Yesterday I wrote about what's hard about living on the road. If that didn't deter you, here's what eight months on the road actually look like - because, yes, the freedom of #vanlife *is* glorious!
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What's your reaction when somebody tells you they are living in a van? I don't fully remember what my first encounter with vanlife was, but I'm willing to bet that it had to do with some climbing legends and seemed like a completely glorious thing and probably sounded like I was going to automatically become a crusher if I only was to have the guts to buy a van and live in it.
Well. It's been about ten months since I bought a van and I've been living in it for eight. For some reason, shockingly, I'm still not a crusher. But has it been glorious? Completely, yes.
Non-outdoorsy types are always curious when I tell them about my chosen living situation. “Where do you go to the bathroom?” and "how do you shower??” are standard questions that seem top of mind for every nine-to-fiver. (Answer: same as you when you’re on a long drive.) Very rarely do I get asked about the finer nuances of van life, you know, the ones that I care about: ‘How much water do I need to carry to stay out in the desert for two weeks without resupply?’ or ‘Will my avalanche shovel survive digging the van out of those pesky sand traps that I seem to have a talent for finding?’
Earlier this summer though, an Instagram friend asked a question that made me stop and think: “What’s been the hardest part about transitioning from your old life to the one you’re living now?”
Oy. The hardest part? I was ready to give a quick-fire answer. Figuring out where to shower. Learning the difference between awesome, good, marginal and outright-desperate-and-totally-terrible bivy spots. Or fitting all that outdoor gear into a little Chevy Astrovan. Building out the van in the first place, complete with self-taught carpentry basics. Learning how to be OK with those evenings where you’re falling asleep by the side of a road, by yourself, feeling disconnected from the world. But, no, none of those answers felt true.
Here is the one answer that’s true: the hardest part about vanlife is finding the guts to actually do it and go through with it.
When I first started talking about moving into a van it was mostly a joke. Then I started to think about renting a camper van for a couple months to run around the US for an extended holiday. Then a friend remarked how much cheaper it would be for me to buy a van outright. Then I started telling people I was going to buy a van. And all a sudden the train was picking up speed to the point where I didn’t want to jump off anymore.
That is… until I bought Eddie the van. You see, I was based in Houston, and the market for adventure mobiles on the Gulf coast is limited. I scoured Craigslist for vans in the $3000 range; the best I could find was a little 2002 Chevy Astro with 213k miles on the chassis, 93k on the engine. The van was running fine but had been abused by its previous owners. The interior was in terrible shape, filthy and smelling, with plenty of duct tape fixes. At the time I was still living in a nice neighborhood in Houston, renting a high-end apartment, working a prestigious job, commuting to work by plane every week; while one half of my oversized walk-in closet was mountain and trail clothes, the other half was still boardroom dresses and suits and high heels. The contrast was stark.
Back to the van: I could see that Eddie was my best option in the Houston area, so I forked over $2800 in cash and drove the van home. Sitting in traffic on I-45, immersed in the stink of this tattered old vehicle and a universe away from the brand-new premium sedan rental cars that I was used to, I felt a tidal wave of “oh my god this is terrible” coming on. All a sudden I was no longer just talking about turning my world upside down - I was actually doing it. I had already terminated the lease on my apartment, and given notice to quit my job. And now I had the van that was going to be my home going forward. Turning back was no longer an option.
After I bought Eddie, I went through a few days funk. He was too ragged and old and too filthy and on second thought way too small anyway. But he was mine - and I was going to have to live in him. I researched buildout options and sat in front of at an empty sheet of paper, at a loss of what to do. A day later, the sheet of paper was still empty. The next day, I ripped out the seats and started cleaning. Two hours later, sweaty and disgusted and nowhere near the “clean” stage, I drove Eddie to a carwash where I handed over $200 for a head-to-toe detail. And all a sudden, dread was being replaced by excitement again. The road from the carwash led to the hardware store, from the hardware store to the roof of my building’s parking garage and finally, three weeks later, from parking-garage-roof-turned-van-workshop straight towards the life that I had dreamed of for so long.
If you’re a free spirit and adventurer, vanlife is completely glorious. To wake up with the sun, fall asleep wherever you want to and live days full of adventure in between - what could be better. It really is as good as it sounds, and the most beautifully unencumbered way to live a life of wanderlust and exploration. Yes, there are moments when it’s tedious and dirty and you’re feeling totally up in the air and like you’re going for broke and it’s scary and desperate. There are nights when you are parked in the wrong spot and you can’t sleep because you’re uncomfortable or because there is a cop’s flashlight blinding you through your window at 3am. And there are days when the van breaks down and everything is a mess and you wonder how you’re going to make it all work out. But those moments are far and few between. At its very essence, vanlife means your happiness is your own choice: if you end up in a spot that’s not what you wanted, just jump back into the driver’s seat and hit the road again!
"I’m telling you, it’s incredible. Warm sunny granite, splitter after splitter, up at 10000ft; no crowds. It’s absolutely incredible." Chris’ words echo through my mind as we’re scrambling along the summit ridge of South Howser Tower looking for the first rap station. There are two or three parties visible on the upper rappels ahead of us, a team of two from Calgary just free soloed past us. Another party of three is about to start the final ridge traverse a few hundred feet behind us. This is Chris’ and my second day on the route and we’re losing daylight; thunderheads are rolling in on the horizon.
Turns out the Bugaboos are a well-kept secret no more: after years of rave reports from the adventurous few who embarked on the long trek to the Bugs, the crowds have finally caught up. Compounded by a very short season, the campground, hut, and classic routes are now frequently at or beyond capacity for those elusive few summer weeks that offer the best chance of sunshine and mild temperatures.
That’s not to say that the Bugaboos are no longer a worthy objective - aside from the ‘no crowds’ part, everything you’ve ever heard about these granite spires still holds true: the setting is spectacular, the climbing wonderful, the location of Applebee campground exquisite, and the weather fickle. In the last two weeks, Chris and I had so much rain that we were already beginning to pack up - resigned to beating an early retreat - when an updated forecast finally promised two days of stable high pressure and blue skies.
So here we are. It’s the second day of the weather window, our second day on the Beckey-Chouinard; not only are we running out of daylight and good weather... we’re also just about out of calories and water. For the two weeks leading up to this climb, all Chris and I could do is talk about how excited we are to get on the route - after all, if you’re a trad climber the Beckey-Chouinard with its 2200ft of stellar granite needs no introduction. For the last two hours, all we’ve been talking about is how ready we are to be off this mountain. Alas, first there's work to be done: we are looking at 11 rappels, getting over the bergschrund, crossing the Vowell Glacier, descending the Snowpatch-Bugaboo Col, and then traversing the periphery of Crescent Glacier to reach Applebee Camp. I take another look at the clouds brewing in the distance, glance at the setting sun, and take off my pack to dig up my headlamp. It is going to be a long night.
When Chris and I started atop pitch eight this morning, we took our time - we slept in, ate breakfast, and waited for the sun to reach us before putting our climbing shoes back on. With twelve more pitches to the summit, we figured we'd easily be able to finish the route by mid-afternoon and have plenty of daylight for the descent. What we didn't take into account was how slowly we would be climbing at altitude and with heavy packs, or the fact that we were inevitably going to become entangled in the congo line of in-a-day parties catching up to us from below. Case in point: by the time I started out on the first lead of the day, we had already let two parties pass and another one climbed past us while I finished up the pitch. As Chris geared up to lead the crux a few pitches later, we were in the middle of a full blown traffic jam and marooned on the belay ledge for over two hours. Now the sun is setting on us, and we are still miles out from the safety of camp.
"Hey, over here - I found it!" Chris waves at me and is already starting to thread our rope through the first rap station. Almost simultaneously, a lone figure appears on the skyline about twenty feet above us and surveys the territory ahead. "You guys know how to get down?" he shouts in our direction as two more climbers appear on the ridge behind him. Chris and I have studied the beta for the descent; the other party has a second 70 meter rope that'll help us get across the bergschrund with a bigger margin of safety. We decide to team up even though we are fully aware that it'll be slow progress getting five people down eleven rappels.
By the time we drop down on the glacier it is well past midnight. The distant thunderclouds have moved in closer; flashes of lightning illuminate the sea of ice and imposing spires all around us. Electrical storms are one of my big fears in the mountains, and yet this night is beautiful - I take comfort in knowing that we are no longer high up on the exposed ridge, and also in the knowledge that there simply is no other option than to keep moving. Nothing to be done than to put one foot in front of the other, to cross the Vowell Glacier until we find the steep col between Bugaboo and Snowpatch Spire, to descend it safely one last time, and then to stubbornly not give in to the desire to sit down until we've dragged our beaten bodies all the way to camp, to safety.
I know what it means to be exhausted. Big walls, 100 Mile ultra marathons, an Ironman - I've put myself through the paces of big days. Now as I take the last steps up to our campsite, 46 hours after starting out, I welcome the familiar feeling of euphoria and gratitude that floods my veins. A new day is starting to break in the east, and I am finally sinking into the warmth of my sleeping bag.
Thinking about your own trip to the Bugaboos? July and August are the best months.
Camp at Applebee - $10 per person per night, first come first serve, water and vault toilets.
The BC Parks website has lots of useful resources, including a map of the park here.
Heads up: The guidebook by Chris Atkinson and Marc Piche is currently out of print
(as of summer 2016). Borrow it or do your research online ahead of time!
I don’t know if you’re a trail runner; I am. Chances are if you’re reading this blog you’ve got some adventurous gene and either already are a trail - or ultra - runner, or you should give it a try. Because it’s really quite something, and entirely addictive.
Addictive, yes. That’s the reason why I am sitting in Aspen as I’m writing these lines, sore and tired and happy after just having run the Adidas Outdoor Aspen Backcountry Marathon off the couch. I may not recommend the off-the-couch approach, but the race itself… man. Here’s a new addition to my list of favorite trail races (which so far was all about Transvulcania, a jewel of a 74km race in the Canary Islands, and the original US 100 miler Western States). I didn't have any expectations for the Aspen Backcountry Marathon other than to get a good workout in, but this little race came out of left field putting a big grin on my face for miles and miles.
It’s hard to decide where to start with the accolades: the beautiful, perfectly smooth single track that characterizes much of the course; the climbing, which is just enough to keep it challenging and interesting but not so much to be torturous; or the wildflowers that were out in full force where forest single track switched off with the occasional mellow dirt road through high mountain meadows…
My personal favorite was the scenery, which is always a big determinant for how much I enjoy a race; and by scenery in this case I mean not so much expansive mountain vistas - though those are to be had, too - but running through infinite hushed aspen groves as the day’s first rays of sun are just starting to find their way into the forest. The course is fast, too, thanks to large stretches of wonderful runnable single track at mostly moderate angles. Case in point: the winning times for the marathon this year were meaningfully sub-4h.
To round things out, the race was smoothly organized and combines the intimate feel of a small field - roughly 350 runners for both the marathon and the half marathon distance - with the fun finish line atmosphere that’s typically reserved for much bigger races. The trick? The race coincides with the Aspen Ducky Derby, a big charity festival that shares a location with the start/finish.
I said it right after I crossed the finish line, and I’ll say it again: if you’re looking for a beautiful, not-quite-ultra-distance trail race to add to your calendar - make it this one. I know I’m already thinking about coming back next year for a second go at the race (which in 2017 will follow the reverse course) and to see how fast I could actually be on these trails with a bit of training...
Here are the stats:
I've been in Canada for a little over half a week now, and am about to head off into the mountains for the next 2ish weeks. Super excited to get to know a new area that's been on my ticklist for a LONG time: the Bugaboos.
Here's Chris checking out my half of the kit; thank god the hike in is only ~3hrs - this pack is going to be heavy...
If you'd like to see what we're up to and where we're hanging out, https://share.delorme.com/SuzanneStroeer will have location updates starting this evening.
See y'all on Facebook or Instagram in a couple days when we hike out for resupply! <!
This past weekend, I had the privilege of joining forces with this lady crusher on Mt Shasta as her first 14er as well as mission prep for our girls’ expedition to Aconcagua this coming December/January.
A few years ago Shasta also was my first 14er in the US. I already had a 20000ft summit in Nepal under my belt by then, yet Shasta felt like my first 'full value' alpine experience: I was finally climbing with friends rather than with a guide, in contrast to the Island Peak summit that I owe to Mingma Sherpa of Outdoor Himalayan Treks.
At this point, climbing on Shasta is a bit like coming home and yet... I still remember how exciting the climb felt when I was just stepping into the mountaineering world. With those memories fresh in mind, what a joy it was to share the same thrill and wonder with a friend who is still at the beginning of tracing her own path in the mountains. It’s humbling and exciting for me to see a young woman push beyond her comfort zone and overcome physical and emotional exhaustion to go after her dreams. Way to go Teresa!!!
Inspired by a weekend of hard aid with Paul Gagner and Jeremy Aslaksen, I went to work on my first big rope solo project: Space Shot 5.7 C2 IV. Day #2 was supposed to end at Earth Orbit Ledge, just a pitch shy of the top - but then there was the crux pitch and a whipper...
I love being on the road. What I love most about it is that #vanlife means I am not keeping a schedule; I have the capacity for spontaneity, and it’s this spontaneity that turns serendipitous encounters into open-ended adventures. Case in point: a Facebook message from Paul Gagner on a random Thursday in April, inviting me to come climbing (and by that I really mean hump loads and shoot the breeze) with him and his climbing partner Jeremy in the Mystery Towers the following weekend. Here’s the fun part: I don’t know Paul. Well, I do, I ran into him once while soloing the Flatirons in Boulder, and I’ve seen him pop up on my Facebook timeline a few times since. But I really have no idea who he is other than that he likes to put up ridiculously hard, bold aid lines. So of course when he suggests that I come hang out in the Mystery Towers while he and Jeremy scope a new route, I don’t think twice. The instructions are simple: “Bring beer and a big pack.”
In the days leading up to the outing I read up on the Mystery Towers a bit more. The laconic final paragraph of the area’s Mountain Project description maybe should have warned me: Expect mud or dry mud, advanced and innovative aid, including but not limited to: bat hooks, ring angle claws, beaks and peckers, fishhooks, bugaboos, warthogs, ice axe tosses, dwarf tosses, and general lassoing skills. Enjoy! I chuckle as I read through the beta and think to myself those timeless, famous last words: “How bad can it be…”
A few days later I am sitting on one of Eddie the Van's rails at the Fisher Towers Parking lot, a PBR cracked open, monitoring the approaching cloud of dust that marks Paul’s arrival. The campground is full, the weather forecast looks dismal, Jeremy won’t be showing up for at least another 24 hours, and Paul announces that the objective he wants to go after is a formation called Gothic Nightmare; he thinks that there’s new route potential there. For reference, the Mountain Project description of Gothic Nightmare reads …from the south it looks like a long haired hippie who stuck their finger in a light socket and from the west it looks like a bad, bad tower.
Turns out that not only the climbing is dicey; the approach is a bit on the tricky side as well, particularly if you decide to ignore the obvious trail and instead scramble up the decomposing, steep and exposed flanks of the wash that leads into the Mysteries; or if you stubbornly complete a - beer - supply run through flash flood territory in the middle of a rather substantial downpour (thankfully both beer and porter completed the journey mostly unharmed).
In the end, the weekend comes together as a grand adventure with lots of laughter, improbable placements and new friendships - as well as wonderful inspiration for my own aid and big wall ambitions. Lessons learned:
No rock was harmed in the making of this climb, as Paul and Jeremy didn’t like thediscontinuity of features on their potential new lines and instead decided to repeat a 650ft A4 route called Nightmare on Onion Creek. As for myself… I went from the Mysteries straight to Zion to try my hands at a bit of ultra-classic C2 5.7 big wall soloing, decided that bounce-testing was overrated, and promptly went for a massive ride a few hundred feet off the deck that sent me back to Moab with my tail between my legs to rest up for another go at the route. Aid climbers sure know how to have fun!
Eddie is a little 2002 AWD Chevy Astro Van that was acquired the proper dirtbag way - straight off Craigslist, for a whopping $2800 before taxes and DMV fees. While the odometer officially clocks in somewhere around 220000 miles, the engine was replaced and at purchase in late 2015 had ‘only’ 93000 miles on it. Built out for a single occupant over the course of a few days (Sunny’s first carpentry project which she’s mighty proud of!), Eddie carries all the dirtbag essentials and then some: climbing gear for rock, ice and big walls; plenty of ultra trail equpiment; a slackline; two crashpads; the gamut of high-altitude expedition supplies; an AT ski setup; and a SUP and paddle. All without a roofbox… It’s tight quarters, but thanks to a bit of storage ingenuity there’s enough space to hang out and cook meals or do work inside the van during periods of bad weather.
It’s 3:30pm on a Friday afternoon, and I’m in Valley of Fire State Park taking a shower. That shower was direly needed (ha! the joys of dirtbaggery), but it also means I am running late - late for the ultimate climbing festival that is Red Rocks Rendezvous. I love climbing in Red Rocks, yet in the past I always avoided being there during Rendezvous time: you see, I’m not much of a crowd person; the idea of climbing and partying with 1000 of my closest friends that I haven’t met yet never seemed all that appealing to me. This year is different, thanks to a generous invitation from The North Face via the Gear Coop: here I am, on my way to a weekend full of people and celebrations after I spent the last several weeks in mostly solitary places. I’m a bit skeptical, but forward is the only way to go at this point.
And with that, I arrive freshly showered at Spring Mountain Ranch State Park just south of Red Rock Canyon. The park has exploded into a massive tent city; I am lucky to snatch one of the last parking spots for Eddie the Van. I make my way down to the main lawn area to say hi to the North Face team as well as a gaggle of Gearcoopers that have come out from Costa Mesa to partake in the climbing and general revelry. Before I know it, I find myself drawn in twenty different directions - turns out there is a familiar face around every corner. All a sudden my Saturday outlook has exploded from ‘no plans’ to ‘too many options’: Do I want to head out with TNF and the Gear Coop for a bit of multi-pitch? Or maybe go cragging at Calico Basin? How about some bouldering instead… and then thereare those anchor placement and safe bolting clinics at Spring Mountain Ranch that would be really useful; the idea of a group trail run sounds like fun, too! Or slacklining, or acroyoga, or… !
In the end, the decision is an easy one: the promise of a highline in Calico Basin leads me to ditch any climbing-related plans for Saturday. I only just started slacklining two months ago and keep falling off even the easiest groundlines, but the idea of highlining is incredibly appealing to me. Since I know lots of climbers but very few folks that rig highlines, this is too good an opportunity for me to pass up.
And just like that, one thing leads to another; all a sudden it’s 2am on Sunday night as I am dancing on Eddie the Van’s roof with a pirate and his girlfriend, long after most Rendezvous-goers have left to start their travels back to their day jobs. This is after two days jam-packed with slackline practice, hijacking a big-wall clinic or two, lots of sweet sunshine, even more free beer, awesome food, and lots of badass new friends. As the icing on the cake I walk away with a ton of shiny new toys from The North Face (who as one of the main sponsors of #livethatvanlife not only invited me out to the Rendezvous but also equipped me with an impressive amount of gear), loads of RRR swag, and to top it all off one of my high lining photos scored a $100 Mountain Hardwear shopping voucher in the #RRR16 photo contest.
On Monday morning Eddie is one of the last cars in the parking lot, and I slowly pack to start making my way back up north. I am looking forward to a few days of detox and solitude, but I leave Vegas with a huge smile on my face and glowing with happy memories. I have a feeling that this will not have been my last Red Rock Rendezvous…
Hi! I’m Sunny. I am 30 years old; I am a climber, mountaineer and ultra runner, and I live on the road full-time in search of sunshine and adventure.
All that is true, but it’s not really my story. Up until the end of 2015, I wasn’t Sunny; my colleagues and friends knew me as Suzanne (or Suz if we were close). I was living and working in Houston, Texas, right in the middle of the take-off of a high-octane strategy consulting career. I have an MBA from a terribly prestigious school; until a few months ago I used to crush it on all the “right” dimensions: acing those tests, landing that job, working my way up the ladder. Now my home is ~150cft of space on wheels, stuffed to the brim with sandy, muddy gear; I am constantly thinking twice before I spend $5 on a Starbucks coffee or even $1.50 on a truckstop cup of joe - and then usually end up deciding against it. How did all of this happen?
In a way it all goes back to when I was 12 years old and my parents took me to theGrand Canyon for the first time - but that’s going back way too far. Let’s start in my early twenties instead: they consisted mostly of work, bar nights and being a couch potato. A dear friend and mentor encouraged me to take time off to go traveling before grad school, so I did; with a budget of $5k I covered ten countries in five months. Coming back from the trip my appetite for adventure had been awakened. I was still mostly a couch potato but learned to climb at the local rock gym during my first semester in business school and quickly fell in love with it. Mountaineering and ultra running were the result of another extended backpacking trip right after graduation - my first ultra trail was essentially ‘off the couch’ (not something I would recommend), and I somehow even managed to like it enough to come back for more afterwards.
Fast forward to the last four years - I was working long hours based out of Houston, and gradually came to realize that my true passion has very little to do with business and a lot with being outside, pushing myself and exploring. On many Fridays and Mondays you’d find me at the airport in shift dress and high heels, still feverishly typing on my laptop, trad rack and climbing shoes slung over my shoulder; I occasionally pulled up to the Red Rocks campground in business attire with a consultant carry-on spilling out of the car - you get the idea. In 2015 I came to the realization that the main reason for why I needed a big paycheck was that I lived in a big apartment in a big city that I didn’t appreciate, and spent lots of money on plane tickets and rental cars to get into the mountains for rushed getaways: once I was out there, I wasn’t spending very much. I also knew that I would be in a position to pay off my remaining student loans by December 2015, and with that my path was as clear as a yellow brick road - or rather a red dirt trail: save up as much as I could, dare to quit the promising job, downsize, get rid of the expensive apartment, buy a dirtbag mobile, and instead of spending lots of money on plane tickets to quickly get to the places that I cherish… just never leave them.
That’s where I am today, it’s who I am. The big question is what’s up next and for now, the answer is simple: the open road, until it stops being fun or my money runs out. Judging by my first couple months of vanlife I have a feeling that it’ll be the latter!