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Southeast Utah’s sandstone splitters are iconic. Indian Creek played a seminal role in the history of climbing, and it’s long-been a proving ground for every level of climber. But unlike many other classic crags, one does not just show up, tie in, and crush route after route. There are subtle nuances to the climbing, the place, and the scene that one must understand to embrace what climbers affectionately refer to as “the Creek.”
1. Thou shalt figure out thy hand size and become a disciple of it
I always thought of my hands as small, so I assumed (incorrectly) that I was between a .75 and a #1 cam. I got absolutely spanked for three trips and thought I was horrible at crack climbing. (This wasn’t completely untrue.) I had avoided all “hand cracks,” or routes that are mostly #2 cams, thinking they would be too hard. Then I gave Incredible Handcrack a burn, and the jams were so solid I felt like I could hang a Mac truck off my body. I then told my friend, who I thought had the same size hands, to give it a try. She’s much stronger than me, so I promised her she’d crush it. After 45 minutes of flailing and hanging on the rope, she lowered from the crux. The morals of the story: My hands are between #1 and #2, and don’t listen to anyone who has a different hand size than you.
2. Thou shalt ignore grades
Because many of Indian Creek’s routes were established by dudes who have hands the size of #2 and #3 cams, the typical “hand crack” size is given the grade of 5.10 while smaller cracks (.75 and #1) are usually 5.11. Many thin finger cracks are 5.12 or 5.13, and who the hell knows how offwidths are graded. If you have smaller hands, you’ll find the 5.11s much easier than the 5.10s, vice versa for larger hands—many people dislike Indian Creek because it’s so size-dependent. Find your hand size and get comfortable with that type of crack while also trying narrower and wider sizes. Even the splitterest of splitters doesn’t stay the exact same size from bottom to top. You need a variety of crack techniques to dispense at any moment.
3. Thou shalt expect to suck
As a new Creek-goer, it can be hard to watch other climbers float up routes that took you 45 minutes and 37 takes on toprope. Others will make it look so easy, you might feel frustrated and disheartened. Fear not! Some people take to Indian Creek quickly and figure out the technique in a few tries. For the rest of us mortals, it takes hours of flailing before it kind of, sort of starts to click. It took me a month of climbing in the creek, spread over a few years, before I stopped feeling like an ineffective, uncoordinated bag of meat bones every time I pulled on. You will get there, just have a positive attitude and keep trying.
4. Thou shalt toprope the shit out of everything
In the climbing hierarchy of the world, it’s considered more of an achievement to lead a route than to toprope it. While that still holds true in the Creek, toproping here has much more cachet. Why? Because every route you climb, lead or toprope, is still a full-body beatdown that demands every iota of your mental, physical, and emotional strength. Plus, toproping eliminates the fear of a lead fall, which can help you focus on developing actual crack technique instead of being scared out of your gourd.
5. Thou shalt embrace a “by any means necessary” ethos
That means disregarding style, technique, ability, and ego to do what you gotta do to get to the top. Wearing socks under climbing shoes to protect your ankles or because it’s cold as balls? Perfect. Laybacking that perfect-hands splitter because you’re a sport climber on his first trip to the Creek? Awesome. Taping from fingertips to shoulders because you have to chicken-wing for 100 feet? Do it. Nobody will judge you, and if they do, they’re probably European so who cares.
6. Thou shalt take rest days
The Creek will absolutely destroy every part of your body, from your feet and ankles to your dome. “Bad skin” in the Creek isn’t limited to your poor wittle fingies. No, Indian Creek will ravage every inch of exposed skin that comes into contact with the rock, and then it will scrape the clothes off your body and ravage the skin underneath. Long, steep hikes wearing a 40-pound pack filled with an “Indian Creek rack” (i.e., an octuple rack) will exhaust your leg muscles, and the awkward twisting of a proper foot jam will demolish your feet, ankles, and knees. Then there’s the endless hours of belaying your friends that will permanently alter the curve of your neck and spine. If you can climb (well) for more than three days in a row at the Creek, I’ll give you my firstborn.
7. Thou shalt learn how to make good tape gloves—and then climb without them
There are a million varieties of tape gloves: with and without the thumb, butterfly taping, wide strips, narrow strips, wrap-wrap-wrap style, etc. Try as many as you can to find one that works for you, then try climbing without gloves at all. In the beginning of your crack climbing journey, your technique will be piss-poor, meaning your hands and fingers will slide around on the sandpaper rock, getting cut to shreds. The gloves protect your skin, especially when climbing multiple days in a row. As you get better, your hands will stay where you put them, but the gloves seem slippery. You might find that your hands feel more solid without gloves.
8. Thou shalt go to Creeksgiving once
Spending Thanksgiving in the Creek seems like a perfect storm of climber fantasies: crisp sending temps that aren’t too cold, an entire week off school or work, friends from all over the country in the same place, endless routes, great camping, plenty of cold beers, and more food than you ate the previous three weeks combined. You’re climbing hard everyday anyway, so what’s a few extra calories? Come on, it’s pie! But in reality, there are way too many people, it gets freaking cold because it’s practically December, you won’t find an open campsite, cooking a full Thanksgiving dinner over a fire is hard, and let’s be honest: Your body probably can’t handle a full week of climbing there anyway.
9. Thou shalt practice flawless outdoor ethics
The fragile desert environment of Indian Creek requires strict adherence to every Leave No Trace, Access Fund, and outdoor stewardship principle you can dream up. Use the pit toilets, stay on the trail, don’t climb after a storm, minimize impact, pack everything out, keep pets on a leash, respect private property, follow all BLM rules, only stay in designated campsites, etc. The wilderness surrounding Indian Creek is already coming under scrutiny, let’s not provide another reason to restrict this precious land.
Though shalt also know that desert sandstone is exceedingly friable when wet, and that you should not, under any circumstances, climb on wet rock or rock that has been recently wet.
10. Thou shalt be wary of “suggested racks”
The first Indian Creek guidebook, written by David Bloom and published in 2004, included gear suggestions for each cam and nut you might want on any particular route. Bloom used Wild Country Friends as the baseline, and since Friends have different measurements than other cam brands, he included a conversion chart. With detailed racking lists for thousands of routes, there are bound to be mistakes. The current guidebook, Indian Creek: A Climbing Guide (Camalot edition) uses Black Diamond Camalots as the baseline, which is helpful for modern American climbers, but if you rely solely on the gear description, there’s a good chance you’ll be left either backing off a route or running it out over questionable pro and wondering where the hell you went wrong. Chances are, you didn’t. You just got “Bloombagged,” a situation that has become so common in the Creek that it’s earned a unique term for getting sandbagged by Bloom’s gear beta. Instead, use the Bloom book as a guideline, look up at the route you’re probably already standing under, and make an educated guess. When you think you’ve got the ideal rack, throw a few more cams on your harness—you won’t regret it.