Steph Davis Crack Climbing Clinic

Author, low on crack. Chris Kalous from Enormocast watches

Been eyeing the October Crack Clinic that Steph Davis runs in Indian Creek since July. Facebook helpfully put it in front of my eyeballs every few days or so, but I wasn’t sure if I could stomach the expense: $1,400 for 2 days of training? EarthTreks (ET) in Golden, my home gym, has a crack clinic that was free to members!

But I have been following Steph’s adventures, from her soloing a route on the Diamond in Colorado, to her BASE and wingsuit flying — for a few years now. To actually take a course from someone who has mastery of a subject is a rarity. I don’t see many of her calibre conducting courses. I considered some more…

Steph, on her FB profile, put out the word: “There is one spot left on my October Crack climbing clinic…” I emailed her, expecting not to get it, actually. I responded late, but to my surprise she said I got the last spot, and after sending a $900 Paypal deposit I would be good to go.

That’s when I got nervous.

Living in Wheat Ridge, I am right next to Golden, and 15–20 minutes from Clear Creek Canyon, my home crag. I also take expeditions to Eldorado Canyon, as well as Boulder Canyon, Devil’s Head and Shelf, but none of those places are really known for crack climbing. You might find an occasional crack on granite in Clear Creek, but for the most part a continuous crack is the exception, not the norm.

Crack climbing is what that old guy is doing on the seams in the rock gym, running laps in his taped up mitts, while all the youngsters climb the regular sport routes wondering what the hell he’s doing.

The straight and slippery crack climbs in the gym only have a fading resemblance to actual sandstone cracks that populate the crags in the desert Southwest of Utah and Arizona. Sandstone has the properties that generate these hundreds of feet long cracks soaring into the sky. The first time I saw a video of someone climbing one I knew that I wanted to try it. It just looked so beautiful: a person self-suspended using only a crack as the basis for applying tension to progress upwards. Seemed like the impossible made possible.

And the desert sandstone tower scenery could not be beat.

It looked like my love affair with climbing — all over again.

But, could lightning strike twice? Would I love crack climbing the way I loved sport climbing, and trad climbing? It seemed to have some elements of off-width climbing with compression and using not so much finger strength to progress, but major muscle groups.

I know that that famous off-width woman Pamela Shanti Pack did offwidth for that reason. She had some sort of physical condition that prevented the use of her hands, so she switched to off-widths. But crack climbing also had it’s own arcana of hand and foot compressions, things like ring locks and finger locks, crushed toes
– and pain.

That’s what one of my climbing partners told me, ‘Crack climbing is about enduring pain. And doing that same damn thing over and over.’

I chuckled with him at the time, thinking ‘Who the hell would think to do crack climbing?’

But then I started seeing photos on Imgur and Facebook, of my friends and acquaintances climbing in the middle of a soaring crack, hands sunk wrist deep, toes only an inch or two in the seam — seeming impossible, but yet enough to attach and progress upwards. The scenery combined with this kind of levitation seemed to suggest that there was something there there.

So, I took a preparatory crack climbing class offered at ET. I was the only one who signed up.

The instructor, though, was enthusiastic in showing me the magic of crack climbing. He showed me how to do finger jams and hand jams; toe jamming had their own character of excruciating pain, and I lost skin in the fist jams. It was painful, and I kept slipping and getting spit off, but I did, at the end, managed to get up half a climb in a go before popping off my stance.

I felt wrecked, my breathing ragged, and about to throw up. The instructor told me climbing inside cracks was harder.

“When you get onto sandstone, first of all sandstone is grippier. The cracks at indoor gyms are all straight and smooth, making it harder to find purchase for your feet and hands,’ he said. “And on real rock you can find edges and surface irregularities to grip, even inside cracks. Also, you’ll also find opportunities on the face to do some face climbing.”

I did learn some things from the ET teacher, but I soon found out that there’s a lot more subtleties to learn when you get on the actual sandstone cracks of Indian Creek.

Coincidentally, I also just bought a small (13′) Casita travel trailer I named “Conchita la Casita,” and this seemed like a good cross-the-border shakeout trip.

Conchita la Casita

I left for Shelf Road the Friday prior to the Monday that the crack clinic would start.

I mean, why not start the shakeout with a trip to Shelf — see how Conchita likes the dirt roads and ruts of Sand Gulch prior to the desert of Moab.

Rod czeching out the solar

With some backing up shenanigans, pine branches scraping the sides of both Conchita and my Subaru WRX I was finally able to get a (relatively) flat area for my Casita, and set up the solar, etc.

I think after running the ruts and dirt road, and attempting to get to the Bank campground up the steeps — that I need a new TV (Tow Vehicle).

While I was able to turn around from the Bank road and get a spot at Sand Gulch below it made me realize the limitations of my WRX as a tow vehicle.

One, the previous owner had lowered the Impreza, so clearance, especially when weighted, was an issue. Deep cavities and high bumps left me bottoming out. I could tell from inspection that the rear wheels scraped the inside of the wheel wells, and that my front bumper would shake loose if I kept this off-roading up.

It’s not that my WRX couldn’t tow the weight, it’s when I left the nice smooth freeways and highways and hit the dirt roads was where I was failing/flailing.

I needed to get a truck.

Except, this is what I think of when I think “truck”:

Gas hogs, road nuisance, waste-of-space-space grabber, blahblahblah.

But, the time has come.

Shelf it!
Shelf, as always, was completely great.

The Gallery, Shelf Road, Canon City, CO

My brother and I explored the Gallery. I thought it might be mobbed by weekenders, but while there were about 3 groups we didn’t have trouble getting on our routes.

Rod, gettin’ it!

I love this climbing area, I love the limestone and the cheap camping — and that’s all you need, right?

Rod, fish-eyed

This is what I see when I look over at Rod most times

Author, top of a Gallery route

But, after a second night it was Sunday, and time to head to Moab.

Adieu Shelf!

We were to meet at this Cafe in Moab. After camping at Mill Canyon Road 15 miles northwest of Moab off 191 I went to the cafe and waited.

Camping at Mill Canyon Road — free!

When Steph arrived, I recognized her instantly from the videos — dark hair, earnest eyes, big smile when she recognized someone. She was shorter than I thought her to be — for some reason I thought she’d be taller. Which is funny, because I thought Cedar Wright would be shorter than he was.

Famous climbers are not like other famous people. Like, they aren’t mobbed or anything. But climbers know. You could tell the climbers by the way their eyes tracked her movement through the crowd.

She seemed at first glance like an organized, but normally disorganized person, as she handed out information sheets and collected money. Like a person who is normally a tad disorganized, but has learned to be more organized. I think this was her 6th crack climbing clinic, so she had some under her belt. When we were about to leave, she received a text from the last person saying they would be 15 minutes late.

Oops,almost left a person!

Anyway, I decided to leave earlier since I had my camper and needed to see if I could navigate the turn into her land.

“My boyfriend Ian will be there. He’s clearing a flat place for your RV,” Steph said.

I thought, that was mighty nice of him!

I was the first person to arrive, and while I lost the hooks on the side of my Casita when it scraped the side of the entry gate, I was able to get to my spot and park.

Casita hooks scraped off on turn

Only got stuck a couple of times in the Moab sugar dust (see “need to buy a truck” above).

Why, hello neighbor!

My neighbor Cindy owned the rig parked next to mine. It was a large deisel 3500, which her bf was selling. “He arrives Friday, if you are interested,” she said.

Steph’s Octagonal yurt

This is where we would congregate in the mornings, get our meals and collect our lunch wraps. We were all camped, either in tents, or trucks, campers and cars. I think mine was the only camper trailer in the group.

The first day started with how to tape our hands

I should have learned how to tape BEFORE the clinic!

And we were soon climbing the cracks

The cracks looked impossibly tall and intimidating, but the settors Chris Kalous (of Enormocast fame), and Mary Harland, a Colorado climber I hadn’t heard of prior, but am learning more about her, set the routes in their approach shoes. They didn’t seem overly concerned with slipping, their technique perfect in what for them must have been easy crack climbs.

I can’t remember the names of the routes, but they said they were 5.10’s and 5.11’s.

“Take the grades in Indian Creek with a grain of salt,” Steph said. “The grades don’t mean as much here.”

So much depends on the size of hands and feet and the size of the cracks they are stuck into. A route easier for large man-hands might require double hands for the thinner woman-hands.

We got a quick tutorial in how to insert and expand our hands, and how to slide our feet in sideways and “cam” them by drawing the knee to the centerline.

Steph and Chris Kalous tutorial on crack climbing.

Crack climbing on sandstone I found easier than the gym cracks — but still very hard. I appreciated my time at the gym, though, as I seemed to have a better handle on how to climb it than a few of the others.

One girl, Gabby, while she climbed well came down and said “That was really hard!”

Crack addict (photo: David Clifford)

Eve at Indian Creek, Photo: David Clifford

It was. And sort of terrifying — but in a good way. Like the first time I learned to climb — it was hard and painful, and I couldn’t wait to get back on it again!

After my second route I knew I would need to come back.

More Indian Creek

The second day was more of the same, except we went to the shadier side of the Creek.

Again, I was amazed at how the route settors climbed in their street shoes. This day we had the opportunity to do some fake leads — on top rope, but with a second rope to set cams and clip into.

I don’t get this opportunity — to fake lead with a belay, and a second rope. Although it was only optional — I wanted to do the fake lead.

I ascended the crack okay, setting the pro as I thought it should be set — squeeze the cams close, shove into crack, crank and yank to see if it was secure — move on.

But when Mary took a look at my placements, it was a litany of “This is bad,” “Too open”, “If I had to grade this you would have failed.”

Funny, my long term trad partner always just took a look, and said my placements were fine.

I found out that the cams need to be (ideally) closed so that it looked like a heart shape. It’s like 75–90% closed. It allows optimum pressure, and also if it “walks” it can still open more to re-cam the sides of the cam.

Instead of moving to the other routes I decided to wait my turn and do it again, this time the right way.

Dave, the photographer took pics of us as we ascended the route.

I belayed and waited and belayed again.

Finally, it was my turn, and I made sure my cams were closed perfectly, placed perfectly.

Mary went up again, “This is good!” she said. “This is another good placement!”

I found her to be a stern teacher, but every time she said “Good!” I felt like I had accomplished something.

“You went from a “D” student to an “A” student,” Mary said.

“Thanks. I feel like a better leader now,” I told her.

I walked around to the other routes, but it was nearing 3pm, when Steph would go over anchors. I was only able to look at the beautiful cracks, wondering when I’d be back.

The anchoring lesson was everything I already knew, but it was good to have a refresher.

Steph, going over anchoring

There was some discussion about the safety of daisy chains. Apparently, Americans were buying so few that they were not any available in the U.S. for our clinic. The issue was that if used incorrectly, with the carabiner between loops the daisy chain would fail. Chris mentioned that some people had died supposedly.

“Who, who died?” Steph asked. “No, I really want to know!” Her thought is that it was an internet rumor thing, that no one had really died using it, and although it can fail in using it wrong, she would never use it that way.

Steph Davis and I, Photo: David Clifford

On a quick search on “Daisy Chain Failure,” although I found several articles warding against it’s use in anchoring I could find nothing regarding an actual death. The closest thing I could find was an article on the death of Todd Skinner, but that was his daisy chain fraying his belay loop to failure, not a failure of the daisy chain itself.

The Metolius PAS was supposed to basically replace the daisy chain, and ensure this wouldn’t happen. But the one thing about Steph was that she went as light and fast as possible, and the PAS was both bulkier and heavier than her preferred daisy chain — and that made the difference.

Personally, I have the PAS, and while I understand that incorrect use of any piece of gear can make any gear fail, I thought the extra weight was worth the extra safety. Steph continued, and we then broke out into groups to practice.

And then the clinic drew to a close.

Taping up! Photo: David Clifford

It seemed to happen so fast, from start to finish. I felt worked, but more in tune with what crack climbing required. I thought about what it would take to get me back out here again — and I wanted to be out here again!

I found Steph to be as I imagined her: positive, earnest, straightforward. Present.

I overheard her at one of the dinners talking about “…everyone was there, everyone was present…” talking about authenticity.

And that’s mostly my impression of her: authentic, present.

Steph Davis and I watch the climbers. (photo: David Clifford)

When someone in the group mentioned her fame, she just didn’t respond, just smiled and continued on. I thought that she appreciated what her fame had brought her — sponsorships, free gear, ability to draw a group who paid $1,400 for the opportunity to learn and to spend a couple days with her. But, other than that she didn’t let it affect her.

It seemed to me like it was something outside her; she didn’t allow it to go to her head, nor did she assign it any importance outside of what it allowed her to do. It would interfere with being absolutely herself. At least, that was my impression.

Group gathered around for the anchor clinic.

I remember one of the girls looking up and saying, “She’s so beautiful!” as Steph climbed a long crack. I looked up and had to agree.

Steph seemed completely in her element climbing the desert crack. Fully acclimatized to the environment she found herself in. Hand, then foot…foot, then hand. Rising like the wild thing she is.


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Originally published at on October 19, 2016.