Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Desert Diaries - Indian Creek

You only get one first time.  In the midst of that new experience, the doors swing wide open and you suddenly perceive a new reality, new opportunities, and just maybe a new part of your life thereafter.  The rush can never be duplicated, but each time you return to your new found pastime, you try to recreate the unmatched eye opening feeling of having a life-long veil lifted off of your head.  Those moments, the feelings, the sensations, the little details, stick with you for the rest of your life, and if you’re lucky you get to experience that rush at least a few times before you move on.  If you build it up too much ahead of time, searching out that high, you might just be disappointed.  But when you take things as they come, those rare fleeting moments catch you by surprise and create memories that sustain and inspire you for the rest of your life.

Indian Creek.  I first tied into a rope in 1991.  I’ve been climbing pathologically since 2001.  I can’t remember how many times I’ve heard people rave about “The Creek,” how many photos I’ve seen, how many stories I’ve read about people scrounging for extra cams for the parallel sided cracks.  All the hype turned me off for a while, but to be honest the tales of desperation and dead vertical face cracks spooked and intimidated me.  When I’d hear the stories, I’d scoff to myself, but I always wondered whether I was good enough.      

When we planned our recent month off, Kristin and I finally decided we were going to Indian Creek, and our loosely laid plans revolved around our main focus – sampling the goods.  When I popped a rib on the first pitch during the first day of climbing – on a 5.8 layback on Wall Street – suddenly it looked like the whole plan might come crashing down before it even got off the ground.  After I suffered through an excruciating night of pain (after climbing on it for three days), the doctor at the Moab hospital told me to rest it indefinitely.  As we drove south towards Arizona on state highway 191, past the turn off to the Canyonlands, Indian Creek and Newspaper Rock, we talked about the disappointment and frustration and speculated that we may never be back this way again.  Opportunity lost. 

But in the back of my mind, I knew we might be back.  I told Kristin that my ribs could recover, the weather might hold, the drive wasn’t so bad.  We were only five days into a month-long trip.  We just had to take it one day at a time, enjoy our freedom, and we’d see where that would take us. 

Over the next several days, we visited with new friends in Sedona, where I signed up for a student massage from a local school.  In the massage room, a CD played in the background with the sound of fake waves crashing on a distant seashore – on repeat.  My student masseuse was a heavier set woman in her early to mid 50s, long artificially colored hair, skin showing signs of too much sun, apparently looking for a career change. The school recommended her as a specialist in sports massage.  I hesitantly explained my injury to this complete stranger and then stripped down to my boxers after she left the room.  When she came back in, I tried to believe as hard as I could that she could help and that I should trust her with my body.  I tried to relax.

She engaged me in conversation and rubbed and poked and prodded for a good 20 minutes before getting down to business.  After awhile, she finally moved straight to the central area of pain.  She found a spot on my back, in my ribs, and gently applied pressure.  She kept up that pressure and increased it slightly as I breathed and tried to relax.  After a few seconds, she said “there it is,” as her hands started to move ever so slightly.  After a few more seconds, I felt something like a knot getting pushed aside as her hands slid off my rib cage.  She said happily, “that should just about do it. I think your rib just slipped back into place.”  Still skeptical, I thought to myself, “yeah whatever,” but I relaxed and enjoyed the rest of the massage.

Over the next week, Kristin and I climbed in the Cochise Stronghold, and I couldn’t believe how quickly my body recovered.  Despite my initial skepticism, it appeared that the student masseuse really did help my cause.  The more I climbed, the better I felt.  The pain went away, my strength returned, and I felt a surge of motivation take over.  We got to explore a magical desert landscape with 800 ft. granite domes, but we knew we were eventually going to move on.  After climbing four out of five days, we decided to make the long drive back to Indian Creek.

We finally arrived in the Creek on a Monday afternoon.  We drove in from the south just before sunset, and the evening light glowed off the eastern walls of the canyon.  Buttress after buttress of beautiful sandstone rose up over the two-lane road, illuminated by the setting sun.  With the window down, Lovin Cup was playing on the radio.

I’m the man who walks the hillside in the sweet summer sun.
I’m the man that brings you roses when you ain’t got none.
Well I can run and jump and fish, but I won’t fight
You if you want to push and pull with me all night.

We pulled over to gape, and Kristin broke into tears of joy.  Light streamed in the windows.  Music poured out.  Wow.

The next morning, we started at the Scarface Wall as our first introduction to the Creek.  After a warm up on Wavy Gravy, a .10- splitter on the far end of the wall, we walked back towards the main area looking for another objective.  Most of the popular lines had three or more people hanging out at the base.  We kept going and eventually turned the corner to find a massive, dead vertical 100’ corner with a perfect splitter finger crack – Black Uhuru.

Black Uhuru, 5.10+
A nice guide from Crested Butte and his girlfriend were just finishing up, and we sat down to wait.  As I was racking up, I was a little scared, and it helped to talk about it with Kristin and the climbing guide.  He reassured me that it wasn’t that hard, but at 5.10+, it looked damn hard from where I stood.  I pawed through the three racks we were carrying, pulling off as many .5” pieces as I could find – 8 in all.  I thought to myself, “I guess this is it” and took a deep breath as I started up the first few moves.

From the top of an initial pillar, the crack reared straight up, but what looked like smooth walls turned out to have small features.  I sunk my fingers in the crack, leaned back, walked my feet up the opposing wall and started climbing.  After a few moves, I found a good stance and plugged in a cam.  After a few more moves, I found another stance and placed another piece of pro.  I repeated this a couple of more times, and pretty soon I was 20 ft. from the top, staring up at one last, long section of climbing without a good stance.  I placed another cam, took a couple of deep breaths, and leaned it back again.  Halfway through the last section, I stopped to place another piece of pro and almost blew it. Fiddling in a shaky piece, I kept going, huffing and puffing, trying not to pop off the wall.  With the shakes just starting to come on, I reached up, snagged a perfect locking hand jam, and pulled through to the anchors.  Hell yes! 

Over the next week, we binged on crack.  Like a kid in a candy store, I ran around on-sighting as many incredible crack lines as my body could take.  After that first tough lead, the mystique of Indian Creek – the intimidating reputation – turned into an amazing, incredible unmatched reality.  We turned our eyes to the dozens of walls lining the valley and looked on them with a new perspective – we can climb these splitter cracks and my god its going to be fun.  This was our first time climbing at Indian Creek. 

For me the high point came on Day 3 at the Reservoir Wall.  Again the wall was somewhat busy.  After a great warm-up on Dr. Carl, I decided to abandon the hordes and strike off in search of Excuse Station, rumored to be a stunning 5.11 hand crack at the far end of the wall.  As I walked down the wall, I kept looking up to my right, wondering whether this crack or that crack line was the one.  Nothing seemed to match the description in the guide, and I kept going. 

Finally, I turned a last corner, looked up and saw the most amazing looking hand crack I had ever seen splitting a vertical wall.  I craned my neck as I tilted my head back, looking for the top of the crack, but I could barely see that high on the wall.  Kristin walked up, and I looked around at our setting.  We couldn’t see or hear another soul.  We were alone.

Excuse Station, 5.11

I racked up and started climbing - hand jams, foot jams, hand jams, foot jams.  It seemed to go on forever.  One last rest before the final 20’ – I shook out and stood on a tiny toe-sized sloping ledge overlooking the canyon.  I took a couple of deep breaths and tried to relax.  The crack narrowed, and I struggled with some shaky ring locks.  I finally got a good ledge for my feet on the left side of the crack, and I clipped the chains as my strength was giving out.  I whooped in joy and sat back on the rope, exhausted and filled with energy.

On Day 5, we finally went to Supercrack Buttress, the most famous (or infamous) of all the crags at the Creek.  Again, we found morning crowds and all the moderate lines were taken except, of course, for Supercrack.  “Screw it,” I thought, “I’ll just have to climb it as a warm up.” 

I racked up, and a couple of spectators arrived.  By the time I started climbing, 6-8 Canadians were at the base watching and cracking jokes.  No solitude this time.  I pulled the roof on perfect hand jams.  20 feet later, I started to flame out on rattly cups.  I also started to run out of cams.  I back cleaned a piece and tried to relax.  “Focus on your feet,” I thought to myself.  I jammed a foot and stood up, balancing on shaky hands.  “Keep going.”  All of a sudden I was back in the groove – hand jam, foot jam, hand jam, foot jam.  My last piece dropped away below me, and pretty soon I looked up and again clipped the chains.  This time, I didn’t whoop – I burped … loudly.  I must have been swallowing air.  The crowd cheered. 

Supercrack, 5.10
After the “warm up,” I kept going.  I thought to myself, “you only get one first day at Supercrack Buttress – keep on-sighting as many lines as you can.”  I tried Anasazi next, an incredible looking 5.11- finger crack in a striking vertical corner.  I flamed out right at the end, and blew the lead by one move.  Somewhat dejected, we pulled the rope and moved back to the main area. 

Next up, the Incredible Hand Crack - perfect 5.10 hands.  Hand jam, foot jam, hand jam, foot jam.  I pulled through an incredible section of crack that was well over vertical and then into the easier terrain.  Butter.

Next up, 3 am Crack.  More perfect hand jams, only this time it starts out as tight hands - #1 cams (reds).  In the midst of a binge, I racked up and launched up the climb without double checking my gear.  I got to the top of the first pillar, looked up at a perfect #1-sized crack, and then looked down at my harness, where I had 7 #2 cams (yellows).  Ooops.  Kristin tied in 4-5 reds, and I hauled them up.  I placed the first one, then fell back into a familiar rhythm of hand jam, foot jam, hand jam, foot jam.  I finished up on shaky wide hands and then clipped the chains again.  Oh yeah.
Nick Dolecek on 3 Am Crack, 5.10

Back on the ground, I was totally spent.  I was bleeding – from a lot of places – inside my climbing shoes – on my ankles and knuckles and elbows and knees.  My toes were killing me.  My arms were dead.  I called it a day – a happy day – my first one at Supercrack Buttress. 

After one more day, bad weather moved in, and we decided to move on in search of dry rock and warm temperatures.  We lived in the moment and that moment was over.  But we had already written our own story – our first trip to Indian Creek.
Free Camping in the Bridger Jack's
Dr. Carl, 5.10
Generic Crack, 5.10-
Scarface Wall

Mr. Peanut, 5.11-
Reservoir Wall
Sunset in the Bridger Jacks
After the last climb, last day at The Creek


  1. Wow, great report. Good work

  2. gorgeous story...and so symbolic of so many other moments in life.

  3. Hey Guys,
    Amazing photo's and was amazing running into you and camping out! Glad to hear your trip there was so positive, you were crushing.

  4. Thanks for the comments. Nick, great hanging with you and your buds. Drop me a line next time you're in OR (or the Todrillos).

  5. Man, we look Dirty! Must have been a good trip.