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The Lure of the Canyonlands

The Lure of the Canyonlands

John Harlin

To THE MODERN rock climber, the possibilities for ascending new routes seem to be diminishing rapidly. People have visited just about every scraggly crag—and to pluck a new gem often requires 1) intimate knowledge of the area, 2) the willingness to wire-brush half a ton of lichen from the route, often on rappel, and 3) the ability to do one-finger pullups. Though the average reasonably young and halfway dedicated rock climber can usually muster 5.10 moves, all this would seem to let him do is check off a few more routes in the guidebook.

Perhaps, if you catch him in a rare reflective mood, he might admit that he’d trade his 5.10 skills for a few unclimbed lines. He would briefly acknowledge that being the first on High Exposure in the Shawangunks or on the Royal Arches in Yosemite must have been great—a real adventure. But soon his nose would be back in the guidebook so he could yell to his partner that he now faced a long stretch to a 5.10c mantle.

Even with his guidebook, climbing is an adventure. When you face the possibility of a ten-foot fall, it doesn’t matter if the hold has been polished by a thousand other hands or whether there is still lichen covering it—either way a tingle goes up and down your spine and for a moment the anxiety of the move is all you think about.

But still, something is different. There is a lure to the hold with lichen on it that the polished one doesn’t have. A lure strong enough for someone to spend half a day working out the pitch when he might otherwise have climbed several complete routes of guaranteed quality. There is something about the newness of a route. What is it?

Glory? For some that’s certainly a primary motive. If your route has been ferreted out of a well-known crag and it is significantly hard, bold, or pure, then your name is soon on many tongues. That is definitely a motive in many a first ascent, whether admitted to or not. But for many, glory is a small part of the new route experience.

Contribution? Though it may at first seem much like glory-seeking, the desire to make a contribution is often a very different cause. There is a thrill in opening new territory for others to follow. Arriving on top of a climb that you know is destined to be a classic, you feel that you’ve contributed something meaningful to the future enjoyment of others. Even those who will hide from the limelight will rush to share their experience. But still, climbers are rarely known for their altruism. Neither glory nor contribution can be the whole of a new route experience.

Frontiers? Pushing new frontiers is a motive of course—if the established routes are too easy for you or you’ve already done them all— but unless you’re at the cutting edge of climbing, this can’t be your concern. And many new-route addicts are nowhere near the cutting edge.

Adventure? That must surely be the major appeal of climbing new routes. Climbing is always an adventure to one degree or another, but there is an enormous difference between doing a route where you don’t know how hard the crux will be and doing one that is all mapped out. And even if difficulty won’t be a consideration, simply picking the line on your own, using your own judgement and experience to tell you if it’s in your realm or worth your energy, sweat, and time—this notion of doing it on your own is a different sort of adventure from that of saying “Well someone else did it; can I do it too?”

* * * * *

It is for the adventure of new-route exploration that the Canyonlands of Utah were made. Perhaps that’s not what Mother Earth had in mind when she uplifted the area, but for the lover of untrodden territory, she might as well have done it all for us.

What few summits there are (in the form of pinnacles) have been discovered and trodden upon long ago. But then rock climbers aren’t really summit oriented—that’s for mountaineers. We climb to climb.

For us there are walls. And more walls. And even more walls. They twist and curve and convolute for mile after mile after mile. And for their whole length they are laced with cracks. Cracks on faces, cracks in dihedrals; straight cracks, flared cracks; small cracks, big cracks; good cracks, bad cracks. On some you’ll see occasional rappel stations; on 99.99% you’ll see nothing.

Canyonlands National Park is the only place I’ve seen where I’d say the potential for new routes and the potential to absorb climbers are both limitless. There are a few established routes—even several where you could find out the difficulty ahead of time. From the road in Indian Creek Canyon you can occasionally spot slings at belay stations on the three-pitch climbs. These tell you at least that climbers have been here before and that the route will go—to someone.

What will impress you most, however, is that the next fifty cracks to the left and the next hundred to the right have no belay stations. And then it may occur to you that the canyon walls you are gawking at are only those visible from the main, paved road. The National Park is a maze of canyons, many of which have walls twice as high as these and which are inaccessible without a good topographic map and the willingness to explore either on foot or with an off-road vehicle.

George Hurley recently wrote an article about climbing in southeastern Utah. He described many of the better pinnacles and routes, and mentioned that he didn’t feel guilty about trying to open the desert to more climbers. It’s nice occasionally not to be alone in the huge desert expanse.

But for the near future, you are likely to be alone. And there are no climbing stores or bars to learn from within several hours’ drive. So here are a few more details before you head for adventure in the land of sand and sun.

First: it’s all sandstone out there. It is soft and sometimes scary. Big chunks can break off, and nuts, pitons, and Friends can rip out of cracks. You need to get a feel for what the good stuff is like (notably the Wingate layer that predominates in Indian Creek) before striking into unchartered territory.

Second: there’s a lot of sun. Spring and fall are the only times most people can tolerate for climbing, but even then it can get scorchingly hot if you’re unlucky. Most of the streams are usually dry too, so you’ll need to bring plenty of water.

Of course, you have to keep in mind that the consequences of an accident get more and more serious as you weave your way deeper into a Canyonlands maze. There is no denying the adventure of having the nearest doctor ten dirt and thirty paved miles away. Especially if a thunderburst washed out the road.

And unless your lust for adventure runs towards fanaticism, you’d be ill advised to climb in Canyonlands without at least one—and preferably three—sets of Friends. This sandstone has a peculiar tendency to cleave into cracks that are too perfect: they often just don’t taper. And a friend in need is a Friend indeed!

Keep that in mind too, for when you rappel back down the route. Since you won’t want to leave your Friends behind, a bolt kit is very important. Bring the fattest, longest bolts you can lay your hands on. On the Primrose Dihedrals on Moses Tower, I desperately clipped into a bolt while off-widthing up a horribly difficult section only to have my second bring the bolt up with him—it had fallen out and slid down the rope.

The best bolts are angle pitons driven into holes drilled in the rock. Sometimes you can simply overdrive an angle pin into a too-small crack instead. I also sometimes bring extra wired nuts and hammer them into cracks. And just out of consideration to people who might follow your route, I highly recommend rappel rings for the slings you’ll leave behind.

So far I’ve only talked about what might appeal to the climber in you. The desert is of course more than just that, and if you don’t appreciate the vastness, the harshness, the beauty, the quiet, the remoteness of the desert wilderness, then you won’t feel welcome here no matter how much you like the climbing. But if these things appeal to you too, then Canyonlands National Park holds unlimited potential to experience the adventures of new-route exploration.