Adventuring with Lisa

I have a strong independent streak, and a long history of doing sports and trips more or less exclusively solo. So when I started adventuring with Lisa last summer it was a huge, abrupt shift; we were doing and still do more or less everything together. We have extraordinarily similar interests and outlooks on life, though as we started being together we began to recognize our differences too, mainly in our levels of experience and risk tolerance. The process of working past these has seen its ups and downs and I’d like to take the time to try to chart some of these, as part of a summary of what we’ve been up to the last six odd months.

After recuperating from the West Coast Trail hike in Boise, we headed east to Yellowstone to catch the tail end of summer. I’d never been to Yellowstone before (or even Montana or Wyoming) while Lisa had been several times, and had some ideas for trips we could do there. We did some of the standard tourist stuff, hiking around the geysers and watching the big animals, which was all pretty nice. At the same time though we were evaluating whether to go for a bigger trip we were interested in.

There is an almost mythic soakable hot spring in Yellowstone named Mr. Bubbles. More than 10 miles from any road it is only really accessible on multiday trips, and we were originally interested in visiting it as part of a 30 mile backpack that would also go by some other hot springs and waterfalls. After doing some short hikes in the park it became pretty clear that Lisa’s ankle wasn’t going to put up with that, so we started looking for other options.

Another trip was to do a paddle on the Lewis and Shoshone lakes, which are connected by a 3 mile section of almost-flat river, to get to the Shoshone Geyser Basin. Lisa had done this paddle before with one of her friends, and had enjoyed it a lot.

We ended up combining these trips — Lisa’s account is here. While 30 miles was too far to backpack, it is only about 9 miles from the geyser basin down to Mr. Bubbles. So we kayaked to the basin in a two person boat we’d rented, spent the night, left the kayak ashore, backpacked south to Mr. Bubbles, spent the night nearby, then returned to the kayak. This all went swimmingly. Kayaking up was very nice with lots of wildlife and a fun time working our way up the river to Shoshone Lake. The geyser basin was great to explore, and we found a couple nice spots to soak. Hiking to Mr. Bubbles went smoothly, though the scenery was a little dull. Mr. Bubbles itself was amazing, a wonderful pool with a stream of bubbles erupting in the center, essentially a giant natural hot tub. Hiking back the next day was tiring, with the scenery even duller, but we got back to the kayak in good spirits.

From here things went downhill quickly. It was getting into the afternoon and the wind was building on the lake. Our designated site was at the other end of the lake, and while I felt no real compulsion to get that far given the risk and lack of anyone else around, I still wanted to make some more progress, and with several thousand miles of ocean kayaking experience the wind didn’t bother me at all. Lisa was pretty intimidated by the wind though; she had been kayaking a number of times before but had had some bad times with the wind, in the San Juans and also on the very lake we were on.

We started paddling though, and decided to stay near shore where Lisa was comfortable with the risk and could get used to dealing with the wind. This went well for a couple miles, until we reached a spot where we would need to cross 1/3 miles to the opposite shoreline at a constriction in the lake. We went ashore and waited for an hour to relax and see if winds would abate, which they did a little. Then we went back out, to see if we could cross, me steering the boat from the back. It was still pretty windy, but I was still anxious to cross and kept asking Lisa if we could. Eventually I thought she had agreed, when she had really just shut out my nagging, and we crossed. Which for me was fine, and for Lisa was quite traumatic — waves were continually breaking over the side of the kayak as we got away from shore. On the other side we quickly landed, made camp, had dinner, went to bed.

During the night it became clear what a catastrophic error the crossing had been — how could you trust somebody who’d done what I’d done? — and after talking for hours we realized the need for a hard rule to keep this from ever happening again:

Don’t do anything which anyone is uncomfortable with.

I’m not all that risk averse, so this basically means we don’t do anything which Lisa is uncomfortable with. Though I don’t do it much anymore (changing this fall though!) I started my adventuring days with Scuba Diving, and I think I picked this rule up reading about certain technical diving circles there — anyone can cancel any dive for any reason. It’s a nice and simple bombproof rule.

Even so, a rule by itself doesn’t mean much, and after the paddle we decided to dial things back a bit, staying away from multiday or very committing trips for a while. The weather was getting cold in Yellowstone and we headed south, spending the next two months or so roaming around southern Utah and doing various sports.

At first we went to Moab, doing quite a bit of mountain biking. We had similarly unbalanced levels of experience here, as I had done quite a lot of biking in the previous two years whereas Lisa was pretty new to it. This was and is a great sport for us though, as difficult sections can just be walked and mountain biking is still so much fun and such great exercise even on easier trails. We were able to gradually ramp up the difficulty of the trails we rode and, especially once we got to the spring and got new bikes (both of our old ones were stolen from in front of my mom’s house in Phoenix) Lisa got very confident on the bike and we’ve been able to do some pretty tough trails. I doubt we’re going to get into many super hard long technical days together, and on Lisa’s off days I still go out solo to indulge in these myself.

From Moab we headed to Hanksville, doing quite a bit of canyoning in the surrounding areas. We have different kinds of experience with this sport, which complement each other well. Before meeting Lisa I did almost all my canyoning solo, giving me a crash course in the various skills needed to safely make it down canyons. Still, almost all of my Utah canyoning was done in Zion and I knew little about other areas in the state. Lisa has nearly a decade of experience canyoning and knows the Utah canyons extremely well, with almost all of her canyoning done with friends or with larger parties at canyoning fests. Canyoning this way is great fun but it’s hard to pick up on some of the technical parts; usually someone has done the canyon before so navigation is simpler, and at rappels you have to be up front and into it to evaluate anchors and set up rappels before someone else gets to it. Lisa had taken a course and knew how to do this stuff, but didn’t have a lot of direct experience in the field.

Canyoning is a committing sport: once you pull your first rope the only way out is to finish the canyon you’re in. Doing a canyon as a couple requires a lot of confidence and trust in each other, and it took quite a while before we did any canyons together. A lot of this was happenstance, we just kept going to fests and finding other experienced folks to go with, but by the time we did start canyoning together we knew how we would get along pretty well. The first canyons we did were Hog 2 and Hog 1, a neighboring pair of canyons about 30 miles south of Hanksville. This was actually our third attempt to do Hog 2 in the previous couple of weeks — the first time we got the van stuck in the sand on the approach, and the second time we bailed on the other two people we were with at the canyon drop in due to impending darkness.

Done together, these two canyons made for a fun day. Starting at a parking area next to the highway — the van-stuck-in-sand incident was due to trying to use a more convenient spot — we hiked a couple miles of trail to the base of both canyons, hiked the ridge between them to the drop in for Hog 2, finished it, then repeated the ridge hike for Hog 1 before hiking out. Hog 2 is a short but fun canyon with a dark downclimb into a mud pit at the end, the birth canal (hmm). Hog 1 seemed much longer, though maybe we were just tired, with seemingly never ending sections of skinny clothing destroying slots.

Since this trip we’ve done a few more canyons together; canyoning hasn’t been our highest priority as a sport but since Lisa knows the canyons so well and which ones she is or isn’t interested in, and since I’m pretty experienced with getting down them, we’ve been able to avoid friction or other problems when venturing into these places.

The third main sport we did while in Utah was rock climbing. I was pretty new to this, having just done a short course and some solo toproping while in Durango last summer, while Lisa had been out climbing with friends a fair amount. Our skills here complement each other in a different way from canyoning: I’m happy to lead, and Lisa is happy to follow. Climbing is pretty asymmetric in this way. Lead climbing — starting from the ground and placing protection or clipping bolts on the way up — can be risky for the climber, as a fall means falling twice the distance between you and the last protection or bolt, putting a lot of force on the equipment and potentially striking the wall or ground on the way down. In contrast, following — being belayed from the top as you remove the protection which the leader placed on the way up — and climbing on toprope are pretty low risk, as barring any swinging the climber should be immediately caught by their belayer if they fall.

These two approaches fit our mentalities very well, and we had a lot of fun climbing at Red Rock Canyon near Las Vegas, near Saint George in southwest Utah, and during a two week stay at Joshua Tree National Park in southern California. The only problem here was that my climbing started outpacing my experience and skills; rather than build a solid foundation through time on the rocks and coursework I jumped right into trad leading. At Joshua Tree I had protection fail twice and took long falls, ending up with scrapes and a mild concussion. Climbing is a serious sport and we haven’t done any since December, though we’re keen on getting back into it with a more levelheaded and cautious approach this summer. Lisa wrote about our experiences at Joshua Tree here.

After the new year, we flew south to Mexico to go sailing. Boating was yet another sport where our interests aligned strongly but our experiences didn’t. Lisa had wanted to sail and see the world for a while but had not spent much time on boats, mainly on some diving and snorkeling trips in Belize and Thailand. I’m not a super experienced sailor but had done a few thousand miles of cruising on my 28′ sloop, Grand Illusion. It had been waiting patiently in Laz Paz since I sailed it down from California in 2012 and our plan was to head up to Guaymas over five weeks and haul out, giving Lisa a better feel for the nautical life and seeing if we wanted to push further.

This trip did not go according to plan. After a few days provisioning in La Paz, we headed north to Espiritu Santo and almost immediately got slammed by a norther. These are storms bred in the Pacific which head down the Sea of Cortez during the winter and can bring strong winds for several days at a time. We knew one was coming and settled into a safe anchorage, but sitting out the storm was still pretty uncomfortable, with two nights of winds gusting well over 30 knots, waves slamming against the hull, the boat walking around at anchor and rolling from side to side, just generally a lousy sleepless experience for both of us. And not a great introduction to boating; Lisa had to sit through the nights not just unable to get to sleep but worrying about our safety. We were anchored securely and even if we had slipped anchor and drifted into the larger waves in the main channel we would have been fine, but it’s hard to trust in that being so new to everything.

After the storm died, we started having a lot of fun: the Sea of Cortez is a magnificent place, with great scenery, tons of sea birds, dolphins almost every day, sea lions at Los Islotes and fish and other critters (octopus!) everywhere while snorkeling. But it was becoming increasingly clear that Grand Illusion was getting in the way more than anything else. It was still difficult to get a good night’s sleep except in ideal circumstances, no real amenities, narrow walkways made getting up on the deck difficult and kept Lisa confined pretty much to the cockpit and cabin. I had a long history with the boat and was used to its quirks, while to Lisa it was a cramped and unfamiliar space, exposed wiring everywhere, basically a floating bachelor pad.

After about a week and a half on the boat, we turned around and headed back to La Paz. This was less throwing in the towel than it was changing tack. When we had originally arrived in La Paz we visited a boat for sale which I had been eyeing online for a few months, a 39′ Privilege catamaran named Magic. Very well equipped and with a far more spacious and livable layout, Magic looked like an enormous step up from Grand Illusion. After returning to La Paz, we went through the multi-week process of buying Magic and were able to cruise for a few days before flying back to the US.

In some ways this was an impulsive purchase, but in the balance I don’t think it was. Grand Illusion was always a starter boat to me, one that I could afford and sail on but not one I was planning to stick with. I took my time to get experience and decide what I wanted next, and for years had decided I wanted a catamaran in this size range, with the Privilege 39 at the top of the list — they are an older style of cat, with a reputation for being well built and able to cross oceans. I’d been planning on buying a cat this fall, but after seeing the exact boat I wanted in such a great place and so well equipped, and after realizing both that Lisa loved being out on the water and that we needed a new boat to really make the experience shine, buying Magic now just made sense. Lisa wrote a lot about this trip here and here.

The few days we spent cruising on Magic were great, but we weren’t able to really get situated before flying back to the US. We had a commitment at the end of February to meet my family in Park City for some skiing. This is the latest new sport we’ve tried doing together, and the jury is still out on it. Lisa has very little experience skiing, and multiple traumatic experiences with it — crashing out of control into a fence her first time out, and several years later seeing someone carried out on a stretcher after being hit by another skier. So when we went we went slowly, at whatever pace she was happy with, and after a week she went from being terrified by the magic carpet to being comfortable on most green terrain.

This is good but not mind-blowing progress, and it’s hard to say how much further we’ll take it. Resort skiing is getting less and less interesting to me with time, and doesn’t really interest Lisa much at all. On the other hand, backcountry skiing is one of my favorite sports, just so pure and engaging and, on good days, downright glorious. Lisa has a lot of experience with snowshoeing and cross country skiing, and is interested in backcountry skiing — her side of the story is here — so maybe we’ll skip resort skiing in the future and try out some low angle ski touring next.

March left us pretty free to wander again. After a couple weeks of mountain biking around Moab, I flew to Toronto for a week for work before we went to a couple of canyoning gatherings in Arizona. In the middle of this we did a canyon together, Big Canyon. This was a great trip, and a good illustration of how far we’ve come in how we work together, being our first overnight trip together since Yellowstone. The canyon was tougher and longer than we expected, but we made decisions and worked through the difficult parts together, and got through the trip smoothly. Lisa wrote about this canyon here.

Big Canyon is a pretty big canyon draining to the Little Colorado River, out in the middle of nowhere west of Tuba City. Following a guidebook, we headed most of the way down neighboring Salt Trail Canyon, traversed over into Big Canyon, and dropped in about a mile up from the confluence with the Little Colorado. The Little Colorado gorge is much the same stuff as the Grand Canyon proper, with 3000′ of elevation between the rim and the river and lots of steep, rocky, annoying hiking. After leaving the salt trail it took us several hours of cross country travel through ledge systems to make it a few miles to the drop in to Big Canyon. I was still doing ok but Lisa was pretty tired, and with it being late afternoon we decided to camp near the top of the technical section rather than at the bottom as we had planned. The next morning we descended the technical section, which is one of the coolest and most unique canyons I’ve seen anywhere. The canyon is dry until the bottom of the first rappel, where heavily mineralized water erupts from a spring in the wall. From here the canyon becomes a wonderland of travertine waterfalls, pools and other formations, an alien and unexpected place.

After finishing up towards noon though, we still had a long hike back to the rim via Salt Trail Canyon. The salt trail isn’t really a trail, and we found ourselves route finding through cliff bands in the lower parts, but by going slowly, taking regular breaks for water, and my taking whatever gear I could manage from Lisa, we made it up in good spirits, arriving back at the van shortly before dusk.

In early April, we returned to Magic for a few weeks to sail to Guaymas, on the mainland, and store for the summer. Keeping the boat in Guaymas is a good option logistically, as we want to drive down in the fall with a bunch of stuff for the boat, mainly a dive compressor and dive gear, and Guaymas is a much shorter drive from the border than La Paz — 5 hours vs. 2 days. Moving the boat here also gave us an excuse to go cruising, and we spent about a week and a half traveling the 250 miles north and staying at various anchorages on the way. It’s pretty remarkable how much the change in boats has improved the experience. Between the much gentler motion, the huge amount of space to spread out, and all the equipment and features we didn’t have on Grand Illusion (swim steps, two kayaks, fridge, watermaker, a real galley, and on and on), Magic really felt like a home to both of us. It will be great to be back later this year and spend the fall and winter in Mexico. As with everything else we do though, it’s critical to make sure we move forward with sailing at a pace we’re both happy with.

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