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.
|Driving down Ida Gulch|
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.
|Castleton Tower Novermber 2013|
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.
|The Sister Squeeze|
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.
|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.|
|Sweet belay ledge with Monster Tower behind|
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.
|Starting the headwal|
|Adding our marks to the summit log|
|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|
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|