A Three-Leaved Reminder

We had already gone up the wrong trail once. In trying to find the wall with a five-pitch climb called Itchy Scratchy (I’ll let you guess why), my climbing partner and I had already crossed a steep talus field, scrambled around the side of a rock wall with a decent drop off, and finally retraced our steps upon discovering we’d gone the wrong way.

On attempt number two, we crossed an open field, switch-backed our way up another rocky slope, and continued to follow the trail through pine trees and up into a side canyon. We finally caught sight of the route, a 400-foot climb up a gently sloping quartzite cliff. It was also at that point that I looked down at my hand, inches from a plant that I suddenly realized was poison ivy.

Quickly withdrawing my hand, I paused and looked ahead. My partner had already nearly made it to the base of the route, but in between us lay a thick carpet of the offending plant. This couldn’t possibly be the trail, I thought in a panic. The description of the climb’s approach stated that the poison ivy could be “easily avoided” if you know what to look for. Gazing out over this verdant obstacle course, that did not seem to be the case.

IMG_4168

A carpet of poison ivy.

My first instinct was to turn around. But I hadn’t just bushwhacked my way up here only to go back, and the base of the cliff was less than 20 feet away. I looked around for alternate routes, but the easiest way forward was clear and it went straight through the patch.

Not knowing if I’d already tromped through other plants without noticing, I quietly resigned myself to my potentially itchy fate and hopped my way through the plants on scattered rocks. Once we arrived at the base, the actual trail (100% poison-ivy free) became instantly apparent on my right. We had missed the turnoff somewhere and arrived the wrong way.

But there we were, and if we now had urushiol oil all over our legs, there wasn’t much to be done. So we set down our packs, pulled out our gear, and flaked out the rope, ready to climb.

Four pitches of climbing later, the stupid poison ivy was still rattling around in my brain. There’s nothing you can do about it now, I kept telling myself, to marginal effect. If you end up with rashes all of your body, at least it’ll be due to doing something hardcore, I told myself as I imagined showing up at work on Monday a red, blotchy, itchy mess.

Looking out from the wall and peering down over 300 feet of rock below me, I tried to calm the slight panic arising from the exposure. Down below, mini cars snaked along the curving road, the river pushed its white water toward the valley, and the sun was just beginning to crest over the wall we were precariously perched upon.

IMG_4174

View from the top of pitch 4

Poison ivy rash or not, this was an exhilarating experience, and I felt grateful to my climbing partner who had gotten us both up there on pretty run out terrain. It was exactly the reminder that I needed to be in the present moment, instead of rehashing how I’d have done things differently if I could travel back in time to the trailhead.

In the grand scheme of things, an irritating rash isn’t that big of a deal, especially when compared to this incredible view and the confidence that comes with doing something difficult and scary.

The next day, we compared stories of vigorous scrubbing and late-night phantom itches, and in the end, we were lucky to escape without any red, bumpy reminders of our outing. Which lends itself to another good reminder: why waste time worrying when you don’t need to?

(Though, I did learn something useful in my research post-climb, when I suspected I might still have poison ivy oil on me. Apparently, scrubbing the affected area with a wash cloth and soap is the best way to remove it, and if you do this soon enough after exposure, you may be able to avoid having a reaction at all. The more you know!)

Brick by Brick: Exploring Mesa Verde National Park

In 2015, I made a brief visit to Mesa Verde National Park at the tail end of a Four Corners road trip. I didn’t know much about the park in southwestern Colorado, but since it was in the area, we decided to check it out.

The park was established in 1906 to preserve archaeological sites and artifacts, primarily those left behind by the Ancestral Pueblo people, who lived in the area from 600 AD to 1300 AD. However, there is evidence that humans have lived in the area as far back as 7500 BCE. Nearly 5,000 sites have been identified within the park, including nearly 600 cliff dwellings.

IMG_2600

Typical scene at Mesa Verde, which sits on top of a massive plateau. Views like this one are common and cliff dwellings dot the rocky sides of the canyons.

Despite the biting November wind and the fact that half of the park was closed for the winter, something drew me to the vast mesas. Covered in pinyon pine and juniper trees, speckled with prickly pear cacti and broad-leafed yucca, the vast stillness urged me to explore further.

This quiet glimpse of the park inspired my boyfriend and I to return in the summer, when all the park roads are open and tours of several ruins are offered by park staff. We ended up visiting again in July 2016 and were able to participate in all three ranger-led tours as well as a couple of hikes.

IMG_2598

Fires are common inside Mesa Verde, caused by the high number of lightening strikes. Due to the area’s dry atmosphere, hardy trees such as junipers take decades to decompose and re-grow. It will take another 100 years for the mesa to look as it did before this forest fire.

The Lay of the Land

Mesa Verde is located just outside the town of Cortez, in southwestern Colorado. While the park entrance is close to town, keep in mind that all of the sites are a bit of a drive, so plan for extra time after arriving at the Visitor’s Center. The steep, winding roads to Chapin Mesa and Wetherill Mesa, the two main areas in the park, are 20 and 27 miles long, respectively.

In order to tour the sites, you will need to purchase tickets. They aren’t expensive (at the time I visited, each tour was $8 per person), but they can sell out, so I’d recommend getting to the visitor center early to reserve your spot. Tickets can be purchased up to three days in advance but the purchase must be done in person.

This park’s primary purpose is preservation, so there isn’t a ton of hiking to do here. A couple short trails depart from the campground, and there are one or two walking-tour type trails that wind around various archaeological sites, but don’t arrive expecting to do miles of trekking. This visit is more about history than communing with nature on long hikes.

IMG_2589

A kiva structure that has been uncovered at Step House. This rounded room was likely ceremonial in nature and would have been covered with a thatched roof. It was built in a way to hold a fire, vent the room, and block incoming wind from putting out the fire.

Chapin Mesa: Cliff Palace and Balcony House

This mesa is open year-round and is the most popular spot for visitors. It features a small visitor center with a museum and two loop roads that contain various sites along the way. It also serves as access to Cliff Palace and Balcony House.

One other large cliff dwelling site, Spruce Tree House, is visible from the visitor center and used to be open to the public. However, rockfall in 2015 led to an assessment which determined the alcove above the site is unstable, and the site has remained closed due to safety concerns.

Along the loop roads, there are opportunities for you to stop and view the remains of various sites, from pit houses to kivas to overlooks that reveal far-off cliff dwellings. Each site has informational placards that teach you more about the purpose of each area.

IMG_2638

View of Cliff Palace before entering the site. The ruins look whiter than those at Long House and Balcony House due to the materials used to reconstruct the rooms. Cliff Palace was reconstructed much earlier than the other sites and the technique has evolved over time.

We first toured Cliff Palace, which you can also view from an overlook. This is the most accessible tour, as it doesn’t require any climbing or walking long distances. As we walked among the ruins, from kiva to kiva, our guide provided information about what each room was likely used for and how the native peoples survived in this harsh environment.

As a climber, I was amazed to learn that the Ancestral Puebloans seemed to climb the steep cliffs with ease, though sometimes they’d chip small indentations into the rock for their hands and feet at the steepest parts. I suppose when you’re raised climbing these steps, it’s more natural, but I was quite impressed!

IMG_2649

Wall paintings on the inside of a tower in Cliff Palace. These paintings have survived over 700 years inside of this structure and offer a glimpse into how the Ancestral Puebloans decorated their living spaces.

After our tour of Cliff Palace, we headed down the road for our Balcony House tour. While Cliff Palace was impressive for its sheer size, Balcony House had a bit more adventure thrown in, and we got to climb ladders and squeeze through tunnels while exploring the ruin.

This was my favorite tour of the day, due to the outstanding views from the balcony as well as the well-preserved nature of the site: the wooden beams present in the structure had survived over 700 years! (The area is so dry that dead trees can hang around for quite a long time before decomposing.) There’s a great video of the tour here if you want to experience it for yourself.

IMG_2657

The view over the mesa from Balcony House. Notice the wooden beams that are over seven centuries old!

Wetherill Mesa: Long House and Step House

After visiting Chapin Mesa, we drove over to Wetherill Mesa, which is much quieter than its neighbor and is closed during the winter. This remote mesa holds Long House, Step House, and a number of paved and unpaved trails. There are no services here aside from bathrooms and a small waiting area for the Long House tour, so make sure you have plenty of food and water for your visit.

Step House is visited through a self-guided tour and is just a short walk from the main parking area. The mesa also has several covered sites that you can stop at along paved walking paths. Make sure you bring a hat if you’re visiting in the summer, as the sun is brutal at over 6,000 feet and there is no shade. (I forgot mine and was so desperate I bought a new one at the campground store!)

IMG_2617

View from inside Long House looking out onto the mesas.

Long House is the only cliff dwelling tour that requires some walking to get to, and the structure is at the end of a trail just over a mile long. For those who don’t mind the mellow hike, this site is great because it feels a bit more remote than the others yet is just as large as Cliff Palace.

On this tour, you’re allowed to walk around the ruins, climb some ladders, and glimpse the seep spring at the back of the cave. The natives used this water source to their full advantage, diverting water from the moss-covered rock into tiny channels to be more easily collected.

The three tours can easily be done within a day if you plan properly, but keep in mind the time it takes to drive from one mesa to another. While each dwelling is incredible in varying ways, I think touring just one or two would be sufficient if you’re pressed for time or want a more relaxing day. I recommend checking out the video tours of each site (linked to throughout this page) if you’re debating which one to visit.

Bottom Line

If you’re already planning to be in the Four Corners area, visit Mesa Verde! While there are many hikes in the region that take you to smaller ruins, the size and number of Mesa Verde’s cliff dwellings is impressive. I also really appreciated the guided tours and the guides were all extremely knowledgeable. While it can be great to visit smaller ruins on your own, getting the story behind these crumbling walls gives new meaning to what you’re seeing.

Have you been to Mesa Verde National Park? Do you have any other tips for prospective visitors?

Wild Women: How to Get Out and Explore the World

When I created my website a year ago, one of the primary purposes of my writing was to encourage women to get outside and try new things . Being independent and expanding my own comfort zone has done so much to improve my life, and I wanted to inspire others to do the same.

Lately, I’ve noticed that many others, from companies to websites to non-profits, have had the same idea, which I think is fantastic. Last month REI launched a campaign called Force of Nature, which aims to make outside “the biggest level playing field on earth”. As I watched the promo video, which echoed all of the things women are told throughout their lives – be cute, be quiet, be dependent – I silently thought, “Yes, yes, yes!”

We need to break these stereotypes and these barriers, and I think it’s primarily going to happen on a woman to woman basis.

I have heard some negative responses to this campaign: that REI isn’t being inclusive enough, that it’s not addressing the roots of misogyny, that its primary purpose is to sell merchandise so the message doesn’t really matter because it’s just a marketing ploy.

While all of these criticisms have some valid points, I’m still quite happy to see women’s involvement in the outdoors get more exposure. Before moving to Utah and meeting so many women who were doing amazing things outside, I wasn’t exposed to a lot of the activities I enjoy now. The thought of backpacking into the wilderness would have never crossed my mind as something I personally could do, nor the thought of scaling mountain faces with friends, totally competent in our own abilities, no guide required!

I’ve encountered many different women’s groups along the way, offering classes, group events, and forums for women to meet and share experiences. I went ice climbing with a group called SheJumps, which has chapters all over the country and works to get women outside who wouldn’t otherwise have the chance to do so. (Plus they have a pretty sweet mascot!)

SheJumps Ice Climbing in Provo Canyon

Post-ice climbing with She Jumps. Despite the wind, cold, and snow, we totally rocked it. Photo: Spenser Heaps

The Outdoor Women’s Alliance just met their fundraising goal to begin creating an online platform for women to meet and mentor each other in various outdoor disciplines, and I’m excited to see the finished product. In the meantime, they’re working hard to get images of strong women out into the media in the hopes of inspiring others.

Recently I volunteered at a 5k race for Girls on the Run, an after-school program that teaches girls to appreciate their own uniqueness and strengths through physical activity, while also showing them how to push back against societal pressures of how girls “should” act. This is a program that I wish had been around when I was younger, and I’ve heard many friends echo these same feelings. There are chapters all around the country and they’re always looking for coaches if you’re interested in volunteering with them.

In addition to these organizations, there are hundreds of other groups across the country that want to help you try new things and push your limits.

IMG_1971

My first backpacking trip in Capitol Reef National Park

But, you may ask, what if signing up for a course or going to a meet-up group by myself is the scary part? I get it, I’ve been there. I used to be the shy girl who never wanted to try anything new on my own. But it comes to a point where the interest in whatever you want to do overwhelms the fear of going it alone.

In high school, I really loved French. If going to a language camp by myself was what it took to learn more, I did it. Sure, sometimes it was awkward, but the experience made me better at more than just French.

It also taught me that I could survive those awkward silences and boring small talk, and in the end I’d come out of the experience with new skills and new acquaintances. This one experience eventually lead me to study abroad for a summer in high school, move to new countries and cities, and ultimately, gave me a pretty great feeling of independence.

DSC03388

My sister and I traveled to Costa Rica and had all sorts of new adventures: rainforest hikes, waterfall swimming, and ziplining.

I realize that getting dirty, having a willingness to suffer, and going out of cell phone range isn’t for everyone (though you should try it out: 85% of women say getting outside boosts their overall well-being!). Luckily there are other ways for women to be independent and gain self-confidence than slogging along trails and enduring soggy camping trips.

One group I’ve recently discovered, Wanderful, gives advice to women travelers and has recently set up a Couchsurfing-esque hosting service just for women. They also hold an annual conference for women travel writers. Members run the gamut from adventure-loving outdoorsy types to city girls and everyone in between.

And if you’re raising a little one and want to begin imparting all of this guidance at an early age, I love the website A Mighty Girl. They have gift ideas for girls of all ages and offer daily inspiration by profiling influential women on their Facebook page. This article from Outside magazine also gives some good guidance on raising courageous girls, and I think we can all take a lesson from it!

IMG_3947

Two adventure-loving ladies I’m lucky to call my friends. Relaxing halfway through an 8-mile hike in Canyonlands National Park. Photo: Sarah Ause Kichas

Since moving to Utah and gaining so much access to the outdoors, I feel like I’ve become a stronger, more confident, and – dare I say it – happier person. It’s true that there is less pressure to look pretty, be skinny, or act meek and mild when you’re fighting your way through a hard trail run or finishing a scary climb.

So try something new. Mix up your routine, add something to your calendar that feels a little scary. Check out organizations that are willing to help you step out of your comfort zone or talk with other women in your life and see what you can teach each other.

If you know of any other organizations that might help others try new things, feel free to add them in the comments!

How to Lobby Your Congressperson in Six Easy Steps

Politics isn’t my usual blog fare, but after receiving a big response on Facebook to a post about my own lobbying experience, I thought you all might be interested in some more info. Enjoy!

I recently participated in an Advocacy Day organized by NAFSA, the professional association for international educators. This event brought together international educators of all types (international student professionals, study abroad advocates, ESL teachers, and more) and taught us how to advocate for ourselves and our profession with our Senators and Representatives.

IMG_3476

Visiting with Sen. Orrin Hatch’s staff in Washington

It was a great experience and my main take away was: anybody can do this! Seriously. It’s not as hard as you’d think, and I’m going to show you how.

1) Think about what issue you want to address.

This one is crucial. It’s important not to go in with too many varied topics or demands. Deciding on one main issue will make your meeting more impactful and will clearly convey your message. For our group, we were there on behalf of NAFSA, so they’d already picked out a couple topics for us to speak about, but they all centered on international education. Keep it simple.

2) Do some research and develop your “ask”

Once you’ve decided what’s most important to you, think about how your Congressperson can help. This is called “the ask”. What are you going to ask them to do at the end of the meeting? This can vary depending on what you’re there to discuss.

If there’s a bill already on the docket and you’d like your representative to vote for it, that’s an easy ask. You can say, “I’d like my Senator to consider co-sponsoring Bill XXX” or “I’d like my Senator to consider supporting this bill.” For example, we asked our Senators to consider supporting the Paul Simon Study Abroad Act, which was recently proposed in the Senate.

You can find all bills that have been proposed at congress.gov. By clicking on your representative’s name, you can find out which bills they’ve sponsored or co-sponsored.

If there isn’t a bill already proposed, that’s ok. You can ask for other ways for your congressperson to support your issue. For certain topics, asking them to make a floor statement in support of your issue is appropriate. We asked our congresspeople to consider making a floor statement in support of international students, considering the current political climate and the recent travel ban executive order.

Maybe there’s something else you’d like them to do. In any case, having a goal for your meeting and a specific action for the Senator or Representative to take will make your meeting more effective.

3) Set Up Your Meeting

While I skipped this part (NAFSA set up all of our meetings for us), any constituent can set up a meeting, and you don’t have to come to Washington do it! Call your representative’s office (local office or DC office, depending on where you’d like to meet), let them know you are a constituent, and ask to set up a meeting to talk about your issue.

Your Congressperson is likely very busy, and the person on the phone will probably tell you as much. But don’t give up hope! You don’t need to meet directly with your rep to get his or her ear. Ask if there is a staffer you can speak with who handles policy issues related to your topic (ie: education, energy, immigration, etc.) Ask if it’d be possible to meet with that person instead. Likely they will be able to set you up with a meeting, and then you’re ready to go!

4) Prepare for your Meeting

At this point you can start to create an outline for how you want your meeting to look. Here’s the outline that we used for our meetings:

  • Introduce yourself. Tell the staffer who you are and why you’re there. Bring your business card and don’t be afraid to ask for theirs.
  • Transition to the issues. Give your talking points and some statistics that support them.
  • Tell a story. This is where you get personal. How does this issue affect you or people you know? Strong stories are always going to be the most powerful.
  • Make the ask. Tell them what you’d like them to do.

Keep in mind that you may only get five minutes to make your point (or you may get 30 minutes!). It’s difficult to say how much time your staffer will have, how interested they’ll be in your issue, or if some other pressing matter is distracting them. Prepare to say your piece in a very short amount of time, but come ready to give more information as needed.

Also, do some research to find out how your rep feels about the issue. For example, we knew that some of our reps weren’t so interested in international ed per se, but focused a lot on national security issues. So we tried to address why international ed is actually beneficial to national security, instead of focusing on the personal growth a semester in Thailand might offer a student. Appeal to their interests.

Prepare for push back. Consider reasons your Congressperson may not support your ask. Maybe they don’t want to fund new programs or have issues with the current immigration policy. Practice your rebuttals and prepare for questions.

Finally, if you have handouts that show statistics, overviews of bills, or other documents that you’d like the staffer to reference, you can bring these too. We left a folder at each of our meetings with more information about the value of international education, statistics about state participation, and information about our association.

5) Attend your Meeting

Once you’ve done all your research and prepared your talking points, it’s time to get ready. Make sure to dress professionally and arrive early to ensure you can find the correct building and go through security, if necessary.

Things are constantly changing in government, so it’s possible that the person you’d planned to meet with is busy and someone else will meet with you instead. Just go with it. If you end up meeting with an intern who looks too young for college, just go with it. Remember, these are the people who have your representative’s ear.

If you’re lucky, your staffer will be interested in what you have to say, will have follow up questions, and will give you some insight into what your rep is thinking or doing on your issue. It’s not likely that you’ll get a firm commitment from a staffer on your “ask”, so don’t despair if the meeting ends feeling unresolved.

In some cases, you might end up meeting with someone who’s glued to a cell phone, seems to be in a hurry, or isn’t very responsive to what you have to say. In this case, read the room and end the meeting quickly if it seems appropriate. You can’t win them all.

6) Say “thank you” and then follow up

Be sure to thank your staffer for his or her time, no matter how the meeting went. If you didn’t already get a business card,  you can request one now. This meeting was the first step in the conversation, and if you’re so inclined, now’s the time to keep it going.

For example, we invited our Representative to an event on campus, and while our staffer said he’s unlikely to attend next month, they might consider sending a staffer and that we should continue to send invites. Another staffer seemed interested in hearing more about our international student population and we offered to send her more stats and stories.

A couple weeks after your meeting, reach out again and follow up. Ask if there’s anything you can do to support the issue. You’re no longer just an anonymous voice on the phone talking to an intern, so use that to your benefit.

As a note, one staffer specifically told us that she’s fine pushing off meetings with national organizations if needed, but she’ll always try to meet with constituents. While it may not seem like it matters, your vote does count and the staffers know this.

What are you waiting for?

If you’ve gotten through this guide, you have all the information you need to have a successful meeting with your rep’s office. I can guarantee it’ll be nerve-wracking the first time you do it, but once you’re finished, calling your rep’s office about other issues will feel easy.

(Speaking of calling your rep, here’s some insight from a staffer on the other end of the phone line. Keep calling!)

While this advice is based on my experience with federal representatives, you can use it to meet with state or local representatives too. While the process may be a bit different, your state and local reps also want to meet with constituents, so don’t be afraid to contact them.

Let me know in the comments if you do end up meeting anyone and how it went. Good luck!

Step by Step: A Backpacking Adventure in Capitol Reef National Park

“It’s too quiet out here, and I’m sleeping without the rainfly. The thin mesh netting seems a flimsy barrier to anything outside. But I feel a sense of independence and pride to have my own tent, to have carried all my things here, 9 miles, over the waterpocket fold and through winding canyons with tall, sheer walls hemming us in. Today I felt strong.” – Excerpt from my journal, May 21, 2016

It was bright and eerie in the stillness of the southern Utah desert as I wrote those words in my tent. Switching off my headlamp, I watched the full moon crest above the cliffs facing us, sending a column of white light across the floor of the cave.

IMG_1991

Camping in Capitol Reef National Park

This trip was the first step toward one of my goals, to go on a solo overnight camping trip. I’d organized the outing with some women I’d met through a local hiking group, and it was my first time backpacking. We decided on a one-night, 18-mile excursion deep in the heart of Capitol Reef National Park. The trail we chose to follow, Lower Muley Twist, climbs over a geologic formation called the waterpocket fold and then follows a deep canyon for seven miles before exiting out onto wash-filled flats.

IMG_1936

The other-worldly Waterpocket Fold

The others in my group had backpacked before, and they were confident in our ability to complete the hike. Theoretically, I knew that I could do it with proper planning. Yet with this being my first backpacking trip, there were a few things that made me a bit nervous:

It was remote. The trailhead was 30 miles down a rarely-traveled and deeply-rutted dirt road, an hour’s drive from park services. Moreover, the trail was unmaintained and saw few visitors.

It was dry. There was no water available on trail, meaning we’d have to carry everything we needed for two days of hiking in the early-summer heat.

Finally, could I walk 18 miles in two days with a heavy backpack on my shoulders?

*

Weeks later, I snapped shut my rented REI backpack and hoisted it on my back. I wasn’t at all sure I’d be able to tote this monstrosity 18 miles across the desert, but as I looked out over the wild expanse of twisted rock and then back toward my eager friends, I knew I had to try.

IMG_1927

Ready for whatever comes my way

Our first day brought a steep climb over the waterpocket fold, its white rock sloping upward toward the sky as we meandered past rock cairns and occasionally braved steep dropoffs. Two miles in, we dropped over the ridge and descended into Muley Twist Canyon, so named because it was narrow and crooked enough to “twist a mule”. Pioneers had used this path since the late 1800s, emigrating south with their wagons. Later, cowboys would use the canyon’s massive caves as a shadowy respite from the hot desert sun.

IMG_1967

Breathtaking scenery make the hiking worth it

We wandered along the canyon floor, our path easy to follow as thousand-foot tall Kayenta sandstone walls soared above us. Occasional gusts of wind sent sand flying, scouring our limbs as we shielded our eyes. But mostly it was a pleasant walk under a heavy pack that felt more tolerable as the day wore on.

We covered ground quickly on flat, sandy paths and slowly picked our way across scattered pebbles in dry washes. Occasionally we’d encounter huge piles of boulders or soaring, curved ceilings of stone, undercut from the rock above.

IMG_1977

Late in the day, we began looking for a spot to camp. Finally we arrived at the Cowboy cave, a massive bowl carved out from the rock. We marveled at the markings left by young cowboys nearly a hundred years ago and examined the artifacts amassed around a fire pit. Old tin cans of beans, cigarette cartons, and bits of tools had been preserved by fellow hikers, a testament to their respect and also the remoteness of this place.

IMG_1993IMG_1987

While we relaxed and had dinner, two hikers passed by, making them the only other people we’d encounter during our journey. Soon after, the sun began to set and we set up our various sleeping systems: tents or bivvies or open air pads.

I snuggled up in my sleeping bag, looking out across the cave floor and into the sky above. I’d done it, I thought, at least halfway. Too exhausted to write more than a couple phrases about my journey, I was asleep by 9pm.

*

The next morning dawned with blue skies and bright sun, and we lingered over breakfast before hoisting our bags on our packs once more. Only another mile of canyon walking remained; the rest of the route was in open fields over sandy trail. After exiting the canyon, we decided to detour to Hamburger Rocks, a peculiar formation of round, red stone up on the waterpocket fold.

IMG_2004

Hamburger rocks, an oddity on the Waterpocket Fold

After several goofy photos and some trail finding confusion, we continued on under intense sun, finishing the final 5 miles over flat, red dirt with dreams of cold Apricot Hefeweizens dancing in our heads.

The cars became visible at least a mile out, becoming somewhat of a tease as we continued to walk and seemed to get no closer. Finally, finally we arrived. I’d done it. Survived my first backpacking trip, suffered very little, and experienced so much. I felt strong, I felt relaxed, I felt badass. I’d fallen even more in love with the desert, and I’d turned acquaintances into friends.

What’s funny is that once it was over, it didn’t feel like such a big deal anymore. The thought of carrying everything you need to survive off into a remote place sounds so daunting, but with a bit of planning and optimism, it felt easy. I suppose that can be true for many unknown projects, destinations, or ideas – it’s only in going for it that you wonder why you’d waited so long in the first place.

All in all, the trip was a success. And my new backpack (which I have since purchased) is ready for another adventure!

IMG_1995

Do One Thing: Rock Climbing

Do One Thing is an occasional series based on the well-known idea: “do one thing everyday that scares you”. These posts will explore fear and the subsequent outcome of trying something new.

I never considered myself strong or athletic while growing up. I wasn’t even really active until after college, when I started running along Lake Michigan a couple times a week.

So if you ask me how that girl turned into the woman finding her way up rock faces with a bunch of carabiners and slings attached to her harness, I’d have to tell you I’m not really sure.

climbing-prophecy

Learning to lead climb near St. George, Utah

After moving to Vermont, the man I’d just begun dating asked if I’d like to try rock climbing at the indoor gym near his place. He was afraid of heights and thought this might help him overcome his fear. I had no idea what climbing entailed, and I was certain my arms were far too weak, yet I accepted his invitation with a smile, as one is apt to do when newly in love.

At the gym, we learned how to tie a figure-eight knot and practiced belaying, trusting each other not to be dropped from 30 feet up. At the end of the night, I made it to the top of a 5.6 route (the easiest in the gym) and couldn’t have been happier, even though my forearms were throbbing from gripping the hard, plastic holds.

Somehow though, it was addicting.

We returned to the gym. There was a membership deal: commit to one year and receive a free harness, belay device, chalk bag, and climbing shoes. We signed up for a dual membership, putting full faith not only in our ability to remain interested in rock climbing for the next 12 months, but also each other.

The fascinating thing about climbing is that it requires both physical and mental strength. Sure, you need to be strong to climb hard, but you also have to think about technique, understand body position, and find the unique path upward that works for you. It’s creative and tiring at the same time, and also incredibly satisfying when everything comes together and you make it to the top.

bouldering-moes

Topping out a boulder in Moe’s Valley

We continued to climb at the gym and after relocating to Salt Lake City, our climbing gym membership was the first thing we set up after signing a lease.

Now there weren’t only plastic holds to pull on, but an entire mountain range that loomed over the city. Climbing outside was the next logical step, and so we hired a guide to try it out. We spent a weekend in Red Rock Canyon, inching up sandstone slabs on top rope under the warm February sun. It’s an understatement to say I liked it.

climbing-red-rock-2

First outdoor climbing experience in Red Rock

The following month, I took a course on learning to lead climb and build anchors. I continued to acquire gear, take classes, and try out routes on a half-dozen types of rock around the state. I discovered the sticky texture of standstone and granite, pulled up on slippery blocks of quartzite, and found perfectly round pockets in limestone faces. I can now make sense of photos like this one:

self-rescue-course

Practicing rope management and anchor systems during a self-rescue class

But as much as I love climbing, it can also be utterly terrifying.

I am nervous every single time I tie in and start up a route outside. I’ve learned that a) this is normal and b) the anxiety diminishes with experience, but that doesn’t make it easier when I’m risking a fifteen-foot fall onto a ledge and I’m worried about my foot popping off a tiny sliver-sized protrusion.

Last summer I participated in a two-day falling and commitment clinic in Colorado, practicing falling safely and getting comfortable climbing above my protection. While it’s helped a bit, fear in climbing is an ongoing battle for me, albeit one that’s common among many climbers.

falling-clinic

Practicing lead falls in Boulder Canyon

Yet there’s something seductive about the combination of mental fortitude, body awareness, and beautiful landscapes that keeps me climbing past the fear.

I never thought I’d consider myself a “climber”, enjoy weight training at 6am before work, or find myself hanging from the top of a cliff by a thin tether as I set up for a fifty-foot rappel, but sometimes life has a funny way of giving you exactly what you need.

With all of the ups and downs of the past few years, climbing has been a constant presence and challenge, providing me with focus, persistence, and a sense of accomplishment.

It’s likely that climbing isn’t your thing, but if you’re interested in trying it out after reading my story, I encourage you to give it a go. Most indoor climbing gyms are welcoming and offer beginner courses regularly. Otherwise, let this be a reminder to be open to new experiences. You never know when a nonchalant invitiation might just become your newest passion.

bouldering-moes-2

Getting familiar with the sandstone at Moe’s Valley

Nature Therapy: Lessons from the Desert

Recently I spent the weekend in the desert, walking through sagebrush, across slickrock, and past prickly pear cacti, listening to the wind and the silence. I watched the sun set over a fragmented, ever-changing landscape that has seen a million sunsets. The lack of urgency and the desert’s steady existence calmed me.

The trip had been planned last minute. I left on a Friday afternoon, driving down to Moab with a friend. Our glorious, 48-hour trip was filled with juniper and sunsets, red rock and puffy coats, and not a single news article or radio rant. We didn’t even have cell service half the time.

And after a rough November –  filled with election drama, overwhelming social media posts, and protests in the streets – it was so healing.

desert_canyonlands-sunset

Sunset at Murphy Point, Island in the Sky district, Canyonlands National Park (Photo: Sarah Ause Kichas)

It can be easy to forget how crucial nature is when life is busy, you’re feeling down and sitting on the couch feels easier than going outside. That’s exactly when you need to do it anyway. Being outside has been proven to reduce anxiety and rumination while increasing mental clarity and self-compassion.

Don’t believe me? Maybe National Geographic can convince you.

While being able to visit national parks on a whim is a luxury (and one I’m constantly grateful to have), you don’t even need access to wilderness to reap the benefits. While I very much recommend getting in the car and heading to the nearest trailhead, even spending 20 minutes at a nearby park has been proven to help.

Get outside, use those lungs, let your eyes wander. Be curious. Don’t think of anything in particular, except maybe to remark on the odd angle of that tree branch, or how the air feels cold on your cheeks, or notice it’s actually quiet for the first time all day. Don’t check your phone. I repeat: stay away from your phone. Seriously.

desert_arches-hike

Exploring a wash near Park Avenue trail in Arches National Park

Even moments of silence can teach the greatest of lessons. As I walked along Neck Spring trail that weekend, I thought about change and time and how small actions can produce massive results.

Narrow rivers can carve deep canyons through dense rock, simply by continuing to flow forward. Constant wind smooths even the roughest of stone. A million, tiny actions can, over time, create new pathways, transform landscapes, even send tall, sturdy walls crashing down.

Noticeable change doesn’t always happen overnight, but don’t let that fool you. Change is happening all around us, constantly. Be the river, the wind, the tiny grain of sand. Alone, you may feel powerless, but together, we have the power to move the earth.

desert_dead-horse-hike

Overlook at Dead Horse Point State Park (Photo: Sarah Ause Kichas)

Trust the Process: Lessons from a Half Marathon in the Desert

This past weekend I ran The Other Half, a 13.1 mile road race outside of Moab, Utah, which winds its way along the Colorado River and through sandstone cliffs and desert sagebrush.

fullsizerender

Starting out through the canyon, just after sunrise.

I had begun training in August, and as the race approached, I found myself getting anxious. No matter that I’d completed my long training runs without any issues, or that I’d faithfully adhered to a training plan I’ve used before. I kept thinking about the the “what ifs”.

What if I get a bad side stitch? What if my knee starts to hurt too much? What if my stomach doesn’t cooperate? Will I be hydrated enough? Too much?

When these crazy thoughts started to pop up, I kept reminding myself to trust the process. I had prepared to the best of my ability. There was no reason to believe I wouldn’t succeed, if all went well.

img_2965

My well-worn training plan, adapted from Hal Higdon’s website.

And if something did come up? If I got a cramp or food poisoning or any number of other unpredictable issues? Well, that’s the thing about running.

You can prepare all you want, hitting the pavement in bad weather or waking up before dawn to sneak in a few miles. You can follow the training plan perfectly, fuel the right way, and wear your favorite shoes, but there’s no telling how it will go exactly on race day.  In that few minutes before the gun goes off, you hope that it was enough and wish for the best.

Luckily for me, my lingering doubts were left behind in the cold desert air as I passed the starting line. At the last minute, I challenged myself not only to finish, but also to follow a pacer for as far as I could. I chose a pace that was reasonable but also ambitious, and I managed to stick with it for the whole race.

fullsizerender_1

Sandstone cliffs on sandstone cliffs.

So not only did the race go well, but I also accomplished the extra challenge I threw in at the last minute! It was a good reminder to stop stressing out and have faith in my own abilities. If you’ve put in the work, the uncontrollable details aren’t worth the worry, and they likely won’t materialize anyway.

So lace up your shoes, you’ve got this!

b5293cb2-5434-4ee9-91fe-7eb3fcab3300

13.1 miles later… at the finish.

Do One Thing: Whitewater Rafting

Do One Thing is an occasional series based on the well-known idea: “do one thing everyday that scares you”. These posts will explore fear and the subsequent outcome of trying something new.

I’ve always felt that the general population sees whitewater rafting as a fairly benign, family-friendly sort of outing. Anyone who’s visited an area where it’s popular has undoubtedly seen stacks of rafts piled high on trailers and vans full of excited rafters zipping down the road. Children love it, adults adore it. It can’t be that bad, right?

Despite all that, I’ve always been terrified at the prospect of barreling down a river engulfed in waves, the raft folding into various contortions as it bounces along, potentially tossing rafters overboard at random, where who knows what could happen. Swallowing river water? Hitting submerged rocks? Getting trapped underwater? Drowning? Death?

This was seriously scary business, and they let children do it?!

When I was young, my mom went to visit her sister in Arizona and they went whitewater rafting. She returned home with a bruise on her leg the size of a dinner plate and a massively scabby, scratched up knee; her battle wounds from being thrown out of the raft during a class IV rapid section.

I already have a serious aversion to putting my head underwater, despite years of swimming lessons as a child, and this horror story only confirmed my opinion that rafting was a ridiculous activity and no sane person should do it.

Fast forward to June 2016, when my boyfriend returned from a family reunion with stories of a rafting trip he’d done with relatives. We were planning a camping trip to Jackson, Wyoming, for the following month. “Wouldn’t it be fun to go rafting while we’re there?” he asked enthusiastically.

Though every cell of my body did not agree, I said, “Well, maybe…” After all, it was him who convinced me to try rock climbing, which ended up becoming a hobby I really enjoy. Maybe it’d be fun after all?

A couple of weeks later, we were stepping into the Snake river and pushing off in our inflatable raft with Mad River Boat Trips. We’d chosen to ride in a smaller boat, which promised a more intense experience, and I had real misgivings as our guide showed us how to shove our feet into the boat’s corners to remain in place when the ride got bumpy.

We traveled eight miles down river and went through five class III rapids, with mostly leisurely paddling in between each. I’m happy to report I didn’t get thrown overboard, and our entire party of six remained in the boat at all times.

achristian-1045am-july2-mr-4

Into the thick of it. Paddling our way through Big Kahuna rapids. Photo: Snake River Photo

Facts:

1. The water was cold. So cold it took my breath away. So cold I felt like I was doing a polar bear plunge each time we dropped into a bowl of waves and a wall of ice water enveloped me in a frozen, just-melted-off-the-mountain kind of way.

2. The rapids were pretty intense. My boyfriend had insisted we sit up front to fully experience the action, but even as a rafting veteran, he said these rapids were much crazier than anything he’d experienced in the southeastern United States.

3. If you shove your feet too far into the crack along the side of the boat, your feet will go numb. Just sayin’.

4. It’s possible to have fun and be terrified at the same time. It’s a fine line between comfortable and get-me-out-of-here, and this trip rode that line all the way to shore. Each time we approached a big section of rapids, my stomach dropped. I just didn’t know what to expect. There is no way to predict how the waves will hit the boat or what direction it (and you) will move in.

achristian-1045am-july2-mr-7

Moving through Big Kahuna. Photo: Snake River Photo

It’s like this: As the water hits your face, you’re blinded, and in that moment, you wait for the sensation of being lifted off the raft and deposited in the water, cold and disoriented and hopefully not being thrashed to death.

But then somehow, you’re still in the boat, and the water is still splashing you but not as much, and you paddle, paddle, paddle, and then it calms down, and you’re still alive. And the sun is shining. And you’re on the river in Wyoming, and you’re facing your fears, and all in all, it’s a very good day.

Crossing Borders: A Visit to Waterton Lakes National Park

While researching my trip to Glacier National Park, I noticed that most guide books also had information on Waterton Lakes National Park. What was this park, and why had I never heard of it?

I quickly learned this park is in Canada, and along with Glacier National Park, comprises the first International Peace Park, which was dedicated in 1932. Straddling the border between the state of Montana and the province of Alberta, the union aims to protect the unique biodiversity in this Rocky Mountain region.

Since Waterton wasn’t too far from where we’d be staying in Glacier, my boyfriend and I decided to finish out our trip with a quick visit to our Canadian neighbors.

Following are some tips, observations, and stories from our 24 hours in Canada:

Border Crossing #1: Land

If you’re planning to check out Waterton Lakes, don’t forget your passport! The border crossing closest to the east side of Glacier is on the Chief Mountain highway and is only open in the summer, with the majority of traffic being park-visiting tourists.

I’ve found it’s not common for Canadian authorities to stamp American passports, but they will do it if you ask. However, I had to laugh when I saw the novelty stamp I received at this crossing. Nothing official, no entry dates, just an inky image of an elk. Right.

IMG_2751

All the best passport stamps have wildlife on them.

Waterton Lakes Town Site

Waterton Lakes is unlike its Glacier counterpart in that there is an actual town located within the park. It’s a small hamlet on the shore of Upper Waterton Lake, and only 88 hardy residents live there year-round. The remaining homes fill up in the summer with tourists who come to paddle in the lake, hike up nearby mountains, and finish the day with a massive ice cream cone from Big Scoop.

The town is filled with hotels, restaurants, sweets shops, and gear rental companies. Deer regularly wander through the streets and bears make the occasional appearance; all dumpsters and garbage cans are equipped with bear-resistant features.

We treated ourselves to dinner at the Lakeside Chophouse, a steakhouse with a panoramic view of the lake and its towering cliffs. Thanks to the favorable exchange rate, our meal was reasonably priced and exceptionally decadent, especially after five days of camping!

Border Crossing #2: Water

One of the most popular activities for visitors is the boat ride across Upper Waterton Lake. Two-hour scenic tours run a couple times a day on the M.V. International. The boat was built on the shore of the lake in 1927 and has been in use ever since.

IMG_2535

Nearly a hundred years old and still ferrying tourists across the lake every year.

The novelty of the boat tour, aside from the views of sharp peaks dropping abruptly to the shore, is getting to cross the American-Canadian border by boat. In 1925, the International Boundary Commission was created to maintain the border between the two countries. Part of the agreement included maintaining a 6-meter swath of land that’s cleared of vegetation for the entire length of the border. Think thousands and thousands of miles.

This clearing is visible from the lake in both directions, and little stone obelisks mark the border on the shoreline. It’s pretty incredible to imagine that trail workers come in every 12 years or so to clear the border by hand, undeterred by major mountainous obstacles.

IMG_2536

A clear-cut line straight up the mountainside, the border between Canada and the United States is impossible to miss and goes on for thousands of miles.

The boat then continues on to Goat Haunt, a U.S. border crossing and the trail head for several hikes in Glacier National Park. Visitors have 30 minutes to look around the area, which is little more than a rustic visitor center, a couple backpacking shelters, and a ranger station.

If you want to hike into Glacier, you need to clear customs, and on the day of our visit, you did this at a picnic table next to the ranger station. A picnic table! When I inquired how it all works, the agents told me that they reside in Montana and drive across the border into Canada daily, where they board a speedboat at Waterton Lakes, travel the 7 miles across the lake, and then work out of the ranger station for the day. They return the way they came every evening. Not your typical border agent assignment, especially with the occasional bear wandering into the “office”!

(As a side note, when I inquired how it worked for hikers coming out of Goat Haunt and returning to Waterton, the agents insinuated that the Canadian authorities are a bit more relaxed about their border, and hikers simply need to call up the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to meet them when they arrive back in Waterton.)

IMG_2547

The best border crossing sign I’ve ever seen.

We weren’t doing any hiking that day, so after snapping some more photographs, we boarded the boat and motored back to Canada.

IMG_2540.JPG

Views from the boat, looking north into Canada.

Prince of Wales Hotel

After our boat docked, we decided to check out the Prince of Wales hotel. Impossible to miss, this majestic hotel was built in 1927 by the Great Northern Railway in an effort to lure tourists to visit Glacier National Park. It’s fascinating how much of Glacier National Park’s infrastructure was created by the railroad company, and many hotels, back country lodges, and trails that the company created still exist today.

IMG_2560

The Price of Wales hotel was built to resemble a Swiss lodge, part of the railway’s marketing campaign to draw wealthy visitors away from their standard European vacations.

While I didn’t get to see any of the rooms, the hotel lobby still gives off an air of 1920’s wealth and charm. The hotel hosts an afternoon tea, and a well-appointed dining room is open to the public at meal times. The most spectacular part of the hotel was the magnificent views from its large picture windows, enough to make a girl swoon.

IMG_2558

Hotel visitors having afternoon tea at the Prince of Wales hotel.

Visiting the Park

Given the variable weather and sore legs from hiking day before, we decided to forego any hiking during our short visit. Unfortunately, the Akamina Parkway – one of only two roads in the park – was closed for construction, which left us with limited sightseeing options.

We chose to check out the Red Rock Parkway, which ends at the Red Rock Canyon. Winding our way through fields, we ended up at a narrow gorge striated with red and white rocks.

IMG_2561

Red Rock Canyon, Waterton Lakes National Park.

Having seen only half the park by road, I can’t make a complete assessment of its hiking opportunities, but my feeling is that the best scenery is accessed via longer hikes into the mountains. However, we did spot an adolescent grizzly bear loping around near the road on the way out of the park!

Stardust Motel

Instead of staying in Waterton Park (we were late making reservations and everything was quite expensive), we booked a night at the Stardust Hotel in the nearby town of Pincher Creek. While it was clear the building had been around for a long time, all the rooms have been completely remodeled with wood floors, thoughtful decor, and modern bathrooms. We even had a dedicated WiFi router and fresh cream in the fridge for our coffee à la Keurig. To top it off, the owner was really friendly and helped us re-route our drive home to shave off some time.

With the exchange rate, the room only set us back around $80. Highly recommended if you ever find yourself in Pincher Creek, Alberta!

IMG_2569

A cozy place to rest at the Stardust Motel.

Bottom Line

Our quick trip to Waterton Lakes was a fun adventure and a chance to explore a new province in Canada. That said, I didn’t find the scenery as spectacular as in Glacier National Park. I’d primarily recommend this trip if you have the desire to hike into the backcountry or if you have the extra time and want the novelty of traveling to Canada. While Glacier is the spot to do a lot of hiking and witness jaw-dropping views, Waterton Lakes seems best suited for a laid-back vacation spent on the lake.