I woke to blackness. My shoulders were numb, my cracked fi ngers curled into useless claws. Aching limbs untwisted themselves from sweaty sheets. Something was glowing, off to my side. What was it? Where was I? Sleepy eyes squinted. It’s the motel clock; it’s 2 a.m.
There would, I knew, be no more sleep for me tonight. Okay, sit up, swallow more ibuprofen, lie back down and get comfortable. Then keep still—rest the muscles, even if the brain is revving up like those trucks in my dream.
The previous night I had woken at 4 a.m. And the night before that. Five hours of sleep those nights. And now down to what, three? Oh well, might as well keep quiet and let Chip sleep.
My tired brain lurched back to 2005. Andy Donson had started it, showing me a photo of a mysterious rock formation lit by a fiery sunset. Christmas had been dry and warm, so my wife, Fran, and I went hiking around Escalante, searching for the tower in the photo. Finding it was not too hard, but oh, boy—in the flesh, it looked like nothing I’d ever seen.
There was no talus at the base. Pieces falling off quickly melted into the lazy mud waves spreading out into the surrounding flatlands. Our eyes were pulled upward, unthreading the inscrutable tracery. The whole was topped by an improbable final flourish: a jaunty tricorn hat, sculpted out of what appeared to be real stone. Irresistible.
Pitons, nuts, cams, bolts, hammerdrill— with modern equipment, there’s not a piece of hard rock in the world that is not climbable. But maybe, just maybe, somewhere there is a summit, sitting atop a substance that is almost—but not quite—rock, a material solid enough to support itself, yet so soft or fragile that no climbing gear could work, no climbing technique yet developed could allow upward progress. Perhaps this monster in front of me was made of such a substance.
A month later, Strappo Hughes and I pulled into the nearest town: Cannonville, Utah. A handful of stately brick houses were shaded by 100-year-old cottonwoods, while newer ranch houses sprawled untidily amid perfect lawns. The few locals we met possessed the understated confidence that you see either in the truly wealthy or those for whom all spiritual matters are settled. We booked into the local motel.
There were no obvious routes up the tower. So we settled on a line that, we told each other, would take a crack system to a shoulder, followed by what looked like easy shinnying along a gentle ridge to the main, upper tower. In reality, we picked the line because it started up a friendly crack in a sunny alcove, and was near the truck.
Before leaving, we lugged a hammer and a few pitons to a nearby cliff where the white pastry-rock emerged directly from the ground. Once there, we found that if the flaky pastry was scraped off, there were calcite seams underneath; they were brief, shallow, and few, but maybe the mysterious white stuff was climbable with regular pitons. That “maybe” was important. I was curious, sucked in. We had to return.
Three o’clock. My hips, numb from spending so much time high-stepping in aiders, eased my legs into a new position. My thoughts whirled around this wretched tower we were struggling with and the spell it had cast over me.
A couple months after our fi rst visit, Strappo and I returned to start anew in a different spot. I was on day two of a hangover as we drove out. Next morning, I still felt unable to start leading. I had never heard of a three-day hangover, but it was obvious that this tower would require a big effort, and feeling 100 percent healthy was mandatory. Poor Strappo was not happy about my condition, but he too was reluctant to start leading. We wandered around with binoculars under his preferred new starting point on the north side. I found excuses to reject it. He didn’t much care for my suggested alternative. Neither of us felt confident enough to jump onto the rock. Sometimes success or failure hinges on the subtlest of feelings. We drove home.
Michael Reardon once told me that when he free-soloed, he imagined himself inside an eight-foot bubble. Everything outside the bubble was deemed irrelevant and thus ignored. Instead, he focused inward: he developed a hyper-awareness of whatever lay within the bubble. I borrowed his concept—I badly needed Reardon’s bubble. Fran managed to stay in the same pile of dust for three days, being pelted with rocks and ordered to send up more gear—and fast, please. I achieved 60 feet per day. I fixed ropes from a pair of half-inch by six-inch bolts, 200 feet up. I left two ropes, in parallel—with neither a partner nor a scheduled return, they might stay there for a long time. How long would it be before the boulder that the bolts were attached to eroded away? We went hiking for a couple of days, enjoying the colors and textures of the local rocks from a safer distance. We wandered through the vast Capitol Reef emptiness. We scrambled over secret arches and burrowed through womb-like canyons, eyes open, like children again.
The clock glowed. I didn’t look at it. Sleep was as far away as ever. The ibuprofen was kicking in—the various aches were duller, limbs a little more relaxed. In another 20 minutes or so, I would move them again. In the other bed, Chip was softly snoring.
We had come full circle, Chip and I. Once upon a time, I had introduced Chip to the joys of working with concrete. Eventually, I retired from setting forms, but he had thrived, starting his own company, moving to Telluride and starting anew there, building it into a success. And, long ago, it had been Chip enticing me out to the desert to struggle up uncertain chossy towers. I had been the reluctant one, wondering why we could not instead climb at Devils Tower or Vedauwoo, where the rock was sound, the outcome certain, and the experience fun.
So perhaps Chip understood my mental state and decided to humor me. I preferred to think he was genuinely enthusiastic. Actually, I was past caring. He offered to come along; right now, that was plenty. He was out of shape and declined to do any leading, and this was also fine. However scary the leading was, belaying had to be worse.
I installed Chip on the single ledge on the climb, 200 feet up, and there he stayed for three days, guarded by walls of what he called “brainy stuff,” a maze of furrows and ridges. Above this was the mysterious white pastry. I settled into a routine of standing up as high as possible on each piece, closing my eyes, holding my breath, and waving the hammer in windshield-wiper arcs to clean pastry from the face and uncover whatever features there might be. Over and over, hour by hour, day after day.
The clock? I squinted into the red glow and made out 3:40. Still no sleep, but my brain seemed more relaxed now, drifting more randomly. I thought of a dream Chip had told me he once had. He was working on a construction site, putting forms together, and the rebar that he was tying into place started turning into a mass of snakes, attacking him until he woke up yelling.
Sixty more feet to go. Yes, we could do that. My brain had slowed down to a relaxed meander. Something seemed resolved, worked out. Sleep was quite close now. Too bad the alarm clock was about to go off.
Chip, always a morning person, jumped out of bed within seconds, and, guessing that today we might finally finish, asked in a jolly tone, “Well, are you psyched?” Chip was psyched—he was always cheerful—but his simple question was too difficult for me, an intrusion into the eight-foot bubble I’d retreated into. I had the day’s activities all calculated, and I had enough energy for them, but nothing to spare.
There was a narrowing just under the tricorn hat. The neck was a giant’s jigsaw— no mud, just shattered lumps. I jiggled nuts between the pieces, then reached up and out toward the hat’s brim. A pair of Fred Flintstone microwave ovens oozed far out of the stone, strangely colored, dubious, separated from each other by a narrow slit. It would be a disaster should they break. I reached high and sat a brass nut on the outside of the ovens, cable slotted into the slit. Then I clipped in an aider, and—eyes shut, breath stopped—stepped gently into space.
Yes! Yes! Yes! Eyes closed, I sensed the hungry air under my feet, the nervous breeze tugging at my ankles, the fragile rocks hanging over my head. Yes! This was what I came here for. Calculated risk, a thread of calculation going back through those sleepless nights. Back through these last five days, then back farther through all the wild climbs Chip and Strappo and all my other partners had shared with me. Hanging in space from the flimsiest of supports, in the wildest of places. Nothing, absolutely nothing, can compare.
My eyes opened, and my lungs softly exhaled. First, I looked down beneath my legs—the eagle’s eye view. My feet appeared to be unmoving, and the ground, 400 feet below, gently swayed to and fro. Those cows down there should be feeling seasick. Second, I looked around at the magnificent, crumbling architecture. Strappo had been right; the ridge he had stopped at was preposterous— we could never have gone that way. Third, I looked up and saw nothing but the vast blue sky. An elemental emotion took over; I laughed and yelled, smashed the tired eight-foot bubble, and propelled my body effortlessly up and over the hat’s brim onto that elusive summit. My mouth erupted into a smile that would last for weeks.
Steve “Crusher” Bartlett has summitted about 30 previously unclimbed desert pinnacles, including the Colossus. This story is adapted from Desert Towers, Bartlett’s brand-new coffee-table history from Sharp End Publishing.