Slipping Through the Cracks:
Refuge on the Green River
I stuff my fingers in the sandstone crack, pulling with equal pressure as I push against the corner with my feet. I try not to over grip with each hand and foot placement.
There’s a thin layer of dirt that covers everything: the climb, the gear, my whole body. My throat is dry, and my chest is heaving as if I had just sprinted on the tamarisk-lined beach below us. I keep slotting an insecure right kneebar against an edge higher and higher as I inch my way up, laybacking the sandy corner, and blindly slamming small cams in for protection. With each clip of the rope to a piece of gear I relax slightly, but never too much, or I’ll be off.
The world is ending.
It’s spring 2020, and Covid just became a reality. Everything feels uncertain. We don’t know much about the virus yet or the best course of action. People are dying, the shelves at grocery stores are empty- we are ordered to quarantine.
The Green River is a refuge.
But right now, in this moment, I am comforted. We are quarantined in Labyrinth Canyon, carved from the Green River in southeastern Utah. And despite the growing pump in my arms and fear I’ll slip off the rock, I am in my own little familiar world. I don’t know how the global crisis will end up but I know how to work on my project. It’s just me vs. this chunk of rock in the middle of nowhere, with my husband belaying and our dog lying in the dirt by his side.
Labyrinth Canyon became a refuge for me, and despite its name it was never difficult for me to find my way here. It became a place of certainty in its roots of adventure- an escape from difficulties in the world or in my head, from hard sport projecting, or in this case, a pandemic. Spending a trip once a year in this magical canyon functioned as a reset button of life- a time to live simply, enjoy the wild spirit of climbing, and escape the outside world.
I make it through the crux on lead for the first time on Barbie Adventure Pack, a 5.13- splitter that my husband, Chris, had just put up a couple weeks earlier. I am at the decent stance before the redpoint crux, a sequential, bouldery thin seam guarding the anchor.
I know how to climb the upper crux, I had rehearsed the pitch by solo-toproping many days before attempting on lead. I stand as high on my tiptoes as possible and get a shallow right finger-lock, stem my left foot on a slanted micro-edge, and deadpoint to a left finger-lock that bites my raw skin. I scream as I throw to a right-hand sloping jug, calm my nerves and breath, and climb the 5.11 finishing crack to the anchor.
I just sent one of my hardest desert splitters!
Of course there isn’t much celebrating- the Green River is a refuge but is only one recess of the broader, darker world. We are the lucky ones- as climbers we are able to stay safe, distanced, and do what we love. There’s a sense of comfort in routine, and I’m grateful for this sense of normality.
But in previous non-pandemic-years, the spirit of climbing on the Green River had always been about getting out of your comfort zone and embracing the unknown. Spearheaded by our friend, Celin Serbo, a decade ago, I’d been adventuring on this river for seven years, putting up new routes along the way.
The desert and its climbs are unforgiving. There’s no lack of rocks that trundle under foot, cactus quills that poke through your shoes, and blaring sun that turns your face red. The cracks usually hold onto a few scary blocks wedged precariously inside and a layer of sand that makes your hands and feet slip. There’s a general sense of unease questing up for the first time- will this even go? And no matter how much you think you know what size the crack might be, you’re usually wrong.
This is a stark contrast from what I normally do. Most climbing days are pushing my limits, projecting, stripping all unknown factors out of the equation to increase my odds of success. But at least once a year I love returning to this wild place for the spirit of climbing. There’s a deep sense of satisfaction putting up your own route, a sense of legacy and contribution to future climbers on their own adventure.
Fast forward to spring 2021. We set out for new first ascents, and I spotted a beautiful splitter crack right down the middle of a huge two-tiered boulder. From afar, it looked super steep and thin, likely in the 5.12 range. But after getting up close, it seemed more doable, not as thin as I expected, but it was steep.
Then, and just like last spring on the Green River, we hear more tragic news: A mass shooting in our hometown of Boulder, CO.
My heart sinks. Facing this tragedy, I named my new route Boulder Tears.
I think we all need refuge from the uncertainties of this world- a place where, for a moment, the volatility and sadness of the outside madness can melt away. A place where the biggest worries are how shallow the river is or if we’re strong enough to get up this crack.
“There’s a comfort and necessity in continuing to carry on, to carve out your own beauty and sense of purpose in this lifetime. Cultivate your garden.”
Climbing has become my big beautiful garden, and in this maze of life, places like Labyrinth Canyon can teach us to be kinder to one another, to appreciate each day, and to never give up. I hope that others can find a passion or a special place to escape the outside world and turn their focus inward and find a sense of peace- even just for a moment.
Words by | Heather Weidner
Images by | Archives Weidner
Heather Weidner is a US American climber based in Las Vegas/Nevada and member of the Rab athlete team. Her passion ranges from hard sport climbs to spicy traditional climbs, and has lead her to many places around the globe.
Follow Heather’s adventures at Instagram