WORD of MOUTH: Volume 4 - Steve Howe (part 1)

Posted on March 10, 2015 by Chhun Tang | 0 Comments

Photos by Steve Howe unless otherwise noted


A kid in a candy store, bright eyed and filled with content, that was one of the first things that we noticed hiking and canyoneering with Steve Howe. We could see how excited he was to be outside and it was so striking because he retained his childlike enthusiasm even after having spent the better part of 40 years exploring the world. Now at age 60, he’s seen and done many things we’ve dreamed of but never actually do, and a great many other things that we aren’t even aware of including two months solo in the ultra remote Colville River area of northern Alaska, summiting Mt. Kilimanjaro when he was only 16, and surviving six avalanches.

For years he has shared his life’s story and experiences as a photographer, videographer, and Field Editor for Backpacker Magazine. Now he's returned to one of his earlier careers, outdoor guiding, where he can more rewardingly share a wide-eyed, warm-hearted love of the outdoors.

Despite being a childhood asthmatic, outdoor adventures began early for Steve and his siblings, including this family bouldering session during a Colorado vacation around 1962. Steve on the left, younger sister Martha in the middle, twin brother Mike on the right.

Who are you? In other words, how would you define yourself at this point in your life.

Well, I'm a media refugee, a long-time outdoor photojournalist, writer, and videographer who has rediscovered wilderness guiding. So now, I guess I'm a guide, and loving it. But at rock bottom level, I'm an outdoor person. I've been hiking, backpacking, climbing and skiing since age 10, and I guess I've never grown out of that phase. Eventually it became a job qualification. Writing and photography came from the outdoors, not the other way round.

Where did your passion for the outdoors come from? And what keeps that fire inside you lit?

For much of my childhood I was a sickly kid stuck in Iowa, which ranks dead last among the 50 states for wildland acreage. From age 8 to 16, I spent much of my time confined to hospital steam tents and filtered rooms, to avoid pollen-triggered attacks. Once puberty hit and hormones kicked in, the asthma vanished, so I turned into a full-on exercise junkie and gym rat. I'd been sent to summer camps in the northern woods and Rocky Mountains to escape mid-summer grasslands, so I naturally gravitated to those more beautiful and interesting environments. It's easy to keep up my enthusiasm because I'm truly enchanted by big wilderness, and the experiences you can find there.

How has that passion changed over the years?

When I was younger, it was all about adrenalin and recognition, becoming notable for some climb or ski descent. I was always pushing it, and often not enjoying the experience that much. Now, whenever I'm in the wilderness, I just feel a deep contentment. I'm too goal-oriented to just sit on a log and bliss out, but I don't need trophy accomplishments, and it no longer matters to me whether anyone notices. What does get me stoked now is seeing that wilderness light take hold in other people's eyes. It is quite cool showing interested, excited, outdoor novices just what they're capable of.

How did you become a field editor for Backpacker Magazine?

That's a career I'm just finishing after 25 excellent years. Like most adventures, I stumbled into it. It was the late 1980s. I'd been working in outdoor shops and doing ski expeditions, writing and photographing those trips. Because of the writing I ended up editing a monthly outdoor magazine based in Salt Lake City. After six years and 72 issues of the best real-world journalism education I could ever have, I got a phone call from a production company that was starting a PBS outdoor television series called Trailside.

They were looking for a snowshoe and winter camping expert to be an on-camera guest. I ended up taking that gig, and spent a week in Glacier National Park with the host, John Viehman, who was Executive Editor for Backpacker Magazine. At the end of the week, he hired me as one of four Field Editors - basically a staff writer, photographer, videographer, scout, and editorial consultant. I spent the next two and a half decades chasing assignments all over North America and the Western Hemisphere.

(Left) Howe at 11,000-foot camp during his first, solo, ascent of Denali in 2003. (Right - Photo by Jeff Scher) Rigging Point-of-View cameras was a lot more hassle back in the days before GoPro. 

View from the bush plane while flying into the remote Bagley Icefield of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska, for a 12-day backpacking traverse.

What other jobs have you had before you began guiding?

The usual high school/ college stuff, like house painter, delivery truck driver, and then I began a 13-year career as a ski/bike shop mechanic, salesperson, buyer, and guide. For nearly 30 years after that, it was all magazine and television work.

Where have you lived?

Originally I was an Iowa kid, and lived with other families seasonally in Ely, Minnesota and Estes Park, Colorado. After fleeing the Midwest I lived in Aspen, Colorado, then relocated to Salt Lake City, where I lived for 16 years. But I've never moved around that much. I've always felt that adventurers need to have a base of operations, an office to organize your life, a place to set out from and return to. Now that's Torrey, southern Utah, where I've lived for the last 25 years. It's home.

Why did you settle down in Torrey?

I'd been living in Salt Lake City, but the urban traffic and air pollution were worsening rapidly. The internet was now good enough for telecommuting, and I wanted to relocate somewhere I could be close to photo settings, equipment testing terrain, and real wilderness. I checked out Moab, outside Arches and Canyonlands, and Springdale, which is the gateway for Zion. But I wanted a place that wouldn't be overrun, ski town style, within 15 or 20 years. In retrospect I made a very lucky decision. Torrey was, and remains, a beautiful hamlet of 250 people, just outside Capitol Reef National Park, on the edge of about 10 million acres of designated and de facto wilderness.

Who are some of the people who have influenced you?

Well, my mom taught me compassion, and my dad taught me responsibility and honor. When I was a 16-year-old on Kilimanjaro, I met a young Air Force Colonel, Gil Harder, who took me under his wing for the trip, but he died the next year, in an avalanche on Annapurna. I've been influenced by the future dystopian writings of William K. Gibson, and I've admired some of Aldo Leopold's essays, most notably Wildlife and Conservation Aesthetic. But for the most part I'm not a role model kinda guy. I think we should all find our motivations, and our role models, by looking in the mirror and asking how we might improve that person, rather than imitating someone else.

Who are some of the people you admire most?

I don't have a lot of idols, and although there are many admirable people in politics, literature, an environmental circles, the ones that stick in my mind are adventurers. I certainly admire Reinhold Messner. He not only climbed all the world's 8,000-meter-high peaks, then climbed Everest without oxygen, and later soloed it without oxygen, he also retired, alive. That's no small feat.

And since it's winter, I admire Lindsey Vonn for her grit in coming back from knee surgery to break ski racing win records, and Austrian racer Marcel Hirscher for his unbelievable ability, and Austrian Anna Fenninger, who is the best technical skier of either gender in World Cup racing.

Oh yeah, and Neil DeGrassi Tyson, because he's a matchless natural history interpreter and total chick magnet.

What are some of the accomplishments you hold closest to your heart? It may not be summiting Mt. Everest, just some things you’ve done that are very meaningful to you.

I don't know that I've done much that I'm, like, proud of. But some of the deep wilderness journeys I've done, they still resonate strong in my memories, even decades later.

I hiked up Kilimanjaro in 1971 as an asthmatic teen, and that was my first-ever athletic success. I frost-nipped my feet waiting for dawn at the crater rim, and ran down half the route to get help for one of our party who had a massive heart attack on descent. All this as a 16-year-old.

In 1990 I spent two months solo on the ultra-remote Colville River of northern Alaska, photographing caribou, nesting peregrines, and oil exploration impacts. I was as deep as you could go, in a 40-million-acre wildland. I didn't see a soul for six weeks. Peregrines and rough-legged hawks dove on me as I paddled past. Bears, wolf packs, wolverines and caribou herds walked right by me because they had no idea what a human was. I'm not the same person who started that journey.

But the most enjoyable expedition was closer to home; Hiking the Sierra High Route, an off-trail trek that runs 220 miles between Kings Canyon and Twin Lakes, in California's Sierra Nevada. That was challenging, remote, fun, and absolutely gorgeous. It's too bad American travelers often overlook our own wild places, enroute to exotic travel destinations.

At camp during a solo, assignment through-hike of California's Sierra High Route, an off-trail backpack route Howe still calls "one of the finest wilderness journeys I've ever taken." 

From personal experience, we know you’ve done hiking, backpacking and canyoneering, but tell us, what other adventure activities have you pursued?

I've got quite a few passions, but skiing, whitewater kayaking, and photography rank high on the list. I'm a total ski junkie from December through March, and extreme ski descents were a focus of mine for many years.

Name the top 5 places you’ve been in order, with 1 being your favorite.

I get asked this a ton, and the list and rankings aren't firm at all, but it runs kinda like this: 1. The Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. 2. The Swiss/Italian alps - in off-season, at least. 3. The provincial mountain parks of interior British Columbia, like Valhalla, Glacier/Rogers Pass, and Woodbury. 4. The Cordillera Blanca and Huayhuash mountain ranges of north-central Peru. 5. Some parts of the Alaska Range, but only in good weather.

I also loved parts of Wales, New Zealand, and Iceland, but I've tired of long-distance international travel. I've never been to the Himalaya, India, or SE Asia. Maybe some day.

A scenic overlook at -20 Fahrenheit. Here a female mountain guide enjoys the 2am twilight colors from atop a cliff just outside Denali's 17,200-foot high camp. Mt. Foraker and the Kahiltna Glacier in the background.

In 2008, Howe climbed Alaska' Denali (20,320 ft) with Sibusiso Vilane, a game ranger, Swazi tribesman, and global adventurer from South Africa. Here, Sibu climbs around the long grade above Kahiltna Pass, heading for the 11,000-foot Camp II. Mt. Foraker in the background.

Sibusiso Vilane on the summit of Denali, the last peak in his Seven Summits quest. At the time of this climb, Sibu was already the first black man to climb Everest, the first black man to sled to the South Pole, and recipient of the Order of Mpumalanga, basically a Swaziland knighthood. Now he was the first black man to finish the Seven Summits. 

 Guide David Lussier, Valhalla Traverse, B.C.

What are some of the hairiest situations you’ve ever been in? Like getting caught in an avalanche or something. And how did you get out of them?

I once made a list of all the times that I had nearly died. I'm just some B minus adventure athlete, but I came up with over a dozen incidents where the rockfall just missed, the lightning only shocked me, or the rapids washed me into a calm spot.

I've been in six avalanches, but never buried or injured. I've had a climbing helmet shattered off my head by rockfall, and walked away. I once took a 500-vertical-foot extreme ski fall that put 40 stitches in my head - and walked away. In retrospect though, the hairiest situation was probably being held up at knifepoint in a Nairobi alleyway, back when I was a naïve 16-year-old.

How do you get out of stuff like this? Luck, plain and simple. Sure, you can keep from making a situation worse, but a lot of people do everything right, survival-skills-wise, and they still don't make it once that accident triggers. To improve your odds, carry emergency gear even if you don't want to, realize that most 'sudden' outdoor accidents are not sudden, avoid being stupid or careless, and if disaster strikes, keep a tight hold on your mind, make rational decisions, and never give up. Stay positive. Don't let angst and discouragement win.

Where do you think the biggest risk factor comes in?

A lot of 'survival' comes down to avoiding mayhem in the first place. A particularly relevant part of that, in these impatient times, is to never undertake a big adventure that requires skills you haven't practiced in controlled settings.

Adrenalin is a drug like many others, and you can see the same addict 'chase the dragon' behavior leading right up to a fatal error. The progression might go like: Skiing, then extreme descents, then climbing, then soloing, then bungee, then base jumping, then squirrel suits, then funerals and fund raisers.

This lemming behavior has gotten more pronounced in the social media era, where status update hunger pushes people to do stupid stuff. It's the same whether you're canyoneering or riding a bullet bike up some windy canyon. Don't get sucked into foolish behavior by the media gloss.

Have you ever been in a situation where you thought to yourself, “this is it, I’m going to die.”?

Yeah, quite a few times, actually. Once was swimming at the bottom of a huge, violent 'reversal' hydraulic on the Yampa River's Cross Mountain Canyon section. Luckily my maneuver worked and I got spit out, instead of swimming three miles of Class V whitewater. Once was getting swept down Snowmass Creek by spring snowmelt after falling off a log on a backpack crossing. And I once took a 500-foot ski fall, and those suck because long ski falls give you way too much time to think. I've even got a tape of myself saying goodbye to family and loved ones, while holding my expedition tent up against microburst thunderstorm winds on Alaska's North Slope. That 30 days out on a two-month solo, and I thought I'd be blown into the Beaufort Sea.

Editors and testers climb through hurricane winds and clearing storm, enroute to the north face of Mt. Hood during a winter gear testing trip for Backpacker Magazine.

Howe's party descends an unnamed glacier deep in Alaska's Revelation Mountains during a 2007 10-day backpacking/packrafting trip into the remote upper reaches of the Kuskokwim River.

Mike Howe above Columbine Lake, Needle Range, Colorado

We appreciate Steve taking away from his time outside to answer a bunch of our questions. Part 2 of the interview will be coming soon. In the meantime, here are a few ways to find out more about him or to get in touch for his guiding services and group trips.

Redrock Adventure Guides on Facebook and Instagram.

Posted in Alaska, Backpacker, backpacking, canyoneering, Capital Reef, Denali, guide, hiking, outdoors, Steve Howe, Torrey, Utah

WORD of MOUTH: Volume 4 - Steve Howe (part 2)

WORD of MOUTH: Volume 3 - Dana

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