I have been seeking out North America’s most challenging inverted and vertical offwidth climbs since 2008. In recent years I have focused on establishing first ascents. Offwidth Outlaw follows me on my quest to establish new routes in the desert climbing meca of Indian Creek in southeastern Utah. The film was directed by Celin Serbo, edited by Jim Aikman, with camera work by Celin Serbo, Fredrik Marmsater, Jim Aikman, and Sky Sight RC and was shot over the course of 3 days in April of 2013.
Awards: Banff Mountain Film selection, Telluride Mountain film selection, Vancouver Mountain Film selection, Sheffield selection, Radical Reels Tour selection, Boulder Adventure Film selection, Flagstaff Mountain Film Festival selection.
In the Offwidth Outlaw you’ll follow my progress on two of first ascents — “The Soul Assassin” (5.12 R) and “Girls Just Wanna Have Guns” (5.11).
The Story of the Soul Assassin 12+ R (FA: Pamela Pack and Pat Kingsbury) and the Addiction to First Ascents
First ascents are addictive, as Bob Scarpelli recently said to me. “Offwidths won me over. It’s like shooting cocaine. It scares the f*** out of you the first time, and pretty soon it’s what you live for.” First ascents are seductive—they offer us the possibility of leaving a legacy. First ascents are a climber’s autobiography and tell future generations of the story of their passion, dedication, and willingness to venture into the unknown.
Every spring, I journey to Indian Creek in search of the next nameless and mysterious offwidth to establish. But I wasn’t thinking about wide cracks on the April day that I discovered one of the most alluring offwidths I’d seen in Indian Creek. I had been battling a tight squeeze chimney the day before and was in too much pain to even take a full breath. But my frequent OW partner, Pat, wanted to show me one more line. The first pitch was a 120-foot right leaning wide-crack that smacked of relentless knee-locks, arm-bars, and chicken wings. The second pitch appeared to be a relatively low angle offwidth that vanished into a cave. I suddenly felt overwhelming exhilaration and desperation – the third pitch was a magnificent, clean, wide roof. I would have to invert…
Invert style offwidth roofs are so rare that not all the intricacies of technique for surmounting them have been discovered. Each new route presents a puzzle that has never been deciphered and therefore, the opportunity not only to be the first person on that roof but the first person to ever perform the technique to surmount it. They offer the possibility of unlimited creativity.
That night, back in my tent the pain in my ribs was making me nauseated. I considered the distressing possibility my climbing season was over. But after a week, although I still felt as if there was a dagger in my rib, I was desperate to get on that roof. From the ground it was obvious that the entire route would be right side in and it was my left side that was damaged, so I speculated that I could manage with all right-side in arm-bars and chicken wings. The next morning I took a few Motrin, packed my bags, and made my way to the base of the Pistol Whipped wall.
The crux of the first pitch turned out to be the 20-foot finger crack that transitioned into an over-hanging offwidth corner that was indeed surmounted with a grueling sequence of knee bars, arm-bars, thigh-locks, chicken wings and fist stacks–as I had suspected. Pitch 2, which I had suspected would be “casual,” was a deceptively strenuous low-angle squeeze with a burly overhanging crux offwidth exit. It was the sort of offwidth that reminded me why most people despise offwidth climbing—requiring less technique and more brute force. Tremendous, inelegant effort resulted in mere inches of progress. I groveled through the last overhang into the mouth of the dark cave and felt a cold wind—the crack was completely detached from the wall. This wasn’t just another multi-pitch route; this was a tower. And with 300 feet of wide crack climbing and an inverted roof on the third pitch it would be one of the most sustained and challenging offwidth towers in the desert.
Examining the roof, I realized that there was a good chance I would hit my head on the wall if I should fall while attempting to get inverted, so I paused to put thought into how I would be placing gear. After years of climbing upside-down my body has an innate sense of how to get inverted. And it appeared the pitch could be protected with a few Aliens in a thin seam behind the roof and two 9-inch Valley Giants. This was not the rack I was hoping for on what appeared to be a 70-foot pitch. Furthermore, Pat had inadvertently “sacrificed” one of the two required 9-inch cams down the squeeze chimney. So, I was headed into the unknown with a few Aliens and one 9-inch cam for the next 40-50 feet. Pat tried to reassure me with the fact that the rack would be much lighter with only one VG. I wasn’t convinced, but I was obsessed, so I started up the first 20 feet of vertical offwidth pushing my one lonely 9” cam and back-cleaning it to take with me out the undulating roof.
I paused at the lip of the roof. I can read inverts quickly—the crux is rarely getting upside-down but “pivoting”—the process of getting right-side up again. However, as I threw the standard chicken wing over my head, which is the necessary technique for inverting on 9-inch offwidths, and tried to get my feet into the crack over my head, I realized that I had a problem. My feet were way too small to hang upside-down off of the crack. We wide crack climbers generally rely on the counter pressure between our heels and toes to stay inverted. In some instances I have compensated for having smaller feet by counter pressure between my knees and heels, but I simply could not get established in this invert. My feet kept slipping and I kept falling awkwardly upside-down, with my face pressed against the lip of the roof onto a few precarious Aliens shoved in a seam. I tried turning around in the crack and seeing if there was another option for getting my feet over my head but managed to do little more than repeatedly hit my forehead. I realized I was going to need to improvise here and lowered down, thrilled to have found an offwidth roof that confounded me.
That night at camp I slathered my approach shoes with 5.10 Stealth Paint, speculating my feet would fit the crack in bigger shoes. I wasn’t convinced that climbing a 5.12 offwidth roof was going to be exactly casual in approach shoes, but they were my only hope. A few days later, after jugging 200 miserable feet in the scorching sun I was back where I belonged—in my dark cave beneath the mystifying and seductive roof. I taped up my hands, pulled on my kneepads and elbow pads and racked up. I started up the vertical, focusing on my breathing, and paused below the roof to examine the empty space once more. This time I could perfectly visualize how my body needed to move through this space. I inverted much lower in the crack from a nearly side-ways position at which point I could press off a hand-stand on the slab below me to get my feet firmly established in the invert. The approach shoes worked brilliantly, and after 15 feet of inverted “shuffling,” I pivoted right-side up and relaxed, and the roof had felt eerily effortless. Thirty more feet of vertical groveling bumping one 9-inch cam, and I was clipping the anchor with my last protection 50 feet below me in the roof.
Offwidth legend Randy Leavitt once wrote: “a hard offwidth is harder to find than a perfect finger crack.” I can tell you after countless days of searching for the next flared, overhanging masterpiece that this is true. But my obsession for first ascents of hard offwidths continues to inspire me to keep searching for that next elusive roof from the sandstone towers of Utah to the granite formations in Vedauwoo, Wyo. There are so few places left to explore, so few empty places on the map and offwidth FAs provide me the opportunity to create something, from what looks to most, to be nothing more than empty space.