Saturday, March 26, 2011

Indian Creek: The Last Days

Our last day at the Creek began with packing the vehicle which proved to an adventure of it's own. After futile attempts to remove the sand from our gear we spent over an hour stuffing our gear into every crevice of our vehicle and was relieved that it fit.

 The Crew packing up from our abode...

We spent our last days on the Battle of the Bulge Buttress. There to my delight I found many larger cracks befitting of my hand size. It was time for me to put up lead rather than mooching off the ascents of others. After some pondering I took to a route entitled "Pigs In Space" rated at 5.10c. The route looked unique in that it was more varied than the typical Indian Creek splitter. I took some deep breaths, slapped some chalk on my hands, and began climbing. Shortly off the deck I found a tough section of off-hands splitter crack that got my breathing  hard. I placed a cam high centered my focus and plugged my hands in slowly making my way past the section. From there the crack began to flare but opened into a comfortable size that allow me relatively stress free climbing. When I nearly reached the top the route proved difficult again as the crack narrowed a difficult width in a flared roof. Within sight I could see my goal where the crack opened up again I could again get a comfortable hand jam. Placing a piece high I set about the puzzle and got myself a foot higher and placed another piece for assurances. It turned out to be necessary, as I stepped out onto the exposed face I found myself fighting tremendous rope drag as the rope was catching in the narrow crack. I made a desperate reach for a solid jam but found my strength waning and the inevitability became apparent to me. I let go wanting a controlled fall and swung down only 3 feet and heard a loud POP! My gear held but as I looked up my last cam was holding on by a single lobe and gave me the impetus to quickly begin climbing again. After much fidgeting I could not replace the cam in a more secure position and knew I would have to make this move knowing my gear would likely not hold another fall. Climbing again, I reached high with a better knowledge of what the cracks asked of me. With grunting and explicatives, I made made my way past the moves and shortly clipped the anchors in triumph and relief.

We would each make several more ascent before saying goodbye to our friends from Cali and the sandstone of Indian Creek. We reluctantly turned our backs to the wall and hiked down. We sped  Northward through Moab reaching it's borders as night began to descend. After a quick poaching of the local hotel hot tub we again took to the road seeking our destination.... the base camp of Castleton Tower!

Castleton Tower

Castleton Tower is listed as one of North America's 50 classic climbs. Steeped in a rich history, since it's first ascent in the 70's it has captured the attention of climbers throughout the years. The 400 foot pillar of sandstone majestically reaches into the desert horizon. It's sight inspires awe and the contemplation of it's evolution. We arrived at base camp in the cover of night and yet could make out the shadowed specter of the towers presence amongst the starlight horizon. Unwilling to unpack the car we decided we would sleep under the stars and each sought shelter amongst the desert Junipers. We awoke in the early morning dusk to a layer of frost on the ground and could hear the familiar chime of climbing gear. Given the towers popularity it often requires a early start so as to beat other parties to the climb and waiting in line to ascend. We began the day under motivated and questioned whether we would climb at all. But suddenly a spark of motivation lit within the group and we lept into action. In less than 20 mins we had racked up and found ourselves making our way up the long approach.

Weaving our way to the base of Caslteton

Arriving at the base of the tower the crisp morning air refrigerated the rock before us. We each made our final preparations before harnessing ourselves and racking up gear for battle. We had decided to climb the popular Kor-Ingalls route which rated at 5.9+ and we surmised would be smooth cruise to the summit. The despite easier rating the route's 4 pitches were laden with mostly off-width climbing and chimney (which are wide cracks in which you can fit your entire body or a whole leg into), which is well known to make for strenuous and awkward climbing.... and more importantly, difficult to bring gear wide enough to protect falls.

As Sevve took to the route as a part of our first team I began my mental preparations as I would soon lead the second team. The guide book surprising did not call for much in the order of big gear despite my impression of the climbing ahead of me. However, I trusted the guide book and left behind the wider and heavier pieces. Matt and Sevve had finished the first pitch and I began my ascent. After climbing some easy scrambling the route transitioned into the shadows of a narrow and nasty squeeze chimney (meaning it is only wide enough for your body sideways but not width wise) of 20 ft in height .

Matt peaks out from the chimney of Pitch 1

It became immediately clear that the difficulty rating for this route were in the old school methods. You see in the old days the hardest routes ever climbed were considered 5.10 and would not go higher. So as climbers began to push the limits of difficulty the 5.10 became more and more difficult and thus the lower ratings as well. Yet in modern times the ratings were expanded to go from 5.10 to 5.15 and ratings at the lower levels have generally eased. Given that the route was first climbed in the 70s this 5.9+ was going to feel far more difficult than a modern 5.9. As I belayed my partner up, I watched Sevve pick his way up the second pitch. However, about halfway up he appeared to run into some difficult climbing. After he and Matt had attained the top of the second pitch, I took to climbing again knowing fully that this may be a difficult pitch.

 Sevve picks his way up the second pitch

However I was completely unprepared for what lay ahead of me. The route opened into a difficult mix of off width and exposed face climbing. What's more is that I quickly discovered that I did not have adequate gear. I was finding few smaller placements and I had only one piece large enough. Before long I found myself with a unsteady foot cam and foot smear for feet and a single elbow lock meanwhile 10ft below me lay my only #4 cam and 200 ft of open space. I had little choice but breathing steadily from the exertion and stress.
Myself perplexed and desperately looking for gear placements on Pitch 2

For the first time in the trip I was happy to see the crack before me narrow to of hands as I plugged in a piece with relief. Clipping into anchors completed the pitch I was feeling feeling shaken by the stress of the last route.

Above me Sevve took to the crux pitch. He was sailing along as he usually does, however I could see that it was not easy by any stretch. My thoughts drifted to my gear and how badly I wanted the three bigger pieces I had left at the base camp. After a hard decision, I decided I would have Sevve's partner Matt trail our rope behind him and belay me up on top rope. I felt I was no longer in the mental position to climb the next pitch especially given my gear situation and the fatigue after the last pitch.

 Atop the 3rd pitch I await my lead of the final pitch

After climbing the 3rd pitch on top rope I was highly relieved that I hadn't lead it.... a hail of unabashed explicatives the entire length of the pitch was indicative of the frustrating nature of the pitch.

 Matt taking on the final pitch...

Looking upward only one short pitch remained to the summit of Caslteton Tower. It proved straight forward as we quickly made the summit. Smiles beamed from each of us as we stood enraptured by the landscape as the desert sandstone made it's desperate reaches to grasp the marbled grey sky.

 The Minnesota boys atop Castleton Tower!

There we stood 400 feet closer to the heavens having climbed a metaphor so keenly representative of the human journey. We tied our ropes and began or rappel of the Northern face of Castleton, I slipped over the edge of the first pitch and began the descent into the open space upon the strands of our trusted ropes. Reaching the desert sands below us we hurried to our vehicle with hunger tugging at our insides.

Matt on his first multi-pitch rappel

Sevve devours with Castleton in the background...

We again repacked for the long journey home to the North Country. We drove into the eastern horizon reluctantly leaving behind us the desert beauty and carrying with us the gifts of priceless memories still wrapped in the freshness of their evocation.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Indian Creek: Part 3

As the dawn of our fourth day warmed our pleasant gulch with the light of the sun we each rose keenly aware of our fatigue. We had decided that it was time that we took a rest day to regain our invigoration. Furthermore, our gas tank was running low enough that we would have to now in order to have enough range to reach the next gas station. The Californian crew having arrived a day later than us decided the would continue climbing. After a slow and lazy morning we drove into Moab and set about our errands.

In the desert there is one element that manages to unavoidably pervade every crevice of your existence....sand! It was impossible to completely remove from dishes while water was a scarce resource. You would find yourself chewing bits of it in your meal, accumulating on the rim of your newly opened beer can, constantly grinding between your toes, and brushing it out of your sleeping bag before bed. The desert sands insidiously crept into every imaginable place. So while in civilization in Moab we worked find peace from the sand by washing our dishes clean of it.

Myself climbing at Potash Rd

The warmed the earth more than it had done all trip. Given the weather we could not help but at least do a small bit of climbing on what was to be our rest day and headed to Potash Rd in Moab. Sevve took to leading a 5.11 finger crack and I followed his lead. Meanwhile Ben and Matt worked on leading some sport. We arrived back at camp welcomed by the firelight of our west coast companions our stomachs already satisfied by the Moab Brew Pub. I slept with a renewed hunger for the morning and the climbing that would follow.

Yet when the morning light came to my eyes, I peeled back the layers of my bivy to see an ominous looking horizon. By the time we were all awake, a dark line of clouds was organizing in the western horizon and rumbling with thunderous threats. While the West Coast crew had decided to take a rest day, we remained optimistic and began driving towards the climbing area. But the landscape became shrouded by the encircling grasp of the sky's unsettled clouds. The winds grew angry as we turned our vehicle and headed back to camp to ready it for the rains. As we sped down the back country roads, a wall of what was first sleet and soon transitioned to snow. The landscape was abruptly adorned in a veil of white starkly contrasting the red stone of the desert. We abandoned all hope of climbing and drove to Moab.

Copyright Burgess Norrgard... Tree Against the Ominous Sky
Yet in Moab we found hope in blue skies and sunshine as the weather abruptly and miraculously changed. We decided we would climb in Kane Springs Canyon and the "Ice Cream Parlor" climbing area. There we found a day of lie-back training as Sevve had ascended the area's namesake... the ice cream parlor crack.

Matt Climbs...

It was a a crack of loose fingers and provided little potion other than to lie back all 60 ft of it.  On my first attempt I had to stop twice for rest as I had been moving to slowly and with poor technique. Wanting a better run at the route I rest and went back at it having a more successful ascent.

Myself on Ice Cream Parlor Crack

We ate in civilization before returning to our abode in the quite isolation of Indian Creek..

I went to bed that night with the cracks of Indian Creek calling to me in my sleep. The next day would be our last in Indian Creek.

Sunset over the desert

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Indian Creek: Part 2

The wind tugged upon my bivy and a dim light had come to my eye's awareness. In rising from my shelter, I was greeted by grey skies and a cold wind. Each of us slowly awoke and quietly began our individual preparations for the day ahead. Embarking upon the  second day amongst the sandstone of Indian Creek, we had decided we would climb at the Fin Wall.

I welcomed the morning approach as it not only warmed me against the harsh wind of the day but slowly loosened my sore muscles. Arriving at the Fin wall, it became clear after a glance at the guidebook that this was going to be a tougher climbing day for me. One of the learning experiences that comes with climbing at Indian Creek is that you become painfully aware of your hand size. In Indian Creek the cracks tend to minimally vary in width... meaning that your hand size and how well they fit into the crack will largely determine the level of difficulty of a given climb. The cracks vary from widths of fingers, hands, fists, or bigger. While in Indian Creek I quickly became aware that I have rather large sized hand... the largest in the group in fact... therefore my preference of routes differed.

Perched surveying the landscape at the Fin Wall

Upon looking at the guide book much of the routes were calling for 2.0-2.5 sized protection (to be placed in the crack), which lies in that frustrating range where my hands were too big to fit into the crack, and yet the crack was wide enough that I couldn't get fingers to stick well. Upon mounting my first route of the day I was already spouting explicatives as only half of my hands sunk into the blackness of the crack before me. Often I learned that in Indian Creek if a crack width does not fit you, you will find yourself in the strenuous position of lie backing sections and thinly gripping the edge of the crack. The day was challenging but endowed me with a new skills and realizations about techniques to deal with the adverse crack widths and made it clear to me that strength and efficiency in lie-back technique is important.

As the sun began to hang low on the horizon we stripped ourselves of our down jackets and prepared for the trek back homeward. Every night communally we would create our meals often being a random conglomeration of veggies, cheese, and summer sausage in a thick soup in which we lovingly labeled "goulash".

Fire side stories became exchanges of the cultural use of words which differed between the Californian and Minnesotan factions at camp. We Minnesotans learned the proper usage of "heinous", "psyched", "raw dawg", "bro", and "sick". Meanwhile, we versed them in the proper MN pronunciations of the long "O" sound, usage of phrase such as "Jeeze", "You bet", and how to be overly conscientious.

The morning after looked much like the morning before in weather, but the sun fought in line with sky for brief appearances. Waking I spooned up some left over the "goulash"and admired the soreness that graced my limbs. Mornings were generally quiet as we gradually eased into the exchange of words.

The climbing gear heaped in the back of the SUV under guidance of our friends started the engines and made for the Cat Wall. The approach began with a classic desert off-road driving. Piling six into the SUV, I jumped onto the back bumper looking for the wilder of rides and some fresh air. We made way through a 3 foot high wall of tumble weed and balanced the vehicle from rolling on the pitched double track leading up to the cat wall.

"Fat Cat"... 5.11a

When I reached the Cat wall and took to my belated surveying of the guidebook I was pleasantly surprised by what I saw. Having more gumption I took to leading a 5.11a entitled Fat Cat. Gear hanging from my sides I took a deep breath and began my ascent. It started hard in a flared crack I place a piece high and hung for a bit. The crack soon opened up beautifully to my favorite width as I began to sink multiple #3 cams. Near the top I came to the realization that I had brought too little gear and lead me to nervously run out the distance between my pieces as my breathing became heavy with exertion and adrenaline. Each movement was calculated for efficiency and every hand placement measured for sureness, and still I felt my energy waning. I reached the top and clipped into the anchors relieved and smiling down to my belayer Ben. We took to a couple more routes and my ascents felt more and more solid. We climbed late into the afternoon sun, clinging to every the last bits of daylight. It was a strenuous day and I had felt all the better for it.

We retreated to camp with bellies longing for sustenance. It was short night for me as fatigue had began to weigh upon my eye-lids. I lay in my bivy with the desert sand beneath me and let darkness fall across my eyes welcoming a coma-like slumber. That night I dreamed my first dreams of climbing in years and must have smiled unconsciously in my repose.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Indian Creek: Part 1

My eyes surveyed the landscape surrounding around me. Amongst the cloudless blue skies the red rim of the Colorado National Monument loomed in the Southwest horizon as walked the ever warming pavement of Fruita Colorado.  On a park bench I sat lazily strumming my ukulele soaking up rays of the sun. Only hour before I had been dropped off at the local camp ground awaiting the next stage of my journey. I had a day and night to kill as my climbing friends who had only just left the cold of Minnesota where in route to pick me up. With my Ukulele strapped to my back, I had a quiet evening wandering the quaint streets of Fruita and mingling amongst the multitude of mountain bikers and locals that inhabit the Hot Tomato Pizzeria. I slept with a clear mind admiring the stars from my bivy.

In the morning my phone rang out with the voice of a friend on the line, warning of there impending arrival. I jumped the barbwire fence surrounding the campground, stashed my packs in a wooded ditch, and walked to the nearby diner to appease my complaining stomach. The phone rang again as I walked toward a group of smiling fellows... my companions had arrive. After stocking with food at the local grocery store we mounted the open road in the direction of Moab. There we ate our final civilized meal at the local pub before continuing toward the fabled majesty that is know as Indian Creek.

Just over an hour from all civilization, Indian Creek was developed in the climbing scene in the early 70's and whose popularity had ballooned in the last decade with the growth of sport of climbing. Indian Creek is hailed for it's smooth, varied, and difficult sandstone cracks that attract trad climbers from all over the country. We arrived in Indian Creek as the emblazoned sun was ready to depart the sky and its glow clung to Wingate Sandstone. With noses pressed to the windows of the vehicle our eyes greedily searching for cracks to climb. The vast amount of climbing opportunities quickly became apparent as miles of cliff lines filled with countless cracks graced our star stuck eyes.

  The desert beauty that is Indian Creek
After a long search for camping, we rallied down into a small sandstone laden gulch, set camp, and plotted our climbing plans over the pale light of headlamps. Putting ourselves to bed, ahead of us lay a week of adventures amongst the desert beauty

The we awoke to a cold and grey morning. We hastened to cook a quick breakfast and drove to what would become the morning routine: a  stop at the out houses... a simple luxury. Arrived at the desired trail head, we briskly made for the "Scarface" wall. My day would begin with the first trad lead I had done in almost 2 years as medical school had kept me from the rock. Despite my month of hard training in climbing gym, I found myself nervously racking up for a short 5.9 crack. While I consider myself fairly well versed in trad climbing, my hardest leads have been 5.9 in rating... the easiest routes in Indian creek just began at 5.9 and a majority of which were more challenging. This was going to be a trip to test my skills and build them. My companion Ben had come down after making halfway up the 5.9 and I led what remained of the route. It was by no means easy, as we all took to removing the rust the long stationary drive had bestowed upon our climbing.

Day one... Sevve tackles a 5.11

Yet by the end of the day smiles were abound and the sun warmed our skin. We walked down in fatigued and content and took to driving to our abode in the Gulch. Turning of the main road we were greeted by a crew of four smiling faces on the roadside. Sevve had invited several of his friends from Yosemite to join us at our camp.

The night was spent engulfing our sustenance beside the fireside warmth and sharing of stories of adventure with our now expanded crew of climbers. I awaited the morning ahead and fell asleep quickly and soundlessly in shelter of my bivy...

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Adventures In Utah

The lights flashed rhythmically across my face as my eye reached out the window for a few glimpses of the sky. I lay in the back of a Subaru letting the dull roar of the passing road lull me to sleep. Myself and friends where speeding westward in search of powder.

The search for powder as a Midwesterner is much akin to a patient fisherman. We scour the depths of meteorology information hoping to grasp the passing of the next storm and race for a mountainous location praying that a giant winter storm will swallow the mountains in a snow filled sky. And then there are the attempts in which we simply get skunked.

The asphalt of I-80 pass under us as we sped for the Wasatch mountains outside of Salt Lake City hedging our bets and awaiting the snow to fall. We arrived by the cover of night and woke by morning and  hurriedly rushed to Alta. But mount the lift the mere sound of passing skiers edges alerted us to the unsavory conditions. We found that hardened slush upon the steeper slopes and took to the groomers. Finally in desperation myself and Andre took the furthest and highest traverses and began to find some semblance of soft and steep snow. We made the best of what conditions provided and left feeling content and well exhausted.

Given the conditions on the slopes, it seemed more fitting to nordic ski. In the morning light, we made our way across the upland plateau to the rising mountains and into the quite vale of Sundance. The sun greeted us with it warmth as we took to the trails. Before long we had lost our shirts and soaked in the rays while cruising amongst soaring views of Sundance Mountain. The day came to a close with a trip to the local pub to satisfy our growing hunger.

 Warmth at Sundance!

When we awoke the next morning the uninspiring sight of rain was upon us and the weather reports indicated that the it was raining on the slopes. Disheartened we took the liberty of a slow morning and final embarked southward. On the way we stopped at the Homestead Crater.

Swimming in Homestead Crater

The second hand information we had gained indicated that there was a steamy hot spring within a small crater in the earth. As we drove up I saw before me a 70 foot high mound of earth with a small door tunneled into it's side. We paid are nominal fee and enter into a well lit and long rocky tunnel. Before us opened a unique seen. An ethereal light swirled amongst the rising steam cast from a round cavernous hole revealing the dim sky.

 Homestead Crater

Yet bright blue water of the spring where in stark contrast to the dark walls of the crater.  We slowly enter the pool and inflated the life vests we were require to wear. In the steamy water below us diving platforms resided as people often honed diving skills here. After a long soaking we, made for the open road again. Seeking better weather we drove south for Moab.

We arrived in the twilight and made for camping. Awaking in the morning the sun shone upon the red sandstone outcropping that accentuate the landscape of the Moab area. We pack and drove our way into Arches National Park for the day.

Arches NP!

As the day came to a close the weather reports were looking more and more favorable and we again headed northward to Salt Lake City. On the way we hiked a up a small wooded path for 2 miles up a small creek in search of a secluded hot spring we had caught wind of. Hiking up the stream it became apparent that the snow was lessening along it's banks. Before long the smell of sulfur hung in the air. We beheld a small water fall running into several pots of pooled hot springs. We basked in the heated pool amongst the sloping hillsides and felt like royalty. We sorrily walked away from the springs an continue northward settling into a hotel room.


The snows came and we woke earlier to hit the sloops of Snowbird this time. We an  came to find 6 inches of fresh powder and went to quick work searching for the steepest slopes and the best lines. Although it was not the massive amount of powder we had hoped for, the snow was none the less heavenly to a naive Midwesterner. I left the slopes too tired to think, grateful for snow, and skis to carve it.

We awoke the next morning and drove into the eastern sunrise. My other companion were beginning their homeward journey. Meanwhile my adventures were just beginning. In the town of Fruita, CO I waved goodbye to my friends as they drove away. There I sat waiting for my ride.... as I was soon to be climbing in Indian Creek.