Desert Rock

November 1997

This is a trip report about a trip which I didn't think would happen. In August during a drive back from New Hampshire, I mentioned to Simon Carr that I had wanted to climb in the Tetons this summer, but never found a partner. As it turns out, Simon had wanted to climb in the Tetons this summer as well, but hadn't found an interested partner. However by August it was too late for the Tetons this summer. We started thinking about other places to go. The theme for our trip would be to climb some of the longer classic western climbs.

As another week slipped by via indecision, work conflicts, lack of commitment, etc., the potential destinations to moved further south. As September slipped into October and with November approaching, I thought the trip was slipping away. Simon finally came through with permission from work and I booked the tickets. Oops, maybe I ought to ask my boss first. Can I go, please?

We flew to Las Vegas Friday night, for once a direct flight. Sleeping out some of the jet lag in a Vegas hotel, we didn't exactly get an alpine start. Our first target was Prince of Darkness (5.10) in Black Velvet Canyon. This spring I had annotated my guidebook with the correct directions, which came in handy. The approach hike was easy, but still twenty minutes longer than the guidebook. We arrived at the base of the climb with one party starting pitch two of Dream of Wild Turkey's (5.10-) and another starting pitch two of Prince of Darkness. The leader on Prince of Darkness stalled out at the third bolt. Not a good sign. After a few tries, the party on Prince of Darkness bailed out. We secretly smiled, they looked like they would have been slow all day. By now it is 11:15, but we should be able to finish before dark.

The first pitch is trivial. The second pitch changes that. Simon and I swapped leads on this climb and on the rest of the multi-pitch climbs later in the week. The second pitch is 110' of sustained 5.10b. Excellent climbing, you still need a little gear between some of the bolts. The next pitch was mine at 5.10a, only the third pitch and already my feet are staring to hurt. After this point the climbing eases a little to 5.9. The final pitch is rated 5.10c, but is a short crux and feels easier than pitch 2. We rapped the six pitches and were on the ground by 4:15. All the belays are hanging, and by the end your feet hurt! This spring we had considered this climb, I'm glad we didn't, since the second pitch was quite sustained. It felt good now at the end of the season.

Our plan involved covering a lot of territory, so we drove to Zion that night. Next time pick a campsite further from the road! Up reasonably early we drove though Zion taking lots of pictures and staring at the awesome walls. We discarded Space Shot from our candidate list because it was in the shade and had a bush filled start. Prodigal Sun was stricken since it was more in the shade than Space Shot. Moonlight Buttress was a little much for my first wall climb. So that left Touchstone Wall, which was in the sun most of the day and the descent didn't look too bad.

I had practiced cleaning an aid pitch at Rattlesnake rocks, but we didn't have time for my to try leading. So I lead the alternate start of the first pitch of Touchstone Wall. The first time I couldn't reach the next pin, even with extremely nervous top stepping I was a little stumped. Gingerly weighting my first cam placement (green alien), I was able to clip the next piton. Whew!

After finishing the pitch, including a small roof, I rapped down and cleaned the pitch. Simon lead two nearby cracks at the base of Cerberus (i.e. Touchstone Wall). The first was a stiff 5.9 that started to show off my complete lack of crack technique. The next, a very stiff 5.10a had Simon going, and me hanging twice.

Early to bed, early to rise. Up at 4:30 and on the climb at 6, I shivered while belaying Simon up pitch one. On pitch two things became considerable harder and I shivered some more. Come on sun. Simon called down for more gear. We really should have added my set of nuts to the rack. Simon reached the belay with no more gear only to find the belay was just two pins, not the desired three. By now it was 10 and still no sun. What to do? Being wimps, we bailed. We spent the afternoon hiking around and climbing Tourist Crack (5.9+).

We left Zion with out tails between our legs. A late night of driving deposited us in the campground at the far end of Arches National Park in Moab. The plan was to get a reasonably early start and climb Castleton Tower. Each curve on the drive out required a stop for photos, putting Castleton Tower in jeopardy for today. So we substituted Owl Rock for Castleton. What you've never heard of Owl Rock, it isn't in 50 Classic Climbs? But it is a desert tower and the most climbed route in Arches! However, Owl Rock is featured in the '98 Climbing diary. Gotta send it. One pitch of fun climbing helped, but did not erase the failures of the previous day.

We elected to continue the day cragging, next stop: Indian Creek. Looking at the soaring crack systems of Supercrack and Incredible Handcrack we didn't think we had enough gear. Sure, we had 3 sets of friends, but that isn't enough for cracks of Indian Creek. We started on a 5.9 "beginner" crack. Unlike Zion, there were no edges for me to cheat with. I flailed. My hands were battered. Before climbing the route again, I taped up. Tape helped, but didn't solve all my problems. This crack stuff hurts your feet!

While I was taping up, Simon had scouted out a nice 5.10 crack. I was leary looking at the crack from the bottom. Simon headed up into the offwidth only to find himself thrashing around. After a lot of flailing, Simon decided to back off. Coming down with the gear seemed a lot harder than going up.

Thus concluded three days of hopeless flailing around. We needed a success. We returned to Moab, had a good dinner and decided our course of action would be to climb Castleton Tower. In the morning we got an early start and left the car at 7:15. The approach to Castleton Tower looks fierce. The tower sits up on a 1000' talus cone. This didn't look fun. But the trail is pretty good, with only the last hundred feet or so on actual talus. I reached the base of the tower in 50 minutes. We were going to climb the Kor-Ingalls route, made popular by its appearance in 50 Classic Climbs of North America. There was one party already on the route about two pitches up and no one insight hiking below us.

The first pitch is the worst. Good thing it was Simon's pitch. I thrashed my way up the 5.5 squeeze chimney. I didn't help things by facing the wrong way with my feet on the slick calcite covered rock. Turning around made things a little better. I was glad to get out of the chimney. The next pitch was my lead, 5.8. I left one of the two #4 camalots behind. I could have used it. The crack system had plenty of face features which kept me happy. The next pitch was the crux 5.9 offwidth pitch. Simon loaded up with the monster rack. Two sets of friends including 2 #3 camalots, 2 #4 camalots and the #5 monster camalot. Come on offwidth! The first offwidth section has a tied off chockstone that Simon clipped. The #5 went in next to back it up. Once above the offwidth, Simon back cleaned the #5 with the expectation that the upper offwidth would need it. Some other east coast face climbers must have added the two bolts on the upper offwidth section. This enabled us to stay out of the offwidth and face climb/stem over it. The last part of the pitch is a chimney with great face holds, making the 5.5 squeeze chimney a distant memory. After a little route finding exercise, I was in the correct slot and leading up the final face moves to the top of the tower. The fourth belay is just below the summit, and I belayed Simon up. We gave ourselves long leashes before topping out. Excuse me, while I kiss the sky! We had the summit to ourselves and reveled in being on top of the world. We could have untied, the summit is quite large (50' x 120'). Three rappels later we were back at the base of the climb and hiking out.

Car-to-car time was about 7 hours, so we still had plenty of daylight. Since the Fisher Towers are just down the road, we headed over. Talk about outrageous! How these things were ever climbed, I'm not sure. We hiked around the towers and burned more film.

Back in Moab Adventure Outfitters we tried to figure out what to do tomorrow. I wasn't overly keen on buying a new rack so we could climb Supercrack or Incredible Handcrack. Simon was itching to pull out the plastic. We left with the latest member of the Desert Rock guidebook family: Wall Street to San Rafael Swell. Wall Street is the Moab local cragging area. If you ignore the road with the trucks going to and from the Potash mine, Wall Street is pretty scenic with the Colorado river flowing by.

If you spend any time at all in the desert, you quickly learn about geology. The first thing you learn is that the Wingate sandstone is the best. Wingate makes up the rock at Castleton Tower and Indian Creek. Navajo sandstone is less desirable and has a very sandy feel. Navajo is exhibited at Zion and at Wall Street. Arches is made up of Entrada sandstone which feels similar to the Navajo. At Wall Street I was drawn to the apparent safety of the bolted face climbs. Starting up Nervous in Suburbia (5.10a), I was getting nervous reaching the first bolt. After delicate moves to the second bolt, I became a little less nervous. Simon choose a classic crack, 30 Seconds over Potash (5.8). I was considering leading it before a herd of folks arrived, including the owner of Moab Adventure Outfitters. We moved a short distance away where I once again choose a bolted face climb, Steel Your Face (5.10a). The sandy properties of the Navajo sandstone weren't helping on the balancy slab moves. I almost backed off after the first bolt, until hearing the helpful beta about the good holds to my left. Something longer than a 50 meter rope would have been nice. Continuing with the cracks, Simon lead Flakes of Wrath (5.9+) which felt so good, I pulled the gear and lead it. Cracks are starting to feel better, maybe I would stand a chance at Indian Creek. A party from Colorado was hanging from El Cracko Diablo, so we jumped on Seibernetics (5.8+) a nice mixed trad/sport climb. Great rests with your shoulder against the back of the dihedral. Once El Cracko Diablo (5.10a) was open Simon started up. The crux is supposed to be 5 feet from the chains, but we both thought the crux was in the awkward chimney start. We finished in the rapidly fading light.

Over dinner we poured over the stack of guide books to determine what to do. Return to Zion to reattempt Touchstone Wall? Back to Red Rocks to attempt Levitation 29? Buy a rack for Indian Creek? What about Ancient Art? At 5.8 A0, that's in our scope. I was both captivated and repulsed. I worried that it would be over our heads. I didn't want to fail again. Simon had climbed on crappy mud rock in Australia (or was it New Zealand) plus rotten limestone in the Dolomites. We drew our battle plan. Ancient Art in the morning and if we bagged it each of us would buy a new cam for Indian Creek.

We camped in the parking lot at the Fisher Towers. The faint outlines of the Towers at night was extremely spooky. Another bunch of desert rats were spending the night for their next tower (they had just finished a route up Cottontail). I had knots in my stomach that night, I dreamt of mud filled cracks that night. An early arriving party, plus the desert rats got us out of bed at 5:30. After an easy appoach we were at the base by a little after seven. The start of the climb wanders a bit through the wild rock. A traverse across a shale pile put me at the start of the first bolt ladder. Why struggle to free something on questionable rock when you can yard on great pitons? The first belay was on a comfortable shelf with a good anchors. Simon lead up the chimney of the next pitch. Good stemming moves kept the climbing easy even around the one bulge. This was the crux pitch and it wasn't as horrible as I expected. I lead from the belay up to the start of the next bolt ladder. Now out of the chimney the exposure was pretty intense. There is an mess of anchors at the start of the sidewalk, belay here. I kept going. The guidebook says:

    "A short horizontal pitch involves walking or crawling (posture is
    a great indicator of fear)..."

I casually walked to where the cliff narrowed to about 8 inches. Only a shear 400+' drop down both sides. I wanted to walk, I really didn't want to crawl. Pushing the exposure out of my mind, I continued. Upright and walking. The next move is to surmount a 5.8 "belly flop" on to the "diving board". Hmmm, this is quite a bit out from the anchor. So I ducked under the diving board and around it to the belay. One piton and a spinner rawl made up the belay. I cliped the first piton of the corkscrew summit. I wasn't overly keen on the belay, but I didn't want to walk back across the sidewalk. I belayed Simon up and told him to belay from the anchors at the start of the sidewalk. Plus this would be better for taking pictures. The final pitch ascends the outrageous corkscrew summit. A few tough moves get you to the summit. I stood on the manhole cover sized summit while Simon took pictures.

I left a rope from the summit to belay the traverse for my second. I'm such a nice guy :-) Back to the car in three and a half hours we had bagged the most outrageous summit around. And we didn't scare brownstains into our pants either.

The day was still young, and Indian Creek still beckoned. With two new shiny #3 Friends we headed back. Incredible Handcrack was occupied so we started with Supercrack (5.10a). Simon started up the technical start. We had pruned too much small stuff off of the rack. Simon came back down for a #1 friend. Too big. Back down again for a #.5 friend. Struggling through the awkward crux, Simon got to the start of the real climbing. Supercrack is a nearly perfect crack. What is a perfect crack? The crack is nearly parallel sided, with no edges, no rests. Technique is all that counts here.

Simon showed the fruits of having spent significant time climbing the cracks of Yosemite. 35' from the belay Simon ran out of gear. Turns out the crack is really #3.5 friend sized, not #3 sized. Simon had already placed both of our #3 camalots. Our El Cracko Diablo friends from Colorado resupplied Simon with four (yes, four!) #3 camalots. Simon placed three of them on the way to the belay. We returned the #3 camalots with profuse thanks.

So here was my graduation exam. Could I climb a real crack? A toprope made the technical crux seem a little less awkward. At the base of the main crack I looked up. The guide book seems to indicate that the first two linked pitches are 150' feet. The rope indicated that it was just short of 100'. From here it seemed like a mile. Simon had nicely cleaned out all the gear. The first part of the crack up to the roof fit my hands pretty well. After the roof the crack widened, my hands didn't fit quite as well. With my hands in the crack halfway up my forearms, I continued. I had finally learned the individual hand jams and foot jams. The sustained nature of the crack showed I hadn't learned how to optimally link the moves. A few hangs later I reached the belay. Wasn't clean, but at the start of the week I wouldn't have left the ground.

Incredible Handcrack called our name. The most striking line on the cliff, it made the calendar pictures pale ('98 Access Fund). The party finishing up lent us a few extra #2.5 friends. Are we ever going to use the new #3 friends? Incredible Handcrack has a great rest before and after the crux. But none in the overhanging crack. Simon climbed the 5.10c pitch in excellent style. Those extra #2.5 friends were useful.

I started out using the correct technique. The first two moves of the crux section were done as a handcrack. Then I reverted to my east coast tendencies and laybacked up the rest of the crux. Whew! The rest of the climb was much easier with a few face moves (yes!).

I was pretty wasted at this point, but Simon wanted to push for one more. I think he regrets that a little. 3 AM crack at 5.10b should have been easier. But it is definitely longer and the corner makes it more awkward. A little bit of struggling, but Simon made it. Our first crack today that didn't require borrowed gear! I wisely stayed on the ground.

Before leaving Moab for good we wanted one good meal to celebrate today's successes. Kevin at MAO recommended Fat City. Its not on the main drag but worth going. The friday night crowds made dinner a little slow, but worth it. We drove through the night until we were both tired. We camped in a state park near Cedar City (sorta near Zion). In the morning we repacked the car and geared up for our next objective: Levitation 29.

Swain says the approach to Levitation 29 takes 2 hours. Sure, if you're in marathon shape. All the beta we had gotten, said the crux was finding and getting to the base of the route in reasonable time. Of the 7 pitches the easiest is 5.9. Two are 5.11 and the rest are 5.10. It was going to be unlikely that we would pull the route off in a day. So we started hiking up canyon at 2:30 on Saturday with camping (bivy) gear. Climbers hiking back down the canyon gave us some additional beta on finding the climb. Even still it was 2.5 hours of uphill boulder climbing, bushwacking and general slogging to the base of the ramp. We camped under the stars. Morning broke with the sun shining everywhere except where we were. Lingering in the sleeping bags we left camp once the first of the early morning climbers arrived, a foursome headed for Rainbow Buttress.

We headed up the ramps. Slow, but getting there. Too high, have to back track. A party of two fast moving hikers comes up the ramps and past us. The head to the base of Levitation 29. Bummer.

One of the guys is familiar. Andy, had been climbing next to us last Saturday when we were on Prince of Darkness. Andy from Calgary, knows some of the same Canadian climbers as Simon. We stick with Levitation 29, knowing Andy is very good and won't hold us up. (They made the approach in 1.5 hours, but they hike about as fast as I jog)

Simon took the first lead since that would give him the 5.11 "pumpfest" pitch. That gave me the second. At 5.11- it would be equal to the hardest sport climb I had lead at Rumney. Andy's partner Fred hemmed and hawed on the crux moves of the second pitch. Finally he sent them. I came up to the first belay and reracked. The first half of the pitch is pretty straight forward. The book describes the pitch as going over a huge roof. Two Gunkies (Lynn Hill (FFA) and Swain) should have been able to give a better description of this pitch. Yes it is overhung, but it is definitely not a huge roof. The hard moves are protected with quarter inch bolts. I made my first attempt at the crux, came back to the bolt and hung. Eyeing the moves, I knew it would be a long left handed reach to a finger jam. Committing to the moves I could barely reach the finger jam. Now having to release with my bomber right hand, I pulled though. A big foot hold would have been nice, but I gotta take what's here. I pull the next jug and get to the safety of the bolt. The pitch is over and I'm psyched to have lead the pitch.

The next two pitches of 5.9 and 5.10 occupy our attention to the "pumpfest" pitch. This pitch used to have a lot more bolts. Good thing we brought a #3 and #4 friend, we'll use them. Simon starts up the crux pitch. Awkward and burly moves though the crack are followed by hard 5.10+ face climbing to the belay. Tough pitch! I'm glad that was Simon's. I lead through to the next pitch. Tougher 5.10 than the last pitch I lead. The pitch isn't very long, but I'm tiring fast. That 5.11 pitch took a lot out of me. I place more gear. Focusing on my feet I climb and place more gear. I reach the belay tired, but satisfied that I didn't hang (I considered it). Two pitches of reasonable climbing lead to the last pitch, the "power laybacking" 5.10+ pitch. Mostly face climbing and it was easier than 5.10+. The rock up here is noticeably less solid than below. Andy and his partner have climbed the last two pitches and declare them not really worth climbing as they rappelled past.

We started rappelling down. On the third rap we stuck a rope. Luckily we had one full rope already down and avoided an epic. Back on the ground at 2 pm we were happy that we wouldn't have to hike back in the dark. After picking up our camping gear we continued down canyon. Down is definitely easier than coming up. Happy, but wasted we head into Vegas for showers and food.

The desert southwest is one of my favorite places and the amount of climbing here is incredible. I had been a hiker tourist in Zion, Arches and Canyonlands before, but still found new vistas to enjoy this time. I highly recommend all the places we climbed at, just bring a big rack!

Photos (click on thumbnail for larger view)

Simon Carr leading Prince of Darkness, Red Rocks, Nevada Castleton Tower, Moab, Utah

Castleton Tower, Moab, Utah Corkscrew summit of Ancient Art, Fisher Towers, Moab, Utah

David Benson leading third pitch of Ancient Art, Fisher Towers, Moab, Utah David Benson at the base of the summit tower of Ancient Art, Fisher Towers, Moab, Utah David Benson on the summit tower of Ancient Art, Fisher Towers, Moab, Utah

looking back at my belayer on Ancient Art, Fisher Towers, Moab, Utah David Benson leading Levitation 29 (5.11), Red Rocks, Nevada