It’s easy to get down on winter. The fourth season brings short, cold, and damp days, which drives rock climbers to the gym. But here’s the good part: All those laps you ticked and workouts you completed should have you in the best shape of the year—just in time for snowmelt. Test yourself at one of these go-before-you-die areas famous for the endurance their routes require.
Indian Creek, Utah
Dig out your tape gloves and prep your jams
For crack climbers, Indian Creek is the land of plenty. The valley hosts miles of Wingate sandstone, and each crag is adorned with dozens of cracks. The approaches are generally short, and most climbs take stellar gear—albeit lots of it. Beyond that, Indian Creek is the great equalizer. The Creek can be as humbling to climbers as being caught in the middle of the desert without a lick of water. Even climbers who have worked hundreds of cams into Eldorado’s walls or shimmied up gnarly Vedauwoo offwidths can still be shut down within the first five feet of attempting a desert off-fingers splitter. The prize of Indian Creek, a true splitter, demands flawlessly efficient technique. Indian Creek requires endurance; learning to rest easily from a hand or fist jam is much better than wasting time looking for face holds. With around 50 areas fractured by many more routes, a climber looking to build strength and endurance on cracks could easily set up shop for an entire season. But those without the luxury of time can still test their endurance on the Creek’s soaring splitters.
Steph Davis, a prominent desert climber, recommends starting in Donnelly Canyon for an introduction to the Creek’s most pump-worthy cracks. Warm up on Binou’s Crack (5.8). It’s clearly marked—etched into the wall, actually—and offers pure jamming for most of the way. But it also has spots for stemming and face climbing for rests. From there, take a lap up the 50-foot Chocolate Corner (5.9), a thin-hands corner—you might detect the pure subjectivity of Indian Creek grades here. Move onto Generic Crack (5.10-), which is considerably longer at 120 feet. It requires some perseverance through an awkward section at the start, but then flows into a classic splitter crack, with consistent hand- and foot-jams. Donnelly’s holds another dozen more lines in the 5.10 to low 5.12 range. Hop on The Thing (5.10-, fingers to thin hands), and push yourself on Dos Hermanos (5.12-), a four-star Steve Hong route, with sustained but varied crack sizes.
For days two and three of your endurance circuit, Davis says to visit the Supercrack Buttress for utter classics like Supercrack of the Desert (5.10), one of the purest splitters in the canyon, and Incredible Hand Crack (5.10+), with 100 feet of almost nonstop hand jams. At the Cat Wall, try classics like the 180-foot Meow Mix (5.10+, a sundry mix of wide and thin cracks and laybacks), Fat Cat (5.11-, a crack split by a large pod), and the 120-foot 9 Lives (5.12a, a Steve Hong FA with thin hands and fingers). Don’t miss 3 Strikes You’re Out (5.11b) at the Battle of the Bulge, which tests your fortitude for laybacks, or the 160-foot Comfortably Numb (5.10) at The Wall, a hands-to-wide-hands crack in a corner.
“Indian Creek is special because of its concentration, weather, and rugged west feel,” says Climbing senior contributing photographer Andrew Burr. “It’s akin to a sport climbing cliff but in the trad world. Not too many of them around.”
- Guidebook: Indian Creek: A Climbing Guide, Second Edition, by David Bloom (sharpendbooks.com, $32.95).
- Get there: From Moab, head south on US-191 to the junction with UT -211, and go west to Indian Creek Canyon.
- Stay there: Camp for free in designated BLM sites, which have a 14-day limit and fill up quickly—especially in the spring and fall seasons (friendsofindiancreek.org). No running water, but most campgrounds have vault toilets.
Red River Gorge, Kentucky
Ready your core for long, demanding overhangs
Three hundred million years ago, sediments deposited from an ancient inland sea eroded to expose 200-foot-tall cliffs of Corbin sandstone, in what’s now known as the Red River Gorge in eastern Kentucky. The canyon is a geologic wonder rife with arches, pocketed cliffs, and concave walls. And just as it’s known for its hiking and biking trails, the Red is celebrated among climbers for its juggy, overhanging, and wickedly sustained routes. “In its pure, raw form, it can create mutant climbers that can hold on forever,” says Rachel Melville, a local climber who regularly crushes 5.13. “And it’s not just that. You also need to know just how tightly to grip.” Maintaining this balance for routes up to 100 feet makes the Red a great place to build and measure your endurance.
With more than 1,500 sport and trad routes at the Red, the options feel unlimited. Newcomers should orient themselves in Muir Valley, an area riddled with moderates. Start at the Bruise Brothers Wall; the far right side of the crag has routes up to 85 feet. Send Me On My Way (5.9-) and Rat Stew (5.10a) are great first leads on slightly overhanging stone. When you’re ready, head to the long, steep 5.11s at the nearby Sunnyside wall.
Up the ante the next day by moving on to Drive By Crag. If there are no lines, take laps on three long, super-fun 5.10s: Make a Wish (5.10a), Breakfast Burrito (5.10c), and Fire and Brimstone (5.10d). All three have varied movement, from dihedrals to arêtes. Drive By has a dozen four- to five-star routes, mostly in the 5.11 to 5.12 range, up to 90 feet tall. The Bob Marley Crag has numerous pumpy routes perfect for the 5.12 leader, including Dogleg (5.12a) and Tacit (5.12a). And don’t miss the popular Military Wall, where even the moderates will test your endurance. Move through dinner plate–sized jugs on Fuzzy Undercling (5.11b) after a bouldery start; next, try Tissue Tiger (5.12b), where jugs and pockets lead to a crux at the top.
Then tackle the Red’s ultimate crag: the Motherlode. Ray Ellington says it best in his guidebook: “The Lode is a great place to get fit, see the best climbers, and gawk at freakish displays of strength.” Though the aptly named Warm-up Wall has a few routes in the 5.9 to 5.11 range, the area best suits the 5.12 to 5.13 climber, and with some of the steepest walls in the gorge, it’s a sure bet your forearms will feel like exploding. The Undertow Wall “collectively forms one of the most badass, steep, tsunami-esque walls I’ve ever seen,” Melville says. “This is where you truly find the most [quintessentially] Red River of all Red River routes.”
- Guidebook: Red River Gorge South and Red River Gorge North, a two-volume set, by Ray Ellington, will be available in February ($39.95, wolveringpublishing.com).
- Get there: From I-64, take exit 98 onto the Bert T. Combs Mountain Parkway. Take exit 33 at Slade, and turn right onto KY-11. Miguel’s Pizza, the hub of Red River climbers, is on the left after 1.7 miles.
- Stay there: The most popular place to camp is at Miguel’s (miguelspizza.com). Pitch a tent for $2/ night, or reserve the nice, two-bedroom “penthouse” for $175/night. Miguel’s serves unique and delicious pizzas and more. Primitive camping is available on Forest Service land, 300 feet from trails and roads; get a permit at the Shell gas station in Slade.
Rifle Mountain Park, Colorado
Enlighten yourself on enigmatic rock
Rhythm (n): a strong, regular, repeated pattern of movement or sound.
That’s how local climber and guidebook author Dave Pegg describes the climbing at Rifle Mountain Park, Colorado’s infamous hard climber hotspot. And we’re not talking about the beats emanating from the solar-powered speakers stashed on the log bench in the Ruckman Cave. We mean a body tempo, one that can only be deciphered once you’ve become accustomed to Rifle’s style. Climb fast, then slow, then rest, then fast, then rest, then slow, then fast. Continue till you clip the chains. Each route has its own unique rhythm, which is part of the fun; Pegg says the climbing comes in spurts. “You climb, and then rest. And then move through more bouldery or enduro sections, and then rest,” he says.
Rifle’s reputation for cerebral, physical routes is well earned. Even seasoned climbers’ first trip of the year to the canyon often ends in puzzlement, and then frustration. Masochists may feel a renewed sense of determination, while others may resign themselves to failure on that first visit. You have to learn a new style of climbing on the soaring, overhanging walls of blocky, blue, gray, and orange limestone—the sidepulls, underclings, pinches, and angular chunks will at first confound you. That’s Rifle.
But once you nail the style—usually by your second or third visit—you can take your climbing to another level. “The routes are long,” Pegg says. Endurance climbing here is defined by your ability to rest efficiently, and then summon power between stances. “A lot of skill for climbing in Rifle is thinking creatively how and where to rest, and where to climb quickly or slowly,” Pegg says. “It’s that rhythm thing: A lot of routes have different cadences, and sometimes it’s hard for people to pick up the tempo once they’ve found a rest.” Once you learn a route well, he says, you can memorize its rhythm and figure out how to climb efficiently. This is one of the reasons it’s so hard to onsight anything at Rifle.
But this lush, pretty canyon is no longer only a destination for 5.13 aspirants. More than 400 routes line its walls, with many more moderates going in since 2008. New climbs are popping up at existing crags, and there are two brand-new areas called Kubrick’s and the Sanctuary. The former is on the east side of the canyon, opposite and just upstream from the Bauhaus, and has a plethora of 5.10s. Reach the Sanctuary by hiking to the Wasteland and continuing downstream past the Nappy Dugout. The jewel of the Sanctuary is a 5.12a called Genesis, a steep, juggy climb with two distinct cruxes.
When asked to sum up Rifle in 10 words or less, Pegg laughed. “Complicated. Funky. Polished, interesting, steep, and physical,” he says. “It’s very unique, not at all straightforward. It’s the antithesis of the Red River Gorge, where there you’re basically climbing until you can’t climb anymore.”
- Guidebook: The current guidebook, Rifle Mountain Park and Western Colorado Rock Climbs, covers all of Colorado’s Western Slope. This spring, Pegg will release two new books: one dedicated solely to Rifle, with around 70 new routes, and one to the rest of the Western Slope. Both at wolveringpublishing.com.
- Get there: From the west, take exit 90 off I-70 and head north on Railroad Ave. Turn right on CO -325, which eventually becomes a dirt road and leads to climbing in the canyon. From the east, exit I-70 at New Castle (exit 105). Turn right off the interstate, then left on Main St. Turn right on 7th St. and continue straight. Turn right on CO -325 after 12 miles; this will lead to the dirt road.
- Stay there: There are 28 well-maintained sites at the north end of the canyon. Camping is $7/ night, with a $5/day recreation fee. Port-o-Potties and composting toilets are scattered throughout Rifle. More info at rifleclimbers.org.
Pegg’s List: The best endurance routes at Rifle
- Rachel’s Route (5.7), Middle Ice Caves: Not polished and well-bolted; good intro to multi-faceted feature climbing.
- Spuds in Space (5.9), Middle Ice Caves: Sneaky steep “slab” to a pumpy bulge with no rest.
- Mr. Cranky Pants (5.10a), Nappy Dugout: Multiple hard sections with good rests interspersed throughout; thoughtful.
- MVA (5.10c), G3 Wall: A 30-meter-long face climbing journey.
- Hazed and Infused (5.11a), Canine Wall: Pumpy face climb: vertical but very sustained.
- Jail Bait (5.11c), Meat Wall: Long, overhanging pitch with not-obvious rests and lots of changes in tempo.
- Defenseless Betty (5.12a), Project Wall: Pumpiest 5.12a in the canyon; super-classic.
- Hand Me the Canteen Boy (5.12d), Sapper Wall: A true sprint power-endurance route. Clip the third bolt, and then climb as fast as you can.
- Fluff Boy (5.13c), Sno Cone Wall: Steep and strength-sapping. No snooze rests, with the crux at top.
- Zulu (5.14a), Wicked Cave: Long, very steep, with nowhere to hide from the angle. Multiple hard sections with so-so rests. Lots of changes in tempo. Requires good core fitness.
Wild Iris, Wyoming
Move efficiently from pocket to tiny pocket
It’s astonishing that more climbers don’t chuck it all and move to Lander, where the sage-garnished high desert meets the Rockies and sunny days are the norm. Everything from abundant bouldering to world-class sport on sandstone and limestone cliffs to multi-pitch granite in the Wind River Range lies within easy striking distance—plus you can camp for nothing along the Popo Agie (Po-PO-zha) River in the city park, just a five-minute bike ride from Safeway. But back to those sport routes.
Sinks Canyon State Park is the local crag, nine miles southwest of Lander; its dolomite has routes ranging from 5.5 to 5.14a and year-round sun. Fifteen miles further lies Wild Iris, a crag that big wall hero and Wyoming native Todd Skinner considered a favorite training ground for the endurance his preferred style of climbing—long and ridiculously hard—required. At 9,000 feet, it’s a summer-only destination soundtracked by quaking aspen and the occasional afternoon shower; it boasts more than 300 routes from 5.9 to 5.14d of powerful, vertical to overhanging, pocketed limestone.
Legend goes that Skinner’s sister told him about these limestone cliffs (after she was mining for gold in the area). The long, steep walls of compact, gray rock looked like those of Buoux, France, one of the world’s top sport climbing destinations in the 1980s. Soon after, Skinner moved to town from Pinedale. He developed routes (including Throwing the Houlihan in 1991, a pocket-pulling testpiece and one of the first 5.14s put up by an American) and opened a climbing shop in 1990, also called Wild Iris.
Local guidebook author Steve Bechtel wrote that Skinner (who died in Yosemite in 2006) treated “rookie climbers with the same respect as seasoned pros. The result was a community of strong, friendly, and competent climbers.” That chummy vibe still exists today, which is good—because no matter the grade, the climbing is sustained and steep, usually following a series of pockets and small features—monos, scoops, maybe a crimp—with few good footholds, though the face feels sticky. Encountering puzzling sections of blank white stone is common.
“Everything is actually pretty short by route standards. The average route has just six or eight bolts,” says Lander climber B.J. Tilden, who redpointed Moonshine (5.14d), the hardest route at Wild Iris, last August. “But it’s a no-nonsense, bouldery style, so you’re always gunning. Essentially, you work these like very long boulder problems. Steep power-endurance is the style of climbing here.”
To get acquainted, Tilden recommends checking out the aptly named Five Ten Wall, what he calls a “perfect introduction.” Dynamitic (5.6) is a great first lead following large pockets on a vertical face. From here, move just west to one of Tilden’s favorite areas, Hot Tamale, with its undercut base and concentration of hard routes, including the local favorite Hot Tamale Baby (5.11d), a 70-foot line meandering through a slab to a bulging crux.
Like what you see? The Cowboy Poetry, Rodeo Wave, and Aspen Glade walls round out Tilden’s must-visit list. “And don’t leave before trying Devil Wears Spurs (5.10d) on Wild Horses Wall, American Beauty (5.12b) on Cowboy King Wall, and Bobcat Logic (5.12+), a short but sequential, cruxy, and pockety line on Rodeo Wave Wall,” he says. It’s a ticklist that could make you want to up and move here.
- Guidebook: Lander Rock Climbs, by Steve Bechtel and Joe Josephson ($25, amazon.com).
- Get there: From Lander, take WY-28 24 miles south to Limestone Rd. Drive up this dirt road, heading right at a fork to reach the main parking lot.
- Stay there: Primitive camping is easy to scout nearby, and a pit toilet lies just up the road from the parking area. If you head into Lander for supplies, camp for free at Lander City Park on Fremont St.