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.

Damn toes.

larevalo_moran14_0114_0026I have strange feet. Morton’s toe, sixth toe, fat toes, and eeee width. Usually I don’t notice them, but when it comes to putting them in climbing shoes, boots and ski boots I am well aware of them and have tried to take care. This past January I did a terrible job.

larevalo_moran14_0114_0055It was during an outing in the Tetons. We hoped to snag the first winter ascent of the Triple Glacier Route on the north side of Mt Moran. On day one our group skied across Jackson Lake and climbed up to a camp on the north shoulder. No feet problems.

larevalo_moran14_0114_0082The second day we woke to fierce winds and sub-zero temperatures (in Jackson they reported -20). Bundled to the max we made our way to the Triple Glaciers, spied a possible path from the glacier, up the snow tongue to a section of rock that connected to the upper snowfields. If we could make it there we hoped to make it to the summit. Above the glacier we wallowed in waist deep faceted snow in a 50-degree couloir. We searched for protection and positive edges in the glacially polished rock next to the couloir, but never found any. The guidebook had described the rock as unpleasant. After some back and forth and up and down, we chose to retreat. So much standing around and my toes had gone numb.

larevalo_moran14_0114_0094Going up had been relatively easy, but for my friend from California, going down was a bit more daunting. He deliberately set each of his limbs in the sugary slope. Left foot, right foot, left ice ax and right. I marched in place trying to will the blood back to my toes and spoke to him calmly about sunshine and women. I didn’t want him to rush. An accident up there was out of the question.

larevalo_moran14_0114_0140Eventually we were back on the glacier, moving, blood pumping and out of harms way. In the tent I found my toes to be white and insensitive. The next morning the big toe of my right foot was swollen. I gritted my teeth and stuffed my foot into my boot. There was only one way back to the car so I grinned and went down. It hurt.

larevalo_moran14_0114_0206The following night, in a warm bed, I didn’t sleep. My toes throbbed. Closer inspection revealed a blister beneath my big toe nail and two pea-sized white spots that eventually turned black. The rest of the toes were still numb despite being warm to the touch. This was not happiness.

Three months after the fact I finally lost the nail on my big toe and have regained sensation in all my toes. My feet may be weird, but I hope they stick around.Bare feet after a season in ski boots.

One big turkey. Why do you do things?

March 2011, Grand Teton National Park

Under a grey sky and through intermittent snow flurries, Charlie and I skinned up to and past the top of 25-Short, a 2,200-foot glade of pines on the Buck Mountain Massif. Our plan is to ski into the south fork of Avalanche Canyon via Turkey Chute then gain the east ridge of Mount Wister, 11,490 feet, skin to the summit, then drop down the north fork.

Charlie drops into Turkey Chute.

 

Charlie goes first pausing above a rollover then slices right and down to a corner and signals that he is safe. Spooning his tracks, I head toward the rollover struggling with the varied consistency of the snow. Instead of imitating his cut I make an aggressive hockey-stop at the crest of its steepness. My stomach goes sour. A glance uphill confirms that the surrounding snow is moving. As my legs are swept from under I initiate an abbreviated swim stroke. Arms paddling backwards, legs struggling against the anchors of my skis, the realization of danger causes time to slow down. In this acute moment several random thoughts pop into my head.

Jacki, my wife, is going to be pissed.

Is the snow in the Teton’s better than the snow in the Wasatch?

Will I ever stop making mistakes?

Is skiing in the backcountry worth the risk?

In an attempt to reach my boot I stop treading snow with one arm. It’s a mistake. My body succumbs to the flowing snow. As my world fills with white I have one more thought about the previous fifteen seconds:

Well Louie, that wasn’t the smartest thing you’ve ever done.

Despite all of the days digging pits, fondling snow, kicking cornices, cutting slopes, negotiating terrain and witnessing slides, I had ignored the warnings. Today’s forecast called for possible slabs, sixteen inches deep, in wind-loaded terrain. While skinning out of the forest of pines the winds had been apparent, we could see snow loading in the chute and it was steep. To this point in the slide my reaction was not panic. I was more concerned with adjusting my turns to the heavy snow then about causing a slide. Everything behaved predictably and I deserved to go with it.

Is my wife really going to be pissed? Yes, but only if I don’t come home.

Returning from Waterfalls Canyon

Three years ago Charlie, Anna and I tried to pull off another escapade in the Teton’s.  Our plan, to cross Jackson Lake, set up camp then climb the ice formations in Waterfalls Canyon, was doomed from the word go.

We arrived late to our launching point, wasted time rigging sleds, crossed the lake and set up camp during a bluebird day.  Approaching the first waterfall the sun became oppressive. Wet avalanches on the south-facing walls began to release.  Stopped at a point that would take us beneath a slope above the first waterfall, which led to the second, we evaluated our options.

The terrain left of the waterfall was cliffs and to the right and above was a craggy outcropping of rock.  The only path for us to cross was a small zone with potential for danger.  The slides we had seen so far were small, but still large enough to take you for a ride.  If one were to happen near the waterfall you could easily be swept over, the consequences being tragic.

I didn’t like it.  Charlie and Anna were more optimistic and continued without me.  Anna went first and then after 50 yards Charlie followed.  Not far into that zone snow poured off the crag above, crashed onto the slope and triggered a slide.  I hollered, Charlie froze and Anna screamed for direction.

The slide wasn’t fast, but there was no time to retreat. Snow fanned out, gained momentum and scooped Anna up.  She fought to stay on her feet, but the heavy wave forced her back and when it stopped, only yards from Charlie, her legs and right arm were cemented in the debris. After Charlie helped extract Anna we retreated a safe distance down canyon to watch nature at work.  That afternoon we counted over twenty slides.

Today in Turkey Chute my white moving world stopped. The slide continued without me. It funneled and ran a few hundred feet more. Facing into the slope, legs buried to the thighs and left arm up to the bicep, I yelled to Charlie.

You’re one lucky dog. Time to wake up!

Is the snow in the Teton’s better than the Wasatch? Not a chance, but it’s good enough.

We yo-yoed down the remainder of the chute. From its base we put in a track up Avalanche Canyon through shin-deep powder over a spongy base. Guessing, from within the roiling clouds and snow around us, at which south facing couloir would lead us to the east shoulder of Wister Peak, we skinned and booted 1500 feet up. Only slightly relieved to be traveling on a different aspect that wouldn’t be prone to slabs as deep as the one from earlier, I noted the wind, snow and occasional break in clouds that let in the heat of the March sun. I told myself to read the signs and make decisions constantly with regard to our immediate situation. The limited visibility to the surrounding grandeur of the Teton’s put my confidence low.

Skiing into the clouds, Jacki exits via the Little Cottonwood side.

Making progress upward I recalled my first brush with a slide in the Wasatch Mountains. Years ago with a stable snow pack and after several laps in Cardiff Fork, we chose to exit south to Alta. The weather in the Big Cottonwood Canyon side had been calm and sunny with only a few clouds along the ridges, on the Little Cottonwood Canyon side we were greeted with localized snow flurries and erratic winds. Swirling clouds had our visibility jumping 2000 feet to the road to no more than ten feet in front of us. Suspecting there might be loading on the face I ski-cut the slope releasing a slab ten inches deep. Confident after skiing stable lines all day the angle of my line was low. The cracking snow grabbed the tails of my skis and forced me back. I tried to step out of the moving mass, but my feet went out from under. Luckily, that’s as far as I went. The crown was 70 feet wide and wrapped around the ridge crossing aspects. Through a window in the clouds we saw that the slide had swept the face, spread wider and stopped near the highway.

Analyzing the incident at home I assumed the weather had been the same to the south as it had been on the north more sheltered side, then executed a slow ski-cut and underestimated the reaction it would produce. The slide easily could’ve taken me through trees, over rocky bluffs and by the end buried me. Up to this point in my experience I had set off several slides by cuts and cornice drops, but had always managed to feel safe. That day was a step backward. Today it seems as if I’ve started over.

Taking in the view from the ridge.

Arriving at the east ridge of Wister, Charlie and I discover an error in our navigation. We are one couloir to the east too many. An exposed ridge between the few hundred feet to the summit halts our progress. The clouds have thinned allowing views of Nez Perce, Cloudveil and South Teton. To the west Mt. Wister’s northeast side looks enticingly scary. Even if we had climbed the correct couloir I’m not sure I would’ve skied it. Fresh snow, constant wind and a brush with a slide have me leaning toward self-preservation. Regardless, it’s breathtaking.

Teton stone emerges from the pristine snow to illuminate future winter objectives. Wister is added to an ever-growing list of things to ski, but today is not the day.

Will I ever stop making mistakes? Not likely, but I’d like to think that with every one of them I’m learning and getting closer to being that guy who is still getting out when he’s 80.

On our way to the ridge we noted cracking in the snow. They were shallow and short, located in a flared section 300 feet below as well as in the final feet leading to the ridge. From a safe observation point on the ridge I watch Charlie cut the top 40 feet flushing a slab of snow down. It doesn’t run far and is not very wide. Charlie continues and takes refuge behind a buttress of rock.

Wide awake, I follow his tracks then pass. I cut the flared section quickly and stop out of harms way. From the tracks a narrow soft slab releases, rapidly entrains more snow and runs its course 200 feet below. Not enough to bury a skier, but enough to knock you off your feet. Charlie passes safely, I wait for his signal then carve my way out of the chute and onto the lower angles below.

Our failed attempt to ski Wister doesn’t feel bad after skiing safely from the couloir and into the hero snow of Avalanche Canyon.

Is it worth the risk? Is it worth seeing dramatic scenery of old and new places filled with snow? Or traveling among gnarled conifers that stand in contrast? What about wobbling in ski boots with the musty smell of lichen in the air as you transition from the forgiving snow to the alpine rock. How about feeling the sun warm your face after emerging from a shadowy climb? Is it worth failing to obtain your objective only to keep coming back for more? And what about the fresh snow under foot while gliding down long runs in chutes, on faces and through glades? Do these things equalize and balance the risk?

The northeast aspect of Mt. Wister.

I don’t know, but they make me happy.