Road Trip Part 2: Off-Widths and Ring Locks

Indian Creek

The windows are frosted over when I wake up. I feel like I’m in an igloo. Instead of emerging from the warm cocoon of my sleeping bag and rising to meet the brisk day, I lie there and scratch images into the frost. It reminds me of writing messages in dust on school bus windows. I wonder if Justin and Martina, who are similarly barricaded in the rear of their Forerunner, will notice my drawings. The crude paintings are far less intricate than those that can be found at nearby archeological sites like Newspaper Rock. Nor do my crude paintings last nearly as long, for once the sun rises above the edge of the canyon walls and blazes the car with light, everything begins to melt. I see no movement in the Forerunner, so I calmly watch my masterpieces transform into condensation while the sunrise transforms the desert into gold.

When Justin rises I rise too and coffee is made and eggs are cooked and gear is piled into cars. This morning is not a speedy one but our dilly-dallying gives the rock a chance to warm up. It is past 11am by the time we navigate bumpy roads to an indistinct turnout beneath a wall that looks just like every other wall in the canyon: clean, sun burnt, dental, massive.

There are fewer cars here—most other turnouts have no space to park—which means, we hope, there are fewer climbers too, but as we begin to approach the towering stone, a large white van pulls in behind us and eight young climbers hop out. Since it is the weekend before Thanksgiving, we expect crowds. However, we also expect there to be some unoccupied climbs. Reaching the base of the umber wall, we discover teams standing beneath every moderate route. If we want to attempt extremely difficult, dangerous, perhaps unclimbable climbs, there is no shortage, but everything within reason is taken. Instead of committing suicide, we decide to put our quarters on the table, so to speak, and to wait our turn.

In the downtime, we build tape-gloves, an essential piece of crack climbing gear. Laying strips of white athletic tape on my pant leg, I begin to construct my gloves. The simple act calms my heretofore anxious mind. Tape sticks to my skin and signals to my body that it is time to focus. I watch the climbers ahead of us: two women and one man ascend the classic route, “Blue Sun” (5.10), gracefully. They call it a good warm up, although I know that by my standards it is much more than that.

Like most people we have met, the trio is friendly and helpful. They ask if we need any extra gear, a #2 or #3 cam perhaps? The number corresponds to the width of the cam. Also called an SLCD (Spring-Loaded Camming Device), a cam is a piece of climbing protection that contracts when a trigger is pulled and then expands when the trigger is released after being placed in the void of a crack. Cams are obscenely expensive but also irreplaceable. Since there are as many as 15 different sizes in a complete set of cams, most climbers do not have more than two copies of a single size, but the perfectly straight nature of the cracks at Indian Creek often necessitates as many as six cams of the same size! Thankfully, between Justin and myself, we have enough #1, #2, and #3 cams to make our way up Blue Sun. Also thankfully, those numbers translate to a crack that is roughly the size of a perfect hand jam.

Cams on Justin’s harness

I say “roughly” because everyone’s hands are different. As we sat around the fire pit last night, Justin described the difficulty ratings here at Indian Creek: “The ratings are deceiving. What is more important is the size of the crack. You may be able to climb something way above your normal grade, like a 5.12, if the crack is the perfect size for your hands. Or you may have trouble on a 5.8 because your hands are too big or too small. It just depends.”

Justin places his taped hands wrist-deep into the 80-foot splitter that is Blue Sun. He takes a deep breath and begins climbing. His motion is smooth and deliberate. Every ten feet or so, while he is hanging from one arm and two feet, he unclips a cam from his harness, depresses the trigger, places the contracted device into the crack, releases the trigger and clips the dangling rope into his protection. His rhythm continues, interrupted only once or twice when fatigue or nerves—his leg shakes spastically—force him to weight his protection. All in all, Justin climbs magnificently, especially considering he is leading, a position that inherits infinitely more risk and therefore more terror. When he reaches horizontal ground, we all congratulate him, but I cannot comprehend the scope of his feat until I try it myself. And it’s my turn next.

My hands are taped, my shoes are tied and the belt of my harness is doubled back for safety. Freya belays me. As I put my feet and hands into the first part of the crack, my fears and emotions fall away like I am a snake shedding layers of skin. Moving skyward, now jamming my hand thumb-down into the void, here twisting my toe rubber into the crack, I begin to feel a rhythm. The wall is steep, perhaps slightly beyond vertical towards the top, and there are only a few small and merciful ledges on which to rest. Otherwise, there is just one perfect crack; a series of perfect hand jams.

The rope never holds my weight until I reach the chains and ask for tension, but I’m glad it was above me. I suddenly realize something: my hands and arms are so pumped full of blood that I can hardly feel them. Freya lowers me to the ground but I can’t seem to untie the rope; I can’t even feel the knot. Justin unties it for me while I stand there groaning. Everything from my elbow to my fingertips stings as if it is thawing after frostbite. All I can say to Justin is, “Nice lead.”

Justin leads Blue Sun (5.10)

I am exhilarated. A broad smile wrinkles my face. I think of what I will write on the frozen windows tomorrow morning: I climbed Blue Sun. I wonder what other classic names will adorn the Subaru. I know that once my arms calm down I will be ready for more.

But even after resting while Freya and Martina climb to the chains of Blue Sun, I am not close to ready for what comes next: an off-width. As the name implies, an off-width is a crack much wider than any hand or fist but not wide enough to be a full-blown chimney. Off-width climbing, by nature, necessitates many painful, awkward, and unconventional moves. The crack we climb—rated significantly easier (5.9) than the previous one—is no exception. Justin somehow wiggles and shimmies his way to the top. It is my turn again.

Whatever grace and rhythm I had developed on the last climb is immediately forgotten. My entire body becomes a tool for ascending. I do whatever it takes. I jam my hip and ass into the crack, attempt a move called the “chicken-wing”, fail, reposition myself, sink my shoulder in, scrape my elbow raw, scream, swear, bleed. Observers giggle; belayers chuckle; better climbers look on with pity. Literally by the skin of my teeth—I think I even used my chin—I reach the top. This time, when Freya lowers me to the ground, I have no problem untying the knot, but now I can barely stand. Off-width climbing is truly a full body workout; I am completely exhausted.

By the time Martina and Freya complete the heinous climb—they do it much more gracefully than I—the sun is descending behind the canyon walls. Like my body after two Indian Creek routes, the day is spent. A waxing moon illuminates the Forerunner when we arrive back at the turnout. The night sky, like the polished sandstone above us, is empty of texture. In such clear space the moon shines as brightly as the sun and, looking up at it, I notice that at the very center of the old man’s face there is a hint of blue.


Day two begins earlier. The rock is still cold, but at least our muscles are warm after the steep twenty-minute approach. Wanting to maintain all and any warmth, I quickly put on my harness, clip a few cams into my gear loops, tie into the rope. I am leading this time and the route is called “Short and Stupid” (5.8+). Inspecting the crack and open-book corner, I can see that it is aptly named. After 30 feet of what looks like a small hand crack, there is a ledge and, above that, the anchors. The route is definitely short and I assume that it is stupid for the same reason. It is a perfect route for my first Indian Creek lead.

Justin thinks that if the crack were longer it would have a harder rating because the moves themselves are not very easy. Since the climb is so short, I have no time to get jittery and scared. I place three cams, make ten moves, and reach the ledge before I even realize I’m climbing. I suppose that is a good lead after being dormant, crack-climbing-wise, for the past few months, but I still feel unfulfilled. My hands are a little cold; my forearms feel like they worked a bit, but when Justin lowers me, I have no problem untying the knot. Maybe I’m just getting stronger. Maybe I’m getting used to the stone, the perfect splitters, the hand jams. As if to strengthen this illusion, I climb Short and Stupid two more times after the others have done it. At this point, I’m feeling quite dandy; I’m ready for whatever Justin leads next. Bring it on!

Justin leads Coyne Crack Simulator (5.11-)

What Justin brings is rated (5.11-) only slightly harder than Blue Sun, but like he said a few nights ago, the relative size of the crack makes all the difference. Coyne Crack Simulator is a wobbly finger crack for me. In other words, for the first sixty feet of climbing I can’t shove my hand in past my largest knuckle. However, the crack is also slightly too large to accept normal finger locks. The required move in this situation is called a ring lock. Suffice it to say that my limited knowledge of this technique makes climbing Coyne Crack not only difficult, but also very painful. To make matters worse, being the large-toed ogre that I am—I have size 12 feet—I have trouble fitting my not so little piglets into a crack that small. The result of these factors, as witnessed by Justin, Martina and Freya, is not at all pretty. Profuse swearing and screaming accompany every few inches of vertical gains. If not for the tension on the rope above me and for Justin egging me on, there is no way I can ascend. As it turns out, I have to sit on the rope and rest a half-dozen times and when I finally reach the last ten-feet of crack, which now becomes wide enough to accept my entire hand, I feel absolutely no triumphant pleasure, no thankfulness, no relief. Humbled is too weak a word to describe the way I feel. Shattered is by far more accurate.

This time, when Justin lowers me, I don’t even try to untie the knot; I just flop to the ground pathetically and give up. My ego, which had so recently bulged after my domination of Short and Stupid, is now depressingly deflated. I feel like an inadequate lover; I feel like a mute lion; I feel like a sparrow that has flown headfirst into a plate glass window and now lies twitching on the ground, waiting for a cat to come pick it up. Justin cautiously approaches my shivering frame. I can see, when he looks me in the eye, that he finds my situation very funny. And I can’t blame him. I realize that I just got my ass kicked and that it is very funny. I give a little chuckle and a smile and grasp his outstretched hand and rise to my feet. I can think of nothing else to say except, “Nice lead.”

Author flails helplessly on Coyne Crack


Due to work obligations, Justin and Martina have to return to Durango the same evening, but Freya and I have a few more days to explore before we too will drive to Durango and stay with them for Thanksgiving. We decide to leave Indian Creek, although hesitantly, and return to Moab for what could be considered rest and relaxation compared to the ring lock. Still, the thousands of obtuse and pocketed boulders that litter the dusty canyons are impossible to ignore. Taking a rest day is hard when you’re surrounded by such beautiful rock and blessed with such perfect weather. Freya and I can’t resist pulling on stone for a few hours each day.

Otherwise, we spend the next few mornings hiding in the car until the sun breaches the canyon. We cook elaborate breakfasts—sausage scrambles and toast—and play cribbage until we feel the urge to strain our muscles again. When this urge arises we either walk 50 yards to the nearest boulder, or drive a few minutes to an area that is better known. Here, we meet a Southern Californian and his French companion, and we boulder together with these characters for a while, enjoying their amiable encouragement and throaty slang. Freya snaps photos in the deepening twilight and when it becomes too dark to see the holds, we return to our solitary campsite and give in to sleep.

One afternoon, after bouldering for a few hours, we decide, for a change, to take a hike up one of the myriad canyons that make Moab unique. There are no cars at the Hunter Canyon trailhead, so we are alone and it is silent. A small creek that waters the yellow cottonwoods is gagged with ice. Caves and arches bring curvature to the otherwise geometric rock. We carry Satsuma oranges, chocolate and leftover breakfast for lunch, eat it on a stone bench in the glaring sun; the shade is still cold. Sweet and savory flavors, the cool scent of thawing earth, a magpie chirping brings texture to the stillness. It feels right not to be climbing for a moment, to simply sit and enjoy the colors of the desert. The canyon stretches on forever. I wonder if it ever ends, if the walls ever taper closed, or rise out of the earth and die in open range, sagebrush.

I know I could spend years exploring this place without getting bored. Any scratches I left on the surface of these canyon walls would be erased instantly by time and pressure and sand: geology. Somehow, I find that appealing. I want to spend the rest of the week here, clambering awkwardly up off-widths, falling from wobbly finger cracks, exploring canyons that appear empty at first glance but prove busy and diverse with deeper inspection. I want to spend months here, learning the ring lock, wearing grooves into my cams, perfecting my tape gloves, snapping photos at sunset and dawn. I want to spend years. The desert has grown on me like I thought it never would. I don’t feel like leaving yet.

Author practices on Indian Creek boulder

Alas, tomorrow is Thanksgiving and we have no turkey here. Nor do we have friends or family to share a table with. Indeed, we don’t even have a table. It is afternoon when Freya and I emerge from Hunter Canyon. The sun’s rich tint signals the onset of another starry night. No matter how much I resist it I know it is time to leave. We speed south through dusk, leaving the immaculate desert behind, leaving Utah behind; I know I will be back. We gain elevation as we climb into the mountains of Colorado. Passing a Wal-Mart Supercenter and an enormous Home Depot, I forget why we came here, but when we arrive at Justin and Martina’s small apartment, I remember. They greet Freya and I with hugs and smiles. Immediately, the four of us launch into a conversation about Indian Creek, about the desert. Our gestures become animated; our voices rise. We watch a YouTube video of a guy climbing some ridiculously hard off-width. Justin gives me a fifteen-page handout that describes the ring lock and various other crack techniques.

“I printed it at work today,” he says, handing me the packet.
“Is this what you do at work all day? Dream about crack climbing?” I ask.
“Pretty much,” he says, smirking.
After a short pause, I reply, “I don’t blame you.”
He nods his head and rolls his eye in knowing agreement. I sit down on the couch, open the packet, and begin to read.

(Special thanks to Freya Fennwood for the photographs.)

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