The air is starting to cool and the leaves are turning gold and red. Fall is here, which means it’s desert climbing season.
It’s late afternoon on a Thursday in early October. I’m exhausted having worked seventeen of the last eighteen days. Driving home from work, I am grateful that I did most of the packing last night.
Desert rack, two ropes, water, food, coffee, and, of course, Kamala (my blue heeler-lab mix). I won’t need much else. I get home and load everything into my truck, double checking as I go. I start heading west on I-70 out of Denver, CO. The traffic is light. A refreshing change from my daily commute.
My thoughts start to wander to the desert around Moab, UT. The stress and anxiety of living in the city slowly subside as I settle into the six-hour drive, daydreaming of the coming weekend. I listen to The Black Seeds as Kamala sits in the passenger seat looking out the window.
It’s a familiar and comfortable scenario in my life. Many times before, I’ve loaded up my truck and headed west into the Utah desert. Once or twice a year I’ll end up in Indian Creek. “The Creek” has had a significant influence on my climbing.
After my first trip, I was changed from “someone who likes to climb” to a “rock climber”.
I only touched the chains on one route that trip but the physicality of the climbing and beauty of the Wingate sandstone had me hooked! But this trip isn’t to The Creek and almost didn’t happen at all.
I first started planning this climbing trip in early September amidst a serious transition in my life.
I quit a job I held for five and a half years, and had a relationship end within a few weeks of that. My world was spinning and I knew I needed an escape. I saw an open weekend about a month out on my calendar. So I started reaching out to friends and climbing partners and eventually, a plan was in place.
Three days of desert tower climbing around Moab in early October with two good friends, Jack and Chris. Jack and I met by chance. We kept running into each other climbing in Eldo and South Platte, and skiing in places like Red Mountain Pass and Crested Butte. Eventually, we started climbing together and became fast friends. Jack is a Colorado Outward Bound Instructor as well as a Rock and Ski Guide with a guide service in the San Juan Mountains in southern Colorado.
Chris is one of my most trusted alpine partners. We’ve known each other for years and have shared a lot of great moments in the alpine. He’s an accomplished high altitude mountaineer having summited peaks such as Kilimanjaro, Aconcagua, and Pico de Orizaba.
Our plan was somewhat loose. We were considering routes in Castle Valley, Arches National Park, and Canyonlands National Park. Three days prior to leaving, I got a phone call from Chris. A co-worker who had agreed to cover his shift had backed out, leaving him with the Saturday night shit. He informed me that he was still going to come out for the first day to climb.
We were both bummed by the change of plans but I understood Chris’ dilemma and I was grateful to have another partner remaining. Until… The day before leaving, Jack calls me. He can’t make it.
His girlfriend, Annie, also an Outward Bound Instructor, is coming off a 30-day trip in the Elk Mountains and needs his help packing up and moving to Durango. I’m not sure what to do at first. I have been looking forward to this trip for weeks. I am dumbstruck. I start considering other options.
I consider taking a few clients for a Flatirons climb, but I’ve guided the last two weekends and need some personal time. I think about calling other partners and friends, but it’s such short notice I don’t have much faith. I think about bailing on the trip to go fly fishing instead, but I don’t. “I’m going anyway.” I tell myself.
My new plan is to climb a tower in Castle Valley with Chris on Friday, then head to Indian Creek in hopes of finding a partner. I start to think of the note I’ll post on the bulletin board at Beef Basin Road to attract a climbing partner:
HI MY NAME IS KYLE… THINGS I HAVE: 1- TRIPLE RACK. 2- TAPE AND CHALK. 3- BEER. THINGS I DON’T HAVE: 1- CLIMBING PARTNER. 2- 70M ROPE. 3- GIRLFRIEND. CAMPING IN BRIDGER JACKS.
I laugh at myself with the thought of it.
The sun is on the horizon now as I fill up with gas in Grand Junction. I clean the mass of bugs off my windshield and headlights while looking out towards the twilight. Every time I drive west out of Colorado, I feel an energy shift so strong it’s almost palpable.
The desert has a vast beauty to its harsh ruggedness. It’s unforgiving yet rejuvenating. The energy is ancient and powerful and it’s always affected me.
I cross over the state line into Utah and my phone starts going off. Jack has good news! He and Annie are going to move everything to Durango tomorrow and then drive out to meet me. They plan on arriving tomorrow night. I turn off I-70 onto River Road toward Castle Valley with a renewed confidence in the trip. It’s nearly a full moon and everything is illuminated in a silvery glow.
I can just make out the shape of Castleton in the distance. Thirty minutes later, I arrive at the campsite to see Chris waiting for me with a smile and a cold beer. I’m happy to see him and look forward to our usual banter about mountains, relationships, and life in general.
After we get the small talk out of our systems we start to discuss our objective. We decide on a route called Jah Man on the Sister Superior formation. It’s to the north of Castleton. The plan is a relaxed start in the morning since the weather is looking so good and we could both use the sleep. We have a couple more beers then crawl into our trucks for the night.
The morning is gorgeous. Clear blue skies and perfect temps. We have coffee and breakfast before loading up our packs. Our rack is specific to the route we plan on climbing. Lots of cams in the “thin hands” size, no big gear, and a single rope. We are trying to go light and fast because we had heard that it was possible to approach the Sister Superior formation in about two hours from the Castleton Campsite.
We start the approach around 10 AM with Kamala right on our heels. It takes a little more than an hour to get to the ridge between The Rectory and Sister Superior. We’re making good time. The ridge starts to descend and we encounter our first obstacle. A fifteen-foot cliff made up of loose rock and dirt. Two pieces of rebar stick out of the dirt, presumably as a rappel anchor.
We opted to backtrack around the side of the cliff and traverse a forty-degree dirt slope with loose gravel and scree, above more cliffs. We are able to get back on top of the ridge with only minor slips and Kamala proves that having four legs is better than two.
We carry on down the ridge for another five minutes when we encounter our next hinderance. Another cliff, like the first, but much larger. We look at our options to get around it.
We can’t down climb. Too much loose rock and very serious consequences to a slip or fall. There’s a fixed line coming off a rebar “anchor” but it’s bleached white by the desert sun and is fraying apart in multiple spots.
Of course, both options are already out because of the dog.
We look at trying to skirt around the side and contour back to the top of the ridge but, again, the risk is too high for both canine and human. Chris and I look at each other and we take a seat in the dirt to have some water and contemplate our situation.
These moments are somewhat painful. As an outdoor professional, they are particularly embarrassing. The approach is key to success. It’s hard to climb an objective if you don’t even get to it.
We consider getting on another route, but realize with our rack of gear and single rope we are very limited in what we can climb safely. Most routes in the area require larger gear and the biggest cam we carry is a single #3 Camalot. Feeling foolish, we decide to turn around.
The hike back is mostly quiet aside from the occasional mentioning of a moonlight climb later that night. A dreamy but farfetched proposition.
It’s two in the afternoon by the time we get back to the trucks and open a beer. We play with the idea of driving around to the standard approach but the cold beer and sore feet from this morning’s hike have all but distinguished our flame of motivation.
Kamala rests in the cool soft dirt under my truck. We play a game of dominos and share a cigarette as the shadows get longer. Each beer goes down smoother than the last. We cook dinner under a shadow of disappointment for not obtaining our objective.
Chris and I discuss our thoughts on the day and how relatable they are to life and past climbing experiences. We talk about how vital patience and adaptability are to success in climbing and in life. From my past experiences in the desert, I should have known to have back up plans.
Always bring your full rack, two ropes, a guide book, and more than enough water. I’ve learned the desert, much like the mountains, doesn’t care about you.
Eventually, the familiar jangle of climbing gear stirs me from my sleep. The promise of coffee and need to pee force me from my truck. Jack and Annie were supposed to arrive last night, but so far, there is no sign of them. I saunter around camp enjoying the beautiful morning and warm cup of coffee. Right when I begin to contemplate driving to Indian Creek, Jack pulls into camp.
He and Annie hop out explaining how they got too drowsy on the drive in last night and pulled off to sleep near La Sal Junction. Breakfast is made as we pack for the days objective.
We decide on the North Chimney of Castleton Tower. An old school 5.9 that goes to the summit in four pitches. Many climbing parties had started hiking already that day, so we decide on an 11:30 AM approach, thinking this would put us after the crowds. I leave Kamala by the truck this time. She is still achy from the previous day’s hike.
We arrive at the base of the climb a little before one in the afternoon. There are already two parties on the route and a rope-soloist cued up in front of us. We settle in to wait our turn. We crack jokes and soak in the sun before it goes behind the tower leaving us to shiver.
Finally, around three, we start climbing.
After a quick game of “Rock. Paper. Scissors.” It’s decided that Jack will lead the first pitch. A stout move off the ground gets you to a corner system offering multiple cracks running to the belay ledge. Annie and I follow his lead. It’s an enjoyable pitch with exposure from the moment you leave the dirt.
I take over the lead for the second pitch. This one is somewhat notorious for a section of off-width crack. I work my way up to this wide section and I could see why. I’ve placed only one piece of gear in the first thirty feet leading to this point. The rock is broken and loose in the back of this crack, making protection with small gear unsafe. The exposure is starting to hit me.
I try to place our biggest cam while I still have a decent stance. I know it’s not big enough, but I try anyway. It’s a #4 Camalot and doesn’t even scrape the walls of the wide crack. I put it back on my harness and take a few breaths.
A few feet overhead is a relic from climbing’s past. It’s a quarter inch “star drive” bolt with a rusted hanger, popular in the 1950’s and 60’s. The bolt is sticking three-quarters of an inch out of the sandstone. Most people wouldn’t clip a draw to this even if it was fully embedded in the sandstone.
I look down at my partners and hassle Jack for not bringing the #5 Camalot. What I wouldn’t give to have that big cam right now.
I refocus on the task at hand. I’m not about to back off this and bail from the first pitch. I failed yesterday and I won’t again today.
I start into the off-width. I’m committed now. I reach up to clip that sketchy old bolt and the hanger just keeps spinning.
I try, for what seems an hour, until I finally get it clipped. I get my rope into the draw and I take a breath. This is nothing more than “mental duct tape”. I’m far from safe and know that I still need to climb another 5-feet of wide crack before a mantle move and a decent rest stance. I move past the star drive and look down at my last cam some 15-feet below me.
If I fall now and the bolt doesn’t’ hold, it could be catastrophic for my partners and I.
I wedge my thigh and shoulder as deep in the crack as I can to feel secure and make small upward movements. Eventually, I make it to the mantle above the wide section. I pull the awkward move and find a good place to protect with our #4 Camalot.
I give a holler down to Jack and Annie and I appreciate their enthusiastic response. I turn my attention back to the pitch. I lead upwards, elbow deep in bird poop, while tiptoeing over loose blocks.
Another section of steep 5.9 chimneying gets me to the belay ledge. I back up two fixed pitons with two cams and put my partners on belay. They arrive and we are all feeling the physicality of the pitch. It wasn’t that technical but it took a lot of strength. We’re close to thirty feet back in the chimney now.
Looking straight out, the desert is nothing but a vertical sliver between two walls of smooth, red sandstone.
From here it’s either one long pitch or two shorter pitches to the summit of the tower. Jack takes over the lead and cruises upward. In a flash, he’s calling “On belay!”
Neither Annie or I know how far Jack led so we begin our quest up the pitch. Once again, it’s a chore to avoid loose rock and bird poop, but I make it to the traverse leading to the summit.
Jack’s long blond hair is whipping in the breeze and his excitement is obvious from fifty feet below. I climb to the anchor, give Jack a high five, and then move past him to the summit. I untie and take in the view as Annie finishes the pitch. They join me on the summit and we stack our ropes near the rappel station.
I crack a PBR tall boy and open some Starburst to share with my partners. “It’s the little things.” I say to Jack.
The sun is getting low in the western sky throwing a long and dramatic shadow of the tower into the desert east of us. We’re all smiles as we rig our rappel off the steep North Face.
It’s dark on our hike down to camp. We had the magic of the sunset on the summit but now have to navigate the steep and wandering trail to camp. With a little patience, we get back to camp safely and immediately change to flip-flops. We cook gourmet mac and cheese (just add delicious veggies and hot sauce!) while reminiscing about the climb.
I am grateful to have succeeded in our endeavor.
I think of Chris and how we botched the prior days objective. Remembering our discussion on being adaptable and patient, I have no doubt that Chris and I will have the opportunity to stand on a tower together in the future.
As Jack, Annie, and I settle in for the night we are filled with appreciation for the opportunity to pursue such amazing ventures. Though we are far from the first people to stand atop this wild desert tower, I have no doubt that each person before us, and every person to follow, will be fulfilled in a similar way.
The next morning, we head down to a sandy beach on the Colorado River. Kamala plays in the water and we all laugh at her adorable antics and uninhibited love for life. Dogs truly have this world figured out.
We eat watermelon with our toes in the sand before saying our goodbyes. These moments shared in the wild are why we choose to live this way.
The joy. The fear. The desire. The humility. The vulnerability. The laughter and tears. We are all tied to the same human emotions.
Often, the universe will deliver exactly what’s needed in life, even if we are unaware.
I’m already planning my next desert trip.