“Let’s do something that’s ACTUALLY fun.” Libby Sauter, Yosemite bigwall climber extraordinaire, turns to me with a pleading look while we’re huffing and puffing and shivering in the Argentinian cold at 18,000ft. “I mean it. Let’s get this mountain over with, and then let’s go somewhere remote and adventurous - but the type of adventure that’s WARM and FUN.” We’re just barely halfway through a brutally difficult six-week speed record mission on 22,838ft Aconcagua, capturing content for adidas Outdoor, and we’re already brainstorming our next project.
Three months and one high-altitude speed record later I am still huffing and puffing, but this time in a very different setting. Libby, myself and our friend Allison are standup paddle boarding on Lake Powell as part of a multi-sport adventure - the very adventure that was conceived during those long cold days on Aconcagua. This time we’re focused on advocacy rather than on the quest for standout athletic performance: we want to playfully explore Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, to capture images and stories that can help advocate for the preservation of these tremendous landscapes.
Libby, Alli and I start out with long slow days of desert trail running and canyoneering before packing up to embark on a two night / three day SUP backpack. We each carry forty pounds of gear - paddleboards, overnight and emergency gear, and my full camera kit - cross-country along miles of remote and difficult slick rock terrain as we gradually descend into the hot maze of canyons that defines Lake Powell. Five hours after setting out from our vehicles we finally reach the lakeshore, tucked away deep in the sunless bend of a canyon.
This is where we’ll inflate our paddle boards and take to the water. But this is also where Libby discovers that she only packed in the blade of her three-piece collapsible paddle and not the shaft, which throws a bit of a wrench into our plans to SUP dozens of miles in the next 48 hours. Hiking back to the cars to retrieve the missing shaft would be a ten hour round trip and is out of the question, but as the old adage goes in these types of adventures: “If you don’t have it you don’t need it.” We devise a way to jerry rig a workable paddle from our combined kit plus a tree branch or two.
The next two days are my personal crux: I am doubling as SUP guide - since neither Libby nor Alli have experience on a standup paddle board or on the lake, while I can draw from my lesson’s of an eight-day solo SUP expedition that I embarked on in these same parts the prior year - and as photographer while also balancing my camera gear on the front of my paddle board, camera and lenses precariously close to a potential watery death.
It’s not an easy setup but this is my favorite way of shooting: as part of a self-motivated, intimate project that results in organic imagery. This particular mission in Grand Staircase is just that - a passion project that combines adventure and creative work in the best possible way. And at the end of our time on Lake Powell and in Grand Staircase, the three of us walk away with a treasure trove of images, memories, and an infinite amount of excitement to plan the next project.