Saturday, November 19, 2011


George and Marthe in the campground

"Ralph, I met this French woman, Marthe, in Yosemite this week; I told her I'd teach her to climb cracks in Indian Creek. She's suppose to be there this weekend, and she'll be looking for you by your white Ford truck at Creek Pasture campground." Jim is my main climbing partner: past president of the American Alpine Club, all-around great guy, calling on the cell phone from Yosemite.

The next morning Marthe walked by my truck, stopped and spoke with a beautiful French accent in perfect English, "Are you Ralph?" Thus began a most excellent week.

My campsite was perched on a slight rise with a short red sandstone cliff behind it to the west. A large folding table, 2-burner camp stove, cooler, grub box, and another full of dishes, pots, pans, and utensils surrounded the cooking area. I slept on a mattress in the back of the truck. Marthe eyed the setup, and I invited her to dinner: salmon steaks with broccoli and a salad. Many folks equate camping with suffering; I do not. Eating well in the out-of-doors is a reason to camp!

Jim drove over the next morning, and Marthe and I met him at the Donnelly Canyon parking area. The cliffs on both sides of the canyon are the most famous and usually fill with climbers by late morning. We are early risers, so we were first onto the cliffs. Our first venue was "Generic Crack", named because it is a pure 'splitter', a split straight up a flat face. Jim led up the one hundred foot climb, clipped the rope into two fixed anchors and lowered down. Now Marthe's turn.
"Generic Crack", an Indian Creek classic

Crack climbing is the most difficult type of climbing to learn and to do well. It takes a special technique that does not feel natural, unlike climbing on handholds and footholds. Depending on the size of the crack, a hand or fingers are inserted into the crack, cupped or squeezed to form a wedge, then the arm or fingers twisted downward to cam the hand into the crack. This hurts! To minimize the pain and the blood, the hands are wrapped with adhesive tape to make a glove on the back where all the pressure is exerted. After the taping session, Marthe headed up.
Marthe's first crack climb on "Organic Crack"

Grunts, complaints, excuses, swearing... Crack climbing is brutal, and Marthe was getting a lesson akin to being thrown into the deep end of the pool. She kept at it and little by little her technique improved as she moved up the crack. I was impressed.
Moving up

By now the sun was cooking us and the rock, so we hiked down the hill and up to the west-facing wall of Super Crack Buttress, home to the most elegant climbs. 'Double Cracks' was next on the tic list. It has a variety of holds and hand sizes, so it's a great place to learn the secrets. The feet are the most important; certainly learning to cam your hands into the crack is the more interesting, but the feet push you upwards. To make the feet work, you need to slide the toe in sideways with the knee out, then twist the knee in strait thus caming the foot into the crack in a tight wedge. It hurts. This is the downfall of most climbers who give up and don't end up liking to climb cracks.

On the "Double Cracks"

Double Cracks seemed made for her; she moved right up and completed the climb in short order. The named climbs have been done often, and two expansion bolts have been permanently set at the top of the climb. The leader puts the rope through the bolts, then the following climbers have a rope securing them from the top. When the climb is finished, the last person can pull one end of the rope through and coil it for the next climb.

A belayer is the second person who holds the end of the rope secure to catch a fall of the person who is climbing. Marthe had been climbing quite a bit in her native France and was adept at face climbing and certainly rope handling methods like belaying the leader. Here she is belaying Jim as he set the rope up in the double cracks.

Belaying Jim

Jim was eager to show Marthe "The Incredible Hand Crack", or just Incredible as it's known here. It's one of the great classics of Indian Creek, a crack in a dihedral wall that overhangs about 10 feet half-way up the 100' pitch of climbing. Here Jim is leading the overhanging portion. He puts his hands way into the crack, makes a fist to jam the hands into a cam that will hold his body weight, then inserts and twists his feet and pushes up.
Jim leading "Incredible Hand Crack"

Marthe now had the technique and made short work of the first 30'. You can see her hands jammed into the crack, her left leg twisted a bit to the left, and the right toes cammed tight in the crack.
Marthe on "Incredible"

The overhang is difficult, both mentally and physically. Marthe tried to lay back, push her feet against the sandstone and pull out on the edge of the crack with her hands. This is possible for a short ways, but at Indian Creek with the huge climbs, you tire within 10 feet and fall off. It wasn't until she trusted her feet in the crack that she was able to master the moves, with Jim shouting encouragement and technique tips.
On the big overhang

We met a whole group of French climbers at the cliff. They live in a more concentrated society than we in the western US do, so there was a lot of grumbled criticism when they stole one of Jim's climbs. But the women were so beautiful it was hard to remain angry very long. By evening I had met two other climbers, Dougal from Wales, and Stephanie, an alpine guide from Chamonix, France. I invited them to dinner, excited that now Marthe would have a fellow country-woman to talk to. Stephanie is an outstanding climber; sometimes it's easier for women to teach other women climbing. I've picked up some of the terminology, like 'Push the bush' to make a woman pull her hips forward and get her correct balance. Women seem to be comfortable shouting that up to their friends. I'm more squeamish.
Stephanie, Dougal, Marthe, George at 'Creek Pasture' campground

The next day our friend George from Ridgway, Colorado, joined us. So, Jim, George, Marthe, and I spent the next few days climbing a variety of climbs all over Indian Creek. Jim had befriended folks from the Philippines, so he divided his time as best he could. Marthe had been on an extended trip climbing throughout the United States, but in two days she had to be in Las Vegas to fly out. So, one more day. Bummer! She wanted to visit the Grand Canyon on the way, so she left by noon after one more session. We bid her a sad farewell and wished her luck on her trip.
Dougal, Marthe around the campfire

Next morning we were off to the Scarface buttress, home to a variety of climbs...some very hard. I was impressed at Dougal and Stephanie attempting very difficult climbs and ticking them off one by one. I was at ease. The sun was warm, the company was the best, and the scenery was stunning. Couldn't ask for more.

The gang at the base of the Scarface cliff

George puts tape on his hands; Stephanie, Dougal

George hanging by his feet about 100' up "Big Guy"

Looking up at George

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