Superette Crack and the Dove Creek Wall

 

An excerpt from Luke Mehall’s upcoming book, The Desert

 

 

We had some unfinished business before we embarked on developing this new wall, way, way back in a forgotten corner of this land we call Indian Creek. There was another wall, The Dove Creek Wall that we’d been developing in the main canyon.

One day while climbing the classic Annunaki at the Optimator Wall, I was glancing around across the canyon, trying to get the bigger picture, and a crack caught my eye. It was in a perfect light to be seen, and I rallied a crew of people, which included my younger brother, who was visiting at the time. My brother, Clint, lives in the New York City area, and works as a lawyer in Manhattan. A dirtbag he is not. However he is one of those human beings that seems to be able to engage and get along with just about anybody. On the drive into the canyon from Durango he remarked, “This will be the longest I’ve ever gone without a shower—three days!”

I was more than happy to provide this opportunity for my bro and thought about our last adventure together. We’d gotten lost on a routine hike in Durango, climbing a popular 12,000-something foot peak and then promptly got immersed in a thick fog, veering off the trail and then wandering down a drainage for six hours. Luckily we emerged onto a highway seven hours after we separated from the group, and the story became our greatest adventure ever together, and not that time we got hypothermia. It was the most humbling outdoor experience I’ve ever had to date, and I was beyond proud of my brother for the mental tenacity and physical prowess he displayed during that epic.

That light, that crack, it shined so perfectly for that moment that it begged us to go check it out. Seeing a crack from afar usually means it is wide, you’ve got to see it close up to really know what’s going on there. Indeed the crack was wide up high for the finish but the start was so thin you couldn’t even fit a ruler in it. It was a beauty and it had never been climbed.

There were other unclimbed cracks as well, and I vowed to return. Not long after my brother set his personal record for not showering we began establishing this area.

The zone split a fracture in the interest of our crew—on busy weekends we’d have up to 20 friends at a campsite—usually half of the folks were willing to do the necessary dirty work that a new wall demanded, and the other half wondered if we’d lost our minds. We wanted to do it all right, so we were cleaning loose blocks, scrubbing the sand off with industrial brushes, doing trail work with heavy tools; basically the wall turned into a job site. This repelled some of our friends, especially the ones who’d driven hours and hours to get there and dreamed of climbing perfect splitter cracks. Plus this wall had quite an odd distinction: poison ivy grew in one section along the trail, the only place I’ve ever seen cultivate that evil weed in all of Indian Creek. One friend even started calling it the Poison Ivy wall—he did not want this endeavor to catch on.

Around this time an old friend from the past, one who I honestly never thought I’d ever seen again started coming back on the scene. Dane was one of my first climbing homies in Colorado. We worked together in various restaurants; we lived together, and climbed together. We called him the Idea Man because he was always coming up with random business ideas that he never followed through on. He was one of my favorite people to climb with back in the day, but he got out of climbing for a long time period, maybe 10 years or so. Amazingly we just picked up where we left off, climbing is special like that, and equally as important Dane was down with the Poison Ivy Wall, and all the work that needed to be done, he loved it. What is hard to describe is Dane’s sense of humor. I think he could have been some stream of consciousness stand up comedian. Recently, when we were out at Indian Creek together I decided to write down all his funny one-liners for a day.

Canadians are so nice, they all seem like they are serial killers

 It’s nights like these I wish I had a V-Neck shirt

 Y’all got some of that Colorado Wildflower? (weed)

 Did you know that the taco has replaced the hot dog as America’s #1 food?

 That heel-toe is turning me on (said while I was climbing an off-width)

Did you know that there’s a rising rate of diabetes in Raccoons?

 Oh man I gotta see if I have an energy in my getaway sticks (his legs)

If I had to take a Wu-Tang test I’d fail miserably (he loves Wu-Tang)

 And that’s just one day! There’s a certain art of enjoying the process with new routes, of being in the moment, and becoming one with the choss and the dirt, and Dane was ideal company for this.

 So was Dave. Not the all-American mountain guide Dave I wrote about earlier, but Climber Dave from Telluride as they called him. Or Dimple Dave. Or 5.14 Gene. Or Nickname Dave.

If there was anyone who was down for the cause in Indian Creek it was Dave. He embodied the essence of a stoked, positive, climber. And he loved new routes. He had caught the FA bug in The Creek way before I ever had and thus was more knowledgeable about the ins and outs of new route development.

Despite the groans from my weekend Creek friends the blue-collar experience of developing a wall, was absolute paradise to me, even if the work was grueling, and the challenges to remain safe were often overwhelming. The wall was located next to these giant forming arches, giving the zone a feeling of protection—perhaps the Ancestral Puebloans once stood here as well and gathered water—there was more moisture here than most places I’d been in The Creek (hence the poison ivy). Okay, stop saying poison ivy dude, no one is going to want to go here. But, my point is not to entice, but rather describe.

The first day of developing we established two 5.10s right next to each other, and then immediately I desired to go over and look at the line that initially attracted me to the wall. Upon further inspection the line still looked prime, unique, and desirable—at the bottom it was like a shrinking exclamation point—but there was a massive detached block some forty feet up, where it looked like the route eased up in difficulty. The block was about eight feet tall and four feet across. The cracks above, below, and to the side indicated a climber’s worst fear, that this section was no longer a part of the wall; it was simply resting there unattached.

In my mind I wrestled with the possible outcome. I could climb up to this block, and I could pull if off, surely killing myself or the belayer, or both. Indeed it would be worse to kill one’s belayer with a loose block than to die one’s self. The scenario tormented me, was this worth it? And did I have the willpower to walk away if I weighed the options and decided that the risk was not worth it?

When I was younger, hormones and the energy of a twenty something led me. I did some stupid things, and shouldn’t be alive today because of it. Nowadays I like to think I thoroughly analyze the situation before committing. This one was tough, I wanted it so bad, but was that wanting stronger than sound reasoning? In the end I decided that I’d just go up there and see how it looked.

Since I’d just belayed Dave on one of the 5.10s we’d just established it was my turn on the sharp end. I carefully aided the beginning, it seemed impossible to free climb, yet the line between impossible and possible is very narrow, and if I was placing cams in the crack surely somebody could put their fingertips in there, if not me. I was worried about the big detached block above, not thinking about future free climbing efforts, and I was enjoying myself, venturing into a crack that had never seen the touch of human hands, with my bro Dave patiently belaying me, and stoked on the moment.

I approached the block and it was much bigger than me, probably weighed a ton. I do what climbers do; I banged against it with a hammer to see if it was hollow. A thud with zero resonation confirmed it was solid. I asked it some questions.

Are you staying here big buddy? You’re a big boy aren’t you?

 Yes. Yes. I am a big boy and you’ll leave this world before I come crashing down to the hill below, it seemed to say to me.

It was too big to fail I yelled down to Dave, and I 99.9% believed what I was saying. Soon enough I’d jammed my hands and feet into it, and mantled on top. It wasn’t going anywhere, anytime soon, and thus it was destined to remain part of this new climb.

I climbed another twenty feet or so and then drilled two bolts as an anchor. The big question was answered, the block would stay, and soon we had a top rope set up to play around on for the rest of the day.

When a new climb goes up there is the question of naming. Some believe a climb should not have a name until it has been free-climbed—after all it is the free ascent that then establishes the climb as a route. I really enjoy naming climbs, and it’s nice to have a reference to what you’re talking about. I also believe a climb names itself in many ways, from a feature, or a certain experience.

We’d named this area The Dove Creek wall after a small, rural town in Western Colorado, right on the border of Utah, one of the few places for amenities as we drove from Durango to The Creek. The town is blue collar with a dose of redneck. The first thing you see when driving in is a confederate flag displayed right outside a run down trailer. They were known for growing beans, and called themselves the Pinto Bean Capital of the World.

In addition to their beans we knew it for the Superette, a gas station slash supermarket slash fried food restaurant. And at the Superette was an old lady who had a mustache, that, naturally everyone knew of as the Mustache Lady. I can’t remember exactly when I thought of it, perhaps on the drive back, but I knew this new climb would be called Superette Crack.

To dive further into the naming rabbit hole, the name obviously referenced Super Crack, which was one of the first climbs done in Indian Creek. Today the climb is repeated often, shit, someone’s probably on the damn thing right now as you read this.

The Dove Creek Wall provided a mere seven routes, and we milked that experience for all it was worth. We returned again and again, I worked on free climbing Superette Crack and Tim led the efforts to improve the trail. It felt like a sanctuary, a special place, like a child’s fort or something. It felt special to have that space, with the expanse of Indian Creek to gaze across, and knowing we’d leave behind an experience that others could enjoy. There’s the greed and indulgence in new routes, but there’s also a gift for future climbers that will bask in it in their own way—a win/win.

Around this time, since we were always armed with drills we’d be sure to fix dangerous bolts when we came across them, or someone told us about them. One time when we were on the South Sixshooter Dane pulled a bolt out with his bare hands. This sandstone was often bomber but the nuance of placing bolts was far from always straight forward.

It seemed like this lands way of enforcing karma, one day we would discover something new for ourselves, and the next day we’d climb a route from the past that begged to be fixed. In doing so we protected our fellow human beings from unnecessary risks such as a bolt pulling, which surely would end up in a major injury or loss for life.

The more I placed bolts the more I learned how important the attention to details were. The bolts that became sketchy were ones that had constant force applied to them, usually while top roping or in the case of the South Six Shooter bolt, while rappelling.

One day a friend told us that she was climbing Annunaki the previous weekend and noticed one of the anchor bolts was loose. In fact, she was able to pull it out with her hand. Obviously, this freaked her out and she didn’t have a wrench so she simply tightened the bolt with her hand and hoped for the best.

After she told us this, we knew we had to rally over to Annunaki to drill a new bolt and remove the sketchy one. We weren’t the only suitors of Annunaki—there was already five or six folks waiting in line to lead it—it’s just one of those climbs that everyone “has” to do, and for good reason. The climb itself is worthy, a gently overhanging crack that formed in the shape of a lightning bolt. The crack happens to be on this massive pillar that created one of the most special and inviting perches in all of Indian Creek—a large crew can hang out there and watch the show of whoever is on the climb. Match an uber classic climb with an epic hang and you’ve got the stuff dreams are made of in the desert.

It these walls could talk they would tell you’ve they’ve seen some stupid shit. Suitors are often ill prepared—they often simply don’t have the chops required to get on this rig. Perhaps the beauty stokes the ego, or perhaps it is that 5.12- grade that was once proposed. The scene at Annunaki often turns into this—competent climbers below have to endure an overstoker hanging from piece to piece unaware that they should have just opted for a lap on toprope to work on their skills.

Now I’m not saying that this technique isn’t good for developing skills itself, but that is best left when there’s no one else is sitting around waiting in the queue—climbing etiquette is delicate though, and sometimes that pesky ego gets in the way.

As we stepped up to Annunaki and hoped to fix the anchors we were prepared for a backlash—basically we were asking to cut in line and climb it—but all 37 people waiting in the queue saw the value in us fixing the anchors. Most modern climbers aren’t trained in the craft of placing bolts and maintaining anchors, but almost everyone seems to “get it.” In 30 minutes we climbed it, removed the sketchy bolt and replaced it with a new one.

I replaced it with a five piece expansion bolt—later on I’d learn that the glue in bolts are the best for this type of situation—after all the glue is stronger than the rock itself, and glue in bolts can handle forces from a multitude of directions. For then, though we’d done our good deed for the day, and it was time to head back over to the Dove Creek wall.

As the Dove Creek Wall shaped up, sending the Superette Crack became my singular goal. Eventually after a year and a half I’d tried this line more than any route I’d ever climbed before. Still it wasn’t coming together—I’d fall at the same spot over and over again—at an offset finger lock with no decent feet. First world problems for sure, but I was obsessed. I had to send this rig. My heart would simply not be content without it.

I’d drag anyone I could over there and at this point maybe 20 people had invested their time into my project. I was even making a short film with my buddy Greg, a young and serious filmmaker who I’d met in Durango. Naturally the Superette Crack made for perfect fodder for the film.

In the script of the film, which I wrote, I was trying to capture what the dirtbag life had meant to me, in the form of poetry. There had been a lot of essays and a couple films that had declared the dirtbag was dead—in the end it was hard to argue—technology had changed the experience so much that it was almost unrecognizable to what it was even ten years ago. Smart phones and social media infiltrated—gone were the days of the lonesome climber—or at least the appearance of it. Sometimes I think loneliness feels worse now. When we’re down and out in our lives it’s hard to look at Instagram and it looks like everyone is always having the time of their lives. But, that’s just appearance, life never looks like an Instagram feed.

My poem was called Last Thoughts on The Dirtbag. It was in the lyrical style of Bob Dylan’s Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie—a poem about the search for soul and God in America. Here’s a taste.

 

Looking for something

I could not find trapped in walls

So I started searching

Started climbing walls

Then I was depressed

And dreaming of the sixties

Like something was missing

I wanted Jack Kerouac

I wanted to bring him back

And I wanted to just pack up a rucksack

And never ever-ever-ever-ever look back

One day we were doing some filming on a Dean Potter climb called Salt Lake Special at the 4 x 4 Wall and we met this character named Alan Carne. He just kind of came out of nowhere and he was at the wall by himself. I love that about climbing, you never know what kind of character you’ll get to meet on any given day.

Alan was British but lived in France. He name dropped some climbers, and of, course we had friends in common. He was wiry and short, and overly enthused; he had that written all over him. He ended up camping with us that night, and the next day my partner for climbing bailed, and so he agreed to climb with me while Greg filmed.

Meeting Alan at this time was like God-sent. He had been climbing for forty years, starting when he was 15 on the gritstone cliffs of England. The son of a poor single mother he would bike forty miles to these cliffs that lie above Manchester. He learned to tie a bowline knot from a local library, and climbed on a sailing rope, using hip belays. When he really got into climbing he was living on the dole, which provided about twenty dollars a week. He and his comrades would sleep in caves and all other sorts of strange places—even bathrooms if it came to it. “They were dark times”, he told me. “The good ‘ol days weren’t always that good.”

Alan and I synched up perfectly. We talked about Kerouac, about dirtbagging, and the climbs we wanted to climb. At 55 he was still climbing 5.13, and he was a more skilled crack climber than I was. When he belayed me on the Superette Crack he watched me climb and then ever so gently offered me critique on my technique. I soon realized the difference between success and failure is just a little bit of knowledge. Alan certainly had the intelligence part figured out in climbing; he was an athlete in his mid-fifties who was still at the top of his game.

It was a warm September day and we were tired but we wanted to get one last shot over on the most photographed climb in Indian Creek, Scarface. The climb is often photographed for good reason, a splitter crack framed on an arête with the reservoir in the background and beyond that both of the Six Shooters. Greg had just purchased a drone and we sat in the parking lot waiting for everyone to clear out from the wall. Though we were new to drones we knew it would be a dick move to use one for filming when others were at the wall.

Immediately after a brief test run I was unsure of this drone. The sound was annoying, and it seemed invasive. Plus, having one hover you as you’re climbing seemed dangerous, what if the battery died and it came crashing down on you, or if it accidentally hit the wall and triggered a rockfall. Death by drone would certainly be a lame way to die.

Still, I’d seen drone footage and there was no denying it was beautiful. I was just seeing how the sausage was made. So, with the last few rays of light on a hot, but idyllic autumn day, we tested out the drone.

Alan would lead, and Greg launched the drone off above him, hovering and making its crazy buzzing noise. All day long I’d been talking to Alan and learning about him and where he’d come from. In the middle of the drone filming experience, while he was climbing Scarface he yelled down to me, “Look at what climbing has come to. I used to climb in a Swami belt and a hip belay!”

There was no sense of malice in his words, he was just calling it how it was. In fact I couldn’t believe how generous this guy was, I’d just met him the day before, and now he was a character in our film.

In the end the drone footage didn’t turn out. Something wasn’t right with the camera—and stylistically I was happy—a film called Last Thoughts On The Dirtbag shouldn’t have had new, fancy drone footage. Greg crafted the work beautifully, and Alan’s presence in the film was perfect.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

I went back to work on the Superette and implemented some of the nuances that Alan had suggested. They worked. The day I sent the climb I actually messed up the sequence, but still managed to pull through the crux—some days luck is just on your side. I let out a huge scream that reverberated across the canyon, I was relieved. But I still hadn’t finished the climb; there was a short off-width section that guarded the anchors and I climbed conservatively and with trepidation, for fear I’d mess it up and have do it all over again. Although I’d just succeeded in climbing the hardest section of crack in my life, the important learning moment took place just after that—the lesson was to be in the moment, and not to celebrate anything before it’s all over.

I climbed that last remaining section and clipped into the anchors. The project was completed. I think to this day it’s still sitting there awaiting a second ascent. I think somebody could probably come along and onsight it eventually, that’s how these things go—one person’s project is another’s warmup. One thing I’ve learned in climbing though, at least for myself, it is if I’m going to have competitive urges, its best to be competitive with myself—to demand that I try my absolute hardest, give my best, be in the moment, and never give up until the send! Even if that doesn’t come for another lifetime.

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