Dirtbag Dispatches – Land Of The Free

Published in Adventure Magazine, February/March 2018

Words and images by Derek Cheng

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America. Trump-land, mass shootings, Muslim bans and nuclear buttons of unrivalled size. But the US is also an endless wonderland for the dirtbag climber. And there are a lot of us – roaming, jobless rock-chasers that scramble around on Yosemite granite in the spring, head to the windswept, alpine faces of the high country for the summer, emerge in the autumn for the sandstone deserts of Utah, and then scamper south to Red Rock canyon for the winter.

This rock correspondent has spent most of the past three years sampling North American rock and ice. Adventure Magazine takes you on a tour of two of its most iconic rock destinations.


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Ode to Indian Creek, Utah

The creek. Famed for its perfect splitter cracks in sandstone. For months on end, a community of hardened climbers bask in the sparse landscapes of the desert, camping in the dirt and climbing to their hearts’ content.

In the early 1960s, while standards were being pushed in Yosemite, pioneering climbers started to explore the sandstone mesas and weather-sculpted towers of Utah. The vistas draw you in with their beauty, stretching the boundaries of infinity. You half-expect road runner to come screaming across the terrain, an inept coyote in pursuit.

The jewel in the Utah sandstone crown is Indian Creek. Simply arriving is a head-turner, as you stare at the sandstone fortresses that seem to change shape and size as you drive past, showing you all their pretty angles like a peacock with her bow of feathers. It ignites something inside you. You can’t wait to stand, mesmerised, at the base of one of the cliffs’ endless crack systems that carve an aesthetic path skywards.

What is so special about the creek?

It is the clear mornings with the sun bursting through the open windows of your dirtbag-mobile, letting its rays warm your bones as the landscape awakens.

It is the painful reward of upward progress, as you stuff your hands and fingers and toes and hips into a crack, twist, grimace, and then pull with all your might to move your body higher. Every effort ends with a feeling of being gloriously reborn in victory, or slumped on the end of the rope in epic defeat.

It is the thrill of the frequent phenomenon of Great Flight. You find the muscles in your arms and hands red-lining. Fear seeps in as you realise you can only hang on for so much longer. The steel rings that mark the top of the route blow you a kiss, deluding you into thinking you can make it. So you place a final piece of gear in the crack, clip your rope to it as a last plea for safety, and then gun for the top. Then, just as your nose is close enough to inhale victory, your muscles start weeping, your fingers and hands open, and the rock spits you off and sends you into wondrous air-time.

It is the ache and pain in all parts of your body, and the scabby gobies on your knuckles, the backs of your hands, the insides of your knees and the outsides of your shoulders, where the rock has stripped your skin to the flesh in a showing of structural superiority. The Gobie Law dictates what you can climb that day; too many hand gobies makes it a finger-crack day.

It is the curious magnificence you feel with sun-chapped lips, wind-swept eyes, and sandy hair, toes and ears. The landscape is trying to swallow you.

It is the familiar faces and new friends, large communal dinners and lazy brunches on rest days, and warm fires under cloudless night skies.

It is taking a moment to stare at the beauty, trying in vain to inhale it all and keep it vividly burning in your memory for when you are in a different place, and in need of a reminder of life’s wondrous awesomeness.

But even this natural paradise is not out of Trump’s reach. Conservationists celebrated the environmental protections that came with the establishment of the Bears Ears National Monument – a huge swath of land that included Indian Creek – under Barack Obama, but Trump rolled this back by 85 per cent at the end of last year to make way for the mining and oil industries to cash in.

Obama’s move was the result of five decades of lobbying from five indigenous tribes – the Hope, the Navajo, the Ute, the Ute Mountain Tribe, and the Zuni – which consider the land sacred. They, along with outdoor companies such as Patagonia, are now suing the Trump Administration to try and stop Trump’s rollback.

For more information, visit bearsearscoalition.org


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The Red River Gorge, Kentucky. 

The geological forces that shaped the gorge seem to have had broad-shouldered climbers in mind. Wall after wall of overhanging sandstone sweep through the lushly forested gorge, awash with ledges, slopers, incut edges and pockets. There are giant amphitheatres of rock, golden rock faces with beautiful black streaks, and an abundance of perfect ledges and huecos that make for strenuous, gymnastic climbing in a stunning setting.

I arrived in Kentucky with considerable climbing mileage behind me and an expectation of being able to crank through reasonably hard routes. That counts for little in the gorge, it turns out. I could often hang on until I was about halfway up a climb before being unceremoniously ejected – which is almost as fun as climbing, because falling on such steep routes means you fly through the air with little risk of swinging your ankle into the rock.

The gorge is such a frequented paradise for bolted sport climbing that almost every hold has a chalked tick mark to show you the best place to grab it. Everyone arrives at the crag equipped with a stick-clip – essentially cheater sticks that enable climbers to clip the rope through the first protection bolt for added safety. Some are even freely available at the parking lot.

The variety here is not about different climbing styles, but the degree of overhang beyond the vertical. It makes for fantastic fun, swinging from hold to hold on glorious holds and aesthetic lines – so long as you can hold on.

It soon transpired that the only way I could climb to the top of anything without falling was if I found a hand-jam or a fist-jam somewhere – crack-climbing techniques honed in Indian Creek that can allow other muscles to recover.

Every evening we retreated to the heart of the area – Miguel’s Pizza. Miguel, originally from Portugal, bought the land in the 1980s on a whim and opened up an ice cream parlour as climbers first started trickling in to the gorge. It soon transformed into a pizzeria and became a base for the climbers who were bolting new routes.

Today there is a campsite that is filled to the brim with climbers’ tents and a communal eating area where copious amounts of pizza is devoured every night. Dirtbags roam the tables in search of leftover pizza crusts.

The gorge is more immune to Trump’s lack of care for conservation. Most of the climbing is on private land, which is being slowly but surely bought up by the local Climbers’ Coalition to preserve in perpetuity for recreational use.

Trump’s America seeps into the area via the small towns that surround the gorge.

“Is that little kid yelling at us?”

My Chinese Australian friend and I, a Chinese New Zealander, were standing outside the local supermarket in the small town of Stanton. A stone’s throw away was a small boy, maybe 6 or 7 years old, giggling as he yelled the n-word at us in high-pitched excitement. His father was holding his hand, staring indifferently as his son continued to hurl the obscenity in our direction. His daughter gripped his other hand.

The calling continued as the family walked by us on their way to their car. We didn’t know whether to be outraged or to laugh, so hilarious was the scene. After much discussion, we decided not to correct him by saying the more accurate racial slur would be to call us ‘chiggers’.

About Derek Cheng

Derek Cheng is a journalist and photographer whose work has appeared in publications in several countries, including the US, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and the UK. Since he discovered climbing about ten years ago, he has worked as little as possible so he can travel widely, chasing rock faces in all corners of the world - from stalactite-blessed limestone in China, to the alpine granite of the Bugaboos and the Sierra Nevada, to quartzite giants in Morocco. His work can be viewed at dirtbagdispatches.com
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