Lessons From Desert Climbing

The name alone should have given me pause: “For Desert Rats Only.”

As I began to lead the first pitch, gingerly placing my first few pieces of gear, I marveled at how chossy and sandy the crack was, as well as how much it flared. As I ascended about 25 feet off the ground, the moves grew increasingly awkward and I reeled on the edge of falling.

It was mid May, and my buddy, Kelly, and I were in the Moab area to do a bit of climbing and trail running. After enjoying some fast food style trad and sport climbs at Wall Street, we decided it was time to leave the crowds and ascend a desert tower.

I wanted to climb Castleton, but Kelly had already done it a few times. So, we opted for “For Desert Rats Only,” a lesser-known route put up by the famed desert climber Jimmy Dunn and company in 1994. Honestly, at the time I didn’t know who he was. That fortuitous piece of info might have given me a clue of what I was in for.

I had logged a fair amount of time on sandstone over my 11 years of rock climbing. But I soon realized, I had a lot to learn about desert climbing, and school was about to be in session.

First off, I simply chose to ignore an obvious lesson: do your homework. I often research a climb thoroughly beforehand, especially if it will push my skills to the max, as bailing from such route can mean leaving expensive gear behind. I study guidebooks, talk to friends, as well as peruse Internet sites like Mountainproject.com to get an idea of what I am in for—what sized gear to bring, topos of the pitches, etc.

But with this particular climb, we were simply playing roulette. We flipped open the guide book to the Moab section, until we saw something enticing.

A five-pitch desert tower, five stars? Sounds awesome.

600-feet high? Perfect.

A little awkward chimney climbing to spice things up? Why not.

A grade of 5-10+? Sounds doable.

Situated in Kane Creek Canyon, “For Desert Rats Only,” also called “Jimmy’s Chimney” occupies a line up a series of three rounded walls called the Tombstones, or the Cirque of the Climbables. Mostly vertical with perfect orange-hued Navajo sandstone, the routes tempt any climber who drives by on this popular stretch of road. Jimmy’s Chimney ascends the third “tombstone,” starting lower left on shelves of vertical stairs, and then climbs right through the middle of an unmistakable split.

Mountain Project gives this route an “R” rating, which means some of the gear placements are run out, which can increase the risk of injury. I had a good amount of trad climbing under my belt but certainly the rating alone, 5-11, would put my skills to the test.

Next lesson: Lesser-known routes in the desert can be extremely adventurous.

While “For Desert Rats Only” is clearly a classic climb, the reality is it sees very few ascents. Even Mountain Project posts only two comments for this climb—and one is by the person who submitted the route, and the other is by the climber who followed Jimmy Dunn on the first ascent. Compare that to the Kor Ingals route on Castleton Tower, which has more than 50 comments and counting.

Back on the climb, I struggled to keep focus. The first part felt like 5-9ish, but now I was getting into the 5-10 range. The crack flared into a bulge and soon there was no more hand or finger jams.

Next lesson: sandstone rock quality, like all rock types, can vary greatly.

The route turned aggressively right before a large ledge, and there seemed to be fairly easy climbing to get there. I decided to shoot for the ledge rather than create rope drag with another piece. Then, I grabbed the nicely sized handhold on the ledge, and leaned back. Pop! With no warning the huge hold broke and I was unexpectedly swimming in space.

Instinctively I knew my fall was taking too long to arrest. Kelly sucked in as much rope as he could and my fall stopped about 5 feet short of the deck. I’d plunged about 30 feet.

I thanked God and my belayer, and then tried to shake off the shock-charged adrenaline of what just happened. It was a close call. Yikes.

There was a reason I had fallen so far—a piece of gear ripped out of the crack—and that led to my next lesson: Gear has a lower strength ratio in poor rock, especially cams with a lower expansion rate, like my small Camelot. So, when in doubt, don’t run it out, sew it up! I remember seeing such evidence on several routes at Wall Street—distinct railroad track looking scrape marks of where a cam popped out of the crack during a fall. While sandstone can often be solid, sometimes this happens in softer stuff, like Navajo.

Wingate is usually stronger than Navajo and is found on rock formations like Castleton Tower and Indian Creek. However, there are exceptions to the rules, “At its best, sandstone can be extremely reliable and safe,” says Steve “Crusher” Bartlett, climber and author of the book Desert Towers. At its worse, the rock can be soft and chossy, depending on the spot, he says. The problem is expectations. “Sandstone demands more care and consideration with the exact quality of the rock in front of you,” he says. “If you expect it to climb like the rock at Joshua Tree and Yosemite, you’ll be in for a surprise.”

My head was still a bit wonky after my fall, so I made Kelly finish the first pitch.

The second pitch was really fun. The route worked into a beautiful left facing corner where the crack was perfect for medium size fingers and provided amazing finger jams. Lesson- Most desert towers require crack climbing skills. Hand, fist and finger jamming—the techniques of crack climbing, are definitely a prerequisite.

As I worked my way up the finger crack, I removed several cams of the same size. This brings up another point: trad routes often require doubles, triples or more of the same size of gear, especially on parallel cracks. If we had not brought several cams in the finger size range, pitch two would have been a very difficult to protect. Some climbs in Indian Creek will require 10 of the same cam—or more.

After working through some difficult 5-11ish slab moves, we reached the third pitch, which has an abundance of loose rock. I tried to be as nimble footed as possible, but inevitably with such a large amount of loose rock on this pitch, I kicked a few pieces off. It was definitely scary.  Lesson learned-wear a helmet on desert climbs.

After this pitch, we soon arrived at the crux of the route. The distinct fissure on the top half of the tombstone turned out be a 7-10 inch crack—one of most hellacious looking offwidths I have ever seen. Offwidths -a crack that is too wide for effective hand or foot jams, but is not as large as a chimney, the climbers nemesis-therefore-many desert climbs have offwidths. It’s not a question of if you’ll encounter offwidth crack climbing in the desert, it’s when. Climbing offwidths requires a difficult technique, and most climbers, like me, find offwidths straight up challenging.

One technique I learned was basically to stuff my thigh in the crack, cluck like a chicken and then sweat, swear and worm around profusely, hoping that eventually that I would ascend rather than descend.

The guidebook lists this pitch at about 150 feet—which is no short skip in the meadow. I have to give props to Jimmy Dunn, the guy who originally established the route. Not only is he known for climbing offwidths up to the highest grade known (5-12), but he hand drilled the bolts on this pitch of from stances. In other words, he climbed the 5-10+ offwidth while placing bolts along the way. The guy is an animal and I respect what he has accomplished in the climbing world.

However Jimmy Dunn’s routes are often sandbagged, or more difficult than the rating says.  Desert climbs can sometimes be sandbagged. And even if the routes are not truly sandbagged, sometimes they feel sandbagged because of the technique required, like chimney or offwidth climbing. That might have been part of what I experienced on Jimmy’s route.

As Kelly and I gazed up at the 150-foot pitch of heinous offwidth, we worked the moves in our head. The only protection on this pitch would be the bolts that Jimmy placed every 15 feet, unless we would have brought some really BIG gear—which we didn’t. Factoring in rope stretch, the lead falls would be up to 40 or 50 feet apiece.

I would like to say that we charged up that pitch with courage and aplomb, making it look easy. But that’s not what happened and I believe our decision was wise. “It took three hours and I think I cried a little,” wrote Andrew Kulmatiski, who posted the route on Mountain Project.

In the end, Kelly and I rappelled off the route, not in shame but with the knowledge and insight of what true desert climbing requires.

Regardless, our adventure had been worth it. Desert climbing is straight up awesome. You can have limestone, quartzite for all I care (I will, however, keep granite). Give me sandstone—the buttery handjams and footjams, the grippy sandpaper feel which makes for excellent foot smearing. I love the abundant towers, splitter cracks and reddish rock adventures that await. I’m hooked.

Crusher agrees. “I want to go to the lesser known places, the lesser climbed canyons,” he says. “In the desert, you don’t always know what you’ll find. And it’ll test you.”

I’ve now lived in Utah for 2.5 years and feel like my learning curve of desert climbing is still only beginning. I can’t wait to keep tackling offwidths and all that the desert can throw my way. Maybe one day I will be able to climb “For Desert Rats Only” in a style that Jimmy Dunn would be proud of.



Another quick word, watch out for weakness in sandstone especially after a rainstorm. The rock often needs 24 to 48 hours before it retains the strength it previously had.

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