The Desert – Excerpt from “American Climber” by Luke MehallWhen compared to any other desert for climbing in the United States there is only one that stands supreme.
We called it the desert when, in reality, Gunnison, Colorado and my home at Hartmans’ was its own desert, a sagebrush-foothills sort of desert. But when you’re talking time and place, the time being the early 2000s and the place being the Moab desert, the is where the emphasis is. When compared to any other desert for climbing in the United States there is only one that stands supreme.
My first trip to the desert was in 1999 over Thanksgiving. I spent the first night cold, sleeping in my car at a quiet, frozen campground along the river. In the morning, I drove deeper into the canyon and found a small dirt pullout for the wall where I would meet Caleb, who had invited me to climb with him and his friends.
On the approach, I noticed a climber seventy feet up a perfect crack, untethered from a rope. Not wanting to break his concentration, I quietly hiked past him. My naïve mind figured that this, free-soloing desert cracks, was normal around Indian Creek.
Crack climbing is a masochistic art. When I found Caleb and the crew, I did the thing that I always do—I tied into the rope and tried a climb. I fumbled and fought to insert my fingers, my hands, my feet into the crack. Learning how to jam felt like the hardest thing in the world. When I looked around at the others who had practiced and mastered this art, I was 100-percent sure I would never reach that level of technique and athleticism.
I arrived at the wall with my basic climbing set up. I wore sweatpants and had a harness, a belay device, climbing shoes and a fifty-meter rope. My innocence and lack of climbing knowledge was oozing from my pores, mostly into the sweatpants, and the gawking was obvious on my face. I knew what to do though—offer someone a belay, and I would have a toprope set up.
One of the guys in the crew, who was from Great Britain, wanted a belay. So I belayed. The climb was Fingers In A Light Socket, a finger crack, which finished on desperate face moves sixty feet up. It’s one of the only climbs at the buttress that took a fifty-meter rope.
When it was my turn to climb, just before I was about to tie in, the free solo guy emerged out of nowhere. He seemed high on adrenaline and wanted another fix.
He eyed our route and after confirming we didn’t mind if he tried it first, he climbed.
Indian Creek is a crazy place, I thought to myself as I watched the madman climb alongside my blue rope, which was barely wavering from side to side in the light breeze.
He was up 20 feet, 30 feet, 40 feet, and then he started to look shaky. Oh my fucking God, am I going to watch a guy fall to his death during my first hour at Indian Creek? I wondered.
My new British friend looked at me, not wanting to say anything but gravely concerned. Then, like it was nothing, the soloist grabbed onto my rope and climbed down it, back to our perch on the ground.
He mumbled something about how hard it was and disappeared into the day.
About the Author
Luke Mehall lives in Durango, Colorado. He is the publisher of The Climbing Zine, an independent print publication and website, and he is the author of The Great American Dirtbags and Climbing Out of Bed. Mehall loves hearing from readers and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
His new book, American Climber, can be purchased on amazon.com in paperback for $14.99 or on Kindle for $6.99.
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