• Sarah Schlaefke

High on crack

The Wall in Indian Creek.

Circa fall 2016 – I’d be sitting in my age-old Milwaukee apartment surfing Mountain Project, looking at the immaculate climbing across the US. I remembered studying abroad and discovering the existence of so many new places all at once, and this was that feeling all over again. I recall coming across photos of Bears Ears, Steph Davis and Pamela Pack shoving limbs into huge orange cracks. I remember seeing videos of guys screaming and hanging from their hands in splitters. And I had no idea what that entailed. I remember first learning what and where Indian Creek was and I remember thinking to myself, if I get there someday, I’ve made it.

Now – I’ll start by saying this right out. I’m very new to climbing cracks. But since I’ve tasted the glory of a perfectly sunken hand jam, I’m now an addict, too.

When I moved to Utah, I knew I had a lot to learn in just about every area of life. One big-but-niche skill I knew I was missing was that I had no idea how to keep myself on a crack climb. So not long after planted my new roots in Salt Lake, I went out to learn what I could about crack.

I got lucky, my roommate Jess is a silent master of the hand jam. She’d never admit to it, but she can fly up a splitter so fast it looks like she’s on a staircase. She took me to the gym and we taped up our hands and she showed me just how “easy” crack climbing could be. I watched her twist her toes and stand on her sideways ankles in the space between the walls while she karate chopped her fingers into place in front of her nose. I went to give it my first shot. I got my hands tightly in the void and went to stand up on my sideways foot.

Holy shit, it hurt.

Me on Day 1 of learning how to crack climb.

But it got better. After Jess helped me figure out what size cracks my hands feel good in and how to use the different angles and places on my palms and fingers, I got my hand jams in a row and felt good about hanging from my joints. After a little more work on my feet, and lots of advice from handfuls of fellow gym crack climbers, I figured out how to stand on the space between rocks. I started going to the gym just to run laps on the cracks and I’d go home with black and blue bars across the back of my hands from maybe taking my practicing a little too far. The feeling, the movements, the sequences started to click, and I was psyched to get outside on real rocks.

So naturally, I got my rack stacked, my harness doubled back and I was ready to attack Bushwhack Crack in Little Cottonwood. I flew up the route, trad leading and all, in one fell swoop. That was that, one September day I flashed my first outside crack and it was downhill from there.

Part of moving across the country is learning to pick up good friends wherever you can find them, and I found Matt a dismal day at the climbing gym when another friend really screwed up his ankle. Matt just so happened to also work in the same building as me AND he’s also from Wisconsin, so we get along on a certain level. We’re both just a couple of Midwestern overstokers who finally cashed out and moved west to try and make it in the mountains. He was nice enough to invite me along to Indian Creek with him a week ago and I jumped at the opportunity, and I’m damn glad I did.

Indian Creek is this beautiful sub-planet to Earth where communication reverts back to message boards and signage is scarce, so when you have the chance to go there with a bunch of people who frequent the place, you take it. When you drive to Indian creek, you lose service about an hour from its heart, so having a plan of attack and decent topographer is pretty essential. So Matt and his crew make the drive to the Creek often, for one reason only – crack is awesome.

Despite the semi heinous approaches through cacti and loose red dirt, standing at the bottom of a splitter is really what takes your breath away. The first time you sink your hand a few inches into the dark crack, you feel a sparkler go off inside you. Slipping and falling out, off the route only makes you want to get on it even more. Watching another crusher use their limbs in ways you’ve never seen drives the desire to learn everything you can know about crack.

My new friend Scott cruising up offwidth Haters Ball at The Wall.

This weekend it was put to me this way, crack climbing, in all its forms and sizes, is just the practice of filling space with your body. This advice rang true to me this weekend when I ended up in the Creek once again (because I have no self-control). I had a couple goals, and none were to send. I wanted to make progress on knee jams and hand stacking on offwidths and I wanted to successfully pull on something, anything, I could get to fit in a .75 crack. And I had the exact resources I needed to make those things happen.

After collecting a lot of beta and technique advice from the crew, after pushing and pulling harder and harder on painful parts of my hands and fingers, and after seemingly getting my legs stuck beyond retrieval, I made progress on what I was working on.

Lock hands, lock knee, stand up. Lock hands, lock knee, stand up. Inch by inch I worked my way up Desire. Thumb pad on opposite wall, curl fingers down and over, pull. And I pulled myself up on just my pointer finger and thumb for the first time. I was rushed with excitement. That’s what it’s about.

I’m home now and while I type this, there is still tape-goo all over the back of my hands. A lot of skin on my fingers is missing and I can’t stop looking around on the Proj at new cracks to climb. It’s cold here in SLC, and it’s getting chillier in the desert, but I cannot cannot cannot wait to go back again.

So this is where I get sappy and I say thank you. Thank you to my new friends who sat around and belayed me as I yelled at my butterfly hand jams to stay in place in a crack. Thank you to my new friends who told me over and over how to lock my knee. Thank you to those who reassured me that even though my leg was definitely stuck in the crack, they’d too been there and there was no way we’d have to amputate. Thanks for letting me sleep in your van or borrow your four-wheel-drive and for teaching me the joy that is Annie’s chili mac. I appreciate you for making the Creek feel like home. I can’t wait until one day when I can pass on the buck.

Sunday, mid-day – I hopped off Walkin’ Talkin’ Bob and looked down at my slightly mangled hands. No blood was gushing but I definitely had some open wounds hiding under my tape. I looked at my friends and my new set of volunteer teachers and mentors as they played on the cracks nearby. Racks jangled, climbers yelled through their moves on the wall and friends stood by giving encouragement to anyone above them. It hit me then. I’m here. I made it.

Me and my yellow pants with a Walkin' Talkin' Bob send at Fin Wall.

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