It was not with eager anticipation that I shouldered my gear laden backpack in the now paved, super-sized parking lot of Donnelly Canyon and started the walk towards the familiar classics of Chocolate Corner and Generic Crack. It had been almost 2 ½ years since I had last set foot on my once favorite stomping ground and lots had changed. Professional duties had taken me elsewhere on the Colorado Plateau, but they were done now and while I had been away the Creek had been active. Bathrooms and picnic tables sprouted at Superbowl, gravel roads at Creek Pasture and a parking lot/bathroom at Donnelly Canyon. I knew use had soared and I was hesitant to return in March, to a Creek I loved best in December, January and February.
By no means am I a local to the Creek or am I a veteran Creek climber, but I did first climb here in 2002 just over ten years ago. Stuff had changed a lot by then too, but it was still prior to David Bloom’s Indian Creek, A Climbing Guide. We explored the endless red cliffs using “the pages,” a collection of tattered paper that once comprised Cornacchione’s guide book Indian Creek Climbs, but now, due to Sharp End’s typically crappy binding, was simply a bunch of loose pages, sometimes assembled in order. Those younger years are easily summed up in Brett Ruckman’s essay “Indefatigable Youth” that is printed in Bloom’s Guide. Walking cliff lines before breakfast, schlepping huge packs up the talus, scoping cliffs for new lines while driving the road, descending by headlamp, but most of all the desert sunsets. Like Ruckman writes: we too would sit depleted at the truck, watching another desert sunset, eating cookies and chips, drinking beer and tearing our tape gloves off all while planning our next day’s adventure. The boundless energy of my youth was spent dialing in crack sizes, chasing sunsets down the talus and the grades up the cracks.
Much like the Creek, though, I too have changed over the years. I haven’t become stronger in fact most of my hardest sends on the wingate are almost a full decade behind me. What for me was once self-esteem and ego driven has become more intrinsic (maybe that is a way to justify not sending as hard or trying to send as hard…) I climb to have fun, to be with good people, to be in amazing place and of course to challenge myself. My approach to climbing now revolves around those four factors as well as around climbing routes I haven’t done before. I have come to realize that I am an onsight climber. I don’t have a project mentality. I like to try climbs that I haven’t done and that are on the edge of my ability. Needless to say over the years I have climbed many of the classic 5.10 cracks that grace the escarpments of Indian Creek’s most popular crags. As I have moved away from pushing the numbers in climbing I have gravitated toward challenging myself by pushing the difficulty and risk through the length and terrain of routes. Visits to El Chalten ignited a desire for longer, adventurous routes and places like the Wind Rivers, Red Rocks, The Black Canyon and Zion beckoned. The difficulty, challenge and risk lay in efficiency, systems, time, approaches, route finding and objective hazards. It is not pre-ordained climbing. Prior to the Creek this time, I had spent twelve days in Zion where we had done some walls and multi-day routes. The long routes were challenging; there were objectives and if felt good not focusing on ratings. Besides a few days of bouldering in Chalten and a day of cragging at the Red Rock I had not gone single pitch climbing since a day at Wild Iris in early September. So all of that, the changes at the Creek, the shift in my climbing mentality, my newly rekindled love affair with the long routes and the crowds of folks recreating all made me hesitant to join the masses on a sunny day in March at Donnelly Canyon.
Four hours later after ascents of the usual warmups I was scraping my way up a 5.10 that I had never done before. The 30 meter flaring splitter allowed me another onsight though one that still required work. Then again, just to the left, a off-width corner to a traversing hand crack afforded me the same experience. As I lowered off the latter I marveled at finding two decent routes at Donnelly Canyon that I had not done before. It was this good fortune that set the course of my next ten days.
“Look for the obscure, the classic dessert pitch, the three star climbs Jared” I told myself. Cross Dihedral, Jews on Crack, Great Gig in the Sky, The Expendables, Jolly Rancher. The next week and a half brought challenge and on-sights my way. Lots of classic desert pitches, routes with a bit of everything: off-width, roofs, loose terrain, fists, hands, chimneys and fingers were often deemed favorites of the day. Yeah, Easter and spring break brought the crowds but they did nothing to stop the beauty and timelessness of the creek. The sunsets still made my heart ache; friends, new and old still made me smile and the cracks, no matter the grades or the size still made me try hard. The cold beer on the tailgate at the end of the day was just as good. The desert was the same. The climbing was just as good. Fuck the people. Climbing is climbing. I love the desert. I love climbing and I love Indian Creek. I’ll still love being here in December and January when the crowds are gone but there is nothing to be afraid of in March. I’ll come with a good friend, and we will find new and different routes. I’ll treat the place with care and respect and in return it will feed my soul.