Barely Standing- A History of Desert Climbing in Southern Utah


The red rock walls and unending canyons were so remote the three men might as well have been rock climbing on Mars.

In 1962, the trio of climbers, which included Layton Kor, Huntley Ingalls and Steve Komito, were attempting to ascend Standing Rock, a spectacular 350-foot tower, located in Canyonlands National Park. But in those days the park had not been created yet, and they were a good 50 miles from any main road.

“Don’t trust the pitons,” Kor yelled to his two climbing companions from atop the first pitch. Kor, one of climbing’s most prolific pioneers, was worried the pitons, metal spikes which climbers hammer into the rock for protection, might pull out of the soft sandstone, causing he and his companions to plummet to the ground.

Standing Rock resembled a broken stack of pancakes or “rye crisp with moistened kitty litter in between,” says Komito. The rock was loose and the overall quality was bad, even by desert standards. “We climbed it because it won’t always be there,” Kor famously quipped.

Typical of the style of many first ascents in the desert of Utah, the endeavor was a bold and dangerous undertaking, rife with adventure.

Not to mention obscurity. Even though the sport of technical rock climbing had been around for at least half a century, technical rock climbing in southern Utah was a new phenomenon. Kor and Ingalls were already accomplished desert climbers, having successfully climbed the Titan, a tall formation in the Fisher Towers, along with Castleton Tower. But Standing Rock was a new challenge—and they didn’t know if ascending it was possible.

Ingalls, who worked as a geologic surveyor, had first been inspired to climb Standing Rock after he read an article in a 1952 edition of National Geographic, touting the crumbly formation nearly as high as the Washington Monument. It took him several years to convince others try it, and now here he was, along with Kor and Komito.

That day, they used the state of the art climbing equipment available at the time: pitons, aiders and nylon rope. The nylon ropes were expensive, but a much better option than the hemp ropes used in the 1930s and 40s, which could snap even upon a 20-foot fall. Pitons were the protection of choice, since spring-loaded cams and clean climbing ethics were not developed yet.

In the 60s, there were no harnesses, and no belay devices. Climbers tied the ropes around their waists and used a hip belay to protect their fellow climbers. “It seems so primitive nowadays, but that’s what we had available,” says Komito, who now runs Komito Boots in Estes Park, Colo.

On the first day, Kor and Komito ascended two thirds of the tower. Meanwhile, Ingalls stayed on the ground and took photos. Then the next day Ingalls and Kor started up the route, Kor always leading—meaning he would always be the first to ascend and set the rope up each pitch. “I rarely ever saw him exhibit any fear,” says Komito, who also climbed with Kor on the first ascent of Left Mitten Thumb. “He led every pitch and there was never a question of who would lead.”

The same go-for-broke boldness helped Kor and his friends put up dozens more first ascents in the desert.

Back on Standing Rock, the climbing became difficult; at least 5.11, though at the time the hardest rating was 5.9, modest by today’s standards. The rock was so poor that Kor couldn’t help raining down loose rock on his companions. The group did not wear helmets, because “we expected the rock quality to be much better than it was,” says Ingalls. At one point, a rock about the size of a grapefruit whizzed by his head.

The incident seemed like a close call, but that wasn’t the worst of it.

While attempting to hammer a piton into the sandstone, Kor dislodged a huge block that fell and pinned him onto the ledge. There was a loud crashing sound, followed by Kor screaming, then silence. “Things looked really grim,” says Ingalls. “I heard this moaning and (Kor) wouldn’t answer me when I called his name.”

Then, like something out a superhero comic, Kor pushed the coffee table sized block off of himself, meanwhile muttering and swearing. He was bruised, but ok. If the injury had proven serious, help was long, long ways off.

Later that day, amidst increasing winds, Kor and Ingalls stood on top of the 6-foot diameter summit, about the size of a loveseat. “It felt so unreal to be up there,” says Ingalls. “The desert was so isolated and we had talked about doing the climb for years.”

The first ascent of Standing Rock was an amazing feat that would inspire many more accomplishments in the desert. “It was so remote in those days,” says Steve “Crusher” Bartlett, a climber and author of the book, Desert Towers, one of the most complete historical accounts of the history of desert climbing (see “Desert Towers Review”). “In terms of geologic time, Standing Rock looks like it is going to fall over in the next 10 minutes.”

Later, in a write-up for the 1963 American Alpine Journal, Ingalls summed up the climb: “we do not recommend it because of its very great objective danger.”

Beyond Standing Rock, climbing in the Colorado Plateau started much earlier than the 1960s.

The early years of desert climbing.

In 1911, a man named John Otto made the first recorded ascent of a desert tower, when he summited the 550-foot Independence Monument near Grand Junction. He drilled holes in the soft sandstone and then used long, metal pipes in the holes as hand and foot holds—hardly considered climbing by many.

As Bartlett writes in Desert Towers: “Otto’s route was a one-off event, by someone who was not a climber, more an eccentric visionary. It was one thing to drill large holes and build a makeshift ladder, but real climbers and mountaineers try to take on the challenge of the rock itself, using natural cracks and features.”

The first technical ascent happened in northwest New Mexico, where a tall volcanic formation called Shiprock stands 1,700 feet above the desert floor. A group of climbers from California took notice and successfully climbed it in October of 1939. “Shiprock represents the first time ropes and European equipment and skills were brought to the desert Southwest,” writes Sam Lightner Jr. in “Seeking the Summits,” a book published by the Moab Museum.

After Shiprock, the next major desert summit didn’t happen until 17 years later. In 1956, a group of climbers from Yosemite— Don Wilson, Jerry Gallwas, and Mark Powell—set out to climb Spider Rock, a formation in northern Arizona. Their ascent was ground breaking, because they used modern chrome-moly steel pitons. “This, in turn, let other climbers know that there were tools and skills that could be used to reach other summits of desert sandstone,” writes Lightner Jr. in “Seeking the Summits.”

The rise of the Colorado climbers.

Around that same time, Huntley Ingalls began exploring the Colorado Plateau as a geological surveyor and noticed many spectacular desert towers. His discoveries would soon pave the way for much of the climbing that would later take place—especially in Moab.

Ingalls was especially enthralled with Castleton and Fisher Towers, but he lacked the partner to climb them with. In 1959, he met Layton Kor. “There was an immediate rapport between us, and the next day we climbed the Bastille Crack in Eldorado Canyon,” Ingalls wrote in 1989. “I was amazed, even shocked by his ability. Here was the man for Castleton Tower.”

In, 1961 they explored the base of Castleton Tower.  After finding a good line on the southeast face, later known as the Kor- Ingalls Route, Kor was off leading the pitches. The rock turned out to be delightfully solid, composed of Wingate Sandstone. The climb went smoothly until a storm gathered on the descent. Kor rappelled to the ground safely, but Ingalls was struck by a lightning ground shock through the rope. He was shaken, but unhurt.

Such storms can be fairly common on Castleton, but amazingly, after thousand of ascents, the only fatality on Castleton occurred from a lightning strike in 2005.

Besides Kor and Ingalls, there were several other climbers making a name for themselves in the desert. One of them was Harvey Carter, a skilled climber from Colorado Springs. He had an affinity for sandstone, especially since Garden of the Gods was his home stomping grounds.

Credited with climbing 40 new towers, including the Priest in 1962 with Kor and Fred Beckey, Carter climbed several first ascents with Kor and Ingalls. But he missed out on Castleton, as well as Standing Rock.

The frenzy for first ascents became a rivalry of sorts. “The darn things sit there for thousands of years, and then suddenly there’s a race to see who can get there first,” Ingalls was quoted as saying in Desert Towers.

Discovery of Indian Creek.

In the late 60s and 70s, the few climbers began noting the beautiful splitter cracks of Indian Creek while driving highway 211 on the way to Six Shooter Peaks and the Needles District of Canyonlands. “It is impossible for anyone, climber or not, to drive this canyon and not marvel at the beauty of the Wingate Sandstone Walls,” writes Lightner Jr.

In 1971, Jimmy Dunn, Billy Westbay, and Stewart Green found Supercrack, the iconic hand and fist crack. Earl Wiggins first climbed it in November of 1976. The perfect splitter cracks would later draw hordes of climbers, eager to tape up and ascend one of the thousands of lines. Today Indian Creek is a world-renowned crack-climbing destination.

Leave no trace climbing expands

In the 1970s, the popular crack climbs of Yosemite began to be littered with ugly, gaping piton scars. Soon the ethics of climbing changed into more of a “leave no trace” style. Chouinard climbing equipment created Stoppers and Hexentrics, gear that can be used as protection while causing minimal damage to the rock. But more help was on the way.

In the late 1970s, an aerospace engineer and rock climber named Ray Jardine invented Friends, spring-loaded camming devices, which can protect parallel-sided cracks. “Nowhere would Jardine’s invention have such an impact as the desert,” writes Crusher in Desert Towers. “Camming devices turned the previously dangerous parallel cracks into amusement-park-safe excursions.”

New Frontiers

Climbing in Utah continued to expand in the 70s and 80s. Many of the routes that previously were climbed through aiding methods, where a climber pulls on gear to help with upward progress, were now free climbed, or ascended only by using the rock features alone.

In 1988, Eric Bjornstad, another desert climbing legend, published a ground-breaking guidebook called “Desert Rock,” which helped climbers navigate the newly developed climbing scene in southern Utah. Eventually, more and more crags were developed, including places like San Rafael Swell and Wall Street near Moab.

But much of the history started with ascents of climbs like Standing Rock. Eventually the route was free climbed and today the tower sports a challenging rating of 5.11b/c. Much of the bad rock has been cleaned out over the years, and what remains is surprisingly solid.

Bartlett cannot help waxing nostalgic about the climb. “Standing Rock is my favorite desert tower,” he says. “It’s what makes a desert tower a desert tower. There’s so much history attached to it and because it’s in Canyonlands National Park, it will remain protected.”

Even a half-century of climbing in southern Utah, there is still many places to pioneer and developed. The potential is vast and untapped.

As Crusher writes in Desert Towers: “Maybe, just maybe, somewhere in there is the largest remaining unclimbed desert tower—another Moses, another Texas Tower. There is only one way to find out.”

All photos courtesy of Huntley Ingalls

2 Responses to “Barely Standing- A History of Desert Climbing in Southern Utah”

  1. The year is wrong for the Castleton fatality. It was 1995. When I was rescued a month later, the first responder to me said he had been up here a month earlier. He was happy to see me alive. A few hours later I was air lifted out and flown to Grand Junction. I took a direct lightning hit and was severely burned. I cannot find any other info on anyone else ever being struck by lightning on Castleton. Good story really. I’ll write my own story about it soon.

  2. I would love to purchase the book, got on line no luck, any ideas where I can find Chris Lawrence’s book. Thanks

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