Fall in Utah is amazing (as are the other 3 seasons.) But autumn is especially stellar when the yellowing leaves of Aspen and Cottonwoods are juxtaposed against a backdrop of red sandstone cliffs. This feast of color is never more fully appreciated than when you get your feet back on terra firma after jamming them sideways into 2″ wide, 100′ tall, vertical cracks. This is Indian Creek: a paradise on earth, assuming you like crack climbing, and assuming you like to suffer. That’s what climbing is when you push yourself out of the “comfort zone:” fear, suffering, and finally joy. Your success is dependent on your ability to suffer. No one actually LIKES it, but some people push through the fear and pain in order to achieve the joy. These are the climbers who succeed, and everyone gets stoked on that!
Veteran crack-climbers drop their knee away from the crack, insert their foot sideways, and rotate their knee back in-line with the splitter groove. This locks the foot securely in place, making it a solid hold. It also hurts like hell, until you get used to it.
Others prefer to ineffectually push their toe straight into the crack, or smear painlessly on smooth wall outside it. They concentrate on their hand-jams instead of their feet. These climbers avoid the excruciating pain of tarsal bones smashed against stone. However, they experience the pain later when their feet peel and they are left hanging on their killer hand jam. Now they are REALLY glad they used tape gloves! Usually they have the strength to hang on their arms for a certain number of moves. Maybe 20 feet worth, maybe 50. Some powerful individuals can fly 100’ up Supercrack, but eventually they gas out.
Most climbers recognize sooner or later, that the sport is all about the feet, and scaling cracks is no exception. No matter how strong you are, or how solid your hand jamming technique, you’ll achieve more if you suck it up, and jam your feet. Once you figure this out, and you realize you can usually place a cam wherever you want protection, climbing at the greatest crack crag in the universe gets fun.
Soon the jammable sections are the easy ones and the pumpy lie-back is the next technique to master. This is required when the crack size shrinks to fingers only. That means toes don’t fit in and the method is to pull with straight arms against your feet placed on the wall or crack edge just below your fingers, and boogie up with considerable exertion. The trick here is saving enough strength to place a piece of pro before you run out of steam.
Then there are the dreaded off-widths where a combination of squirming, stemming, the above techniques and anything else you can think of, is the bag of tricks. But that’s another discussion…If you avoid towers and multi-pitch routes and read the guidebook carefully, you can dodge the cracks that are too wide for feet, hands, and reasonable-sized cams. Instead you can stay on the popular, friendly cracks, such as the “Incredible HAND Crack” and “Supercrack” and meet the international crowd that frequents these areas.
For Europeans, Aussies, etc., Indian Creek is the best-known American climbing area outside Yosemite, there is nothing else like it on earth. Half the fun is hearing the accents and getting the diverse perspectives. They are bound to be friendly as they ask you, “Do you have any extra # 2 Camalots?” Everyone has a story of how they got half-way up their first I-Crk lead and ran out of the cam size they needed. They have to lower or down lead, and go begging, or shopping in Moab! Some cracks need up to 10 of the same size cams!! Sharing is a good way to make friends, increase good karma, and save a fortune.
In some cases, one wants to share, but can’t. One day when we were climbing Incredible Hand Crack, a beautiful young woman came up to us, and in an enticing German accent asked, “Do you have a nut-tool?” We were dumbfounded, partly because of her looks and way of speaking, but also because nobody uses a nut-cleaning tool in a climbing area that is all about cams. I-Creek was revolutionized by the advent of camming units in the late ’70s. We all wished we could help her, but no one had such a device. Evidently, a cam had gotten stuck deep in a crack and might have been rescued by using two hooks, or cleaning tools. Later we watched her dreadlocked, muscular boyfriend blitz all 100’ of Supercrack in about 5 minutes while placing only 2 cams the whole way!
Indian Creek is not a well-kept secret, but there are plenty of lines for the crowds that assemble, and the cultural experience of meeting other climbers, either on the walls or around the campfire, can be as rich as the climbing itself. So bring as many hand-size cams as you can gather, bring an open mind and gregarious personality, and go get pumped while you make friends in Utah’s fall (or spring) paradise.
Logistics and Recommended Climbing Areas and Routes in Indian Creek
If you go to Indian Creek for 3-4 days, and you are a moderately strong climber, here are some route suggestions and general advice. Spring and fall are the best times of year to go. Good car-camping exists in the area, and that’s what most visitors do. It takes about 5 hours to drive there from SLC. Go to Moab, and continue south toward Monticello before turning west into the climbing area.
Blue Gramma is a good crag to visit as you pull into Indian Creek, especially if the weather is cool, and you have spent the morning driving. It’s one of the first buttresses you come to, it’s usually not busy, and the routes are relatively short.
Recommended lines include Unnamed 9+, Dawn of an Age, and Petrelli Motors. The former are nice, 50′ jam cracks, although Dawn is wider and more strenuous. One can be top-roped from the other, with a short ledge traverse. The latter route is not a typical, strenuous, I-Crk splitter crack, and may come as a welcome relief with its subtlety and variety of moves.
Donnelly Canyon, along with Supercrack Buttress, is the most classic and popular Indian Creek playground. It’s a sunny wall with plenty of options. However, if you want to climb Donnelly’s uber-classic Generic Crack, get on it early, and/or get in line. Also, be sure to collect PLENTY of # 2 and # 3 cams. Some folks place as many as 10 of the 2-inch yellow size! Sharing with other climbers is common practice, and may be a way of ensuring you’ll get the next try on the popular route. It’s rated 5.9, but given its 115′ length and sustained nature, most leaders find it harder. One 70 meter rope is enough.
Binuous Crack is nearby to Generic, and a recommended warm-up. Chocolate Corner is a very classic, smaller crack. A bit of stemming and lie-back technique can help.
Elephant Man is another good one. All of these are popular, but there are enough lines on this wide cliff to accommodate everyone. Many of these routes have upper pitches, but most parties only climb the first.
Supercrack Buttress is the most famous crack climbing crag in the world, and certainly holds some fine, quintessential I-Creek splitters. Incredible Hand Crack is a great one, and crowds can be expected. Out of respect for others, climb it if you can, and then let someone else have a go. When I was there, a party of three all HAD to lead it, even though none of them really could. They all basically aided their way up it, hanging from every cam as they placed it, and taking close to an hour each to claw their way up. As a friend of mine jokingly said when discussing the area’s difficult cracks- “Indian Creek? What’s so tough about it? Nothing is harder than A1.” The point being, anyone can aid climb these routes, but that’s not what they are about. Maybe it’s better to top-rope and build your crack skills, rather than forcing the “red-point” just to say you did.
Three AM crack is a 130′ gem with parallel sides and just the perfect width for hands and feet. If you jump on it, don’t forget (as I did) to rest on the scoping ledge half-way up. Every good climber knows you have to maximize the use of rests in order to climb your best.
Supercrack itself is a 100′ tall, hand-to-fist size splitter crack on the right side of the buttress that is celebrated daily by climbers of all shapes, sizes, and nationalities. The start of the “Luxury Liner” as it also known is a bit thought-provoking, but then its 80 feet of jam after jam. For me, it was too wide to fist jam, so I did an arm bar with one hand and “gaston” with the other.
If you are like me on my first trip to “The Creek,” and you get fully worked the first day, you might consider climbing South Sixshooter the next day. Although the sixshooter towers have numerous routes featuring run-out, hard-to-protect off-widths, the South Face of the South butte (Grade II, 5.6) is a moderate, full-day adventure. The 4WD road is pretty full-on, and it’s easy to get lost, so pay close attention to your route-info and keep your eyes wide open.
The hike goes up through a class 4 weakness to reach the plateau, and then involves a slippery scramble up the cone to the tower itself. Start in a chimney on the left, just right of a petroglyph. The second pitch wanders left up a trough. The final pitch includes a scary block and a mantle finish. Luckily there is an anchor right on top so you can relax and rappel down.