The Inertia Contributing Writer
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The Inertia

There can only be one Yosemite. But if Yosemite had a more wild, shorter, red-haired sibling it would undoubtedly be Indian Creek. Thankfully, geological forces in Southeast Utah have given us “The Creek,” as it’s known to climbers. And thankfully President Obama just preserved it by making it a part of the 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument, which he signed into law on Wednesday.

At the years-long urging of Native American tribes, Obama came to recognize that the new national monument houses rock art and archaeological sites sacred to local tribes. Indian Creek has its share of those archaeological riches, including petroglyphs just a few steps from the highway. But to another type of clan — those who live to climb perfect splitter cracks and stand atop desert towers — Indian Creek is sacred for other reasons.

An hour’s drive south of Moab, Utah, State Route 211 winds through a wonderland of blood-red sandstone bluffs and freestanding towers. Climbers glue their faces to the window as they drive through. For the trained eye of a trad climber always seeking vertical cracks, Indian Creek is instant overload.

Perfect natural lines from fingertip- to chimney-width, the kind that nature doles out sparingly, even on some vast granite and sandstone formations, are everywhere. In Indian Creek, perfect cracks split miles of empty cliffs every few meters.

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That drive can only be compared to standing on the cliffs at Uluwatu, watching flawless lefthanders reel by. Or standing in an alpine cirque surrounded by ideal snow conditions and endless perfect couloirs and spines. Climbers travel from around the world to hone their crack climbing technique there, gaze at the stars, and revel in a place largely unspoiled by humanity.

Though extra-special to climbers, anyone can see that Indian Creek is an unusually-gorgeous slice of the American west. Set against the red sandstone and nearly perpetual clear blue skies, cottonwood trees line the area’s namesake creek. Juniper trees and sagebrush sprout from the red soil. In terms of beauty, not much separates Indian Creek from the adjacent Canyonlands National Park Needles District.

But there’s a huge difference in its designation. Until now, Indian Creek has been under the purview of the Bureau of Land Management, where it’s barely survived environmental degradation. As with many of the lands now included in the monument, Indian Creek has long suffered from — and was perpetually at threat from — oil exploration, livestock grazing, and mining. Cultural sites there have been looted, too. As a National Monument, Bears Ears will enjoy greater protections, though those are yet to be fully spelled out.

Securing the new designation took cooperation from native tribes, who worked collectively on this proposal as the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition with rock climbers and wilderness advocates. As Rock & Ice points out, climbers’ and native peoples’ ideals aren’t always aligned. Yet, fueled by a mutual love of the region, this effort brought about greater understanding and forged new alliances. Hopefully, those bonds will be strong enough to endure through the next fight, whatever it may be.

And there’s another upshot to these protections, one that could reverberate for climbers well beyond Indian Creek alone. As the Access Fund puts it, “this is the first national monument proclamation to specifically acknowledge rock climbing as an appropriate and valued recreation activity.”

Native people might have had a hand in that. In October, the inter-tribal coalition penned a letter to the Department of the Interior, spelling out their support of the climbing community. And one huge similarity: “Native Americans were the first rock climbers in the region!” they wrote, a fact evidenced by their ancient cliff dwellings.

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They urged the department to protect the sport, writing, “Climbing has never been mentioned in a proclamation to date but we believe it would be appropriate here.”

Apart from Indian Creek, the new monument houses numerous climbing areas including Valley of the Gods and Lockhart Basin. Beyond the established climbing, untold first ascents lie in wait. Thankfully, we can rest assured that the federal government, the tribespeople, the climbers and wilderness advocates want to keep it that way for generations to come.

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