“So, where are we craggin’ today?” …silence. “Uh, so, where are we going?”…silence.
It is a crisp clear late October morning. I can see my breath. It isn’t quite freezing but this time of year temps like these make me want to put a beanie on my head and wool socks on my feet. I had packed like I always do. I carry the same kit pretty much no matter what time of year I am questing into the Uintas (mountains near my house and close to my heart) with the bros. Thermos of hot brew, Double rack o’ cams, stoppers, slings, harness, helmet, shoes, beanie, gloves (maybe 2 pair), puffy, and lightweight shell, 2 liters H20, snacks, shades, and a 1st aid kit( ibuprofen and tape) all make it along for the adventure. Tony brings the rope and Eric brings the guns (he is the rope-gun). Usually, I have a pretty good idea what the adventure is intended to be, at least where it will begin.
“So, what’s the bleepin’ secret?” I ask as I get into the truck. My question is greeted by more silence.
The three of us met at the dog park at 7am this morning just like we have many times before. The dog park is empty, as is the parking lot where we leave the extra vehicles. Lately, it has been Tony’s Toyota that gets the nod since Tony’s boss is generously paying for the gas. Today is the same and we pile into the green pickup. Packs in the bed, I am riding shotgun and Eric is in the jump seat in the back. Tony is driving, of course, and so it will take a minute before we actually get going. He isn’t slow per se, but it’s as if he goes through a mental checklist and flight plan before actually committing to roll the rubber tires down the road. It is endearing until I am in a genuine hurry and then it is just annoying. This morning, I just want to know where the hell we are going.
It is too early in the AM for this nonsense. Luckily, the silence broke and I got the answer to my question.
“We are searching for the lost towers of Vi Ma Na”. Like a bass drum in an echo chamber the syllables sent me into a trance. Vi- Ma- Na. Vi-Ma -Na. Towers in the land of the lost. I was stoked!
Eric’s dad is a pilot, has a plane, and some years ago took Eric on a scouting mission (joyride) over the High Uintas. While the elder Sanders was elated simply by his passion for flying and having his son in the cockpit, Eric watched the ground, intently. Eyes trained on the Earth searching for the next adventure, searching for a mountain of vertical quartzite to climb. After getting the raven’s -eye view of multiple peaks and making notes and getting psyched on the prospects, Eric let his eyes rest in a daydream. He dreamt of an expedition, an extended trip into the high country wilderness to put up a new route on Red Dazzle Peak. He saw a 2000’ vertical wall of quartzite, full of orange and red swirled rock, with huge blank sections (E climbs hard). Hours and hours of hand drilling would be the crux. A bit of turbulence disturbed the daydream and E’s eyes shot open. He looked to the ground, out of habit at this point, and saw what he could not believe. He saw what looked like a cluster of rock towers, climbable rock spires. This is something that is not at all common in the Uintas. The Uintas are an old range with extremely beaten down and eroded peaks. Talus dominates the landscape, not steep craggy peaks or quartzite towers. Fett asked his Dad to fly by again but fuel levels dictated a quick retreat back to Heber’s airfield. Eric fumbled around for his camera, found it, went to take aim but it was too late. The vision was gone. The memory would have to suffice.
Eric told us this story five years ago. We all got psyched and vowed to find the towers but with little direction to go on and short climbing seasons in the Uintas, we eventually gave up without ever going out and looking. Eric didn’t forget. He actually had his Dad take him out in the plane again just to track down the vision. The strange thing was, they couldn’t find it. It was as if the towers had vanished, or more likely, had never existed at all. Maybe they were part of the daydream Fett allowed himself on that first scouting mission. We dubbed the towers Vi Ma Na, from a Hindu myth of floating towers in the sky. One way or another, the towers were lost.
Apparently, Tony had never forgotten either and in fact had done some asking around over the years. He had looked at maps and satellite images, he had talked to USFS rangers and backpackers and hunters. In the end, a lead was gained from a local hunter. The hunter claimed to know of some tall rocks that stand alone on a hillside. They, he said, mark the outer perimeter of his mountain lion hunting zone. He gave Tony some rough idea of the location using trees and boulders as reference and now here we are five years later, about to begin our search for the lost towers.
The whole excitement of five years ago returned and we quizzed Eric for details. Of course, we had heard it all before but ate it up like it we were children at story time. We speculated about the how tall they were, the quality of the rock, the possible difficulties in approach, and we discussed best course of action in case of a mountain lion encounter. I was so wrapped up in the excitement that I didn’t notice that the journey had begun. We had already driven deep into the mountains and turned onto a dirt road. I didn’t recognize the landscape, specifically. That is to say, it was definitely the Uintas but where in the Uintas, I did not recognize.
We moved down the dirt road fairly quickly. Tony seemed to be following a mental map. He kept saying, “This isn’t so bad, not too bad.” Through the forest, around alpine lakes, always climbing higher in elevation, we drove on and on. After about an hour of rather harmless dirt the road got bad. Rocks sprung up out of the dirt. So many and so big were the rocks in the road that they became the road. The dirt disappeared and progress had slowed considerably.
“How long will it take to go 11 miles at 2 to 3 mph?”. We drove on, so slowly. The clutch in the truck got hot and stunk up the cab. Tony was having to creep over the big ones one at a time, ever so slowly. Bouncing around the inside of the Toyota for hours on end, hands glued to the “OH SHIT handles” and coffee swirling in my gut was not that sweet.
Usually, the higher you go and the rockier it gets the less trees you see. This place was different. The forest just got progressively more dense as we climbed higher and higher. The view beyond the trees was totally obscured. I still had no idea where in these mountains I was and I consider myself an expert navigator in the Uintas.
“How deep do you think that is?” We came to a series of puddles. A thin layer of ice sealed the long puddles like plastic wrap. Trees lined the puddles leaving no other option for progress than forging through like an icebreaker in the Arctic. The ice shattered the moment the Toyota’s rubber entered the puddle allowing passage.
It seemed as if it had been hours. I think it had been. Finally there was a clearing in the forest and abruptly the rocky road ended at a small lake surrounded by low nondescript ridges. It was a typical Uinta lake with beautifully crystal clear water, a talus field on one end and a grassy meadow on the other.
Tony pulled a hand drawn map out of his pocket and inspected it, “This is looking good”. I looked at the map and was amazed at the lack of detail. It looked like some scribbles, bubbles and coffee stains on a piece of tissue. I resigned to just go with the flow, follow along, wait and see.
We opened the doors and piled out. The sun was shining bright but the cold air was ferocious. It wasn’t quite freezing but the wind punched us in the face and made us believe it was freezing. We all dug through our packs putting on layer over layer, gloves and beanies.
“If we head around that side,” Tony said pointing with the map in his hand, ”of the lake and continue that way,” pointing again,” passing another lake then head up towards that low point in the ridge, we should see the towers right on the other side.” It looked simple enough. It actually seemed too easy, but after that jostling in the truck easy sounded great. We strode off into the woods next to the lake. It felt awesome to be on foot. The beauty was so Uintas but the feel was foreign. I half expected a triceratops to saunter out from behind a boulder. Everything was just a little odd. The trees were just too short and twisted, the dirt was just too dark and packed. The smell of the air when the wind lulled was sweet but the wind was gusting with bitter bursts most of the time.
The land of the lost. There was no trail, no sign of previous passage. We made our way alongside the lake, past another, and then up the steep scramble towards the ridge. Aiming for the saddle in the ridge, we took a pretty steep line and at times found ourselves pulling on branches to ascend. My eyes were trained on the task at hand, looking down, finding the line and trying to prevent sliding backwards. When I reached the top I almost forgot to look up but when I did, there they were.
I couldn’t believe my eyes. Just standing there down the other side of the ridge, in plain view, was the object of our search. They, four quartzite towers, rose out of a giant talus field. They stood in a group like four elders discussing the wind. The orange and red quartzite of the towers was familiar but the formations were freestanding and foreign. To be honest, I was at first, underwhelmed by their size. We were still at a distance but they seemed smaller in stature than I had imagined. Maybe 80’ tall if lucky, they weren’t Castleton or Ancient Art but they were unique nonetheless!
The approach was not yet done. The goal was guarded by an expanse of talus. The talus field was quite an obstacle full of giant boulders and great voids. We picked our way through carefully, slowed by our constant desire to look up at the elders and by our need to check out these great boulders for potential routes.
“Success!” We stood at the base of the tallest tower looking up at its east face. A beautiful face of orange and red quartzite. It is steep and split by a wide crack that runs from the ground to the summit, 75 feet up. We were amazed. It was not their size that amazed us but the whole place. It was the setting in which these unique spires existed. It was the beauty.
We dropped packs and began to explore. Each tower had four sides roughly facing each of the cardinal points on the compass. We wanted to inspect each side of each tower, of course, before deciding what to climb. Walking around these things was no easy task. It required some scrambling as the towers are surrounded by huge boulders.
Then, there it was. “Tat!” I pointed. Tat, that which none of expected to see and definitely was hoping not to see. As I was tracing a fine looking line on the North side of the tallest tower upwards with my eyes I saw a piece of webbing hanging out of the crack at about the 30’ level. This is surefire evidence that we are not the first people here. In fact, not just people, but climbers.
We were intrigued, amazed again, and to be honest, a little disappointed yet imaginations tantalized. The webbing was tattered but did not appear to be in that bad of shape. We figure someone had climbed on these things in the last fifteen to twenty years. It is hard to believe that in this age of social media that we had not heard word one about this place. We found the lost towers but now have a new mystery. Who beat us here? And how did they find it?
We are not the first, but we are here and we are climbers, so let’s climb some rocks. That was the sentiment. We scoped a cool looking line on the west side of one of the towers and set upon climbing it. As we emptied our packs and began to harness up we noticed that clouds had started to blow in. To the west we could see big dark clouds building and coming our way.
“1,2,3 Shoot!” My rock smashed their scissors and I got the honor. I wore every layer I had as I racked up. My hands were shaking a bit. The cold? Maybe, but my hands always shake a bit right before climbing a new route. Especially a brand new route. There are the usual concerns in new routing; will there be pro? Loose rock? Will I even be able to climb it?
The temps were dropping and the wind was relentless. I wasted no time. I got on the rock via some good holds and moved into a finger crack. I found some pro and was feeling solid. The crack zagged a bit and at about the 20’ level I encountered a crux. It required some lie back and some fancy footwork avoiding some loose rock. I’m calm yet my heart races. I was through to easier terrain. The gear was great. It stayed pretty cruiser for another 30’ and then near the top there was another crux. Complete onsight climbing is my favorite. Figure it out, on the fly, clock is ticking, kind of climbing is guaranteed to engage me fully, and that is the feeling I am after. A steep roof with a varied crack for passage was the crux. A thin hand jam, feet up, leaning and reaching for a finger jam, feet, then a sinker hand jam and pull over the lip and onto the summit. “Woot!” I was stoked. I did a little summit dance while I looked for somewhere to build an anchor and then there was the reminder. I found a 2 piton anchor on top. Someone else had been here. I wasn’t too deflated. I felt certain that no one had climbed the route I just sent but who knows.
As the other guys sampled the route the clouds blocked the sky. A few snowflakes blew by like warning shots fired over the bow. We were pretty deep and Tony expressed his lack of excitement about driving back down that rocky road in a snowstorm. Not to mention, the temps had dropped considerably, freezing any exposed skin. Beanies were donned, gloves were on, and we were close to gone. No discussion was necessary. We all packed up and made our way back to the ridge. Halfway to the ridge, I turned and looked back for one more view of the towers but they were gone. They were lost, again, but this time in a swirling cloud of snow.
Vi Ma Na. We found them, answering the question of their existence. Now, we have new questions. We have been back once since, climbing a handful of spectacular routes. The towers are still there where we left them, but the mystery climbers that discovered these towers in the land of the lost still remain elusive.