"Jello" has never been shy about ragging me for not being a very strong crack climber. Whenever we've done anything resembling a crack on the east coast, he has always felt the need to yell at me for searching for holds out on the face. "Stay in the crack you wimp!" (or other variations thereof) was a common taunt that neither of us could avoid: he wanted to make sure that I learned to climb crack, and I wanted to make sure that I never needed to.
Since Greg is not from an area known for it’s crack, I decided he needed a little schooling. Truth be told, cracks seem to be the most significant lines of ascent for climbs in the West.
I'll be honest, I was a bit nervous during the planning stages of this trip. From the moment we set out the dates and started planning where we were going to go, I began to suspect that my earlier failures in Yosemite were about to pack up and move to Colorado. I imagine them having a yard sale before the move. They'd have a sign in the front yard reading, "All face holds must go: Crimps 75% off, Side Pulls 80% off, Jugs 95% off. And what we don't see today will be given away free tomorrow!" I just knew this was going to happen, and I was trying my best to remain in denial about the whole thing. That was until "Jello" and I spoke on the phone one evening, and the conversation went something like this:
- Me: So what do I need to bring for gear? I assume we can use your nuts and draws, right?
- "Jello": No, my draws are mostly gone. I've only got a few left Bring your long slings. Eight should do.
- Me: OK, no nuts though, right?
- "Jello": Yeah, I've got enough.
- Me: Anything else?
- "Jello": Bring your cams.
- Me: OK, I thought you bought some finally.
- "Jello": I've got some, but it's best to have doubles of most sizes.
- Me: Really, the rock is that flared, huh?
- "Jello": Well, the crack can be, and there's a lot of cracks that are the same size where you need the same size cam over and over again.
- Me: Uh-huh.
- "Jello": So yeah, bring your long slings and cams.
- Me: OK. Uh. Soooo, is it all crack out there?
- "Jello": No, but there is a lot, and many of the climbs have a mix of face, crack, and slab climbing. You really need to have a good base in all techniques.
- Me: Uh-huh. Soooo, how about we stay away from a lot of the cracks then?
- "Jello": Not going to happen. The cracks out here, when you find them, they aren't like the cracks back east. You can't just use the parts of the crack that are convenient and balance out on the edges on the face to get you up. You really need to commit to the crack or else the grade is going to go up a few ticks.
- Me: Uh-huh. Soooo, uhhh, how about we stay away from those routes then? Say, stay on the routes without a lot of crack on them.
- "Jello": That would severely limit our options, and besides, there's some good routes with a couple of pitches of crack on them that I really want to try. They're classic routes, too, so I think you'll enjoy them.
- Me: OoooK. Soooo, uh, that's fine. I guess you'll be doing a lot of leading then.
- "Jello" (sigh): Listen you little pansy, I'm going to teach you how to crack climb when you get out here whether you like it or not!
- Me: Gulp!
Turkey Rocks: Turkey Perch
The South Platte is one of my favorite place to climb. The higher altitude makes it a little cooler than other areas. There are bountiful trees for shade and there is a wonderful smell of pine throughout the area. The granite is bomber and the cracks varied.
So there we were, sitting in his dining room and plowing salmon steaks into our system after a day at Garden of the Gods, when he revealed that Turkey Rocks was a great place to learn how to crack climb. Most of it was single pitch, but there were a few multi-pitch routes that he thought would be good routes for me to get on. I warned him that if it was all crack climbing then I was likely to get tired and pumped very easily. I really didn't want pump myself out before the trip even started, but he was adamant that everything was going to be OK. "You're going to learn how to crack climb," he said, "and you're going to be OK with it." This really hit home when, later that evening, we sat in his driveway sorting out all the gear we were going to need over the next several days. We had our food, tent, sleeping bags and pads, cookware, harnesses, helmets, and clothes sorted and packed nicely for easy access. And we also had the climbing gear: cams, nuts, cams, nut tool, more cams, draws, cams, belay devices, just a few more cams, cordalette and, you guessed, even more frigging cams. Now don't get me wrong, I'm a cam lover. I love most cams, particularly the single-stem ones that are easy to grab and even easier to plug in high-stress situations. But I'd much rather plug them into a horizontal crack or a vertical crack that is somewhat off to the side of the actual route. That was most certainly not what "Jello" had in mind.
So, despite his reservations, on the night of his arrival we sat in the driveway and organized the gear for the first long leg of our trip, and the next day we drove up Highway 24 to begin our week-long adventure.
We eventually came to the dirt road that marks Westcreek, and drove towards the always fun Forest Service road that heads to Turkey Rocks. The road isn’t so bad, but my lack of high clearance kept things interesting. Mostly it was lucky that I got my car all the way up the road without ripping my oil pan off, although it was close a few times.
I'm not even going to give you the drive in. Just trust me on this one, you don't want to go here unless you've either got really good directions or you're going with someone who knows the way. While we made the trek with "Jello"'s old, beat up, low-to-the-ground-because-it-had-too-much-weight-in-it (camping gear, climbing gear, food, us, and it being generally low already) Hyundai Accent, I would be hesitant to drive on this dirt road without an SUV of some sort. The road is apparently treacherously varied from year to year, with "Jello" knowing a guy who has climbing in this area before and never been able to drive all the way to the trail head. There are no signs past a certain point, and there is a definite left-hand turn that you've just got to know to take that specific left. Again, trust me, you really should go with someone who knows what they are doing.
This area is split into several smaller areas with our destination being the single pitch area of Turkey Perch. I figured if I was going to put Greg on cracks he might not be interested in getting stuck on the third pitch of something too hard for him, losing skin, and not going anywhere except to batshit city.
Once you're at the trail head, getting to the crag is pretty easy. You should be able to see the back side of Turkey Rocks to your right. We didn't go to Turkey Rocks itself (we went to Turkey Perch, which is apparently another crag within the Turkey Rocks area, and Turkey Rock is also another crag in the Turkey Rocks area), but the path should be about the same to the front side of Turkey Rock if that's where you want to go. To get to Turkey Perch, head up the switch-back trail to the top, then turn left at the first trail that allows you go in that direction. Follow this trail to the base of Turkey Perch. The entire approach took about 15-20 minutes.
As we headed up the hill I could tell the altitude was having a bit of an affect on Greg (we were both huffing and puffing). He’d already said he had a hard time with the altitude in Tahoe so I was worried the day might be cut short as a result (I think we were at 8,000 feet). However, it wasn’t the altitude that ended the day early.
Descent: I'm putting the descent here because all of these have essentially the same descent: either rap, lower with a 70m rope as a top rope, or walk off left to the easy scramble that puts you on the left edge of the crag if facing the cliff. The walk off will also take you back to the path that led up to the crag. I strongly recommend not rapping or lowering. These cracks are rope-eaters, and that's an understatement. There are multiple lost-forever ropes buried deep inside of all of the cracks that we got on, and there's no reason to believe they won't continue their hungry ways. The walk off took less than two minutes, so there is no reason to not save your gear.
Ragger Bagger (5.8) - Trad - Gear Anchor - "Jello" led
To climb this route, find the small plaque about three feet off the ground that is somewhat right of a large tree. This crack is about mid-way in between the plaque and the large, right-facing corner.
Our first climb was something that I thought was pretty moderate despite the fact that my feet were skittering out of the crack the whole way up. Greg had less of an easy time than I did, as he cried and complained his way through the torturous crack. Nothing like the feel of quartz crystals burrowing into your hands to wake you up in the morning.
This was my first true crack climb. I've climbed cracks before, but never before where I had to stay in the crack entirely to get up most sections of it. While I passed on leading today (I wanted to focus on technique and not on my head), I still felt as if I was pushing my physical self beyond what I normally do when climbing. Climbing 5.8 should not be an issue for me, and yet I found myself three times taking because I just couldn't keep my body in a linear formation with one hand above the other, and one foot above the other. Before this climb, I was just too used to using my side-to-side balance to build upward momentum. "Jello" kept telling me to let the jam take hold so that I could sit back on my feet. Part of my struggle was switching hands and feet, or moving from side to side and shifting my weight all the while standing straight up. His point was that if I let the constriction in my hands hold me in, then I would be able to maneuver my body so that my knees could cross each other enough for me remove my bottom foot and put it above my top foot. But this was a learning experience for me, and I just wasn't getting it on this climb. I must have hung at least three times. It was my first climb of the day, so I wasn't deflated, but it was frustrating to not feel the jams work the way they worked for everyone else.
I gave some tips on jamming when he made it to the top, and generally told him to suck it up. Since crack was not Greg’s forte it was decided that I would be leading for the day, which was fine with me. I was mostly warming up for Steppenwolf (5.9). The climb had shut me down earlier this summer, as I greased out of the crack at the beginning of the crux section near the top. Despite my struggles on Ragger Bagger, I wasn't going to fall on Steppenwolf this time.
Honky Ass Jam Crack (5.7) - Trad - Gear Anchor - "Jello" led
This crack follows a line directly below a large boulder at the top, and it is to the right of a large, right-facing corner. The start is also right of a low boulder and finishes just right of the large boulder at the top.
After my struggles on Ragger Bagger, "Jello" asked if I wanted to lead Honky Ass Jam Crack. I tossed the idea around in my head for about a half of a split second. I told him that I just didn't think I was ready, and that I needed him to take all the leads today because I needed to work in a relatively safe environment on my jams and body position. I just didn't want to factor in the thought of falling when all I really needed to do was focus on movement. But I'll be a bit more honest and say that it wasn't all about improving my technique. Much of what I was concerned about was how cracks are graded at Indian Creek (despite the fact that this was no where near Indian Creek in geography, status, or grading style). The grades at Indian Creek aren't based on the typical Yosemite Decimal System. Instead, they are based on the size of the crack. For example, if the crack is a perfect hand crack, then it is graded at 5.9. If the crack is more of a finger crack then it is graded closer to 5.11. You can see how this goes; the thinner or more awkward the route is the harder it is graded. The idea is based on the notion that there is a typical hand size for the average climber, and that the easier grades should be easy for most people with average hands. Of course, there is a flip side to this, and that is if you have the right size hands or fingers then you're going to excel on the routes where your hands and fingers fit. This means that if you have small fingers then you may be able to get up a 5.11 crack in the Creek, even if you're barely a 5.10 climber elsewhere.
I guess what I'm saying is that I was worried that despite the grade, my hands just weren't going to fit. It didn't matter that 5.7 should have been well within my grade. What mattered was that I just wasn't confident enough to tackle a skill that I knew I had for years been neglecting. So I passed the lead and regretted it afterward. This crack was well within my abilities, and I don't know how that could be so. Do I have such average-sized hands that would make every 5.7 doable for me? Every jam on this route was solid and easy, and even lieback section wasn't so pumpy that I felt exhausted afterward. I didn't run up the route by any means, but I got up it without resting and in a reasonable amount of time. While I wasn't sold on the idea yet, maybe my hands are about the same size as everyone else's, and maybe that meant that with a little bit of work I could get my crack climbing up to the same grade as my face climbing.
Steppenwolf (5.9) - Trad - Gear Anchor - "Jello" led
This is the crack that is directly around the corner to the left of the large, right-facing corner.
And then I came across Steppenwolf. Holy of mother of God was this a hard crack.
Full of determination, and chalk, I made my way into the crack. I made sure to fully rest when I was just below the crux this time, despite the numbness of my torqued feet. This hateful crack was like a vice like grip on my hands and toes. It hurt like hell, but I was determined to not fall this time despite the pain. Feeling ready after the rest, I delicately made my way to the small hold that juts out slightly after the crack ends. I shuffled my feet, leaned into the hold, stood up, and I was finally able to move high enough to get out of the crack completely. I could no longer feel my feet at this point, but I didn't care because I had conquered the climb.
I was impressed with the fact that he had blasted through what I thought was the crux (the transition from the thick, right-hand crack to the thin, left-hand crack) only to still have the strength and ability to get up through the real crux above that (the balancy, near-featureless, hands-free step out of the crack and onto the face). I managed the face OK, but that was probably because I rested (OK, fell) about a dozen times around the bottom of the thin crack. I guess the good thing in this route was that I was still able to jam more confidently than before. The bad thing was that it became apparent that I needed to learn more than just the typical hand, fist, and finger jams.
Stiff Little Fingers (5.11 c/d) - Gear Anchor - "Jello" top-roped
This is the bolted face between Ragger Bagger and Steppenwolf. It's a little run out if you're leading it, so be prepared to practice your slab technique before the first bolt, which is about 25 feet up.
Giggle, giggle. Can we all say the word "revenge?" It was getting closer to lunch time, and we had forgot our food back in the car. I was pumped, but "Jello" decided to jump on this empty face as a top rope just to get to the top of the cliff with one more climb. The funny part? Well, all those times when he called me a wimp for searching for holds out of the crack came back to haunt him on this crackless climb. I had several people chuckling as I taunted "Jello" with my own version of the same taunt, "Get out of the crack you pansy!" Heh. It was funny because every time he felt the need to get up the route a little bit more he either pulled on the rope (which I didn't really care about. I mean, it was a hard 5.11 after all), or he went left toward Ragger Bagger or right toward Steppenwolf. He just couldn't stay out of the crack, and that was mightily amusing to me.
I actually had someone from Rockclimbing.com recognize me from the site (I believe his user name was Tedman). This made me smile a bit. I'm not sure if being recognized from a website in a completely different part of the country constitutes being a celebrity, but it sure felt like that for a few moments (I resisted on giving an autograph. I'm just not that comfortable giving up my private life yet - hehe).
It was now time for lunch. Unfortunately, we had forgotten the snacks, so it was decided (undemocratically, I might add) that I would go to the car and fetch them. The weather did not seem out of the ordinary when I headed down the hill. The sky was slightly cloudy but there was nothing that looked threatening. When I made my way back up the hill, however, a different story developed; the clouds were darker and bigger. Although I had not seen rain in the forecast, Colorado has very local weather patterns and so I knew it was a possibility. I felt some sprinkles when I finally got to the top of the hill, and I told Greg to grab the bags so we could eat under a rock and remain dry. While it was somewhat dry under the rock, it was also not the most comfortable of spots. My tough leathery hands still can’t handle the brambles that are abounding in the area. In short, thorns suck.
We shared a few laughs while waiting for the rain to pass, including one moment when I decided to emerge from behind the rock in order to heave my mostly-eaten apple into the woods, only to find a pair of climbers coming around the corner just in time to catch my body and arm cocked and ready to launch the green projectile into space. I never heard them coming, and seeing them at that particular moment caused me to jump such that even "Jello" knew what had happened despite not seeing the guys until after they walked by. I guess my body language gave away the whole episode without a word being spoken. But it didn't matter. At this point, our day at Turkey Rocks was over, and as soon as the rain stopped we packed up and headed off.
Greg’s crack education was not over, however. Despite the fact that he felt a little more comfortable it was obvious he did not feel comfortable with the suffering that is inherent in cracks. You are literally getting your hands and feet stuck in the cracks, and to do so requires some pain. The pain usually occurs on the most sensitive part of the hand, the back. If it hurts then you probably aren’t going to fall out. It’s something you just get used to, and eventually relish. All things told, Greg seemed to be getting better at the cracks, but if you ask me, he’s still a bit of a baby about it.
Before we left, "Jello" decided to take a self-portrait of himself under the boulder during the rain:
For all of the other 2008 Turkey Rocks Photos, click here.