Semi-Rad: Long, Hard Routes


Alex Honnold celebrates atop Owl Spice. Photo: Samuel Crossley.

“I think every climber needs to summitsomething super, super phallic at least once,” I said to a friend on a raft trip last fall, for absolutely no reason at all.

As soon as the words left my mouth, I realized I’ve really only climbed one desert tower and a couple other things that are somewhat schlong-like, and they were  more sword-like than schlong-like, if I’m being completely honest. Am I even, by my own definition, a real climber if I haven’t climbed anything that looks like a, well, you know? I should make plans to go up Castleton Tower or at least Owl Rock soon, right?

Even if I don’t particularly excel at any form of climbing, I understand and have at least minimal experience in most of all the disciplines: sport, trad, aid, bouldering, mountaineering, ice, mixed, and plastic. But I haven’t made the effort to climb Otto’s Route (an especially sexy five-pitch 5.8 woody) at Colorado National Monument, or anything else truly wang-like, which I suppose one could define as any formation way taller than its diameter. You know, like a cucumber, or, say, a frankfurter, or a banana, or a mushroom, or an egg roll.

Are you too serious of a climber for dick jokes? I’m clearly not. But, this is not just about dick jokes (although possibly the best place in climbing for them). It’s about the experience of standing on a unique summit, a sculpture high above an arid landscape, maybe the closest feeling many of us will have to climbing something “because it’s there,” as George Mallory famously said.

You should flip through Steve “Crusher” Bartlett’s 2010 book, Desert Towers: Fat Cat Summits and Kitty Litter Rock. I have for hours at a time, and let me tell you, it’s an amazing and visually stunning volume on the history of desert climbing, with a ton of beautiful photos of early climbs on the Colorado Plateau, most of which are on towers. You can’t help but ask yourself, “Why are desert towers so compelling?”

Well, of course, they’re easily the best summits in the desert, not to mention very distinct and picturesque. And there are enough of them to build a road trip—or a lifetime—around. Technical climbing is usually the only way to the top-—quite often, bold technical climbing. So factor in hefty doses of fun and fear to the mix, and you have quite an attraction.

But when Huntley Ingalls discovered Castleton Tower in the Utah desert in 1956, did it strike him that it was a little, you know, wang-like? Of course not. As he told this magazine in 2009, “I was startled that there could be such a thing. And that it was a beautiful tower. I immediately thought of what it would be like to climb it.” And, of course, he easily talked Layton Kor into putting up the first ascent of Castleton, among other towers, with him.

We’ll never know, but I like to think that at one point when they were approaching Standing Rock, one of them had to mention to the other that it looks a hell of a lot like a giant dildo. Hell, the SummitPost page about Standing Rock actually says, “Towers don’t get more phallic than this.”

Utah, as has been pointed out by plenty of people before me, is filled with phallic rocks. Bryce Canyon is essentially a giant amphitheater brimming with glowing orange wieners (without a doubt one of the most awesome views in America). Cedar Wright and Alex Honnold completed an amazing bicycle tour of more than 40 desert towers this past spring. Any spring or fall weekend in Moab, you’d be lucky not to see another party on three of the area’s classic tower climbs: the 5.8 West Crack on Owl Rock, the 5.9 Kor-Ingalls on Castleton Tower, and the 5.10 Stolen Chimney on Ancient Art. Although this last feature is considered a tower, it’s not exactly wang-like. Well, if your wang looks like Ancient Art… Anyway, your wang does not look like Ancient Art. But it may resemble Owl Rock.

Why are we drawn to these places? Is it the immature fascination of finding what looks like a dong rising out of the desert? Or is it the unique sensation of seeing the ground drop away on all sides while you’re thrust above the landscape on a formation that seems to defy all explanation. For me it’s mostly the latter, but there will always be a small part of me that triumphs over ascending the Earth’s erection.

Does anyone have a tick list full of wangs—er, towers—they’re hoping to complete in a whirlwind tour in fall 2014? Would sponsorships await this person? Five Ten? Petzl? Trojan?

Brendan Leonard is a contributing editor for Climbing. His first book, The New American Road Trip Mixtape, is available at