Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Lonely Desert Tower Seeks Climbers' Affection

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Driving down Ida Gulch
Six inches of fresh snow laid on the ground from the night before.  While most people were piling their ski quiver onto their racks and heading up into the mountains I was headed the opposite direction with lubricated cams, a short sleeve shirt, and to an area where moisture is more rare than any other commodity.  I was headed to the desert.

Moab, Utah is much more than a monotonous landscape devoid of life.  In fact it's just the opposite as the millions of annual visitors to the Arches National Park can attest to.  Erosion from water and wind created some of the most obtuse and abnormal rock features which often defy logic and one's imagination.  As a climber who has spent some time in this region over the past few months I have become intimately drawn to obscure formations and the belief that some of these astounding vertical pinnacles of geologic mastery can be surmounted with the adhesion of skin to rock.

In November I climbed my first two desert towers, South Six Shooter and Castleton Tower with "The Monkey Spankers," Simon Hirst and Andrey Romaniuk.  Both towers are listed among the area's best introductory climbs.  It was certainly a good place to start as a desert climber because little of what I had knew about climbing would benefit me on these beastly excursions.  You quickly become familiarized with eating piles of dirt and antiquated gear cobwebbed together at anchor stations.  As a belayer you learn that paying attention to your partner on the sharp end is as much for there protecting as your own.  The first waffle shaped rock that flips past hissing angrily like a tie fighter will remind you of your responsibility to focus.  These lessons were learned on two of the most modest lines where one would expect to find relatively clean climbing.  Now that I have started to venture into the realm of obscure towers things have started to get spicier.

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Castleton Tower Novermber 2013
When I sat atop Castleton Tower after topping out via the Kor-Ingalls route (III 5.9) I became intoxicated with the tower experience.  I looked across the plank connecting the Rectory with Castleton and observed a few parties on the stellar parallel finger cracks of Fine Jade (III 5.11-).  The route instantly made my future tick list.  What I did not noticed at the time was the formation a bit further in the distance known as Sister Superior which hosts Jah Man (II 5.10). Jah Man ascends the tallest spire of the group and this tower would be the first of our destinations on a weekend whirlwind of towers and four wheeling.

I turned onto the 128 pacing my speedometer against the setting sun.  Luckily I ran into Brandon Gabel's silver Jeep at the Ida Gulch turnout just down from the La Sal Mountain Loop.  We delighted over the rapturous sunset on the sandstone spires in front of us.  The truck and the Jeep hobbled down the wrinkled and narrow gulch until we reached our camping site.  We scouted out the approach and noticed a pair of bicycle tracks leading through the arduous sandy wash.  I commented on how it would be funny to run into a pair of rockstar climbers who I knew were traversing the desert on a quest to climb 50 towers.
In the morning we rose with the dull chill of the desert and watched as a group of four climbers who had more alpine in their start than us passed by our weary camp.  Eventually we shouldered packs and hiked the direct approach from the wash to the base of Jah Man.  We racked slowly as the two parties in the lead struggled to compress themselves into the infamous Sister Squeeze that defines the second pitch.  After the fourth member had grunted and nearly suffocated herself in the chimney I was glad that Brandon had eagerly decided to lead.  I started out and placed two cams over the low fifth class terrain and onto the pedestal under the chimney.  When Brandon arrived at my belay I kicked back thinking he would want to scout the moves ahead of him, but before I could make my first  joke he had already pulled the cams off my waist and was sucking in his gut and diving straight into the tight chimney.  He stayed within reach for a few minutes as he centimetered his way up to the breathable section of the chimney.  From there he blasted to the top of the pitch and belayed me up.  We both grinned and chuckled over the struggle with the rock as we collected sunshine on the first of many roomy belay ledges.
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The Sister Squeeze
I had the next lead which was quite different from the first as the face opened up and there was more exposure.  Thin hands lead to a traverse left under a bulge.  When I hit the traverse section it hit me that I hadn't placed a cam or jammed a crack in three months.  Not always the best feeling before committing to an airy traverse.  I pulled out a pretty simple trick I had learned watching Britney Griffith climb that involved oxygenating breaths oscillating from right to left hands jams.  When I had shaken my flash pump I dove under the bulge, trusted my jams, pulled over, and cruised an easy ramp to the next anchor.

The next two pitches were fluid as I had adjusted to the air beneath my feet and the familiar feeling of the sandy stone hugging my jams.  Each pitch was followed by a comfortable ledge that allowed for us to look over the Castle Valley at the monolithic Rectory, sovereign Castleton Tower, and the majestic La Sal Mountains flaunted their fresh coats of snow in the background.  We topped out and had plenty of time to share stories together on the summit before the next group arrived and courteously snapped our picture.  We rappelled and descended to our cars.

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Summit of Jah Man

We arrived at the Archway Inn on the North side of Moab and quickly parsed out gear and hoped into the Jeep for the bumpy ride into Canyonlands National Park.  We headed down Potash Road, past the mine, and over BLM land until we crossed the park boundary.  In all we traveled 30 miles in two and a half hours.  We were so relieved when we pulled into the turnoff for washerwoman that we simply threw our bags in the dirt and crashed.  In between dreams I awoke to look at the beautiful night sky darkened by the waning moon.  The stars vividly poked through the pitch black blanket and a few would occasionally streak across the horizon.

Washer Woman.  In Search of Suds (III 5.10) ascends the opposite side of the bin on the left, over the arch formed by the woman's arms, and up the head of the woman.
As the dawn broke and washed away the night we yawned and drew ourselves from our bags.  The new day brought a clear view of our objective the aptly named tower of Washer Woman.  Sometimes when I look up at vast climbs I can't comprehend how to ascend to the summit. However, when you are absorbed by the vertical each individual move matters and you find yourself gaining the ground you found unachievable as a whole.  The approach involved a stout hike to the base of the notch.  Below the notch a fixed rope weathered over many years left us to struggle with griping the sandy holds or trusting the frayed line.  When we arrived at the top Brandon once again eagerly jumped on the opportunity to lead the first pitch.  A twin crack with fingers on the left and tight hands on the right led to a bulge that required a fist jam to surmount.  From there off width sections were interspersed with easy but loose climbing to a belay at the "Eye of the Needle."  The eye is a sliver of the tower that has been eroded and allows you to see clearly through the other side while you pull yourself into a marginally protected chimney to start the second pitch.  A 5.7 chimney quickly led to more difficult jams around a bulge and shortly thereafter into a narrowing off width.  I was forced to stuff myself into the squeeze until I could reach up and sink a #5 Camelot that would protect the next few moves to the anchor.
Sweet belay ledge with Monster Tower behind
Deciding who would lead the next pitch involved a little verbal wrangling.  Despite Monster Tower's ominous lurking in the background I decided to lead and jammed perfect hands to another bulge.  Looking up, the holds looked less than positive.  Some poorly placed chalk marks convinced me to lead out to the left on chossy holds.  When I was completely committed to a crumbling mess the route clearly revealed that it had been straight up from my original position.  I slap tested a wobbly looking chockstone poorly cammed against a boulder and felt that it would hold to pull me over the bulge.  With a flick of the rope we were back on route and shortly up to the top of the wash bin.

Brandon led the traverse over the arch formed by the woman's arms and up the 5.9 face climb clipping a poorly driven knife blade piton as his choice of protection while his rope billowed in the wind.  He set up a spectacular belay under the head of the Washer Woman.

Final belay
Starting the headwal

Adding our marks to the summit log
When I caught up to him he graciously offered to let me lead the head wall on the varnished rock face protected by two pitons and a bolt.  It was difficult work on thin and sandy sloping crimps but we were both able to finish on the summit where we slapped high fives and shared our stoke.  We took the time to leave our mark in the summit register and returned the contents to their protected location in the crack on the summit.

Getting down to the anchors of the second rappel was entertaining

A exciting series of rappels led down from the summit involving a spectacular free hanging rappel off of the arch.  The wind was whipping and blowing the ropes dead horizontal while we rapped.  Lose rocks in a gully and high rope stick potential made the descent rather unnerving but neither became serious issues. We even scored half of a Mammut Infinity that a prior party had stuck.

We climbed back up over the notch and down the old sketchy fixed line to our packs.  With the success of being back in the horizontal world we shared some snacks, water, and a couple of Dale's Pale Ales before our hike back to the car.

Ground sweet ground
Shadows of Washer Woman and Monster Tower
Brandon had the foresight to reserve us a campsite beneath airport tower.  Since we did not have to bump our way back into town we enjoyed a hearty dinner and a long sleep.  After a walk along the canyon rim we decided to hit the road.

We rolled along pointing out all the other exciting towers that we hoped to climb someday.  Shortly we came across an orange jeep pulled off the road.  In the middle of the road stood a guy in a green shirt who looked a lot like Alex Honnold.  As we drove by I mentioned to Brandon that we had just passed the second iteration of the Sufferfest.  The original movie was a BANFF Mountain Film Festival Selection and followed Alex and Cedar on there journey to solo all of California's 14ers.  They are currently out in the desert making a sequel as they climb 50 desert towers moving across the land on bikes.  We came to find that they also had legendary alpinist Hayden Kennedy along as part of their support crew.  Alex, Hayden, Cedar, Canyon, and Sam were all very friendly and we swapped some stories about our recent adventures.  They were even happy to let us snap a picture to commemorate the obscurity of a meeting modern climbing legends in the middle of the desert.  We let them get back to their business of climbing Chip and Dale's towers seen in the background of the photo below.

Hayden Kennedy, Cedar Wright, Alex Honnold, Brandon Gabel, and Me
Brandon and I frolicked around a little more in Canyonlands and then headed down to Wall Street for a few more climbs before we parted ways.  A dust storm blew in signaling the end of our weekend in the desert.  I drove back to the mountains of Colorado chasing the precipitation and driving between rainbows.  I couldn't resist the temptation to stop off in Colorado Monument to gain some inspiration for the next adventure.

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