The Acquired Taste of New Routes in Indian Creek
“Once in a while you get shown the light
In the strangest of places if you look at it right”
The Grateful Dead
“I just want one first ascent,” I told my best friend Two Tent Timmy, while we stood amongst the winter solitude in our desert home of Indian Creek.
Timmy just flashed his legendary gold tooth, and smiled at me, as the desert smiled as well, without a soul in sight, the north facing ridges and cliff tops covered in snow, and the rock in front of us basking in the sun; a peace that could fill your soul for the rest of your days if you’re in a Zen state of mind.
He’s always been more Zen than me; I’ve always been more angsty, like I’m looking for something to feed that angst and turn that feeling into satisfaction. New routes in Indian Creek are the perfect fuel for that fire.
Winter in Indian Creek is a magical time. In the autumn The Creek is overrun by dirtbags, the tribe migrating to where the weather is good, and in the West, Indian Creek usually holds on to good weather longer than most destinations. Once a winter storm rolls in and the ski season begins the tribe dissipates, some go back to their jobs, others just keep the wheels on their Subarus and Sprinter vans rolling to the next destination.
The winter nights are long and cold, and the days surprisingly warm, like you’ve entered some time tunnel back to a Golden Age. It leaves the mind open to wandering, ripe for creative thought and action. The day Two Tent and I stared up at this unclimbed line on the Broken Tooth wall was one of those days.
I’d scoped the line while hiking around one day when we were a party of three, my anxious nature unable to sit still. With surprisingly little effort I found a corner that didn’t appear to have any anchors on it. It looked to have some off-width climbing, another acquired taste some might say was akin to S&M and abusive relationships that somehow made you feel really good…when it was over.
Though I’d established many new routes back home in Colorado, I was hesitant for years to ever think of putting up a new line in Indian Creek. I mean, there are already thousands of perfect cracks in The Creek; it didn’t seem necessary to add another to the mix. But, just because libraries are full of books, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write one yourself. I simply couldn’t resist. Plus, all I wanted was just one. Was that too much to ask for?
Two Tent and I had already experienced a solid day of climbing at Broken Tooth. We had the wall all to ourselves and had that high, which accompanies friendship, jamming sandstone cracks and breathing fresh desert air all day. Somehow I talked him into trying this corner I was almost certain had never seen the touch of the human hand.
As I started up a thin crack that led to a small roof my notion was validated. Small chunks of rocks came off the crack as I jammed it, the edges sharp and crisp. I quickly resorted to aid climbing when the crack pulled through the roof and went into a corner at about ¾ of an inch. Then it opened up to an off-width chimney and I could no longer simply pull on gear to get up. I had to climb.
I spent about an hour in that crack, cursing, crying out in fear, wondering what the hell I was doing. It was covered in sand, and for a while it would only take Big-Bros, a necessary yet, uncomforting piece of gear for wide cracks. Finally I was at the top of the chimney and it turned into a perfect hand crack, leading fifteen more feet up to a small ledge. I built an anchor and had Two Tent send up the bolt kit. I painstakingly hand drilled two bolts, as the sun went down. Defeated, we hiked down in the dark, and I vowed that I had my one new route, and I didn’t need to ever do that again. I wanted to name the line Gold Tooth, commemorating Two Tent’s stylish grill and staying in synch with the theme of the cliff, but it was just too nasty of a climb. Instead, we went with Snaggle Tooth. At camp that night, in Indian Creek tradition Two Tent and I carved a small plaque to put at the base of the climb.
A month later I was poking around again at Broken Tooth with my friend Keith. There was just one more line that looked like low hanging fruit, a perfect hand crack up high, and a creative low angle corner that would reach it. Keith was game and I figured, why not, just one more? The climb was indeed better than old Snaggle Tooth, so good we decided it needed a proper title, while bumping some 2 Pac on the drive to the crag, we came up with a name: Tooth Pac. The course to full on addiction had been set. Instead of being defeated after finishing Pac’s tribute route, we were energized. We cracked PBR’s and basked in that feeling only the desert seems to provide. I wanted more of that feeling, much more.
Hike around the Utah desert for long enough, and follow your intuition and curiosity instead of the crowds and you’ll discover that there are thousands of unclimbed lines, probably more there than anywhere else in the United States. Yet, a very small percentage of modern climbers who visit The Creek actually put up new routes. For good reason, a new climb can take most of the day, and sometimes the line is not as good as it looks from the ground. Plus, the whole thing feels like work. Your already heavy backpack gets heavier when you throw in extra gear and a drill, and then all of the sudden there’s no room for those post-climb beers. (Newbie tech tip here: never put your beers at the bottom of a Creek pack. I made that mistake once and ended up with a soggy pack that reeked of beer for weeks.) Most of us get out to Indian Creek to get away from work, not to do more. New routing certainly takes away the idea that The Creek is sport-trad climbing.
There was another element to the pursuit, I was losing my motivation to push my limits and feel passionate about the climbing there. I needed a boost, a push to try as hard as I did fifteen years ago when I started to climb at The Creek and was just learning to hand jam. That felt like The Hardest Thing In The World. Watching Indian Creek veterans jam up hand cracks, finger cracks, and off-widths was like witnessing magic. How the hell did they do that? They were artists and athletes practicing some sort of wizardry. Soon, like anything you realize its technique and practice. I was far from being a master but I’d spend hundreds of my days in The Creek, I could jam, but was I jamming, was I still feeling the magic? Because without the magic climbing seems a little silly.
Soon, I’d enlisted everyone I knew who would be interested in the pursuit of new routes. Many friends dismissed my newfound passion, and looked away from the crazy look my eyes must have possessed, but others had that same look in their eyes. We formed a little posse, and every weekend I could I’d drive out from Durango to meet whoever wanted to toil on the stone with hopes of uncovering a new gem. Once I found climbs that were at my limit I noticed I tried much harder than I would if they’d already been climbed. The lure of being the first person to do it, and to finish a project that could take up to several years to get done invigorated me, and renewed my love for this desert.
I saw the saw the same thing in my friends. My other best friend named Tim (yes I have two best friends with the same first name) had the same yearning for the new. One day, on a climb on the obscure Green Wall, (located in between the Cat Wall and Broken Tooth) I watched Tim send his first true 5.11 in The Creek, a climb we dubbed No Take On The Flake. We were all elevating our efforts, and it felt good.
The problem was, other than the Tooth Pac line, no one was repeating our new routes. That’s fine for many areas, just because your route doesn’t get done again shouldn’t take away the special experience you had developing it, but in Indian Creek its all about that shared communal experience. Where else in the States can you comfortably climb and hang with your 30 best friends and not feel crowded? There’s enough cracks and land for everyone out there, we wanted to start developing climb that people would actually repeat.
At this point many of us in the crew were constantly on the lookout for new climbs, while the other half of our crew were trying to avoid getting caught up in our shenanigans, and not returning my phone calls. One day, with a big posse at the popular Optimator Wall, a line across the canyon caught my eye. A single shaft of light cast perfectly on the crack, and within minutes four of us had beers in hand, going for a little “beer-aineering” hike across the way.
The ten-minute hike over was fruitful, and that perfect looking crack, was indeed perfect. The wall didn’t show any evidence of previous traffic and it’s kept us busy for the last couple years. We dubbed it the Dove Creek Wall, after a small farming town on the drive from Durango to The Creek, notorious for quirky gas station employees and other rural Colorado funkiness. To our satisfaction the wall has provided several moderate routes, and many harder 5.12 projects. That perfect looking line became my personal project, and after 20 some tries I still haven’t been able to get ‘er done yet. But the magic is in the trying, and I’ve never had a crack project like this thing. The climb starts so thin you couldn’t fit a ruler in it, and eventually opens up to a six-inch off-width, slowly opening up as it goes. The most popular route on the wall is a 5.9 called 99 Cent Tamales, which incredibly can be climbed almost entirely using face holds, a miracle in this crack climbing Mecca of the world. We’re still putting the finishing touches on the wall, but for now there are several classics, and when all is said and done we’ll put all the information up on Mountain Project, so that everyone who wishes to can enjoy them.
Looking back on these fiendish and satisfying few years I know that if I ever get bored with Indian Creek again its my own fault for a lack of trying. I now spend most of my rest days hiking new cliffs with new and old friends, like it’s the Gold Rush, but the only rewards are in the form of experience. Sometimes the hikes are long and produce nothing, and I get frustrated. However, one particular hike last spring led us to a cliff that had almost 30 unclimbed lines. You can be damn sure we’re up there this fall, rolling up our sleeves, getting dirty, putting in hard work for this ephemeral pursuit we call desert climbing. Because, you know, I’ve learned, once you find something you love, you always want just one more.
Luke Mehall is the publisher of The Climbing Zine, and author of The Great American Dirtbags and Climbing Out of Bed. He considers the Colorado Plateau his second home. Read more of his work at www.climbingzine.com.
The K-Bone Memorial Toilet
Every once in a while you meet someone where there’s an immediate connection, and by their openness and good nature you realize you’ve got a friend for life. Kevin “K-Bone” Volkening was exactly that kind of person. I met him through some mutual friends in Salt Lake one year during the Outdoor Retailer trade show. Kevin was working for Black Diamond and he was wearing a tie dyed shirt with a howling wolf. Apparently his closet was full of wolf shirts, and the wolf was his spirit animal. Between the shirts, his open heart, and giant smile K-Bone was a beacon of light.
Sadly, Kevin was killed in a climbing accident in 2013 in Clark’s Fork Canyon in Wyoming. Though I’d never climbed with him and barely knew him I felt a great sense of loss. I guess only the good do die young.
In the fall of 2014 a large group of Kevin’s friends and family met in Indian Creek, one of his favorite places to climb. They were there to build the “K-Bone Memorial Outhouse” in the Superbowl Campground, an increasingly popular campground that had only one toilet for all the campers. In conjunction with Bureau of Land Management, who were blown away by the large turnout, the toilet was constructed in just a few hours. Clearly the work of climbers, recycled skeletons from steel sheets used to create pitons, crampons, ice picks, and nuts tools, were used on the walls. A small plaque on the outhouse reads, “May the wolf spirit live on”.
If you have the pleasure of using this artfully constructed outhouse during the upcoming Creek season maybe take a second to look out over at the Six Shooters and the countless walls that surround it, and think about the massive beauty that surrounds you. Or, lighten your load and get ready for the day’s climbing…