Trip ReportThe First Ascent of Riverside Tower
A Trip Report by Ryan Myers, 05/2017
The First Ascent of Riverside Tower
Salty Dog Direct
a Link to read on Google Docs -
A couple of years ago, back in the Summer of 2015, I had the pleasure of meeting my good friend, Aaron Collins. We had “liked” each others posts, followed each other on Mountain Project and nearly crossed paths on multiple occasions over a decade of climbing in Phoenix. LDSClimber was a guy I looked up to, even though we had never officially met. I knew just by reading his route updates and descriptions that we had a few things in common.
We finally had the chance to tie in together and develop a few routes at Christopher Creek Gorge during an eventful few months in 2015. During that season, we travelled up to Payson and spent many days together talking climbing, life and even more climbing. One morning, Aaron told me he wanted to take the “scenic route” and show me something. What he pointed out, was a beautiful unclimbed desert tower! This would be an image that would play games in the back of my head for several years to follow. It wasn’t until the impending heat strike of the 2017 Arizona summer that things got real.
Day 1 - May 1st, 2017
I had thought about it long enough! For endless reasons, I had always either chosen something else to do or talked myself out of it. And why? It was within an hour’s drive from my house, incredibly aesthetic, and totally UNTOUCHED! These three criteria meet every item on my “must go check out” list. Why it took me 2 years to go do is still a mystery.
I woke up early Monday morning as Sophia was getting ready to head to work. I had been thinking about my next three days of availability and also watching the forecast of temperatures rise as the week went on. It felt like a now or never situation. Without too much thought, I threw anything and everything I might need for a solo recon mission into my haulbag. I was hoping to climb of course...if at all possible.
As I was leaving the house, the six sad eyes of desperation gave me “the look”. The look of longing, begging, pleading. My three dogs wanted so bad to join their best friend on an adventure...and I couldn’t say no.
The hike starts right away with a river crossing. Little did I know, May 1st, was the first day Saguaro Lake was releasing water through its dam down the Salt River, making the flow and water level a bit higher than it was when I visited in January. The dogs and I made it across the river and hiked cross country following a maze of wild horse/goat paths for about 10-15 minutes. We were hiking in the direction of the tower I remember seeing and seeking a good path upwards. Not too much later we found ourselves beginning to climb the steep hillside towards some much needed shade. At the top of the slope, after about 15 minutes of leg burning, loose gravel hiking, we found a shady spot for a short break. We were within 20 minutes hiking to reach the base of the tower, and man it looked beautiful!
Considering the severity of the hike, for both me and the dogs, and also considering the high temperatures and lack of ample amounts of water. I had to make some decisions. I knew I wasn’t going to climb; sure, I regretted carrying all my gear, but it just wouldn’t be safe to leave my dogs at the base while I climbed. I could turn back now, saving about an hour’s worth of hiking or push on further to inspect the tower more closely. We had come this far, and it was still early, so we pushed on. We got to the base and immediately I spotted a crack system splitting the face.
The terrain looked like 5.8 climbing, but the majority of the rock seemed to flake off with even the slightest touch. Only the finest desert choss, a true gem.
I had to climb it, but not today. Maybe tomorrow, without the dogs. I wondered if I could find a suitable partner on such short notice. Someone who wouldn’t mind schlepping up there and contemplating the summit route as our starting belay ledge crumbled beneath us. I placed a two bolt anchor at the base of the prospective route after deciding that I would most likely be returning solo. The route was locked into my psyche.
Day 2 - May 2nd, 2017
No DOGS! No Distractions! Just me, my rope, and my rack! It was time to see what I was made of. I’ve done some solo climbing, I’ve done some aid climbing, and I’ve done some first ascents. This would be my first time putting it all together. Exciting, Nerve-Racking, Intense, Rewarding, Affirming… are all adjectives I would later use to describe the day.
I got up early, knowing exactly what the hike would entail and how heavy the pack would feel. I ate breakfast, something I rarely do. I knew I would need all the energy I could get. I drank a Redbull on the drive, hoping it would give me wings.
Crossing the river gave me a huge smile. I was heading into the big range of steep cliffs ahead of me, solo, and with a huge pack of climbing gear on my back. The kayakers gliding by gave me curious looks as I stood solo, laden down, and waist deep in the middle of river. I shook ‘em off and mentally prepared for the misery ahead. I soaked my shirt and enjoyed the last few moments down by the river.
I actually made it up the steep, loose hillside in a quick time, which was a good thing because I had lost 30 minutes waiting in road construction traffic on my way here. From my previous days scouting, I knew I would be in the shade for the majority of the day. This was a good thing because the afternoon high was expected to be 100 degrees.
I sorted my ropes and threw on my gear sling. I tied into the anchor and rigged my Silent Partner. I gave everything a thorough double check and began seeking my first gear placement. Low and behold, the first piece of gear I was going to have to commit my entire weight to was the smallest cam in my arsenal, the black alien. A micro-cam can be solid, but has such a small amount of contact surface area that they’re really hard to trust, at least in my mind. I placed the tiny cam and gave it a good 3 stage bounce test. On stage 3, it blew.
The cam blowing out of the crack when I put my full weight on it actually cleaned out some loose rock, making for an even better placement, with better direction of pull. Lucky me. Four placements in, I was off and running, and feeling pretty good. The gear all seemed solid even though rock was crumbling all around me. I had 3 good cams below me including a big #3 Camalot, I looked down and saw something that was not right, my haul line was still clipped to the anchor, not my harness. Not a critical mistake, but still, stupid error, I down-climbed to get it and refocused. A few more moves and I was back to feeling good as I progressed from piece to piece.
After making it up about 65ft into the climb, I came to a logical spot to build an anchor and considered my options. It was here, where the route could go two separate ways and the angle begins to get steeper. One option was to take the more direct and vertical crack straight up. The other option was to continue climbing diagonally up and to the left. Both looked OK, neither looked great. I decided to take the more direct and vertical option.
It was 3 moves off the belay where I found myself with a big decision to make. The crack peters out, leaving me hanging from a suspect horn of rock. At this point i’m only 15 feet above my anchor and the slopey ledge I started out on. The rock above looks free climbable and I can see that in just 10 to 15 feet more there is a nice crack put in some protection and get a rest. I could drill a bolt here, I thought, but I was being incredibly indecisive. I didn’t quite know what I wanted the route to be.
My mind was going in overdrive. I was trying to analyze everything and make the right decisions. I needed to relax. Lucky for me it just so happened I randomly saw a grasshopper chillin out next to me. That really helped calm me down and so I took a few more moments to work out the next sequence of moves in my head. I inched up into the tops of my ladders and began inspecting the handholds. After chucking a few loose rocks towards the ground I began to find what I needed. I made the move out of my ladders just to get a feel for what it would take. I climbed back down and took another minute. I unclipped one of my daisy chains from the slung horn I was on in preparation to climb the free section above. I again climbed to the top of my ladders, found the holds, placed my feet on the rock and bent down to unclip my last daisy chain. It was time to commit, and so I worked my feet up higher making just two small moves, when I damn near sh#t myself.
The whole sole of my f*#king shoe had just ripped off!
Sketched out, I quickly down-climbed and clipped back into the last piece of pro. Totally shook up, I knew it was time to retreat. I did so slowly and methodically, taking my time and trying to relax again. At the anchor, I contemplated drilling, but really wanted the first pitch to be longer. The more time I spent looking at option 2, the one I didn’t choose just an hour ago, the more it looked like the obvious and most logical line. I kept the drill in the bag and bailed off my trad anchor, leaving my rope fixed for a return visit.
Day 3 - May 3rd, 2017
I had to admit, that as much fun as it was to be going ground up on a solo mission, I wanted a partner! The level of anxiety from the day before was quite a bit to handle. I was pretty worked and it would be nice to have someone else psyched to give me an energy boost. Not to mention the help carrying gear and water.
I gave Aaron a call and let him know what I was up to. Unfortunately being the busy man that he is, he wasn’t able to make it on such short notice. He was psyched and gave me his best wishes. I knew my coworker and good friend Alex Minnick was free, and we had already kind of made plans to go sport climbing. So I gave him a call and updated him on the situation at hand. He was totally down for something new and said he would meet me in the morning for another day on the tower.
We got to the base and I blasted up the fixed line to the anchor. I showed Alex just once before how to jug with a single ascender and GriGri. Thankfully he’s a quick learner and was up to the anchor in no time. While he was on his way up to me I had this thought...
Not only is having a partner a bit more safe, but it makes drinking beer while climbing a bit more acceptable.
We enjoyed a Knotty Pine Pale Ale before I headed up and left, Option 2.
The gear was actually pretty good and I was making steady progress. The excitement was high and we had some tunes bumpin' out the stereo. Alex was patient as I finished up the second half of pitch 1. From bottom to top, I found the aid climbing to be engaging and fairly safe. Towards the end of this pitch, I hammered in a couple pitons to protect the final moves to the next anchor, this was the first time so far I needed the hammer and after moving past it I questioned whether I looked hard enough for a clean aid option.
I built a trad anchor behind a huge block and called “OFF BELAY”. The anchor was good and any party could easily build one similar but a bolted anchor is going to be a better option in this part of the climb for ease of descent and potential lack of gear if aid climbing the 120ft pitch. I hauled the drill up and placed two half inch bolts off to the right to protect the belayer on pitch 2, which will take us straight up from there.
I think, I will always second guess decisions I make while new-routing. It is very much a part of my personality. To bolt or not to be? To go left, to go right. To hammer, to free. To protect or to run it out. In the end, the decisions I make ultimately come down to what I feel is going to keep me safe and paint the most beautiful picture on this one of a kind canvas. This decision making process is why I love putting up first ascents. It is a passion that tests my skillset and challenges my mind and body in ways nothing else does.
Right off the belay ledge, the rock is blank with very few options so I decided to place a bolt. The climbing from that point on was more of the same. Interesting aid climbing on a variety of gear which most I would consider to be pretty good. As much as I enjoyed climbing the line in my ladders, most of the time the terrain looks free climbable. I came to a slabby section with some tiny seams for knifeblade pitons. As I moved through this section I considered what it would take to protect for a First Free Ascent. A couple bolts would be the best option so I took my time to put two in. A decision I’ll think about until I try to free climb the route.
About thirty feet above the last two bolts I placed, I found myself at another slopey ledge with a great spot for an anchor. Only 60 ft into this second pitch, it was the right time to call it a day. I built a beautiful 4 piece anchor out of a nut, 2 medium sized cams and a pink tricam. I left the haul line fixed and rappelled back down to Alex at our freshly bolted anchor. We finished the last of our now warm beers and headed for the coolness of the Salt River below.
Day 4 - May 6th, 2017
The final push! My sights were set. I knew we would be on top by the end of the day, hopefully sooner if everything goes right. We got an early start and crossed the river, not stopping to chill or soak our shirts or anything that would slow us down.
Up the ropes we went. But to be honest, I accidentally swung into the cactus at the base of the route which slowed me down just a bit, making it the second one I’ve fallen into this year. Not good... it’s only May. After pulling a few needles out, I made my way to the top. I got a nice rest, a cold beer, and a great show. Watching Alex get worked going up the steep line was pretty amusing. We hauled the bag and continued up the next line taking us to our high point. Above us was a beautiful arching crack that was the most visible feature on the route. On the first day I hiked to the tower, this was the section that called to me. I was pretty excited to get to climb it. And boy did it climb beautifully. The whole pitch was such a pleasure. The final dihedral exit to the ridge was protected totally on passive gear. A natural line that needs to be climbed.
I built a fun multi-piece anchor on the slender ridge just 30 feet below the summit. The sun was shining, the river was busy below and the top was in our grasp. I gave out a few big shouts and called off belay. I rappelled down a ways to watch Alex clean the pitch and enjoy the exposure. During the initial ascent of the fixed lines in the morning, Alex had his shirt tied around his waist, unfortunately he lost it to the wind and wild motion of swinging around on overhanging rope. By the time he got to me I couldn’t help but to laugh at how red his shoulders were. He was fried!
But a trooper nonetheless, he made his way to the anchor and put me back on belay for the final 30 feet of crumbly goodness. The summit was awesome! Just big enough for a few people. Mostly choss, but a capstone of hard rock, the perfect saddle. This was my first tower to grab the first ascent of. It was different than the other first ascents I have done. The thought of being the only one to be on the summit was extremely powerful. We enjoyed the moment and probably spooked some tubers with the echos of our summit cheers.
Now we all know the descent is by far the most dangerous part of any climb. On the summit there was almost zero options as far as good gear went, in fact I gave Alex a belay squatting in a small gash. No anchor, just confidence my partner wouldn’t fall off the side of the mountain. Sorry Alex’s Mom if you're reading this, it was pretty safe though, as bad as it sounds.
I installed a two bolt anchor in the solid capstone of the summit. This could get you down in one rappel with two 70 meter ropes. Unfortunately we did not have two 70s. We retreated off the summit back to the ridge below. This was a good place for another anchor to rappel the route. We drilled two holes but found we had lost the expansion sleeve to one of the two bolts we had left. I placed the other one that was in good condition and then equalized that with an awesome rock chock! Hahahaha, I’ll tell you what, I love building anchors! Exactly 35 meters below, I barely reached the bolted anchor. Perfect! Just remember to tie knots in the end of your rope on this rappel. 70 meter rope or doubles required!
Alex made his way down to the anchor with me. We had done it! Achieved the summit and just one easy rappel to go.
Then the rope pull.
It was stuck. Alex was prepared to lose his rope and call it a loss. I wasn’t. Up the rope I go. I was tired but so satisfied. As i made my way to the pinch point where the rope was stuck, I got to enjoy the pitch from another perspective. A beauty for sure, and I feel so honored to have been able to climb it. I got the ropes unstuck and made my way back down. Lucky for me, Alex had saved a beer for me.
*I promise it has almost no effect on our ability or judgement making. It simply it nice to have and gives us calories to burn. Sorry if you do not agree with this action.*
We made it safely to the ground with all of our ropes and gear. The climb was done!
Salty Dog Direct is a tribute to my Dad. Some of my earliest adventures were rafting down the Salt with my family. He instilled a sense of adventure in me and showed me how to work hard for what I want. Not to mention he’s had the nickname Salty Dog for several years in our Fantasy Football League. Seemed fitting. Hopefully one of these days I can drag you up it DAD!
The name Riverside Tower pays homage to my days as a camp counselor in the Riverside Program at Camp Gwynn Valley in Brevard, NC. GV is where I truly began to craft my skills as an adventurer, educator, mentor, guide, manager, etc. On the Riverside program I found a really deep and personal drive to experience the most out of everyday, no matter how busy,tired, or sore.
This climb wouldn’t have happened without so many incredible influences in my life. Thank you to all of you. Aaron, thanks again for showing me this beauty, sorry we couldn’t make it work this time but maybe a FFA attempt this Fall. Alex, thanks for coming out and being so psyched to learn and get after it! Sophia, thanks for letting me bail on work and go climbing. Josh, thanks for not being pissed I kinda bailed on work, PS - I was in service and tried to answer. Ron Raimonde, thanks for being the big wall, first ascent bad ass I’ll always aspire to be. There are so many more too! Thank YOU for reading, it brings me a ton of pleasure to get to share with you all.
Cheers to the next adventure!
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