Stand atop these spindly spires
In November 2010, I did my first desert tower in Utah: Ancient Art in the Fisher Towers. After holding my breath across the narrow sidewalk three pitches up and winding my way up the final sandstone corkscrew, I stood atop that bizarre summit at dusk, barely able to make out the Rectory across the valley. This was a defining and exhilarating moment in my climbing career: I, like many first-time tower climbers, wanted more.
It’s well known that the desert Southwest holds the majority of this country’s climbable towers, but here we’ve dug up seven classic routes, in no particular order, on spires that span the U.S., from Idaho to North Carolina, ranging in grade from 5.7 to 5.11c, from Wingate sandstone to granite, from 50 feet to 300. Moab climbers aren’t the only ones who can enjoy sitting on a tower summit.
The Original Route (5.9+)
Cathedral Spires, Sedona, Arizona
Reason enough for anyone to travel to Sedona, the 300-foot Mace is adorned with seven routes, including the Original Route. You’ll find everything from chimneys to offwidth and hand cracks to a small roof on the soft, but reasonably protected, Schnebly Hill sandstone, and each belay on the four- to five-pitch route is bolted. Established in 1957 by Bob Kamps and party, the Original Route was the first technical spire climb in the area. The line begins on the northeast side of the spire in a band of gray limestone. The second pitch holds a 5.9 hand crack and chimney: “It’s a wild stemming pitch after pulling over a small roof on a hand jam,” says Arizona guide Alexis Finley. But the fun doesn’t end there. “You get tons of exposure on a step-across to gain a 5.8 chimney/offwidth” on the third pitch, says Finley. The fourth pitch bears the crux, a four-inch offwidth, before dumping you onto the lower summit. A somewhat-committing step-across move over a chasm gains the true top. If you’re bold, you can leap back to the lower summit, but beware: “The 15- foot jump across the spires has resulted in more than one broken ankle,” Finley says. A friend on the ground can snap a dramatic photo of the stem between the towers or the infamous leap across. Most climbers will rappel instead.
GUIDEBOOK: Rock Climbing Arizona, by Stewart Green; Castles in the Sand: A climber’s guide to Sedona and Oak Creek Canyon, by David Bloom
The Lost Arrow
Classic Route (5.7)
City of Rocks, Idaho
Named after its more famous Yosemite counterpart, this hard-to-miss spire in the City of Rocks boasts positive edges and pockets, but “the exposure may humble sport climbers used to much loftier grades,” guidebook author Dave Bingham says. The Classic Route, most likely established by Greg Lowe in the early 1960s, begins on the 100-foot tower’s north face, following a flake to an exciting ramp that’s protected by ancient pins and one bolt. There are no other fixed anchors, but an exposed notch at the end of the ramp provides a decent belay spot. There, climbers commit to a traverse that leads to an unprotected but easy pitch to the summit. “If the climb doesn’t prove enough pucker factor, the free-hanging rap certainly will,” Bingham says. There’s a newly installed top anchor for the descent, but “you still have to perform a mandatory beachedwhale move to get established over the lip.” This spire requires a longer-than-normal approach by City standards—30 to 40 minutes—and sees less traffic than the roadside sport crags, making for a perfect day of isolated climbing.
GUIDEBOOK: City of Rocks Idaho, by Dave Bingham
Standard Route (5.11c)
Canyonlands National Park, Utah
“My own favorite spire climb,” says Steve “Crusher” Bartlett of the 300-foot-tall Standard Route on the somewhat-phallic Standing Rock. Crusher, author of Desert Towers, says, “This combines the historic appeal of Honeymoon Chimney [5.11, Castle Valley] with a wild location and remarkably reasonable climbing, considering its appearance.” Located in the wild geologic museum of Monument Basin, below Island in the Sky, the tall and narrow spire’s Cutler sandstone offers decent rock and good protection. In Stewart Green’s Rock Climbing Utah, the author says, “It’s mind-blowing that it really goes free!” The Standard Route sits at the high end of our grade spectrum, with a crux at 5.11c, but is well-protected by an overhead bolt, and 5.10 climbers can do the route with a few simple aid moves. Layton Kor and Huntley Ingalls established this classic desert line in 1962; the route went free in 1993. Start on the north side of the tower, and move through a corner system to a 5.10 roof move and then some easier traversing. A steep, thin crack on pitch two leads to the crux third pitch, where the 5.11c section awaits on a bulge. Pitch four takes you through a rotten crack to an incredibly exposed summit, where you can soak in the view of the entire Monument Basin.
GUIDEBOOK: Rock Climbing Utah, by Stewart Green
The Kissing Couple
Long Dong Wall (5.11a)
Colorado National Monument, Colorado
Offwidths, chimney climbing, and technical face defi ne the adventurous climbing on the Kissing Couple in this national monument near Grand Junction. A Layton Kor original from the 1960s, Long Dong Wall went completely free in 1982. About three-quarters of the way up the 400-foot tower, a huge chimney splits the formation, creating the “kissing couple” shape, where the real climbing fun lies. The 5.11a crux, however, is on pitch one, starting with a finger and then hand crack, followed by a traverse that’s protected by a piton. (Hardware was replaced in October 2011.) Pitches two and three follow a chimney and gully, and pitch four begins the memorable “chimneying up between the two ‘necks’ of the kissing kids into the ‘Belfry,’” says local Jesse Zacher, before pitch five makes you “squeeze through a hole just big enough for your body—you have to push your helmet and gear through first, or you won’t fit—and pop out right on top,” says Zacher. Belay stations are bolted, but the pitches might seem runout to the inexperienced tower climber. “You encounter the typical desert tower experience,” says Rob Pizem, another Grand Junction local. “Great exposure and committing but safe chimneying. Climb this route for the adventure.”
GUIDEBOOK: Rock Climbing Colorado, by Stewart Green
The West Chimney (5.7)
Hounds Hump Ridge, New Hampshire
You may visit New Hampshire to climb at its biggest crag, Cannon Cliff, but after seeing the Eaglet, you’ll likely venture away to climb this exceptional New England spire. Seven routes are scattered on this 200-foot-tall feature in Franconia Notch, where you’ll find varied climbing from chimneys, face climbing, corner cracks, and even hard aid. The classic three-pitch West Chimney (5.7) follows a chimney to a notch between the adjacent cliff and the spire. Climb steep rock to a slab that leads to the base of two chimneys; the second pitch climbs the right chimney past a chockstone to a belay ledge. The final pitch is “the one,” says local guide Bayard Russell. “The climbing goes from non-memorable to exposed, and pretty challenging for the grade.” Take the corkscrew approach, winding your way around to the summit, or climb a system of cracks to an arête on the west face, and climb the exposed face before a final slab move to the summit, which is large enough to comfortably hold two climbers. Need another reason? “It’s the only tower we’ve got!” says Russell.
GUIDEBOOK: Secrets of the Notch, by Jon Sykes
International Chimney (5.8 R)
Cathedral Spires, Custer State Park, South Dakota
With the guidebook describing its first pitch as “one of the nicest moderate pitches in the Spires,” International Chimney is a treat for those seeking to climb the highest tower in the Cathedral Spires. International Chimney climbs up the obvious gap between the Obelisk and 300-foot-tall Spire 3. The first pitch starts with a scramble to a chimney, inside of which lies “the best 150-foot 5.7 hand crack in the Spires,” says local Andrew Busse. Or you can stem this section on good edges to a two-bolt belay anchor at the top of the pitch. A flared chimney awaits on pitch two, and that’s where it gets serious: Protection is sparse—the guidebook notes that you’ll “bounce around like a pinball” if you fall—but the crack ends at a bolted anchor. Or choose option two on the pitch, where you can awkwardly stem into a hanging chimney—it’s rumored that the first ascent party used a shoulder stand here. Finish the route by climbing a low-angled face, and soak in the views of about 10 neighboring towers.
GUIDEBOOK: The Needles: A Climber’s Guide to the Black Hills Needles, by Zach Orenczak and Rachael Lynn
Sitting Bear Spire
Original Route (5.8/9+)
Linville Gorge, North Carolina
“An impressive and uncanny free-standing spire, with four steep, sheer sides and a giant, loose, car-sized boulder on top.” That’s the way Zachary Lesch-Huie, a local climber, describes Sitting Bear Spire. Almost 10 routes—a blend of sport, mixed, and bold trad lines—line the 50-foot tower, which sits above the beautiful Linville Gorge in Pisgah National Forest. “There are numerous spires and interesting pinnacles in Linville Gorge,” says local Mike Fischesser, “but Sitting Bear is definitely one of the most spectacular due to its unique history and position on the ridge line offering incredible views down the gorge.” The first ascent of the Original Route occurred in 1967, wherein the FA party used pins and a bolt ladder, some of which are still in use today. The line saw its first free ascent a year later by Karl Rohnke, who wore casual dress shoes, and “the route was rated 5.8 ever since, but it’s very strenuous and probably should be 5.9,” Fischesser says. Balancey face climbing is the name of the game after you power through the overhanging, cruxy start. Most lines, including the Original Route, top out next to the “bear’s head” summit block, but five more feet of easy climbing will deposit you on the true summit. Limited beta available on mountainproject.com.