The year is 1968. Chuck Pratt and Doug Robinson stand on top of North Six Shooter Peak near Indian Creek in southeastern Utah, completing the tower’s second historic ascent. Pratt looks out into the desert and says: “This is the future home of crack climbing.”
Pratt’s intuition was correct. Indian Creek is now a world-renowned crack-climbing destination from amateurs to professionals. The beauty, cultural history and access to copious amounts of quality crack climbs bring an abundance of outdoor enthusiasts to the area. “Indian Creek is my favorite place in the world. It’s beautiful, it’s got everything,” said Karl Kelley, the author of the climbing guidebook “High on Moab,” as well as the newly released Indian Creek climbing guidebook, “Creek Freak.”
The guidebook features gear and rope information for more than 2,000 routes, first ascent information, and detailed maps of different crags. Creek Freak also offers an insight into the past, present and potential future for the unique climbing area. “We have a rich history just like Yosemite does, and I wanted to capture it before it’s gone,” explained Kelley. For the book, Kelley interviews historic creek climbers such as Jimmie Dunn, a famed desert climber in Indian Creek who developed many of the classic routes and towers, to help preserve the history.
“It’s unbelievable what they were doing back in the day with the equipment they had – old-school shoes, ropes and cams,” said Kelley. Creek Freak features short essays from prolific climbers and others who wrote about their experiences at the creek, including a piece from Pamela Shanti Pack, known worldwide for establishing daring off-width routes.
Before diving into the world of climbing, Kelley was a ski enthusiast who lived in mountain towns all over the West. He later found himself in the Wasatch Mountains in Alta, working as a chef at the Peruvian Lodge. Kelley first visited Moab in 1983 to try out a new and exciting sport known as mountain biking, “which were called ‘fat tires’ at the time.” However, he quickly found that he enjoyed climbing desert cracks more. “I started climbing when I was older in life and living in Salt Lake City,” he explained. After Kelley climbed the desert classic, Castleton Tower, also known as Castle Rock, he was captivated and “began coming down to Moab every week” to climb.
The skier found himself frequently going on desert climbing trips to Indian Creek at a time before any full guidebooks were published. Climbers, including Kelley, would use plaques at the bottom of routes to find out information on who climbed the first ascent, the grade it’s rated and the year it was established. Kelley added that creek climber Steve Hong began the tradition of leaving plaques during the major wave of first ascents in the late 1970s and early ’80s. While the ethics of inscribing plaques is up for debate, Kelley believes the tradition “is part of the creek’s history.”
In May of 2001, Kelley and his wife, Michelle, officially moved from Salt Lake City and settled into the desert scene of Moab. They founded and co-own the restaurant Desert Bistro, a Moab establishment for 18 years. Throughout the seasons Kelley balanced his time between work as a chef and restaurant owner with his passion for outdoor activities.
He established himself as a frequent and knowledgeable climber in the creek and kept journals along with a wall-size topographical map of all the routes he developed and climbed. The information became vital while authoring “High on Moab” and “Creek Freak.”
“Eric Bjornstad is the original guru in the Moab area for climbing,” said Kelley. “He did the first real guidebooks of the area, which included a little bit of Indian Creek.” The guidebooks, titled Desert Rock, were a series that began publishing in 1977 and covered areas throughout southwest Utah. Kelley referred to Bjornstadt as the “Bible-maker of the climbing around Moab.” Marco Cornacchione authored the first creek-specific guidebook in 1998, titled “Indian Creek Select,” which highlighted 100 specific routes in the creek.
Yet, there was still a need for a more detailed guidebook. Fred Knepp, the owner of Sharp End Publishing, contacted Kelley for input on a more thorough Indian Creek guidebook that David Bloom was writing. “Bloom came around and did the first real Indian Creek guidebook and did three volumes with Sharp End Publishing,” said Kelley. Bloom’s book, “Indian Creek: A Climbing Guide,” was published in 2009 and soon became the standard of climbing guidebooks, according to Kelley.
“When it came time for the new Indian Creek book, many people had contacted Fred to get [me] to write it,” said Kelley. It seemed only natural that Kelley take on the monumental task, since the climber himself has “around 350” first ascents in Indian Creek and already wrote “High on Moab.”
The author jokingly described the urge to explore new routes as a “sickness of walking around the corner to see what else you could find.” The “sickness” is the reason for many routes established in the creek area. Kelley established the majority of a place called Selfish Wall by himself one summer. “It was July and I couldn’t find any [climbing] partners so I taught myself to rope solo and put up a majority of that wall,” he explained. Creek Freak includes a singular route on Vision Wall that was founded by Kelley and his wife.
“Michelle was training for a marathon and I was helping Bloom with one of the books. I said she should run the Beef Basin Road and I would drive down and pick her up on the other end,” said Kelley. “While we were driving back the sun hit the wall in the perfect spot.” The couple saw a singular crack. “We went back the next day, put up bolts and climbed it,” he added. The route was “kept secret until the book” and originally titled “Hong for a Day,” as a nod to fellow climber Hong, who founded many of the iconic routes at Indian Creek. The couple renamed the crack Kelley Vision.
All of the royalties from “Creek Freak” will go to Access Fund, specifically allocated to Indian Creek. The organization’s mission is “to protect climbing access and the integrity of America’s outdoor climbing areas.” Kelley explained that he also “asked a bunch of companies to donate another dollar [to Access Fund] for every book they sold,” to give back to the land.