Climbing in Indian Creek
by Bjorn Bauer
Two months ago I stood at the bottom of a cliff in Indian Creek, Utah. A thin crack ran 80 ft straight up the sandstone wall and ended in a shelf where someone had bolted climbing anchors. Chalk marks from previous hands were visible the length of the fissure, but I could not understand how someone climbed this. Rock climbing had always blown my mind, but this was something beyond my understanding. I stood at the base of a sheer wall with nothing but a fingertip-wide crack dividing the surface, and I watched my climbing partner shatter the limits of my imagination.
I was back in Indian Creek, an expanse of sandstone cliffs on the edge of Canyonlands National Park. The area is home to hundreds of established climbing routes, and even more are being created every year. Completely dominated by world-class “splitter cracks,” this is paradise for many athletes. For me, it was my second exposure to crack climbing, and it was here that I began to realize the true nature of rock climbing.
We arrived at our camp site just as the sun was setting on a Thursday night. I was lucky enough to have tagged along with two expert climbers and a friend who is well on her way to the same title. It was the sweet spot in the creek’s climbing season, just between spring snow storms and the unbearable summer heat, and we weren’t the only ones on our way to a weekend of climbing. With a bit of luck and the knowledge of two Indian Creek veterans, we found a secluded camping spot with a great view and checked in early.
Mid morning found us at Way Rambo crag. As planned, we were the first to the spot and quickly set up at the best “warm-up” climbs. I spent my time warming up by running around and taking photos. Jon, Jack, and Alexa warmed up by tackling two climbs named Fuzz (5.10) and Rochambeau (5.9). If there is one thing I’ve learned about climbers it’s that they lack no creativity when it comes to naming routes.
Then they turned to the crag’s namesake, Way Rambo, a 5.12 crack which makes its way up the cliff with two unique dogleg traverses. This was one of those climbs that seemed so impossible I had a hard time believing anyone could climb it. Sure enough, Jack led the way up the crack, placing camalots(devices used to protect falls) as he went. Jon followed soon after and Alexa after him.
Rock climbing is not just about strength and a finely tuned body. It’s about careful thought, flowing within intuition, and using your natural structure. Crack climbing in particular demands attention to technique. The reason I didn’t understand how people climb cracks is because I never learned or experimented with technique. If the crack is roughly the size of your fist, you can stick your hand inside and make a fist, locking your knuckles and palm against the rock. If the crack is smaller, you can cup your hand or twist your fingers to make a jam. If it is larger than your fist, you can use your arm braced against your body like a chicken wing. All of these can then be used in combination with rotation to create an unbelievably strong connection between your body and the crack.
What about your feet? This was huge for me since I am a skier, and most of my strength and weight resides in my legs. Foot placement is paramount in climbing and often ignored in newer climbers (as I can testify myself). At first I struggled to get my feet to smear against vertical rock or simply hang while I manhandled my way up the rock with my arms. “Twist your feet, put your toes in the crack, and rotate your heels down” Jon told me. It worked. You use your feet the same way you use your fingers, hands, and arms to create solid jams. This is not a comfortable way to climb, but what had seemed impossible quickly migrated to within the realm of possibility.
That first day I climbed only one crack while the rest of my group climbed six or seven pitches. I was still sore and tired, but I had broken through the barrier of what I thought was impossible.
Rain greeted us the next morning. We hurried to move our sleeping pads to a tarp set up under some Juniper trees on the edge of camp. Despite the quick move, all my sleeping gear was wet and covered with mud. It’s all part of the adventure.
With the dreary weather making the soft sandstone slick as ice, we decided to go climb. After all, that is why we were in the middle of the desert. At the very least, the rain would keep the crowds of climbers to a minimum. Jack decided to take us to a crag missing from the old guidebook which also had a wall facing the hidden sun. Within a few hours this turned out to be a great decision. We spent the day climbing in the warm sun without ever seeing another soul. Pushing through adverse conditions to pursue the climb: this is rock climbing.
Turd Blossom (5.10), Turdus Interruptus (5.11a), Hair and Roses (5.10-), Mine all Mind (5.11), Tag Team (5.10). Climbers are definitely a different breed. They partake in one of the most intense and physically demanding extreme sports, but their carefree nature shows through in their naming of routes. Almost every “serious” climber I met looks years younger than he/she actually is. The sport keeps you happy at your core. That day at our private crag I was all smiles and nothing could bring me down.
We climbed straight into the evening that day, everyone having accomplished something personally challenging. Alexa led her first 5.11 trad climb, something that is nerve racking even for someone who has built up a lot of experience. She dealt with her fear and flew up the route as I snapped a few shots. When the trip was over she wouldn’t leave me alone until I edited and showed her the photos of the climb.
Jon tackled a difficult route after an exhausting five pitches. About 3/4 of the way up, Jon reached the crux and took a whipper. He slipped five feet above his last cam and dropped. Alexa, who had been belaying him, shot into the air and bounced off the cliff. This was the first time I’d seen Jon fall, but he got his footing a tried again. After one more whipper in the same spot, he changed his tactics and made it to the top.
As the only member of our group who had been to this particular crag before, Jack knew the established climbs very well. He had also paid attention to places that had never seen ascents and decided to give an old idea a try. For years he wanted to establish a route directly adjacent to a fairly easy 5.10, but what he described was not possible. I pictured all the holds and moves as he walked through his idea and they were ridiculous. I nodded my head and pretended to agree with his plan while secretly thinking that he was a just big talker. Ten minutes later I was watching him do the impossible. Every move Jack had described worked perfectly and he decided to come back at a later date to bolt an anchor.
As for me, I had pushed myself to climb three pitches and attempt a fourth on which I never topped out. Still I had made it past a few tough sections and watched Jon, Alexa, and Jack succeed on much more difficult climbs. That evening I walked away from the crag with a completely different notion of what was possible in crack climbing.
With the confidence brought on by the previous day we headed to 2nd Meat Wall, an Indian Creek crag housing several incredibly tough routes. That morning we picked up a 5th member to our group: Marie, another talented and patient climber. Some people don’t like climbing in larger groups since it usually means you have to wait longer for your turn to climb. On the other hand, more people means a greater diversity in styles, skills, and ideas. In my opinion, the latter is much more beneficial when attempting difficult climbs.
The morning warm-up consisted of two 5.10 pitches, Tofu Crack, and one we simply referred to as “the flake”. Marie coached me through some lead belaying and then each of the climbs. While everyone else in the group flew up these routes, I struggled, battling my way to the top. After 3 days of crack climbing I was toast. I decided to take it easy the rest of the day and focus on taking photos.
Extra Lean, rated 5.12 and is one of the sickest routes I have ever seen. Again, this ran into my category of “how the hell is anyone supposed to climb that.” The route consists of an off-finger splitter crack that runs for roughly 70ft up the wall. In a few spots it is interrupted by ledges and awkward face holds which make the route more complex. Nothing in my mind said this was possible until I saw Jack firing up the wall. He had led this climb before but never had he done it clean (without falling or resting on the rope). I climbed to a perfect spot for taking comprehensive shots of Extra Lean and watched Jack jamming his fingertips and toes into the tiny crack. He moved carefully up the wall, placing cams and resting whenever he got the chance. With less than fifteen feet to go, Jack slipped and fell onto his last cam. He eventually made it to the top, but it hadn’t been a clean ascent.
With a rope set from the top of the climb, Marie gave the route a try and flew up to the section on which Jack had fell. Using a different technique, she was able to push through and scramble to the top with some impressive laybacking and a heel hook. Jack pulled the rope and gave the route a second try on lead. Following Marie’s example, he made it through the crux and sailed to the anchor. Even though I had done nothing but take a few pictures, this was the highlight of the trip for me. Of course Jack was happy to have led clean a climb he had been working on for some time, but it was the moment when I realized that climbing proves that there are no limits to what we can do. This seems so obvious looking back on all I had experienced, but when you’re involved in something it takes moments like Jack’s ascent to step back and view climbing from a wider angle.
Beaten bloody and bruised. I climbed only two pitches in the morning but that is how I felt. The others were still at it, climbing more difficult routes in the scorching afternoon sun while I hunkered down underneath a bush, too tired and too sore to even lift a beer to my lips. With great difficulty and a lot of pain, I managed to pack some of the gear up and we headed back to the camping spot for our last night in the desert. Three days of crack climbing takes its toll on your body, especially your hands. Alexa wanted to climb one day without wearing tape gloves for protection and her hands were a swollen, bloody mess.
Celebration time: the last night calls for beer, rum, and of course fireworks. Five beaten up climbers can wolf down a large dinner as fast as it is cooked. They can also drink a few beers and couple swigs of rum just as quickly. The best thing to do while slightly inebriated and happy with a full stomach is light off some fireworks, so that is exactly what we did. Jon jumped atop the overhanging rock where we cooked dinner and put on a light show for us. I couldn’t think of a better way to end the night.
We had planned to climb a few towers the next morning, but our injuries had a different idea. Licking our wounds, Alexa and I decided to head home and heal before our next climbing adventure. After saying our goodbyes and wishing the rest good luck, we departed from our desert paradise.
The trip left a few thoughts floating around in my head, most of which are still being sorted out every time I look back on the experience. The one thing I do know is that climbing is not just about the act of climbing itself. It runs deeper than that, whether we realize it or not. Every time I return to the rock, I break through barriers and prove to myself that there are no such things as limits to what humans can accomplish. People have no business climbing vertical rock hundreds of feet above solid ground, but at the same time, we do. As long as we push our bodies and use our ingenuity to create tools to help us along the way, we will continually defy the limits of what we believe is possible.
For more pictures of this trip, please visit my online album HERE.