I started off the trip in Indian Creek, meeting up with my friends Jesse Huey and John Dickey. We spent the first day climbing cracks at the Cat Wall. My goal for this trip was to work on green and red camalot sized cracks, the latter in particular being really hard for my large (#3 BD) hands. Cat Wall didn’t disappoint with routes like Mad Dog and Pit Bull Terror, each of which kicked my ass in different ways. The next day we climbed at Battle of the Bulge, climbing the namesake crack and several more classics including Last Battle, a 5.11 that featured a variety of sizes and changing demands on climbing techniques, something of a rarity at the creek. Mid day, I was joined by my Alaska/Denali cohorts Tucker Chenoweth and Leighan Falley, along with one of my main partners for the trip, Tom Dancs.
The next day Tom, Tucker, Leighan, and I went to Reservoir Wall to find some shade. We were joined by another Alaska friend, local hero Ralph Tingey. Ralph is an inspiring legend. Still climbs hard and hikes like a 20 year old, but he’s also highly educated and well read, socially prolific (he knows everyone!), and is one of those guys that seems to do many things and all of them well. And he’s just an all-around nice guy! Ralph had a long career in the park service and was once the superintendant at Grand Teton and later Katmai National Parks, and recently retired after a few years as the Director of the NPS Alaska Region. Our group climbed a bunch of nice routes at Reservoir including Pente, a fantastic 5.11 splitter, and finished the day on the “Warm-Up Handcrack”, a 10+ tight hands splitter in a golden corner.
We hiked down in the evening twilight as the desert grew silent, apart from a rooster’s final crowing of the day at the nearby Dugout Ranch.
Early the next morning, my pal Stoney Richards arrived and it was time for Tom, Stoney and I to begin our planned assault on some desert towers. We hatched the idea for this trip almost a year earlier, when our friend Joe Puryear died climbing in Tibet. Joe did a ton of towers down here (some of them with Stoney) and we wanted to continue these adventures the best we could with the energy he instilled in us.
Tom was needing a rest day after two days of off the couch crack climbing in the Creek. I had done three in a row and needed something mellow, so Stoney, Ralph and I scrambled up something Tom had previously climbed, South Six Shooter Peak by the standard route, which is quite easy. We tagged both summit blocks, the eastern one having a slightly dodgy final move pulling past loose blocks.
The next day, the three of us, along with Tucker and Leighan, climbed the Lightning Bolt Cracks on North Six Shooter. This route is fabulous and well protected. The 5.11 section is basically the first 10 feet off the ground, then it’s sustained 5.10 splitters to the top. It’s nice to have a large cam to protect the wide section high on the first pitch. With extra #3 and #4 camalots and some generous runners, you could link p1 and p2. The final chimney is rather runout, and tight for large people (like me) but a couple chockstones can be slung and savior holds always appear just in time. Tom’s last time on this tower, he was the first person to BASE jump from it!
The following day we went into the Bridger Jacks area to bag some of the towers above the camping area. We started with Easter Island, which featured a fun 5.8 start pitch and then a somewhat heady 5.10b bolted face pitch (some eroded footholds) that wraps around the back to finish.
A wild free hanging rappel to the ground, a quick snack, and we headed up Sparkling Touch Tower. I led two great 5.10 pitches to gain the crest of the ridge, then Stoney rambled us to the top A0’ing past a very bouldery 5.11 face section. We were able to rappel straight down the east face in one long double rope rap, being careful to avoid pulling the rope into the massive chimney slot formed by a detached flake in front of the face.
Next up was Sunflower Tower. Stoney led a nice 5.10 stemming pitch up a box dihedral to a good belay stance, then I led up a strenuous thin hands section and a beautiful 10d finger crack in a corner to gain the ridge. Stoney led us up the final, crumbling cap rock summit pitch, traversing past old fixed gear on loose, sandy rock. The light was amazing in the encroaching evening and we relished the time on top.
We had hoped to also climb Thumbelina this day but by the time we rapped off Sunflower and regrouped, there was less than an hour of daylight remaining, so we called it a day, and a fine one at that.
After a day of rest and moving our camp to Canyonlands, the next objective was Washer Woman, In Search of Suds. This was a great route and very adventurous. I led us through a three pitch crack system (5.10, 5.9+, 5.10+) with mostly good rock which lead to the crest of the formation. Scramble along the ridge passing over the huge arch. Then, we climbed a final 10+ bolted face to the top and a great view! Unfortunately I forgot my camera on this day, and this tower might have been one of the most scenic. Rapping over the huge arch on the descent was airy and intimidating, not to mention that getting in position to rappel was quite sketchy! The rock on the remainder of the descent is pretty loose and requires care when pulling the rope. At the bottom, we were scrambling back up to the notch where we left our gear when I broke a handhold and took a nasty bouncing fall down onto a ledge, scraping the hell out of my arm and landing hard, luckily avoiding any serious damage. As I was falling, I had that moment of realizing I hadn’t really looked at what was below me and for a moment wasn’t at all sure how far I was going to go, only knowing that I was falling out of control. It was a rude reminder to be careful especially in such remote places.
The next day everyone was a bit tired and dehydrated so we drove to Arches NP and scrambled up Elephant Butte, which involved some low 5th class soloing, canyoneering style travel, and a couple of raps, but was generally a nice hike. Later, we climbed Tonka Tower (5.8, A0), which had some exciting sections on sandy Entrada near the top.
Next up was Primrose Dihedrals on Moses, a route I had wanted to do for a very long time. Tom’s Westy was able to make it all the way to the end of the road in Taylor Canyon. From here it was an easy 20 minute hike to the base. We took the 5.8 traverse start, having heard the 5.11+ start was a finger-popping boulder problem that we knew we could not free climb. Amazing splitter pitches followed, the best being pitch 4, a sustained 10+ dreamy hands to fist crack through a large flake. Several #3’s are nice to have on this pitch, especially if your hands are smaller than my #3 mitts. Stoney next attempted to link the ensuing 5.9 pitch into the Ear, the notorious 11b off width. Unfortunately, the final bolt in the Ear’s bolt ladder had been chopped. The runout, overhanging liebacking up the outside of the remaining 20’ of OW was daunting and scary…for us, anyway. The only true facts of the case are that none of us could summon the stones to lead it in that state, and we will be back again someday with a large big bro in tow (a #6 camalot probably is a bit too small). Meanwhile, we bailed. Them’s the breaks!
The next day we redeemed ourselves by climbing Fine Jade on the Rectory, which was undoubtedly one of the best climbs I’ve done in the desert, and I got to lead the first three pitches. I actually thought the 5.10+ first pitch was quite a bit harder than the 5.11 second pitch, as the start is overhanging and awkward, which also happen to be two types of climbing at which I typically suck. The rest of that pitch along with the 5.11 fingers on p2 was amazing, however. For the final pitch we went left and finished on a really awkward 5.9 roof grovel with slick calcite footholds. We walked to the far end of the Rectory and hung out enjoying the view down upon the Priest, Sister Superior and the valley below in the afternoon sun. Beautiful!
We took another rest day and then concluded our time together on our last day with an ascent of Lonely Vigil on Lighthouse Tower. Stoney had climbed this before but was psyched to do it again. Two great pitches of crack climbing led to the tiny, wild summit block, with an intimidating final mantle. You can throw the rope over the summit block and rig a toprope for the seconds as well as protecting the leader for reversing the last move- there are no anchors on top!
With a lot of joy and a little bit of sadness that it was over too soon, we parted ways after a round of beers and lunch at the Moab Brewery, toasting to the trip, to the lifestyle, and most of all, to Joe Puryear, our long lost friend who should have been here with us, and not only in memory. Here’s to you, Joe!
Tom and Stoney hit the road for Washington but my trip was still going. The following night I picked up Lisa, my wife, in Salt Lake City. We returned to Moab and got in a good day of cragging on Wall Street before a two day rainstorm rolled through and grounded us. This coincided with my somehow tweaking my low back stooping over to put a t-shirt in a duffel bag. Thankfully, Lisa is an excellent massage therapist, I had a lot of Ibuprofen, and there was a good chiropractor in town. Between these resources, I went from nearly crippled from the pain, to like it never happened by the time the rest of the family arrived: Lisa’s brother Paul Roderick (Talkeetna Air Taxi owner), his wife Whitney, and my nieces Tatum (9) and India (7). We made camp on the Colorado and, meeting up with our friends John Race, Olivia Cussen, and their adorable 5 month old daughter, Josephine (named for Joe P.!), for the next two days we set upon the cliffs of Wall Street once more. India and Tatum climbed a couple of 5.9’s and 5.10’s and were total naturals! Meanwhile, I managed to yet again botch the redpoint of Static Cling, a nemesis 11b crack, but it was my closest effort to date- a lone fall at the final roof, which I nailed on the second try. We concluded the final cragging day with an evening visit to the Shipyard in Long Canyon. We expected a good cool down on 5.10 splitters. Instead…we got worked! The route “Electronic Battleship” had promised “splitter hands to a fingers crux”. Whose hands?!?? It was 10 feet of hand crack that widened to 30 feet of vertical, tipped out #4 BD. Getting to the anchors constituted an all-out, painful and bloody jamming battle. Meanwhile, Olivia put the rope up on the adjacent “Nina”, which featured a burly, overhanging, wide fist crack that tapered to beautiful hands but then ended with tight #1 BD’s. It was a testy but satisfying end to the day.
JR and Olivia met up with college friends the next day, meanwhile the family and I headed for the Needles district of Canyonlands- beyond Indian Creek- for a day hike into the overlook of the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers. The 10 mile round trip hike was great and the overlook was breathtaking.
Next up was Castleton Tower. Paul, Whitney and I climbed the north chimney route while Lisa and the girls accompanied us to the base. Tatum and India get to do all sorts of hikes and treks back home in Alaska and cruised the steep hike to the tower. The climb was my first trip up Castleton and it was Paul and Whitney’s first desert tower. The north chimney more than lived up to its reputation as a quality route. There’s a fair bit of loose rock on the upper two pitches but the climbing isn’t very hard so you have plenty of time to search for the solid holds. Bring a #5 camalot for the second pitch if you want something other than an ancient star-drive protecting you through the 5.9 OW section, although the climbing through this part is pretty tame for the grade and type. We were psyched to bag this tower together and enjoyed the evening light. We rapped the north face (definitely the next route to do) and met up at the car with Lisa and the girls, who also had a great day together.
Paul and the family headed back to Colorado and onto their next adventure, while Lisa and I bivied and prepared for one final mission: Ancient Art in the Fisher Towers. This is by far the most popular route in the Fishers, and while very high quality, is certainly not a good “test” as a first route on Cutler sandstone- mainly because it is so clean, it will give you a false impression of what Cutler is really like! Nonetheless, we didn’t complain as we stemmed and jammed our way up the relatively clean 5.8 mud chimney and made our way onto the incredibly exposed summit structure. It’s pretty hard to believe this thing can stand up on its own weight, but there it is. We tagged the wild summit after some very intimidating, exposed, but not too difficult climbing. It was my tenth tower summit of the trip and a good way to conclude the time spent in the beautiful Utah desert.
We pointed the car to the west, then the south. Our destination was Zion, but finding ourselves in strong winds and heavy rain as we reached the Toquerville area, we kept on driving. As each subsequent roadside stop involved more and more sketchy characters, desperados, and out-and-out douchebags, we knew that Las Vegas was close. The threat of strong winds and a significant cold front with rain sidelined our longer route plans and kept us mostly clipping bolts for the next two days, but that was cool too. Even better, our Alaskan buddies Clint Helander and Rene Welty came bashing out of the brush to greet us at the Left Out crag on our final day, and after a final few crack pitches together, we retired to the Satay Thai restaurant and lounge for happy hour tapas and wine.
Good food, good wine, and good friends...what better way to conclude one of the best fall rock trips I’ve had in a long, long time.
Til next year-