8-11 April 2016
Indian Creek Splitter Camp, hosted by Moab Desert Adventures
Indian Creek Canyon, Canyonlands National Park, Moab, Utah
2nd Meat Wall, Pistol Whipped Wall, Super Crack Buttress
ONE YEAR AGO
The first time I realized a sport involving tying oneself to rocks with ropes actually existed was last March. I was invited to join a birthday playdate with Big Hiking Buddy at our local climbing gym. Though rock climbing wasn’t something I ever considered, it offered me a wonderful opportunity to teach BHB the importance of learning about herself through challenge and discomfort. Needless to say, I was hooked on climbing after sending my initial route via top rope and completing my introductory bouldering problem. Although BHB’s first love will always be ballet, she now enjoys spending the occasional dance-free afternoon at the climbing gym with me and Little Hiking Buddy.
After a few months of bouldering simple problems and rappelling off auto-belay routes, I decided to try my hand at outdoor climbing. Unfortunately, my introverted self hadn’t met a single soul at the gym with whom I could ask to climb at the crag. I instead hired a guide from a reputable mountaineering outfit to teach me the basics of outdoor climbing at Deception Crags and Leavenworth, Washington. I was so excited to advance my skills after these two sessions that I signed myself up for a sport climbing camp at Smith Rock. Within six months’ time, I went from being completely ignorant of this sport to willingly putting my life in a stranger’s hands as I climbed up 50 – 100 ft. walls in the desert of Central Oregon. I LOVED IT!
A year has transpired since that momentous donning of a climbing harness, and I have greatly increased my confidence as a climber during this time. In particular, I have improved my top rope skills in the past few months after finding two regular partners at the climbing gym who have both taught me useful techniques as well as cheered me on regardless of how little my accomplishments may be. With that said, I signed myself up for another outdoor clinic; this time, a climbing adventure in the remote desert region of Southeastern Utah where I would be car camping for three days with a group of random strangers whose shared interest revolved around the unearthly discipline of crack climbing.
I felt ready to take on the task of fending for myself for three rugged nights – after all I did survive my first overnight solo backpacking trip at Ancient Lakes just the weekend before. So, with my regained sense of courage and adventure, off I went into the unknown. Following a quick flight into Salt Lake City, I picked up my rental car and drove directly to REI for a few last minute supplies, including extra snacks and a fuel canister for my JetBoil. From there, I drove 220 miles nonstop through the spectacular Wasatch Range of the Rocky Mountains and the high deserts of the Colorado Plateau until I arrived at my lodgings for the night, Moab’s Adventure Inn. Located on the main strip of downtown Moab, this simple, but comfortable, family-owned motel provided my last access to running water and electricity for the long weekend. After a light dinner and a refreshing beer at a local restaurant, I refueled the car, stocked up on four gallons of water, and repacked my gear for the long awaited adventure early the next morning. Early to bed, early to rise…
I left “civilization” early Saturday morning and traveled another 1.5 hours south to the Indian Creek Region of Canyonlands National Park. On this overcast morning, I drove past wildlife, including coyote and deer, as well as open-range cattle throughout the park lands. In fact, I nearly hit a young buck unexpectedly dashing after its family across Hwy 211, as well as gently honked at cattle grazing roadside as I slowly motored through. Though I was exactly on time to meet the group, I was the last to present myself as the others had arrived the prior night to set up camp. I’m sure I made an indelible impression as I disembarked from a ruby red Toyota Prius in my bright magenta climbing pants.
I can only imagine what these experienced guides and climbers thought of me at this point. I didn’t have time to care – or set up camp, for that matter – since we immediately packed up and headed out toward 2nd Meat Wall for the first full day of Splitter Camp. Following a quick drive, we were the first to arrive at this relatively unknown crag. As our troop of 13 climbers, hailing from Alaska to Washington DC, and four experienced guides hiked up the rocky terrain, we were treated to an enlightening lesson in geography and history from Nate, our lead guide and owner of Moab Desert Adventures. An educated guardian of Indian Creek Canyon, Nate highlighted the need to stay on the trails so as not to disturb the black cryptobiotic soil crust, upon which the unique desert plant life in the Canyonlands depend. Leave no trace is not just a concept, it is the path to our future.
The scenery was unlike anything I had ever experienced. Though I have been to the deserts of Egypt in a previous life, the walls and valleys of CNP were alive with nature rather than filled with tourists. My visual senses were overwhelmed by the rich sienna bluffs that unbelievably eclipsed the vivid colors of the desert fauna. I was already amazed by these towering precipices, yet I was merely into my first hour of this desert adventure. Once we reached our site, Nick gave us a useful tutorial on skin-saving tape gloves. While we worked on readying our hands, our four highly regarded guides – Nick, Coleman, Amos, and Jim – expertly put up routes for our troop to undertake.
My first route was Tofu Crack, a 115 ft. single pitch climb with a 5.10 rating. This was a short, but fun route that seemed to fit my petite size well. I followed it up with a 150 ft. route rated 5.10+, called Mouse Meat. While I eventually made my way to the top of Mouse Meat, it took every ounce of grit in me to muscle my way through that endless crack. After taking a long break, I attempted Top Sirloin, another 115 ft. single pitch route, but this time with a 5.11 rating. Unfortunately, my tenacity was overcome by my lack of technique, and I was forced to come down after only making it a third of the way up the crack. As a novice sport climber with excruciatingly little experience in the way of crack climbing, this route crushed nearly all the confidence I had just gained in the past year. Though I was disheartened at the end of this climb, I realized I was at this camp for a reason: to learn the specialized technique of crack climbing. Everyone started at the beginning at some point.
Upon returning to camp, I quickly set up my home for the next two nights, boiled water for a delicious backpacker’s dinner and cleaned myself up for the evening. I enjoyed lounging in my camping chair while witnessing the perfect desert sunset after this physically demanding first day. The group gathered together over a roaring campfire once darkness set in, enjoying the camaraderie of the day’s shared experiences. With over 100 years’ of climbing history across four women and nine men, the diversity of this group was extraordinary. I was clearly out of my league, but no one judged me for it (at least not outwardly so). However, exhaustion set in faster than expected, luring many of us to retire for the evening well before 10 pm.
The next morning was much smoother than my first day at camp. Having only to roll out of my tent once I cleaned and changed, I relaxed over a hot cup of instant coffee and bowl of blueberry oatmeal before 7:30 am. A quick brush and rinse of my teeth, as well as a second wash of my face, had me ready for another day of climbing. After loading our packs into the group vehicles, the group was once again on our way deep into the heart of Indian Creek Canyon – following a rest stop for a potty break, of course! Sunday’s adventure took us on a long drive down Beef Basin Road to Pistol Whipped Wall. On the way there, Nate pointed out historical cliff dwellings and petroglyphs of the Anasazi who once inhabited the Mesa Verde Region. Here, we trekked up the steep trail to the base of the buttress and set up for the day’s climbs. Our fantastic guides once again defied both time and gravity as they set off to lead trad routes for the group to climb.
Before going vertical, however, Amos taught us key crack climbing techniques on the ground. I now understand why this skilled technician is a highly sought after AMGA/IFMGA guide! His calm demeanor, precise instruction and meticulous demonstration epitomized the ideal teacher for an inexperienced climber such as me. Ground school clicked for me. As I warmed up on Short and Stupid, a fleeting 5.8+ route, every hand jam and foot placement became a systematic flow that had me up the wall in no time at all. I enjoyed Short and Stupid enough to climb it again to refine my newly learned techniques. While the experienced climbers went after the more advanced 5.11 Spaghetti Western route, I successfully challenged myself on Skidmarks (5.10+), Wounded Knee (5.10+) and Coyne Crack Simulator (5.11a). Although I came away with major battle scars from the day, my confidence was no longer in shambles. The entire group enjoyed this second full day of climbing, so much so that we returned late to camp just as the sun illuminated the evening sky with streaks of pink and gold before surrendering itself to the night sky.
I awoke the next morning completely excited for my last day of Splitter Camp. After polishing off a fully loaded backpacker’s breakfast of instant coffee and freeze-dried eggs and bacon, I decamped as efficiently and neatly as I could in preparation for a long drive back to SLC later in the day. Following the caravan of cars from our group, I drove out from our campsite back toward the way I first entered Canyonlands National Park. We were on our way to the iconic Supercrack Buttress for our third and final morning of crack climbing. This popular crag was already filled with cars as our troop entered the parking just after 9 am. A well-marked trail led us up to the base in less time than the previous two days. Here the landscape was legendary, with pioneer cabins still standing among the blooming wildflowers of the valley, yet subtly upstaged by the canyon walls overhead.
Having spent two days getting to know each other, our group of strangers now shared the common bond of Splitter Camp. The mood was relaxed, fun and almost nostalgic. Desert humor was at its finest and anecdotes were traded willingly. Jim amused us all with his rendition of pop hits, while Coleman spun stories about his extended days in Indian Creek and Yosemite. One would never realize how accomplished these men are given their banter within the group: Jim, the recipient of the 2015 Eddie Bauer Scholarship from AMGA and Coleman, a backcountry chameleon who is both an Appalachian Trail veteran as well as a world-class climbing legend. At the end of the day, I guess we were all together for one purpose, which is to live life to the fullest.
While others were hoping to maximize their last day of climbing, I sat overlooking the valley below while contemplating everything I had learned and gained during the past few days. I was thankful and overwhelmed by all I had experienced in such a short period of time. My grit never failed me; in fact it was there all those months ago when I initially questioned my sanity following my registration for Splitter Camp. As bruised and cut up as I was by the end of the weekend, I knew I had at least one more climb in me before departing on my long drive back. I wanted to try a seemingly impossible off-width route that I had purposely avoided throughout the camp.
Although rated 5.9, Amaretto offered me exactly the challenge I wanted. Did it ever! I rhythmically made my way up the ever-widening crack, replacing initial hand jams with fist cams until even those were too small to hold me in place. Though I slipped and struggled, my trusty belayer kept me steadily in place while new friends cheered me on. Following a momentary rest, I found new resolve to power my way up the crack using a simultaneous combination of hand and fist cams while jamming my feet into any constriction possible. “If it hurts, you’re doing it right.” Was I ever doing it right at that point! Once I reached the final bulge on the route, the crack was no longer a minor split wide enough to contain my hands, yet it was too small of a chimney to fit my body. I didn’t know what else to do…until I remembered my underlying flexibility. With sheer determination, I stemmed my way over the lip as I maintained a near split straddle against opposing walls. I was done, and it was magnificent. That little ledge was my top of the world at that moment – one I will forever remember.
With that, I ended my time at Splitter Camp on a high note. I watched a few remaining folks take their chance at THE Supercrack of the Desert before saying my goodbyes to the group and expressing my gratitude to the guides. I don’t think anyone at camp truly realized what a difference this weekend made to me. My experiment with crack taught me more than just climbing, it taught me how to soar again.
Though my time at camp was over, my trip was not yet complete. As I drove back toward Central Utah, I decided to stop along the way for a mini solo adventure…