Desert's Steepest Tower Goes Free

By Dougald MacDonald ,

The Shark’s Fin in Canyonlands National Park’s Monument Basin, below the White Rim Trail. The four-pitch northeast arête (5.12 R, at left) overhangs at least 50 feet from top to bottom. Photo © Joseph Puryear.

Rob Pizem and Pete Vintoniv have free-climbed the wildly overhanging northeast arête of the Shark’s Fin in Utah’s Monument Basin at 5.12 R. The four-pitch sandstone route required dangerous and loose climbing on every lead.

“It’s a classic desert testpiece and fight-fest,” Pizem said.

The overhanging arête on the Shark’s Fin was first climbed in 1986 by Earl and Art Wiggins and Katy Cassidy at A4, and has rarely been repeated. However, the route fell to hammerless aid (with two crucial fixed pieces) in 1996, and Monument Basin’s Cutler Sandstone is highly featured underneath its typical surface layer of mud and rubble. The Shark’s Fin had already been free-climbed by the lower-angle southwest ridge, the Fetish Arête (5.10+ R), and the basin’s best-known formation, Standing Rock, went free at 5.11c in 1993.

Jugging the bulging Shark’s Fin (right) during the northeast arête’s third ascent, in 1996. The rope, fixed to the top of the second pitch, indicates the route’s steepness. Photo © Dougald MacDonald.

Vintoniv linked and onsighted the northeast arête’s original first two pitches, traversing onto the ridge, in a four-hour 5.10+ R lead. Meanwhile, Pizem and Mike Brumbaugh climbed the Fetish Arête and rappelled the overhanging northeast ridge to clean loose rock and check out gear placements. Pizem then led the second pitch, a technical corner and face through roofs, at 5.11+ R. Vintoniv took the third pitch, another overhanging 5.11+ R, with crux arête and solution pocket moves. That left the crux fourth pitch: a large roof with a single drilled angle piton at the lip for protection. Pizem made the desperate mantel and balancey moves to easier ground at 5.12 R.

The two climbers placed no pitons or bolts on the route. They preplaced one piece at the start of the third pitch, and preclipped the fixed piton at the crux roof out of fear of ripping out the belay anchor if Pizem fell before making the clip.

“Even though it was a 5.12 roof at the end of the route, the real crux was certainly the fact that Pete kept talking about how bad it was going to be if or when I fell and the pin at the roof blew out and I Factor Two’d the anchor and we both fell to our deaths,” Pizem said. “It took a few screams to complete the moves and I never fell, but I still think about the consequences.”

Date of Ascent: November 8-9, 2008

Source: Rob Pizem

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