I struggled to regulate my temperature. The March sun was strong, but any part of the body not in its direct rays frosted over. Up to Troll Pass the wind picked up. With no shelter we quickly bundled up and glanced north toward the skiing terrain that is the Canadian Rockies. My toes went numb immediately (a side effect from receiving second degree frost bite in the Teton’s in January is that they are now more susceptible). Heavy coat on, balaclava, heavy gloves and hood up, I marched in place willing the blood back to my toes. Tina brought up the rear and we all chipped in to get her wrapped up. Skis were strapped to our packs and we stomped on.

John gives me a frosty smile.
John gives me a frosty smile.

Constant movement was the only thing that would keep the chill at bay. Gusts of wind came so swift and cold they would steal your breath. I was worried about Tina. I think we all were. We continued up the sun-crusted ridge, booting easily for most and wallowing at times. Just below the ridge’s crest Pierre led us into a col and out of the wind. Tina’s hands had gone numb. I ripped open and shook warmers then handed them to her while she snacked on candy that John provided. Things were looking good… Just cold. We unloaded skis from our packs and got ready.

John, Tina and Pierre head up the ridge.
John, Tina and Pierre head up the ridge.

Pierre slid across the crusted south-facing slope to gain access to the main Espresso Shot. Tina slowly inched her way to Pierre. John and I exchanged a look. One false move would result in a slide for life into the Kemmel Basin. I pushed the negative thought away. Soon she was onto softer snow and standing next to Pierre.

Tina gets ready for her morning cup of espresso.
Tina gets ready for her morning cup of espresso.

Into the chute Pierre cut the top of the shot then skied down and out of sight. Tina followed linking strong alpine turns on her telemark skis. John offered for me to go, but I declined. He smiled then dropped out of view for a moment then appeared lower carving big turns into Seduction Drainage. It was then my turn.

Seven days of sidestepping and getting into position for the photos were behind me. No camera, no reason to hold back. I doubled checked my boots, buckled down, ski mode then synched the straps on my pack. I looked back to Icefall Peak, the Rostrum, Mount Arras, Kemmel and then over to La Clyte. A week in this place was not enough time.

I leaned forward rolling into the chute. Crust gave way to wind affected snow and soon creamy, consolidated powder. I let my skis respond to the slight drag and angle. Linking one wide turn to another I was clear of the chute and onto the apron. The skis opened up as I eased off the brakes. Floating right then eventually left I glided effortlessly over the Canadian snow. Down to John and Pierre we waited for Tina who gave us a Nordic-style finish by falling at our feet completely exhausted. Pierre was smiling, John was smiling, Tina was smiling and so was I.  Smack dab in the center of perfect ski country we all were flying high. And for a brief moment I really did feel like a skier.

Pierre, Tina and John beneath the Espresso Shots.
Pierre, Tina and John beneath the Espresso Shots.