Creek Gold: Illumination in the Desert

It is our last day climbing in Indian Creek, and I’m gazing at the North and South Six Shooter as they tower over the desert. I ponder nature’s design with a beer in my hand, and the cold aluminum soothes my tired skin. The monoliths seem to stand there for a reason, I figure, as if their solitude amidst so vast a desert is on purpose, a vow of guardianship made millennia ago.

Seven days earlier, my brother and I careened back and forth along road 211 from Moab towards Canyonlands National Park. It was closing in on three in the morning and we were hoping to make it into the heart of Indian Creek, Utah, a place neither of us had ever been. Our plan was to connect with two other friends of ours and test our mettle on the legendary crack climbs of the Creek, the mecca of sandstone crack climbing in North America.

It was exciting entering a new place shrouded by a moonless night, driving along circuitous roads that hid any clue of where we were. After so many hills and sharp turns I lost track of whether we were gaining or losing elevation, all the while wondering where in the hell the rock was outside the window. I was impatient, and overzealous. My brother, knowing I can get drowsy behind the wheel, would wake himself up next to me and demand, “are you OK?” with every sharp curve, thinking I was about to drive us off the road.

Having never been to Indian Creek, I’m curious if I would have preferred to gape at the immense sandstone cliffs from inside a boxed car window, or instead, be greeted the canyon all at once, with the kind of instant illumination of the world that comes once you escape your tent in the morning.

When asked the question of why we climb, climbers often mention their passion for the outdoors, or the thrill and exhilaration that comes with a big send or a big whipper, but we all know our passion originates from something deeper. But the ineffable sense of belonging, the indissoluble eagerness we feel for what we do — where does it come from? My moonless arrival, and subsequent morning, gave me insight: maybe we climb because at its very nature, the sport brings us to where we want to be, whether we know where we’re going or not.

The outdoor community is tireless in its desire to interact with the natural beauty of the world, and is yet to fail at finding creative ways to achieve exactly that.

But our search for this interaction can produce a result that goes beyond mere satisfaction in our sport and our ability, often leaving us speechless with a particular sort of euphoria that only occurs when we’re suddenly struck dumb by nature’s cooperation in making our lives feel magical.

That sort of surprise comes when a skier finally collapses after charging down 4,000 feet of pure, unadulterated champagne powder; when a kayaker puts his paddle to rest on the hood of his boat as the river finally eases from the chaotic death-wash of category five rapids to a mellow, glossy float; or when a fly-fishermen quietly moves through perfectly spaced aspens and overgrown grasses wet with the dew of the morning’s sunrise, his catch a hefty weight in his hand. Man may be the architect behind the device, but the sport is nature’s creation. I think what surprises us is how these sports can create such serendipity between the people who love nature for what it is and the grand creations that nature has built.

Waking up the morning after our 3 a.m. arrival was a moment that gave me this kind of surprise. Sprouting from the tent like a seedling first to break free from the dirt, my world was silent and still, but infinitely huge. I stood motionless next to an ashen fire pit and the three other bodies still cocooned in their tents, and that same wordless delight came over me as I looked out into the deep corridor of rust-blasted red and golden cliffs beneath the fresh cerulean sky. So this is what we drove through last night? Magic. It took millions of years for this canyon to form, layer by layer, and I’m here at just the right time.

In the days that followed we learned how to climb all over again. We placed our own protection instead of clipping bolts, used our hands and feet as our own camming devices, and each evening, elated, defeated, but always exhausted, we tried to stay warm and recover while we drank malt liquor by the fire. We did our best to talk of other worldly pursuits, of work and our relationships back home. Sometimes one of us would try and venture into politics, or the weather forecast. Ultimately, though, it was impossible to deviate from what all of us could not stop thinking about, and we couldn’t help but repeat again and again what we experienced on our climbs. With senseless urgency, we’d explain how impossible the off-width felt or how secure the hand-jams were, what we thought of our gear placements and run-outs, and how proud (or ashamed) we were once we made it to the chains.

And so after a solid week, our hands bruised, bloodied and swollen, the tape gloves have come off one last time and we watch as the sun falls into the desert sand between the two Six Shooter towers. A half hour earlier my brother had packed up his gear and headed down to the car, but I had lingered, not yet ready to turn my back on the cliffs. By the time I started my descent, I could still hear his voice a ways downhill. As I navigated the cairns and eventually found the trail, I heard more voices from the few parties below me headed to their cars. I recognized the hurried, stentorian Spanish of a group of Spaniards, and shortly thereafter, the soft, tonal punches of Japanese nearer to me. How wonderful it is, I thought, to listen to such a cacophony of languages as they pass each other back and forth along the trail’s switchbacks. I wondered: could they all be talking about the same thing.

Once back to our cars, each group materialized their libations, and after a short while slowly dispersed, no doubt headed back to camp to get started on a much-deserved meal. My group stayed for a second beer, and I offered a few to the Japanese couple I had eavesdropped on moments earlier. We weren’t about to rush away from this moment of contentment, so well earned. In the morning my brother and I were headed back to Jackson, Wyoming, and there were rumors of serious snowfall since we’d been gone. The other two in our party had one more day left to climb, but as I sat on my brother’s hitch, Eric confided in me that he had doubts whether or not he would have anything left for the following day. I smiled, knowing full-well that he’d be climbing tomorrow.

On our way out of the canyon, I finally got a sense of what my brother and I had missed in the middle of the night a week earlier. The drive was less soporific this time around; in the daylight we could see the two-lane road as it weaved for miles out of the canyon. This time we knew where we were going and how long it would take to get there. I gazed out the window, straining my neck to try and follow the features of the sandstone cracks all the way to the top of the cliffs, and was amazed again by how something so perfect could come from a process so random. But if I was given the choice, I’d have to say I prefer to come in under the cover of darkness. There’s just something about the magical mornings you can have when you step out of your tent and have no idea what you’re going to see.