“Nothing on the planet can deliver a physical and emotional whipping like a hard offwidth. In offwidths and squeeze chimneys I’ve witnessed good climbers curse, cry, whimper, moan, scream, pray, hyperventilate, and vomit. Wider than your fist yet too small to accommodate your body, an offwidth requires more effort per inch of stone than perhaps any other type of climbing.” —Craig Luebben ["Offwidthing: The Big, Bad and Burly," Climbing 179]
I met the late Craig Luebben (1960–2009) the day I climbed Lucille, the world’s first 5.13 squeeze chimney, in Vedauwoo, Wyoming. I was up at 6 a.m., hoping to confront the iconic route before anyone was awake. Instead, I ran into Craig, who had earlier onsighted the climb’s second ascent. He was guiding a group nearby, and asked me what I was planning to climb. My partner immediately announced my intentions, and Craig said: “Class, today history will be made.”
We corresponded frequently after that—Craig has long been an inspiration to me—but that morning in Vedauwoo was to be the first and last day I spent with him in person. He was a writer as well as a climber, and asked if he could write a story about my passion for offwidths. I was living in Alaska then, far from the people that inspired me and believed in me as a climber, and told him that there was nothing to write about. “There’s a story to tell, and when you are ready I will tell it,” he said.
We made plans to meet up that September, but about a month before then, Craig was killed in a freak accident in the North Cascades while training for his AMGA alpine guide’s exam. I was working as a hydrographic surveyor in the Bering Sea when I heard the news, and spent many hours that August looking out over the sea, thinking about how I could somehow pay tribute to him.
When asked in an interview, “What are some of the sacrifices you’ve made to live a life of climbing?” Craig replied, “I joke that I’ve sacrificed a million dollars from the engineering career that I would have had, but I’ve had five million worth of fun.” Based in Colorado, Luebben made hundreds of first ascents throughout Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, West Virginia, Canada, Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Cayman Brac, France, China, and Madagascar. He was equally at home on steep ice, establishing hard new routes as far afield as Italy and China; he also completed a solo, one-day link-up of three of Colorado’s most famous ice climbs: Bridalveil Falls, Ames Ice Hose, and the Rigid Designator. “He came from a generation where if you said you were a ‘5.10 climber,’ that meant you could go out on pretty much any day of the year and onsight pretty much any 5.10 on the planet,” says Topher Donahue, one of Craig’s closest friends and climbing partners. “Craig was one of the only climbers around who could, by the definition of his generation, call himself a 5.12 climber.”
Luebben traveled widely and wrote and photographed numerous magazine articles. Trained as an engineer as well as a guide, he also wrote a number of renowned instructional books, including Rock Climbing: Mastering Basic Skills and Rock Climbing Anchors: A Comprehensive Guide, and taught popular anchor and self-rescue clinics at gyms and crags throughout the country.
As a mechanical engineering student at Colorado State University, Luebben invented the Big Bro expandable tube chock, which advanced the future of hard offwidth climbing. He also performed many cutting-edge product and field tests. As Kennan Harvey, another close climbing companion and friend, says, “Offwidths were only a small component of Craig. His instructional books, photography, and gear-testing science were also leading-edge. He became a loving husband and devoted father, taming his wild hair but not his spirit and passion. He expanded all of our potential.”
By the winter of 2010, I had decided on a fitting tribute to Craig. I would repeat his top 10 desert offwidths. I had found the list on his website; there actually were 19 climbs on the list, but I decided to stick to the 10 in southeastern Utah. Craig’s climbs were long, so this would add up to over 2,000 feet of vertical offwidth climbing. Despite my passion for offwidths, I was a bit of a specialist, seeking out the hard “invert” style of climbing wide cracks through roofs, and I had never climbed a vertical desert offwidth. I was about to get schooled.
To me, Craig personified an offwidth climber: a 6-foot-tall, 175-pound badass. At 5-feet-3 and 105 pounds, I wondered how I would even carry the rack for one of these 150-foot pitches. I also speculated that I simply might not have the surface area required to stick in the cracks. So I spent the next two months training six days a week: running intervals, doing climbing-specific CrossFit and strength training, doing Pilates and thousands of sit-ups.
Initially, my plan was to attempt the Top 10 over 10 consecutive days—the punishing sort of challenge that Craig would have approved of. That plan lasted only through the first 200-foot pitch. The majority of Craig’s Top 10 routes had likely never been repeated. Many took me several return visits to climb cleanly. One was completely mislabeled in the guidebook; one had two different names; and one proved impossible to find. All were desperate. On a few routes, my partners and I cursed Craig and threw Big Bros, while on others we were vomiting, hyperventilating, or crying. But mostly we laughed and shouted Craig Luebben’s name in admiration up and down the desert canyons. In the end, completing the list took two full seasons. For all that time, in spirit, Craig was my guide, mentor, and teacher.
I’ve ticked short-cruxed 5.13 inverts, but this was my first foray into old-school desert offwidth climbing. Inverts—offwidths with intense, feet-above-hands cruxes—require tremendous core strength and poise while hanging upside-down by your feet. Yet I quickly learned that the vertical wide cracks, often taking more than an hour per pitch to lead, required qualities I lacked: patience, endurance, and the ability to manage a rack that can total over 20 pounds. Midway through the Top 10, I concluded that some of Craig’s desert 5.11s were actually much harder than invert 5.13s.
The Dentist’s Chair (5.11d) starts with a straightforward section of finger, hand, and fist jams, leading to a 40- foot flared chimney. This intimidating feature succumbs to a combination of chicken wings and high heel-toes, as you awkwardly bump a big cam up the five-inch crack in the back. Exiting the chimney forms a distinct crux, followed by 75 feet of tight knee locks. Looking up the route, I managed to convince myself that it didn’t look too long. On our first foray, Pat carried a massive rack of No. 5 cams but still ran out of gear well short of the anchor. “Holy shit!” he exclaimed, back on the ground after rapping from his high point. “I thought I was like 20 feet from the anchor, not 60!”
Next up, I taped my hands and took a few pre-emptive Motrin. Intimidated, I wanted to escape to Vedauwoo and find another quick little invert to do. One hundred feet into the The Dentist’s Chair, at one of the cruxes, I realized that these vertical offwidths could be just as technically baffling as inverts, and much more committing.
The second route on the list was Tooth Fairy (5.10+), a beautiful flaring corner not far from The Dentist’s Chair. It was to be one of my least elegant ascents. I couldn’t get my knees to lock in, and I couldn’t get any of the standard hand stacks to work. Hand-to-hand, hand-to-fist, even fist-to-fist stacks failed, and I resorted to an awkward hand-to-cupped-hand stack. To keep my hands from slipping I had to bear down on them, placing tremendous pressure on the knuckles of my cupped hand. After a long struggle, as I painfully tried to clip the anchor, I noticed my hand was turning faintly purple. An X-ray soon answered a question I’d often pondered: Yes, it is possible to fracture your own hand while stacking.
Six of the Luebben Desert Top 10 are in Long Canyon, about 10 miles as the crow flies southwest of Moab. A week later my fractured hand had healed enough that I felt I could continue. Luebben’s Long Canyon offwidths were the natural progression from his Indian Creek climbs. They are longer and more committing, and require more advanced offwidth techniques, with plenty of hard sections that are sandy.
Our first Long Canyon route, the Done-Lubin’ (a play on the names of first ascensionists Jimmy Dunn and Craig Luebben), is an elegant wide crack that starts with baggy cupped hands through a small roof, then progresses quickly from five to six to eight inches. When an offwidth is too wide or awkward to hand-stack, you resort to a classic, old-school technique: the arm-bar. The snowplow of offwidthing, arm-barring involves reaching deep into the crack and pressing one wall with your palm, countered by pressure from your triceps against the back wall.
I found this technique strenuous and insecure—especially after 40 continuous feet. Luebben had led this route (and most of his first ascents) almost exclusively with Big Bros for the wide sections—this involves placing the tube, then leading up past it. Big cams, in contrast, can be slid up the crack for a constant if somewhat insecure toprope. On the Done-Lubin’, I shamelessly resorted to bumping a nine-inch Valley Giant cam for the last 30 feet to the anchor.
The Done-Lubin’ was rated 5.11, and I was curious to know what kind of vertical offwidth could earn a 5.12 rating. Really, what could be worse than fracturing my hand while stacking, or 40 feet of arm-bars while bumping a nine-inch cam above my head? Next on the hit list was the three-pitch 5.12a called Sorcerer’s Crossing, which climbs a pillar named the Sorcerer adjacent to the rimrock along River Road, a few miles from Moab. The original route—featuring a notorious 5.11+ squeeze-chimney crux—climbs the formation’s left side, while Sorcerer’s Crossing begins on the right, in a striking wide-crack splitter, before crossing through a “window” behind the tower to join the original route for its final flaring squeeze.
Craig had teamed up with Jeff Achey to establish this route, one of the hardest offwidth towers in the desert. Pitch one starts as a chimney capped by a roof that leads into a clean crack of perhaps the most dreaded offwidth size: the thinnest stacks for hands along with nearimpossible calf-locks for the feet, requiring one foot cammed low, the other at waist level, and super-strenuous sit-ups to advance your hand stacks. Fifteen feet later, the crack opens again to six inches. Requiring one difficult offwidth technique after another, this lead undoubtedly deserved its 5.12 rating. But if pitch one will crush your ego, the last pitch will crush your soul. In Climbing 179, Craig describes that summit slot, which was first freed in 1978 by Jimmy Dunn: “Below, the chimney fell away into darkness, and above it pinched ominously. Above the pinch, thinking I was home free, I faced the crux: a sandy, flared, wet, overhanging—and for Dunn, unprotected—offwidth.”
At the old iron-ring-piton belay anchor, Pat and I looked up in horror at this final pitch. The flare above us appeared to require an unprotectable full-body stem to begin, with a plummet into the abyss below to penalize any mistake. We procrastinated for nearly an hour. On my first attempt I backed off, but not before starting to cry and screaming to Pat that it was not possible for someone my size and I would never do it cleanly.
Pat and I subsequently repeated the stunning tower four times in the next week—for a total of 1,600 feet of climbing. Eventually I was able to cleanly lead that final pitch, and managed not to cry.
By mid-April, five weeks into the project, we were only on route five, and the weather was starting to get hot. Pat and I returned to Long Canyon to find a climb called Ralph. The only 5.12b on Craig’s desert list, Ralph was conspicuously absent from any guidebook. I knew it was in Long Canyon, but the only other beta I had was a Kennan Harvey photograph in Craig’s book Advanced Rock Climbing—and I knew that Craig had vomited on the route. We spent hours looking up one ominous wide line after another, comparing each crack to the photo, and speculating: “Would Craig have puked on this route?”
The mystery of Ralph’s location was solved by Topher Donahue. The name was explained by Kennan Harvey, who photographed the climb while another friend, Dave, belayed: “Craig had already failed twice near the finish of the route, and even though he hadn’t freed it, he had picked a name for it. [Off, as it’s listed in one guidebook, because since it featured all the “off” sizes.] We ribbed him for his overconfidence, since naming rights traditionally go to the first free ascensionist. But Craig was well prepared,” Harvey continued, “and his send was seemingly straightforward—until he clipped the chains and started shaking like a break dancer. Dave and I looked at each other, and then back up at Craig, just in time to see his final convulsion. ‘Sorry, Luebben,’ we called up. ‘You just baptized the route, and the new name is Ralph!’”
Ralph was undoubtedly the worst experience I have ever had on a wide crack. I was horrified by a death flake wedged into the initial flare, convinced it would detach and crush me. I got my knee badly stuck, repeatedly, until I threw my kneepads off, cursing. As if it could not get worse, the climb finishes with a precarious traverse to reach a 5.12 thin crack that leads to the anchor—and I was a foot too short to make the traverse without dynoing. It was the only day on the Top 10 that I despised offwidth climbing, and I was secretly overjoyed that Craig had puked on this route.
The Mayor (5.12a), just to the right of Ralph, is a very long and continuous six-inch crack in a dihedral, requiring difficult hand-fist stacks, arm-barring, and thigh jams. I expected it to be one of the more challenging routes on the list—but I was unprepared for the battle that ensued.
After a short, chossy approach pitch, we reached a pitch that was so sandy I witnessed my gear, hands, body, and ego all slip down the wide crack, covered in dirt. After a feeble attempt that day, I contacted Topher Donahue, wondering how they had fared on the first ascent. “The Mayor was kinda dirty when we did it,” he replied nonchalantly. “We got schooled on the first go, cleaned it with our carcasses, and then did it the next time.”
On our next visit, we pretty much followed the same procedure. Pat attempted to lead the pitch in Craig’s committing “Bro and go” style—that is, setting Big Bros and climbing above them, rather than walking a cam as you climb. Fifty feet into the pitch, he changed his mind, fearing he’d rip out the string of shakily placed Big Bros if he fell. Dejectedly, Pat lowered off the highest Big Bro, covered in sand. He crumpled into the fetal position on the belay ledge, then rappelled to the ground and vomited. We wondered if Craig was laughing, watching his masterpiece humble another unsuspecting soul.
It was now the beginning of May. Back in Long Canyon, we made an hour-long approach in the scorching sun to our crack of choice, a seemingly endless squeeze chimney that looked virtually unprotectable after the first 50 feet. It was called Dragon’s Lair (5.11). Unlike the sport climbers around the corner at Wall Street who were peeling off layers on this hot day, Pat and I were adding: thick tape gloves, long-sleeve shirts, kneepads, elbow pads, and long pants with tape around the ankles to keep pant legs from getting stuck. Pat set off with a ridiculously large rack—of what turned out to be the wrong gear. After hanging most of the rack from a low piece, he managed to stuff himself into the 100-foot squeeze chimney and disappeared upward. After 90 minutes, I hadn’t heard a word. I started suspecting that Pat had been consumed.
I yelled up into the darkness, and after more silence I finally heard a whimpering, “Oh God,” followed by, “I’m stuck.” Getting body parts stuck in offwidths was nothing new. Throughout the Top 10, both Pat and I had moments of terror and contemplated cutting off a leg or arm, Aron Ralston–style, but neither of us had gotten our entire body stuck. After about 30 minutes Pat was able to back down the squeeze, slither father out, and wiggle through a different part of the slot. Nearly two hours after starting up, he finally clipped the anchor.
Climbing the Dragon’s Lair squeeze chimney is like having a CT scan you can’t escape. Once inside, it seems like the best option is to stay deep and climb directly upward. I soon discovered, as had Pat, that this was a bad choice. When the squeeze became too small, I tried desperately to wiggle out sideways toward the lip of the crack, but despite weighing nearly 50 pounds less than Pat, I couldn’t fit that way either. Fighting off sheer horror, I realized I had to downclimb and then try again farther out, leaving my pro far behind.
A few days later I wrote to Greg Murphy, who had done the first ascent with Craig nearly 20 years before. Greg told me that Craig had “floated” the route. Floated it?! Had we climbed the wrong route? Clearly, my Luebben apprenticeship was still in the early stages.
The next season I would return to the route with Jay Anderson. Jay managed to avoid the dragon’s snare by remaining close to the outside of the chimney, yet still paid the ultimate tribute to Craig. He made it 50 feet into the pitch, looked down, and proceeded to vomit. Several times. Then he looked back up and yelled to the sky, “That’s for you, Craig! I respectfully puke on your route and climb to the top! Cheers on the other side, little Big Bro!”
Dragon’s Lair was the last climb we completed before the summer heat drove me out of Moab. Seven months later I was back, after two months of climbing casual inverts in Vedauwoo, three months of surveying in Alaska, and two months of strength-training for another physical whipping by the Luebben 10.
I returned to Moab in February 2011, eager to complete the last three climbs on the list. Jay Anderson and I made the 4-wheel-drive expedition to the top of Long Canyon for a reconnaissance of Sidewinder, a long squeeze chimney on which Craig had invented “sidewinding,” a technique involving slithering up the slot with your body horizontal, feet near head level. As the stunning corner came into view, neither of us could believe it was a single pitch. And it looked unrelenting.
A week later, Jay, Pat, Andrew Burr, and I returned to confront the route. Pat had often made our first attempts on the Top 10 routes, but after having now survived many Luebben wide cracks, my goal this season was to be first to set off into the unknown. And so I started up Sidewinder, in the rain, with a huge rack. As I crept up the chimney, I had plenty of time to contemplate Craig’s rack for the route: 12 Big Bros. Again, I found myself resorting to pushing up nine- and 12-inch Valley Giants—without a second of remorse.
After two seasons of combing the walls of Long Canyon, and despite a detailed guidebook description of the route and its location, Pat and I were unable to locate route No. 9, Slither & Scream. Craig’s partner on the first ascent, Sari Schmetterer, couldn’t even recollect the route, and Pat and I began to suspect it was a myth. On our final attempt, Jay, Andrew Burr, Herb Crimp, Pat, and I set off in search of the elusive line. After an hour, Burr was able to convince Pat that one particularly dark, gaping chasm was the route. Two hours later and 80 meters up the black void, to no one’s surprise, Pat had still not found an anchor. We decided this chimney would be Pat’s personal tribute to Craig, dubbed Scream & Slither—and also that it was entirely unnecessary for any of us to follow it.
The last on route our list was the only line to receive four stars in any guidebook. Only minutes from the car on Moab’s Potash Road, with a tantalizing (sandbagged) grade of “5.10,” Offwidths are Beautiful beckons the aspiring wide-crack climber. The first pitch transitions from five to seven inches, with a tight squeeze chimney in between. Near the top, elegance gave way to mild desperation as I fist-stacked and arm-barred the slightly overhanging final 30 feet of the pitch. Jay Anderson then led the easier second pitch, with a sandy runout to the anchor. I again consulted Sari Schmetterer, who had been on the first ascent with Craig, along with legendary desert climbers Earl Wiggins, Katy Cassidy, and George Hurley. This climb Sari did remember. “Craig always grunted and groaned up hard routes,” she said. “He was breathing so hard, and was leading this climb with all the desert heroes watching. There was no way he was going to hang.”
They chose the name Offwidths are Beautiful, Sari said, “because Craig wanted to help promote the love of offwidth climbing and try to make it popular. We even did a silk-screen shirt depicting a beautiful girl with long flowing hair, climbing the offwidth.”
I staggered away from Craig’s list with a sense of accomplishment I had never experienced upon completing any single climb. It felt like both an achievement and a training course. These 10 wide cracks required a myriad of technical offwidth skills, including bizarre sequences of hand-stacks, knee-locks, teacup fists, arm-bars, chicken wings, heel-toes, and sidewinding. But they also bore physical witness to the man—a climber with extraordinary vision, passion, an unyielding ability to withstand pain, and a willingness to set out into unknown. I never had the opportunity to rope up with Craig, but throughout the Top 10 I was surrounded by his presence. Previously a specialist, I now had a much deeper understanding of the American offwidth tradition. I had stood on the shoulders of a giant, and was humbled.
Pamela Shanti Pack is a professional climber who lives in Moab and spends her summer vacations in the Bering Sea as an oceanic cartographer. She also has an art degree from Yale. Pack has established many 5.12 and 5.13 offwidths of her own, but looks forward to upping the ante with her newfound skills and putting up some vertical “5.11s.”
- Ralph (5.12b), with Kennan Harvey and Dave Anderson, 1994
- The Mayor (5.12a), with Topher Donahue, 1995
- Done Lubin’ (5.11), with Jim Dunn, 1994
- Sidewinder (5.11), with Thor Keiser, 1990
- Dragon’s Lair (5.11), with Greg Murphy, 1989
- Slither & Scream (5.11), with Sari Schmetterer, 1991
Indian Creek, Utah
- The Dentist’s Chair (5.11d), early 1990s
- Tooth Fairy (5.10+), with Kevin Chase (same day as Dentist’s Chair)
River Road, Utah
- Sorcerer’s Crossing (5.12a), with Jeff Achey, 1994
Potash Road, Utah
- Offwidths are Beautiful (5.10), with George Hurley, Earl Wiggins, Katy Cassidy, and Sari Schmetterer, 1988