I drive into Indian Creek as the sun sets. Highway 211 snakes off the plateau south of Moab, tunnels down into the sandstone valley through hairpin turns and cow herds, then cuts back up north along the unimposing namesake of the region. The cliffs morph the further north you go, pale looming bulges shifting into the sheer, rust-colored strata you see in photos. Eventually the valley gapes open into a Wild West paradise. It's the kind of desert landscape you might see in a dream
It’s the kind of desert landscape you might see in a dream.
It’s 5:30 pm on November 1st, less than a week before we set the clocks back and nestle into the darkness of the winter season. One week away from the U.S. elections and the chaos that follows.
I roll my window down. Unseasonably warm air rushes in, bone-dry. The sun shines through the late autumn cottonwoods along the creek, yellow through brilliant yellow. My heart races. Must be the adrenaline, the nostalgia warping into the present. The anticipation of climbing on this rock again. The sudden need to go off the grid. Whatever it is, it feels good.
Boggled by the beauty of dusk, I miss the main parking lot near the Supercrack Buttress. I slam on the brakes and enter the lot in reverse, drawing stares from the mass of climbers gathered there after a day of jamming the cracks above. These are my fellow climbers, my family, a bunch of dirtbags. Ironically, however, I’m not here to climb cracks. I’m here to boulder.
Traditional Climbing vs. Bouldering in Indian Creek
Indian Creek is known worldwide as a crack climbing mecca. The reputation is well deserved: thousands upon thousands of perfect splitters, off-widths, and chimneys line the cliffs that guard the canyons, compelling climbers to test themselves on the Wingate sandstone since the 1960s. Super Crack, Coyne Crack, Pigs In Space . . . the list of classics is endless.
Bouldering, on the other hand, has only just begun to gain traction here. The boulders dotting the landscape have long been overshadowed by the cracks above them. Bouldering itself is also a newer trend in the climbing world, but is quickly gaining ground on other forms of climbing.
In 2014, professional climber and FrictionLabs Pro Chris Schulte began seriously developing boulders in the trad climbing paradise. The lines he found were tall and proud, often involving compression on slopers and aretes with smeary feet and heel hooks. He produced a short video for Black Diamond in April of the same year documenting a few gorgeous lines he’d established. Suddenly, the bouldering potential of Indian Creek had been realized:
Seeing this video was the beginning. It unleashed a desire within boulderers across the country (myself included) to visit Indian Creek and discover the area’s bouldering. Once I made the journey for the first time in February 2016, it became clear: this was not going to be a small climbing area. The bouldering potential is enormous.
The only difference was that the bulk of development had yet to be done.
The Nature of Bouldering in Indian Creek
As you can see in Schulte’s video above, the sandstone boulders of Indian Creek are a bit different than those found in other climbing areas. The Wingate sandstone is soft and smooth, often devoid of traditional holds. Aretes, slopers, and pinches are most common, with the occasional crimp (often rounded and comfortable) here and there. The quality of the rock itself varies widely, ranging from a sandy mess to unbreakable, featureless sheets of glass.
Since my friends and I began exploring, we’ve noticed something: most of the inspiring boulders we find are huge. Smaller blocks are abundant too, but many are chossy and not climbable. The cliffs in the Creek seem to eject only the tallest and most imposing boulders from their ranks, challenging us tiny humans to face our wildest fears in climbing them. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve bailed halfway up a climb, too afraid to continue. The boulder in the photo above, Day of the Dead, tops out at a healthy 16-17 feet––an average size for a boulder here.
The cliffs in the Creek seem to eject only the tallest and most imposing boulders from their ranks.
Besides a few bouldering areas in the country (the Buttermilks in Bishop come to mind), the lines we’ve established so far in Indian Creek seem a little taller than usual. They’re scary. They test your mind.
You won’t find much help when it comes to info for bouldering in the Creek. No etched slabs, no guidebook, nothing. So far, the only way to find established boulder problems is to ask around––or to see them from the road, which is unlikely. At this point in the Creek’s fledgling status as a bouldering area, it’s probably easier to establish your own problems and record their location for others.
And that’s exactly what is so appealing about bouldering in Indian Creek. It’s rugged, wild, and mostly undeveloped. If you embrace this fact—that this is not Joe’s Valley or Bishop, not even close—then you might just love bouldering here.
It’s rugged, wild, and mostly undeveloped. If you embrace this fact, then you might just love bouldering here.
Minimizing Impact in a Fragile Area
While the vast potential for bouldering seems like a blissful opportunity for hardcore developers, it also presents a host of problems and challenges that need to be addressed.
Don’t let the hardness of the desert fool you. What appears to be an invincible geographic force is actually a delicate landscape, prone to damage and change caused by both nature and humanity. Indian Creek is composed entirely of sandstone—some of the softest sandstone that exists on the planet, in fact. Eroding the geologic sediment of the region is alarmingly easy. In order to minimize your impact on the land while bouldering in the Creek, we recommend the following:
Another important note: the Creek is richly populated by cryptobiotic soil (cryptosoil), a dark crust-like substance formed by cyanobacteria. It can be found virtually anywhere in Indian Creek––including directly in your path. Cryptosoil is an extremely beneficial organic material, preventing erosion during rainfall and supplying the atmosphere with oxygen. It takes up to 50 years to regrow. Please do your best to avoid walking on the cryptobiotic soil. Walk on trails, rocks, or in washes. If the landing area of a boulder problem is populated by cryptosoil, consider choosing one of the thousands of other boulders to climb instead.
Climbing on Sacred Lands
Indian Creek is part of the Bears Ears region, a vast area of land with historic cultural significance to several Native American tribes. In this Rock & Ice article written by Seth Heller in June 2016, the author describes the current battle between Utah Congressman Rob Bishop’s Public Lands Initiative (PLI) and the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition (BEITC).
According to Heller, the PLI aims to “balance land protection with enhanced industrial development.” Public and tribal lands would be designated for mining and industrial development, while other lands would be designated for conservation.
The BEITC, on the other hand, is working to designate the Bears Ears region as a 1.9 million-acre National Monument, collaboratively managed by the coalition of tribes and the federal government.
From my vantage point as a serious climber, it appears that access to our own sacred climbing areas (such as Indian Creek) would be more secure if the land were governed by those who value it even more than ourselves. And from a conservation standpoint, disallowing the state of Utah to sell public land to industrial mining companies seems prudent.
What’s more, climbers could enjoy direct benefits from working with the tribal coalition. As Heller writes, “Bears Ears [National Monument] is an opportunity to include language in the charter of a national monument establishing climbing as a protected recreational activity.” The Bears Ears National Monument would not only improve relations between tribes and climbers in the Southwest, it would also preserve countless natural wonders, valuable archaeological sites, sacred grounds of native peoples, and access to climbing areas.
I leave Indian Creek on Friday, November 4, headed for Joe’s Valley to meet up with a huge crew of fellow climbers from Denver. The contrast between the two experiences is not lost on me. Going from Indian Creek to Joe’s is like coming up for air in a crowded swimming pool. It’s calm under water, muffled; you could drown in the peaceful quiet. Above, it’s noisy and hot; people are screaming and running around.
Leaving Indian Creek is hard. But it’s not that hard. It’s comforting to think that I can go back. At this point the Creek feels like a bouldering oasis hidden in plain sight. It still feels like a favorite book I get to read over and over, every night by the campfire, a secret book that most readers have ignored or not yet discovered.
More and more people will go bouldering in Indian Creek as time goes on. The inevitability of this fact is not good, bad, or anything else. It is simply a fact to accept. And, once accepted, it is up to us as climbers to be responsible, accountable, and professional in our method of approach.
It is up to us as climbers to be responsible, accountable, and professional in our method of approach.
So, if you plan on visiting the area for yourself, PLEASE respect the land (both public and private), the history of native culture, and the future that is yet to come. Indian Creek is still wild and loosely regulated. It is up to us to ensure the land remains pristine.
For more on our latest bouldering trip to Indian Creek, check out Nathaniel Davison’s video below:
About the Author
Connor Griffith has been climbing for 13 years in areas across the world, from California to Colorado to Switzerland. A V11 boulderer with multiple first ascents around the globe, Connor is also a professional route setter, a student of climbing movement, and a coach. Connect with him on: