On the Rocks



Friday evening November 8th, 2013   Jewell and Kim were crushed into the backseat of my station wagon while Julia was snuggled up front. The rest of the car was bursting with boxes, gear and whatever else three ladies and a guy needed for a weekend of climbing and foolery. I’d offered to drive to Castle Valley and assured everyone that all four of us would fit. And we did…  just barely.

      When the women invited me along to photograph this trip, where they planned to climb desert towers, practice yoga and enjoy cocktails, all on the rocks, I was a bit uncertain what I’d signed up for. They told me it wasn’t going to be a weekend filled with cutting edge ascents or futuristic ratings and that was fine by me. Sure, there’re are many people setting themselves apart by pushing the limits of the sport through amazing feats, but really, how does that relate to me or you and the majority of people participating in climbing? So with the car riding low we made our way south, out of Salt Lake, and into the autumn night hoping to find something that we could all share.

Blue skies greeted us Saturday morning in Castle Valley. Camped among the junipers we watched sunlight wash its way down the exposed faces of the sandstone formations of Castleton, the Rectory, Nuns and the Priest. Sometime in the night Julia’s boyfriend Blake had arrived. Between sips of coffee and bites of breakfast burrito he and I arranged to climb together with the intent of staying just ahead and out of the way of Jewell, Kim and Julia. For that day the girls chose the fists, hands and fingers of the classic route Fine Jade located on the south end of the Rectory.

With the sun soaring low along the horizon I dangled from a rope fixed at the top of the first pitch and made images of Kim climbing. Shadowboxing her way through the tight hands section of the initial rope length I felt envious; her hands sank into the crack where my large mitts had been denied. Next, with wisps of strawberry-blonde hair escaping from beneath her helmet, Jewell left the belay and moved up the second pitch. Following twin cracks she made her way toward a bulge that was split by a one-inch break. She plugged in a cam then clipped the ropes. Smearing her feet high she swung into a lie-back position then with little sign of struggle she fell. The cam held in the crack and the rope went tight as the harness cradled her at the waist.

Falling was a good sign. Earlier Jewell admitted to not feeling very secure on sandstone. The majority of her climbing so far had taken place in the high country on the more granitic-type rock. Having tested the system she pulled herself back on and continued with more confidence. When she arrived to the end of that pitch she was beaming. As I belayed Blake and she belayed the two girls, we exchanged only a few words. The experience was written all over her face.

Higher up on the pitch she found herself staring at a tipped out camming device with no other options for protection. Too nervous to weight the cam and not willing to climb down she took a breath and chose to go higher hoping that things would work out. By moving up she devoted herself to what lay ahead. Regardless of it being good or bad it was coming and she accepted that. Jewell let her worries go and was able to transform the process of climbing into a meditation on clarity. Totally engrossed and at the same time completely removed she was simply scaling a sandstone mesa in the setting sun with snow capped mountains to the south, water flowing in a river to the west and a waxing moon hanging in the sky above.

As the three ladies gathered at the top of the second pitch the sun winked out beneath the western rim. Thin clouds radiated above as house lights appeared along the distant valley floor. It was Julia’s turn. Her dark eyes read the rock above. She’d hoped to lead the traversing original finish, but rope drag and being out of sight from the belay were drawbacks. The more direct, shorter final pitch variation would fit her tall, dancer’s physique and although technically harder might be faster.

“I’m not known for being bold, but it was my turn. My goal for the trip was to lead one pitch each day. Just step up and lead something and hopefully it would be easy,” Julia explained. Feeding off of Kim and Jewell’s infectious energy, she moved up in the fading light. Following a low angle corner the crack eventually petered out. She stood at the bottom of a bolted face twenty feet below the summit. Looking at tenuous moves with potential for hitting a ledge there were several minutes of up and down before Julia requested Blake lower a rope from the above. Standing on the summit I made out her silver helmet cresting the edge of the mesa followed by her smile. Once we were all on top the double rye was passed around. Between healthy pulls straight from the bottle laughter burst out as stars pierced the evening sky

During the drive down from Salt Lake Kim explained that she had some unfinished business on Castleton. A few years back, in the valley for a friend’s birthday, Kim volunteered to rope-gun up the four-pitch Kor-Ingalls route. She handled the first two pitches well, but half way up the third pitch her momentum slowed. Despite the crux being bolt protected it still required committing, run-out moves. Seeing no other option but to lay it back, Kim’s confidence evaporated. After falling repeatedly she was spent. Luckily a party climbing the North Chimney, an adjacent route, was able to lower her a rope and help get her past the heady crux.

Saturday night, after making our way down back to camp in the dark, a small fire illuminated the women’s faces. The day was relived with animated gestures, stories and jokes. Each of us agreed that despite having the easier rating, the first pitch of Fine Jade was definitely the crux. Over dinner it was decided that tomorrow we’d climb Kor Ingalls on Castleton and take care of Kim’s unfinished business.

Before dawn coyotes yapped to one another across the valley as I gazed toward the Big Dipper hovering over the black silhouette of the Castleton group. It had been years since my last visit here. Despite the numerous weekends spent here I still felt the allure of this place. I hoped the rest of the group was feeling it too. By six the water on the stove was boiling. With the stars fading and only a hint of light above the La Sal’s I placed mugs of coffee next to Kim and Jewell. They had slept out and the frost that now covered their bags shimmered in the light of the lantern. One knock on Blake’s car and Julia emerged bundled against the chill of the clear, November air.

Continuing with her goal of taking the sharp end at least once a day Julia racked up for the beginning pitch of Kor-Ingalls. If she’d been fazed by the outcome of last night’s final pitch it didn’t show. In the full sun it was now warm enough to be in a t-shirt. Chimneying past stacked blocks, weaving in and out of the huge dihedral, she made quick work of the first pitch. Jewell handled the second. Then came the crux pitch and round two for Kim.

“You’ve totally got this! I’m right with you!” Jewell sounded from below. Kim had climbed her way to the crux, but after some hesitation was faltering. From above I watched her blonde ponytail sway back and forth as she scanned the rock for possibilities.   

“Actually, I don’t have it,” Kim responded, the stress obvious in her voice. She was on the verge of lowering down. I’d been climbing around Kim long enough to know that this crux definitely fell within her ability. “Why don’t you give it ONE good go and if it doesn’t work I have an idea that might be helpful,” I offered encouragingly.

After resting at the bolt Kim put the uncertainty on mute and committed. Pulling her right side out of the yawning crack she made a lie-back move that led to an arm-bar and pathetic left-hand crimp. Deliberately placing her left toe onto a polished, calcite knob she shifted her weight and stood up, pulling her right arm out of the crack. Rocking her body ever so slightly, once, twice, three times, she willed her left hand to bump. The meat of her fingers bit into the stone and her arm engaged. With the business beneath her she rested for a moment then moved on.

Once she arrived to the belay I admitted to Kim that I really didn’t have any tricks to help with the crux. She laughed. All she really needed was the idea of an out before she was able to cast off. “The head game in climbing is the hardest for me,” Kim shared. “I knew that physically I could climb it, but…” She didn’t need to finish the thought. The head game in climbing is hardest for everyone.

On the summit of Castleton, after leading the final pitch, Julia guided Kim and Jewell through a yoga practice while Blake lunched and I made photos. Hip openers followed sun salutations. Shoulders and backs were loosened then came heart openers. Ultimately the girls found themselves seated, gazing over the valley to the mountains. Beneath a comforting sun, perched on top of a pinnacle in the desert, they slowed down, brought awareness in and found the pulse of their surroundings.

Back at the tower’s base the girls mixed whiskey gingers, Blake coiled the ropes and I scrambled around with the camera pressed firmly to my face. Laughter floated lightly through a golden light. Afterward, as we weaved our way down through layers of sedimentary rock, boulder-strewn draws and smooth washes I listened to the red earth crunch beneath our feet. What was the weekend about? Fear, courage, and beauty shared with people cut from the same cloth. The weekend for me was not action at the forefront of climbing. Instead it was pure enjoyment at its heart.


Getting there – Castle Valley is located about 20 miles Northeast of Moab, Utah. Follow River Road, State Highway 128, north of Moab. Turn right onto Castle Valley Road after passing mile marker 15. Follow road for 4.5 miles. Turn off for parking and camping will be on the left after crossing a cattle guard.


Camping – Camping is allowed at the trailhead where there is also an outhouse. It is a dry camp so be sure to bring water.

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