After two decades of tower-bagging, a desert rat faces an existential question on an unclimbed pinnacle: Is it still rock climbing if the stuff you’re climbing can’t be called rock?
"Fetch me a dickfour!" The old form-setter’s joke wasn’t sounding so funny now. Above my head was a tight circle of blue sky, framed by tall, crumbling banks of dirt. The soils engineer had OK’d the whole setup, so here we were, in a deep hole excavated in someone’s front yard, prepping to pour for the foundation of a house addition. Out of sight above, growling through a diesel haze, heavy trucks rumbled. Down at the bottom of our hole, we tied rebar and built forms, stumbling over nail bins, footing stakes, and stacks of oily lumber. Our heads bumped into twoby- four braces that held the walls in place. As I teetered atop a flimsy stepladder, my fingers reached out and touched bulging shale beds, each cantilevered a little farther out from the one below. Fragments fell out at the slightest touch. It was really hard to move around. The trucks got louder. The walls were grinding into me. I pushed back, choking, shoving, collapsing.
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.
Yesterday’s highlights: Chip had been belaying and laughing. “Yeah!” he had yelled, when it appeared we might finish. “Herd those Toucans!” After placing eight of the hook-shaped pitons in a row, I ran out of Toucans and ran into sugar. He wasn’t laughing—and nor was I—when it became obvious that we would not finish.
The day before that, at the hanging belay, I had drilled a belay anchor as the sun set. On the most solid-sounding stone within reach, the drill bit had bored its way three inches into the rock, then fallen into a void.
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.
The lower half was familiar terrain, healthy pink stuff with vertical furrows that probably contained cracks. Entrada shale, fickle, soft—standard desert choss. The upper half? It looked sick, anemic, a bleached joke. Was it even rock? How did it stay in place? It wore a fuzzy coat of dribbled… well, dribbled what?
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.
Most trips across the U.S. are a study in uniform culture for hundreds or even thousands of miles in any direction. But here things were different. Different enough that, as recently as 1949, the National Geographic Society sent an expedition to explore the area. To ensure success, the “Escalante Expedition” hired a couple of local Cannonville residents as guides. Fifteen men gathered in Bryce Canyon and drove southeast, headed by a Pontiac station wagon that carried the flags of the National Geographic Society and the Explorers Club of New York. The explorers, well-armed with color slide film, changed one local place’s name, Thorny Pasture, to Kodachrome Basin. The highlight of their trip was naming a large arch for the then-president of the National Geographic Society, Gilbert Grosvenor. Little had changed in this sleepy, backwater town since their expedition rolled through.
Next morning, Strappo and I got up before dawn and stumbled into the cold. It was still dark when we got to the tower. We saw a black, pyramid-shaped void outlined against the stars, and Strappo fi red up his espresso maker on the truck tailgate. Then, as we sipped our coffee and the sky lightened, the silhouette changed to a dreamy ghost, rising from still-black pastures. As the sun rose, the tricorn hat blazed a fierce tangerine. We wandered around staring, impelled, speechless, repelled. A couple of dark rocks high on the south ridge looked unfamiliar. Then one of them moved. They were a pair of golden eagles. They glided away on velvet wings into the silent January dawn.
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.
Strappo climbed 40 feet to a standstill. I took over, placed four Birdbeaks, hit better cracks, and the following afternoon reached a ledge 180 feet up. My old Bosch drilled the belay bolt holes so fast it made me feel sick. After completing each hole, I let the drill run for a while in midair, just so Strappo would think rock was better than it actually was. Day three and 40 feet higher, on the low-angle arête that had looked so easy from the ground, Strappo came to another standstill, remarking, “It’s death. We can’t go this way.” I had my doubts, but kept them to myself. We rappelled.
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.
By October, I was ready to try again, but Strappo had moved to Connecticut. I asked around Boulder for a new partner. A few people were interested, but once they saw the pictures, they suddenly remembered other commitments. Fretting, I made hints to Fran about driving out alone and ropesoloing. She diplomatically agreed to spend a romantic Thanksgiving in Kodachrome Basin.
We made the 10-hour drive to the tower, camped, got up, and made breakfast in one of the nicest campgrounds I’ve ever seen—with firewood bundles and heated showers! Fran set herself up at the base, with a vast array of climbing gear nearby. She could belay and read while I decided, once and for all, whether I had it in me to climb this tower. The cracks right off the ground, at the third potential starting place, were difficult. Pitons bottomed out, the resulting hole would be flared, and the only thing that seemed to work was a nut pounded precariously into the sandy, shallow scar. At least there was a soft landing in the mud slopes below. Sometimes I stopped, staring at the rock for minutes on end, close to giving up. Fran would say nothing. She was not exactly enthusiastic, but endlessly patient and supportive.
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.
Chip Wilson. He had introduced me to tower climbing 20 years earlier. He had long since retired from desert towers, and now ran a concrete company in Telluride. I tempted him out of retirement with weasel words about fame and babes, and how all he had to do was belay for, ahem, a couple of days. He had just finished building a house in Telluride, and was happy to take some time off to go climbing.
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.
We only had about 60 more feet to the summit; today, we had to finish. I thought back to yesterday’s events. Starting the final pitch I encountered not rock, not even pastry, but sugar. Sugar all the way. It was then, while I was hacking away in frustration, throwing down wheelbarrow-loads of sand and swearing and telling Chip that maybe this was as far as we could go—it was right then that a couple of rangers from nearby Kodachrome Basin State Park stopped by to see what we were up to. We had driven each day through their park in order to reach our tower in Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument. The rangers had never met any rock climbers before, and were intrigued to see what climbers did; we had invited them over for a visit. They watched in silence as I thrashed and whined 300 feet above their heads.
Several kicked steps and two hours later, I reached steeper rock and a milky seam of calcite. Yes! Toucan after Toucan sank into this seam before it petered out. And then came a surprise: a six-inch-thick horizontal band of hard stuff. Perhaps the dinosaurs that had lived here had decided to pour a concrete patio slab. And here it was, exposed to the elements again, the closest thing to rock for miles around. I thanked the old dinosaurs and placed a solid bolt. Then we rappelled for the night.
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.
No, I was not at all psyched. But I didn’t need to be psyched. I knew what had to be done, and it would get done. A groan was all I could manage.
When we arrived at Kodachrome Basin State Park, the same rangers who had watched us the day prior greeted us with polite words and blank eyes full of horror. They had wanted to learn what climbers do. Now they knew—or did they? Chip made some appropriately cheerful comments. I was having trouble speaking, and tried to shrink into the upholstery. We paid our six bucks to drive through their park and drove off fast, before they decided we were utterly mad and came chasing after us.
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.