Standing on the summit of Castleton Tower in April, the snow-covered slopes of the La Sal Range seemed close enough to touch. We could hardly wait to be shredding perfect corn on Mt. Tukuhnikivatz the next day. This was that magical time of year in Southern Utah when safe and stable mountain snowpack coexists with warm and sunny days for crack climbing on desert towers.
Our adventure began at 5 am in Salt Lake City, when I met Steve and loaded my gear into his car for a 4.5-hour drive south to Castle Valley, along the Colorado River Road east of Moab. We scrambled up the now well-established climbers approach trail to the base of the 400′ monolith of impeccable Wingate Sandstone that is Castleton Tower.
Car ads shot on the summit have imbedded the image of this iconic pillar in the minds of generations of Americans. Countless climbers have scaled the vertical cracks on the East, North and West sides of the imposing pinnacle, since Layton Kor, a legendary climbing pioneer from Colorado, made the first ascent in 1961 via wide cracks on the south face.
Arriving on top of the triangular butte that supports the pinnacle, we wrap around to the north side through the pass between Castleton Tower and The Rectory. Fine Jade, a classic, stout desert climb adorns the formation’s south end. Looking back toward Castleton, we preview our descent route, which will be via the smooth-walled north face. We force out feet into rock shoes and rack up in the fading morning sun below the steep, dark North Chimney. The Las Sal Mountains, frustrated volcanoes that never erupted (Laccoliths), beckon to us from the south. Back to ski boots tomorrow!
Turning away from their snow-white, mirage-like splendor, we take on the task at hand. Hand-jam, that is! One perfect edge, jam or finger-lock comes after another in the soft, brown sandstone. A stance every 10′ allows for a rest, combined with excellent protection placements. However, the first decent belay ledge doesn’t come for 140 steep, strenuous feet! As I mantle onto it, I can’t help wondering if this isn’t the stoutest 5.8 pitch I’ve ever climbed. Steve agrees as he grunts and groans his way up to join me, but he also marvels at how friendly to the hands this stone is. It’s his first desert climb, and he’s a new sandstone fan.
The second lead has the technical crux (5.9,) a smooth-walled chimney protected only by an ancient, thin hanger on a 1/4-inch bolt. But it’s easy to clip, and the move isn’t hard because I know how to stem and just commit to the cross-pressure of one foot and hand on either side of the chimney. The climbing eases above and I pull carefully past a giant pile of bat (?) guano and under a chockstone to the second belay.
I hear the chatter of the party climbing the Kor-Ingalls route better than my own partner’s belay calls. The wide crack they are worming their way up on the east face (which I swore I’d never do again after scaling it once,) runs all the way through the tower.
After Steve joins me, I lead up into the bright sunshine of an open chimney and I feel the exposure under my feet. After a few stem moves, I commit to the sunlit east wall and find excellent ledges. Despite the screaming wind and vertical climbing, the holds are positive, I feel solid and soon I’m on the spacious, flat summit. I belay my partner up and we celebrate the awesome beauty of Utah in springtime as we survey the deserts below and the Rocky Mountains above.
Our twin 8 mm ropes stretch like bungees as we rap the wild, shady, north face in two pitches, the second a 70-meter rope-stretcher. The crux is keeping the rope from getting stuck behind a tall flake as we pull it down. A final down-climb move puts our feet on terra firma once again! We relish the orange dirt and, after retrieving our packs, we lie back on a smooth sundeck slab to eat a bagel, air our feet, and gaze up at the day’s prize, now towering above us.
Shaken from our reverie by a cloud blocking the warm spring sun, we head down to warm our bones with movement. Rolling into Moab we hit the brewery for that 70-30 mix of protein and carbs our muscles crave and then head south toward the “middle group” of the La Sals. We drive past Ken’s Lake and into Hell Canyon to stash a bike for tomorrow’s exit. Then, doubling back toward Geyser Pass we find a dry campsite and roll our sleeping bags out under the desert stars.
The alarm sounds early, and I fire up the cook stove without getting out of my sleeping bag. Soon we’ve had oats and coffee, and we go bouncing up the washboards and around the endless switchbacks of the Geyser Pass Road to the trailhead at 9,600’. We put on our skis and skin easily over the frozen snowmobile tracks and rock-solid sun crust toward Gold Basin and Mt. Tukuhnikivatz, crowning jewel of the La Sal Range.
This eye-catching corn-snow cone presides over the Moab Valley like a shining, white lighthouse tower. No skier has ever ridden slick-rock, hiked in Arches, or driven south from Moab toward Indian Creek without thinking, “I’d like to ski that peak!” With a phat spring snowpack, a solid freeze overnight, and abundant enthusiasm, we know this is our day to “get it.”
Reaching the toe of the north ridge, we skin up as high as we can before switching modes to crampons and ice axe. Despite the mostly solid spring snow, we occasionally break through and posthole around the rocks. The Red Snow Cirque to our right and the Tuk Cirque to our left appear ominously huge in the morning light, and indeed they are impressive alpine cirques falling over 2,000’ from summit to base.
Clomp, clomp, clomp we rest-step and pressure-breathe our way to the 12,482-foot summit, enjoying ever-expanding views from Utah deserts to Colorado Rockies as we climb. Reaching the summit, we celebrate being on top of another world than yesterday. Higher, whiter, and rounder, it feels just as exhilarating. But since we are ski-mountaineering, the best is yet to come!
After layering up, eating a bar, sipping tea, and buckling our boots, we’re ready to drop in. But which way? There are skiable lines on all sides. We have a bike in Hell Canyon, which enables us to choose between the two classic Southwest Chutes, 210 and 260 degrees on the compass, respectively. Given that its only 11 am, we opt for the SSW line rather than WSW, which will not be soft enough yet. We slide directly off the summit into the epic line.
The first tentative hop-turn in the wind-buffed sastrugi leaves no trace, although edge control is decent. Two turns later, a sun-softened and wind-protected surface develops, which is good, considering we now see 3,000’ of steep, smooth, snow slopes below. Granular “corn” allows for perfect edge-sets and we hop from left to right doing the gravity dance we love. Press as hard as you want on the bomber crust and it gives back, yielding the perfect resistance to the powerful downward pull of 45-degrees. We spread out into two parallel finger chutes between low, gravelly ridges and continue shredding the consistent, supportable melt-freeze snow, hooting every turn.
After 1500 feet of primo carving, we come into a narrow, V-shaped gully with al-dente corn on the left and over-cooked slush on the right. The honeymoon of bliss is over, now we have to pay the piper! A few hundred feet of this leads to a small dry, rocky impasse. We traverse left and work around it. The final 1200 feet is wide-open, soft, and sunny. Avalanche debris from dozens of winter slides, has made it rough, but also filled it in. A few final, low-angle “token” telemark turns (my first of the season) bring us to the La Sal Pass Road.
We clink poles and gulp the warm air as sweat pours off us. It’s hot down here! A drop of 3200’ in a few minutes, made quite a difference. We’re stoked to find snow on the road, and we push, pole, and classic-stride our way down another 500’ to the snow line. Now it becomes a hot sweaty, muddy hike to the bike. Losing the coin toss means I get to put on tennis shoes and shorts, and start pedaling. Initially its downhill back to the main road, then up the bumpy switchbacks again. I pretend I’m a triathlete, digging deep to pull my last leg of endurance racing. Except in reality I’m going slower than molasses in granny gear!
After an eternity, I reach the trailhead and paw in the snowbank for the reward. A cold IPA never tasted so sweet! I drive back and pick up Steve, who’s snoozing in the sun, and we head for a dip in the Colorado River. That cools and cleanses us before we hit the road back to the big city. Its been an intense weekend of climbing and skiing, but we’re as stoked and satisfied as we are exhausted. Moab dreams have come true. We got the goods we live for. Springtime in the Utah Desert rocks (and skis!)