Fisher Towers' Cottontail Goes Free at 5.12+ R

Cottontail in the Fisher Towers. West Side Story climbs to the saddle between Cottontail and Echo Tower (left), and then roughly follows the left skyline of the 800-foot tower. Photo by Rob PizemClick here to see more photos from this ascent.

Jason Haas onsighting Fisher Towers petrified mud on West Side Story (5.12+ R). Photo by Rob Pizem.

Jason Haas and Rob Pizem have free-climbed every pitch of West Side Story on 800-foot Cottontail tower in Utah’s Fisher Towers. Despite a reputation for fairly stout aid climbing (5.9 C3), this is the easiest route on the most serious of the Fishers’ four main towers. The route required three 5.12 pitches and two broken bones to free-climb. 

Haas and Pizem free-climbed the route’s nine pitches over several days during spring break. (Pizem is a high school teacher.) After Haas onsighted the relatively easy and clean first pitch, Pizem made it only partway up the 5.10+ second pitch before loose rock, bad pro, and a violent wind storm forced them to call an end to day one. “We were both lacking some of the cockiness that we’d had back home in Denver,” Pizem said. “At this point we knew we were in for a real battle to free the route in just a week.” 

Haas and Pizem replaced about a dozen ancient protection bolts on the route, using gear from the Anchor Replacement Initiative. Photo by Rob Pizem.

Rob Pizem (left) and Jason Haas, cold, battered, but happy on the summit of Cottontail. Photo by Rob Pizem.

Through a combination of free and aid, the two reached the bolt ladder on the fifth pitch during their second day, still unsure if the route might go free. After Pizem toproped that pitch at 5.12-, they decided to rappel and replace nine of the route’s blown-out star-drive protection bolts with six-inch by half-inch bolts. After a rest day, the two free-climbed the remaining leads up to the crux seventh pitch, which Haas then attempted to onsight. He fell on a mantel move over a bulge, pulled two pieces, and landed hard on a small ledge, breaking two bones in his right foot. Despite the pain in his foot, Haas offered to belay so Pizem could finish the pitch. They decided it could be free-climbed and replaced three more bolts, and then retreated again. 

After a day of snow, the two returned on a morning so cold that the water in their bottles froze as they climbed and they wore down parkas all day. With Haas’ damaged foot relegating him to belay duty, Pizem worked on the crux pitch for a couple of hours before free-climbing it on toprope. Freezing and out of time, they headed for the summit and one more surprise. After a moderate pitch, they were stopped by a vicious boulder problem practically within reach of the summit anchors. Pizem sent the move at V5, for a final short 5.12 pitch. 

All of the pitches had now been free-climbed (one on toprope), but the route awaits a one-day free ascent. Haas reportedly is keen to return, but Pizem said he’s had enough of the Fisher Towers’ soft rock and sketchy pro, and he won’t be back on Cottontail. 

(Updated - 5/14/09)

About a month later, Haas returned to Cottontail, and with a friend belaying and jugging, he led every pitch free. Haas freed every pitch first go, except for the crux seventh lead, where he had fallen and broken two small bones in his foot in March. This time he fell again when a hold broke but was unharmed, and then fired the pitch second go. Haas said the route took only about eight hours, car to car.

To see a good free-climbing topo of West Side Story, visit

Click here to see a photo gallery from this ascent.

Mike Brumbaugh high above the Virgin Rivers on the three-pitch new route Walking on Water. Photo by Rob Pizem.

Rob Pizem gears up for the approach to Walking on Water (5.12+/5.13-) in the Zion Narrows. Courtesy of Rob Pizem.

Earlier last month, Pizem and Mike Brumbaugh free-climbed an unusual new testpiece in Zion National Park. Walking on Water (5.12+/5.13-, 3 pitches) takes a striking crack line deep in the Zion Narrows, and the climbers approached the route wearing fishing waders to protect against the icy currents of the Virgin River. The climb’s three pitches each are 5.12 or harder. 

Dates of Ascents: March 2009 

Sources: Rob Pizem, Desert Rock III

Comment on this story


No comments yet - you should start the discussion!