It’s the same story the crow told me
It’s the only one he knows
Like the morning sun you’ll come
And like the wind you’ll go
—Grateful Dead, “Uncle John’s Band”
Hunched over, I begin to carve the plaque for the climb I’ve been obsessing over for the last five years. In that moment, the weight of it all flashes through me: the pain of jamming my fingers and tips of my toes into the crack; the lingering doubt that it was even possible; but most of all, a deep love for this place and the process, plus the friends I get to spend this time with. I carve the plaque, not for myself, but for the next person who finds this climb, to know the name and the rating, with a dash of style.
by Luke Mehall, from Volume 20, now available. Banner photo of the author by Braden Gunem
For the last fifteen years or so, I’ve been obsessed with opening new routes. Like any addict, it began with just one. And then one more. And then it became my favorite part of my favorite thing in my favorite place, which is Indian Creek, located in Bears Ears National Monument.
Plaques in The Creek are beloved by many, questioned by some, and disliked by a few. In fact, I don’t think I’d be writing these words if it weren’t for an article that Dakota Walz recently wrote for Climbing magazine called “Carved for Attention: Why the Tradition of Carving Plaques is Outdated.”
I read the article and immediately felt a visceral reaction. I passionately disagreed with Dakota.
Before I dive into those thoughts, I want to be clear that I highly respect Dakota. He’s written multiple articles for The Zine, most recently “Seventeen Times Alive,” published in (coincidentally) Volume 17, an essay that documents a nasty fall he took in Zion National Park and reflects on other near-death experiences he’s had. Though I’ve only met Dakota once, I consider him to be a kindred spirit. Like me, he loves first ascents. Also, like me, he’s openly written about depression and comes from the Midwest. He’s a wonderful writer, and last year after the release of his excellent book, Everything I Loved More, we were going to do a presentation together in Denver, but while planning it, the pandemic hit.
I reached out to Dakota with my critique of his piece, and we had a respectful back and forth. As they say, it’s a free country, and we are both equally entitled to our opinions.
Why do I feel so strongly about the use of plaques in The Creek? For that answer, I had to dig; I had to contemplate.
To me, plaques not only serve a purpose but they are a unique, nuanced part of The Creek climbing experience and culture. The Creek is as vast as it is splitter. It is also difficult to grasp on one’s first few visits, especially because this place has a reputation for crowded crags. Plaques were first used to indicate that the crack had been climbed and also to share information. Years before there was a guidebook for The Creek, there were plaques.
The forty-plus-year history—prolific first ascensionist Steve Hong is widely credited with starting the tradition—is only one reason why I love plaques so much. For me, they are still as relevant as ever, even in the day and age of color guidebooks, Mountain Project, and GPS coordinates leading us to anything and everything.
For my first decade of climbing in The Creek, I didn’t give much thought to plaques at all. I stayed in the popular areas, climbing the obvious classics. I’d see plaques here and there but didn’t give much thought to them.
After that first decade of paying my dues and sacrificing my skin and blood to the climbing gods, I began going down the rabbit hole of establishing new routes, and like many climbers before me, I would add a small plaque at the base of the route. Conversations with friends started flowing, and I learned about the “plaque huckers,” the climbers that decided plaques were unnecessary and would huck them down the hillside, smashing them as they joined the ground below.
One of my first plaques—for a climb I established with Keith Brett called Tooth Pac at the Broken Tooth Wall—suffered the same fate but for natural reasons. We’d precariously placed the plaque near the start of the climb, which was cliffed out on the right side. Two weeks later, after a rainstorm, the plaque was washed away, joining the talus below.
Call me a Luddite, but I am of the belief that not every climb needs to be documented online. Word of mouth has its benefits. Books in print are still very useful. We as a community need to adjust as technology affects adventure. A good campfire tale is better than any YouTube video you’ll ever watch. A plaque serves the purpose of not only documentation but also of telling a story. I learned all of this when our crew found and developed a new wall in The Creek—the Cave Wall—that’s ended up providing over seventy routes.
It was a dream of a process, one by one picking off splitter cracks (and even a couple bolted arêtes) with friends, weekend after weekend, with the wall all to ourselves, in a remote corner of The Creek. By then I’d learned from the Tooth Pac experience, and I began using slightly heavier rocks so that the plaques would remain longer than a week or two. Although we had this landscape all to ourselves, we knew it was too good to keep it quiet.
So we started sharing the good word. If you build it, they will come. And they did. The Creek aficionados, one by one, started visiting the wall, finding out the information on the climbs strictly from the plaques we’d placed. We kept the wall off Mountain Project, and still to this day it remains undocumented online, and all of us who developed the wall want it that way.
Soon after the word of mouth started spreading, Karl Kelley began working on his new guidebook, Creek Freak. I didn’t know Karl, but I owned his High on Moab guidebook, and I was impressed with his effort to donate all the proceeds from that book to the Access Fund. Word was he was doing the same thing with Creek Freak. Originally, we wanted to keep this wall exclusively word of mouth; not only did we want it off Mountain Project but we also wanted to keep it out of any guidebook. The Creek had been booming in popularity, and most of all we feared a possible environmental impact to this special, wild place.
The plaques were already telling the story, and once we got in touch with Karl, he won us over with his passionate plea that such a good wall has to be shared with the public in the new guidebook. It wasn’t hard to win me over; I appreciated his gesture to do so much work for the good of the public and to benefit the Access Fund. So, we decided, sure, let’s do it, and it also meant that because that was the exclusive place for information on the Cave Wall, every time someone used the book to go there, it also benefitted the Access Fund. Win-win.
Karl even let me write all the descriptions for the routes in the guidebook, which was something that, as a writer, I enjoyed very much. Our group sat around the campfire and debated the ratings of our lines and how many stars to give the routes. It was a lot of fun.
By the time the guidebook came out, though, there were already many routes that had been added, which weren’t in the book. We included forty-eight routes in the book, but we’d already added another twenty-five or so by the book’s release. And this was when I really found the usefulness of plaques.
Now, when a new climber visits the Cave Wall, they will undoubtedly be armed with the new guidebook—climbers love guidebooks—and then when they see a route that’s not in the guidebook, it will have a plaque indicating the name and the grade. Plus, for this wall, if the climb does not have a plaque, and it looks hard as nails, it’s likely a project that has not yet been sent.
Some people reading this might just say posting the routes on Mountain Project would solve this issue. But I like the idea of using an older form of communication, the plaque, better than using the internet. Plus, let’s be honest, Mountain Project has become the Facebook of climbing; it’s convenient, and almost everyone uses it, but the information is often untrustworthy, and it’s never fact-checked. I’d rather share my information through guidebooks that benefit climbing nonprofits and through the time-tested art of plaque making.
Though I love and appreciate plaques, there are guidelines that I follow, and certain precedents that others should follow too. First off, retroplaquing, which is adding a plaque to a climb that one didn’t establish, should not be done. The placement of a plaque should be a decision of the first-ascent team. This is a privilege that the first ascensionists should have; much as they are responsible for the decisions of when and where to place bolts and how and when they choose to remove loose rocks, that team of route developers should also retain the right of whether to leave a plaque.
I should also add here that, while I feel strongly that the majority of climbers enjoy the use of plaques in The Creek, there is much debate about the size and style of plaques. I personally don’t mind plaques on heavier rocks, because I know they will stand the test of time. The plaques that survived from the 1980s that Steve Hong made are generally sturdy and have some weight to them. However, some climbers prefer plaques that are light and essentially will disappear with time as they are exposed to rain and other elements. Again, that is why I feel like it’s the first ascensionists’ prerogative to make this decision—they spent the time and money to open the route.
In the grand scheme of things, the writing on these plaques will disappear and be swallowed by the ocean that is time. The beautiful petroglyphs that were carved into the walls by the Ancestral Puebloans hundreds of years ago will outlast these stones. That’s fine. All things shall pass. But in this moment in time, these stones tell stories, share information, and show love and art at the same time.
I can only advocate for plaques in Indian Creek; each climbing area in the world seems to have its own rules of engagement. In France’s Fontainebleau, they paint on the rock, which seems to be accepted and useful. In some places in Germany and the Czech Republic, you can’t even chalk up your hands or use metal hardware on the rock. From my perspective, in The Creek, a bigger impact than plaques is incorrectly placed anchors where the rope runs a groove into the rock. Sometimes that can’t be avoided, but most times it can.
Nuance is a favorite word of mine, and when it comes to plaques, that word is perfect. The Creek experience means many different things to many different people. I’ve been climbing there for over two decades now. In fact, other than our local crags in Durango, I almost exclusively climb in The Creek these days.
As we grow old, many of my friends have stopped climbing there, some because of the crowds and some because of the pain that jamming inflicts. I feel lucky enough that I like the pain, and I’m not bothered by it, although that first trip of the year always seems to hurt the most, especially on the fingers and feet. And as for the crowds, I always know of several crags where I can guarantee no one will be, even on the busiest day of the year—four-wheel drive and a sense of adventure required.
As for the plaques, I think Karl summed it up well in the Creek Freak guidebook: “The ritual has been debated around the campfire since it began. Like politics, there’s no correct answer, just different opinions…LEAVE THEM BE! It is part of The Creek’s history. It is unique. If you put up a new route and want to leave a plaque, then you should; and if you do not want to leave one, then don’t!”
Luke Mehall loves plaques and The Creek, and he is hopeful that the original boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument will be restored by the Biden-Harris administration. You can read more about his love for The Creek in The Desert: A Dirtbag Climbing Book.