November 20—Salt Lake City, UT
I take it as a good omen that on our first night in Salt Lake City it’s snowing. Freya and I are planning to spend the winter here skiing and there is nothing more exciting to a skier than an 8-12 inch forecast. If we didn’t have to find a place to live I would probably go skiing tomorrow, but it’s proving frustratingly difficult to meet a landlord willing to accept a 3-month lease. To make matters worse, I’ve picked up a terrible sore throat. It feels like I’m ripping through tissue every time I swallow. God forbid I yawn.
Life on the road was simple. The only stress was stress I chose to endure, like when leading a difficult route. There was no planning. There were no expectations. There was only the next climb, or really the next move within a climb. We made friends without trying, people who would risk their life to save ours, even if our only interaction together had been telling stories around a campfire. We drove until we felt like stopping and stopped until we felt like driving again. It was freedom. It was my version of the American dream and I loved it.
The city is a different type of adventure, but a valuable and cathartic adventure nonetheless. I’ve never lived in a city bigger than 80,000 people, and driving through Salt Lake I’m amazed with the seemingly endless sprawl of street lights, strip malls, and suburban developments. I-15 is jammed with speeding SUVs that don’t signal when changing lanes and diesel trucks hauling horse trailers down the HOV. Whereas the freeway is a maddening bustle of inconsiderate strangers, Downtown feels homey. It’s like a village hidden in the metropolis; trees line the streets; houses have character; the ingenious grid system makes finding any destination easy. Ted lives downtown and we are sleeping on his floor while we look for our own place to live. Already he’s taken us to a taco truck that serves the biggest $3 burrito I’ve ever seen and we visited the climbing gym, a luxury I haven’t had since college.
While cheap food and indoor climbing are great perks, the biggest attraction this city has to offer is the Wasatch Mountain Range. One afternoon, when Freya and I are tired of scouring neighborhoods for “For Rent” signs, we decide to drive up Little Cottonwood Canyon. There’s already snow on the ground at the mouth of the canyon and as we climb the winding road the snow gets deeper. Clean granite faces garnish the valley walls. Avalanche gullies are so frequent they look like lines in a college-ruled notebook. Reaching Snowbird’s dusty base, I glimpse a few neon-clad skiers carving turns into the pure white. I stop the car and get out. The air is dry and bitter cold. Oddly enough, it feels soothing on my sore throat. I can hear the sound of snow being pushed beneath waxed boards. It sounds soft. Hell, it smells soft. I’m half tempted to buy my season pass that moment, but it’s late and I know there are powder days in my future. I get back in the car, shivering yet budding with energy. Stress and worries disappear. All that remains is anticipation.
November 25—Indian Creek, UT
After a brief intermission in Salt Lake City, our climbing trip continued. Tuesday night we signed a lease on a 1-bedroom apartment downtown. The lease begins on December 1st. Wednesday morning we departed for Indian Creek, where a group of old friends and soon-to-be friends waited. It felt good to be on the road again. The southeasterly drive took 6 hours and we arrived as the setting sun painted the sandstone purple. The fading light revealed endless possibilities and endless challenges; very few routes at The Creek can be called easy. The walls are always steep, the friction always poor, the features pure and clean. Protecting the uniform cracks often requires 8 to 10 copies of the same sized cam. Therefore, it’s imperative to climb with friends who own a lot of gear. Thankfully, our group is well equipped.
The last and only other time I’ve been to Indian Creek was exactly two years ago. Freya, Justin, Martina and I climbed here a few days before Thanksgiving. Afterwards, we drove to Justin and Martina’s apartment in Durango, CO and spent the holiday feasting, drinking, and bouldering. (In fact, I wrote two blog entries about that very trip, the first one about Indian Creek, the second about Thanksgiving.) It was so much fun that Justin decided he wanted to make it a tradition, only this time—and forever onward—we would have Thanksgiving amongst the cottonwoods, next to the river, and beneath the red stone walls that are so enticing. The Facebook group was titled “Thanksgiving at The Creek” and Justin somehow coerced 7 lonely souls to join him for the dusty and frigid antics that were sure to ensue.
|Enjoying the fire in camp one night.|
|The Camel Hut set up beneath a big cottonwood.|
|Surrounded by sandstone.|
|Eldon cooks a snack in camp.|
|Sunset over desert towers.|
The dishwater was frozen solid on Thanksgiving morning, but once the sun hit our camp it was downright comfortable. Having purchased a 12-pound turkey and a $30 BBQ/Smoker, Justin got right to work on what would be an all day affair. Since the turkey required tending, and since none of us wanted to abandon Justin to this selfless job, we decided to spend the day playing games, snacking, bullshitting, and drinking. We had a Frisbee and a slackline, as well as a game we called Horse Balls, which was a variation on Horseshoes. To provide entertainment, one member of our group, Jordan, slung the entire rack of climbing gear over his shoulder, walked into the bushes and returned a few minutes later, completely naked save for the shiny cams and pitted nuts shielding his genitalia. Of course, the most revealing moment, the moment that made all the girls scream, was when he turned around to walk back into the bushes and gave us all a fleeting view of his chalk white buttocks. The other men in the group, myself included, cited Jordan’s young age—19—as justification for his boldness, an ego-saving excuse that would be used more than once over the course of the trip.
The turkey sizzled; the slackline bounced; the wine went down like water. Before long, the bright day had melted into a dark afternoon and our stomachs growled. When Justin announced a 1-hour ETA on the turkey the rest of us began preparing our own contributions. Eldon uncovered a baking dish full of candied yams; Sarah concocted an enormous vat of mashed potatoes; Ash baked green bean casserole in one of the Dutch ovens; Martina used the other Dutch oven for stuffing; Jordan opened a jar of homemade cranberry relish; Freya and I threw together a colorful salad and somehow salvaged a delicious gravy out of the discarded turkey neck and captured juices from the BBQ. It came together as if by magic. The perfectly moist and flavorful meat of the turkey was the piece de resistance. We feasted like kings and queens, huddled around the fire, complimenting each other’s culinary skill and giving thanks for adventure, friendship, #2 Camalots, #5 Camalots, turkey skin, freedom, wine, family, and warmth. At long last, the food and drink overwhelmed our enthusiasm and we filtered languidly into our tents, submitting to the inevitable comas that our bodies desperately requested.
The next day began late, with sunshine roasting our tents, and ended late, with headlamps lighting our descent. After breakfast, we drove two cars to an unmarked turnout, parked, and began hiking toward Technicolor Wall. The approach was convoluted and we wasted most of the morning in search of a suitable trail. When we did finally arrive at the wall, Jordan immediately called dibs on a fist-sized crack in a left-facing corner. He led the route clean, bellowing a triumphant woot! when he reached the anchors. Meanwhile, Justin was leading a chimney route that involved 80-feet of beautiful stemming.
The rest of us thoroughly enjoyed top roping both these routes, although some more than others. At Indian Creek, hand and finger size determines the difficulty of a route. For Freya, whose fist is the size of a Satsuma orange, the route that Jordan led required her to shove her entire arm, shoulder deep, into the crack. Needless to say, it looked painful and she uttered more expletives in those few minutes than she had all trip.
|Ash lights coals while Justin rubs turkey.|
|12lb turkey; $30 BBQ/Smoker|
|Justin attempts to juggle on the slackline.|
|To be 19 again…sigh…|
|Justin drools on turkey while carving.|
|Give me some of that immediately!|
|Martina showing off.|
|First of three helpings.|
|Justin with a too-small plate.|
Whereas most of us were feeling humbled, Jordan’s confidence was soaring. He had just on-sighted a difficult route at The Creek and he was feeling strong. At that exact moment, a group of three ragged looking climbers arrived at the crag. One of these climbers, a grey-bearded, leather-skinned desert rat, asked to borrow all our #4 Camalots and began telling Jordan about the second pitch of the chimney route, the first pitch of which Justin had just finished leading. The old desert rat told Jordan that the second pitch had probably only been climbed once, by the desert rat himself when he had completed the first ascent. The desert rat made the route sound relatively straightforward. Hearing that he had an opportunity for a second ascent in Indian Creek, Jordan was instantly inspired. He geared up for the climb and I agreed to belay him, perhaps caught up in his youthful verve.
An hour and a half later, I was still belaying and I no longer felt that verve. Jordan had already taken two lead falls and was about to take another. Everything had been going fine until he got to the squeeze chimney. He cruised up the first pitch, passing Justin’s anchors and hardly breathing, but as the chimney got narrower and narrower, he started slowing down. Soon, he stopped completely and the rope didn’t move more than a few inches for a half hour. The chimney was so small that Jordan actually had to remove his helmet and clip it to his harness because his head was getting stuck. Painstakingly, he inched his way higher. Once he finally exited the chimney he was confronted with a knee-sized crack beneath a 90-degree roof. He yelled down that he didn’t have enough gear to protect the rest of the climb. As it turned out, Jordan needed every #4 Camalot the desert rat had borrowed. As if on cue, the desert rat walked around the corner with a hand full of gear. I asked him to tie it to Jordan’s haul line. The desert rat obliged and Jordan raised the gear to his precarious stance 100-feet off the ground, clipped it to his harness, and continued climbing.
The sun had dropped behind the canyon walls by the time Jordan reached the anchors. He rappelled through the chimney, cleaning his gear on the way, and when he reached the ground I could see the shell-shocked look in his eyes. We descended to the cars in silent darkness. Around the campfire that night, we joked with Jordan about his experience.
“So what is the moral of this story?” I asked Jordan.
“Never trust a desert rat,” he said. We were all glad he got it right.
|Jordan leads fist-sized crack.|
|Jordan making it look easy.|
|Justin leads something way too hard.|
|Just another day at the Creek.|
|Second ascents all over the place.|
November 29—Canyonlands National Park, UT
Freya and I walked to the Green River Overlook at sunset and watched the deep canyons fill with ruby light. The orange sun laid down on the sagebrush horizon. Shadows stretched across the countryside, gradually cooling the sand and rocks with a delicate touch. Just as the sun is setting, our road trip is winding down: slow and beautiful.
We shared two more days with the crew at Indian Creek. We climbed desperately, knowing that it might be the last outdoor climbing of the season. Justin and Ash pulled ropes up a variety of difficult cracks. I led the hardest rated trad climb of my life, a 110-foot hand crack called “Generic Crack” in Donnelly Canyon. Generic Crack was long and stately, a nearly perfect fissure interspersed with pods of wider climbing. Endurance was the challenge. Jamming my knee and hip into one of the pods, I found a perfect no-hands rest three-quarters of the way up. I rested there for a while, knowing that I would finish the climb, knowing that I had the strength and endurance, yet hesitating longer than necessary. I gazed out at the red rock canyons and felt a twinge of sadness. Perhaps, deep down, I didn’t want the climb to end; I didn’t want to say another goodbye.
|Starting up Generic Crack (5.10)|
|Already running out of gear.|
|Better keep moving.|
|Pure and clean.|
|Jordan leads Generic Crack.|
|Jordan placing gear on Generic Crack.|
A day of climbing in Moab, just Freya and I, reminded me of our time spent in Smith Rocks, where our road trip began. We’ve covered more than 3000-miles of pavement since then; the Subaru has taken a beating. We’ve grown stronger, mentally and physically. I think back to the very first climb of this trip: how scared I was, how shaky and weak. Balancing on thin sandstone footholds in Moab, I breathed in, calm and collected, then moved smoothly to the next precarious hold. I was still scared, terrified in fact, but that fear was subconsciously subdued; it didn’t overtake my mind. To me, the progression is obvious in hindsight, but in the heat of the moment I still feel like a frail human being, straddling the line between safety and risk, hoping that a hold doesn’t break, dreading a fall.
Without a doubt, the best moments happen when friends are around to share that fear. We’ve met so many wonderful people on this trip with whom we’ve built powerful memories. Connections like that don’t fade, no matter how much time goes by.
Tomorrow morning we’ll take a hike through Canyonlands; then we’ll drive to Salt Lake City that evening. The storms haven’t hit Snowbird yet. I’d like to think they are waiting for our return. I imagine the snow will start falling the moment we arrive and it wont stop until March. Our road trip may be coming to an end, but the next adventure is just around the corner.
|Sunset over Canyonlands.|
|Grasses of the desert.|
|Sunrise coloring the sky.|
|Almost falling off the edge trying to take a photo.|
|Eight-mile hike on the Syncline Trail.|
|Couple’s self portrait.|
|A final jump for joy.|
The last vestiges of twilight fade from the desert sky. I shut down my computer, turn off my headlamp, and pull the sleeping bag around my shoulders. The sooner I fall asleep, the sooner I get to wake up. We’re sleeping in the car again and from the rear window I can see the Milky Way. I yawn. I close my eyes but I can still see the stars, unvisited, distant, and shining brilliantly.