Wind. Desert towers. Pink dawn. Red dirt. Outhouse shitter and the smell that comes with it. Daily ritual in down booties. Sling a rope across the entrance so everyone knows you’re taking a shit. I’m one of those “hover-ers” and when it’s done you get out of there as fast as you can, unsling the rope for the next dirtbag in line.
The sandstone has burned scabs into my skin, from my fingers and wrists to my knees and even the backs of my shoulders. You fight with everything you are here. Hot nausea. Pain. Red dust in your lungs and in your hair. I use wet wipes to clean between my toes, bathe myself in the cold evening air, then all the clothes come back on. Zippers zipping. My body aches – muscles angry with my attempts at slotting, sliding, and sending. Nights are sometimes icy, then sometimes too hot for the sleeping bag. There is no casual contentment in the desert, save for the first sip of hot tea or coffee in the morning.
“Thank you, thank you Java,” Patrick sings over his freshly brewed latte. We drove in at night when we first showed up, the sliver-lacking moon illuminating the beastly walls. They were not red then, they were gray, pale, toneless, ghostly. Patrick craned his neck around to see as much as he could – he was the virgin now. The silhouettes of new and undefined expectations, promises, inspirational monsters – all was left to the imagination, elongated and gargoyle-like. Then the morning came, as red as they always do, cows mooing us awake.
By now we are all red faces, red skin blotched, turning into the sandstone we try to climb. I sit on the bed and contemplate this place. What happens to me up there? On those bluffs high above the desert cow pastures. The hike in to any crag is steep, the climbs, steeper. Accept me, I say before I take the sharp end, or any end. Let me breathe your fervor. My hands slot narrow cracks or twist inside wide parallel lines, my feet just as contorted. I often drag the sides of my body up a corner or against the belly of a dark chimney. The black sheen and red velvet casts of the stone come off unto me. I imagine coffee ice-cream or old cacao bricks, left in the sun to slowly whiten with age.
There is a place called The Wall and an owl sleeps there, small and sand-feathered in a nook beneath a seeming unclimbable dihedral. Stunted junipers dot the scree and decaying hillsides below the bands of rock. The cottonwood trees around camp are fountains of sound, golden leaves ringing like rainsticks. They grow their branches straight out, despite their weight, and eventually shear off, leaving thick, amputated limbs gnarled enough for a horror movie.
Quick rain and dashing snow-flurries cross the valley; the sun bakes the soil, cracks and cakes it. Then I track it into the tent. Shadows of shrubs and you, stretch long toward serrated horizon as the day ends. We are the only wind dams here. Coyotes yip operatically. Neighboring camps resound with their own life, laughter and chaos. The wind comes at night, tries to pry away our tent. And the night it stormed it was as if ghosts were jumping from one side to the other, their passage realized by fists of air, fast and powerful, abrupt and precise, the fabric on the brink of ripping – a deluge of dreamlessness till the ice-laced dawn. And morning, again, we sat in the coming sun like cold reptiles, that teasing blue haven rising, wanting scales to armor the wind. Ode to the lizard, I think, they are better climbers anyway.
Here, everyone is forced to live below their means, to savor food and water, gas and silence. Even when the fog haunts the cliffs, when the silhouettes of the Six Shooter towers join the blackness of night, when the trees are saturated with rain, wispy clouds rise to return to the sky, little crystals and petals of winter dust my pen and paper, the cold as harsh as the cracks are abrasive, as unforgiving as the sun – even then, we thrive. Survive on hot meals and gallon jugs, down feathers, and the company of others. We smell and our hair gets thick and oily, snot drips from our noses and we wipe them with our gloves, toes often go numb, the sky breaks apart, our faces sunburn and we wake with crusty eyelids. We wet-wipe what we can and use hand sanitizer but showers are a dream and even when we do visit town and pay for clean passage, our scabs burn in the hot water and our hair drips red dirt. We become Indian Creek even when we’re gone. We rejoice in our cleanliness, then go back for more of that body aching, gut-wrenching, humility teaching aroma.
“Climbing improves me, but it doesn’t make me,” Patrick states one afternoon after reading another story in Kiss or Kill, by Mark Twight. A rest day, we lounge as much as we can. “These stories really make you feel like you’re nobody,” he adds, “So I’m actually grateful that I have life outside of climbing instead of having to depend on it. The people in these stories need climbing to merely exist. Yet…maybe that’s why I’m nobody,” he ends with a chuckle.
Do others dream the way I do? Why do they come? Climbing is mainstream now, but living below your means, removing yourself from ego, contemplating your impact on this wild landscape, is not. I see crowds flock to the valley, just as I do, yet they speak of the conquer and claim, they spray beta and ego. They express poor climbing ethics and leave trash, cut new trails. I find myself more and more annoyed of climbing strangers. A group shows up to the crag and it’s an immediate task for individuals to talk like the world is listening and judging their worth as a climber, and thus, a person. Are they aware of how they sound? I will admit that I used to be that way, and in ways I might still be. It’s a subtle thing that more and more climbers are doing, a subconscious need to establish your credibility, your strength, your stance in the industry—so talk louder. It’s indirect, the way they reveal themselves, but it’s there. If anything, it’s a bad habit that breeds in city gyms.
But when I catch myself degrading my own worth through comparison or wanting to belittle a beginner climber for thinking something so easy is so cool, I try to immediately erase that energy. I am only myself, I chant. I bring my awareness back to me and my thoughts and I almost feel embarrassed. I am who I am and I have no reason to expend such negative energy upon others. It gives me an amazing sense of release. I feel a little more confident in my abilities and try on the “fuck it, let’s try it because no one cares how hard I climb but me” hat.
But then, when I’m leading my way up a climb I think for maybe a full minute how stupid I am for getting myself into this mess. At the Cat Wall I peered up into a flaring chimney that opened its mouth 35 feet off the ground, and for some reason I was inspired to try climbing it. It was called Fradie Cat, 5.11- R (R meaning runout, meaning at some point you can take a very big fall). Hollow sounds and dirty crack, my feet broke off a few centimeters of stone here and there, sending chips down the rope and down the corner I started in.
I stared into the dark cave, wedged my shoulders and my hips, used my legs like a frog to wiggle my way into the very belly of my sudden inspiration. It felt like I was running a marathon, forcing my body through small spaces to place gear, then back out and around a narrowing too tight for me to simply pass through. This was an effort most probably didn’t make, hence the runout factor. I was over open space eventually, the wide mouth below me, the wind finally making its way to my face. My saliva turned to peanut butter. My skin was being burned by the constant abrasion. You wiggle up a foot or two then rest by pressing knees against the wall in front and feet behind, just below the butt.
Yet even that got tiring, so I’d turn sideways and sit side-saddle inside, my shoulders pressing out to keep my body from sliding down this sandy and vertical, bombay chute. I could see the anchors through a narrowing slot, 12 feet above me, but my body was too big to keep going straight up. I would have to come out of the chimney entirely, onto the arête, and top out free of the security of this black mouth, back into the sun and the world I left over two hours ago. I tried everything. I spun and used my limbs to wedge myself horizontally – I even contemplated going upside down to get better purchase for my feet. Always, I’d look down at Patrick loyally belaying me. He’d shout encouragement even when I wanted out.
“I know you’re tired, but don’t quit! Give it hell!” Passersby would stop and glance up, find me in the darkness. “Whoa, is he really run out?” they’d ask Patrick. “I think she has gear in, but I can’t really see,” he’d respond. “She? Fuck yeah!” The chatter would barely make its way to me over my heavy breathing and throbbing muscles. I really don’t know what I’m doing up here! I wanted to shout down to them.
My movements were becoming more desperate by the minute. Rest positions were no longer appeasing. It was do or die, as the saying goes. I found myself with my upper body outside of the chimney reaching to some small holds with my legs barring the gap I emerged from – me, completely horizontal. I was trying to transition into a layback position, a common technique in climbing that often makes you or breaks you. It requires a lot of power, and power I had not after two and a half hours of thrutching. Cheers from below echoed in the chimney but all I felt was the severe buildup of lactic acid in my legs. My arms didn’t want to pull. My mind was screaming. My lungs were sucking in dirt. I remember glancing my tooth on an edge. My forehead pressed the stone as if another limb. The darkness hung onto me and didn’t want to let me go.
So I let it take me back. It was the end of me, for now. Release. My body slid down the sandstone and back into the shadows. Straight down I fell and when the rope caught I was in the pit of the belly again. My limbs didn’t want to move. I asked Patrick to lower me, I was done. Back on the ground, my legs wouldn’t stop trembling, they were so angry with me. I sat, pale and beside myself, gulping water and not wanting the PB&J I brought. I stared off over the valley as Patrick took off up the route to try and finish it. Shards of stone ricocheted free as he made his way up fast, one chunk pounding the leg of his belayer, Alex. Stumped just as I was, he placed a big-bro and used it to bypass the crux, then barely was able to squeeze around to retrieve the tucked away gear I placed.
I thought about my first time at Indian Creek, how magical and absolutely inspiring it was. I was alone and lost, seeking refuge among these geometrical walls and finding friendship where I least expected it. Everything felt vast and wild, unknown and untouched. Being back, it is different. I am obviously one in a thousand climbers who travel these dusty walls, the splitter cracks representing the brink of physical and mental stamina. It is still beautiful, but it no longer feels as wild. Regardless, I am here and I am dissecting and inspecting aspects of myself that otherwise may have been left unexamined. I am discovering new strength and wisdom, new blankets of darkness that linger within every crack and every terrible hand jam. And it is this darkness that changes me, in the end. It may be overwhelming but it sinks itself into my skin, into my heart and mind. I let it fester and find myself wanting more. I think of that climb and a part of me wants to go back and figure it all out. Back into the clutch of an unforgiving shadow. Maybe I won’t, but I can assure you, that in the darkness you will find me, giving everything that I am, rising with red and swollen wounds to prove it.