Lightning Bolt Cracks 5.11b
Trip ReportIndian Creek and the Ghost of Chuck Pratt - TR
Posted this over at Russ's site, but thought some of you might enjoy it too:
Indian Creek and the Ghost of Chuck Pratt
Often times as somebody with an interest in wide cracks, I find myself feeling somewhat alienated from the rest of the climbing community when my dirty little secret comes out. Potential partners, midway into a first conversation, sometimes seem suddenly put off by my preferences. Granted there is a range of feelings that climbers have towards wide cracks. Some seek them out, some never know them, some do them only accidentally, and some interpret "OW" as "other way".
I recall my first experience the summer of my senior year in high school, when my partner backed off of a 5.6 offwidth at Castle Crags in northern California. I, who had placed and fallen on (six times) only one piece of pro ever, remember sitting at the belay nook while lowering him down to me wondering what in the world he was planning on doing next. Turns out it was my turn to lead. I climbed up past his pro, and realized that there were no holds, and that none of his widgets would fit. The one thing that did fit was my knee. The rest is a blur but I do remember a lot of fear and that it felt as though I'd been mule kicked in the intestines. I recall trying to recount the story to some of my non-climbing friends, who just could not understand the sudden comprehension of my own mortality that ensued that day. I continued to fear the wide until I realized that it was holding me back. Once I faced my fear, I learned to appreciate the gains that are not necessarily measured in inches per effort. That's how I crossed over, and I have recently seen another such transformation, I'm proud to report, with my friend Todd.
Our first day (and first time) at the Creek, we awoke to a wonderland that we could not comprehend in the darkness of the previous night. Despite our being somewhat dialed Yosemite and Tahoe granite crack climbers, we were conservative in our choice of first routes, because of stories we'd heard from friends who described full body necrotic pump resulting from "doing the same move for 120 feet with no rests ever!". We climbed mostly classic hand and finger cracks for the first two days, and had a great time, but all the while there was a small black dot in my brain reminding me that the cracks get wider.
So our third day, we were tired, we opted for a rest day. Maybe go for a hike. But while we're at it, we might as well climb a little bit, you know, just to flush out the lactic acid and wild turkey, which we definitely did not smuggle into Utah. Obviously we had to climb a tower. But which one? Well, I guess the six shooters are close, lets do those. The south six shooter looked pretty scrappy, so we decided on the north six shooter. The guidebook had topos for two routes, but they weren't really calling out to us, and since there was a topo, our onsight was blown. What were two Californians to do? Well what have Californians before us done? We decided on the Pratt/Robinson, which only had a written description. Something about a long offwidth crack. Yeah that sounds about right.
As we waited in line for access to the only toilet in the entire watershed, I stood somewhat perplexed, looking into the back of Todd's subaru grappling with the moral implications of bringing wide pro on a Chuck Pratt route. On the one hand, it was a rest day, and I'm a modern wimpy climber at least somewhat content -and failing that, totally confident- in my inferiority to Pratt. However, chances are that Chuck probably didn't even put in gear for the belay, but rather just stuck in an arm-bar and ran the rope up over his shoulder. My feeling is that using wide gear cheapens the experience of such historical routes to an extent. Furthermore, I'd have to carry all of it on the long approach up the steep looking dirt/talus - and that would mean less room in my pack for my stuffed animals, which I definitely do not take with me when I'm scared.
In the end, I reasoned that not taking wide gear out of respect was a slippery slope, that could only possibly end in my having to tie in on a bight of rope, only use pins - which would damage the rock, wear my flip flops, chop and redrill every bolt on the bolt ladder and summit to recreate the full first ascent experience. Besides, having the extra security of my #6 camalot and my #4 big bro would eliminate the need for Binky, Furbles, and company. Then it was my turn to use the John.
So we drove as near to the tower as was feasible given the limited capacity of our auto.
The approach took a long while, but along the way we got to pass by some rednecks with shotguns, mangy looking cattle, lizards, cool soil, steep dirt, juniper, even a couple of pinyon pines tucked away in a small valley, and we found some cool looking fossils.
Upon seeing the route, I instantly recognized it. A good friend who had once joined me on a team-thrash ascent of the Meat Grinder had sent me a picture of Pratt himself on the first ascent well into the lower offwidth, perfectly composed, with the rope hanging lazily off of his waist and out into space. The caption my friend added was "This guy knows what he's doing."
Walking up to the base, and entering the shade for the first time in over an hour was both relieving and frightening once I began to actually comprehend the nature of the climb. No words were exchanged as we false-casually began pulling gear out of our salt-soaked packs. First the rope, then my shoes, my harness, the rack. The rack. Well seeing as this crack seems to not change in size for about 20+ feet I might as well see what gear I'll be using. Walking up to the base and peering in, up, and through, seeing no chalk and hearing a faint howl as the wind blew through from the other side, I pulled up the #6 and stuck it in. Tipped. Badly. Well that's ok, I'll just use the big bro. Didn't fit, crack was too narrow. Trying to keep the mood light:
"Remember Todd, we only do this because we hate ourselves."
Whatever, just don't think about it. You came here to climb the crack, not to put widgets in it. Soon all was in order, and I had my gargantuan rack hanging awkwardly on my left side, putting a slight strain on my right obliques to even stay upright. I stuck my entire right leg in, ok good I fit. I stuck my entire right arm in up to about my sternum, that fits too. Great. Now all I have to do is just work my left cloven hoof heel-toe and gaston for dear life.
Small nicks in the outside corner of the left side, the side I was facing, would be my checkpoints. Just gun for those small nicks, and you'll get a solid heel-toe, and you can rest. surely. As I inched upwards, pushing the #6, it would occasionally twist and just fall down to my right thigh wedged in the crack. I'd put it back in, and then collect myself. Tried the bro, didn't work. Moved a couple inches, tried it again, still didn't work. Some people define insanity in this manner.
"Todd, I don't know...I'm going to downclimb." Which really meant: "I'm scared, I'm going to slide down now".
He wants to have a go, just to test out the part that I'd done. I ask if he wants the rack in case he wants to keep going past this offwidth section and up into the squeeze. He says no. Damn. He sticks his right half in, and then appears to try to poop. He seems constipated and says he can't get off the ground.
We sit at the base, our precious shade dwindling one moment at a time.
I'm feeling kind of ashamed. Here we are, we just hiked two hours in the desert heat. What are we doing? Taking our rack and some gallon jugs of water for a little walk? Earlier, at the bathroom, I sold Todd on this route, and now we're just sitting at the base with our teeth in our mouth looking like a couple of sport climbers.
The crack is pretty much the same size until you get into the squeeze. Hell, I reason, I've climbed tougher looking squeeze flares than that. So what if the pro is marginal? I know how to go for it. I climbed the first half of the offwidth, and the second can be no harder because it is the same size. What's my problem?
We came here to climb the crack, not to put widgets in it.
At the belay, I reveled in it, trying to imagine a stoic Chuck Pratt in 1969 on the first ascent. What was he feeling while he belayed DR? Did he feel at all like I felt while I belayed my partner? But that was 17 years before I was born and I could only guess. Still, admiration welled up inside me, a strange type of love for a man I've never met, and yet have known in a certain way.
A head poked out from under a large loose block, from which the rope had been slowly snaking. Todd had the goofiest, biggest smile I've ever seen. We'd gotten away with it. We'd had our adventure. But we still had more ahead. Todd dispatched the final bolt ladder and loose, steep, unprotected block ballet section with aplomb.
He had crossed over. It is rare that I can convince partners to do wide cracks, and even more rare that they don't resent me for at least 24 hours should they be convinced. When I saw Todd's face I knew: now I have a partner.
The desert is so unique, but something about the wide never changes, regardless of where you are. Here we were halfway across the country, and if you closed your eyes while coordinating the familiar oppositional forces necessary to move upwards, you might have thought that you were someplace else. The crowds, campground fees, traffic, imported eastern European labor, thieving bears, and hard-ass rangers of the Valley are a far cry from the freedom of the desert, and the crowds of eager cam-hoarding star-chasers at the base of Supercrack are a far cry from the sense of solitude and peace on Yosemite's walls. Out on the West face of the North Six Shooter, Pratt and Robinson found the best of both worlds, and it continues to be that to this day.
We spent the next few days exploring a lot of great cracks, some of them wide. Often times we'd wonder what Chuck, Royal, Warren, etc. would have done back in the day on a particular route. Would they have stacked? Would they have liebacked? Did they know about ringlocks? Would they have bothered with gear? Surely they wouldn't have called that 5.11. Probably 5.9+, we'd agree.
Above: The Big Guy
Below: Binge and Purge
Thanks for reading!
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