Thursday, November 5, 2015

Cracking Under Pressure at The Spider's Web & Indian Creek

(Photo: Indian Creek.)

I recently spent four days in the crack-climbing capital of the world: Indian Creek, Utah.

The trip was in the works for a while. My longtime partner Adrian went to the Creek last October with some of his Squamish buddies. This year, a similar crew planned to reunite for another visit.

With the exception of Adrian, I hadn't met any of the participants before, but I felt like I knew some of them already from the many times I'd heard Adrian speak about them.

There was Lee, one of Adrian's longtime Vancouver partners. He is super fit and very experienced. He seems to manage balancing his home life and climbing life in a way that I envy-- he has five children yet still manages to get out for a ton of climbing days. I'd like to pick his brain about how he does it, though with my kids verging on high school I guess I'm nearing the end of my own tour through the child-rearing years.

Also in attendance was Patrick, another veteran of the Vancouver scene, who came with his wife Diane. They too are fitness buffs-- they are active hikers and triathletes/Tough Mudder participant types. Diane doesn't climb but she and Patrick are always traveling the country together in their camper. They have mastered the art of living on the road to such an extent that Diane can whip up a gourmet meal for a large party out of the camper, night after night, without breaking a sweat. They have all the modern conveniences: folding chairs, a portable campfire unit, a carpet on which to gather... Pat and Diane really make a campsite feel like home.

All of the people I've mentioned so far (including Adrian and me) are, you might say, "of a certain age." We've all made the long journey 'round the sun a few times. But there were a couple of younger folks along for the ride as well. There was Adi, a regular whippersnapper-- I'm guessing he's probably in his thirties. He too lives in Vancouver. He recently took some time off from work to devote himself solely to climbing. Over the last several months he's gotten really strong.

And last but not least was Chelsey, a young climber from Montreal, who has only been climbing for a couple of years but you'd never know it. She's so much better than I was after a couple of years. Not that I'm any kind of barometer. My climbing career is evidence that rank mediocrity can be extended over an endless span of time.

The gang planned to be in Utah for a whole week, but I didn't have that kind of time to spare. I was flying out to join them in the middle of their trip. I'd have about three and a half days with which to climb before making the long drive back to Salt Lake City for my overnight flight back east.

It seemed like plenty of time with which to get thrashed on the Creek's steep hand cracks.

In the months leading up to the trip I tried to prepare. I really did.

I knew from my isolated past attempts at crack climbing that I have no natural talent for it.

I am not being modest. I am just keeping it real. Whether at Cannon Cliff in New Hampshire, in the Adirondacks, at Squamish, or in Yosemite, I've made occasional, halting attempts to climb hand cracks, and over the years I've made little progress. Whenever I have had the opportunity to climb a hand crack, I've found the climbing to be insecure. I've had a hard time getting good jams. I've ended up hanging and backing off a lot. Whatever improvement I make during one trip seems to evaporate before the next one. It isn't like riding a bike for me. I'm always starting over from zero.

This year I wanted it to be different. I hoped to get something meaningful out of Indian Creek. I had to finally learn how to do this thing.

I bought the recent book, The Crack Climber's Technique Manual, by Kent Pease. It is an extremely thorough treatise. I read it from cover to cover, and then reread several chapters multiple times, trying to absorb the information.

Book learnin' was all well and good, but for the lessons to make a meaningful difference I needed to practice on some actual cracks.

Unfortunately, there aren't any outdoor crack climbs around NYC. I would have to do most of my practicing indoors, at the Cliffs at Long Island City. This gym has three crack climbs. I spent months working at them, eventually getting pretty good at the two easier ones. I would devote part of every gym session to these cracks, altering my hand positions so as to work on them in multiple ways.

My gym practice was better than nothing, but I knew it couldn't prepare me for the stresses of managing a lead on real rock. Before heading to Indian Creek I needed to make a trip to the Adirondacks or New Hampshire to get mileage on some real crack climbs.

But I couldn't seem to find the time.

My big chance finally came on Columbus Day weekend. I went up to Keene Valley, in the Adirondacks, with my wife and kids. We did a little hiking and I got to do a little climbing. Adrian came down from Montreal to meet me at the Spider's Web, a wall full of overhanging vertical crack climbs.

(Photo: Adrian warming us up on Slim Pickins (5.9+).)

We had a nice, leisurely day at the Web. We only did four pitches. I sent Adrian up the technical corner of Slim Pickins (5.9+) to start us off. After that we did three 5.10a crack climbs: Esthesia (which I had followed once before), TR, and On the Loose. Adrian and I both were interested in leading all of them, so that's what we did.

(Photo: I'm leading Esthesia (5.10a).)

Esthesia went well. I was happy to lead it clean. But it doesn't require any jamming-- both cruxes can be done as laybacks. Adrian, crack climber that he is, chose to jam through the upper crux crack, making me wish I'd at least tried to do the same, for practice.

TR also went pretty smoothly for both of us. But again I didn't feel like this was a real test of jamming skill. I used the occasional hand jam to rest and place gear, but there wasn't much pure hand jamming on the route. There were lots of finger locks and jugs.

(Photo: Adrian on TR (5.10a).)

The moves on TR are pretty straightforward, but (like most of the climbs at the Web) it is steep! I found it striking that the guidebook describes this pitch as the "warm-up" climb on the wall. Pumpy and sustained, it did not seem like a warm-up to me. I was happy to on-sight it.

Finally we hit On the Loose, which turned out to be the only climb of the day that required hand jamming most of the time. Adrian was in his element and led it comfortably, proclaiming it easier than TR.

For me, it was harder. I got good jams but it took a conscious effort to commit to moving up on them. I felt insecure. After a few steep moves I had to take a hang. It got better from there and my confidence seemed to improve as I got higher.

(Photo: That's me on On the Loose (5.10a).)

I wasn't sure what this all meant for my upcoming trip to Indian Creek. I would find out in a few days.

As the trip approached I paid little attention to weather forecast. I assumed that since we were traveling to the desert, in the high season, we would be looking at favorable temperatures and clear skies.

These assumptions turned out to be ill-founded. Shortly before I left NYC I found out from the guys that it had been raining on and off during the first few days of their trip! On the day I arrived in Utah it was similarly spotty. I reached the campground in the evening, got set up in my tent, and then I lay awake for hours, listening to the rain come down.

Luckily this was a last gasp of the bad weather. We ended up canceling the next day's climbing so the cliffs could dry out and went to Moab to hang out instead.

Though I lost one day, we eventually got plenty of climbing in. And the weather cooperated for the rest of the trip.

I didn't have any specific goals in mind. I had decided long before I got to Utah that this trip was going to be a learning experience for me. Also I knew that the other guys had already been there for a while. I didn't want to get my heart set on a particular climb and then have to fight to go do it because everyone else had already done it earlier in the same week. It seemed better to just go with the flow and do whatever everyone else wanted to do.

Adrian was shocked at my lack of direction. For some strange reason he was expecting me to show up with an ambitious tick list. I don't know why he would expect something like that from me.

Since I didn't have any concrete demands, Adrian proposed that I should start out by leading The Incredible Hand Crack (5.10), the most popular route at Indian Creek, which is at Supercrack Buttress, the Creek's most popular cliff. Several members of our crew had routes there that they wanted to red-point, so they were amenable to heading there for the day. For me this was a dream come true. I of course wanted to go there but I didn't want to make everyone else return to this cliff if they were already sick of it.

When we arrived and marched up to the Supercrack Buttress I was pretty impressed. The cliffs at the Creek don't appear to be all that tall from the road. But when you stand directly beneath the walls they seem to soar upwards forever into the sky. And while most of the climbs are just one pitch they are long, steep, and unrelenting. The cracks just go on and on.

Looking up at Incredible Hand Crack put a knot in my stomach. The early bits looked easy, with two short sections of vertical crack broken up by good ledges. But then the crux climbing loomed above: a lengthy section of steeply overhanging hand crack in a corner.

(Photo: Getting some beta on The Incredible Hand Crack (5.10).)

It did not go well. I got over the bouldery first move and put my mitts in the crack. Nervously I threw in two pieces of gear before I reached the first shelf. I was making the moves but with every step I had to will myself to continue, to move up. Shakily I made it to the stance before the crux section. But then I couldn't get through the overhang. I kept failing at getting both hands locked in the crack. I took at least a half a dozen falls and then finally gave up and handed the lead over to Adrian.

(Photo: That's me attempting The Incredible Hand Crack (5.10).)

After Adrian led up through my gear and finished it, I tried it again on top rope. It still took some figuring out but after a fall or two I worked out how to get established in the overhanging crack and I made it to the anchor.

I wasn't too disappointed. I came here to learn, right? At least I went for it. For the rest of the day I followed other people up some of the best 5.10 cracks at Indian Creek. I found out that when I didn't have to worry about leading, I wasn't quite so terrible at crack climbing. My months of practice paid off-- to some extent.

(Photo: Lee leading Supercrack (5.10).)

I watched Adi and Lee both lead Supercrack, a steep splitter crack that passes a small roof and then goes on for miles. Watching both of them send it, I could understand the endurance that was required to lead the route. When my turn came I was thrilled just to do it cleanly on top rope. It turned out I felt pretty comfortable jamming when the crack was in the range of Number 2 and 3 Camalots.

(Photo: Adi leading No Name Crack (5.10).)

I was able to successfully follow two more beautiful 5.10 hand cracks at the Supercrack Buttress, one of them known as the No Name Crack and the other one called 3 AM Crack. These were rather similar to each other, both of them being right facing corner cracks. Each route had its own unique challenges, such as a small overhang or a thin or wide section. On top rope I found I could manage these challenges. I'm sure if I'd been leading them it would have been a different story.

(Photo: That's me leading Three Pigs in a Slot (5.10), with Adrian belaying.)

By the end of the day I'd made enough progress that I thought maybe I could try to lead The Incredible Hand Crack again. But it was occupied. So instead I tried to lead another 5.10 called Three Pigs in a Slot. This climb is short (45 feet) and features a wider vertical crack than the ones I'd been doing all day. I hadn't done any cracks of this size but the group provided me with a whole bunch of Number 4 Camalots so there was no reason not to go for it.

It didn't go as badly as my first lead but it was still a struggle. I just felt insecure, for no reason that I could articulate. The climb was very safe and I could pause anywhere I wanted. I could shove my leg into the crack at will. It should have felt easy. But I had to force myself to commit, even when I had a big fat Number 4 Camalot over my head. It was slow going, and tense.

The next day we all went to the Reservoir Wall. I attempted another 5.10 lead; it was just another great crack in a corner. Indian Creek has so many of these that people don't even bother giving them names half the time. This crack took Number 3 Camalots the whole way up and therefore should have been in my comfort zone. And I suppose it was. For the most part I did fine, except at one point right in the middle where the insecurity came randomly over me again and I stopped to take a hang.

(Photo: I'm leading another 5.10 corner, again with Adrian belaying.)

I watched Adrian lead a somewhat atypical (for the Creek) 5.10 climb called Dr. Karl. This climb mostly featured finger cracks, with the feet spanning two opposing flakes. It reminded me a bit of Bloody Mary at Poke-O. Adrian did a good job on it. I elected just to follow it but later kicked myself for not leading it too. It was my kind of climbing and felt pretty straightforward to me.

(Photo: View out from the Reservoir Wall to Bridger Jack (the jagged wall on the left) and the two Six Shooter towers in the distance at the horizon.)

The highlight of the day was Pente (5.11-), which Adi did a great job of leading. The climb ascends 160 feet in a single pitch. The meat of the route involves thin hand jamming (Number 1 Camalots) up a steep headwall. Then in the second half the angle eases but the crack narrows to the horrible .75 size. This pitch just goes and goes. Adi brought more cams than the guidebook recommended but towards the end he still ran out of gear. We had to send more cams up to him using the tag line. It was an epic effort.

(Photo: Adi leading Pente (5.11-).)

No one else in the group ended up leading it but Adrian looked almost casual as he strolled up the climb on top rope. It seemed like he could easily lead it. I was wholly unfamiliar with this crack size and I really struggled just to get started in the crack, falling out of it several times. Once I finally got in it, though, I was able to get a rhythm going and was pretty successful the rest of the way. For me to lead this route would take a lot of work, I think.

I was amazed to watch Chelsey follow Pente easily, without a single moment of uncertainty. I'd heard that before I arrived she'd been following every climb in the Creek without much trouble, and she was even experimenting with some leading. This was her first trip to the Creek, and her first time crack climbing. She only recently started leading trad. Watching her I was very impressed. And jealous! She is clearly one of those lucky people for whom crack climbing comes naturally. I was exhausted by Pente but for her it wasn't a big deal.

After just two full days in the Creek I was feeling worn down by the effort involved in climbing these long, steep cracks. I had so many scrapes on my arms and legs I resembled a leper. We were all driving out by the early afternoon the next day so there wouldn't be time for more than a few pitches anyway. I didn't mind.

We went to Donnelly Canyon, which is another very popular wall. It shares a parking area with the Supercrack Buttress. A highlight of this wall is the popular Generic Crack (5.10). This is a straight-in splitter with a few challenging wide pods. Lee and Adi both wanted to red-point it before they left for home.

Before I came to Indian Creek I had thought that maybe I'd lead Generic Crack but on our final day I was content to follow it. I hoped to do it clean but I struggled to get into the first wide pod. Once I worked that out the rest of it went well.

(Photo: Chelsey leading Chocolate Corner (5.9) on our last day.)

I didn't come to Indian Creek expecting to rip it up. Instead I wanted to get some experience on splitter cracks and to progress a bit in my crack climbing. The trip definitely provided the training I was hoping for, so from that perspective it was an unqualified success. And I got to experience some of the most legendary climbs in the world, all in an amazing desert setting. Plus I got to meet a whole bunch of wonderful people. So it was a great little vacation and I had a very enjoyable time there.

I did, in the back of my mind, have a hope that after a day or two of pumping cracks something would "click" and I'd suddenly feel as comfortable leading sandstone cracks as I do leading climbs on Gunks conglomerate. This obviously didn't happen, so I left feeling a little bit frustrated. I tried to remind myself that crack climbing really is a distinct discipline from the type of climbing I'm used to. I need more mileage, and then the progress will come.

It's as if you are an experienced trumpet player. You've been doing it for years and you've forgotten what it was like when you weren't good at it. And then one day you decide to play around with a trombone. You ask yourself "How different can it be?" But then you try it and your embouchure is all wrong and you have to figure out how to work the slide; as a result the sounds you produce are closer to noise than to music. And you can't fix it right away. You've forgotten how long you worked at the trumpet to get proficient at it, and back then you didn't mind how bad you sounded. Starting over on the trombone is like torture, because now you know better. You know how it should sound, and you know what you can do. But you can't execute yet in this new medium.

That's what crack climbing is like for me. I'm a trumpet player who is trying to pick up the trombone. Or worse: the oboe. I wish it came more easily to me.

I think I made some incremental moves forward in the Creek. My third 5.10 lead was much better than my first. I hope the experience will translate to other climbing areas, and that when I travel to the Adirondacks or New Hampshire I will be more comfortable than before on the vertical cracks there.

And some day I'll go back to the Creek. I will return and I will try again.


  1. A great trip report Seth. Good writing! It was a pleasure to meet you and I hope to climb with you in the future.