Classic Routes: Lightning Bolt Cracks

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Out west beyond the Indian Creek, Utah, splitters sits a son-of-a-gun of a desert tower: North Six Shooter Peak. From most angles it looks like its namesake—a bit on the stubby side, more the Sheriff’s Model Colt than Army Issue—but sight the tower directly from the northeast and a more perfect sandstone needle you will never see.

In April 1979, Ed Webster and Pete Williams finally got a close look at the daunting 200-foot “Lightning Cracks” (aka Lightning Bolt Cracks) that Jimmie Dunn had been telling them about. Dunn, with fellow desert-climbing pioneers Billy Westbay and Stewart Green, had climbed the formation’s original route in 1971, and spotted the zigzagging fissures on the sheer southeast face. “What I saw didn’t ease my anxiety much,” Williams says.

Ed Webster on the first ascent, moving out the bombay through the massive ceiling.

Ed Webster on the first ascent, moving out the bombay through the massive ceiling.

Back then, tower trips could be serious business. Spring-loaded cams had yet to debut, making the climbing difficult to protect. Hexes were available, but the Wingate-sandstone cracks were often so parallel that the leader simply had to punch it between pods. Two inches too high and a Hex rattled; two inches too low and it wouldn’t fit. Falls were rare, but potential air was huge.

The 15-foot roof at two-thirds height looked so daunting that Williams insisted Webster take that lead. This put Williams on the first pitch, facing a near-parallel crack splitting an unflawed wall. Bouldering up a few moves, he imagined falling off and yanking Webster from his stance, the two of them taking “a horrible, flesh-mangling slide” down the 500-foot talus cone below. Williams slotted a perfect No. 6 Hex and a wide finger piece, then gunned it 15 feet, cranking one jam each of every bad size between fingers and hands—unknowingly completing the route’s 5.11a crux. Steeper, wider cracks lay above, the bane of smaller-handed climbers who have climbed the route since, but Williams cruised these, too, and stretched the pitch out 120 feet to end just below the huge roof.

Stevie Haston, Strappo Hughes, and Laurence Gouault on the summit in 1991.

Stevie Haston, Strappo Hughes, and Laurence Gouault on the summit in 1991.

The stone below had been mostly blank, and Webster expected more of the same on his lead. Instead, perfect foot ledges appeared. Webster high-stepped and jammed effortlessly out the left side of the ceiling, yelling down from the lip, “This is the best route I’ve ever done!”

The view from up top—earned after a final stretch of 5.9—wasn’t bad either. To the southeast lay the sister pinnacle of South Six Shooter, their only companion in the sky. To the northeast rested the snowy, 12,000-foot cones of the La Sals. To the west lay the Dali-esque maze of the Needles District in Canyonlands National Park, and 50 miles farther, on the horizon, spiked the hazy summits of the Henrys. The two climbers took in the scene as a just reward for firing the FA of one of the planet’s most classic tower routes.

Haston climbing moderate layback cracks below the imposing roof at two-thirds height on Lightning Bolt Cracks (5.11a).

Haston climbing moderate layback cracks below the imposing roof at two-thirds height on Lightning Bolt Cracks (5.11a).

The Beta

Location

North Six Shooter Peak, Indian Creek, Utah

Grade

5.11a

Length

Two to four pitches

First Ascent

Ed Webster and Pete Williams; April 1979