A Tale of Two (Desert) Towers

“Nice work, Man!” I exalt as Paul joins me on ledge 1 of Castleton Tower’s North Chimney. The strenuous, 140 foot, 5.8 pitch he’s just conquered is one of the best and hardest of its grade anywhere. And it happens to be on the quintessential desert tower, aka Castle Rock. This 400-foot icon is irresistible to any climber capable of “scending” it. Paul doubted that capability as he jammed hands and feet, move after pumpy move, fighting a fall the whole way. “Thanks. I didn’t think I could make it. I almost gave up,” he panted, as a broad smile of relief flooded his glistening face. He’d overcome fear and pain to succeed. Now he was stoked. A great climbing moment.

Topping out on the sheer monolith after another 3 pitches, including a 5.9 move next to a sketchy, old spinning bolt, we experience the “summit high.” This thrill –  standing on top with a stunning view – is perhaps more obvious to non-climbers, than that of surviving a frightening challenge. But both are elements of a classic climb.

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On our last pitch we joined the Kor-Ingalls first ascent route, rated as one of the Fifty Classic Climbs in North America. In 1961, Colorado hard-man, Layton Kor teamed with geologist Huntley Ingalls to make a landmark ascent that set a new standard for desert climbing, and became a catalyst for things to come.

Ingalls believes he was the first climber to note Castleton Tower, Fisher Towers, and North Six Shooter Peak. This was in 1956 while on a tour of the Colorado Plateau with the Geological Survey. “I dreamed of climbing them,” he later wrote, “But they were beyond reach at that time. After I moved to Boulder in 1959 I tried to interest climbers in these towers, but amazingly I could get no serious response for two years. Finally one day Layton simply said, ‘Let’s go look at that tower you keep talking about.'” And off they went.

Kor wrote about the close call with lightning they had on the descent. “Huntley & I began rappelling as quickly as we were able due to fear of the approaching storm which we could see from the summit. We also noticed the bright flashes that streaked through the rain curtain forcing upon us the fact that we were now on a lightning rod.

“At long last the final rappel ended, I touched ground unclipped from the rope & sought shelter under a near by overhang, all the time squinting from the rain & dust particles which were being blown fiercely about by the wind.

“A short time later Huntley joined me complaining somewhat about the heavy jolt he had received from the ground current which had found its way down the rappel line.

 

 

Although it saw the first ascent of the tower, the east-facing Kor-Ingalls is not the easiest route. Its an “off-width” in climber-speak, i.e. too wide for hands, fingers and feet, but not wide-enough to stem across.

Based on its history and classic status, I naively chose this line on my first personal ascent of the tower, with my wife Julie in 1996. I found myself swearing and sweating as we squirmed up the greasy, body-width chimney, wishing we had more big desert cams to stop the fall that always seemed imminent, but never actually happened. Most climbers agree that the North Chimney, first climbed by Teton Ranger, Dan Burgette, and partner, Allen Erickson in 1970.

Castleton Tower’s celebrated climbing history is only trumped in popular culture by its advertorial past. In 1964 the tower achieved fame when it was used in a Chevrolet TV commercial featuring actress Diedre Johnson. A stripped-down car, only its chassis and body, was deposited along with the nervous model atop the tower by helicopter.

After the filming, however, a stiff wind came up and the helicopter was unable to land and whisk away Diedre, so she ended up spending a few extra hours huddled inside the car on the summit. Its hilarious watching this 2 minute ad on YouTube. The model was obviously scared and the deep voice keeps repeating that the ‘64 Impala is, “In a class of its own” as they zoom in and out.

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The 40-wide, blocky tower has figured in other television commercials, including one for a Chevy truck and another for a Toyota. Movies like Cheyenne Autumn along with John Wayne classics such as Rio Grande and Wagon Master were also filmed in the area and, more recently, segments of City Slicker II and Geronimo.

Climbers have also paraglided and BASE jumped off the top, flown kites, hauled up a grill and barbecued burgers, been killed by lightning, slept under the stars, etc.

Paul was in Moab for work, and I rallied down from Salt Lake. We made good time on the 1,000-foot scramble up the cone-shaped butte upon which the remarkable tower stands guard. Wrapping around to the north side, we ate lunch while local hardman, Sam Lightner, Jr. worked out the moves on a new “project,” Ivory Tower, 5.13, adjacent to the North Chimney. A couple weeks later, he would complete the first free ascent of this modern mega-classic arête / face climb with Chris Kalous.

Inspired climbers continue to raise the standard of desert climbing. Link-ups of 3 and 4 multi-pitch routes, like Fine Jade in the Rectory (the next formation east of Castleton) and the North Face of Castleton, with dashes across the desert in between, have become popular. We get a close look at that latter (5.11c) as we rappel down it.

The airy North Face an exciting finish to a great climb, being dead vertical and windy. Once I abseiled down it on twin 8mm ropes and the skinny lines stretched like bungee cords as we bounced in the breeze trying to find the first ledge. It takes a full 70 meters of rope to reach the ground from there, and a bit of rope stretch is welcome!

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Happy and tired, we descend to our cooler, and raise a hoppy IPA to the mighty stone temple above. Next stop is the nearby Red Cliffs Lodge, a beautiful inn and vineyard on the Colorado River, Mile Post 14, Hwy 128. We celebrate survival and success with tasty elk and red wine, followed by a sound sleep in a quiet cabin. Incidentally, the Moab Museum of Film and Western Heritage, well worth a look, is also located at the Lodge.

The next day we wake to yellow cottonwood trees surrounded by red cliffs under a sapphire sky. A short drive up river brings us to the Fisher Towers and a very different, but also classic, desert tower, Ancient Art. We can see the stout profile of Castleton to our east as we approach through desert washes flanked by funky towers so skinny they could be felled with a chainsaw.

The first pitch gives us a taste of fisher sandstone, a far cry from the solid wingate of Castleton. I’ve rappelled off the Ancient Arts formation during a downpour and watched the mud eroding away under my feet. Its so soft, climbers have (reprehensibly) used ice tools to scale the Fisher Towers. As we climb the first pitch of the Stolen Chimney Route, we’re struck by the gritty sandy feel under our fingers. Why should we trust this is vertical mudstone?

The second pitch is short, but has a few stout moves. Fortunately bolts have been drilled for protection, and its common practice to “French free” climb (i.e. pull on slings) through the 5.10 section. The chimney pitch that follows is fun 5.8 with cams and stopper placements that would actually hold, despite the suspect stone quality. The spacious ledge above this pitch is a good place to check (and potentially hide from) storms. The final two pitches are wildly exposed.

I pull through the short 4th pitch and belay Paul up for the unique finish. A surreal diving board, or balancing beam in mid-air, is followed by a poorly protected harder move before you corkscrew around the narrowing head of the tower.

The rappel slings literally surround the summit’s 6-foot girth. The program is, clip them, and shimmy up to pose on top, if you dare. Down climb, lower back to the diving board and reverse the trapeze act to back to your partner. Now it’s his turn. He gets a belay rope above him to just below the tippy-top, but a slip off would result in a wild swing and regaining the route would be tough.

Once I was belaying a second climber on this pitch when a lightning storm suddenly closed in, and I had a similar experience to Kor and Ingalls on Castleton. Steve was keen to balance for a photo on the postage-stamp summit, but we thought better of it. As he grabbed a slung carabiner from his harness and reached to clip the metal rap rings, electricity arced across the gap! We tried to remain calm as we quickly bailed. When we touched down the storm-cell was gone. The sun came out, no one got zapped, and we were glad to live another day.

Few routes test one’s stomach for unnatural human environments like this one does, even on calm, sunny days. It runs counter to our instinct, yet we do it, or not, as the case may be. Regardless, once you return to the solid, flat earth, it feels extraordinarily reassuring under your feet!

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