Black Canyon and Indian Creek

2nd March 2018

In the autumn, I headed over to the States with Sam Simpson for a long-anticipated rock road-trip, and my first return since 2004. The western US has some of the best rock climbing on the planet, and half of the problem can be just deciding where to go. We had a three-week trip, and for me, the priority was a pligrimage to Indian Creek, the world capital of crack climbing. 

As we were flying into Denver, we first planned to explore the climbing at Black Canyon of the Gunnison in south-western Colorado before the autumn temperatures dropped too low. The Black has a reputation for adventure and variable quality of rock. This, we found, seems to scare off many climbers, and despite perfect conditions on the rock, the main campsite at North Rim was never busy. 

Admiring the scale of a deserted Black Canyon

 

After scrambling down SOB Gully for our first view of the Black, we were blown away by the scale of the place. The walls are up to 700m high, and the canyon certainly rivals Yosemite for visual drama. The climbing has a very strong trad ethic, and as power drills are banned, bolts are very few and far between. We didn't see any fixed gear in three days of climbing. All of this ensures that even the moderate undertakings retain a feeling of high commitment, especially in the shortening autumnal days. Retreating from any of the bigger lines would be very involved, and require the loss of a lot of gear. So, 'failure' generally has to be upwards... On several occasions, teams were seen several hours after dark staggering wide-eyed into camp, having completed their missions by headtorch.

 After warming up on Casually Off-Route (5.9), we headed down early the next morning for Russian Arete (5.9+), a proud line up a huge, steep buttress. After scrambling all the way in to the approach, we found another team gearing up at the starting ledges above us. A bit annoyed that we hadn't checked the planned routes book at the ranger station, we decided not to be underneath anyone else, as RA has a repuation for 'variable' rock. We headed back towards SOB Gully, and climbed Lauren's Arete (5.8/5.9), which we found to be a bit broken and discontinuous.

Sam on the stellar curving-crack crux of Comic Relief (5.10b)

 

We had admired the clean lines of Comic Relief Buttress from across the gully, and next headed down for the classic Comic Relief (5.10b). The climbing was high quality, with physical splitter cracks weaving a steep line up the cliff. As we got higher on the route, I started to get sore elbows from what transpired to be pre-trip over-training. At one of the top belays, the forearm muscles around my left elbow went into spasm, and locked the elbow completely for a few seconds! Thankfully, most of the route was below us at this stage, leaving just a rappel and steep scramble up to the canyon rim. Certainly not ideal at the start of a crack climbing trip though, and I spent the next couple of weeks on a steady diet of Ibuprofen...

Foreboding ambience in the Black at sunset, not a time to still be climbing... The 2,000ft walls of Russian Arete, Hooker Buttress, Diagonal Will Buttress and Painted Wall.

 

Sore elbows necessitated a couple of rest days, and with a change in the weather, we decided to hit the road and head for Utah. The hustle and bustle of touristy Moab was a bit of change from the quiet of the Black. The fun and varied cragging at Wall Street proved ideal for easing my way back into the climbing. The crazy landscape and wild erosion of the Fisher Towers provided the spectacular backdrop to a late afternoon ascent of Broken Chimney (5.10c) on Ancient Art. Despite relatively straightforward climbing, the wild exposure of the final 'corkscrew' summit pitch was certainly memorable.

Sunset on the summit of Ancient Art tower

 

After a few leisurely days around Moab, we made the short drive down the road to Indian Creek. The sandstone here is the Wingate variety - generally hard, solid and relatively featureless, cracks notwisthstanding... Although most of the routes are single-pitch, the scale of the place is impressive. Endless miles of cliffs line the main valley towards Canyonlands, each usually with dozens of splitter cracks. The Creek is rightly world famous, and venue for some of purest crack climbing anywhere on the planet. It is also very popular, with plenty of people of around on sunny weekends. But the Creek is so extensive that the crowds are generally easily absorbed. 

Warming up on an unnamed wide-hands 5.9+

Endless painful thumb stacks on Battle of the Bulge (5.11)

 

Many of the cracks at the Creek are uniquely linear in nature, making the climbing style uncompromising. The width of the crack in relation to the climber's hand or finger size becomes the key definer of difficulty. As such, it is a world-class venue for training crack technique, where you can simply turn up and choose to work on a particular size for the day. 

Whiling away the dark evenings at Superbowl Campground

Sam 'working' on the brutal finger crack of Slice and Dice (5.12)

Heading in to Scarface Buttress

Climber on the classic thin hands crack of Scarface (5.11-)

 

The clmbing at the Creek was incredibly high quality, but fairly brutal in nature. With a finite amount of time remaining on our trip, the temptation was to climb every day. This approach eventually began to take its toll, and it was with destroyed arms and bodies that we found ourselves at Supercrack Buttress on the final morning. Just one more crack...

Sam having a weary final battle with Incredible Hand Crack (5.10)

The original route in the Creek, Supercrack (5.10). Perfect big hands, but must have been exciting in 1975 in the pre-cam era...