November 18-19, 2017
One of my French colleagues came to Salt Lake City to spend some time in the US office. Of course while she was here we showed her the world famous Indian Creek.
Just a quick post to share some images from a recent ski/climbing trip to the desert. Yup, the desert for climbing and skiing. Outside Moab, UT are the La Sal Mountains, with many peaks topping 12,000′ they are even higher than the Wasatch outside our front door. We gambled on the weather and got some fresh snow in the La Sals and enjoyed ourselves exploring a new area. That day after skiing we camped in Moab and enjoyed a desert sunset. Awesome place this UT.
A couple years ago Aaron and I had a hairbrained idea that we’d do some aid climbing Zion. The problem was neither of us knew how to aid climb much so that trip was a bit of a bust. I’ve still wanted to do some aid climbing on a big-wall down there but hadn’t had anyone who knew the game to go along with. A couple weeks back I went with Matt Berry to do Desert Shield (5.11a C3). He’s been ticking off the classics down there slowly and upping the aid difficulty and this would be his first C3.
The route begins with some mandatory free climbing for three pitches that bring you to a possible bivy ledge. The ledge has a small grill installed into the rock with an ice screw. It isn’t often that you get to sleep on a ledge and grill steaks so we opted to go heavy and do that. The alternative would be to fix ropes the first day, stay in town, then come back the next day to finish it off.
I did the first three pitches, poorly. P1 is moderate and didn’t have much difficulty, just a bit of wandering climbing. The second pitch is the 5.11a one. It is a great 170 ft pitch of climbing with face, slab, and crack. My head wasn’t screwed on properly and I ended up making it a marathon of a hangdog. Pulling, tensioning in, french freeing, basically all sorts of shenanigans to just get up it. This was unfortunate because it was a great bit of climbing that I can do, I just wasn’t able to at the time.
Being the leader I hauled and belayed Matt up. We dropped our stuff off at the bivy ledge and then Matt go to the aid climbing for P4. While not necessary to do for this pitch, he wanted to get into the groove and prepare for the harder pitches. He missed the anchor for P4 and went to P5, with heinous rope drag of course. So bad that he had to rap down the rope he fixed just to clean the gear.
With the work done for the day we settled into our bivy to drink beers and sip whiskey. The ledge is large enough for two plus, and is protected from the outside by the pinnacle of rock that forms the ledge. This allows going unroped to be a safe option since you’d have to fall up a three foot barrier in order to fall off the ledge. Nevertheless we opted to rope in for sleeping as there was some slopiness to the ground towards squeeze chimneys on either side. The night was pleasant without any wind or precip.
The next day we jugged up the fixed ropes to get to the real aid climbing. P6 starts off to the left of the massive slightly overhanging shield of rock. This pitch is a bolt ladder going from easier ground out onto the overhanging rock and in full exposure to the rest Zion. Matt lead the pitch quickly and even made a couple hook moves as necessary to reach the bolts. For me following this pitch was a little heady since you’re going from a nice ledge into hanging terrain and traversing slightly right to boot.
Once getting out onto the main face the full value of exposure is obvious. We were 180′ or so above our bivy ledge which was 350′ or 400′ off the valley floor–with nothing but air between my legs it was exhilarating.
Matt chugged on the next pitch which was one of the C3 pitches consisting of small brass offsets for progression and protection. This route hasn’t been freed as far as I know and I don’t see how it ever could be. There’s no features to the face and the crack is only a couple quarters wide in many areas. Matt had no noticeable difficulties to me on the pitch. He wasn’t fast, but methodical and tested every piece before moving to it.
The eighth pitch is much like the first but a little less consistent in the crack. By this time in the day we had some other climbers sharing my hanging belay and the clouds started getting dark. We could feel some rain and the other party decided to bail given the rain and the additional wait it would take to get to the top with us in front of them for the last pitch. Part way up P8 Matt noticed it was raining a little and we decided it would be prudent to bail. He was at a bolt (a shitty one), and we were running a little late on time anyway. He fixed a couple extra small pieces and lowered back to the belay where we started to rap down to our bivy to collect the rest of our stuff. The raps down to the bivy were two double rope raps and because the wall was slightly overhanging created about +20′ of space between you and the rock as you went down, exciting!
We packed up and were bummed that we didn’t finish the route entirely, but I think it was the right call to bail. Matt was at a good spot to do it and wet sandstone is fragile and is dangerous to climb on. Perhaps I’ll go back to finish it but at least I’d like to go back to do the second pitch clean.
Indian Creek is a world renowned climbing location. Utah’s stunning desert scenery, endless sandstone splitter cracks and the piles and piles of cams to get up them. Despite this I’ve had a conflicted opinion of the area. I don’t frequent Indian Creek as much as some and the last time was almost a year ago. There are a number of reasons for my critical view of the Creek and each time I go down there my feelings are reinforced.
First, and perhaps the least popular reason why I don’t sing from the mountain tops about how good the creek is: monotony. Who loves a splitter crack, everyone right? Sure. As awesome as perfect hands sounds for 130′, once you’ve done it, it sort of loses its novelty. Generic Crack (5.10-) and Supercrack (5.10) are a good examples. My Creek aficionado friends don’t bother with these routes. Jam-jam torque-torque, rinse and repeat. Does that mean that I don’t want to climb a crack like that? No, but I don’t want to do it every weekend between October and the end of November. “But there are so many other sizes of crack, and it is rare that a route takes only one size cam for its entirety, Pete!” Very true. However when the pro list is 5-#1, 4-#2, 2-#3. You can’t tell me there is a whole lot of variety on the route. As the saying goes “variety is the spice of life” some variability makes things interesting. How much fun would a treadwall with a hand crack be? Not much fun in my opinion.
“Working out the beta” for a route is something that rarely happens in the Creek. For sure there are the occasional routes with some face holds, a wide bit, or a changing corner, that require some thought. I did a route called Funny Farm (5.11+) during this trip which fit this description. A dwindling finger tip crack in a left facing corner has a bolt once the crack disappears. None in our party could figure out the beta to work through this section. We all aided on the bolt and pulled through that spot. To the best we could tell it involved a hip scum to stem transition none of us could do. This type of climb is in a small minority at the Creek.
In my opinion, climbing at the Creek doesn’t make you a better climber. It makes you better at climbing splitter desert cracks. There is certainly some carryover to other rock types. If you can ring-lock in sandstone, then the same move on granite will be a bit easier. However the applicability to other rock types is minimal in my opinion. No one I know who can get themselves up a 5.12 finger crack in the Creek can bring that accomplishment to a 5.12 granite crack–that is unless they are already a 5.12 climber across the board. If you’re sending 5.10 or 5.11 on granite, and you get up a 5.12 in the Creek doesn’t mean you have a chance on a 5.12 granite finger crack. For many years I was focused on traditional climbing and eschewed clipping bolts. I’ve realized that the best and most well rounded climbers I know aren’t Creek fanatics, they clip bolts on limestone, plug gear on granite, climb ice, pull cobbles in Maple, and spend the occasional weekend in the Creek. Diversity in climbing increases your repertoire of skills to succeed in more areas. The more climbing areas that are accessible to you, the more fun you can have.
Crowds. As the pejorative saying goes, “Indian Creek, best crag in Colorado.” Or “How do you know it is springtime in the Creek? All the license plates turn green.” Colorado’s license plate is green mountains silhouette against a white sky. In the 4 years of climbing in the Creek the crowds have gotten worse–from Colorado and Utah. Many of the weekends I’ve been there are popular weekends anywhere, Halloween and Thanksgiving. However the crowds are increasing, just as they are across the climbing world everywhere. The blessing and curse of increased popularity in climbing. For areas of like Indian Creek with limited oversight this is a big problem.
Just getting to a crag is a problem. Limited, usually unmaintained, and certainly unmanaged parking at most crags creates a cluster fuck of parking. Cars parked all cattywampus, once you’ve made the typically semi gnarly drive out to a particular crag and there’s already seven cars you are kind of committed to climbing in that area. So you park in the sagebrush, as little as you can anyway, and hump up to the crag. As you hike up you see another Tacoma pull in next to you, or across some dubious spot that will make it difficult for the existing vehicles to get out.
Once you get up to the crag the next crux is confronted–finding a route to climb. While Mountain Project says there’s about 1,000 routes in the Creek it is rare you can walk up to any given crag and have your pick of the routes. Since the ante to climb at the Creek is 5.10, there are very few routes easier than that, and not many people can climb 5.12 at the Creek, the crowds get compressed into the 5.10-.11 range. Hours long top rope queues from groups of people with five, six, or seven people in them–which I have been guilty of too. Since the party of seven only has maybe two leaders it means that anything they climb will be taken for a couple hours or more. Many crags have much more undeveloped climbable terrain too. I’d be willing to bet that they aren’t developed because many of the lines aren’t quite as splitter, diverging from the romantic ideal of Indian Creek. Route development is a thankless, difficult, and expensive activity. More choices, perhaps even expanded into the moderate grades, wouldn’t solve anything though. If more climbs were available, especially moderates, it would mean increased attendance, which is sort of not possible given the limited parking.
Almost no one day trips the Creek. From Salt Lake it is 5.5 hours if you don’t have traffic. More typically on a Friday afternoon it will be 6-6.5 hours with traffic, food, and gas stops. From Colorado it is shorter, Grand Junction climbers only drive about 2.5 hours. Since very few are there for only the day it means that everyone else has to stay somewhere. Creek Pasture, Superbowl, and Hamburger Rock are the “easy” camping areas to get into. These fill up the quickest on a good weekend since they require neither a high clearance vehicle nor skills to drive a normal passenger car off-road. Hamburger Rock has charged a fee for a while, but as of September 1, 2016 Superbowl and Creek Pasture are charging as well. Some of the entitled climbing community think that this outrageous , , . Apparently construction and maintenance of sites, campground roads, fire rings, and most importantly toilets, is something that doesn’t require money. Saying that taxes should take care of this is a naive position to take. Users must financially support their recreational areas directly.
While the fees haven’t been in place long, my experience this weekend has me wondering how long it will take before there is a major issue with camping in the Creek. Since less people are interested in paying the $5/night to camp at the easy campgrounds they will migrate to more difficult, but free areas. Bridger Jacks camping requires either higher clearance or some skill in driving off-road so it fills up a little slower, but will still be pretty full on any given weekend. This weekend it was very full, with most sites having 2-3 cars or more. In addition to this the rising popularity of camper vans has people staying in non-camping parking areas such as the Beef Basin lot. Arguably since there’s no tent it should be fine for a van to stay overnight in a parking lot like that. However, when there’s a dozen or more vans and sleeper-cap trucks overnight in the lot, how long will it be before there’s an access problem? Similarly I witnessed large groups of people camping at trailheads. Specifically this was at the first parking area for Cliffs of Insanity. There were about 4-5 vehicles with with folding tables lined up like a buffet line, hardly low impact or Leave No Trace compliant.
All dispersed camping requires full pack-in pack-out, including solid human waste. I’d be willing to bet there is a very small percentage of users doing this. I will be quick to admit that I have dug catholes when I couldn’t wait for a proper toilet. However, I have recently realized that WAG bags aren’t expensive nor all that gross to use, even multiple times. For those not willing to buy them, there are homemade alternatives. With hundreds of people on any given weekend how long will it be before there’s a human waste problem? I’m sure some people might argue there’s already a problem in this area.
So enough bitching. Utah’s desert areas are an amazing place. Clearly that is why people visit. Some of these issues may improve if the Bears Ears National Monument happens. I am not familiar enough with that plan to comment, but the continued trend in the Creek doesn’t bode well for access. The solution is more respect for the limited resource, which means financially supporting the area via camping fees, Access Fund membership, following Leave No Trace practices, and perhaps not making quite so many trips there.
Carly and I headed south to the desert for the first time a while. One of our friends was having a birthday party and invited a bunch of people to join. There indeed was a bunch of folks who arrived at the primitive camping outside of Canyonlands National Park. We elected to set our tent just off from the main group so we could be a little less disturbed from would would prove to be a rackus evening of revelry by the party crowd. We got a little climbing in on Saturday at Wall St. in Moab. The climbing was actually quite pleasant and not as crowded as I expected. Sunday was a short day and we did a hike to Upheaval Dome, before heading back to Salt Lake for a memorial service for Kyle Dempster. It was a good weekend capped with a somber reminder that even the strongest climbers are not immune to the strength of the mountains.