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

Posted on August 19, 2015 by Chhun Tang | 0 Comments

Photos by Steve Howe and Chhun Tang


In what ways has technology improved as well as degraded the wilderness experience for you?

Technology doesn't really degrade my wilderness experience that much. Back when I was a working photojournalist, I had to deal with photography, gear testing, note-taking, trip details, and even satellite phone podcasts. Working with film crews, it's all two-way radios, LCD screens, and monster cam rigs. All that definitely degrades a wilderness experience, but for most of us, no one makes us play with those toys. 

It can be irritating if some clueless tool breaks out his cell phone atop Half Dome and starts shouting into it, but that's easy to move away from. The key is to use technology; don't let it use you. If it's in the way of your experience, turn it off.

Then there's the plus side. High-tech clothing and camping gear make adverse weather far more survivable, even pleasant, and I've got no problem with comfort in the woods. Navigation-wise, GPS receivers and desktop mapping programs are fantastic scouting tools that revolutionize routefinding in landmark-scarce environments. If you know how to use a GPS (locational) in concert with traditional maps (representational) and compass (directional), it becomes very hard to get lost.

I also think radios, emergency satellite beacons, and two-way satellite text messengers, are awesomely useful tools, especially for outdoor professionals. I've used satellite texters to change resupply points, and send out OK messages to prevent friends from initiating premature rescues. Whenever you send a message, these beacons tag your geolocation coordinates and hyperlink them to a Google map. They take the 'search' out of search and rescue.

So I carry emergency communications, whether a cell phone or satellite beacon, on all my serious trips and whenever I go Jeeping, biking, hiking, or trail running around Torrey, especially in off-season. Traditionalists often act like old timey outdoorsmen just sucked it up and crawled out of the woods injured, but that's a crock. They died alone and painfully.

Do you have any advice for the younger generation?

Well, first off, forget about a career as a professional adventurer or sponsored athlete. That era is largely over, and it was never worth it. The truly talented can make some money for a couple years, until they get sick, or injured, or just relax for a couple months. Then you're off the back of the wagon. I know a dozen broken-down, once-famous adventurers who are living hand to mouth while gritting their teeth from chronic injuries. So get a real job. Get health insurance, or at least accident insurance. Wear a helmet. Avoid injury, because every one of those broken bones will be back to haunt you in 30 years.

And be very wary of GoPro/Youtube courage. The whole XGames/RedBull 'extreme' sports phenomenon has a huge body count, and most of those deaths, hospitalizations, or disablements never make the Facebook feeds.

Mortality is real, so do extreme stuff, but always do every single test, move, and trick the safest way possible. A few extra minutes for a rope - or a safety check, or a quick review of worst case scenarios - is cheap insurance. 

Steve rappelling down while leading a small group on a canyoneering trip through Capitol Reef.

Steve showing the proper technique of how to wind up rope after a rappel. 

If you could travel anywhere in the world where would it be? 

My dream destination changes regularly, but right now it's ski season, so I'd love to tour the Swiss, French, Austrian, and Italian Alps…with enough money. I also want to do a long, committing off-trail journey through the Himalaya. Topography and rhododendron jungles dictate that would probably be in the northwest end of the range, like the Himachal Pradesh of India.

My brother in law is also an open ocean sailor, and he keeps talking about sailing from Baja to Galapagos, then to Rapa Nui/Easter Island, then west to Australia. That'd be a minimum of about 9 weeks on the water plus island time. I'm not sure I actually want to do it, but I'd never forgive myself for not going. Moth to the flame, I guess.

What books or resources would you recommend for someone to learn more about the outdoors and outdoor activities?

 Joining clubs, and hooking up with experienced friends are both excellent ways to begin an outdoor career, but be aware that you're still responsible for your own safety, and that being a beginner is no excuse for being passive. Show up ready. Be contributory, not needy. Ask questions. Pay attention to the answers. And enjoy the lessons.

The internet is great for isolated tip columns on specific techniques and situations. Backpacker.com, and Climbing.com, both have a ton of instructional articles and videos. Lots of freelance outdoor gurus have Youtube channels that can offer valuable advice, but beware of the more dramatic presenters, because there's a lot of macho 'prepper' crazy out there, and most of the useful advice is straightforward, not catchy.

If you're really serious about becoming an outdoor person, the best single print reference is Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills, published by The Mountaineers. This is a well-illustrated 300-page encyclopedia that covers everything from gear and beginner camping to weather, geology, safety, ropework, group leadership, First Aid, ice climbing, et al.

College outdoor programs can be great for younger people looking to begin adventures like backpacking, canoeing, climbing or canyoneering. Keep in mind that the level of club and program leadership is wildly variable. But mostly, you need to choose an adventure, prepare for it, and then go.

What is your favorite tool/instrument/gear?

My current fave is skis. My most valuable instrument is a helmet. My most oft-used tools are boots and shoes. And the sexiest gear item out there is undoubtedly an ice axe. 

What are the essential pieces of equipment you carry with you every time you go out?

Outdoor outlets often talk about the 10 Essentials (map, compass, sunglasses/sunscreen, extra clothing, headlamp/flashlight, first aid, firestarter, matches, knife, extra food. It's a good list, but more than many day adventures really need. But I always have a Bic lighter, a headlamp, spare clothes, and probably some emergency communication like a beacon - or a cell phone in places where I'm sure of signal strength. You really do need enough to get you through an unplanned wilderness overnight.

One other thing I always carry isn't an object, it's an attitude: Flexibility. Pay attention and be ready to turn around if things aren't right, you're off-route, or running late. Plans change. Let conditions change 'em. Don't get stubborn.

Do you have any set of rules that you observe whenever you go into the wild? 

Nothing too formal. It's basically: Arrive prepared. Don't do stupid stuff. Always do everything the safest way possible. And when you're doing risky stuff, avoid distraction, pay attention to every move. If you're watching after other people, as in a guiding situation or hiking with a spouse, don't forget to switch gears when it's your turn, and watch out for yourself.

Tim Musso, Steve Howe and April Larivee taking a lunch break during a day hike through Capitol Reef just before a rain storm

When did you start Redrock Adventure Guides?

I began guiding again in 2008, when the recession took hold. Most of the outdoor writers I knew lost their job, or went into copywriting and company PR. But I'd been in media a long time by that point, and I knew that it would never be the same. Internet pay rates and deadlines mean you're tied to a keyboard all day, every day. I had a superb 30- plus-year run, but it was time to move on.

How and why did you transition over to be a guide, leading your own groups?

Even way back as a ski bum, I was often the ringleader for our stupid adventures. I'd also been a mountaineering guide in the late 1970s, and I was always organizing the logistics for my own expedition assignments, many of them solo. So I'd always been leading trips from an organizational, navigational, and safe standpoint. It was a straightforward transition.

Steve prepares equipment for the descent and instructs Tim Musso on his first rappel. 

Steve providing instruction and gear tips to April on her first rappel.

What kind of adventures do you lead?

The Redrock Adventure Guides tag line "Custom Adventures, Real Wilderness" describes it succinctly. We lead private, custom trips, usually rugged off-trail hikes, backpacking treks from overnight to 10 days, canyoneering journeys, and well-scouted photo tours for serious enthusiasts. In the U.S., most outfitters are geared toward a volume business model, leading larger 'canned' tours that take all sign-ups. We operate more along the lines of guiding services in Europe, Canada, or New Zealand, where qualified guides lead individuals, families, and groups of friends.

We're very fortunate to operate across 2.4 million acres of Capitol Reef National Park, and the neighboring Robber's Roost/Dirty Devil Wilderness, which extends from Capitol Reef, east to Canyonlands, and south to Lake Powell. It's the core of America's largest remaining blank spot, and a truly spectacular landscape where wilderness adventure and authentic solitude are everywhere.

Historic rains flooded Boulder, Colorado and much of the Four Corners area in early autumn of 2013...and it all hit Capitol Reef during a three-day canyoneering trip for military/tactical journalists, sponsored by Arc'teryx clothing.

Photographing the otherworldly Navajo sandstone domes of Capitol Reef's Waterpocket Fold, during a guided series of rugged off-trail hikes in summer of 2014.

Have you ever wanted to smack someone for not listening to your directions?

Hah! Most professional guides prefer electroshock and drug therapy because they're more effective and don't leave bruises. But virtually all the guests I've ever guided are perfectly attentive, pleasant, and have interesting stories of their own. It's an exchange, not just a teacher/lecturer thing. On the other hand, I have had two or three pre-teen boys act out in situations where that was dangerous to everyone. In response, we've raised our minimum age limits to better match childhood development rates.

What are the most satisfying, and frustrating, parts of guiding? 

The satisfying part of guiding is most of it, but it's really gratifying to see people's lives get changed, their horizons expanded, their view of the world's possibilities suddenly get bigger in response to a beautiful vista or a challenge overcome. This can be really remarkable in people from completely different cultures, like a woman from Hong Kong who's never tried outdoor activities and doesn't even know anyone who ever has, finishing a climb she was scared to death of. Or an overweight grocery wholesaler from Ohio who makes it through some tough canyon, and within a couple weeks you're getting Facebook updates about his Crossfit progress or upcoming through-hike. That stuff is unbelievably cool.

The only frustrating part is advance reservations and scheduling. Many of our guests lead busy professional lives and frantic schedule shifts are normal for them, but shuffling date changes and sudden cancellations can get chaotic, especially when you're getting simultaneous requests from a half dozen international time zones. All that vanishes once the trip actually begins.

What does the future hold, what do you have in store for Red Rock Adventure Guides?

For us, it's more of the same, which is a very good thing: More and deeper canyons, more remote wilderness treks, and more enjoyable guests. We are getting to the point where myself, my wife and partner Jennifer, and our assistant guide Tim Pote can't easily handle the traffic. So one of our biggest upcoming challenges is finding a half-handful of reliable, articulate, professional guides. Most aspirants are young dudes who just want a way to fund the climber bro lifestyle - and I get that. But you can be an adventure bum, or an adventure professional, and there's a big difference between the two. 

A huge thank you goes out to Steve Howe for participating in our Word of Mouth interview series. Tales of his adventures have us wanting to get out and explore the world more. Hopefully his words and photos have inspired you as well. We’re not going to end this with esoteric fluff about adventure, finding your inner self, or quotes by John Muir; instead, we encourage you to spend less time on the couch, and live the life that stands open before you. And if you want to explore the Capitol Reef area, and need a guide, contact Steve, because he kicks ass and he’s one of the best persons we’ve ever met.

Redrock Adventure Guides on Facebook and Instagram.


Posted in Backpacker Magazine, Capital Reef, Denali, guide, Hiking, Outdoor, Steve Howe, Torrey, Utah

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

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