Category Archives: Recreation & Adventure

Outdoor Recreationists, the ranchers of tomorrow?

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Photo credit: Mattias Fredriksson, Redbull.com

Most recreationists who are even slightly aware of land management issues on public lands are familiar with the Bundys and their stand against the government. It is safe to say that most think the Bundys are mistaken in their approach to public lands. It is equally safe to say that none would put themselves in the same category as the Bundys. Recently; however, the House Committee on Natural Resources voted to amend the Wilderness Act to allow bicycles in wilderness areas at the behest of some in the mountain biking community.

Ted Stoll, founder and executive director of the California-based Sustainable Trails Coalition, who is the author of this bill, has been seeking out help from the very representatives actively trying to take public lands – and why wouldn’t he go to the representatives who value wilderness areas the least? While Stoll and his supporters followed the legislative process and did it the legal way, in contrast to how the Bundys have been doing it, their efforts to mine the ground of protected wilderness landscapes, whether they intended it or not, are providing the first in-roads for opportunists seeking similar access with designs of their own.

In 1960 Wallace Stegner wrote what has come to be known as The Wilderness Letter. It was written to the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission regarding recreation in wilderness. In it he states that recreation has no more to do with wilderness than it does with churches or with the “American Dream” and argued against recreation in wilderness areas because the idea of wild places existing was more valuable than peoples’ access to recreational experiences in them.

StegnerHe went on to explain how the wild landscape of our country built and forged our national character making us who we are, giving us quiet and solitude from the industrial and technological world we created, and that wilderness, however impractical to some, provides blessings of a spiritual kind to those who enter, and can calm those who simply contemplate it.

Our national identity and character is without question linked to the land. The expansion westward shaped the people of this Nation as surely as the Revolution did; it’s in our blood to roam and get caught up in the vast landscape of our country. People not born here but who choose the United States as home can sense it and feel and immerse themselves in it as well.

Stegner said, “The American experience has been the confrontation by old peoples and cultures of a world as new as if it had just risen from the sea. That gave us our hope and our excitement, and the hope and excitement can be passed on to newer Americans, Americans who never saw any phase of the frontier. But only so long as we keep the remainder of our wild as a reserve and a promise–a sort of wilderness bank.”

We should not forget our history or the untamed land from which it grew; and in remembering, we should fight to preserve and protect it.

Our protection should come from a place of gratitude. We enjoy rights, access, and a standard of living built on the experiences and lessons learned from those who came before us. Few of us have lived in a place or time where we could not drink the water, breathe the air, or eat the food. That is a blessing many in the world do not have.

Few of us have witnessed rivers catch on fire due to pollution, or watched thousands die as industrial smog settled over a city, or have had to live with the slow death caused by contamination or living down wind or down river of noxious poisons or toxins. Few of us have seen wildlife die slow and agonizing deaths from lead poisoning or pesticides. This is because people before us learned that “progress” has costs and passed legislation and implemented regulations in order to protect life and a basic standard of living. But that doesn’t mean it will stay this way.

We could be the ones who let it slip away. It is on us now to decide if we will maintain our collective civic conscience that ensures benefits for the good of all of us. Either our hard work or our complicity will shape the lives of those who come after us. As Gifford Pinchot said 100 years ago about our generation, “Our duty is to the future. To ensure that people in 2010 have a country of clean water, healthy forests, and open land will require battle with certain groups, namely the alliance between business and politics.” What will the generation 100 years from now have to say of what we passed on to them?

Today we stand witness to decisions being made by an administration that is undoing much of the hard work done by American pioneers – much of it the manifestation of the alliance between business and politics. We are witnessing a heretofore unseen zeal to slash and burn through historic and unprecedented ethical human progress, progress that revealed our values and character to the world, and it is being done without a care. It is such an overwhelming attack that it will take generations to fix and recover from if we do nothing to stop it – and that work will have to be done by our children and their children.

The policies being dismantled, and the decisions being made today, foretells a future where we might very well live to see access to our public lands disappear. Situations like the water crisis in Flint, Michigan might become the norm. We could see more rivers filled with mine tailings as the EPA is gutted and made inept. We may witness the death of our national forests as climate change moves into fifth gear while we do nothing. Our children’s children may never get the chance to see wild salmon, or hear the howl of a wolf, or experience a starry night because of what we do or do not do right now. We may witness and experience poverty – not just in terms of wealth – the likes of which most of us have never seen, least of which could be the loss of experiencing the last remnants of our wild lands as they were 100 years ago.

According to the Department of Interior, more than 500 million people visit National Parks and Monuments, wildlife refuges, and recreational sites annually. Additionally, the Forest Service statistics shows 173 million visits annually to national forests and 300 million visits to scenic byways and other travel routes near national forest lands. This says nothing of the development around the edges of public lands for people who want to live nearby.

It is safe to say that recreationists are the biggest users of public lands. Because of that, we need to be hyper aware of our impacts on the ephemeral and fragile ideals public lands are founded on and endeavor to protect them. Otherwise, we will be no better than others using public lands for their own selfish ends.

Hells Backbone Grill

Hell’s Backbone Grill, Boulder, UT – On the edge of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, Photo credit TripAdvisor

We should also recognize the economic value our public lands provide to our governments, both national and local, and by proxy, the benefits those dollars bring to us. The Outdoor Recreation Association believes it will be the economy of the future. Right now tourism and recreation make up the fourth largest economic sector in the country with $887 billion in consumer spending annually, bringing in $65.3 billion in federal tax revenue, and $59.2 billion in state and local tax revenue. Where do those billions of dollars go? Defense spending? Funding NASA? Roads? Medicaid?

Furthermore, what these numbers do not show is the amount of revenue brought in by international tourists and recreationists. Those dollars are paid by non-citizens who through their spending directly benefit us in terms of tax revenues that we ourselves do not have to pay.

Some in the outdoor industry recognize this, but none are on the forefront of this battle more than Patagonia. If there is a growing movement, they are the tip of the spear. We are witnessing a David and Goliath show-down between Yvon Chouinard’s Patagonia and the Federal Government that has escalated into anti-Patagonia tweets from government officials and even an invitation to Yvon Chouinard to come to Washington by Rob Bishop (R-Utah).

Patagonia was the first to stand up to Utah politicians pursuing their anti-public lands agenda in a real way by pulling out of the Outdoor Retailer (OR) show when it was clear Utah representatives would not stop their crusade, causing many other companies to follow suit – eventually leading the OR show to another state.

Patagonia really committed itself when it publicly supported, funded, and advocated for the protection of Bears Ears National Monument. They did so for the climbing certainly, but they didn’t do it just for that – as is clear from the public statements the company has made. Patagonia is fighting for the continued experiences that can only be found in wild places– because as Stegner said, “If the abstract dream of human liberty and human dignity became, in America, something more than an abstract dream, mark it down at least partially to the fact that we were in subdued ways subdued by what we conquered.”

In other words, they are fighting for an American ideal – a uniquely American feeling, and the renewal that comes from immersing yourself in the land.

Yvon Chouinard young

Yvon Chouinard NA Wall, 1964 – Mountain Project

Chouinard is a living example of the combination between the American Dream and the American Spirit. He built a successful company out of the recreational sports he loves. He played in our wild places and helped pioneer gear for others to play in those wild places also – and now he is fighting for those places. Fishing, surfing, and climbing shaped the 70 year old man we see today. He is what Wallace Stegner described as, “…an American, insofar as he is new and different at all, is a civilized man who has renewed himself in the wild.”

Patagonia is an interesting paradox to behold because the outdoor retail industry has largely been an affable yet harmless group more interested in color combinations of zippers on puffy jackets than public policy, seemingly taking for granted the fight it took to get access to public lands that fuels much of their business; an industry “incapable of driving large-scale global change.” (The Big Business of Resist) Despite the potential, they hardly garnered a look from political players.

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OR Salt Lake City, 2015

When I attended the OR show in 2015 I went to listen to former Secretary of Interior, Bruce Babbitt. I shook my head as I looked around the room at the roughly 300 people in attendance making up a miniscule fraction of the 10,000 that showed up for the OR show. It represented an embarrassingly shallow lack of substance in an industry built on the substance of such individuals as Bruce Babbitt.

Here was a man who came from a ranching family in Northern Arizona who became a lawyer, a governor, and the Secretary of Interior who tackled some of the most complex and controversial issues in public land management resulting in long overdue reforms to mining, grazing, and endangered species law. A man who used his skills as an effective public advocate and teacher to counter the inevitable criticism from political opponents, and was instrumental in defeating the environmental rollback propositions of the Republican’s 1994 manifesto, Contract with America.

Here was a man who  was the first Secretary of Interior to restore fire to its natural role in the wild and to tear down dams, restoring river flow into the Atlantic and the Pacific; a man who was personally involved in demonstrating catch and release programs for endangered trout and salmon to highlight how restoring native fish habitats restores economies; the same man who provided recommendations to President Clinton that led to the creation of 21 new monuments protected under the Antiquities Act that are now being undone by President Trump.

Arcteryx

Arcteryx espresso mug from the OR Show

The OR industry turned a deaf ear to this man – until now. Babbitt’s words are reaching once deaf ears like the distant rumble of a long gone train. As if rising from a dead and distant past I can hear him say, “Wake up. Your industry – the $646 billion per year outdoor recreation industry – is a sleeping giant. If you mobilize the full economic and political power of your industry, you can change the debate. The persistent, high-stakes debate about public lands that is.” (Jimmy Tobias, 2015, Outside Magazine)

Patagonia did “wake up” and may finally be garnering Washington’s attention, but they are largely a lone wolf in the outdoor retail industry. Many in the industry are still plugging their ears. Many disagree with Patagonia’s stand, disagreed with pulling out of the OR show, and are playing it safe on the sidelines.  Why mess up a good thing?

Many believe that Patagonia will take hard blows and may be destroyed in this fight. Many are shaking their heads at what is surely going to be a long legal battle, wondering if Patagonia has the stamina to go the distance and if the company will end up laying off employees to continue their fight.

Patagonia most certainly has something to lose and it’s more than just retail sales; they have put it all on the line in defense of public lands and therefore, could lose it all. But, as former Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said, “If you are not at the table, you are on the menu.” They are clearly at the table now and contrary to high ranking political figures poisoning the well by suggesting that Patagonia is catering to coastal elites, the costs they could incur speaks to the integrity of their fight – a fight we all stand to win or lose.

Wallace Stegner quoted Sherwood Anderson writing to Waldo Frank in his Wilderness letter, “Is it not likely that when the country was new and men were often alone in the fields and the forest they got a sense of bigness outside themselves that has now in some way been lost…. Mystery whispered in the grass, played in the branches of trees overhead, was caught up and blown across the American line in clouds of dust at evening on the prairies…. I am old enough to remember tales that strengthen my belief in a deep semi-religious influence that was formerly at work among our people. The flavor of it hangs over the best work of Mark Twain…. I can remember old fellows in my home town speaking feelingly of an evening spent on the big empty plains. It had taken the shrillness out of them. They had learned the trick of quiet…”

And then said, “We could learn it too, even yet; even our children and grandchildren could learn it. But only if we save, for just such absolutely non-recreational, impractical, and mystical uses as this, all the wild that still remains to us.”

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Red Mountain Wilderness Area, UT

Bruce Babbitt said, “This is the moment to apply the strength of your industry to the defense of America’s public lands.”

One could argue that Patagonia is doing just that. It’s not just about climbing or just about sales, it’s about the idea behind real places that provide intangible spiritual value to people who need and yearn for it. The land is a gift available to us that we neither earned nor deserve, but have. This fight is not just worthy, but according to Bruce Babbitt, doable – but we have to engage in it.

Let’s hope the outdoor retail industry can produce impactful results as well as create compelling stories to sell merchandise. Let’s hope Patagonia is not just the tip of the spear, but the tip of the spear with the entire Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) behind it – however active behind the scenes or slow to act they may be. “REI alone, with a membership of 16 million – more than three times that of the NRA – is theoretically capable of exerting enormous pressure on lawmakers.” What could the Patagoniac tribe, REI members, and the OIA bring to the table as a united front?

We need to decide where we stand else we become the ranchers of tomorrow. What makes mountain bikers who pushed for the wheels in wilderness legislation similar to ranchers like Cliven Bundy is that they are fighting for their own self-interest. They believe that their wants supersede everything else. It is a short-sighted view. We recreationists would be wise to consider our impacts on the land – we far outnumber ranchers – and should acknowledge and respect limits when pursuing activities that we love.

We should also support those fighting a battle that we stand to benefit from. Here’s to Patagonia and the hope that the OIA stands with them – and that they team up with tested and hardened veterans of the public lands battle, the modern day Teddy Roosevelts – the Babbitts and Udalls of the country – and wins, because if Patagonia and others like them persevere, we will all preserve and maintain a little longer our national Tristan caribinercharacter that was shaped and forged by a wild and untamed landscape.

We will reveal to the world that our character is built on more than money, that we respect and value the wisdom and gifts our ancestors gave us, and that we fight for our ideals because it’s who we are and who we will continue to be. And maybe, more importantly, we will leave behind for those coming after us the legacy of caring enough about each other to preserve our wild lands as sanctuaries for anyone seeking a momentary reprieve from a hurting and angry man-made world.

 

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My cynical mind and the bright light of Alex Honnold

alex

We got our tickets to see Alex Honnold a month in advance. It seemed like a cool little event worth attending, not because of Alex’s climbing ability, which is incredible, but because Alex seemed like a thoughtful person who had something to say. I was more interested in him as a person than him as a climber. Did he have something to say, and more importantly, did he have something to say worth listening to?

As the date of the event grew nigh, I realized he would be in town the day I returned from work related travel. I didn’t feel well on the drive home and started to question whether I would attend the book signing and even the presentation later in the evening – which was what I really wanted to attend.

How badly did I really want to go to this thing? I asked myself.

My climbing days were lean at best and non-existent at worse. I can’t even call myself a weekend warrior as work and kids suck up most of my time and every choice invariably requires giving up one thing for another. I had also lost touch with those in the climbing community as our lives seemed to go in different directions and I felt like a poser calling myself a part of it anymore. So with 30 minutes between getting home and the book signing started, I was still up in the air, but the family wanted to go and so I hurried over. How bad could it be, right?

When we opened the door to The Desert Rat we were greeted to a line snaking its way around the small outdoor store. I don’t know why I was surprised, but I was and felt a little discombobulated as we meandered through the crowd to the end of the line. We stopped and visited with friends we had not seen in what seemed like ages and I felt a twinge of remorse for the lost time because it great to see them again.

As I stood in line I realized I didn’t know anything about Honnold’s book and wasn’t sure I wanted to buy a copy just for the hell of it. What was it about? I thought. Is it just about climbing? I finally asked a guy behind me if I could look at his copy to see what the book was about.

“In Alone on the Wall, Honnold recounts the seven most astonishing climbing achievements so far in his meteoric and still-evolving career.”

It sounded okay but along with not having time to climb, I don’t have a lot of time to read, so I choose my books carefully. I didn’t want to waste my time reading a book that just recounted climbing stories. I handed the book back to the guy.

Do I really want to spend my money on this? I thought. I honestly just wanted to hear him speak. That being said, I also didn’t want to spend an hour in line just to get up there and shake the guy’s hand – how weird would that be? So I bought a copy of the book and got my obligatory signature and photo, chatted with some more friends and then headed home for dinner.

We had time to kill after eating so we sat down to watch a TV show and again I found myself up in the air about attending the presentation. I was home, it was warm and cozy, and I was relaxed and weary. It was raining and cold outside and I didn’t want to leave again. But my curiosity won out. I wanted to hear what Alex, the guy I had seen in so many Reel Rock films, had to say, because in the films he came across as someone who could stand alone and think for himself, who lived by his own code seemingly humbly and with humor, and who was not afraid to put his opinion out there. That was who I came to see and that was who I hoped to read about in the book.

In other words, I wanted to listen to Alex because I liked him.

So I bundled up and headed out again. The auditorium was packed with excited fans and when Jason Hurst finally introduced Alex, the crowd burst into applause and anticipatory cheering.

Right off the bat I was stoked about his presentation because he told us he was going to talk about his recent trip to Kenya. He was relatable, funny, witty, humble, snarky, and the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed guy I had seen in the films. It was a pleasure to walk through his adventures with him. But the best parts were those when he wandered off into the world of ethics and morality.

Honnold spoke about dying glaciers, mourning elephants, and the struggle between conservation and destruction as if in wide-eyed wonder at what he had stumbled upon. His words and emotion were a mixture of awe and dismay, of sincerity and conviction and at times he seemed to be thinking out loud – and we the audience could hear him as he formed thoughts about what he had discovered.

It was refreshingly genuine. He wasn’t regurgitating what he had heard from others and he wasn’t promoting environmental tag lines that revealed the cool club he belonged to. He spoke clearly and honestly about what he saw.

Being of like mind I thought, if there was ever an effective spokesman for the moral crises that humanity faces in regard to our disregard of the earth’s systems and life and our intimate place in them, however reluctantly he may be, he is it.

Honnold did not pitch a movie about environmentalism and then spend the whole film showcasing his climbing. He went on a climbing trip and tripped into something significant that impacted him – and then it impacted us. He did not state any absolutes or try to convince the audience of anything, he stated simply what he saw and invited us to see and experience it with him. It was compelling.

At the end of his presentation I discovered that all of the proceeds from his book are going to his foundation to give to people who need it the most. I work hard for my money and have precious little of it, so I was thrilled to find out that my hard earned $20 was going to more than shaking a man’s hand, and more importantly, going toward something I care deeply about.

Mary Oliver, in describing Ralph Waldo Emerson’s transcendentalism said, “All the world is taken in through the eye, to reach the soul, where it becomes more, representative of a realm deeper than appearances: a realm ideal and sublime, the deep stillness that is, whose whole proclamation is the silence and the lack of material instance in which, patiently and radiantly, the universe exists.”

Emerson said, “Prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the higher point of view.” And I think that is what Honnold shared. He climbed, but while he did, he took in the world where it reached his soul and was transformed into something more. It was about more than climbing. It was about what climbing invites you into, what you can see, and what you become through it – if you choose. I saw Honnold using his climbing wealth to give back.

And perhaps therein lies the greatest responsibility of those who contemplate and think and are moved to act: to let the world penetrate the soul and then open one’s mouth and speak authentically about it.

While I admire Alex Honnold the climber, and I know it is that which got him the platform from which to speak in the first place, his climbing is not what moved me. He moved me. I am a fan of the man and I hope that his experiences compel him to speak more, to share more of the internal make-up of who he is, because beautiful form in a person of substance is an inspiring combination the likes of which lit up my cynical mind. And the best part? He inspired my kids. That alone was worth the price of five books- and every minute it takes to read my copy.

The Fine Line Between Being Safe and Living in Fear

Crawford Arch, Zion National Park

Crawford Arch, Zion National Park

Originally published by the Philadelphia Rock Gym

Crawford Arch is a thin spindle of an arch. From the valley floor it looks like a toothpick leaning against the massive rock formation it stems from. Until someone told me you could hike to it, it never occurred to me that it was possible to see it up close. But from that moment on, I wanted to see it for myself.

That day came in March. A group of us met up in the pre-dawn of a cold morning and set out on what would be a 12 hour day hike up to the arch and back down. We made our way in the warm glow of the morning sun, enjoying the solitude and beauty of the backcounty. Upon arriving, the arch was even more spectacular than I had imagined. It looked like the rock wall just sprouted a root. The arch looks delicate, fragile – but when you get to the top of it, it’s a good 10 feet across. I made my way out to where the arch starts to curve and sat down, the first of the group to perch atop it. I waved to my husband to join me for a photo.

Crawford Arch

View upon arrival

He climbed up and then hunched down, not sure he wanted to join me out there questioning whether it would hold his weight. My friend who was taking the photo for us, not realizing that all he had to do was touch the screen of my phone for a photo, and the fact that the sound was off and it doesn’t show a screen shot once a photo has been taken, caught the entire sequence of me cajoling my husband out next to me.

There is a somewhat funny shot of me pointing at the spot next to me and him looking at me with doubt. I posted this photo on Facebook, joking that he was a chicken. A friend of mine responded with a comment that two of her friends had suffered accidents at this arch; one had died and the other suffered body crushing injuries after falling. She then said, “Not worth it.”

I have many fears, but fear of heights is not one of them. This lack of fear comes in handy for outdoor adventure that includes high elevations and sheer drop-offs like climbing, canyoneering, and peak bagging. But I do have different fears and a healthy sense of danger. If something makes me nervous, I will not push it. At no time was I nervous on that arch. As I read my friend’s comment I couldn’t help wondering what her friends had been doing the moment before they fell. Were they goofing around or doing something risky? It’s possible. In my mind, the only thing that would make the arch dangerous is a lack of humility and safety.

Life is inherently risky. It is easy to assign danger and risk to activities like climbing because it “looks” dangerous, but we could die in a car accident on the way to the crag. Obviously my friend suffered from these accidents and has determined that hiking to Crawford Arch is not worth it. And maybe it’s not. But in my mind, there is a fine line between being safe and living in fear. Life is a delicate and exquisite thing, but the pay off comes in spending it. A spider would never catch its prey without the intricate workmanship of its fragile, yet strong web.

We will all die someday, that’s 100 percent guaranteed. No one escapes death. We can live in mortal fear of how that death with come about or we can choose to focus on what we want and live while we can. As William Wallace said in Braveheart, “Everyone dies. But not everyone really lives.”

Life amounts to the decisions we make. Will I climb or decline to try because I might look stupid if I can’t do it? Will I go for that peak or just look at it from the ground? One decision is not better than the other, but your life will amount to the decisions you made; and that culmination will not matter to the world, but to you. In the secret recess of your mind will you wonder, “What if I had tried?” Not everyone has a burning desire to test their limits, but some do, and if that is you, answer the nagging question, “Do I have what it takes?” Swallow your pride and try. Be willing to change who you are now for who you want to become tomorrow.

It’s such a cliché to say that life is short, but if you are older like I am, that phrase has taken on some real meaning, and if you are young, you will discover just how true it is in time. We never know how long we have. If you have an aching desire to try something, take the steps to achieve it. No one climbed Half Dome before learning how to climb first. Overcoming fear is a process like anything else, but as you learn and grow and become stronger, the fear abates and turns into knowledge, confidence, and possibly expertise.

In order to achieve great things we must dare great things, even if the beginning step is putting on a harness and climbing a wall at the climbing gym, because each step is a personal victory. Everyone has to start somewhere. For me, it was getting over my fear of looking stupid. My first time climbing I climbed with a 5.14 climber that I didn’t know very well. I was sweating and nervous and terrified. But I did it. I was 36. That decision changed my life.

Ultimately the worth of attempting something challenging or dangerous is personal. My friend decided that the risks of seeing an arch 2,000 feet up the side of a mountain are not worth it. It was worth it to me. The climb to that arch, the 300 foot rappel to get down, the wind whipping through my hair and an entire golden canyon beneath my feet are the moments I live for. For me, life is most beautiful in those moments of decision when I dare to live.

This is a guest blog I wrote for the Philadelphia Rock Gym. If you are ever in the Philadelphia area, check’m out: http://www.philarockgym.com/

First view

First view

Looking down

Looking down

Blown away

Blown away

Cursing like a sailor and the mountain of life

Shivwits Arch

Shivwits Arch

My curses echoed off the canyon walls as I stood there on the steep face of the mountain, frozen between my middle son who had just thrown a rock at my oldest, and my youngest son gingerly making his way toward me. I put my hands up to my head, ran my fingers through my hair, and took several deep breaths and tried to calm down. I called my sons to me to give them yet again another lecture about the dangers of being in the backcountry before one of them fell headlong to their death – or killed each other with rocks.

My nerves were shot, my heart raced in fear at their careless behavior, and I thought, “What sort of insanity did I ingest this morning that made me think this was a good idea?”

“I’m sorry,” I said to them. “Your mother is a sailor.”

My boys smiled at this odd statement and gave me questioning looks. I am convinced that no adventure in life is greater than parenthood. Once you bring a person into the world, your world is rocked from that moment on. Having children gives you a life of constant worry, heartache, unbelievable joy, comedy, maddening frustration, and the deepest of love.

Children put you in an eternal test that challenges you to the very core of who you are. They are the mirror that reflects back to you your greatest strengths and most deplorable weaknesses. I liken parenting to Shackleton’s voyage on The Endurance. As a parent, it is your job to get your crew through. It is one thing to climb a mountain; it is another thing to work with and care for the minds climbing it.

Last weekend I decided to take my boys up to Shivwits Arch. It is a short, albeit steep hike located in the Virgin River Gorge and requires backcountry bush-wacking. I had never done the hike before but after getting the beta on it, I was certain my boys could do it with my help and guidance.

All was fine for about the first 100 yards as we started our trek up the rocky mountain. It started like a tickle of water, just slight complaints about backaches and tired legs. I talked to the boys in an attempt to keep their minds off of hiking. I gave them tips about not running, not grabbing lose rocks for support, to watch where they stepped, etc. I told them to slow down, that it wasn’t a race. Not 15 minutes in my oldest slipped and almost fell into a ravine. It scared the living daylights out of me. I pulled him up and again told them all to go slow and to take their time.

It is at about this time that I started morphing into Captain Ahab. The trickle turned into a full-blown leak. What started out as complaining turned into reckless behavior in a place that requires care and intentional actions.

“Slow down! Take your time! Use you heads boys! Think! Stop running! Don’t fight! Damn it!” I yelled, “Listen to me!”

I repeated these things over, and over, and over. We would pow-wow, start over, pow-wow again, start again. At this point my kids are starting to suggest that we turn around and go home. We are about half way up.

Shivwits 5“No,” I say, “You can do this.”

I can see what looks like the eye of a needle in the rock. We are so close!

“Keep going,” I tell them, “You will be so glad you did this when you get to the top. You will learn things about yourself you didn’t know. It will be so worth it. Trust me.”

So we slowly make our way, me pushing and prodding the whole time. My two oldest are up ahead of me and I am helping my youngest down below. Rocks are sliding down so I tell the older two to be careful where they step and to try not to dislodge the rocks. I tell them to look for big rocks that won’t move.

As I am saying this, my middle son dislodges a soccer ball sized rock that starts careening toward my youngest who is right in front of me. I curse, grab my son, pull him out of the way, and move. I look up at my son who had let loose the rock and he immediately started crying.

“I want to go home mom,” he cries over and over.

I hike up to him and hug him. I tell him it’s okay, but to be careful and explained what could have happened if I hadn’t had time to get his brother out of the way. Again, I have to coax, cajole, motivate, and push my boys to carry on.

Just below the arch is a slot like chute that you must go through to get out on top. There are trees in it and it requires some stemming and scrambling. It is at this point that I find out my middle son is afraid of heights. We are almost to the top.

“You just have to think and go slow,” I tell him. “Choose your steps and hand-holds carefully. You can do this, look at how far we have come?” We turn back to the tiny speck that our car has become. This doesn’t help. We are very high up. My son looks into my face with his big blue eyes, “Mom, I’m scared.”

I tell him that I am here. I will help him and again reiterate that he can do it.

In the chute

In the chute

And he did. We did.

We got to the top and for a brief moment the trials of getting there were forgotten. We walked round and took in the view. We took some photos and high-fived each other. Our hiatus on the summit was short-lived, however, because we had to get down and it had already taken longer than I had anticipated and I wanted to get started. I had read that there was an easier way down than the way we came so I scouted it out. I found a path. It looked like a deer or cow trail. We headed out. I secretly prayed it would be easier and that it wouldn’t lead us to some ledge or un-passable spot.

While going up certainly has its challenges, going down is almost worse. Having gravity working with you is a double-edge sword, especially with little boys who find the new speed exhilarating. Again I am yelling at them to slow down, take their time, to stop fighting, and to think. Then it occurs to me, their words!

“What are our words boys?” I ask.

“Be alert, stay calm, think clearly, act decisively,” they all shout.

Wildland firefighters have something called “Standard Firefighting Orders.” They are kind of like the military’s general orders. Number six is what my boys repeated. When I went through fire school that one order caught my attention. I loved it. It was simple and straightforward and while it makes perfect sense for a dangerous job, it also makes sense in general – for life.

Basically it’s saying: “Think dummy. Engage your brain and think before you act.” So much danger can be mitigated by simply thinking. I’m not saying that thinking gets you out of all dangerous situations, but it can keep you from getting into them. I liked it so much I had my boys commit it to memory. They repeat those words to me every night before they go to bed. Kind of like a prayer. Trust in God but keep your powder dry right?

It was shortly after my movie-perfect motivational moment that a competitive race down the face of the mountain between my two oldest boys culminated in one getting hit with a rock. My head exploded. Except for the one crying and holding his hand, they all froze in terror. It was probably at that moment that my words all came rushing back. All the things that I had been saying suddenly crystallized in their little minds.

Herman Melville in Moby Dick said, “Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure….. Consider all this; and then turn to this green, gentle , and most docile earth; consider them both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself?”

We normally won’t meet our own “dreaded creatures” until something pushes them to the surface – kind of like dangerous situations. That is why we really find out what we are made of in a crisis. We are tested when we dare challenging and dangerous things – or downright crazy things in my case. Our true self comes out in those moments. While I was never scared on that mountain that we wouldn’t make it, I was afraid of ending up in an emergency situation. My boys didn’t need a sailor, they needed their mom.

I gathered my boys close, looked at their little tear-stained faces and said, “I love you. I don’t want you to get hurt. Please,” I pleaded, “Please slow down and be careful. Let’s get down this mountain in one piece okay?” They all shook their heads and we started back down.

The rest of the way we hiked without another terrifying incident. We made it back to the car alive and in one piece – and they were all beaming – blood, sweat, tears and all. Despite it all, we did it. I hugged my boys, gave them all high-fives, and told them how amazing they were. I was so proud. All frustrations and near-death disasters aside, it was one of the most stellar days I’ve ever had with them. They overcame fears, learned not to quit, and showed what they were made of. Hopefully they won’t end up in therapy over it someday. I can’t begin to imagine how they will remember that day – but I will remember it as a parental endeavor that ended in success. What did I get in return?

“No mom, you were amazing for getting us through it.”

On top of the needle's eye

On top of the needle’s eye

Shivwits Arch

Thar she blows!

The edeavor

The endeavor

Threading the needle

Threading the needle

The Gorge

The Gorge

Looking back a year: Red Mountain Trail in the Snow

Snow Canyon Overlook

Originally published at SUindependent.com

An early Mormon settler visiting St. George from Salt Lake once asserted that if he had to choose between a house in St. George in August and one in hell, he’d choose hell. While Southern Utah is known for its heat and warm weather recreation, and though many enjoy the cool reprieve winter provides, most desert rats and snowbirds find hell an enviable alternative to winter. Even for residents who enjoy winter sports, most like choosing when and for how long they experience the snow. So when snowmageddon descended last year, many looked on with dismay as their temperate weather and year-round recreation come to a freezing halt. Still, though, a small part of the population here was thrilled to explore the unique recreational opportunities in the newly transformed desert.

The first hint of winter appeared in September when an early cold front rolled in to the southwest. It was still warm when we first made plans to hike Kanarraville Falls and what would be the last canyon of the summer, but when that day arrived it was a surprisingly chilly 62 degrees. Heading up the trail we joked about the yearly fall tease that always turns back to summer. But once we stepped into the cold water and shadows from the enclosing mountains, we began to doubt whether summer would return.

Kanarraville FallsThe canyon walls flickered in the mercurial sunlight like a candle disturbed by a restless breeze. Trees and shrubs burst into vibrant colors of red and yellow against the increasing shadows. It was spectacular. Temperatures also continued to drop, so we cut out shortly after reaching the waterfalls at the end of the slot canyon and chased the waning sunlight back through the canyon struggling to stay warm. As we emerged from the canyon, dark purple clouds hung on Pine Valley Mountain to the west, overtaking the sun that was illuminating great swaths of land before finally blinking out. Winter was in the air. We hurried to our cars in a veil of twilight, invigorated by the brisk hike and rapidly changing forecast. As we warmed our cold feet, a voice on the radio alerted listeners to a freeze warning for all of southern Utah.

The unusual weather led many to predict a bitter winter, but cold in the desert is relative and most believed it would still be mild compared to the north. Soon after Thanksgiving, however, and contrary to hopeful thinking, a blistering cold front reminiscent of more northerly climes blew in and dropped 8 to 14 inches of snow. Temperatures fell below freezing for over a week, and county roads remained unplowed as residents were left to navigate the wintry conditions at their own risk if they chose not to heed warnings to stay home. Even church was cancelled.

The desert seemed to literally freeze into a bluish-white landscape overnight. According to historic weather data, a record breaking winter hits southern Utah roughly every 40 years. While many experiencing this rare treat find it to be anything but, there are some who looked forward to the promise of snowy adventures with glee, and jumped at the chance to strap on some Yaktrax, crampons, snowshoes, or skis and play in the snow locally.

Snow amplifies the alluring qualities of solitude and peace found in the desert: places normally bustling with tourists and crowds become serenely quiet and still; wildlife can be heard, and traces of their presence are more easily seen; and canyons that are normally familiar transform into wintry and unfamiliar versions of themselves. Exploring the desert during the winter is much like getting out into the back country, whether you are really in the back country or not. Winter may just be the best time of year to visit the desert, but if you really want a rare experience, visit after a record breaking snowstorm. The best part? You get to explore the dramatically changed landscape as if for the first time.

Snow Canyon, considered by many to be a geologic paradox waiting to be explored, could not be more inviting and inspire more awe than when snow accentuates all the ripples and folds of the canyon features. Usually swarming with people seeking the hidden canyons and humbling views beneath the vertical walls, it empties quickly when temperatures drop significantly, leaving an abundance of opportunities to enjoy the canyon. Because most of the trails are sandy and not too steep, they can be hiked as easily during winter as in warmer seasons, and even the steeper and rockier hikes can be done with very little gear.

One winter favorite is Snow Canyon Overlook. It’s always a chilly hike in December, but last year it was not just a cold and snowy trek, it offered a spectacular wintry vista. The trail starts outside of Snow Canyon off highway 18 near the southern end of Dammeron Valley, and ends at the northern tip of Snow Canyon. It provides a view of the entire canyon all the way out to the Arizona Strip, that when covered with snow, looks like a chute blazed by Boreas and his stampeding wintry hordes.

Pine Valley Mtn from Snow canyonThough for us Snow Canyon is always a place of Christmas ritual, we had to get out and explore it while covered in snow. It was spectacular inside the park, but we wanted a panoramic view from the top. So not waiting until Christmas Eve as usual, we excitedly stuck out while the temperatures were still low and the snow was deep. The two mile hike to the overlook, untouched except for a solitary pair of footprints, sparkled in the sun and was barely recognizable as it wound through trees and over slick rock.

The outcrop at the overlook was peacefully quiet and serene, more magnificent than we had ever seen it. The whole world looked fragile, crystalized, as if a whistle could shatter it. Looking out at the frosty mountains and white desert expanse we kicked ourselves for not coming prepared with a thermos of coffee to enjoy with the view.  Without a way to keep warm in the frigid temperatures, we snapped some photos and turned back. Rejuvenated by the exposure and invigorated by the physical activity, we headed for our second favorite winter pastime: drinking coffee.

With warm cups of coffee in our hands, thawing us from the inside out, we looked through our photos and marveled at how different southern Utah looked. Even though we had seen it with our own eyes, it was still hard to believe. Cold in the desert is shocking because the mind does not easily put the two together, but the chance of experiencing it during a rare 40 year storm is fantasy-like. Donning cold weather gear, seeing our breath puff lightly in the cold air, and the promise of warmth that home and hearth provide from a cold winter outing is a gift the desert rarely provides. Even those who prefer the heat can’t help getting caught up in the excitement that winter brings, however briefly it may stay. It is a time to relish and enjoy because soon enough the heat will return and claim its rightful place here in the desert. And luckily for all you snowbirds and desert rats who hate the cold, it will probably be business as usual this year. But it’s still fun looking back and reminiscing about snowmageddon 2013.

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