Over hundreds of thousands of years, water has trickled, raged, and poured down cracks and creases, winding and weaving through rock rugosities, and worn paths through weaknesses to form (what is now known as) Canyonlands.
by Pete Whittaker
note: this piece appears in The Climbing Zine Book 2, now available
After another trip there this fall, I got to witness with my own eyes really how this landscape has been created. Thunderstorms so brutal and flash flooding so rapid that gear, jackets, and bags were only just snatched from the pressurised rainwater that got forced and funnelled down the roof cracks into the caves below where we climbed. One moment, a few drips on the brow, to fifteen seconds later feeling like you were being blasted by six pressure washers—the pressure washers they use to strip paint off objects, total skin rippers. Wind roared through the valleys, in between towers, and looped into the back of caves, shaving sand from their walls, and deposited it somewhere over Moab town—a sand shower. So vigorous, in fact, it picked up our abseil rope (the rope we used to ab into the climbing), all its stacked coils on the ground, lifted the whole bundle into the air, and strewed it across the top of the cliff, totally out of our reach. Luckily we were high up, but to any hikers in the wash below, it could have been serious. The basin of the canyon collected thousands and thousands of gallons of water from off-shot waterfalls, rivers, and runoff, in just a split second.
Waterfalls poured over the top of cave entrances, and rivers scoured out troughs in the soft, muddy hillside below us. There was no mist or cloud, but the rain was so thick you could only see for a hundred metres out the cave entrance, a blanket of water blurring our vision of the carnage outside. As we dashed, darted, and fumbled with armfuls of belongings up the sandy slopes of the cave, to dry safety and shelter, I finally got to witness how these monster roof cracks we were climbing on had been formed. A real lesson from the area and it was a pleasure to learn. No class or teacher could have described it any better. Why weren’t college field trips like this? I would have learnt much more! Before this fall and my new learning experience with the desert environment, I’d taken numerous trips to Canyonlands, the first being on my quest to climb Century Crack with Tom Randall.
A roof-crack climb originally found and solo aided by Steve “Crusher” Bartlett and given the name Chocolate Starfish in reference to it…well, dumping you out the back door, in probably a similar squidgy consistency as what you might imagine to come out of your rear exit, whilst trying to climb it. Crusher, a desert first ascensionist and pioneer, was therefore the first to embark across these long ceiling journeys and unique formations, a ceiling so big that wherever you stand on the ground, the start and finish can’t be seen at the same time. That’s not possible. That’s just not possible, I thought. But it was. Canyonlands has a unique ability to blow scale and perspective out of proportion and make big bigger and the bigger things incomprehensible.
Stevie Haston was the first to have the vision to climb across these ceiling cracks with no aid, trying to muster enough burl and brawn to shuffle his way across Century. Although his efforts to free the route were thwarted by pain, fatigue, and brutality, his vision was the birth of free climbing, on what we’ve now dubbed as Monster Cracks.
It’s strange to think that many of the pioneers of this very niche and unique climbing form (scaling Monster Cracks) are in fact British! Crusher, an expat, was the first to embark on the ceiling journey, Stevie was the first to envisage that these things could be free climbed, and Tom and I were the first to manage a redpoint of one of them. That’s not to say American climbers hadn’t sought out roof-crack climbing in this area—they had. But, the Monster Cracks have been left solely to the Brits. Why is that? Is it because, coming from Britain, we have nothing, so when we’re offered something, we want everything? We go for the biggest, the tallest, the hardest, the burliest? Maybe. It’s hard to say. Speaking my own thoughts, for me, it’s either all in or all out. I’m like that with most things I do—110 percent or nothing at all. When Monster Cracks are ripe for the picking, for me, why would I go any smaller? Monster Cracks aren’t just roof cracks that are twenty, fifty, or one hundred feet long. These lengths and sizes you can comprehend. Monster Cracks are ones that blow your mind even if you’ve seen them hundreds of times before. One hundred and fifty feet of roof climbing is the entry level.
They require inventive tactics, teamwork, rope work, and rope swaps just to work them. They’ll gobble a quadruple rack of cams. Multiple ropes. Dozens of pairs of shoes. Many harnesses. They’ll let you have one redpoint attempt every four days, as they’ll beat, maul, and spit you out ripped and broken. Monster Cracks don’t give in with ease and without battle. No climber—dare I say it, not even Ondra—would make one look pleasant and easy, even though the grades they are given are miles below what he is capable of. They are brutal, and a strong, overly optimistic belief that the impossible is in fact possible is the only way you will succeed. Once you’ve had a dose of desert crack, you’re hooked in a strange, masochistic way to the pain and the pleasure.
There won’t be another single-pitch climb in the world when, after topping out, you are so glad the experience is over yet instantly craving more. It isn’t a joke when I say you can’t walk, stand up, lift an arm, or clench a fist after you’ve finishing; they literally physically paralyse you from top to toe. That’s rewarding, that’s inspiring, that’s addictive, and that’s the drug that keeps luring us back to the desert time and time again. We’ve now established four Monster Cracks in the Canyonlands desert, and the final one, the fifth, the hardest one, The Crucifix—the one that will break me while I try to complete it—remains a project.
Century Crack was the first and our learning experience with this type of climbing. Even though we set two years aside to train for it and had that amount of time to comprehend size and scale, it still blew both our minds when we first saw it. The most mentally challenging part to completing Century Crack was the training. We had a goal in mind, but we were training blind. We trained for a climb for two years, on wooden cracks in Tom’s cellar, without having ever seen or been on the route. All we had were two photos, for direction, education, and knowledge. It’s comparable to a sportsperson saying they are going to enter the javelin competition at the next Olympics and win.
But, they are just going to study images to understand what it is they are competing in, practice in a small room with a polystyrene javelin to gain some form of technique, but never actually throw a real javelin on a real athletics field. You’d tell them they were totally barking mad! And they would be. And so were we. We studied two photos of the crack to get an idea of length. We got some rough dimensions from Stevie about crack width, and we built an eight-foot section of horizontal off-width in Tom’s cellar made out of old kitchen work tops covered in grip paint. We told ourselves we’re going to establish the hardest off-width in the world, in two years time, and put our minds and hearts solely on it. Total, total madness! But there lies beauty in the madness. What if we lived in a place full of distractions, of great crack climbing? What if we lived close to the project and could go on it whenever we wanted to? Well we probably wouldn’t have trained as hard. The sense of unknown difficulty made us train to our limits. There was no end to the training in the cellar—you could only do another lap, and you could only get better. What if Century Crack was that extra lap? What if we did need to get better? Tom got stronger than me, which then made me get stronger than Tom. A constant cycle of tiptoeing up, overtaking, and overlapping each other—a snow-balling effect of competition helping the other person strive forward in fitness and strength.
“Well, the route must be harder than that; therefore, we must train harder still.” A vicious cycle. But a cycle that worked in our favour and to our advantage. That was our motivation, and that was our secret, the guide of the unknown. After those two years of training were up, we put two months aside to make a tour of all America’s hardest off-widths. Our reasoning for climbing the wide cracks that the States had to offer was simple: it would first act as a warm-up for Century Crack, it would give us a gauge on how we were climbing, and we would be able to give a better-justified decision when on completion of Century Crack we had in fact climbed the hardest off-width in the world…because at the end of the day, who was going to take two off-widthing Brits seriously? That’s right, no one. We needed to back ourselves up with other climbing, not only to prove to others but to also prove to ourselves that we had taken a step forward. We completed the climb on our second day of trying it and have since taken our “guide of the unknown” and applied it to other hard crack climbs worldwide with great success. In 2015, we decided we wanted to step things up a notch. Or two. Or three.
We had a vision to take crack climbing and trad climbing from the stagnant 5.14 level it had been at for the past 20 years and push things forward to 5.15. Find something really hard. Next level. Testing. Our default setting for the search was Canyonlands. The formations were correct, and the area had endless amounts of unexplored territory. We were looking for roof cracks and our specifics were: big, architectural, hard, cool, and a variety of different sizes. We spent one month driving, walking, abseiling, jumaring, and exploring different caves and crack systems. Too small. Too easy. Not cool enough.
We were ruthless with our approach, because if we wanted to find something inspiring and next level, we had to find the correct feature. The most disappointing “walk away” from a roof crack was that which became the Millennium Arch. We initially walked away from it, disregarding it as being too easy to be “the project.” However, on a subsequent trip, the knowledge of knowing there was The Monster of all monster roof cracks out there lured us back in. This thing was enormous, and we were unable to fathom its length. It was a three-hundred-foot pitch.
The length of a hundred-metre running track, but in a roof! It totally tipped the scale of reality, possibility, and vision. Is this thing even real? Is it climbable? And are we going to be able to climb it? When landscapes are that big and dimensions that unrealistic, it’s hard to even set off across into the void. Forty-six cams were needed to protect the route and six ropes to logistically work the route. That’s a triple big walling rack to work a single-pitch climb. Two ropes were used to get down to either end of the arch, as the base of the route was too dangerous to walk from one end to the other. One rope was used for working sections and another to lower off midroute, as the lead rope wasn’t long enough to get us back to the ground. A short one was fixed in place to make a jumar back to the belay after lowering off midroute. A stashed rope midroute was used as a second lead rope, because the first lead line wasn’t long enough to finish the pitch! After five days of work, rigging, practice, and preparation, we’d adjusted our blinkers to believing it was possible, and we were the ones to climb it. The crack was mainly hands, and good hands, although there were several cruxes revolving around wider sections, but there was also respite at halfway. The pump in the thumbs is astronomical after a hundred metres of horizontal jamming and made the rope swap halfway more challenging than it needed to be. Oh yes, there was a rope swap.
Our eighty metre obviously didn’t make the hundred-metre stretch, and if it did, the rope drag would have been too bad at the end to finish. So, untying in a no-hands rest midroute and retying into our prestashed rope was the only option. The route is an arch—you don’t top out; you just step off at the other end. When Tom made it to the finish, I could barely see him, a little speck far, far away in the distance. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime route. Once-in-a-millennium route. They don’t come that big, that pure, or that spectacular very often. It was a privilege and honour to be able to make such a feature into a piece of climbing. A real treasure of world-class single-pitch climbing. A Monster Crack. The king of Monster Cracks. The search for the project still continued. We searched every canyon and just about every major cave system but to no avail—we couldn’t find anything difficult enough. One month in the desert searching seas of overhanging crack systems and we hadn’t found what we were after. Disappointed is not a strong enough word. Gutted doesn’t make the cut. Devastated is closer to the truth. We were driving out of Canyonlands empty-handed and projectless. It sounds cliché to say that the project was found in the one final cave we double-checked on the drive out. But, it actually was! It was a section of canyon we thought we’d fully scoped; however, the size of the cave didn’t quite match where we had looked before. We’d gone wrong. This time we wouldn’t. Back down again. Walking into the cave, I could tell it was big, and I could tell there were options. Roofs, roof cracks, and caves everywhere.
Start there; finish here. Start here; finish there. From the side. From the back. Pure lines. 5.13. 5.14. 5.15. A maze of linkups, possibilities, and projects. But right from the back, right from the heart of the cave, was the project line. Blasting out, incredibly long, impassibly thin. Another Monster Crack and The Crucifix project was born. We knew straight away it was going to be hard. A thin section at the beginning and a closed-up part at the end were going to prove to be the difficulties. The end went free with a crucial pinch block; thankfully this section was only 5.14a. The first half of the route was where the problems were going to lie. The 5.13c climbing lands you at a definite crux. Desperate beyond belief. Turn the Cobra Crack mono horizontal and multiply the length by ten, and you can start to get an idea. It was so hard, but it was all there. All the holds linked and fitted. We dubbed it The Crucifix project due to the bisecting crack that passed through the centre, giving it a cross-like look, and the fact that trying to climb this thing would probably be the death of us! You can’t create the cutting edge of something without putting the mileage in on similar terrain. Tommy Caldwell didn’t discover and climb the Dawn Wall without many other first ascents on El Capitan.
Adam Ondra didn’t climb Silence without hundreds of grade 9s first. This route seemed so far above what we had done before and so hard mentally to comprehend doing, it was important to spread the weight onto doing further desert projects. More Monster Cracks to get familiar with the Crucifix Cave. First up was the bisecting crack. A two-hundred-foot pitch. First half hands. Second half off-width. It was the second half that proved to be the crux of the route. Sustained no single hard move. Climbing the route was the closest I’ve come to falling on an off-width without actually falling. It was skin-of-the-teeth stuff. Three-quarters of the way along, my body was on shut down; it had had enough, yet there was still fifty feet to go. A total grind, a total battle, and body pump so painful it got past the point of pain and melted into the background, only revealing itself when I lay immobilised on top of the crag. Painful burns scolding my skin, and sickening lactate pushed through my veins. It’s probably the Monster Crack that will be forgotten first, overshadowed by Century and Millennium. But this one gave me the most physical fight I’ve had to put up on any of them. A Monster Crack that takes into account all skills. Hands. Fists. Off-width. Spin throughs. Left-leg leading. Right-leg leading. Wide Pony. Private Pirate. Sidewinder. You name it—it was in there. A crack so weird new names have been created to describe techniques. Private Pirate: a downward palming and undercutting technique used to make upward progress. Wide Pony: an upside-down stacking position, which resembles riding a wide pony. You can’t just have one trick for this one! You need to pull out all the tools and fight from the toolbox, and they all need to be sharp. Crown of Thorns joined the tally of Monster Cracks.
The final Monster Crack was a stepping-stone towards the Crucifix. Link the beginning of CoT to the end of the Crucifix. A dogleg of a line but still another two-hundred-foot beast. It is probably the easiest of all four, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need inventive tactics to work it. A belayer and a self-belay system are the only way you can “toprope” the end section, and even then, when you fall off, you still end up miles away from where you want to chalk, feel, and observe holds. A total nightmare. The important thing was, it was a stepping-stone. A small one. But a stepping-stone nonetheless. We knew if we climbed it, we’d cement in our heads that, “If the crux of The Crucifix goes, we’ll climb to the end.” Another ceiling journey and play on words and The Cruzifix became a reality.
The first half and crux of The Crucifix was up next, to really start chomping away at. Although we knew it was possible, some moves weren’t even close to going. Start at the beginning; start basic. It was a big achievement to just hang a single position. “The five holy hangs” were created—a test to see whether the five hardest positions could even be hung on the route. From thinking it was sickening to even pull on, we got to the point where some moves in the crux actually got done. However, the hardest still remain uncompleted, and the thought of linking them together seems inconceivable. This is all in the mind though, because it is obvious it’s all there; it’s just beyond our current level at the moment. Swinging across a roof off the second and final joint of one finger, with terrible footholds, will seem desperate and daunting. With time, like everything else you do enough, familiarity will build and feel normal. The body will adapt, and visions will, I hope, become real. Since Century Crack, we’ve been on three trips to the desert.
One, to find the Crucifix. Two, to develop our skills in the area. And three, to do continuous development and work on the big project. Every time we’ve come back from one of these trips, the question is always asked, “So, do you think you’re going to do The Crucifix project next time?” No! The answer is an obvious and resounding no. We’ve had fourteen sessions on the route; that’s barely even scratching the surface of hard redpoint projects. Steve McClure just spent 128 days on his new 9b Rainman at Malham Cove. A hundred and twenty eight days! The Crucifix is the hardest thing I’ve ever tried, been on, or seen close up. This isn’t a twenty-session project or fifty-session project. This is hard and is going to take an uncountable number of sessions and multiple years. It’s going to be a slow, rocky road and blur the lines of whether something is possible or impossible for us. It’s going to take more than just training, tactics, inventiveness, a solid partnership, and heaps of dedication. The Crucifix is no quick fix; it’s not going to come easy, but I’m ready for the fight! What now? How do we go about trying to make the impossible feel possible? We’ve gone back to our roots. Building replicas. We’ve come back to the same old place, home, and brought the crux of The Crucifix with us. The lengths between the holds have been measured, and sequences have been logged.
We’re not training blind, but in reality, this thing is too hard to train blind for. However, we are training with no distraction. With a specific replica, we can have the hardest sections of the route in Tom’s cellar to work on whenever we like. We can really focus in on strengths we need to gain, skin-pain tolerance we need to build up, and muscle memory we need to develop. In this next year, things are going to start getting very real. Progress does have to continue tiptoeing forward. Why so open about a project we’ve not yet done? And are we not worried of other better climbers coming and stealing it? These are a couple of questions I’ve been asked a few times. I have no worries though, as I think climbers have respect for other people’s projects when they can see that time has been invested. Also, when was the last time anyone other than Tom and myself climbed a Monster Crack? When has there ever been more than five people climbing roof cracks in Canyonlands full stop? The answers are no one and never. The climbing style is niche, the location is a total pain in the arse, the route logistics are a nightmare, and you need a climbing partner equally as psyched as yourself to stand a chance. It’s not a Spanish clip up. Nothing is easy, and nothing about this climb has the draw factor saying, “Come and climb me.” I think Tom and I are alone with this one. If, dare I say it, we ever manage to complete this marathon project, the Monster Crack of all monster roof cracks, will that be the end of desert climbing for me? I don’t think it would be the end of my desert climbing. Like I say, the battle, the pain, and the pleasure draw me back—it’s addictive. What I can say is, and I know for sure this is true, if I ever climb The Crucifix project, I will never climb anything as hard ever again.
William Blake wrote, “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” Pete Whittaker takes the never-ending vertical road to find his limit, an end. But do roads even have an end, or is there always another turning?