My college years in The Desert were adventurous and crazy, a complete immersion in the unknown. After I graduated, I began to roam from climbing area to climbing area, and The Desert seemed like just another destination on the circuit.
It was in that era that the inevitable plateau began for me on that Colorado Plateau. I was mostly a dropout from society, and climbing and living in a tent was as much a default as it was my passion.
When I began my life on the road as a climber, destinations became the major ones, not just the proverbial backyard places like Escalante Canyon and Colorado National Monument. When I landed in the desert, I usually landed in Indian Creek.
The Creek had an ease and charm to it. Like Escalante, it was located on BLM land. There were also several conservation easements between the ranchers and the Nature Conservancy, hard work and compromises created so that the public could enjoy the land.
I was enjoying it and calling it home for the time being, college degree in recreation and environmental studies earned, living in a fresh, brand-new tent in the Bridger Jacks camping area.
The Bridger Jacks, eight towers in a row, ranging from a 150 to 400 feet, were quintessentially Indian Creek, only in the realm of being iconic. While most of Indian Creek crack climbing borders on perfection, these towers had only a few perfect splitter cracks.
As for eye candy, they set a perfect backdrop. There was the Easter Island tower, aptly named with no further description required, and then there was the King of Pain, a monster of a tower that appeared to have a cherry on top in the form of a giant boulder, eroded, waiting for time to come along and add it to the talus below.
Who wouldn’t want a backyard like that? A lot of climbers did, and despite the bumpy road back there, the campsites were mostly full, so I settled on a corner site, not at all appealing, not a tree for shade, but still a corner to erect my new tent.
Mark was the first to find me for a climb. He was one of many partners I had from college—in fact, the greatest gifts I think my college experience brought me were good friends and adventure partners. After all, my plan was to live rich, on a cheap budget. Competent, safe partners were the very first ingredients on the list for this recipe.
In these years, from time to time, I’d end up with some random partners, and occasionally it would work out, but I always found something was missing. It’s kind of like sex—sure, you could just hook up with a random, but doing it with someone you knew ensured it would be more meaningful, safe, and enjoyable. Needless to say, I’m not an orgy guy.
I was led to believe, innocently and naïvely, that, simply stated, most climbers were like me, and I would get along with them. But the more I climbed with random people and experienced the climbing community, the more I wanted to only climb with my trusted friends. It’s kind of like a job, and there needs to be a résumé where one spent years learning the basics and the fundamentals from mentors. Many modern climbers seriously lack this, and when they go climbing, it shows.
The things that bothered me about climbing with the randoms were always the unnecessary risks. Like people who don’t check their knots, belays, or harnesses before venturing up into the vertical; or those that haven’t mastered the craft of placing protection, but think that they have; or those that half-heartedly belay, as if the rope were a fishing line on a drunken weekend afternoon.
I trusted Mark with my life, no doubt. Mark had also given me a tremendous amount of perspective on life. Two years before this climb I’m about to tell you about, he had a battle with cancer and went through surgery, radiation treatment, and chemotherapy. And all through this, he never stopped climbing. Shortly after he finishing chemo back East, he returned to the West and went straight for Medicine Man in Colorado National Monument and sent the crux pitch, yelling, “Fuck you, cancer,” when he reached the belay.
Mark also gave me writing fodder by being such a brave, inspiring soul. My first creative essay that was published in a major magazine, the Mountain Gazette, was written about him and our adventures together. I’d originally written it out by hand during breaks at my restaurant gig at a coffee shop. At the time, I didn’t know if my friend would survive, so it was written with tears and heart, savoring the memories and the moments. He’d also confirmed the truth that life is precious, and time is limited. We all know that, but until we feel it, that truth is hard to absorb into the soul. Once you know it, feel it, and experience it, well, it’s then I think the real l-i-v-i-n-g happens.
The thing about climbing is that it’s this delicate edge one tries to dance upon, and as Kelly Cordes says, if you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much room, right? There are the unavoidable risks, just like driving a car, but then there are the risks we can control. I knew for sure that those partners I danced with took these risks seriously, and I did not want to dance with those who did not.
We sought Powders of Persuasion on the Bridger Jack Butte, the rightmost “tower” on the formation, famous for a hand crack that was supposed to be a full two-hundred-foot rope length. That dihedral was obviously visible from camp, but the rest of the climb appeared to be a mystery. From experience, I knew the cap rock would be loose, a layer of deteriorating sandstone, out of character in a climbing area known for its perfect rock and cracks.
We were lured in by the long hand crack, which seemed like something to see, to experience; I imagined pure bliss, perfect jams, way high off the deck, poetry in motion. Of course, this is climbing, and it is never as one anticipates.
This long corner was guarded by a chimney that was not at all sexy, or appealing. It was a pitch to get to the next pitch. I climbed up, approached a death block that hovered in the chimney, and downclimbed right back to the belay. The success of the climb was now in Mark’s hands. Did he want to go up and check it out, or bail and head to the Splitterville that surrounded us?
Mark wasn’t giving up without a proper fight, and off-width/chimney climbing could easily be compared to a fight. Your hands are all taped up, and you’re ready to accept cuts and bruises in order to be successful. Soon enough, Mark was on the sharp end and masterfully climbed up to the death block and positioned himself around it, using some sort of Houdini technique that I had not considered. It was as if he magically positioned himself around the boulder, careful not to touch it, with the prospect of dislodging it straight onto me. With that magical movement, he set us up for success, and we were now below the epic hand crack corner.
That was just like Mark. I would have been fine with bailing and going to a crag with perfect splitters all around, but he found a way to make it happen. And then we could finally experience this dihedral that we’d been staring at all the years we camped in the Bridger Jacks.
The pitch was a powerful piece of geometry and geology, nearly two hundred feet perfect verticality. It packed a punch similar to many pitches I’d done in Indian Creek. At first it seemed easy, jamming hands and feet into the crack, but then the pump started to kick in, and I was afraid I’d fall. The equation was so simple, but the physiology was not. But as I got pumped out, I demanded myself to rise to the occasion of this feature, and I managed not to fall out, focusing on my breathing and thinking positive thoughts. When I finished the pitch, that very familiar adrenaline wash came over my brain, and I collapsed into a puddle of satisfaction at the belay. I was as one with the desert as one can get, well, at least until we are dust ourselves.
We still had two pitches to go, and the rock got worse as we went up. Near the top, on the sharp end again, I went twenty some feet without gear, using that technique of balance and prayer on delicate sandstone edges and holds, just waiting for that break when I would go plummeting down to the marginal gear I’d snuck into some horizontal cracks.
On the top was an epic view of sandstone for miles, and then a strange sight, a copy of the Book of Mormon with burned pages in some vain attempt at a fire. What the hell was going on there I’ll probably never know, but it represented the hedonistic aspect of climbing. These days, I’d clean something like that up, trash on sacred ground. That particular day, we were too worried about how we’d get down. The rappel anchors were less than ideal but passed our test of redundancy and safety. The pioneers of the desert seemed to think little about long-term use of their anchors, or, they simply just didn’t have the quality of bolts and hangers that we have now. Many bolts, pitons, and anchors were like land mines left from a long-forgotten battle. Hanging off tattered, sun-bleached webbing, we vowed to come back someday and fix that.
Mark left the desert soon after this, on to a guiding gig in the Northwest. In college, that was supposed to be my career too. I loved climbing, so why wouldn’t it be a perfect job? But, I soon realized I didn’t have the nerves or patience for guiding. Holding my climbing partner’s life in my hands that I knew well was enough for me; being responsible for a beginner who was a stranger gave me too much anxiety. Guiding is tough, blue-collar work, and it was another thing I admired Mark for. Still, I wondered if I’d made a mistake by not following that path. I was just washing dishes for a living, the same damn job I had when I was sixteen. I got a paycheck now and again for freelance writing, but they were few and far between; writing was more of a hobby than a job.
Just as Mark rolled out, some more friends rolled in. Dave was on a similar schedule and life path as Mark, getting some desert climbing in before guiding season really kicked off. Dave was guiding on Denali in Alaska. He seemed to savor the dirt and absence of snow as much as the climbing. It would be rough, as the season in Colorado went from winter to spring, to then go up high, back to winter in Alaska, even though it’s the summer. Dave was easy to please in the desert, and he had a certain vibe of contentment, always, there. He made me feel at ease.
Dave was one of those all-American guys. He often lived like a dirtbag but always seemed to be clean-shaven and smell like soap. As a teenager with a single mother, he started to go down the path of a troubled youth, but then an Outward Bound trip showed him the glories of the outdoors. He’d joke that NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) stood for “nerds out losing shit,” but deep down, we knew organizations like that saved lives and made lives in nature worth living, like his.
When his mother needed a liver transplant, he offered to have the surgery for her. A massive scar across his belly shows his love for his mom and his unequivocal dedication to always doing the right thing.
His voice is even quintessentially American, in the best of ways, kind of like he’s a beloved radio host. I used to think it was just a fun thing he did, until I heard him call his mom one day when we were on a climbing trip, and he talked to her in the very same voice. “Hey, Mom, your son Dave here, coming at you from Zion National Park, a true American treasure. How the heck are you?”
Dave smoothed out the edges in our ragtag, dirtbag crew and made it all seem wholesome. He never liked the crowds much and, in his heart, was always more of an old-school climber, doing it for the satisfaction and the silence, for the sake of the song.
Tim had shown up just when Dave did as well. Another buddy from college, who, like Dave, had a career in the outdoors and wasn’t just aimlessly floating like I was. He lived in Monticello, the closest town to Indian Creek, and ran a youth outdoor corps.
Tim was one of the first people I met in Gunnison and one of those people I knew I’d be friends with right off the bat. He clearly liked fun, and he also didn’t shy away from tough topics of conversation. Just a couple months into our friendship, he told me about his father committing suicide when he was a teenager.
Tim and I have been through a lot together, and I’ve watched him go from the guy who could easily drink a twelve-pack to quitting drinking altogether. He’s the leader of our Indian Creek crew. His friendliness could be described as legendary; people never forget meeting Tim, and sometimes at the crag, he’s a bit of a celebrity.
The definitive quality about Tim as a climber is his love for ice climbing. He loves Indian Creek through and through and has dedicated countless hours to trail building, elaborate campfire parties, and new routing, but somehow, even on a hot summer day, he’ll turn the conversation to ice climbing. It’s a skill of his.
Name the topic: Russian collusion in our presidential race?
“Oh, man, I hear Russia’s got some great ice climbing…”
“Oh, that’s going to be bad for ice climbing…”
Did you watch the World Series?
“Oh the World Series, that means ice climbing season is just around the corner…did I tell you about this route me and Smokey Joe did in the Black Canyon last season? It was epic…”
Tim can simply turn any conversation into talking about ice climbing. He loves ice climbing more than anyone I’ve ever met, as if he were an ambassador for frozen water. He views everyone he meets as a future friend, and once you’ve got Timmy’s approval, well, you’re in the crew.
The day Tim and Dave arrived, I was taking a rest day, so I did what you do in Indian Creek: I left them a message on the Beef Basin message board just off the highway and told them what my plans were.
My rest day was like any other rest day: showering, stocking up on beer and food, checking my email, writing in my journal, calling the parents, stuff like that. Once I’d done everything I needed to do, I headed back home to my campsite. As I rolled in, I realized something wasn’t right.
My brand-new tent, my home, was flattened. My heart sank when I saw the sight. My brand-new tent, trampled and crushed to oblivion, and the contents of the cooler spilled out into what appeared to me was an act of vandalism. I looked around to find the culprit. Then, I looked to the ground and saw hoofprints. Horses. It was horses.
Anger mixed with disbelief. There were many places where it’s downright stupid to leave food out in a cooler, but The Creek is not one of those places. We always leave our coolers out.
Further inspection revealed the horses had eaten some of the carrots I had in my cooler, and they even drank a couple beers!
Dave and Tim quickly arrived on the scene. I expected sympathy, but all they did was laugh at me and make fun of me.
They did, however, secure a better spot in the campground, and I quickly moved in, happy to get out of the campsite that would be forever known as the spot where “the horse incident” occurred.
It was then that I moved into a new tent. Dave had an extra that he’d stashed away in his truck, for times like these. As he described it each detail seemed to be better than the next, “You’re in luck, I have this extra tent that I scored on Denali last year,” he started.
“It’s a high end mountaineering model, probably retailed around a thousand bucks,” Dave continued. “These clients just left it behind after their expedition, said they didn’t want it anymore, and my boss said I could have it.”
“There’s just one catch,” he said.
“And…” I asked.
“Well, there were a lot of bad storms on their trip. So the guys started, you know, relieving themselves in the vestibule.”
“As in shitting?” I inquired.
“Yeah,” Dave said, with his face still deadpanned. “Then the storm got really bad. So the one guy just started taking care of business in the tent. And one time he missed.”
“He missed?” I asked.
“He missed,” he answered. “He missed the bag. And, a little bit got on tent. That’s how I got it. I cleaned it out with bleach, and aired it out for days. It’s good to go man.”
An awkward silence fell upon us. A tumbleweed may have rolled by.
“It’s better than nothing,” Dave said convincingly.
“Better than nothing,” I repeated. “Well, I guess I don’t have a ton of options right now.”
“It’s clean,” he said convincingly. “I used bleach.”
“Well…shit, I guess I’m moving into the Shit Tent,” I declared.
Luke Mehall is the publisher of The Climbing Zine and author of American Climber. This piece is an excerpt from his latest book, The Desert.