Lightning Bolt Cracks 5.11b

  • Currently 5.0/5

North Six Shooter

Desert Towers, Utah, USA

Trip Report
Indian Creek and the Ghost of Chuck Pratt - TR

by MaxJ
Saturday May 2, 2009 6:59pm
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

The Serrator

Thanks for reading!

  Trip Report Views: 2,578
About the Author
MaxJ is a trad climber from Mammoth Lakes, CA.

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Comment on this Trip Report

Trad climber
Ouray, Colorado
  May 2, 2009 - 07:01pm PT
Great post! You guy's rule- hardly anyone does the Pratt route.

  May 2, 2009 - 07:10pm PT
Thanks for posting.

Arkansas, I suppose
  May 2, 2009 - 07:30pm PT

  May 2, 2009 - 07:33pm PT
Great stuff!!

I wanna be at the Creek!

Thanks for the post!

More pics if you got um?

Sport climber
The Big Wide Open Face
  May 2, 2009 - 07:35pm PT
That's what it's all about!


Trad climber
Golden, CO
  May 2, 2009 - 07:46pm PT
Well told story with great pics. What more can you ask for?
Ed Hartouni

Trad climber
Livermore, CA
  May 2, 2009 - 08:24pm PT
very nice...
More Air

Trad climber
  May 2, 2009 - 08:31pm PT
Yes...Off the beaten path!

Trad climber
Cheyenne, Wyoming and Marshall Islands atoll.
  May 2, 2009 - 09:03pm PT
Nice,Keep pump-in!

Social climber
Wolf City, Wyoming
  May 2, 2009 - 09:04pm PT
so, again, is that the famous 'Mummy bag simulator '?
The Alpine

The Sea
  May 2, 2009 - 09:30pm PT
Bravo! I just returned from the Creek with an even stronger taste for the wide. Your writing communicates it perfectly.

Gym climber
berkeley, ca
  May 2, 2009 - 10:11pm PT
That last pic is one of the more interesting climbing boo-boo pics that I've seen. I liked the way his huge smile was slighly out of focus in the background of the bright red, fresh blood.

Thanks for the TR.

  May 2, 2009 - 10:14pm PT
Yow! Doing Canyonlands proud!

The car problem and that approach...serious tromping for sure. LOL!
Michael Kennedy

Social climber
Carbondale, Colorado
  May 3, 2009 - 07:12am PT

The Pratt crack on North Six Shooter was one of my most memorable pitches ever, late autumn 1980 or 81. We walked in from the road on the north side, a thirsty trudge. I think the biggest piece we had was a #4 Friend, which was obviously completely worthless.

As I remember it, the business is the first 20 feet or so until you latch a good square-cut hold, haul up and get into the squeeze. Then it's just a grunt to the notch. My friend Greg Davis led the aid pitch, on scary old drilled angles and bolts and tat, no doubt way more blown out now.

It was a great finish to a long weekend at Indian Creek.

Jim Henson's Basement
  May 3, 2009 - 08:33am PT
Great read. Thanks.

Trad climber
  May 3, 2009 - 10:16am PT

Jack Burns

  May 3, 2009 - 11:14am PT
Excellent TR, good job lads. Always wanted to do the Pratt crack on N. Sixshooter, now I definately need to go check it out. I wonder whats up with the jagged OW to the left of Pratt's?

Someone should post up that old photo of Pratt on the FA.

  May 3, 2009 - 11:17am PT

Without the blood your "TR" would have been a "just another" one.

It's all about bleeding ... yep!
Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
  May 3, 2009 - 11:27am PT
Great TR for one of my favorite areas. Nice bloodletting by the way!

Steve Hong's energy is also everywhere. He had the place to himself and all the ability and drive in the world.

Here you go, Jack. Chuck Pratt completey at home in the wide.

Photo by Doug Robinson, Ascent 1970.

  May 3, 2009 - 11:29am PT

Where's the pro?

And ... all he did was tie the rope around his waist, only once!

Yikes ....
Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
  May 3, 2009 - 11:30am PT
Pratt always had that proud and noble not quite pirate sailor look going on. LOL!

Trad climber
Nor Cal
  May 3, 2009 - 11:40am PT
Cool TR thnaks

Trad climber
The Circuit, Tonasket WA
  May 3, 2009 - 12:09pm PT
Great trip report and photos.
Inch for inch is there any climbing more fun than a wide crack?

Trad climber
Ouray, Colorado
  May 3, 2009 - 12:37pm PT
Damn Phil, I don't know? I will say that OW inch for inch burns more calories.

Social climber
WA, NC, Idaho Falls
  May 3, 2009 - 01:51pm PT
Great TR, looks quite scarry!

  May 3, 2009 - 04:39pm PT
" Photo by Doug Robinson, Ascent 1970 "... story DR ?
Clint Cummins

Trad climber
SF Bay area, CA
  May 3, 2009 - 04:52pm PT
Nice report - thanks for sharing!

Trad climber
Santa Cruz/New Zealand/South Pacific
  May 3, 2009 - 05:45pm PT
Superb TR-nice way to start a day with a read like this!

Trad climber
Fresno CA
  May 3, 2009 - 06:33pm PT
Outstanding TR. Pratt remains my greatest climbing hero. His story "The View From Deadhorse Point" (In the 1970 Ascent) is my favorite description of desert climbing. I find this TR right up there, though. Thanks much.

Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
  May 3, 2009 - 06:37pm PT
DR photo credit only.

  May 3, 2009 - 10:46pm PT
I meant DR might like to reply to the thread .

Mountain climber
  May 3, 2009 - 10:46pm PT
Sweet job! Love the wide.

right here, right now
  May 3, 2009 - 11:42pm PT
When a nice proper burly trip report like this gets put out,
I always like to say ... Supertopo RIDES AGAIN !!!!!

Sport climber
Boulder, Colorado!
  May 3, 2009 - 11:44pm PT
The wide makes my stomach turn! You guys are TOUGH! Thanks for sharing.

Gym climber
sawatch choss
  May 4, 2009 - 01:49am PT
Best photo ever!

Trad climber
Lee, NH
  May 4, 2009 - 09:05am PT
Here's another vote for Doug to chime in with a story. That photo inspired awe when I opened the the 1970 Ascent -- I couldn't imagine leading something like that, unprotected and unknown.

Adding to the mystique, there was no additional text describing the route. Neither Pratt's beautiful "Deadhorse Point" article, nor Roper's guidebook to the towers in that issue even mentioned it.

Oakland, CA
  May 4, 2009 - 02:13pm PT
Nasty! Thanks for putting it up here.

I'm looking at that roof on Big Guy and thinking how in sam hell would I approach a problem like that?

Throwing in the picture of Pratt made the whole thing come together. Thanks again.


Trad climber
Nothing creative to say
  May 4, 2009 - 02:46pm PT
only thing to say


Trad climber
northern CA
  May 4, 2009 - 10:02pm PT
badass TR bump!

Trad climber
Hustle City
  May 4, 2009 - 10:19pm PT
Whoop Whoop!

Sport climber
The Big Wide Open Face
  May 5, 2009 - 12:06am PT
Amazing shot of Pratt on the wide - single wrap, bowline on a coil tie in, no cams or visible gear, just runnig the rope out easy as pie.

Doug Robinson

Trad climber
Santa Cruz
  May 17, 2009 - 04:32pm PT
I'm just back from a long BC ski trip -- kinda whupped. And pleased to see this. Nice Read! I wrote a little about North Six Shooter before, but let's try it again.

It was my first desert trip. Chuck and I were camped at the end of the road in Arches. Had the campground all to ourselves, even though Desert Solitaire had just been published; it was April. We had climbed some pretty scary offwidth already on the Courthouse Towers, the kind of stuff where you might think about placing a bong, and then imagine it grooving its way into the soft sandstone without ringing that bong sound and just not bother deluding yourself.

Chuck had climbed the spire's only other route on a previous trip, I think with Roper. He remembered this crack and wanted to have another look. We drove down, but Indian Creek was not in our vocabulary. We were headed to North Six Shooter.

Long walk across the desert and slog up the skirt of the spire. No wonder there's still no chalk; it's backcountry. The crack loomed as we drew close, but when Chuck got to the base of it he didn't even touch the rock. He just said "Oh well," turned his back and got out lunch. We ate in silence.

Being the OW novice I didn't know any better. I had gotten up some of those FAs in the Courthouse Towers that were more rounded and grovelly, and I had followed Chris Fredericks up the second ascent of Chingando, where the climbing reminded me of cross country races in High School where you felt like barfing across the finish line. So I got up and started toying with the thing. Put my right side in experimentally and hoisted off the ground. Made another move.

Chuck got interested. He made several more moves and said "Toss me the rope." Being ambidexterous made him a great juggler, so he had no problem tieing a bowline with his left hand while hanging in the crack. When he pulled into the chimney section he hauled up the rack.

Later driving out Chuck looked up at the cracked red walls streaming by. With a big gesture he swept in the miles of rimrock and said, "Future home of crack climbing in America."

Trad climber
Lee, NH
  May 17, 2009 - 09:47pm PT
Tossed him the rack when he got past the hard part ... great story, Doug.

Social climber
  May 18, 2009 - 10:57am PT
From the 1975 Great Pacific Ironworks Catalog: “Technology is imposed on the land, but technique means conforming to the landscape. They work in opposite directions, one forcing a passage while the other discovers it.”

Seems like that’s exactly what Chuck did here. He had no gear, no big cams, no way of forcing his way up this crack. He had just his own confidence and curiosity.

Thanks Doug.

Trad climber
Ouray, Colorado
  May 18, 2009 - 11:49am PT
Chuck was such an enigma. He was the most gifted of the "Golden Age" Yosemite climbers and a great writer as well. His pioneering climbing and writing ended very early but he continued to guide in the Tetons and go on occasional climbing trips. He seemed, to me, to grow more and more inward as the years passed and he drifted away from his friends. His passing in Thailand was both tragic and sad. I didn't know him very well but I have always regarded him as one of the seminal figures in American climbing.
Doug Robinson

Trad climber
Santa Cruz
  May 18, 2009 - 03:16pm PT
Jim, that's a potent summary of the enigma of the "little round man" (his own self-depricating term). Chuck was certainly the leading crack climber of that wonderful, seminal time, and the Pratt Mantles scattered around Camp 4 are not to be trifled with, then or now. Plus his company on El Cap seemed to be highly valued by the likes of Robbins and Frost. Harding, even, if you include the FA of Watkins, because there was something deeply iconoclastic and irreverent in him that was really more like Warren's style than the white hats.

He was at the top of those games for fully a decade, which is maybe not so short a time. I see his moving on into self-imposed obscurity (and poverty) as the best example I've personally noticed of someone truly denying his ego. He just really cared a lot more, in a somewhat cynical but very heartfelt honest way, about seeing clearly how the whole human show worked than he ever could bother about being the king of it.

I knew him as well as anyone, valued his company as an honor. I wrote a piece about him after he died that struggled with his enigma; I'll dust it off and post it up, and maybe among us we can delve a little deeper or at least just appreciate once again so fine a human being.

Trad climber
Ouray, Colorado
  May 18, 2009 - 03:33pm PT
DR, please share your remembrances of Chuck. He never promoted himself and I feel that there are a lot of climbers who are unaware of his many contributions to climbing.
Brian in SLC

Social climber
Salt Lake City, UT
  May 18, 2009 - 03:54pm PT
Doug, that's a pretty great read for being whupped!


Used to see him in the Tetons a bit. Stayed in one of the climber's ranch cabins with a couple of kids taking Exum's entry rock stuff. I asked them who their guide was. "Oh, some old dude, kinda cranky, I think Chuck is his name." They had no idear who he was. I tryed to fill them in a bit...

Saw him not long before he went to Thailand for the last time, crossing Jenny Lake in the boat. He was sitting by himself, his clients kinda scattered back aways, watching him, kinda nerviously. He pulls out two or three Twix bars and just pounds them down. A nicely dressed woman on the boat wrinkled her nose in his direction. He takes note, and says, "what, you don't think I eat that granola sh#t, do you?"

I 'bout fell off the boat laughing.

Yeah, Doug, post up!


-Brian in SLC

Trad climber
Charlottesville, VA
  May 22, 2009 - 02:43am PT
First off, all due admiration to the OW pioneers, without modern wide-crack protection (such as it is) -- Pratt, Donini, et al.

Just out of curiosity, has anyone OW'd Wheat Thin (or at least most of it)? About thirty years ago, I tried and failed about twenty feet up, and then ended up laybacking it as I should have done from the get-go. I was, um, a bit layback-averse then, and intimidated by how steep it was, and thought it would be more secure inside the flake -- ha! And I was only following!

Sport climber
Almost to Hollywood, Baby!
  May 22, 2009 - 03:07am PT
Excellent report! Thanks for the great read, and thanks everyone else for the extra details that are cherries on a cake that already had icing.

Trad climber
northern CA
  Aug 13, 2009 - 12:17pm PT
Just thought I'd bump this 'cause I was flipping through the latest Alpinist and the photo on page 18 looked REALLY familiar, and also in case anyone missed this excellent TR the first time around.

I ran into Max a few weeks ago in Tuolumne and he had a massive 3-inch diameter gobie (is it still considered a "gobie" if it's that big?) on the inside of his knee. "Gong Show," he said...

(Edit: In case it wasn't already obvious, the photo that made it into Alpinst #27 is the gobie shot at the end of the TR.)

Social climber
San Francisco
  Aug 13, 2009 - 02:28pm PT
Awesome TR! I missed it first time around and was really glad it got bumped up! Thanks for sharing.

Just livin' the dream
  Aug 13, 2009 - 05:23pm PT
*5-star rating to this guy!

Started laughing myself silly right around: "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."

Thanks for the excellent photos and mondo-great TR!

  Oct 19, 2011 - 05:11pm PT
bump this. Thanks for the awesome tr Max, well put.
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North Six Shooter - Lightning Bolt Cracks 5.11b - Desert Towers, Utah, USA. Click to Enlarge
The climbing route as seen from the base.
Photo: Dougald MacDonald