Of Cows and Climbers

I cranked hard on my bike pedals through a cloudy soup of brown dust. It was a creek bottom torn up into a 4×4 farm road, and was not meant to be ridden by an old mountain bike. The track certainly wasn’t meant to be ridden by a dirtbag laden with climbing gear en route to a crumbling sandstone tower perched on the horizon.

Our group was a mix of transplants from around the country, all there in Indian Creek at the end of the summer. The previous days of cragging around the classic buttresses and cliffs had been idyllic. Warm Navajo Sandstone splitters, casual belays, car camping around fire pits with beers and friends. But we had grown lazy and out of that complacency the idea to bike to the Six Shooter took root. We needed something more. So onward I biked, laughing at the ridiculously arduous pace through the old cattle rut. Cottonwood trees with amber leaves and rough, wide trunks shaded the edges of our trail.

The climbers and the cows are the prominent players in the region. The Redd’s Ranch and the world-class destination of Indian Creek had both been included in the Bears Ears National Monument. The monument was a testament to the importance of the place to those that lived here before the bros or bovine, the Ancestral Puebloans. For 10,000 years the people lived on this wild land. The evidence is everywhere: kivas, pottery, and petroglyphs are hidden throughout the countryside. This had been their home. As I slogged through the sand, I thought of them and their lives there in the desert.

After miles of precarious tire wobbling, we came to a cairn where a small trail split from the main track we had been following. We regrouped under a large juniper; emptied sand out of shoes, snacked, and changed into floral attire. Once the transition was complete, we began walking. As we hiked we traveled through layers of rock and mud. I fell behind and wandered on a flat sandstone slab, stained with black potholes. Small pebbles the shape of marbles were everywhere, blowing around in the elements. The higher I went the more of the world I could see, up and out over the desert. Valleys rose into walls and into mesas, and more beyond them.

The Desert Southwest; Indian Creek, Cedar Mesa, Canyonlands. Powerful places that for years I have learned to love and explore but also respect and fear. Each time I think I have unlocked their mysteries a new set of conflicts presents itself. What is my role in the place? Surely I add to the landscape in some way but does my mere presence crush crypto, erode sandstone, and degrade ancient artifacts? The place is beautiful and tragic, the stories and adventure endless, but it is weathering away into dusty finality. Climbing acts as a reminder of that mortality. My body fragile against gravity and falling but moving upward, pushing a wild boundary only that sublime movement can create.

After one last steep and loose talus slope, we finally stood at the base of our route. Because we had a big group and we were out of for a good time, our chosen climb was a mellow jaunt to a great summit. James and I were partners, climbing in the middle of the pack and I was elected leader of the first pitch; belay on, climb on.

Leaving the ground I made three moves in a wide handcrack and at 10 feet above James I mantled myself up onto a ledge, scraping my helmet along the redrock. I placed my palms flat to the warm wall and gained my balance, looking around at the route. Squinting up a low angle chimney, chundery blocks and many broken cracks flowed upward.

I turned and looked over my shoulder. The bike and hike through exhausting terrain had brought me to an exposure that only a few had seen before. The pervasive totality of the red and brown Southwest stretched to the skyline, and beyond the horizon where the blue-grey of distance continued. Clouds had been threatening rain all day but did not produce.

As I moved my perspective back to the crack, I stopped. Within an easy reach from my little perch, there was a petroglyph chipped into the side of the wall; the classic fat triangular figure, with a long squiggled tail leading to a four-legged creature. Someone, long ago had walked out across the bottom of the desert, wandered through talus and across slickrock, scrambled up the steep approach and mantled up the block, just as I had done. They knew this place and they left behind a small mark for their future generations; and now, for us.

The desert reminded again of its long and complicated history. I was the current tenant, connected to the rock and the place through my callused hands, my gear, and my partner. But I was also bearing witness to the history of the place by knowing that those before me had been there, spent time there, and wanted it to mean something to their legacy.

I dropped my gaze from the petroglyph and looked at the crack above me. After assessing the move, I jingled the steel tools around my waist and found one I liked. I squeezed the plunger on a yellow hand sized piece and placed it over my head. I twisted a foot into the crack and stepped up off of the ledge, upward. After a couple more moves, I left my belayer behind and entered the tower’s innards. The climbing now was easy, chimneying over big sandy blocks. As the moves became natural I let my mind wander.

I thought about the tower and the region. The fragility of this place is what makes it so unique. The rock itself is always moving, cracking, shifting, and eventually trundling down to the bottom of the desert. With the change of place, things can be lost but they can also be protected. Our behavior in the wild can help or hurt both the natural features as well as the archeology. Being idle is easy to do; the want to unplug and wander always takes me when I’m in the desert. But we must remember that we are part of the history.

The rock summoned my attention, as it had been a couple body-lengths since my last piece. I breathed in the dust close to the wall and peered inside a nice wide crack. I placed a cam and pulled a loop of rope that easily clicked through the carabiner. My foot was stuffed and twisted into the crack, and slipped only slightly when I put all my weight on it, moving up.

After a couple more sandy, easy, and wandering pitches, there was one more bolt to clip. James did an exposed and runout move up onto the big ledge and clipped the little steel hanger. I breathed a sigh of relief as he joined our party on the top of the tower. When I followed suit, I again gazed out across the wide expanse of Canyonlands and Indian Creek.

From the summit, it all connects. Climbing is not just about knowing the history or the present, it is also about protecting the future. It is our duty to speak out against aggressors that would see the primitive places tamed and developed. As we climb, we see the rock, we understand the importance of small delicate features, and we know its fragility. We must apply these skills to the greater conversation. The South Six Shooter stands in the threatened Bears Ears National Monument. Anyone that would step into this place to climb must realize it is a political move. We climb in a unique time; we can use our experiences and voices to preserve the land for generations to come.

One Response to “Of Cows and Climbers”

  1. Beautiful, evocative writing. Love this line: “The place is beautiful and tragic, the stories and adventure endless, but it is weathering away into dusty finality.”

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