Marooned in the Fisher Towers


Echo and Cottontail Towers. Photo by Chris Van Leuven

Sunrise in the Fisher Towers, Utah. Photo by Chris Van Leuven

It’s a storming March afternoon in the Fisher Towers, Utah. Four of us are huddled in a two-man tent at the base of a cirque of desert towers reminiscent of late-night dinner candles covered in chocolate-pudding-fight aftermath. The melting landscape, now, in a moment of suspended animation, is blanketed in white. Due to the unsafe hiking terrain, not to mention adverse weather conditions, we’ve given up our goal of helping Vijay make the first paraplegic ascent of Echo Tower. We’re now camped on a high ledge, contemplating our descent to the parking lot in now treacherous conditions. Our team is made up of Vijay Viswanathan, a paraplegic, T6 (intermediate) rock climber from Breckenridge, Colorado, photographer Cody Blair of Boulder, Colorado, assistant Josh Holmes from Mayfield, Utah, and myself. We are marooned here in this rugged desert. We have yet to devise a plan to get out to safety. Our initial summit recon, minus Vijay, had proven greatly easier than bringing him to the base of the route. Vijay, at 23, is energetic, constantly organized, and appears to take this whole experience in stride—he’s better at hiding his fear than us.

Cody and Vijay. Photo by Chris Van Leuven

Interrupting the steady sound of snow dashing against the nylon walls of the tent, a fist-sized rock skyrockets through our two-man shelter. The jagged block wisps past our heads with a roaring bang!, puncturing a hole in the roof of our pine green vestibule. This striking reminder further stresses the inherent dangers of climbing here, but it doesn’t cancel out all the fun we’ve had scrambling up these incredible rocks and setting ambitious goals. And, as if desert tower climbing isn’t fun and rewarding in its own right, helping our friend Vijay to the summit is infinitely more rewarding—that is the reward of collectively pouring energy into something bigger than our own individual lives.

“It’s not easy to find someone, or team of people for that matter, to carry out these ‘paraplegic’ adventures,” explains Vijay. “These people do exist, however, and I inevitably seek them out to brainstorm and explore.”

So why are we all sitting out in a miserable spring storm at the mercy of rock fall and loving every minute of it? As a climber, I obsess over projects: big, sandy desert towers, limestone walls, granite monoliths; routes that often require several days, weeks or years to complete. These routes are best shared with dedicated friends—experienced partners are required—people that share the intense passion for adventures, for the unknown. These trips are conceived over a handshake, “sounds good,” or “I’m in!”—logistics and planning comes next—such is the case of Vijay, and our one- year-in-the-making goal to climb the awesome/exciting/ terrifying, 600 foot, Echo Tower. This spire rarely sees ascent even by very experienced, fully limbed climbers.

 


Vijay and Cody in the tent, moments before the rockfall. Photo by Chris Van Leuven

“From jugging up multi-pitch waterfalls in Costa Rica, to cycling over 500 miles through the Colorado Rockies, dropping off cornices in Alta, and surfing wave-skis in Southern California,” Vijay says, “I’ve been able to continue to find people that are psyched, and want to help me pursue my passions despite a severe and permanent injury.”

We’ve come to the Fisher Towers, (seen in the opening scene of Austin Power’s Goldmember) for two goals: Make a free climb of Echo Tower, and assist Vijay in making the first paraplegic ascent of Echo Tower. (Vijay uses ascenders to climb the ropes we string to the summit during the free climb.)

Echo is deep in the Fishers group, two miles from the parking lot, with a one-hour approach: steep, strenuous hiking with enormous exposure. For Vijay and us, it took two days to get three quarters of the way in before retreating. Accessing the base of Echo tower proved to be an expedition in and of itself, with all three team members all working overtime to haul rope, gear, Vijay, and his adaptive mountain bike over a very precarious and inhospitable trail; through steep, loose sections and narrow passages.

I met Vijay through a mutual friend the year before —Vijay’s adaptive ski instructor—right after my first attempt on the tower (I was chomping at the bit to get back on the route). When Vijay explained that he too was a climber and had access to adaptive gear, I invited him for a rematch with the tower.

Vijay, attached to a tree, and Josh (right) enjoy a PB&J for lunch after a technical 4th class bit. Photo by Chris Van Leuven

“When I go climbing, the climbing isn’t the most dangerous or even challenging obstacle,” Vijay told me. “Rather it’s the approach that entails careful planning and a safety and support crew.”

The hole in the tent smokes like the barrel of a gun. Out of the red sand near his feet, Josh picks up the gnarled rock that grazed his head and stares at it in disbelief. We must get out of the rock fall zone, now, and into the torrent.

Safely moving Vijay in this unsteady terrain is no easy task, especially on exposed, wet ground. The climbers’ trail is too sheer to bring him any higher. The steep, mushy-clay landscape, a way down, is impassible. Hail and snow snarl around our domicile.

On the ground, our current situation feels just like life on the vertical. We have tons of technical equipment, plus we can’t just walk away from our situation like you can when you’re merely camping. We have to take what nature dishes out, plan, and finally react.

 


Josh watching the storm roll in. Photo by Chris Van Leuven

In this case, we decide to move Vijay to the shelter of a nearby cave using a technique he taught us on day one. With people on either side of him, the carriers interlace each others’ arms under Vijay’s legs while he supports his upper body on our shoulders. Donning helmets, we journey into the cold snow and jarring wind. Hail and snow gather on our clothing as we shuffle through the thick mud. The white-crusted towers, with their protruding hoodoos and perching bombs are now Alice in Wonderland meets Iraq, a psychedelic landscape mixed with an active warzone. We hurriedly walk in unison—desperately hoping we can dodge additional incoming firebombs—toward the entrance of the nearby cave. Next, we lower Vijay onto his dry cushion in the cave. Finally we ferry the remaining supplies to the shelter. Features of this “safety” zone consist of a nascent riverbed and half-collapsing roof. Myriad blocks from the ceiling rest throughout the cave floor—except the entrance block, which leans from the roof like a leaf spring. The cave sits three feet tall.

As a team we strategize our next steps. Cody, already exhausted from hours of carrying Vijay up the steepest terrain, begins ferrying extraneous gear back to camp while Josh and I rack up for a nearby short climb also serving as our only logical escape route. Our goal: We’ll use the anchors on the climb by attaching ropes to them and then draping these ropes over a nearby drop off. Vijay would then rappel these ropes and skip all the otherwise steep hiking terrain.

A view of the parking area with the Colorado River in the distance from the summit of Echo Tower. Photo by Chris Van Leuven

It’s late afternoon when the storm temporarily abates. Utilizing this time, Josh and I climb the first 100 feet of the popular nearby tower, Ancient Art, and fix a line to the first anchor. This is followed by hurriedly carrying Vijay past the rock-fall zone, then past an exposed section of the trail before clipping into the rope. He sets up his rappel device, we pad the rope over any sharp edges on the surrounding rock, then he heads down and out of view. A few moments later he calls down that he’s safe.

From here, I head back up the tower, via Ascenders, and remove our hanging rope while the team assists Vijay back to his One-Off mountain bike and back to camp. The storm blows over the landscape as we shuttle our loads out of the Towers, leaving in its wake a bone cold chill. Vijay aggressively rides his bike back to camp, charging over many obstacles we previously deemed impossible. And, by nightfall, we’re all sitting around the camp table.

 


CVL stuck in the tent, moments before the rockfall. Photo by Chris Van Leuven

In the end, we succeeded in having a grand adventure. Your standard rock climber often views climbing as success or failure—to summit or not. In this case, success was gauged by what we learned in the field and—due to the adverse weather— coming back in one piece. Sometimes that is reward enough. Vijay sums it up best: “It’s the adventure that entices me, the variability of weather, and the physical challenges shared and met by close friends in the natural world. The rewards that come with these ventures are irreplaceable, and will remain in my memory for years to come. It [was] totally worth it.”

The summit of Echo Tower. Photo by Chris Van Leuven

Cody got amazing shots and managed to summit the tower (during an earlier recon mission). Josh didn’t get enough yet, and won’t feel satisfied until he succeeds on a summit with Vijay. I found the most satisfying time of the trip was being stuck in the storm with Vijay: we were on the same playing field and had to put our heads together to come up with a way out. As a group and individuals, we learned our limitations and what we can handle.

What’s next for Vijay? He’s looking to climb El Cap this summer. And we’ve planned climbing in the Colorado National Monument this fall. Any volunteers?

Editor's Note: Chris, Cody and Vijay were in the Fishers at roughly the same time as Rob Pizem and Jason Haas when they freed all the pitches on Cottontail's West Side Story in March of 2009 — a time when the Fisher Towers possibly saw more free climbing activity than ever before. Chris and his free climbing partner, Andy Donson didn't manage a completely free ascent of Echo Tower (FFA Stevie Haston, 5.12b) via Phantom Sprint, but they did free — ground up — all but about 7 points of aid to reach the summit. Another version of this story was previously published at the Denver Voice (denvervoice.org).

 




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