For some reason, I had a particularly hard time writing this trip report and spent a lot of time thinking about what was different about this trip as opposed to others and why it was hard to me to say what I wanted to say. I soon realized that it was the way I perceived the climbing that I experienced in the Utah desert that was so different and difficult to describe.
To me, climbing acts as a way to manipulate time. When I am truly climbing, and am in the moment, time stands still and all of my senses are heightened. I can feel the grains and texture of the stone on my hand, I smell the unique scent of rock just after the morning dew has evaporated from the plants below, and most importantly I can free my mind and think about whatever I want. It is almost as if the actual climbing itself does not matter, my body automatically reacts to the sequence of holds above me and executes the perfect physical motions to ascend that line. It is my mind that wanders. Exploring and probing places that it does not dare venture to in everyday life. I can be on a climb for only a matter of five minutes and after being lowered have the feeling that I was on the rock face for days, (and no, no drugs are involved in this entire process, although I am sure that those who relish Mary Jane and a certain fungus might also experience such feelings!) This is not a common occurrence in my climbing and happens occasionally, but seems to have been more prevalent in my recent trip to Utah.
Some gorgeous desert rock, the inspiration for this trip.
My trip to the Fisher Towers and to Indian Creek was so full of memories like this, that it would have taken equally as long to write a report about how I felt. So I have chosen to write a select few memories of my amazing first time into the desert. I hope you enjoy these few anecdotes and are able to build a larger picture of what climbing in the desert is really about for me.
In the Beginning
The trip had all started in my mind a long time ago. I had been longing to climb ‘Supercrack of the Desert’ ever since I began crack climbing and saw pictures of this pristine line. The images of a pure hand splitter for 120’ just made my mouth salivate. Larissa had promised me that she would go desert climbing with me, so I planned a trip for October to head out and visit some towers as well as Indian Creek. The logistics were all planned out, and after recruiting another member (Rob Reed) from Colorado College, we took a sketchy Chevy Prism from a local car rental shop and took off.
Some of the Fisher Towers.
It was finally happening, and I was so excited that I did not know how to contain myself. Loud music and shouts of jubilation from the car windows directed at passersby continued all the way from Colorado Springs to the Utah desert. First on the list was a visit to the Fisher Towers for an attempt at the infamous ‘Corkscrew’ on the ‘Ancient Art’ tower. We arrived in the early evening and set up camp near the trailhead. After eating a little, we hiked to the top of a small rock outcrop and looked at the stars, slightly dimmed by the full moon. We all slowly drifted off and I began to think about what the next day would bring us.
Our First Desert Tower
I awoke early and watched the sunrise over the desert. It was truly an amazing site. Large red cliffs were separated by talus fields dotted with ubiquitous sagebrush and other small plants, making them stand out among the vertical faces that surrounded them. It was still and cool and I knew that the day would be good. After harassing the two others and getting them going, we grabbed a quick bite and headed to the trailhead. Sure enough there was already a party there getting ready. I eavesdropped in on the conversation and found out that they too were doing ‘Ancient Art’ so I hurried the team and, after a minor route finding error, we made it to the base.
Getting ready to go on 'Ancient Art'.
Ok, time to rack up. I was to lead every pitch since Larissa did not feel very comfortable leading on trad, and Rob had never done any trad nor a multi-pitch climb. In some respects I like this type of commitment, and it is what I seek. I truly enjoy trying something completely new and pushing myself on unexplored terrain. Luckily I had the beta of the route completely sussed, (due to a great page made by RPC) and the climbing just flew by. We decided to free the two bolt ladders which were the two cruxes of the route and did not feel terribly difficult. The climbing was fun and interesting. Not particularly the best rock ever, the protection was adequate enough to move on while being moderately safe. I had never climbed such soft rock so high before. The more trad and multi-pitch I lead, the more I realize that most of my pro is actually for piece of mind. If I am in a good zone I can easily climb 20 or 30 feet without placing protection. If, however I think about falling or what could go wrong, perhaps caused by a glance downward or a hold breaking, I place some gear. In that sense, trad climbing is very freeing. You are able to determine where you want to go and how you want to place your gear. A sport climb is defined by its bolts and specific sequence, a trad line is defined by the variety of ways to get to the top.
Larissa coming up the first crux of the route.
We reached the final pitch in a few hours and it suddenly hit me why this climb is a classic. A narrow walkway about twenty feet long with nearly 1000 feet of exposure on each side separated us from the corkscrew tower. A few pitons would protect the final tower, but the walkway is essentially unprotectable. Had this been three feet off the ground I would have run across, but after taking a look down and realizing that a fall would result in a large swing, I had second thoughts. I moved slowly and made it to the tower, where I decided to skirt the diving board to reach the first piton. The corkscrew was no better on the mind. Gritty sandstone on a tower that is ready to fall is not exactly the most comforting type of climbing. After slow and methodical climbing I made it to the summit and took the obligatory summit stance on top. I downclimbed and was lowered back to the top of the third pitch. Scariest easy climbing I have ever done in my life!
Final pitch of 'Stolen Chimney' on Ancient Art.
All the pressure had been released from my mind now and I goofed around and relaxed while belaying Larissa and Rob as they took their turns on the summit pitch. Both of them cruised the portions that I had struggled with and made the tower look like childs play. Needless to say I was very impressed. Larissa, being afraid of heights, tackled the corkscrew like a pro and spent more time on the summit than me. Rob, who had never done anything like this before, went full force and even took a TR fall on the corkscrew!
Rob coming down from the final pitch.
As we rappelled from the third pitch to the base I felt a large sense of accomplishment. This was by no means the hardest climbing I had ever done, but it was my first desert tower and all went flawlessly. We grabbed a bite to eat, chilled out in the sun, and rested a while before I suggested we try ‘The Cobra’ as well.
The Cobra Strikes
I was now feeling really good and wanted to push even harder on sketchier terrain. Perhaps I was a bit full of myself, or needed more adrenaline to satisfy my craving, but we headed over to the snake to give a look. I began leading and placed a cam in the lower crack system. I could tell Larissa was not too happy when I made it above the ground fall potential line and was near twenty feet in the air with no additional pro. Larissa continued to support me and I yelled ‘watch me’ as I pulled an awkward mantle to a ledge. Larissa made it clear to me that she could no longer help me and that I was free soloing. Had I taken a fall I would have gone to the bottom. I tried to gather myself and saw that I was close to the fixed piton, the only additional pro before the summit. I worked towards it and figured out the sequence. I had a good heel hook and right hand. I needed to either ring-lock or jam my fingers in a crack and pull up, lock off, and move to a slopper off of which to clip the pin. I began the sequence and felt the R rating creeping up on me. I gave it a few tries and then became too scared to commit, so I backed off and downclimbed. My ego was shot down a little, but probably for the better. Rob and Larissa told me they were happy with my decision and that helped heal my bruised confidence. All and all an incredible day, it was a great kick off to the rest of our journey. We took off and said goodbye to the Fisher Towers as we headed towards Indian Creek for some pure crack climbing.
High up on 'The Cobra'
The next two days of our journey were to be spent in Indian Creek. To me, Indian Creek represented a long time goal and I was prepared to experience the area to the fullest. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but had seen many pictures and knew that the most perfect splitters of every size awaited us there. In some respects I was scared. I wasn’t even sure I would be able to get up the 5.8’s! All I had with me was an absurd amount of gear, and my idealized notion of pure crack climbing that was driving me forward.
Indian Creek: Day 1
To me, pure crack climbing is something truly amazing. Unlike face climbing, where you are searching for the best sequence to ascend the line, in crack climbing you are climbing what is not there. You are using your body to fill that void and move up a seemingly impossible face. There are little to no face holds or crimps, you are forced to be inventive and fill the gap in front of you with fingers, hands, fists, or a combination of these. It is awkward and sometimes scary, but when you figure out the right combination and the correct movements, you begin to understand what crack climbing is all about.
Some cliffs at Indian Creek.
We arrived late to Indian Creek after stopping in Moab to get some food and beers. I had had one too many and was ready for sleep when we got to our car camping spot. It was a little colder this night and Rob decided to set up his tent, although I still wanted to sleep outside. Besides, I was drunk enough not to notice the temperature and wanted to gaze at the stars. After finding a nice rest area I set up my pad and bag and looked into the sky, wondering about what was to come, until I fell asleep.
The next morning was almost a carbon copy of the previous morning. I awoke early and had already packed and finished my breakfast while Larissa and Rob were still asleep. I once again harassed them, this time by playing a German version of Here Comes the Sun loudly from the rental car, until they got up. After they finished their tea and oatmeal we drove a few miles down the road. Immediately after the first switchback I could see the red cliffs made of Wingate Sandstone that made up Indian Creek. Cracks of every shape and size filled the walls; finger cracks, hand cracks, off-width cracks, you name it. We parked at a pullout between the Supercrack Buttress and the Donnelly Canyon wall and racked up. After consulting the interim guide and getting a few suggestions from other climbers in the lot, we took off on the short approach to the Donnelly Canyon wall.
Rob on his first ever trad climb.
We headed to a crack climb in a dihedral with a variety of sizes called ‘Binou’s Crack’ (5.9). The crack looked awesome! On the left was a finger crack that became ever larger and was off-width at the top, and on the right was a hand crack that became ever smaller until it pinched out at the anchors. I ran up to touch the rock and placed a bomber handjam in the lower crack. A sense of euphoria filled me, the rock texture was exactly how I had imagined it. I sat down, racked up, put on shoes and was off. At first, getting off the ground was awkward, but once I was in the crack, it all began to feel right. I was cruising and worked both sides of the crack until I reached the anchors. Woo hoo! Hell yeah! I did it, my first Indian Creek crack. I was hooked. Larissa took off next. She was much more precise and slower than I was, which describes her style of climbing in general. For a person who devotes most of her time to bouldering, Larissa amazed me at her crack climbing prowess. Next was Rob’s turn. This was his first ever crack climb. After teaching him a few basics about how to form a hand jam, how to do finger locks, and how to tackle the off-width section, he took off. Once again, Rob moved quickly up the rock. Before I knew it he was at the anchors and ready to be lowered! We were part of a veritable send-fest! Everyone was performing amazing and having a great time.
Larissa uses inventive footwork and precision to climb 'Binou's Crack'
We headed next to another 5.9 climb called ‘Chocolate Corner’ to give a go at something more splitter-like. I racked up and started the climb. This one was much more difficult. .75s and tight #1s filled the crack that I was expecting to take #2s. I could never quite get in a full hand. After about twenty odd feet I felt pretty crappy. Everything hurt and I was on the verge of falling. I yelled for a take and had to be lowered. I looked at Larissa and she knew exactly what I was going to ask of her. I needed her to lead the climb. Not too excitedly she took some gear and tied in. After she passed the point where I had to bail, I could feel the rope begin to shake a little. I had never seen Larissa so scared before while climbing. Even in this state of being distraught, she moved slowly and gracefully up the rock. No sudden movements, no burlfest, just precise and calculated hand and finger jams. She was soon at the top and I lowered her. This was the most excited I had been all day. I was utterly stunned, I had absolutely no clue that Larissa could crack climb that well. More impressive yet was how beautifully she climbed while scared out of her mind! I gave her a big high-five and we took a large break. We were all a little knackered and now that the sun was beating down on us, we decided to take the rest of the afternoon off and give all we had the following day. On the way out I eyed ‘Supercrack of the Desert’ and hoped that I would be strong enough the next day to climb her.
Larissa takes charge and leads 'Chocolate Corner'.
Indian Creek: Day 2
We decided to head back to give the Supercrack Buttress a go. I really wanted to try ‘Supercrack of the Desert’ and was mentally preparing myself to do whatever it took to reach the top. On the trail to the wall we ran into two fellow CC students, (Tim and Noah) which worked out perfectly since our combined racks would allow us to tackle any route we chose. Larissa, Rob and I warmed up on a 5.9 called ‘Twin Cracks’ while Tim and Noah decided to be more adventurous and tackle a 5.10 called ‘No Name Crack’. The climbing went smooth and quick. I ventured over to ‘Supercrack of the Desert’ while the others were climbing and stood at its base for a while. I was now as close as I could get and very motivated and inspired. I ran back to ‘Twin Cracks’ where I met the crew. Larissa and Rob wanted to TR ‘No Name Crack’ so I went off with Tim and Noah to the base of ‘Supercrack’. They were just as awestruck as I was and it was decided that we all had to lead the route.
Warming up on 'Twin Cracks'.
I racked up and put on some tape gloves to protect my knuckles from the abuse that they were about to endure. I had about six #3 and four #2 camalots. It was actually quite absurd to look at your belt at see the same piece over and over again. I tied in and Tim gave me a catch. The first part to the large ledge below the crack was actually really awkward. I placed a hand jam, then another, then another, and then another. Perfect size, perfect crack. Before I knew it I was already fifteen feet above my last piece. I punched in a #3 and moved on. I was starting to get pumped now and knew I had to just keep plugging away or I would never make the top. About fifteen feet from the top I began to grunt after every move. I was so gassed. I grabbed the one face hold of the route and clipped the anchors. Yeah boy!!! Holy shit! I just onsighted Supercrack! I let out a large scream of success. I had climbed the line that inspired me to come here as best I could and did it well. I could have stayed up there forever, but after a quick look around Tim lowered me to the ground. It was quite possibly some of the most fun climbing I have ever done in my career.
Locked and loaded, hand jam, wham bam gets me to the top of Supercrack on my onsight attempt.
Both Tim and Noah onsighted the crack next and I was just astounded at how amazing the day was going. Larissa and Rob showed up a little later and got on ‘Supercrack’ as well. The rest of the day seemed like a blur to me. We got on a few more lines, but nothing like the 'Supercrack'. It was as if someone had given me Vicadin. I just felt good and wanted to go no where, I was living in the moment and was trying to extend that moment as long as possible. It was something that I had never experienced before and the euphoria literally lasted for days after the climb.
...and some more!
We drove home and headed back to our normal lives of being students, but I knew that the climbing in the desert had changed me a little for the better, like all of my climbing journeys. It was unique, different, and humbling and I will be back sooner than later.
Larissa takes a break to chalk up while climbing this challenging I.Creek 5.10.