Climbing highlights from a long and fruitful season in Indian Creek
I often tend to wax poetic when I talk about Indian Creek, telling romantic tales of this place’s immeasurable beauty, unmatched and endless crack climbing, unshakable community, or the way all these things make me feel like I’m living out the part of my life that I’ll look back on as the time I truly felt the most alive. I came here as a novice trad climber for the first time two years ago, and instantly fell so in love that I’ve been hard pressed to go anywhere else in the springs and falls that have since followed.
When I first started coming here I sought out mostly finger cracks, but over time my love grew to include even more difficult sizes like that of off-fingers and offwidth. I started wanting to climb not just the things that suited me, but the things that would really challenge me and mold me into the best crack climber I could be. I’ve poured my heart into the striking red sandstone of the Utah desert these past few years. It’s changed both the shape of my body, and that of my soul. Toughened skin, swollen knuckles, sandy.. everything; it’s a small price to pay for the fullness in my heart that comes from battling a hard splitter crack and coming out victorious, then getting to share the evening with all of my friends around a burning wax box in Creek Pasture.
Indian Creek has come to define a part of me. So much so that over time I found myself maybe wanting to define a part of it too. One way or another, I wanted to write my own little chapter here that would add to the greater story of this place I care so much about.
With that goal in mind, the siren song of the Wingate Splitter called me back to the Creek towards the end of September after a long summer in Wyoming. My heart had been longing for the desert for some time, and I was willing to put up with a bit of pre-season heat to finally scratch the itch.
I rolled into Utah positively chomping at the bit as usual, with a tick list longer and more ambitious than I could ever hope to accomplish in a single season. It was a mix of unfinished business from the past as well as goals and dreams for the future. After a frustrating defeat on my summer project, I found myself called more to splitters than ever. I was tired of the finesse and crystal wizardry of granite, tired of falling not because my strength failed, but because I didn’t position my foot just right. I just wanted to physically try really freaking hard.
I found the first answer to my quest on the relatively under the radar mega-splitter Tricks are for Kids. Established by Steve Hong for the first 45m at 5.13b-ish and later extended by Didier Berthoud to nearly 70m and maybe a letter grade harder, it is what I consider to be one of the most impressive cracks in the American Southwest.
Little information is publicized about this climb (and that which is on Mountain Project is far from accurate), partially because of its proximity to the rancher’s land on the valley floor, partially because it is one of only two climbs really worth doing at its wall (the other being Silly Rabbit, an awesome 5.12+), and partially because it isn’t in the shade long enough to handle a crowd if multiple parties were to try and climb it on the same day. It also requires a rack so heavy on certain sizes that all but the true Creek die-hards or gear junkies could even supply the 11 or so .75s needed just to get to the first anchors.
I was lucky that two of my best friends and regular climbing partners Matt and Nick were already psyched for the project and had fixed a line on the extension before I even got there. If it weren’t for them I probably would never have even tried it. We spent many a memorable day hiking out together and taking turns rope-soloing whilst the others listened to 80s disco music, solved crosswords, and waited for their turn. A Tricks lap even on top rope usually took upwards of an hour, so we built endurance fast through these workouts.
I sent Tricks to the first anchor on one of my first lead attempts that season (I had tried it once before in the spring), but fell in the extension. Matt was the first to clip the upper anchors, in what may have been only the second or third ascent. He sent in epic style, committing to a burly runout that became even more mega when he fumbled and somehow dropped his final cam still some 15’ from the chains. I bagged it a week later for what was probably the first female ascent, and Nick too finished it later in the season.
It’s hard to truly describe what it felt like to send that climb. After nearly an hour on lead and a full 70m rope length off the deck, the true redpoint crux arrives just before the anchors when the crack pinches down to fingers then tips with sparse to no feet until the final mediocre hand pods that signal that the end of the battle has finally arrived. You’ve already climbed a full 5.13 pitch of ring locking to the first anchor that would give even the best Creek climber a run for their money, and you still have to keep it together for the extension to claim true mastery over Tricks are for Kids.
When I clipped the chains on this incredible climb, one of the best I’ve ever had the honor of doing, what I felt most was gratitude. Gratitude for the privilege for every part of the journey, both on the send go, and over the past few weeks of projecting. Failure had never tasted so sweet as it did on Tricks, because it meant I got to climb that amazing pitch one more time.
When I sent the Tricks extension I was momentarily brought back to Stingray, my winter project. When my partner Prith had sent, he quietly thanked the climb for all of the lessons it had taught him; a stark contrast to my screams of relief upon my own send two weeks later. I understood now what I didn’t back then, as I thanked Tricks aloud for everything it had given me.
[For a video about Tricks, look at the end of this post or click here]
By the time we finished Tricks the weather was ever so slowly starting to cool down, as we were forced to chase shade less and less. Endurance had also been built during all those days of rope soloing, and the season was in full swing. Next on my agenda was one I had been saving for some time: Winner Takes All.
Winner had been on my radar since the previous fall when I had been entranced by tales of perfect fingerlocks and the solitude of the Disappointment Cliffs (aptly names for how few actual cracks fracture the Creek’s largest wall). I also knew this climb to be relatively straight forward, and thus a contender for a chance at onsighting. To do a 5.13 first try on gear had been a big goal of mine that had barely eluded me for quite some time, and I thought Winner Takes All might just be the perfect climb to finally break that grade barrier on.
The climb conveniently bakes in the sun for the entire day, thus I was forced to wait until I had put in my time reacquainting myself with sandstone as we waited for temperatures to eventually feel like fall. The leaves on the cottonwood trees began to change from green to vibrant hues of orange and gold, and then brittle and brown as October passed, yet by the end of the month we were still chasing shady walls (and quickly getting tired of them; most of the Creek has a better aspect for climbing in the sun).
Finally the forecast offered some reprieve from the heat as a surprise snowstorm crept onto the radar. It was supposed to hit by early afternoon, but before it did the day promised to be the first good sunny climbing conditions all season. As I walked to the bathroom that morning Nick came sprinting down from where he was camped in the upper loop of Creek Pasture to intercept me. Thinking he was trying to race me to the toilet (and knowing I couldn’t afford to wait), I took off running too.
“Want to go to Winner today?” he asked instead.
We were joined by Matt and Eric, neither of whom had been up there either. I won the Rock, Paper, Scissors over who got to go first, and nervously strapped on my climbing shoes. Having blown out one of my Cobra Ecos but not the other (my preferred shoes for thin cracks), I wore a strange combo of one slipper and one stiff TC Pro. They’re about as opposite of trad shoes as you can get.
The thing about onsighting is that you only get one shot. Ever. It’s always been a strength of mine, but still I was incredibly nervous as I stepped into the sandy dihedral at the beginning of the climb. The first few pieces are small C3s that have to be back-cleaned (removed) for rope drag, followed by a cruxy roof-pull that guards the main splitter. After that it’s just cranking out long moves between small pods and trying not to stop to place too much gear lest you let the pump get the better of you.
As I stared down the crack from a precarious stance after the roof, the nerves slowly drained away. There were no more tricks on this climb, just a pure test of what I consider to be my strongest style. Jitters turned to flow as I let go of the pressure, determined to do my best and not worry about the outcome; that was all I had control over. Any further fears were just distractions from climbing strategically. One move at a time after another and I soon found myself clipping the anchors, onsight and long time goal successfully complete.
Matt and Eric both sent the climb on their second attempts, climbing with fluidity and skill while Nick took pictures (having already sent it the previous year). We watched the storm brewing over Canyonlands as the day progressed, but it kept its distance for long enough to get a full session in and even walk over to scope the legendary Hong Kong Phooey. A project for another season perhaps.
Due to the seldom visited nature of the Disappointment Cliffs there is no trail, so we began our descent down a random patch of talus that looked as friendly as any right as the wind started to pick up. Threatening clouds had quickly gone from far away to right above us, the smell of rain was in the air, and we felt the pressure drop dramatically from one minute to the next. As we started glissading down the scree, half running back to the car I was reminded of earlier in the season when my backpack had decided to trundle itself from the base of the Optimator. Whilst I was packing up it had randomly tipped over and started rolling down the talus cone, spilling all of my belongings across the hill, breaking my phone and losing my keys in the process. Such experiences just go to show how valuable the trails are around here, and how important the work of building them done by the Access Fund and other volunteers is.
The snowstorm ended up being mild, and by Halloween it was warm and back to shady climbing again. Being my favorite holiday and having had a successful season thus far, I took a hiatus from projecting for a while after that, focusing instead on climbing as many 5.12s as possible until I started to run out of classics at most of the walls I was frequenting.
By mid-November I was looking for something hard to capture my imagination once more. I had a few things on my mind, but just like Tricks and Winner, they were mostly at obscure crags that became hard to rally partners for. It was around that time that I received an unexpected message from Karl Kelley, a long time Creek fanatic and the author of the widely used Creek Freak guidebook.
“Hello. We don’t know each other but, Karl here,” it began. He wanted to tell me about a route that might interest me that matched what I had been psyched on that season: off fingers of the .5 and .75 size. So much time in the desert this year had caused my fingers to swell significantly, making the tips cracks I used to prefer more of a challenge and causing me to diversify into this new realm that I have since grown to love.
“When I first visited this wall looong ago, there was just one route,” Karl went on to say. “We immediately started putting up routes.. back in those days it was fully TABOO to use fixed gear (besides anchors) on a route, so we chose not to do one obvious line that looked as though it would need a few protection bolts..” his message said. As the ethics changed over time he had gone back to put up the route, a 5.11 overhanging hand crack called Circus Tricks. It had an extension that increased dramatically in difficulty that his friend Steven had tried, but the first ascent remained yet unclaimed so now he wanted to gift it to me.
By that point another more intense storm had chased away most of the inhabitants of the Creek. In the campground our numbers could be counted on two hands; the dozens of vans bivvying down every dirt road or camped at the parking for every crag long gone. I had been trying to get people to go to this mysterious climb that I had been calling the “Karl Kelley Project” for some time, but when there’s a lot of people trying to make plans together it’s hard to convince them all to quest off to an obscure crag with you. The emptiness may have been my saving grace in that regard, because as I got down to just a few partners suddenly one day everyone was finally down to check out the Circus Wall (where the project was supposed to be).
I dragged my friends Katie, Matt B (there are many Matts in the Creek), and Alan up the 45 minute non-trail, hoping against hope that this would be worth what felt like the longest approach in Indian Creek.
Tucked away behind two equally obscure crags called the Prow and the Crypto Wall, the Circus Wall felt like something of an anomaly. Striking white calcite bands streaked across the walls, and rainbow colored hoodoos were sculped in the sand all across the hillside. At the base of the crag I immediately dropped my pack and took off towards where this climb was supposed to be while my friends went the other direction to scope some climbs from the guidebook.
As I rounded the corner alone, suddenly Circus Tricks came into view. There was no mistaking it, as my jaw dropped open in awe. There is a lot of variety in the sandstone in the Creek, from bullet hard black varnish to the soft chossy sand of recent rockfall, and everything in between. The wall was the lighter hue of softer rock, yet it was streaked by other colors and through it ran a singular crack that split the wall all the way to the rim (normally the rim requires multiple pitches to reach, but the walls are much shorter at this particular crag).
It was a perfect #2s hand crack to the first anchor just as Karl had said, but without the greasy rounded edges of the overclimbed and polished classics at Supercrack Buttress or Donnelly Canyon. It also was wildly overhung; the only way a hand crack would ever be as difficult as 5.11. Above that the crack narrowed down to what looked like .75s and got even steeper, almost so much so that it could be called a roof.
I was impressed to say the least. More than that however, I felt deeply honored. The climb looked like it should be a mega-classic; perhaps at a more popular wall it would have been, yet somehow after all these years it still remained unclimbed. I simply couldn’t believe that something like this had been given to me by a stranger and a local. I simply had to climb it.
By the time I got to the roof on lead I discovered it was both shorter and even steeper than I had initially thought from the ground. Ring locking through a roof doesn’t leave much room to stop and place gear, so it was a good thing the crux actually only ended up being about ten moves long (with my 6’2” wingspan at least). I managed to squeak it out on my second attempt, after a very lengthy session swinging around on my first try trying only semi-successfully to find places I could squish my hands into the crack instead of having to ring lock.
Karl had asked me to keep the name the same for the first pitch although there was no plaque nor was it listed in the book or on the internet. I was happy to do so as I liked to think the name Circus Tricks could be an homage to Tricks itself, the climb that had so inspired me earlier in the season. I called it 5.13-, though any confirmation or dispute as to the grade would be very welcome since it’s a style that can’t really be compared to anything else in the Creek.
The day I sent Circus Tricks was finally the last real day of climbing in the shade, and by that point it was the middle of November. It had been an unusually warm season, waiting for colder weather to start new projects at the sunny walls only to have it elude us up until it was almost Thanksgiving.
By then people had started to roll in for Creeksgiving, putting an end to the loneliness of an empty campground. We were back to party-cragging, aka rolling out to the crag with as many people as can cram into the van of whoever’s driving that day. It meant a return to the less obscure walls, where there are enough climbs to entertain a larger group of more diverse abilities.
Thus we ended up at the Reservoir Wall one day; a crag stacked with some of the best 5.12 finger cracks in the Creek: Left Crack, Middle Crack, Right Crack, and Cyborg. I had already done all of them, so I decided to check out a less classic 5.12 called Act Your Age. I navigated some bolted face climbing, only to take a surprise fall trying to transition to the crack higher up. I had ripped off a large handhold, sending it hurtling towards my belayer. It luckily just missed him, but I ripped out a blindly placed cam and hit an arete pretty hard in the fall. The rest of the climb was a shooshy (aka climbing poorly because of fear) endeavor. Breaking holds and ripping gear has a way of getting in your head and making it hard to trust the rock sometimes.
I lowered off the route with a bit of an acid-flashback look in my eyes and declared that I needed to go take a walk to clear my head, stripping off my harness and dumping it on the ground without even unracking all the cams I had just used. I wandered around the cliff hoping to scope From Switzerland With Love. It was a climb I had been interested in for as long as I’d been climbing at the Creek, thanks to footage of the first ascent by Didier in one of my favorite climbing movies Return2Sender. The idea of trying it had been my motivation for coming up to Res Wall in the first place, but I didn’t know how stoked I was after how poorly my day had gotten started.
It didn’t take me long to find the climb, and it took even less time for it to shake me out of the pity party mindset that I had adopted; it just looked too damn cool. I soloed up the 5.7 choss (arguably not a good idea) to get a closer look, and then climbed back down to the ground to return to my friends and see if I could convince someone to give me a belay. I recruited Nick and we each gave it a few tries, camping out on the blocky ledge at the base of the pitch until the sun had all but set.
After over two months in the Creek, my psyche had started to wane at that point in the season. I was feeling burned out, and my body felt like it was breaking down from being in the desert so long (or maybe I was just eating too many brownies and drinking too much alcohol to ever really recover on my rest days). I hadn’t cared about projecting anything in a while, but that night I felt the stirrings of motivation for the first time in weeks. I couldn’t stop thinking about the moves, from the savagely overhung finger crack, to the crazy sideways heel hook, to the dicey mantles protected by micro cams guarding the anchor. I was inspired.
As Nick, Matt, and I drove into town a day or two later, we first heard the news that felt more like serendipity than coincidence: Didier Berthod, the legendary Swiss trad climber who had put up From Switzerland with Love and the Tricks extention (not to mention many other legendary Creek test pieces), had just returned to climbing after a many year break during which he had suffered a crippling injury, became a monk, and much more. Maybe I was putting the climb on a pedestal, but who cares. You have to embrace inspiration when it strikes, and by now I really wanted to do this climb. In fact it was now the only thing I really cared about doing, especially since the Reservoir Wall is closed in the spring for raptor nesting making fall the only time to get on it.
We returned to the route shortly after, half to climb and half to replace the anchors and add another bolt to the belay. We made progress, but for something initially graded 5.13+ it definitely still felt like it. By the end of the second day I had unlocked a sequence that felt much easier than Didier’s original beta, skipping many of the face holds in favor of staying in the crack for a few moves longer.
I knew my Creek season was almost over as Thanksgiving came and went. The weather was still good, but pretty much everyone was set to leave in the days that followed. I wanted to leave too, but hopes still remained to give Switzerland one last effort. I had long since made peace with the fact that there wasn’t enough time nor psyche to finish everything I wanted to do this season, but with the spring falcon closures on my mind I knew if there was one thing left to keep trying, this was it.
I finally committed to loose plans to leave the Creek a few days into December. I had seen through my plan to stay in the desert from the beginning of the season until the very end, and at last the end had arrived. With one day left to climb, I returned to From Switzerland with Love.
On my first go I made it through all of the crack climbing, only to fall on what I consider to be the last hard move. I tried the move several more times, never feeling like I had beta that would work when I was pumped and tired. I experimented with a number of different things I had seen people do in videos, eventually settling on something I hadn’t seen nor tried before but that catered to one of my greatest strengths: heinous finger-locks using only my two smallest fingers.
Second attempt had me falling at the same spot even with the new beta. It felt so close, but making a third attempt was hopeful at best with how physical the climb is. I had accepted that this would likely be my last day on it this season, so I decided to try again anyway after some rest and ibuprofen for my tender tendons and skin.
This past spring I had earned myself the nickname “Third Go Goris” amongst my friends after a string of back-to-back incidents in which I punted (i.e. fell in terrain that should be easy for me) on my second goes and then sent on my third. The most notable were Ultimate Crack at the Power Wall, where I fell in 5.10 territory long before any hard climbing actually starts, and Death of a Cowboy, where I fell moving off the jug that very distinctively marks the end of any hard climbing whatsoever. I don’t just have a history of third-go sends because of punting though, some of the most personally meaningful sends of my career have happened on a hail Mary attempt, whether it was the last go of a trip, a weather window, the season, etc. Maybe it’s the lack of pressure from having no expectations, or maybe it’s the increased pressure from feeling the final countdown. Maybe it’s a bit of both.
My third attempt on From Switzerland With Love was something of a last-ditch effort for the season. I had no expectations, so the nerves from my previous tries finally turned in for the night. For once I didn’t start climbing with my heart rate already doubled before even exerting myself. At the same time, I knew that it was pointless to even try unless I gave one hundred percent, so I committed to doing my best regardless of the outcome. Everything flowed perfectly through the crux and to the top, and it was with great honor that I clipped the newly replaced chains on what had just become one of my favorite and proudest desert climbs.
It wasn’t until a week or two after sending From Switzerland with Love that I remembered that my journey with the climb had actually begun not when I first laid eyes on it this November, but actually the year before during an unlikely conversation around a campfire. I had been climbing at the Creek long enough at that point to have sent just enough of the easier 5.13s to whet my appetite and make me start to wonder what I might be capable of out here. Talk had been going around camp that someone named Nick had just sent Fairy Tales, a 5.13 I had tried unsuccessfully a few times myself. I didn’t know him yet, but I was on the hunt for partners that wanted to try some of these harder climbs and rumor had it that Switzerland was on his radar too.
I brazenly strolled up to his fire that night, introduced myself, and immediately started pestering him about not just From Switzerland with Love, but every other hard climb I could think to name drop that he might be interested in. He later told me that at first he thought I was just some bleach blonde valley girl (maybe a climber, but probably not) that had come down to the desert to party and somehow forgot to leave. The first time we climbed together shortly after he belayed me on my send of Fairy Tales. A year later, he also belayed me on Switzerland. Serendipity once again, or maybe it’s just more desert magic; it’s just about everywhere if you stop to look.
To so many that came before me, to myself, and hopefully to just as many that will come after, Indian Creek has always been a place of adventure. Endless walls offer endless possibilities, and the longer I climb here the more I want to see them all. When I first started climbing at the Creek I knew so very little about many of the climbs that would one day mark these short chapters in the longer story that is my little part of Creek history. Some of them I didn’t know I would ever be capable of climbing and others I didn’t even know existed.
I remember walking under test pieces of every shape and size, from the Big Baby to the Optimator, barely daring to dream that one day not only would they be within my reach, but that I would be out there putting up some of my own. I looked at the Creek regulars and regular crushers with stars in my eyes, never expecting that they would become my best friends. I had heard tales of how the Creek changed people, but I never knew just how much it would happen to me. Thus it is with satisfaction, gratitude, and peace that my fall season ends, and with passion and hunger that I look forward to returning for everything left unfinished, untried, or yet undiscovered, because despite how every season the ranger tells me “you can’t live here,” the Creek will always be my home.