I’m cruising through the sunshine down Highway 211 in Indian Creek. The sheer red cliffs tower like castles protecting the desert valley. This is not the first time I’ve been in the canyon lands of Utah nor is it the first time I’ve driven down this road, but I stare in wonder at the beautiful colors and clean splitters as though I’m seeing them for the first time. I hang out the window pointing and shouting in awe. “How can it be this beautiful?”
The fractures splinter the rock into clean blocks of sandstone. Some blocks have been stripped from the larger massifs and lay like puzzle pieces thrown on the hillsides below the cliffs. The desert landscape is a freeze-frame in the movie of geologic time. I can rewind time in my mind and replay the processes before the cracks were here, when the creeks and rivers carved out the valleys, mountains crumbled, and water seeped in through the fissures.
We are lucky to be humans at this point in time, able to climb these perfect splitters. What are the chances that we’d be here 50 million years from the time those mountains began eroding? With more weather and more time, the splitters will become wider, flared, shorter, or gone altogether as the rock is stripped away in chunks. I am grateful to be here; my chance to climb at this rare moment, on these rare cracks in Earth’s history.
I’m on “Colombian Drug Lord” not sure what I’m getting myself into for my first day of climbing at the Creek. The route starts off easy, in a band of unvarnished sandstone. I’m strong and confident (although lacking style) through this short start, feet scraping off the stone’s sand as I paw my way up. Once above this section, the pitch turns into a layback, or more accurately – I turn the section into a layback since jamming feels awkward. But I feel solid and can move my hands and feet up rhythmically so I go with it. After about 20 feet, my layback ends and the route rounds an arête. I’m resting on some small edges taking in the scenery. The sun inches lower and its rays are beginning to light the rock on fire.
Then I begin another 20-foot pitch of wider hands. At first, I struggle – I cannot seem to find a solid hand jam. I try several positions and try both hands but still slide out. I grapple with my ineptitude on how to jam creatively. I’m stumped and feel there’s no way I’m ever going to turn my hand into the malleable, organic chockstone the crack demands. But I grunt and continue to experiment, relaxing then clenching my hands, and somehow finally manage to yard my way up.
It still is not comfortable, though, and two sloppy ringlocks later, my hand has slid out and I’ve fallen off. Maybe if I were here a hundred thousand years ago this part would be a perfect finger crack, and I’d have no problem. But I’m here today, and I’m only a third of the way up the seam. And, despite all this struggle, there is still no place else I’d rather be.
When I get back on, I move through the remaining portion of the wide hands and reach another small ledge. I take a break and curiously caress the warm, fiery sandstone. I want to draw all of its energy; I want it to speak to me and tell me its life story from conception to its current age. I want to hear how it first was exposed from the Earth’s womb. I could spend hours just sitting up here thinking about geology, but my belayer is waiting. The anchors are waiting. The rest of this beautiful seam is waiting.
I move through another short crux – I lock off low with my right-hand fingers in a small crack, step high and reach with my left at full extension to another small fingerlock. The move is gymnastic, engaging and fun. My appetite for this climb grows bigger and bigger. The remaining moves call for thin hands – perfect finger jams for me. I move 10 more feet, relishing in the amazing fingerlocks before I get to the end of the seam. It peters out into blankness and the anchors are still 10 feet away.
The pitch had been varied to this point but so secure following the crack. And although I’m not a seasoned Indian Creek climber, I got into the dance of jamming hands, fingers, feet, fists … hands, fingers, feet, fists. Now, here I stood, delicately hanging by three fingers and the point of my right shoe jammed below. I had been so caught up in my own movement within the crack that I did not look beyond the splitter. It looks hopeless. I am paralyzed, thinking that I’m going to have to lower off from this point. Then I see them – small chalked-up crimps on the face leading to the anchors. Beautiful, solid crimps; totally unexpected given where I’m at, what I’ve been climbing. I should have known by the nature of the crack’s diminishing width that this would happen. Hypnotized by the wondrous geology and so alive within the crack itself, I did not look into my future.
I clear my head, take stock and instinct settles in. Three delicate face moves later, I clip the anchor. The sun is on the horizon now, and I pause for a moment to study the geologic classroom of towers. I look down at my belayer and give a thumbs up.
Compared to the Earth’s life, the human lifespan is abrupt, a hiccup. I’ll be back to the Creek before the snow flies and then I’ll return in the spring. I will not notice, but the cracks will change in that time. They will grow older and so will I. These are moments in time I cannot pass up.
Photo Credits: Trina Ortega