The Desert is Mightier Than The Sword

Apr 20 • Locations • 2780 Views • 1 Comment on The Desert is Mightier Than The Sword

I always think I’ll write about something else, but these stories keep happening. Then I realize that is the channel for which I have been created, and there is no sense in trying to deny my life’s path. You’ve got to go with life’s flow. So here we go, back on the road, back to the desert.

by Luke Mehall

banner photo: Cliff Cash climbing the mega-classic Annunaki in Indian Creek. photo by Braden Gunem 

This time: I’m seventy feet off the ground, climbing a crack just bigger than the size of my knee. I’m trying to jam my knee in the crack, because that’s what you do in these cracks, but all of the sudden the jam is too good.

I’m stuck.

My knee is stuck in the crack.


I panic. I breathe. I panic again and then have this thought, ‘No one has ever permanently gotten their knee stuck in a climb, right?’

No, but I start to think of the horror stories, people who got their knees stuck in wide cracks for up to two hours; finally pried out using whatever source of material the climbers had at their disposal. So, I start to imagine my moment of terror lasting for longer than a few minutes, and my friends gathering up all the lubricants they had (knowing my friends it would be coconut oil, bike lube, possibly some KY jelly) and this whole experience turning into a shit show of preposterous proportions.

The entire weekend was a shit show, and as a writer these moments are essential to my career. I mean I’m a dirtbag writer; an offspring of gonzo and beatnik. I can’t script anything. As a kid if someone told me I’d be a writer who wrote about sports I would have imagined I’d be writing about basketball and baseball, the only two things that really mattered to me as a child. Somehow my life evolved into writing about climbing and other quirky sports. Fortunately as I’ve evolved and grown, so has this world, and the audience who wants to read about it. I mean lately it feels like I can’t read the New York Times more than a few days in a row without a mention of climbing.

This is good, I think. I mean it’s at least good for me in the terms of career, like maybe I could do this for a living. This. Writing about the thing I love the most in the world, save for kittens, women, and my family. Climbing.

If I didn’t write about this so much, I know I’d just rant about the woes in the world. And, someday I may just write a book with all the ideas I have running around that have no where to really go. Like, why is George Washington on the dollar bill still? The guy owned slaves. Today he’d be a criminal on so many levels. Why don’t he replace him? I mean despite our bloody past we’ve got no shortage of true heroes. Put Martin Luther King Jr. on the dollar bill!

I guess the answer is too sad to contemplate. We’ve held onto our past of slavery, genocide and injustice for far too long. Someday we’ll let go and heal, but in truth the pen is not mightier than the sword. Well, maybe the sword, but the pen is not mightier than a nuclear weapon. And, the customer is not always right. America is not always the beautiful.

See, what I mean, if I didn’t have these climbing adventures I’d be a downer. Maybe someday when I’ve really made a name for myself in the world I’ll take on some of these causes. For now, I will still write about these days when America is beautiful.

And what is America really? It’s whatever experience you have. And, these desert climbing experiences, well, they make me all teary eyed, hopeful and believing in ideals like freedom of speech, love, and beauty.

So we drive up a dusty desert road, and there’s something about dirt roads that make you feel better about America. Like this Subaru I’m driving was invented for this pleasure. Then we hike up a wonderfully crafted trail to the Pistol Whipped Wall in Indian Creek, a series of a hundred perfectly placed rock steps built by volunteers not out to make a buck, but simply trying to make something more beautiful and efficient. (Thank you.)

My friend Jonathan finds an unclimbed line. A crack that has never seen the touch of a human hand; it sweeps up a dihedral and then comes out to an impressive roof. He spends much of his day carefully climbing up, hanging on gear and performing all the acts a new route demands; it’s like the brushstrokes of an artist.

The author climbing Bulletproof Roof, Pistol Whipped Wall, Indian Creek. photo by Dane Molinaro

The author climbing Bulletproof Roof, Pistol Whipped Wall, Indian Creek. photo by Dane Molinaro

At the end of the day I’m presented with an offer I can’t refuse: to climb the first free ascent of this line we’re calling Bulletproof Roof. I rack up with thirty pounds of cams and I’m off. I’m tired, but willing my deepest reserves for such an honor. While Indian Creek still has hundreds of unclimbed cracks, someday this experience will be gone.

The climbing is blissfully painful, with a spice of danger. Masochism. The roof ninety feet up has a sharp edge the ropes slides over; when I get to the anchors I notice a core shot, the sheath penetrated by that sharp edge, with the core of the rope exposed. My lifeline exposed to the desert. I survive though.

That night we climb well into the evening by headlamp and drive out into the dark to find the campsite. The crew is camping at a site I’ve never been to, and we miss the turn. Fortunately, we run into some friends who have missed the turn as well. It’s ten o’clock now and all we want to do is eat food and huddle by a fire. I start to get hangry (hungry + angry) and then remember I should probably drink a beer. (Drinking and driving on dirt roads = ‘Merica.)

As my friends turn their car around it becomes stuck. I start to wonder why they could become stuck in an SUV in a relatively tame road, and then I see that they are driving on a donut spare. I look closer and the donut has turned sideways on the vehicle. It’s stuck and only a tow will get it out of the middle of the road. We step out to assess the damage.

photo by Braden Gunem

photo by Braden Gunem

They are laughing. Braden takes a step back, right into a pile of cow shit. It was so poetic, perfect for the moment. He pauses at the despair and then laughs some more, and we take off on foot to find the campsite in the opposite direction for a tow and some camaraderie.

That next day is when I got my knee stuck. I’m battling up the crack, trying to get my knee in because that’s when you can rest on your knee.

I cry to the rock, and try to escape the woe is me mentality. I think maybe I’ll never do this kind of climb again. But five minutes into the mental battle I grab onto a #5 cam I’ve placed above me and my knee is free. Then I struggle on and enjoy the pain for the pleasure, because that’s the only way to go about this sort of thing.

This piece is published in this week’s Durango Telegraph

About us: The Climbing Zine was started in 2010 by Al Smith III and Luke Mehall. It continues to the day with the mission of representing the true essence of climbing. Our crown jewel is our printed version, but we also do the interweb thing, and Kindle

We have also published two books: The Great American Dirtbags and Climbing Out of Bed, both written by publisher, Luke Mehall. 

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One Response to The Desert is Mightier Than The Sword

  1. Zane says:

    So relatable. I’ve only been to the creek once, and spent the whole night I was there trying to find somewhere to sleep (before finding the great campground) and then never climbed anything and left. Indian Creek gives me the creeps.

    Same trip, I started up Castleton after seeing a girl get her knee stuck on kor ingalls. They said don’t worry about it, keep climbing, so we did. When we rapped down the north face and got another hour the girl was still stuck there with SAR getting her out. So.. Something like 6 hours or more in a crack. Bummer!

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