Solo at the Creek in April

Posted by on May 9th, 2023  •  2 responses

Way Rambo view

April 5, 2023 Creek Pasture campground, note, all photos on this trip taken with my iPhone 14 Pro. I had my full frame camera, but my pack was too heavy already. I also have a couple hours of video boiled down to 19 minutes here:

I left home Sunday at 1pm and drove to Farewell Bend campground arriving at dusk. I passed a couple campgrounds in the Blue mountains because they were either too expensive (Emigrant Springs) or closed In winter (Hilgard Junction State Park). Farewell Bend is all closed except the $33 electric loop. I slept until 9:30.

Traffic was ok in Boise though their 10 year freeway improvement is starting to feel like Tacoma’s never ending construction.  Salt Lake traffic was hell due to snow flurries. When I started up Soldier Summit towards Price there was deep snow and slush on the road and a long line of cars following slow moving 18 wheelers. Occasional idiots tried to pass and I watched them fishtailing out into the oncoming traffic. It was clearly an accident waiting to happen. My Tundra has Nokian Hakkapeliitta studless snow tires and would have been fine, but I did not trust the other drivers.

This wasn’t my first rodeo on this road, I took a right  at the first paved turnoff  (Hwy 89) about 20 minutes up. I crossed the tracks and took the first non-private road (Lake Fork?) into the Utah County Sheriff’s Gun Range. Sue and I discovered this crash spot a few years ago under similar circumstances. This is the one that has a hidden entrance to a huge underground cave. Kids have covered the walls inside with graffiti. On our last visit I crawled down the body slot into the cathedral like interior. It was really cool, and maybe as long as a rope length, but the air was full of cloying paint fumes from the last group of teenage vandals. It’s not like there is any ventilation so the chemicals have nowhere to go. 39.99409° N, 111.49673° W. 

I texted Sue on the inReach to let her know I was ok. It was a little eerie being all alone there in a blizzard. The winds howled all night, blowing 5 inches of wind drift past my tailgate and onto my gear. 

Snowy camp spot
Snowy bivy spot, blizzard conditions

A pickup mounted snowplow woke me up at 6am. He had a key to the Range so must have worked for the sheriff. The storm had tapered off at 2AM leaving 4 inches of light powder. As I headed up the pass I’d hoped for easy driving but the snow plows up on Soldier Summit were kicking up huge blizzards of feather light powder. What should have been easy driving was white knuckle conditions. With no place to pull off, I followed the damn plow at a distance for half an hour. I had an 18 wheeler riding my bumper the whole way. He must have been able to see over the plow plume. After the plow turned off it was fine and I arrived at Creek Pasture at 3pm Tuesday.

Weather was a mixed bag. Windy, warm and sunny, overcast and cold. There are threatening gray clouds on the horizon with tendrils of precipitation coming down but so far it been dry. Chandler the camp host and climbing steward (climber coffee) person came by and introduced herself, asking where in Washington I was from. She’s from Marblemount and we exchanged a few words about how ridiculous it was to get partners to join us down here. Before leaving we were both sitting at home frantically sending out emails and texts to everyone we knew and getting totally shut down. 

She, like me had decided to just show up and meet new friends.  When you are sitting at home it seems like it would never work. But once you’ve experienced the magic you realize it’s effortless. Think about it: people who are serious about the Creek know that it takes weeks to acclimate. People with that kind of free time are few and far between. The chances that one of your local climbing partners has 20 days available is less than zero. The reasons I heard most frequently were: “I can’t get time off work” or “My kids are in school” or “I’m working extra shifts to pay for blah, blah, blah”. So you take a leap of faith, pack the car and drive.

Speaking of meeting partners: Wednesday I was zoning off in my camp chair, jet lagged from the drive. Couldn’t paint or climb. Seemed like a good day to watch the world go by. Climbers would walk by occasionally and I’d give a friendly wave. It’s kind of like swipe right on a dating app…except in real life. If the person walking past likes the look of your wave, they’ll wave back, and if you really play your cards right, or you’re both super desperate…maybe the same thing?…they’ll walk into your campsite and start talking climbing.

That was how I met Phil, The Guide. He was on a Winter long road trip that started when the Squamish guiding season ended. His journey had taken him deep into southern Mexico, not just the usual pass through El Potrero Chico. While climbing down South he had felt sorry for, and fed, a feral kitten, which shortly became his traveling companion.

Later when I knew him better we had a fun riff about how he was doing a public service by broadening the definition of “cat lady”. It’s not just lonely single women who collect cats.

Piton was shy with strangers but could usually be found hidden in the closet up in the ceiling. Phil tried to chase him out so he could roam around during the day, but he often preferred sleeping. He’d ask it patiently what it wanted to do that day, and the cat would just look at him. They seemed to communicate on some level. It was very cute. On the few times where I paid attention he would leave the roof fan on, saying that Piton would be fine. They were 5 months into their journey together and had worked the kinks out. He also mentioned that Piton preferred to prowl around in the safety of darkness.

I asked him if Piton ever got lost, or failed to come home. He showed me a stick with some jingly cat toys. When he was leaving he would shake the toys and Piton would come running out of the bush. He knew which side his bread was buttered on.

Thursday April 6. Phil met some new friends, a couple: Carson and Emily, along with a third 5.12 guy whose name I don’t recall. The couple had been there a month, climbing between showers. They were in their late twenties, super strong climbers, very young and ultra fit. She had long blond hair and a smile that could light up a room. Because I was so far from their level, and several generations older, I really didn’t have much in common with them. They were perfectly kind, and offered me top ropes and stuff…but I felt awkward around them. Maybe I was the one being shy and awkward…I don’t know…more on that later.

The five of us hiked up to 3D wall. Emily led a very hard looking 5.11 while Phil led a nice 10 that started with fun hands, and ended with #5 hand stacks. Phil has mastered almost the entire gamut of trad climbing from fingers and 0.75 greens up through #6. I rarely saw anything slow him down.

For my first day at the creek I did ok. I fell out of the 10 a couple of times, especially on the hand fist stacking section. There may have been a couple others I climbed. The unnamed guy led the 5.12 Positraction with a couple falls. He walked a couple of yellows so high that he would have decked…but that seems to be a thing at the creek. If you don’t have the cams, you make it work. Later in the trip I did it myself on a #6 crack.

Positraction 5.12
Positraction 5.12

This crag started a trend that continued throughout the trip. I’d follow my 5.11 (5.12) partners out to crags that had very little stuff I could lead. They’d warn me ahead of time that there wasn’t much easy stuff, but I’d say: “I don’t care, I’m just happy to see a new crag”. I might get a few top ropes in, but much of the stuff had long sections of 5.11 red #1 climbing.

Despite years of trying, I struggle with reds…so I’d often end up belaying or sitting around wishing I had my drawing pad. Reds always get a little easier towards the end of a trip. Part of it is stamina, which has to be built over time. Also, I’ve noticed that people who have big hands like mine, and are also good at reds, have arm muscles twice the size of mine. I need to build a crack machine at home to muscle up!

Friday April 7 Phil and I went up to the left side of Donnelly, which is called Battle of the Bulge. I hung dog the red section of Binous 5.9. Phil led Battle of the Bulge 5.11. Though hoping to get it clean, he fell at the crux…which is the bulge. It’s greens most of the way, which for me is an even worse size than reds. We also climbed a 10 up and left from Binous. It started in a body slot then exited left past a small roof into a double crack of rattly fingers, which got tighter towards the anchor. It was a fun climb, but I can’t find it on mountain project.

Battle of the Bulge
Battle of the Bulge 5.11, mostly green 0.75

Saturday April 8 Phil met his buddy Anthony (from both Mexico and Squamish) and the three of us went up to Power Wall. Anthony (28) was also on a multi month road trip. He was in a Chevy Van, maybe an Astro? He had a nice build out with some handy sliding shelves. He was running a small electric fridge on an even smaller battery (30 Amp Hr) recharged with a 100 watt solar panel. He works as an HVAC installer in Victoria, BC.

Anthony is a super gregarious guy, really a lot of positive energy. Later I met Christina and she was a huge Anthony fan: “He’s got a killer smile, just sayin!”. Anthony and Phil together are a fun couple of guys to hang out with. Phil has that amazing guide personality, plus being super strong. He plays and sings guitar like a dream, has all his songs memorized..and he has a cat. I mean, what’s not to like? Phil reminds me of myself at that age. Except I was never that strong, I was never that good on the guitar, wasn’t a guide, and didn’t have a cat. Other than that, and the 35 year age difference, we could have been the same person 🙂

Anthony and Phil became the nucleus of a climbing crew that I hung out with for the next three weeks. I felt very lucky to be included in their adventures. At Power Wall, I led Batteries not Included and got it clean…or if I didn’t I got it clean I got it when I came back a few days later with Dave. Phil flashed Power Play and Power Paws, both 5.11. I followed Power Play and Phil was very kind to give me the Senior Hoist belay when I ran out of juice half way up. Phil and Anthony took a TR on the 5.12 finger fest Power Line. It’s rattly fingers in an impossibly vertical featureless wall.

Phil on Power Play
Phil on Power Play

Sunday April 9 all the Colorado folks crowded into the campground and we took a rest day. I drove into town for the first time in 6 days. It was fun checking in on the family news. Lisa and Dan had finally bought their back ordered Tacoma. It took half a year to arrive and was a replacement for Lisa’s old 2008 Corolla which had been tail ended by a semi truck on I-5 almost a year earlier.

Monday April 10 Phil, Anthony and I drove up to Petrified Hornet crag. You drive towards Bridger Jacks but after a mile you take a fork to the left towards the Optimator crag. 8 years ago on my first trip to the creek with Daphney she led me up Soulfire at Optimator, a 5.11 tight hand crack. There is a fun 10 up there called Mudslide that I’d like to get back on. Anyway, from the Optimator parking lot…if you are looking at Optimator, turn 90 degrees to the left and you are looking at Petrified Hornet.

I got my first good onsight lead at Petrified on a splendid 10B corner splitter called Crescent Crack. I’d watched a Swiss girl lead it very cleanly with far less gear than I brought. What I didn’t know was that she leads 12’s…which was why she made it look so easy. I’d been hanging out with Phil and Anthony as they projected a 12- called Sting. Phil led it twice that day. The first time he took a pretty big whipper. I jumped a little as the rope came tight. “How was the catch?” I asked. “Perfect!”.

Phil leading Sting 5.12B. He got it clean.

But eventually they took a break and Phil gave me a catch on Crescent. I led it with 2 reds, 3 yellows, 6 blues and 3 #4’s. My monster mitts got decent fist jams through the last section but it’s definitely pumpy. It reminded me of a couple different routes. 4×4 crack has the same sustained section of blues, as does RattleTale at Index. Also Fisticuffs at Joshua Tree has some similar fist jamming at the end. It’s a lovely route, and I felt lucky to get it clean. As I walked my fours up the 20 feet of finishing flaring fists at the end I was puffing like an overworked cart horse.

I could hear my friends, even the Swiss couple, cheering me on down below. They all knew how badly I wanted to lead something cleanly after following and flailing on so many elevens. I was so happy at the top I may have even yodeled.

Crescent Crack
Crescent Crack

We started that day on the namesake route called Petrified Hornet. Both Phil and Anthony led it. I TR’d it and got most of it clean. With the exception of the bouldery start I probly could have done a hang dog ascent. It’s very nice with a short section of reds but mostly hands.

Petrified Hornet
Phil leading Petrified Hornet

We finished out the day on a pretty 5.11 called Kiefer Ari, named after the Creek Freak guidebook author’s son. Anthony tried to lead it first and kept falling off the boulder start. As his belayer, I was quite nervous. I had a couple sketchy cams protecting my belay perch above a 40 foot drop. He had two cams in also, but the rock looked sandy…not wingate. I kept imagining him blowing his cams and the two of us tumbling down the cliff.

Eventually he handed off the lead to Phil who sent it cleanly after a few ups and downs. I was glad to be team photographer after that. It’s a super sketchy ledge. I was creeping back and forth on the unconsolidated sand and boulders wishing for a belay. But then the two Swiss climbers came waltzing up no handed, completely unconcerned, easily and effortlessly stepping across the sandy downscoping ledges above the sheer 40 foot drop. Some people just have no fear.

Sue and I started as mountaineers in 1977. But even then, we would stop to belay things that our friends would scramble past, not bothering with a rope. There were times in the Cascades when we were so slow and careful that our friends would come free soloing down from the summit while we were still going up. Despite having left high camp at the same time. We’d look at each and say: “Those are the real mountaineers!”

Kiefer-Ari 5.11
Phil leading Kiefer-Ari 5.11
Phil leading Kiefer-Ari 5.11
Phil leading Kiefer-Ari 5.11

When we drove up to camp Handsome Dave was parked at my site. Sadly he only stayed 3 days, chased off by a short weather window.

Tuesday April 11 Phil, Dave and I drove to Trick or Treat, which is right of Fist Fight wall. Phil led Zits. It’s a nice climb for red #1 climbers. I cleaned it but cursed the entire way. I wonder if hanging a one inch gym rope from a tree in my back yard would help me build red power?

Next Phil led Horse Crack 5.11 There was a famous Creek pioneer called Steve Hong and his routes are legendary. He put a 12 minus extension on Horse crack called: “Hong like a Horse”. Originally there were no guidebooks to the creek, so the people who put up routes would carve the particulars on a football sized plaque at the base.

Hong like a Horse
Hong like a Horse route plaques

I tried to follow Horse, but it was almost all reds and I backed off at the bulge. Dave got it no problem. On days like these golf begins to look very attractive.

Dave on Horse
Dave on Horse

We went looking for Cow Crack but couldn’t find it. On the way Phil led an awful finger crack called Shine. It was a bit like Angel at Castle Rock. I tried it but my fingers were screaming and I came down. Dave had no problem.

Next Phil led Overthruster 5.11. It looked like I might have a chance since it was blues at the top, but I couldn’t get past the 20 feet of reds at the bottom. Dave cleaned it easily. This route was extremely pretty. A total splitter up a free standing pillar. And the top 40 feet is overhanging blues. Man I wanted to get that.

Dave following Overthruster

Wednesday April 12 Dave and I went back to Power Wall while Phil took a rest day. Dave had noticed that I’d got shut down on every route at Trick or Treat and recommended Power because of the eight and nine. Surprisingly, I led both of those cleanly. The nine is a few yellows then about 7 blues and a few fours. I found that the flare was easily passed by simply getting my feet as high as possible. That allowed me to reach past the flare into the good blue hands again. Super lovely route that fits me perfectly!

Chad and Sam on Unnamed 9+ in 2021

By Thursday April 13 we’d been climbing hard for 3 long days so I took a rest day. Dave rode his mountain bike all the way from Creek Pasture campground, past Newspaper Rock, up the hill to cell service. Then he turned off on Harts Draw road and circled back on the high plateau, eventually coming out near Hamburger Rock? Somewhere above 30 miles, much of it cross country carrying the bike.

I painted Bridger Jacks. Previously I’d done them in monotone, but this time I let my freak flag fly and did them in full color palette knife. It rained that night. In the morning Dave, who’d only been there a few days, decided to head to town. He hates boring rest days and after few hours in town decided to drive home. I thought that a little strange, but whatever, we’ve all got our own agendas and time tables.

Bridger Jacks rest day
Bridger Jacks rest day

Friday, April 14 was a forced rest day from the previous nights rain. I set up my easel in our campsite and began tuning up a few loose ends. I never get knife paintings completed in one day as they take longer than the light lasts. Think of buttering sandwiches for a crew of hundreds. It’s just so much hand work. As I tinkered with variations on color, many rain blocked climbers walked by and offered compliments. It’s a refreshing change from my climbing days. When I climb, especially early in a trip, I’m nothing remarkable, save for my white hair.

“Dude, it’s so cool that you’re still climbing, how old are you? I can’t imagine doing this at that age!”

But painters, of any age, are very thin on the ground, so it’s fun to be that guy doing something cool and unusual. But of all the people who came over, my most heart warming visit was Carson and Emily, the 5.11 climbers from day one in the creek.

I mentioned earlier that I wasn’t really able to “bond” with them because they were so far out of my league. They were kind, and I could be wrong here, but I felt like they saw me as just a washed up senior citizen, someone who may have been a climber decades ago, but now was just someone who needed a top rope.

But it turns out Emily is a painter and she asked if she could look at my painting up close. She walked over and leaned in close to my easel. When I saw her eyes get big, and that huge smile light up over my simple little painting…I was surprised.

The climbing community has some of the most beautiful people anywhere. Emily was pretty much at the top of the food chain. Tall, young, blonde and lean, with a great smile, she was a goddess…and frankly I found her a little intimidating. And I know that’s on me. She had been perfectly kind the day we climbed together.

But over the decades I’ve noticed that younger climbers tend to not “see” older climbers. It’s just the natural order of things. There are exceptions of course. My friend Sam was super friendly from day one, but she was climbing closer to my level, so we had things in common.

As Emily stared at my work, seeming to want to memorize every stroke, she told me a story about how she paints, but they didn’t have room in the Sprinter for her easel and canvases and it made her sad. Suddenly we seemed like peers as she asked questions about my choice of mediums, why I like palette knife oil painting, do I work in acrylics or water color? She also enjoys Gouache and we had a lovely conversation about art, her boyfriend Carson hovering nearby. He had admired the painting too, but wasn’t a painter so had less to say. They eventually wandered away and I kept working, my AirPods sound track calming my mind, keeping the demons at bay.

Bridger Jacks day 2
Bridger Jacks day 2

Later that day all my friends came by, Phil (So that’s the whole set up, eh?), Andrew (Can I take some pictures of you painting?) and a new friend Christina and her two friends. Everyone loved the painting.

It was nice to be good at something, even if it wasn’t climbing.

Saturday April 15 (I may be a day off?) we all drove to Donelly. In my Tundra were Phil, Anthony, Alex and me. Diana met us there and we all paired off. Alex and Phil went off to do hard stuff at Battle of the Bulge while Dianna, Anthony and I did Drainpipe and it’s neighbor, to the right of Chocolate Corner. These two tens are in one massive corner and were quite fun. I finally mastered the drop knee rest, thanks to excellent demonstration by Anthony. I couldn’t have led either, but enjoyed large parts of them. There is an awkward bulge on Drainpipe where the drop knee got much harder due to the flaring reds. But I hung in there and got up.

Drainpipe and Crack to left of Drainpipe
Drainpipe and Crack to left of Drainpipe. Diana belaying drop knee Anthony

We walked by Chocolate Corner and Binous but they were all swamped with weekender crowds. Finally we found a crack to the right of Rail Road crack with only two people in line. And it was a 9! That was fun. Diana is a super strong creek climber and decided to top rope Swedin-Ringle 5.12.

I walked over and found Phil and the crew at Battle. Alex led a 12C horror show called Digital Readout. Alex is a super strong climber. He is very slight, not at all a big muscled out hard man. But damn he can climb hard!

On the way through the parking lot I saw a crew of 5 climbers standing by the bulletin board. Their packs were at their feet and they looked like they were waiting for a bus. I could tell something was up so I said:

“How’s it going guys? Good day?”

“Yeah, we had a great day, but our friend fell and broke her finger. Our driver had to take our car to get her to the hospital…you’re not headed to Hamburger rock are you? We need a ride.”

“Uhhh, maybe? Oh hell, let’s look and see, it might work. I’m in that white Tundra.”

Their 5 added to our 4 made for a packed truck, considering that was also 9 full packs of Creek racks. But it was the right thing to do, and I was happy to help. My Tundra definitely has the muscle to carry large loads. It was a happy crew that motored out to Hamburger, which was only 5 miles past our campground. When they piled out everyone shook hands and they plied us with warm beer. They also passed out some little green buds in baggies…I think it might have been oregano? They were very grateful.

It felt good to be part of the rescue, they were cool dudes, members of the tribe.

Sunday April 16, 7 of us drove to Way Rambo. We started with me, Phil, Anthony, Christina and Haley. But as we drove down the hill from the Meat Basin outhouse towards the first river crossing, we saw Jacs and Alex backing up from the high water. It was too high for his Town and Country minivan. They returned to park at the outhouse where I picked them up in my amphibious crag mobile.

The first crossing wasn’t too bad but the second crossing at the Cottonwoods campground was much wider and the current reflected all the snow visible on the distant mountains. Phil got out and waded it, searching for the most shallow section. It came up to his lower thigh, or, a few inches above his knee…but Phil is 6 feet something…so some serious water, with current. No other cars were crossing…word had got out.

Eventually I said, hell with it, let’s do it. We motorboated across. Full speed ahead captain! Everyone cheered as we drove up the far side into the deserted campground. When we got to the trailhead for Way Rambo there was only one other vehicle: a ultra lifted diesel Ford F-450 with an overland conversion. He looked like he could ford the Mississippi. No other cars showed up all day, though a few folks walked in from the main road.

Way Rambo view
Haley enjoying the Way Rambo view

This was a new crag for me. I was at Pistol Whipped last year, but that’s a mile off to climbers right. Way Rambo has at least two routes I can lead. Blue Sun is a 10B that I was able to onsight with 7 yellows and 5 blues. Blue Sun turned out to be my favorite lead of the trip. It’s absolutely flawless hand jamming that just goes on for days. It’s never desperate and eats gear, with a couple zig zags that make for perfect rests. I like it better than Incredible Hand Crack. This photo is courtesy of Dan Mottinger on Mountain Project:

Blue Sun 10B, Photo credit to Dan Mottinger on Mountain Project

Phil and Alex both led an awful off width called Serrator. About 10 feet up it goes from climbable to bigger than fists. And there’s a pinch with a bombay below. So you reach up, do a hand fist stack, and try to jam your foot by your chin, above the pinch. If you can get past that, you’ve got hand fist stacking for 15 feet before you can get your knee in. At that point you can do the Levitation move, which is a no hands rest. This is assuming you can avoid getting your knee stuck. I got mine stuck twice.

Haley on Serrator, Alex on right

When your knee is stuck in a splitter offwidth, it often means that you put your knee in, and it fit, but then you weight it and it slips down, lodging itself like a cork in a wine bottle. You need to move up to get it out, but the pain makes thinking difficult. Panic sets in, you forget how to hand fist stack, and there is nothing anyone can do to help.

The crack gets progressively wider as you ascend, eventually it’s a body slot near the top. But it’s a pain the entire way. In some sections the only viable option is to get out of it and layback the edge. Other than Battle of the Bulge and Powerline, this is the only climb I saw Phil struggle with.

I belayed him, and some of his comments were:

“I don’t feel safe here!”

“I’m crossing this off my tick list and not coming back.”

“I have no idea what to do at this move”

“I am an off width climber, I am!”

“This big bro placement sucks!”

We were all worried for him, the runouts on the fives and sixes were large. He got up it though. Phil also led Layaway Plan 11C. It’s a long and sustained red #1 climb, with a roof traverse at the end.

Phil on Layaway Plan 5.11
Phil on Layaway Plan 5.11

Phil and Alex also led Slice and Dice 5.12, which is all 0.75. I missed that because I was looking at a new 5.9 called Rochambeau. Phil and Andrew also led Way Rambo 5.12. I’ll go back to this crag, it’s great!

April 17 Monday was a rest day. Phil had proclaimed two on, one off and it felt right to me also. The Creek wears you down. I drove to town for supplies, watching the views for potential painting spots. On the way back I parked at Scarface – Power Wall and painted in the shade of the truck. I was really worried about this one. It was an unconventional composition and towards the end I couldn’t decide what color to paint the light rock. Tan didn’t look real, nor did pale green.

I kept throwing wild guesses and getting shot down. Fortunately no one was around to see all my bad decisions. I’ve noticed a pattern when people walk past my easel. If the painting is bad, they walk by, pause, and keep walking. What they do in the “pause” is what matters. I’m so close to the painting that I rarely know if it’s any good…literally don’t have a clue.

Towards the end of my session a couple climbers came walking up from Scarface talking animatedly about finger jamming:

“So yeah, I think I need to practice those ring locks at the gym, because that crack was just so sustained with .6’s that I got totally pumped out. Oh, look a painter, that’s cool.”

And then as they passed and looked back to where they could see the painting in the afternoon light there was a pause and then: “Oh my fucking god! That is amazing! Holy shit! I did not expect to see that!”

“Four Star” reaction for sure.

Scarface parking lot view
Scarface parking lot view, day 2
Scarface parking lot view
Scarface parking lot view, day 1 of 2

I was still unsure what I had so I waited until morning to show the first days work to Christina. She had asked me at camp how the painting went and I told her I was scared to look at it. After my morning coffee I decided to man up and let it see the light of day.

“Ok Christina, this might be a total train wreck, but here it is, what do you think?”

“Oh my, that’s not a train wreck at all, that is really nice! Good job Mark!!”

The morning after, painting or a train wreck?
The morning after, painting or a train wreck?

By this time Christina was camping with me to be closer to Phil and crew, who were down in site 5. We’d all meet for morning coffee around his table and talk about where to climb that day. One day, she got frustrated with the 11AM alpine starts and spent the morning reading in her van, waiting for ‘the crew’ to get ready.

After hearing about her frustration with our slow pace, I was trying to hurry the next morning, thinking maybe she and I could get an early start and meet the main crew later. But I had to visit the restroom next to Phils site, so I brought my cup of coffee over to see what ‘the crew’ was planning, before I went to see what Christina wanted to do. To my surprise, there she was, lazing around at the picnic table with the crew. And by the way, the crew was: Phil, Anthony, Haley, Jacs (Australian with minivan), Peter (Pharmacist from Norway), Nat (Squamish) his girlfriend Huly Nam and Alex, with maybe Dianna.

April 18 Tuesday seven of us headed towards 4×4 wall. As we approached the first crossing we saw Nat and Huly Nam on the far side afoot. They had parked at the restroom and forded the river on foot. They were just drying off their feet as we approached in the amphibious Tundra. I was feeling a little cocky and maybe going a little too fast. This was not my first rodeo. I hit the water hard and sent up a huge bow wave that went over the wind shield. As we motorboated across we could see Nat and his girlfriend laughing hilariously at my stupid driving. But it was all in good fun. We pulled up next to them and asked if they wanted a ride the last mile to the trail head. They were like, hell yeah! They joined the crew in the back of the truck and we drove up to the parking spot. It’s the one on the left that has the deeply slanted shoulder by a fence where I camped once with Chad and Cole.

We hiked up and spread out. Christina and I went looking for tens while the rest of them headed for 11’s, 12’s and 13’s. Nat was working on Carbondale Short Bus 5.13C that day. Christina and I found a slightly leaning over 10 that looked do-able. I led it, thinking the long red section would be ok since it leaned over. It also had a nasty bombay pod up high that was really frustrating. I had a decent arm bar, and a cam at my knees, but nothing to grab on to pull up into the pod. It was a fine adventure, but I didn’t get it clean.

Next Christina led Hookers and Blow 10C. It wasn’t an easy send for her either, though she is a trooper and got up. When I followed it I was fine until I got to a 8 foot section of reds. She had motored right through that, it being her favorite size, but I got shut down. Finally I spotted a rounded handhold off right and used that to gain a little reach. A couple of manky red jams got me up into the yellows and life was good…until I got to the pod. Seems all creek routes have a pod.

She had got past the pod by yarding on and pushing a #4 through the entire 7 foot tall pod. I could still see her #4 handhold, seven feet out of reach above me.

“You took the 4 with you! How am I supposed to climb this?”

“Sorry about that…can you chicken wing it? What about a double arm bar?”

“F&$k my life!!”

Properly humbled, we ambled over to see what the crew was up to. Anthony was rumored to be getting ready to lead 4×4 crack. It’s the namesake route at the crag and rated 5.11. It looked like it had my name all over it, being 70 feet of blues, with a seven foot #4 roof finish. I proposed leading it before Anthony. That way, if I bailed, he could rescue my gear…he being a third of my age (28) and far, far stronger.

I fell out of the start twice, with great catches from Christina. It was red’s down low, then tight yellows. Thankfully I had mastered the drop knee rest and used it extensively. I even had Jac’s throw me up an extra yellow. But then it turned into pure blues, for days. That meant cupped hands for me, too small for a fist jam. I motored upward. The climbing was the exact same move over and over. Get the knee bar (drop knee) secure, move up the jams. Pull on the jams, reposition the knee bar 7 inches higher, rinse and repeat. Oh, and push the blue cam up, or place a new one if ground fall was a concern. After about 50 feet of that I had to hang and rest. Technically the climb was easy…stamina was my problem.

After 4 hangs I arrived at the crux 90 feet up. The crack was capped by a seven foot roof. If I’d been fresh, and had seen the extreme stem off to the left I might have had a chance. As it was I french freed my way through with the three #4’s I brought along. What the hell, at least I got up. It’s a creek eleven.

Andrew on 4x4
Anthony resting with a drop knee on 4 x 4, crux roof finish is above

The crew was cheering as I lowered off. Peter, the 27 year old pharmacist from Norway said:

“I have a lot of friends at home in their thirties who would not even attempt something like that. You’ve got some real stones to lead that climb!”

Peter was a cool guy. He was on a 6 month trip before starting his Masters. He had no car and was completely dependent on the kindness of strangers to get him around. He’d met a girl from Colorado in Vegas(?), and she had liked him so much she drove him 3 hours out of her way to the Creek. Now he had a promise of a ride with someone else to Denver where he had a flight home.

Several of the crew had asked me how the painting had gone the day before, and a couple had not seen either painting. I promised to show them when we got back down to the truck. As the nine of us arrived and threw our dusty packs on the ground I dug my paintings out and tossed them on the tailgate. It was nice to hear the oohs and aahs.

In an ideal world artists would work in a vacuum, painting for the pure joy and self satisfaction, but the fact is that we are driven to share our work with others, whether it’s good or bad.

Here we are loading up after a fun day at 4×4:

loading up
Haley, Nat, Huly Nam, Peter
Haley, Nat, Huly Nam, Peter in the amphibious Tundra

April 19, Wednesday I was tired. 5.11B is hard, I took a rest day. I bought some crushed ice at the trading post, took a muddy road side shower, and painted at Scarface again, polishing up some details. Nat and Huly Nam walked out and took pictures of my painting in the evening light. He said he was trying to slow down and take more photos of his friends. I was flattered. The guy leads 5.13! He is from Squamish though. People up there are nicer than us south of the border folks.

They put on a going away party for Phil that night. He and Anthony were headed out to do Fine Jade and something else on Castleton. Phil planned to drive north after that while Anthony was coming back. I’d already known Phil was a fine singer and guitar player, but he really pulled out all the stops that night. After his long set of amazing songs he asked if anyone else wanted to play. Haley sang a few songs and then Christina asked me to play Fast Car. A couple people got excited at that. “You know Fast Car? Dude, you have to play it!”

Phil is a hard act to follow but I gave it a shot and saw a few feet tapping. They saw I had the sheet music for Taylor Swifts: All to Well so I played that also. And then Love Yourself, by Beiber. It was a very mellow crowd, no one was drunk or crazy, just a lot of smiles. Phil seems to attract really nice people.

April 20 Thursday The crew was on a rest day so Christina and I headed to Habitado. There was an eight and a nine there plus a crack where I could use my new to me #6 that Twin Falls Tony had sold me on the way down. I got up the nine cleanly but hung all over the eight. That eight is tight yellows at the bottom and feels more like a ten to my fat mitts.

Next I led a Mariposa, a 10C off width. I had two sixes (one borrowed), a green big bro, two fives and a couple fours. I had to pull on a five to get past a low crux but other than that I made every move, though there was hang doggery. It was a lot of double fisting, or a fist stacked on a cupped hand. This was supplemented with all manner of hip jamming, knee baring, heel toe action and plain old prayer.

They say there are no atheists in a fox hole, and there sure as hell aren’t any when you’ve walked your last six so high you are looking at a certain deck. Or as they used to call it when I was young: “A classic smack and drip situation”. Why did I let Dave take my valley giant home? I could have really used three number sixes up there.

At one point my friend Ronnie (retired FBI agent from Seattle) offered to give me a top rope. Apparently the sound effects were quite piteous.

“You know, that was my back up plan from the beginning…but for now at least, I think I’m ok. I’m really careful as I push this last six. It’s all that’s keeping me safe now until I top out.”

Later Christina said they asked her also if I needed a top rope rescue. I didn’t hear it, but she told them I was having too much fun to need a rescue. That was a super fun sufferfest. I may have even yodeled at the top.

We walked to the far left end of the crag where Christina led this Unamed ten. It was almost all reds, the entire stinking way. She fought hard and got up it but didn’t get the clean send she wanted. We’d both been at the creek for weeks by then and it was taking a toll on us. I cleaned it for her and remember hollering down:

“When is this crack going to fit my hands. I just want one stinking hand jam!”

“Never!” came her response, floating up from far below.

April 21, Friday. I was really sore in the morning and wondered if I’d have to start doing a one day on, one day off climbing pattern. We carried our coffees down to the crew to see what was up. We’d had a going away party for Phil the night before so only Haley, Jacs and Peter were around. They were headed up to Scarface and said I should join them, that it would be “awesome!”

I just wasn’t feeling it and walked back to camp. In my head I was doing the math. If I left immediately, I’d get home Sunday the 23rd. Sue wasn’t leaving for Arizona until the 26th. That would give me 3 days to hang out with my favorite person before she left for a week. I hadn’t seen her since April 1. In one hand, I had all that hard won climbing skill and stamina, coupled with great and reliable friends raring to go climbing. In the other hand, I had a broken down body that was sorely missing home and my amazing family.

Finally making the decision to leave, I told Christina: “Oh, Sue will be so happy!” We said our goodbyes and I headed home, arriving Sunday afternoon. It was two long days of driving, with a layover at Farewell Bend campground.

I hate to end a trip report like this, but the fact is that those achy joints and that light cough I had the last week? That was Covid. Sue caught it immediately and had to bail on her trip to Arizona. It’s now 18 days later and we are still weak as kittens. We bailed early on a trip to Leavenworth. I could barely hike up to Dinosaur slab. The lingering aches in my knee joints are awful. I’m now required to carry a Covid test kit in the Tundra. Sue: “If you get sick on a trip, don’t come home!”

2 thoughts on “Solo at the Creek in April”

  1. Alex Baitcher says:

    I read the whole trip between yesterday and today. Your writing is articulate and somehow gracefully presents your perspective with the dirty ‘Unkle mark’ comments I know you for – which makes it palatable for the everyday reader (I didn’t know you had this refined side!). Thanks for sharing and next time you go to the creek for that long, do the same exact thing. It sounds like ‘living’ and not just ‘getting by’. Cool photos too. They made me frustrated I haven’t been to the creek in the same way you have experienced it. One day!

  2. Natalie Merrill says:

    Fabulous! So well-written and illustrated with photos that II almost felt I was there. Laughed out loud several times! Very much enjoyed the artwork as well. I look forward to reading more of your adventures!

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