Contributed by Michael Restivo of Mike off the Map
The dusty desert roads of Highway 131 meander through a sandstone landscape. Twisting through towering buttes, rusted red spires, and patches of spindly sagebrush and cacti, it comes to a stop in a sand-strewn campsite under the pinnacles of the Six Shooter Towers—the sisterly north and south columns. In the parking lot, Volkswagen minibuses and sprinter vans with half-constructed mountain bikes on the roof are home to a motley crew of climbers and adventurers who call this sprawling arid land home. Welcome to Indian Creek.
Indian Creek is divided by a series of mesas and is split by fissures that herald back to a time when all of Utah and Colorado were under a great ancient ocean. It was originally home of the Anasazi tribe, who left remnants of pottery, mud brick homes, and ornate petroglyphs on the orange walls.
In the 1970s, climbers started migrating to Southeast Utah, following the words of Edward Abbey and seeking an untamed paradise, which had been the playground of an elite few, such as Layton Kor and Eric Bjornstad. There were wild tales of buttresses over a hundred feet off the deck, split down the middle by cracks said to be just wide enough to cam a fingertip. If climbing in Yosemite was described as graceful and elegant, Indian Creek was like going to war. Brutal and often bloodying, it took climbing back to its primal roots.
In 1976, a group of climbers out of Colorado, including Ed Webster and Earl Wiggins, drove into the Creek with only scarce knowledge of a hand crack they’d seen on a previous trip that was near perfect in symmetry and broken only by a small roof. Armed only with a rack of hexes and rudimentary nuts, Wiggins slotted his hands into the flake, twisted his foot into the crack, and stepped off to change desert climbing forever. In this era, crack climbing was on the obscure and fringe side of climbing. Nobody knew if hexes and nuts would catch the soft, crumbling sandstone if one were to fall. Not wanting to risk finding out the consequences, Wiggins led the first 100-feet of the three pitch route without stopping, gruelingly jamming his hands and using only his weight to find a secure stance where he could place another piece. Placing the anchor, he brought up Webster, and by the end of the day, the two were at the top of the buttress that was originally known as “Luxury Liner,” and then became “Supercrack” (5.10).
After Webster and Wiggins’ groundbreaking ascent, Indian Creek became a hotbed for desert crack climbing. With the development of spring-loaded cams in the late 70s and early 80s and the publication of Bjornstad’s guidebook, climbers flooded Southeastern Utah looking for first ascents across the canyon.
Climbing at the Creek involves an average route grade of 5.10+ all the way to test pieces of 5.14. From inverted finger cracks to burly off-widths, the style of climbing is muscular and bruising, typically resulting in strands of bloody athletic tape coming off chafed hands. Still, finding rhythm in the chaos results in an elegant ascent following a pattern of precise finger and foot placements. It’s further characterized by the characters who are here all year long—from the snow-covered desert winters to the scorching summer days—and the Burning Man-like annual pilgrimage that’s known as “Creeksgiving” in November.
Like Yosemite, the history of climbing in Indian Creek is much a part of its heritage. It’s the story of counter-cultural rebels who found their way in the desert simply because they had heard of the unclimbed. There are so many cracks and walls across this spectacular landscape that many are still unnamed. There are potential pocket areas still awaiting first ascents. For those who revel in the thrill of long, exposed, scary, and burly climbing, this little corner of the Southwest is calling out.