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Chasing Sandstone: A Climbing Road Trip Through the Southwest

4/24/17 by Jenna Herzog

In the summer of 2014, I hitched a ride in the back of a questionable pickup truck towards a rock wall in Bariloche, Argentina where I would try rock climbing for the first time. Less than three years later, I was packing up and moving into a van to drive across the United States with climbing as one of the main motivators.

A lot happened between the first time I pulled on a harness and the moment I headed south down California in my used Sprinter van. I would love to say that during that time I trained like a maniac, progressed as a climber at breakneck speed, and read Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills from cover to cover. But the reality is that I climbed moderate routes around California as I focused on graduating college and working a full-time job. Oh, and then I spent most of the past year entirely off the rock as I healed from a chronic back injury.

Van life in the American Southwest.
    Jenna Herzog
Van life in the American Southwest. Jenna Herzog

Regardless of how my early twenties took shape, I still felt the drive to climb more—at least more than I was—and experience the climbing areas around the country, the Southwest in particular. When my spine doctor cleared me to ease back into climbing a few months before my trip, I started gym climbing and trying to regain the strength and ability I had lost.

By the time I progressed back to my pre-injury level, and the prospect of climbing outside again became real, it grew into an irrational looming fear. I felt paranoid that my back would spontaneously lock up in spasm while clipping a bolt, sending me on a longer-than-I-would-appreciate fall. I constantly made excuses not to climb outside yet, like that I lived in Tahoe and it was too snowy to climb, even though I could have driven just a few hours to warmer temperatures had I really wanted to.

By early spring, I was putting the finishing touches on my van and packing my gear for a climbing road trip through the Southwest. I would have no excuse not to climb on a road trip centered around climbing.

Sport climbing at Tsunami Wall in Red Rocks.
    Jenna Herzog
Sport climbing at Tsunami Wall in Red Rocks. Jenna Herzog

Thankfully, the first leg of my journey coincided with a trip that my climbing friends from college were taking to Red Rock Canyon near Las Vegas. The multi-colored Aztec Sandstone canyons of Red Rocks are packed with over two thousand routes, offering everything from technical sport routes to multi-pitch crack climbs scaling the canyon walls. The relief that my first experiences back on the rock would be in a world-class setting with trusted partners pushed me beyond the fear stage and into the excited phase.

On our third day in Red Rocks, we set out for the lengthy approach to the edge of Black Velvet Canyon for some trad (or, traditional) climbing. Trad climbing had swiftly become my favorite style after trying it for the first time in Yosemite two years prior, and learning how to lead with trad gear had captured my climbing focus ever since. But with my climbing confidence still shaky at best, I was content to have the day go by with only a few top-rope runs. When the opportunity came up for me to lead a 5.7 pitch—certainly within my capability—my body jittered from both nerves and enthusiasm.

I started racking my gear at a more than leisurely pace, chatting away and wasting time, half hoping that the sun would set and we would have to call it a day. But, nonetheless, the sun stayed in the sky and I started making my way off the ground. Even with my nerves giving me a heady dose of tunnel vision, the route was easy enough and I made it up without a snag. Getting that first trad lead out of the way felt like a big weight off my shoulders.

Bouldering near Red Rocks at the Kraft Boulders.
    Jenna Herzog
Bouldering near Red Rocks at the Kraft Boulders. Jenna Herzog

When the last of my friends left Red Rocks to head back to California, I continued my drive east to Utah. My first stop was the town of St. George—which features a selection of smaller crags on sandstone and limestone—but rainy weather kept me off the rock. I moved on to the next stop, Zion National Park, where the delicate sandstone was still wet, but I managed to get on one multi-pitch climb before continuing on to Moab, Utah.

Situated near the entrances to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks with the Colorado River flowing right through town, the red rock cliffs and free-standing towers around Moab create a rock climber’s paradise.

By the time I reached Moab I started to feel more confident in my climbing, which was a good thing because I was faced with the task of meeting new climbing partners. I’d originally bumped into this pair back in Red Rocks, and now they were up for exploring the sandstone cracks of Moab.

Sport climbing at Calico Basin in Red Rocks.
    Jenna Herzog
Sport climbing at Calico Basin in Red Rocks. Jenna Herzog

After a few days of climbing together, I decided to lead a varied 5.9+ trad route that I knew would challenge my mental game. At the beginning of the crux section, I placed a piece of protection then started irrationally worrying that I would need that cam higher up on the route. I went back and forth in my head trying to decide what to do, and even considered lowering down off the route until my belayer suggested that I just try to get above the cam. I breathed deeply and decided that I could try that and, without really realizing it, I had climbed through the crux section with relative ease. Mental breakdowns like this can make a route seem infinitely harder than it physically is; in retrospect, I know that I was more than capable of doing the moves without falling.

The road to Indian Creek.
    Jenna Herzog
The road to Indian Creek. Jenna Herzog

Shortly thereafter during a rest day in Moab, I set my sights on the mecca of all meccas for desert crack climbing, Indian Creek. Climbing in the Creek is the ultimate test piece for crack technique, where the innumerable splitter cracks slice up the Wingate sandstone to create sustained, challenging routes often with no options on the rock face for additional foot or handholds. To top it off, the rock is significantly smoother than the California granite that I’m used to, and Indian Creek Canyon lies in a remote setting, nine miles outside of the seldom-visited Needles District of Canyonlands National Park, 60 miles south of Moab, and 40 miles north of the tiny town of Monticello. There’s no other reason to be out in Indian Creek than to climb, and to climb hard.

Suffice it to say that I was intimidated to find myself in the Creek, especially without a partner and freshly regaining my climbing strength and confidence. I mulled over my options to stay in Moab a bit longer or push myself out to the Creek just to see what’s out there and what I could potentially climb.

A few hours later I was cruising west down the lonely road to Indian Creek. Once I made it to Creek Pasture Campground, the hub for rock climbers, I was invited to join in on a campfire and Dutch oven bread pudding made with ripened bananas from the day’s dumpster dive. I quickly learned that these folks were long-timers who had been sending routes together in the Creek and around the West while living the quintessential dirtbag climber lifestyle for months, if not years. Some of them had been living out of their cars for the sake of climbing for longer than I'd been climbing in my life at a meager weekend warrior status.

Sport climbing in the Black Corridor at Red Rocks.
    Jenna Herzog
Sport climbing in the Black Corridor at Red Rocks. Jenna Herzog

The first day at Cliffs of Insanity went well, though it posed a pretty brutal awakening to the fact that the grades I normally climbed on granite or grittier sandstone would not be the case out here. The Creek is infamous for keeping egos in check, and mine was fledgling at best.

Regardless, I was happy to get up and go again the second day to experience more of the Creek’s splitter cracks. The first route of the day was a 120-foot-tall, pure hand crack carving straight up the face of a sheer wall. An aesthetic 5.11- line, it begged to be climbed. After the first two girls led the route with relative ease, they assured me that the crack was the perfect size for female hands.

I gazed up at the line and, with a bizarre sense of certainty, started racking gear onto my harness to lead it. I had never led a 5.11 route on trad, and the closest I got to a clean send on a 5.10 was a mixed route where most of the hard moves were protected by bolts anyway. When the others noticed that I was racking up, they pulled the rope off the route so that I could lead and started chanting “Do it, do it”. Focused on nothing but the line, I started climbing.

Sport climbing at Calico Basin in Red Rocks.
    Jenna Herzog
Sport climbing at Calico Basin in Red Rocks. Jenna Herzog

After placing my second or third cam, the reality of how much farther I had to go set in and I started feeling dizzy with anxiety. After pushing through the fear and taking several falls on my gear, I hung from the rope with about 80 feet of route still ahead of me and said aloud that I might not be able to finish. My belayer called up to me, “Well, if you’re not enjoying the climb there’s no reason to stay up there”.

I mulled it over and realized that the brief moments of actual climbing in between my frantic and frequent gear placements felt pretty phenomenal, some of the best hand jams I’d ever climbed. I decided I would try a few more moves. After making slow progress up another 10 feet, I shut off my internal debate and committed to finishing the route, no longer how long it would take or how many falls I would have.

I stayed up there, falling and making short bursts of progress for roughly an hour—long enough for them to switch belayers because the first one grew tired, bored or both, I’ll never know. Finally at the anchors, I called down for my belayer to lower me and realized that my hands were so pumped that I could hardly bend my fingers anymore.

Finishing up a route at Ice Cream Parlor wall in Moab, Utah.
    Jenna Herzog
Finishing up a route at Ice Cream Parlor wall in Moab, Utah. Jenna Herzog

While the pump in my hands lasted a full day, the emotions that the climb left me reeling with won’t be shaken off so soon. An odd mixture of amazement that I even tried in the first place, pride at my perseverance, yet feeling utterly lacking for what a suffer-fest it became, I left the Creek the next day with hopes of training until the fall and coming back for another shot.

I would not be the first to write a few lines about how rock climbing embodies some elegant metaphor for life (spoiler: I’m going to do it anyway). Most metaphors follow something along the lines of rising above challenges or overcoming past obstacles in a “you did it!” type of fashion. But for me, climbing feels more focused on the upward journey in a “look what lies ahead” sort of way.

In climbing, you are repeatedly forced to leave the relative safety of the ground, a bolt, or your last piece of protection gear in order to keep moving forward. Living on the road by myself, filling my days exploring new places and chasing sandstone across the Southwest, often comes punctuated by moments not unlike leaving the comfort of my last piece of gear. I get settled in a town or climbing area, and then shoot off farther east to see what’s out there. I find a climbing partner that I feel comfortable with, but then I say good-bye as we head off in different directions. Life on the ground or at a piece of protection feels light and comforting, but better things tend to lie ahead for those who chase after it.

Originally written by RootsRated.