The climbing is unlike anything I’d ever experienced. Unlike most crags, the walls are almost completely featureless apart from the upward reaching splitter cracks that define Indian Creek climbing. The sides of the cracks are featureless as well, with the only friction keeping you on the wall being the outward pressure of your hand jams and the camming of your feet. Each crack has a completely different characteristic, with a variety of undulations, curves, and sizes, making each climb a unique experience; it’s definitely more adventurous and thoughtful climbing that you’d expect. The style is such that necessitates working with the rock rather than working up it, sequencing is much less straightforward, as it requires careful attention to detail and instinctual decision making. While you can map out a sequence on a featured wall-- picking out handholds, footholds, as well as rests and optimal positions for protection-- the Creek is a bit contrary. Climbing splitter cracks involves certain rhythm and flow, with the sequence being the result. Considering that my background was mostly sport, the Creek was a rude awakening as to what my limitations were as a climber, but also an awakening as to the simple joy and beauty of our sport.
I was quite anxious when I first drove into the campground, nervous that I wouldn’t be able to find a belay. Passing through the loop that makes up Creek Pasture, it’s rows of Sprinter vans and climbers sorting through heaps, I began to feel absolutely self conscious and grossly unprepared, given my rack consisted of one set of stoppers, two first generation #2 camalots, some quickdraws and a 70 meter rope. Thankfully, right as I got out of the car someone approached me asking if I was looking to climb. I quickly made my relative inexperience known, but was happy to provide a catch and soon enough, I found myself on the approach to Scarface Wall, eyes fixed on the seemingly infinite cracks. They were intimidating up close, as I had never seen anything of the sort and the further up the trail I got, the more curious I became. When we reached the base of the wall, I turned around, looking out over the expanse below. Pallor green sage brush dotted the red dirt beneath, with the vastness of pasture dissected by dark lines of dirt and asphalt roads. From above, the sagebrush blends into a sea of seemingly impressionist brush strokes. Every-so-often, a car would snake along the central highway, weaving around sweeping bends with mechanized grace and fluidity. The only sound was that of the wind, the birds, and climbers hollering down to their belayers. J---- asked me what I’d like to hop on first, but given my lack of experience, I was up for just about anything. The result was my first pitch being Scard Face (5.10), a sharp off-width to an outward sloping chimney. The first few tries were rather comical. While I was able to lodge my arms into the crack, placing the feet in the crack proved to be the crux. Each attempt resulted in my foot being spat out, sliding down the edge of the crack. After accepting the fact I had little idea of what to do, I turned to J--- and asked for advice. The wall was glowing crimson in the afternoon light. Thick black shade dripped down the cracks, seeking out each fissure and notch, cooling them to an inviting temperature, yet casting them in an insidious shadow.
John had nearly finished explaining what I was to do by the time I had my foot wedged into the base of the wall and my eyes trained upwards. Slowly, I began to shimmy my way up, relying on the friction between my elbows, hands, back, and knees to keep me aloft. The first fifty feet seemed endless. My fresh, un-calloused skin was quickly ripped to pieces. My wrists and shoulders, new to this sort of activity, were throbbing with a sharp, stinging pain. I seemed to be caught in the middle between an unstoppable force and an immovable object, every limb and joint pressing outwards against the rock.
Yet I continued on. I had caught the bug and inched skyward, amazed at the success of each movement and the fact that I had yet to slip out of the crack completely. Of course, progress was very slow, limited to only a few moves at a time, followed by a necessary rest. By the time I reached the squeeze chimney close to the anchors, I was completely out of gas. The base of the chimney made for a perfect rest and, wedged in a crack 70ft off the deck, I attempted to make sense of what was going on. My hands were shredded, to say the least; I had torn a hole in a perfectly good pair of Levis and the sides of both my ankles were rubbed raw. Though drenched in sweat, dehydrated, out of breath, and without a clue how to proceed further, I was having the time of my life.
In college, I used to shimmy up the door jams in order to hide over the entryway only to drop down and spook my roommate. It worked most of the time and I found I had a knack for such climbing, but I’d never done anything like it outside. Looking up, that seemed like the technique. The chimney was slightly more narrow compared to my doorway, so I figured I’d give it a shot. Just above my left shoulder, I saw a small rail with two decent looking crimps. I grabbed one with my left-hand, chickenwinged my right arm against the fall, and pushed off with my feet. The crimp broke and my hand swung free in a burst of dust and downward bouncing rock. My legs and right arm we wedged well enough to keep me from sliding downwards, much to my surprise. Here I learned my first two lessons about the burly yet tenuous nature of of Creek climbing: the crack is the most solid feature on the wall; and just because one hand slips doesn’t mean the other will. I caught my breath and regrouped; specks of sand remained on what was left of the hold that had broken. I could feel my breath bouncing off the rock, the coarseness of the walls pressing against my back. I stuck my head outside the crack and looked down to the belay; John stood with patient encouragement.
“Ugh,” I shouted down, “...shit hurts!”
I heard a few laughs. Apparently, there’s a certain joy seasoned Creek climbers get from watching the uninitiated flail upwards. I later found out that it came from a place of fondness. Everyone remembers the pain of their learning experience, the hideousness of their first pitches, and how embarrassing it must’ve looked from the ground.