Out of Control in the Desert – Whitewater
DESERT HEADER
I wouldn’t consider myself a control freak, but somewhere along the line I learned I could only rely on myself for safety, comfort, and needs. The desert was about to challenge that.

There’s an essential concept that all new climbers learn, re-learn, and quickly internalize: redundancy.

In most cases, you build anchors at the top of each pitch with at least two connections to the rock; you lower off two carabiners placed opposite and opposed of each other; you extend your rappel in a way such that if one strand got cut, the entire thing doesn’t fail. That’s the whole point. A system with complete redundancy is one that keeps a climber secure even in the event that one component fails. There’s a backup; a contingency plan.

But there’s human redundancy in climbing too—unless you’re soloing I suppose, but personally, no thank you. You’re constantly tied to another person whose decisions, goals, and actions directly impact you on the wall. And there’s the whole part of climbing that isn’t quite climbing…the hiking, scrambling, mountaineering, and camping that may be required to even access a rock route is also no longer a solo endeavor with your human redundancy (ahem, climbing partner) in tow.

Most of my first few backpacking experiences were solo adventures, partly thanks to the pandemic and partly due to my refusal to let midweek days off from an outdoor retail job go to waste. My second-ever night spent outside was a solo backpack through Georgia’s stunning, sandy Providence Canyons. Shortly after, there was a heinous night in Rocky Mountain National Park, where my poor Southern soul was surprised to be snow camping in late May with three-season gear. Going solo was a logistical necessity; when I started climbing the opposite became true. Forced into human redundancy, I was surprised to find that I liked it — and maybe I needed it too.

Never was the demand for relying on others more clear than on a recent climbing trip in remote Indian Creek, Utah. The spot famed for crack climbing test pieces known simply as “the Creek” is an hour and a half drive from the closest showers and cell service in Moab. I had been wavering back and forth about even going on this trip. I’ve adopted my friends’ masochistic quirk of rebranding any less-than-luxurious experience as a vacation. Wind-whipped three pitches up on a climb an hour from home, we’ll scream “vacation!!” above the wind in a curious way of rebranding misery as fun. Somehow, it does work. But I desperately craved a real vacation; frigid tales from the previous year’s late fall Creek sojourn warned me this might not be my relaxing break.

To complicate (but also somehow streamline and add comedy to) matters, I carpooled with two friends, one of which was moving across the country. For anyone keeping track, that’s one person’s earthly possessions—plus three people’s camping essentials, climbing gear, food, and water for a week. I wouldn’t have my built-out Subaru with the comfy bed and safety net of hitting the road if shit really hit the fan. I mentally prepared to be a human popsicle far from creature comforts without any semblance of control.

I wouldn’t consider myself a control freak, but somewhere along the line I learned I could only rely on myself for safety, comfort, and needs. The desert was about to challenge that.

The vast and remote nature of the Creek—where Hopi, Dine, Ute, Zuni, Puebloan, Anasazi, and Fremont peoples have thrived for thousands of years—boasts little modern connection. Climbers find far-flung friends, lost gear, and rides through scribbles left on campground message boards posted like sentries. Attempting to find a friend on our second day, we rolled down the car window and screamed “Are you Finn?” towards a van in the darkness. It was. Each week, the climbing advocacy organization Access Fund carts vats of coffee to a popular parking lot. “Climber Coffee” is one of the few places to crowdsource a recent weather report, ask for beta, or borrow a guidebook in the absence of Google.

Mornings started with warm light illuminating the junipers outside our three-person tent; we’d rise with the sun, zip on a puffy, and lay a mat on the orange rock before boiling breakfast water. The climbing day ended when the sun sunk behind western rock walls, bathing the valley in hues of fiery red. On my favorite evening, we played like kids: tossing a frisbee, piloting a mountain bike over rock outcroppings, sprawling on the warm rocks chatting about life’s deepest thoughts — all to Johnny Cash tunes played on a trombone unearthed from the depths of Finn’s van. I found myself so accidentally in tune with the environment and the people I shared it with.

“Brooke, oh my god BROOKE my foot is gonna get stuck!” I screamed down while Brooke belayed me on a route I thought I had the confidence to lead. I’d jammed my toes into a crack and torqued my tibia perpendicular to the ground, securing a foot jam I could stand on to continue upward. The fear of falling was winning out, but I threw a meticulously taped fist into the sandstone crack and continued towards the chains.

Our gaggle of encouraging, competent climbers insulated me from fear just enough to attempt scary things. Knowing I didn’t have to finish the climb—any one of our crew could rescue my gear if I decided to bail—was the exact insurance I needed to climb because I wanted to, rather than because I needed to. I wasn’t the exhausted, burnt out climber of past trips where the objective required hyper-independence. Here, interdependence was a breath of fresh desert air.

To be fair, there were miserable moments. Without radar to track an approaching storm, we tried to sneak in a couple pitches below dark clouds moving through the valley. Halfway up a pitch way above my paygrade when the first sprinkles hit, I hurriedly cleaned our gear from the wall and threw on a rain jacket in vain. Gear and snacks were haphazardly thrown into bags, and a mad dash down the talus slope towards the cars several hundred feet below began. Mud weighed down our shoes at an astonishing rate on the cactus-lined road. Everything soaked through.

But even those less-than-Instagrammable moments were made better with human redundancy. On a solo trip, I probably would’ve spiraled given I had no way to dry gear, hadn’t showered in a week, and couldn’t climb on wet rock for another day or two. We laughed together and joined the exodus of Creek climbers driving into Moab for $4 hot showers at the Lazy Lizard Hostel. It was dark by the time we jostled into a campsite outside of town. I manically set up our tent while the sky threatened to open up again, and everything got covered in orange sand. We joked about the state of our new bedroom while waiting for the waves of downpour to subside long enough for a pee break. The next day, I would wonder why my abs hurt.

In the morning light, we sorted gear and started the game of Tetris fitting everything into a homeward bound car. Don’t tell the meticulous packers, but I’m bringing home something extra: peace in knowing I can surrender control and depend on my people.

Taylor is a writer and photographer in the outdoor editorial and commercial spaces based in Seattle, Washington. Learn more at taylormckenziephotography.com or follow Taylor on Instagram (@taylormckenzie_photo).