Tower Fever

November 1999

Once you've contacted it - once it has infected you - there is no hope. For there is no cure. Only treatment...


Climbing the soft sandstone towers of the southeast Utah is a study in contrasts. The stark, harsh desert environment yet the grandeur of the awesome, chaotic, geological jumble that is canyonlands. The beautiful red and brown hues contrast sharply with the perfectly smooth, unbroken, deep blue sky. The climbing is steep, relentless, difficult and a bit dangerous, yet the approach must not be overly aggressive and one must climb with a soft touch.


Thursday night, Hardly and I headed for the White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park. I had sent out a note to my climbers mailing list, but no one else was interested. Apparently Tower Fever isn't very contagious. We left town around 4:30 p.m. and drove to the Gemini Bridges trailhead. We threw down the bags and went to sleep. I brought my giant -40 degree Marmot bag and had a warm, cushy night. We were up at 6 a.m. to find ice in my water bottle. It must have dropped into the 20's at night, but it would approach 70 degrees before the day was out. We packed quickly and drove over to the Shafer Trail - the start of the White Rim Loop. Our main goals for this trip were the towers on the cover of the new guidebook: Monster Tower and Washer Woman. These 600 foot towers loom over the White Rim Trail about 20 miles from the pavement.


The White Rim Trail is a very popular mountain biking trail. It is about 80 miles of 4WD trail along the White Rim in Canyonlands National Park. The White Rim is a very flat level of the canyon that is about 1200 below the top of the canyon and 500-2000 feet above the river. The width of this rim ranges from the width of the road to almost a mile. From above the hard white rock of the plateau sharply defines the rim. I rode this trail in a day last Spring and thought it was the greatest bike ride of my life. But I'm biased. I love the desert. I've got Tower Fever. On that ride, a ways past the Airport Campground, we stopped and lusted after the frightening towers. Wanting to climb them, but happy that we didn't have to do it right then. We pedaled on, but I vowed to return.


Now in November and experiencing one of the mildest falls I can remember, we headed back. This time without the bikes, but with a rope and a rack. I had thought the White Rim would be mobbed with bikers with this weather, but we hardly saw a soul in our two days on the trail. We would have got a permit to camp at Airport Campground, the closest site, but we would have had to wait until 8 a.m. and then thought they would all be taken anyway. This was not the case. No one camped at Airport on Thursday, Friday, or Saturday nights. The drive into the towers took us two hours of tedious driving. Thankfully the scenery was stunning.


We pulled off the trail onto slickrock and parked. We had breakfast and packed for the trip. The hike to the towers is steep and loose like most tower approaches, but this one didn't have a well defined trail. Occasionally we spotted cairns and faint trails, but nothing that lasted very long or was very well defined. We took a different route up and down each time in search of a better trail. The approach took us about 45 minutes and gained about 1000 vertical feet. Our first objective was the route called In Search of Suds on Washer Woman. We hiked up to the northeast side of the towers - they can also be approached from the other side, but that doesn't seem to offer any advantages and the disadvantage of having to drive another 15 minutes on the White Rim Trail.


We geared and I set off leading the 5.6 pitch up to the notch between Washer Woman and Monster Towers. Once up there, we hit the sun and were pleasantly warmed. We climbed in long pants and long sleeve shirts and were never hot or cold. I carried a Camelback for water and Hardly carried our 7mm second line on his back. This route called for four #2 Camalots! This is my favorite piece because when I can place these, I can also get a perfect hand jam. Hardly ran the rope north along the ridge and to the base of the first pitch of In Search of Suds. I came across and Hardly led the first 5.9+ pitch. This pitch, like all on this route, is outstanding! Steep hands leads to a challenging roof. Above is a short offwidth section and then steep flakes and more cracks to a small ledge. I followed, getting by the offwidth section with the second handstack of my life. I used it merely to walk my feet up into a high stem and then was able to reach up for a perfect hand jam.


I led the next pitch which is mostly easier, but I found the top section a bit awkward. I put my left side into the offwidth at the top and had some trouble until I could turn around and get my right side in. Once there, getting by the offwidth was easy, but the overhanging exit moves to the ledge were challenging: 5.9+ or 5.10-. This pitch ended on a perfectly flat, 5 foot square ledge. What a position! We hadn't seen a sole since the previous night and would only see two jeeps on the road far below all day. Where was everyone? The weather was perfect. We felt so lucky.


Hardly led the very interesting bulge above the belay. This is rated 5.10+, but seemed easier. It is a bit tricky, but the holds are large and positive. We both solved it via a mantle and a reach to a good hold. Fun, exciting climbing with tremendous exposure. This pitch ended on a flat ridge and I ran out the rope along the easy ridge to the first step. Hardly led the 5.9+ step and we were at the base of final 5.10+ headwall. This final headwall is devoid of cracks, but has three bolts on it. I led the technical, delicate face climbing to the summit. The moves were challenging, but very well protected and probably only two moves were 5.10. The whole day, and indeed the entire three days, we wouldn't have a breath of wind. This is the first trip I've ever had to the desert without any wind. We lounged on the summit for quite awhile before heading down.


We did a single rope rappel off the summit back to the ridge. At this point we are on top of the arch formed by the Woman's hands reaching out to the wash basin. The rappel from the top of this arch is one of the more dramatic you will do. First, it starts well over the edge. I clipped a sling into the chain anchors below the edge and downclimbed via a fixed sling. From here the rappel goes down the arch and then into free space for over a hundred feet! It ends on some broken ledges and we did another double rope rappel. Unfortunately we couldn't pull the rope down. Fortunately, we had rappelled down another route. Hardly led back up half a pitch and freed the rope. He thought the climbing was fun so I followed up also. Two more rappels and were on the ground - on the wrong side of the tower! I had heard the traverse around Monster Tower wasn't enjoyable so we soloed back up to the saddle (this is probably 5.2-4 from this side) and did a double rope rappel back down to our packs.


The climb had taken us just under 5 hours for the roundtrip back to our packs. We had plenty of time so we reconnoitered the ridge straight down from the towers to the White Rim Trail. This was a fun, adventure hike. A number of steep bands were passed, but a rope was never necessary as the climbing was either ten feet or less or easy. I love ridge walks because the views are so expansive.


Back at camp we decided to camp there for the night. We'd leave absolutely no trace and felt we weren't hurting anyone or damaging the environment. We cooked dinner and relaxed. At 5:15 p.m. - nearing dark - a group of ten mountain bikers came by. They were headed to Gooseberry Campground seven miles away. They'd be riding some in the dark, but were having a great time. We chatted with them briefly before they moved on. These were the first people we had seem in 24 hours.


The next morning we were up at 7 a.m. and hiking by 8:30 back up to the towers. Today's objective was the bigger and harder Monster Tower. We were headed for the 5.11a North Ridge. This climb faces Washer Woman and we had a great view of this route while climbing the previous day. A couple of the pitches looked relentless. Hardly led the first pitch which was a bit loose and scary. This pitch starts off with a perfect 5.8 hand crack, but then traverses left and runs into harder climbing. I felt the crux was maybe 10-, but Hardly felt the crux was the loose rock. This wasn't as noticeable to me, but I was safe on a toprope. This first pitch, the second easiest on the route was already harder and more serious than any pitch on Washer Woman.


The next pitch is one of the best I've done in the desert. A dead vertical, serpentine crack led upwards. This crack, rated 10d,  was wide hands to fist at the start and I lost my leading head early. I couldn't get a solid jam and hung on my second piece, a #3 Camalot. I'm a bad wide hands/fist crack climber. I didn't give up though and climbed higher to where the crack closed down to tight hands. I placed a #1 Camalot and hung again. Further up I hung a third time on a #4 Camalot. The climbing here was more reminiscent of Indian Creek: relentless, no rest, no footholds crack climbing. Something I need to work on. A lot. Above this crack was a short tricky dihedral and then a 40 foot 5.9 offwidth. This offwidth was pretty easy since it laid back quite a bit. The topo says to face climb it instead, but there was no chance of me doing that since there would be no gear. I slowly worked my way up the crack, leaving a #3 BigBro halfway up.


Hardly followed this pitch without trouble but did comment on its burly nature. Above was an off-fingers crack that was rated 5.11a. Hardly got about twenty feet up the pitch, right where it became relentless and took tension. It was just too burly and we only had two pieces that would protect it. Hardly recommends four red Aliens for this pitch. I think you'd want four Aliens to aid it (with no backcleaning) or only two to freeclimb it because it would be very difficult to stop and place more than two pieces on this section. The really hard section is only about twenty feet long, but jamming it was too much for Hardly. Liebacking this section is the way to go, but he didn't think he could let go to place gear. I certainly couldn't. After a few aid moves, Hardly got into a hand crack, which turned to offwidth, than back to hands and then back to offwidth again. At the second offwidth section Hardly got the #4 Camalot stuck badly. He hung on gear and worked on it for ten minutes or more before he got it out. He then continued up to a large ledge with lots of loose rock.


Following this pitch, I could make good progress by liebacking though I was at my limit. I had to hang on the rope to pull the gear out, but didn't need any aid to make progress. Judging from our usual abilities, I think this pitch is quite a bit harder than 11a. I would guess at least 11c. Hardly is a good crack climber and flashed the 11b Country Club Crack at Castle Rock so he isn't a rookie. He also has numerous hard 5.10+ crack leads on desert towers. The pitch is stellar though - just a bit hard for us to free. I came off once on the offwidth section above trying to get my foot up into the base of the crack. The offwidth sections aren't very long, but they are very steep and very pure.


I led the next, broken 5.9 pitch. This had a short squeeze section, the obligatory offwidth section and my blocky climbing with numerous big rests. It was quite a change from the last two pitches. Hardly then led a short, but very thought provoking 5.10 pitch through an overhang. This pitch required flare moves, leg hooks, drop knees, fingerlocks, handjams, etc. A stellar pitch to a good, small ledge. One welcome aspect of both of these tower routes was the excellent ledges at the end of every pitch. Once again I led the last pitch up the blank face. We could have taken the bolt ladder directly above the belay, but I opted to try the 5.11 free climbing variation out to the left. The guidebook says that there is at least one bolt on this variation and that was all we could see. I did a couple of moves up to the bolt and clipped it. The next move was the crux and it was a very dicey, boulder move involving a very high step onto crumbling sandstone. The handholds were a waist high crimp for the right hand and an arete pinch for the left hand. This was too much for me and I pulled on the draw to just get my foot up. Once here I free climbed left around the corner - heading for a fixed pin. A big hueco offered sanctuary and I made the clip. Above I got in a small Alien and turned the bulge to easier ground. Soon I was on the summit. Hardly also pinched the bolt hanger. This move seemed more like 11c also.


While we were climbing Monster Tower another party was climbing Washer Woman. We conversed a bit. They were hoping to climb both towers today. Impressive goals, by they didn't make it. They climbed only one pitch on Monster Tower (the 10d crack pitch - they avoided the first pitch by coming in from the saddle) before retreating. We went quite awhile on the summit admiring the views that our perch afforded us. Then we rappelled the route back to the ground. We hiked back to the car, threw in the gear and drove out of Canyonlands. We camped once again at the Gemini Bridges trailhead. We were thrilled to have done both towers with such perfect weather and near solitude.


The next day we drove to Arches National Park. I wanted to climb Dark Angel, a two pitch tower at the end of the Devil's Garden trail. This tower is unique in that it has the greatest, most enjoyable approach you could wish for. The two and a half mile approach is so nice that the most jaded, approach-hating, sport climber's only regret will be that it isn't long enough. The trail winds around some of the largest and most beautiful desert arches in the world. It is a mini-adventure hike with only about 500 feet of climbing and lots of the trail is on slick rock and some along rock ribs. We were the first hikers on the trail at 8:30 a.m. It was still quite cold in the shade, but beautiful out and warmth was coming.


Dark Angel can be seen from a long way away. Though only about 150 feet tall, it is overhanging on all sides and thrusts straight out of the ground without any talus cone - like most structures in Arches. The south face, the face you see as you approach it, is especially imposing as it is completely smooth - devoid of any climbable features. Of course, we don't climb that side. The route starts on the left side of a large flake on the west face and then traverses around to finish on the north side.


At the base of the tower, Hardly claimed the first pitch. This starts off with a sandy chimney in white, Navajo sandstone. Calling Navajo sandstone "sandstone" seems quite charitable since it seems much closer to sand than to sand. It should be called Navajo stonesand. This scary chimney led into the Entrada sandstone out of which most Arches features are comprised. The only good thing you can say about Entrada sandstone is that it isn't Navajo sandstone. The towers above the White Rim were made of the desert granite known as Wingate sandstone. Though this is soft, crumbly rock, it is by far the best the Utah desert has to offer.


Hardly cruised the chimney and then encountered the steep, sandy finger/hand 5.9+ crack. At the top of this fifteen foot crack is a tricky, awkward move onto a ledge on the left. Hardly, reluctant to give up his handjams under a bulge, dragged his body and feet up onto this ledge. It was his most aesthetic moment. When I got to that same position while following, he said, "See if you can match the elegant style with which I conquered this section." "You set the bar awfully high!" I responded.


I found an edge high on the right that I could lieback on and was able to pass the bulge without any groveling or crawling. But, as is so often the case when I one-up Hardly, my due was coming. The next pitch starts with an extremely awkward bulge to a tiny ledge with a bulge above it. There was a huge hold I could grab on the ledge and mantle up on, but because of the wall above me I could not step up or stand up. I ended up straddling the point and groveling onto the ledge. Hardly could barely contain his laughter at my hilarious predicament.


Above me was a bolt ladder that led over a bulge to runout easier climbing to the summit. It was supposed to be 5.10 to free climb this section but the guidebook cautioned that the ancient bolts probably wouldn't hold a free climbing fall. I clipped the first drilled angle and thought it looked fine. I attempted to free climb the bulge but the holds were so rounded and so sandy that it was too much for me. After a couple of dynamic moves to holds that were no better, I gave up and called for Hardly to take. I clipped on a sling and stood up over the bulge. From here I was able to free climb the rest of the moves to the summit. There was probably another move that was 5.10, but also right next to the bolt. The upper section wasn't as runout as expected as I got in a couple of Aliens though I don't think they would have held much of a fall. Hardly didn't free the bulge either and that move must be solid 5.11 in its current state. This rock is so soft it seems that the difficulty would change from ascent to ascent.


We lounged on the summit once again. The hikers were starting to occupy the trail and a number of them photographed us. Reluctantly, we did the double rope rappel back to the ground. The climbing was done. It was time to head home. But it had been one of the most enjoyable and successful trips I've had. Three towers in three days under perfect skies. It was also probably my last trip this year. Winter can only hold off so long and the next two weekends I will be busy with family down in Texas. But I'm already dreaming of the spring desert season...