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.
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/
“Look not mournfully into the past, it comes not back again. Wisely improve the present, it is thine. Go forth to meet the shadowy future without fear and with a manly heart.” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
“Youth comes but once in a lifetime” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
“Life is still an unfolding, the farther we travel the more truth we can comprehend, and to understand the things that are at our door is the best preparation for understanding those that lie beyond.” – Ki Longfellow
There is a difference between Californians and Utahans: the Coastals are always looking for water. While water is not hard to find in canyoneering routes, as they are typically drainages, I have never seen a group of people act more amphibian-like than when my friends from California came out to Utah for some desert adventure. Personally, I would just as soon avoid cold water altogether, but I endure it to see beautiful landscapes I would not otherwise get to see; my friends?
They explore beautiful desert landscapes almost like sailors out at sea, but rather than looking for land, they are perpetually on the look-out for an oasis. As if these Californians had gills, every outing ended in a river, a swimming hole, a pool, or a reservoir, and luckily for me, also at human watering holes. It is not often that I forget how awesome it is to live here, but when my friends came to visit I not only saw just how incredible this place is and how lucky I am to live here by seeing it through their eyes, I got to experience it with a dash of California that made it fun, different, and yes, wet.
Over the years my husband and I befriended employees at the Patagonia Headquarters in Ventura California. We periodically head out there for events or to visit friends and family. When there, we of course buy bomber Patagonia wear or gear and chat with the locals. Those random conversations, laughs, and shared time have turned into real friendships, and though Ventura couldn’t be more opposite from St. George, the commonality of awesome outdoor adventures soon led our new friends to come visit us and check out the Utah scene. Not wanting to disappoint, we obliged them with a 10 day, packed to the hilt, non-stop, wear your ass out, southern Utah adventure.
It was a whirlwind canyoneering, hiking, climbing, swimming, camping, eating and drinking party. We had a blast. It was like vacationing in our own backyard. Though we would certainly go out and do these things on our own, it is not often that we would put our life on hold and do it for 10 days, but I am now convinced that everyone must do this at least once. Go on vacation where you live. Not a day hike or an over-nighter; not while keeping up with email, work, and chores – just a no holds barred, multiple day break from the obligations of life vacation, right where you live. You might be amazed at how incredible it is.
We practically lived in Zion, spending more than half of our time there. Because our friends staggered their arrival and came in two different groups, we did Pine Creek Canyon and the Triple Crown: Birch, Orderville, and the Narrows twice and virtually back-to-back-to-back. Pine Creek is a very popular, relatively short, subterranean canyon that is a good one to start with. When you go at the right time of day, golden sunlight fills the narrow slot and makes it glow. Of course there is the dreaded water and a large pool in the Cathedral that I endured (twice no doubt), that my friends, not surprisingly, loved, relished, swam around in, and shot loads of photos in. Even with a wetsuit it was cold and since we didn’t start at the golden hour, the canyon was dark and cold as well.
That is the beauty and danger of many of the canyons in Zion. Most of the time you can get in and out of the water quickly, but sometimes you can’t, and even in the summer, standing around wet in cold shade for very long can be a game changer; so I headed out with some others to warm up in the sunlight and waited for the water lovers to get their fill and rejoin us on the ledge of the last 90 foot, free hanging rappel. In contrast, the hike back out to our car was scorching hot, so the cold was quickly forgotten and by the time we scrambled out of the canyon we were ready for some more and jumped and yee-hawed into the swimming hole. It was cold, but refreshing.
The great secret of Zion is that all trails end in Springdale, at least if you go in the right direction. With its varied watering holes, it is my version of a cool reprieve in the desert and we of course took our friends to our favorite local spots. After Pine Creek we camped in Zion to be ready for a shuttle taking us to Birch Hollow early the next morning. So far, Birch and Orderville Canyons ending in the Narrows is my favorite hike in the park. You get to experience three completely different canyons all in one hike. Birch, thankfully, has no water.
Going down Birch is like being a skipped stone across water, just one rappel after another. The last rappel is the longest, most fun, and most photographed and both times I have gone it was photo worthy and awesome. The hike into Orderville starts like a dried out river bed, and rather blandly. It is open and feels more like a hike – until you start seeing water that is. A natural spring marks the beginning of those famous towering walls and legendary slots. Orderville is full of awkward down climbs and rappels into rushing water and pools. It has hanging gardens as well as hanging rocks. It is the most fairytale-like hike in the Canyon. Of course it dumps you into the Narrows, just the last two to three miles of it, which gives you just enough of a sense of the Narrows to appreciate it. If timed right the setting sun hits the walls as you exit and it is like walking through cold fire. It is spectacular. And though the amount of people balloons in the famous canyon, it’s so amazing, you really don’t care.
We had bumps and scratches from the canyons, but it wasn’t enough. A trip out to Gooseberry Mesa for some world class mountain biking was on the dockets as well. Since no trip really happens unless it has been documented, one of our friends strapped on a Go Pro and pedaled out. Not disappointing us, he crashed and burned and we all oohed and ahhed when we watched it. Gooseberry is like Moab minus all the jeeps and is a mountain biker’s heaven, or at least it is when you are not roasting in the sun. Another stop had to be made on the way home at Quail Creek Reservoir for a dip in the water. After the mountain biking trek our friends treated us to a home cooked meal of tacos, chips, guacamole, and no, not water, but beer. We made a fire in our front yard, played some tunes, and had a great, cool but not cold, evening under the stars.
We also got out and did some climbing, but not nearly enough in my estimation (next time). The rock climbing opportunities here are everywhere, and the beauty of climbing here is that most of the time, you get the crag to yourself. The more rock climbing inclined members of the group were astounded at the uncrowded walls and crags, stating that if they were in California they would be packed every day, and vowed to come back. There wasn’t time to do any climbing in Zion, but I am sure that will happen in the future at some point. Some front country hikes were done on the final day of the trip and then our frog friends were gone, back to the beaches of California to surf, paddle, swim, and scuba dive.
When they left we turned back to our quiet and well-used house, empty fridge, and piling obligations that we had put on hold while they were here, not quite ready to get back to normal. We felt a void in our friends’ absence and re-enacted our time with them in conversations, stories, and laughter after they left. Already they are hinting at another trip our way, and we are thinking of what we will get out and do this time: Southern Utah the sequel. I’m more exited this time around, not only for the prospect of more adventures, but to hang with my ultra-versatile, yet insanely cool, Cali friends.
I am certain, and now prepared, that I will get an unusual dose of water not easily found in the desert hanging with this crowd, but I am stoked at the prospect of vacationing in my backyard again because it’s that awesome; and because it’s as good as vacationing anywhere else, if not more so because home turns into an exotic and thrilling home-away-from-home. And perhaps we will return the favor and bring a little desert with us the next time we visit them. While I am certain they know they live in a stellar place, maybe they also will get the chance to see their home through our eyes and vacation in their own backyard with renewed excitement and perspective. Hell, I might even stick a foot in the ocean…with the other on solid land of course.
First published in the Utah Adventure Journal in the summer of 2013.
The forecast was calling for rain. “Damnit,” I said to myself. It had been sunny and nice all week and the one day we had plans to go climbing the weather was going to be crumby. Not only that, Todd Goss had invited us to go. It was a big deal. Todd didn’t invite anyone to go climbing, he charged people to go climbing. I had only been climbing a couple of times, but I loved it and looked forward to getting out again. I prayed to the climbing God that the meteorologist would be wrong; heck, they were wrong 50% of the time so it wasn’t asking much. To my chagrin, I woke to discover that my prayers had not been answered. Dark purple-gray clouds were hanging low on the mountains. As I peered out the window not a shred of blue sky or bright sunlight could be seen. “Maybe it will clear up by 2pm,” I despairingly thought. “Hopefully Todd won’t cancel.”
Todd Goss is as much a legend in this community for his curmudgeon-like demeanor as he is for bolting many of the climbing routes and for his guide book. My first introduction to Todd was as a barista at Starbucks where I got his customary stony stare and barely audible thank you. It wasn’t until I started bringing my boys to his bouldering gym that he warmed up and started being friendly at the window, to the amazement and angst of the other still ignored baristas. I liked him a lot. As Melville said, “He’s a good man. Not a pious good man, but a swearing good man.” As two o’clock rolled around and Todd had not cancelled, I figured we were still on and layered up for the cold weather; long Johns and a beanie being a must. Luckily it had not rained and I predicted that if it would hold out through the afternoon we might end up with a good day of climbing after all.
As we pulled into the parking area I saw Todd digging in the back of his Subaru. He turned when we pulled in, a beanie on his head too. One of his buddies and my old boss, the philosopher, was supposed to be meeting us there, but he was late and Todd wasn’t one to wait around, so with three little boys in tow we made our approach to the base of Prophesy Wall. Even though it was cold and windy, it was beautiful. It felt like everything within the stock-still valley and under the brooding sky had ceased to exist but the six of us sheltered in the umbrella-like protection of the wall. The wall and the surrounding watchful mountains were all ours; at least for the moment.
I watched Todd put on his harness and his shoes. While he did this he started talking about climbing. While we stood around and watched, he started to climb the lead of a route. By the time he was coming down, the philosopher had shown up. “Hey,” “what’s up,” and acknowledging nods were made around the circle and then Todd turned to me. “You ready?” “Yep,” I replied. “Where are my toes shoes?” I said looking at my husband. He just looked at me, “Toe shoes?” I raised my eyebrows, not sure why this wasn’t registering with him until he said it again. “Oh, that’s funny. Toe shoes are ballet shoes,” I explained. “Huh, I thought you had come up with a new name for climbing shoes,” he said. It was a slip, but it wasn’t too far off. Watching a good climber is similar to watching a ballerina. There is grace, poise, and beauty in the movements of the body, the rhythm of the ascent, and the gravity defying toe stepping. As I strapped on my shoes it dawned on me that I had only felt the way I do about climbing with one other thing in my life: dancing. This thought creaked through my mind like an old lady making her way across a rickety floor. I stood up and walked toward Todd who was waiting to attach the rope to my harness. He showed me a figure eight on a bight, which I forgot the moment he told me I was good to go. As I started my ascent I thought, maybe if I had discovered climbing in high school I wouldn’t have felt so bad about ballet. Then all faded away except my hands, my feet, and the wall.
My interest in climbing started as a soft whisper. I was at Veyo Pool camping when I heard it. I was in the shade of some cottonwood trees reading. A gold blur periodically flashed in my peripheral vision so I turned to see what it was. From my chair I could see that it was some sort of golden sign attached to the canyon wall that would light up when the leaves moved in the breeze and allowed the sunlight to shine directly on its surface. When I got close enough to read it I saw a weathered brass plaque that read: Paradigm Shift 5.12b. As my eyes followed the wall, more little gold plaques appeared. I walked along the wall reading names like Hypocrisy Wall, Flytrap, and Butt Monkey Buttress and wondered if they described the route or if the person naming them was describing an experience or an inside joke.
I returned to Paradigm Shift and snapped a photo of the plaque. I looked up at the jagged rocks and wondered if I could climb it. I wanted to say, “Someday I will climb Paradigm Shift,” but I couldn’t bring myself to utter the words. To utter the words was to speak something into existence, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to open that box. Hell, I didn’t even know if I wanted try rock climbing, let alone if I would like it, and accepting this challenge would require me to try. On the drive home, Paradigm Shift glowed in my mind, softly beckoning. I pictured myself climbing rock walls and wondered what it was like. I wondered if it produced a deeper relationship with the land, and subsequently, a deeper understanding of what it means to be human. I wondered if it would change me somehow, and if so, how?
When I finished my rappel back down Todd asked me, “When did you stop hearing us?” “What?” I asked puzzled. “When you were climbing, at what point did the sound of our voices stop registering; when did you stop hearing us?” I thought for a minute. My last memory was looking back at Todd on belay and then it fades to a blank slate where brief flashes of rock, line, and my hands appear. Most climbers I talk to, who really love it, will agree that climbing is a form of mediation that takes place while performing a very physically challenging act. For me, to climb is to taste the eternal. As I belayed my eight year old son who was climbing the route I had just finished, I thought, “This is a perfect day.” Through the process of climbing I experience freedom from time; I get to experience what I imagine immortality feels like; but in the community of climbers I taste what it is to live, to love, and to enjoy. It is being both the root and the swaying leaves; it is being grounded while being set free. Climbing is the ultimate paradox.
On October 27th 2012 my husband sent me a Facebook link. I clicked on the link and read, “Lyle Dale Hurd III, 49, of Santa Clara, died Friday afternoon, after taking a fall while climbing in Zion National Park.” I had never met Lyle, but I knew who he was because I am good friends with his sister, Gwen. The news of his death sank like a stone in my stomach and tears involuntarily came to my eyes. Lyle’s death was the first for the local climbing community here and it reverberated through it like a crashing cymbal. As everyone came together to grapple with the reality of his loss and the reverberations subsided, a hush seemed to fall over St. George. Everyone wanted to know what had happened, and how it happened to a climber such as Lyle.
In the cocoon-like safety of Gwen and Jeff’s house, a large and grieving portion of the climbing community gathered to take shelter from the harsh world and find comfort amongst friends and comrades. They gathered in a place where it was safe to let walls and barriers down, where pain could be shown, and where tears could be shed. It was the first night of a weeklong funeral. I said hello to Gwen when we arrived and then told her how I had never gotten the chance to meet Lyle. “Well, he wasn’t the easiest person to get to know,” she said with a slight smile. “It’s too bad you never got to climb with him, he was a great teacher.” My brush with Lyle was like a passing train that left an earthshattering blur of sound, wind, and light in its wake. What I learned of him through stories told in laughter and tears made me feel like I did know him in a small way, and because everyone was so raw and real and felt no need to white-wash Lyle into a saint posthumously I was able to get a sense of the complex man that he was; the three dimensional man that was true to himself, who was working out his demons on the rocks, and who died while doing it. Since I had only been climbing a few times before his death the paradox was stark.
Gwen hugged me and broke down. “I keep expecting him to walk through the door,” she cried into my shoulder, “I can’t believe he’s gone.” I had no idea what to say or do, so I just held her. I watched her do this half a dozen more times throughout the night and admired her ability to embrace pain and not be afraid to show it. I saw some familiar faces and many unfamiliar, all gathered in this one place because they knew Lyle, but it was Mark I wanted to hear from. Mark was Lyle’s climbing partner who had sat by his side and watched him die; Mark, the ICU nurse who could do nothing to save his friend. He was quiet and somber as he walked up with beer in hand. I thought any slight movement might cause him to break, he looked so shaken and fragile. In a voice barely above a whisper he recounted the story, telling it as though he was hearing it for the first time himself.
He explained how he watched Lyle fall 40 feet and bounce when he landed on the ledge after his protection came out. He revealed that when he got to Lyle he found him awake, coherent, and alert. Mark half cried half laughed when he explained how, in true Lyle fashion, Lyle had argued with him about where his phone was. He explained how he called 911 and then waited for the cavalry to show up. Two other climbers in the four member group set up a top rope for the rescue team and waited. When the SAR team had not arrived three hours later, the rescue became a recovery, and Lyle was gone. Mark stated that had he known Lyle was going to die he wouldn’t have wasted time trying to save him, but would have just held him and told him he loved him. A lump formed in my throat as I watched Mark hopelessly mill over the events of the day and plot how they could have turned out differently. It was heart wrenching to watch and raised uncomfortable questions in my mind. Questions about my own life, how I was spending my time, and what it would be like to lose someone dear to me. I thought of my three boys and the short time I have with them and wondered if I was doing it right, or if I would tragically realize one day that I had squandered my time with them; time that I could never get back.
The week wore on with climbs done in Lyle’s honor, trips to Snow Canyon and Joshua Tree were made, and ended with a final farewell at the base of Island in the Sky. Over that week I watched a community of climbers celebrate life as much as they remembered and celebrated Lyle. They dealt with the pain in an open and honest way; a way that was admirable and healthy and left me believing would help them move on. What I found then, and still continue to find, is a community that is open, fun, and that resembles a large family. It is a place where how well you climb doesn’t matter; only if you climb. It is a community where all things are equal, where the rock is the great leveler; where status doesn’t make you a better climber, where money is nice but it isn’t everything, where you can’t tell who is a professional and who is a professional dirt bag; where children are loved and supported in their climbing attempts, where skill is admired and celebrated, and where attempting a problem gets you just as much beer as breaking it. It is a community of people cheering on other people and it felt good to be a part of it.
I strapped my toe shoes on for the last climb of the day; the first pitch of The Visionaries. Dusk was closing in and the wind was picking back up. I was sure it would rain. I made the 145 foot ascent one foot and one hand at a time. Everything faded away and I was dancing. When I reached the end of the route and started to descend, I descended to the cheers of my children echoing off the walls. I got comments of “well done” and nods of approval from my husband, Todd, and the philosopher. I went home spent and exhausted. Since then I have already witnessed this life change echo in the life of my son. He worked on a problem at the bouldering gym for weeks, sometimes 20 or more times a night, to no avail. Through the process he experienced great drive and great frustration, but in the end he learned that he was not a failure, that all attempts were worthy endeavors, and when he succeeded in breaking the problem, he did it to the cheers of a community of climbers there to support him. I have come to believe that climbing, like life, is not a means to an end, but an end unto itself. It is not where you end up, but how you got there that matters. At the end of my afternoon on Prophesy Wall all the tension drained from my body and when I climbed into my warm bed that night, the sound of rain could be heard hitting the windows. I guess the climbing God knew what she was doing when she didn’t answer my prayer the night before. It had not only been a great day of climbing; it had been an epic day of living.