Back to Banff

Two weeks ago, we drove through the Columbia River Basin on our way to Portland.  Eight days later it was engulfed flames.  The beautiful watershed we witnessed is gone and won’t be back for a century.

Columbia River gorge

Columbia River gorge

Columbia River Gorge (courtesy of katu.com)

Columbia River Gorge (courtesy of katu.com)

We've since been to the Oregon coast, Squamish British Columbia and Banff National Park in Alberta.  On our way into Banff, we drove through the neighboring Glacier National Park.  We were all surprised to see the smoke rising up from the hillsides and realize how close we were to the fires smoldering across hectares of forest floor. 

We've wanted to go to Banff ever since we were introduced to the Banff Mountain Film Festival.  We arrived there on a beautiful, clear day, took lots of pictures and marveled at the turquoise river, the arching peaks and the crisp blue sky.  The fresh smell of pine needles made everything that much sweeter. 

The next day smoke from Glacier Park fires blew downwind to fill and obscure the Banff valley.  The blue skies were replaced with smoky haze; a different kind of beauty. 

Lake Louise in Banff.  The peaks and glacier are obscured by the wildfire smoke.

Lake Louise in Banff.  The peaks and glacier are obscured by the wildfire smoke.

Lake Louise and the Fairmont Chateau.  The Rockies in the distance are invisible.

Lake Louise and the Fairmont Chateau.  The Rockies in the distance are invisible.

These past two weeks seem to have been weeks of major disasters:  Hurricane Irma in the Caribbean, the earthquake in Mexico, the wildfires throughout the Pacific Northwest.  When we drove through the Columbia River Basin it was green and verdant, now it’s black and charred.  When we lived on Fezywig near the Caribbean island of St. Maarten it was lush and vibrant.  Now it’s decimated.  I know nature has it’s cycles, and destruction is just as much a part of the life cycle as anything.  I believe many of nature’s cycles span the equivalent of many human lifetimes and even the duration of multiple civilizations.  Valleys carved by glaciers and are rivers are only one example.  Nature won’t always stay the way we know it.  And that’s okay.  But I don’t want to miss it.  I assume Yosemite Valley will always be there.  But maybe not.  I assume the Grand Canyon and the Caribbean will always be there.  But maybe they won't.  If I keep putting off doing the things I want to see and do, they may not be there when I'm finally ready.

We’ve received word from friends in St. Maarten.  Everyone we know appears to be safe.  They have very limited water, electricity and communication, but they are safe.  Then again, Hurricane Jose is bearing down on them as I write.  If you'd like to help, click here.

We're dropping off our second daughter at college this weekend, which I suppose is one reason I have loss on my mind.  And I’m witnessing the rapid speed with which our world can change.  Just as nature changes, so do our relationships.  People die.  Kids go to college.  Friends move.  As we Ortons take this road trip, I’m grateful to be with my family doing what we said we’ve always wanted to do, not putting it off.  Someday I hope to come back to these beautiful places.  I like to believe they will still be here.  This week in particular, I’m reminded, if we wait we might miss it.  I'm sad for everyone who won't get to see the Columbia River Gorge as I did.  But undoubtedly, from destruction comes new growth.  I see that in every student beginning something new.  And even though we don't study Latin much these days, I hope every student knows what the Roman poet, Horace, meant when he said, "Carpe Diem."  

Snuggle fest in the van in Banff.  Spending time wtih the people who matter most to me.

Snuggle fest in the van in Banff.  Spending time wtih the people who matter most to me.

I'm Learning a Lot

by EMILY ORTON

Dropping two daughters at college this fall is a thin excuse for what is really a three-month rock-climbing trip.  Karina is already set up at BYU-Provo.  Classes start Tuesday.  Today, Alison is set up on hanging belay halfway up a 450-foot slab of granite route called Skywalker with Erik lead climbing five pitches.  It’s their last climb together before BYU-Idaho orientation next week. While other moms are buying back to school supplies, I'm buying propane canisters, but I'm learning a lot.  

Always ready to wait for a good climb.  They are on Skywalker in Shannon Falls right now.  I'm sure pictures will come.

Always ready to wait for a good climb.  They are on Skywalker in Shannon Falls right now.  I'm sure pictures will come.

Now I know a place as beautiful as Squamish, BC, Canada, exists.  I’ve never seen the water meet forested mountains like this. 

Now I know that even when it seems like I’ll never make it out of the parking lot, continued patience will see me through to the summit. [First blood -  Alison fell on the trail.  Then, I locked the keys in the car and we had to wait, in the rain, for a local tow-trucker to bail us out.]

Now I know a good mom will encourage her children to run across four lanes of highway traffic, with a good dad leading the way, to climb a gorgeous slab of granite shooting straight up out of the water. 

Now I know that tension between Erik and I can sometimes be the best thing in the world.

Erik picked a route called Slot Machine close to our campsite for a couple’s climb.  I like climbing, but I'm scared of heights.  I don't even like pictures of people in high places.  I decided not to psyche myself out by asking too many questions about difficulty ratings.  Erik believed I could do it so I relied on his confidence.  The first move was reportedly the hardest.  Fortunately, another couple was waiting behind us.  They offered suggestions. After several slips and silent prayers, I found a place to grip my toes and lift past the crux (crux = hardest section of a route). 

I jammed toes, fingers, and elbows all the way up the fissure in the rock to the end of the first pitch expecting to find Erik on a comfortable ledge.  I’d never heard the term hanging belay, but that’s what it was.  There was a down-slanting hollow just wide enough to hold two pairs of shoes.  I held my body flat against the rock keeping one hand jammed into the slot. 

“I know it’s counterintuitive, but lean back in your harness,” Erik said.  “Take the weight off your feet.  Put your foot up on the face of the rock.  Get comfortable.”

I tried to mimic his relaxed posture.  The bolts and chains looked solid.  I’d never looked closely at the anchors Erik built, but this one was stunningly reassuring.  I looked down at how far we’d come.  I looked out at the water shimmering with the last fragments of sunlight.  This view is one of the pay-offs.

“Belay on,” I said.

“Climbing,” Erik said.

I told myself I was feeling pretty comfortable there, but this selfie revealed the truth. 

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The second pitch was less difficult than the first and my confidence was up, but I was still highly motivated by the fact that it would soon be over and we could walk down.  Just when I thought I’d made it, I got stuck cleaning out the last stopper nut that Erik had placed.  Again, he advised me to lean into the harness.  I told my body to let go of the granite and sit into nothingness.  I was essentially in child’s pose, but vertical and hanging over the side of a cliff.  I used a little tool to beat and tug and that stubborn chunk of metal stuck in the rock.  It finally popped out and I clipped it to my harness, but it was dragging.  It snagged in the crack three more times before I got my knees to the final ledge.  Then it stuck firm again.  Erik attached me to the anchor and then reached down with the cleaning tool to grab that pesky stopper.

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The end.  We had done it.  I hope the summit selfie shows how proud I felt completing that challenge despite the scary moments.  I hope it shows how grateful I am for a patient, competent partner.  I hope it shows how happy I am to be with Erik in times of joy and sorrow.  I like to say that the summit is the halfway point, but the uncertainty ended there.  Once I’d climbed up the cliff, I knew I could walk back down again.

I remember when I was scared of deep water and then I discovered snorkeling.  I loved it. This felt like that.  I took a gamble on Slot Machine.  I faced some fears.  I didn’t conquer them, but I learned that I can walk with them.  I think that’s how confidence starts.  I’m looking forward to slippery holds, silent prayers and more stunning views in the weeks ahead.

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Totality

By ERIK ORTON

I woke up on the floor a cheap hotel in Toledo, Ohio.  Despite there being seven of us, we’d only gotten one room.  There were two reasons for this:  1) we only have two bedrooms at home, so one room while traveling seemed sufficient and 2) I’m a cheapskate.  The four bigger kids took the two beds and Lily slept on the floor in a sleeping bag with me and Emily.  I unzipped my sleeping bag, walked into the bathroom, killed a cockroach and took a lukewarm shower.  Everyone else was still asleep.  It had been a long day.  After getting dressed I sat down to map out our next day.

We estimated it would take us 9 hours to drive from New York City to Toledo.  It took us 12.  That was thanks to all the delays Emily detailed last week.  But we arrived at 11pm and snuggled into our tiny-for-seven room.

I'm sure we broke some sort of fire code.

I'm sure we broke some sort of fire code.

When we left that first morning we didn’t know where we would sleep that night.  We’d roughed out the idea of making it to Toledo because that would make it a four day trip out to Portland, where we would visit my sister.  Right before we left, we’d run into Elder P who was serving a mission in Manhattan.  We told him we were taking our daughter to college at BYU-Idaho in Rexburg.

“My wife and I have a house in Rexburg,” Elder P told us.  “Do you have a place to stay when you drop her off?” he asked.  I told him we didn’t.   “You should stay at our home.  There’s nobody there right now.”   Wow.  What a generous offer.  We didn’t really know anyone in Rexburg so it felt perfect.

We had planned to get Alison to school the weekend after Labor Day, in time for freshman orientation.  Meanwhile we would head to Portland to see the eclipse and visit Squamish and Banff up in western Canada before looping back to Idaho. 

Fast forward a couple days.  We were off our original schedule due to the roof rack delays.  We weren’t going to make it to Portland in time for the eclipse but we could make it to Rexburg, and it was in the 100% totality zone.  However, it would be at the height of hotel shortages and scalper prices.  We texted Elder P, “Might it be possible to stay at your house on the way out as well?” 

As we munched our continental breakfast in Toledo, the response came back, “Sure.”  And even though we’d offered to pay, he wouldn’t accept our money.  The generosity continued.  Then came the report from his daughter who also lived in Rexburg:  traffic was already crazy, bring your own groceries, gas may not be available.  We wanted to see the eclipse, but we didn’t want to be in a mosh-pit.  We thought it might be a good idea to get there a day early and be settled.  As we drove west down I-80, we asked all the kids to take out their ear buds.  “How would you feel about driving straight through non-stop to Rexburg?”  We conveyed the updates and our reasoning.  They were game.  With the college girls still with us, we had four drivers.  Just like on Fezywig, we would take watches and drive through the night.  We made it from Manhattan to Rexburg in fifty-five hours.  2,250 miles.

The house was beautiful and spacious with plenty of beds.  We had half a tank of gas and we’d even managed to get groceries in Nebraska.  The only outstanding issue was getting eclipse glasses.  Emily heard they were selling for $50/pair.  The guys we’d talked to while buying gas in Wyoming said hotel rooms in Casper were $590/night.   The scalping was in full-swing.  We were in Rexburg, but would we be able to get glasses so we could actually look at the eclipse we’d come to see?  We walked to campus to scout things out.  A sign said the campus bookstore would open the next morning and would be selling glasses.  We hoped.

Emily and I were up at 7am to get there early.  They had plenty of glasses and were selling them for $2/pair.  We bought seven pairs and happily walked back home.

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I’ve never seen anything as beautiful as the total solar eclipse.  Emily described it as a “crown jewel in the sky.”  I didn’t take any pictures.  I wanted to simply be present.  I left the images to the professionals.  But I saw a 360 degree sunset, the temperature dropped 20 degrees, stars appeared behind us and the moon sparkled with a halo, making the clear ‘night sky’ glow the most exquisite shade of blue.  I was glad we’d come.

Zig Ziger once asked the rhetorical question: if someone offered you an all expense paid trip for two to Hawaii and your flight left the next day, how quickly could you organize your life to go?  I think the answer is:  pretty quick.  When we’re motivated, we can act.  When we knew we had a comfortable home with lots of beds waiting for us in a 100% totality zone for something that hadn't happened in 100 years, we got motivated.  We drove around the clock until we’d covered the 2,250 miles.

I’m grateful for the generosity of others.  I’m grateful for my growing trust that things will work out.  And I’m grateful for the beautiful sun, moon and stars.  Totality. 

Sleeping Together on a Cliff

by ERIK ORTON

I told Emily I wanted to honeymoon on the side of a cliff.  She wasn’t amused.  Ever since I was a teenager I’ve wanted to climb a big wall.  A ‘big wall’ is a rock climb that generally takes more than one day, so you end up sleeping on a ledge or portaledge.  Emily and I didn’t honeymoon on a cliff, but we got married anyway.

Emily, this coulda been us.

Emily, this coulda been us.

Then life happened and I got distracted.  However, last year I reset my mind toward the idea of a big wall, which is why I went to Yosemite to scout things out.  But there were several obstacles.  I outlined some of them here.  The first real challenge was, I’d gotten out of shape.  I’m not a big fitness buff and I don’t diet, but I made some small, consistent steps in that direction and wrote about that here

Fast forward 10 more months.  Or perhaps I should say, slow forward 10 months, because I’m finally accepting the reality that slow is how most things happen.  I have a high appetite for work and activity, and I like results.  As the song from Queen says, “I want it all, and I want it now!”  But that doesn’t change the fact that—in my experience—most progress and change happens slowly, incrementally, over long periods of time.

As part of this change, Emily and I started going for a walk everyday.  Rain, shine, snow or sleet, we started our day with a walk.  And then we started doing a few stretches and push-ups.  And then I made this video (click the CC button for captions).

Leveling Up

Leveling Up

We’re preparing for a rock climbing road trip this fall.  Erik will climb big walls (rock faces that take more than one day to climb).  The rest of us will stick to hiking and beginner climbs.  We will do a lot of camping.  I hope our kids will learn to love being outdoors by experience and example.  We started moving in the direction of this dream last fall by taking our family camping and rock climbing once a month.

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6 Ways to Shake Things Up

6 Ways to Shake Things Up

Yesterday I mailed our 10th set of annual homeschool assessments.  We never planned to homeschool.  Our first child got into our first choice lottery school in New York City.  That became our anchor.  Like most parents we planned our lives around the school calendar.  We gave up job and travel opportunities that might jeopardize our kids’ places in school.  Erik left for work at the same time the girls were released.  We complained about rarely being together, but we didn’t question.  School was a given.

The simple version of this story is that one day Karina asked if she could be homeschooled; that question opened the door to more questions.

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The Ancient Art of Waiting

The Ancient Art of Waiting

I’m terrible at waiting.  I don’t like it.  I’m a big believer in taking action and getting things done.  That’s good, right?  Not always.  Sometimes taking action can be a big mistake.  Sometimes the hardest thing to do is nothing.

I’m not talking about procrastination or laziness.  I’m talking about the discipline to not undertake wasteful, superfluous tasks, thus being able to focus on, and actually do, the things that will truly make an impact.  It’s about avoiding busyness and choosing effectiveness.

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