Biggest Desert Spire Free-Climbed

By Dougald MacDonald ,

More Sand Than Stone takes the central dihedral line, then cuts left to the arête. This photo shows only the lower half of Tooth Rock’s southern aspect.

Fitz Cahall, James Q Martin, and Albert Newman completed the first free ascent of Tooth Rock, a 1,600-foot-high sandstone monolith in the Vermilion Cliffs near Lee’s Ferry, Arizona. Martin and Newman had been working on More Sand Than Stone (V 5.11, 1,400 feet) for three and a half years. Guarded by a long approach, scorching temperatures, and mostly chossy cliffs, Tooth Rock is the biggest sandstone spire in the U.S., but its handful of mixed free and aid routes are rarely climbed. However, the two men discovered an isolated band of solid Navajo sandstone on the steep southern aspect, and they set to work cleaning and climbing it. Newman, who has pioneered several other big routes in the dangerous Vermilion Cliffs, made more than 20 trips to the formation before the redpoint.

More Sand Than Stone follows a clean 600-foot corner on the huge formation’s south face, then cuts left for two pitches of bolt-protected face climbing to reach a broad ledge system; above this, the line joins the 1977 Lost Love Route (VI 5.10 C2+) for six pitches of easier free-climbing to reach the summit. In usually hot mid-March weather, the team could only free-climb in the shade, so they completed the route over two days, fixing ropes and returning before dawn on the second day to fire for the top. The team led and followed the route’s four 5.11 pitches without falls.

Albert Newman leads the first pitch of More Sand Than Stone.

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