[This is part of my vanlife series. I've spent 7 months and 25kmiles on the road in 2 years, exploring and rock climbing around the US
Update: As of 12/28/2016, one month since we were there, Indian Creek is now part of the Bears Ears National Monument!]
I've always seen photos of the perfectly red, endless splitter cracks in Indian Creek and Moab, thinking they're pretty awesome, but it's for those climbers. Its boldness, technique, and skill in placing trad gear is about as different from bouldering as you can get. When I heard that our friends from Ten Sleep were going to the Creek for Thanksgiving, I just about laughed imagining myself on cracks. But it was too absurd and auspicious to pass up.
My saga with jamming started 5 years ago with my first attempt at crack on Karl's Gym 5.10d, where I ended up piecing together multiple V7 boulder laybacks. I had a disappointing performance on Devil's Tower this year on a 5.9 crack. And I'd been burned enough in the New River Gorge on single moves, where I either lost a great rest or made a move multiple grades harder by having poor jamming technique.
I had a single goal for the trip (aside from enjoying a new destination and company): be proficient enough in crack to snag the occasional jam in sport climbing.
[above: Sunset over the Creek.]
The Creek--Getting There
Camping and Amenities
The Creek is managed by BLM and has a few primitive, very well-maintained campgrounds, but there's no water, no cell signal, no showers, the nearest town is an hour away, and short of pit toilets, it's pack-in-pack-out everything. You can nab a shower at just about any campground in Moab and get free potable water fills at Gearheads. For camping, you'll see signs for pulloffs all along 211. There's tons of leveled camping spots. Even at Creeksgiving, there were lots of spots.
Nada. If you're in the heart of Indian Creek on 211, it's 30min to the first cell signal. You can find a spot of faint reception (as of late 2016, AT&T and Verizon, no T-Mobile) at the 211-Hart's Draw intersection, which is 10mi in from the 211-191 intersection. Coordination is done by old-school message wooden message boards you'll see along 211 and at the entrance to campgrounds. There's free Wi-Fi at the Canyonlands National Park Needles District Visitor's Center, about 15min from Hamburger Rock (the full 35mi on 211 from 191).
[above: Passing buttress on buttress of cracks on Hwy 211. Continue on 211 and you reach the Canyonlands National Park Needles entrance.]
Indian Creek is part of the Colorado Plateau that makes up the Zion, Canyonlands, Bryce Canyon, and Arches region. The region used to be an ocean basin filled with salt, then was covered by layers of sandstone. The salt layer eventually bulged, creating cracks in the soft sandstone. There's over 1000 established routes in Indian Creek.
The rock is really soft, as evidenced by the scars in cracks from gear blowing. The cracks are almost perfectly smooth and long. The patina, or varnish, color varies from red to brown to black due to surface bacteria that oxidize manganese and iron. A high Mn:Fe composition results in the harder black surface, whereas low Mn:Fe results in the soft, sandy orange-red color.
[above: For scale: order of magnitude longer climbs than bouldering!]
My draw to Indian Creek was that there's no cheating your way up cracks. The rock is perfectly smooth; you won't find any cheater edges. You're forced to jam, smear, and really learn technique or be spit out. The routes are so long that you'll need an extra rope to rappel or set a toprope anchor. We were lucky to be with a huge crew to pool multiple racks for the 100ft stretches of the same size gear. I've never seen so much gear.
The grading system with cracks is interesting--the 5.10 range is typically hands (~#2s), #1s are tight hands, and grades get harder in the fingers range, which are typically around #0.4s for the average male. The easiest size was #1 (hands) for me and #0.3 (fingers), and and once I figured out my own hand-dimension-to-camalot scale, it was a consistent conversion. Many of the easier graded climbs for hands in the #2-#3 range were off-hands and rattly for me. Somewhere between Ten Sleep 2 months before and the Creek, my knee felt fine to jam and I hardly gave it a second thought.
Our group did the most badass leads I've ever seen. I spent half my time watching them stemming, jamming, and chimney-ing with ridiculous racks and towing tag lines. It was fascinating to watch and tons of fun following on toprope. These guys ran up routes. It was a blast.
[above: Charles Erickson onsighting the 140ft Deseret Moon 5.11+r, pulling through the flaring chimney start. You can see the holes where gear previously blew, taking out chunks of rock, and giving it the 'r' start.]
[above: (left) Charles Erickson on Deseret Moon after the chimney and pulling a roof, continuing an endless #2 camalot crack. (right) Rolf Severtson onsighting Tom Cat 5.10, a 100ft #2 and #3 camalot hand crack.]
[above: Jeremy May working the crux of Death of a Cowboy, 5.13-.]
[above: Shay Skinner on Chota Boy, 5.11-.]
I got in on the fun and did nearly 600ft of everything from chimney to off-hands to finger cracks! It was Type II fun for me--painful and frustrating spending 30min on a climb, but more fun looking back. I can now drudge up fond memories from my raw fingers and wrists.
[above: Me on the chimney start to Tom Cat.]
[above: Me, on the remaining 80ft of Tom Cat. The #2 and #3 crack was rattly for my hands, making the whole route awkward.]
[above: So you thought bouldering guidebooks could be confusing.]
[above: Typical approaches.]
[above: Working up an approach with the North and South Six Shooters in the background.]
[above: Shay Skinner on Chota Boy 5.11-, #1 camalot down to #0.3. Hands down to fingers for the ladies! My first finger crack!]
[above: Jeremy May onsighting the 180ft Sudden Impact 5.11. The roof was the most awkward and cool roof I've done. No feet but smearing in the corner, hand-over-hand jamming to get your hips up to the lip, then left hand jam and right hand mantle to pull the lip. Then never-ending #1s, which were perfect hands for me.]
[above: Jeremy May working the bottom crux of Death of a Cowboy, 5.13-.]
[above: Jeremy Meigs panting on an unknown offwidth at Scarface wall.]
The coolest lead of the trip probably goes to Jeremy, who led an appropriately-named route In and Out 5.10+:
[above: Thanksgiving night in the desert: no water, no cell signal, no showers, night lows in the 20s, hour to the nearest grocery store.]
[above: This took legit planning in the desert, and I can't claim any help with it. 3 deep fried turkeys, dressings, pies for days, deep fried oreos, and many fires for 40+ people.]
Altogether the climbing was painfully fulfilling. It's one of those trips that was made in no small part because of great company. I'm game again. I may not become one of those climbers, but I'll be keeping up to stay proficient and enjoy future trips to the Creek!
Check out my other articles on destinations in the Moab area: