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Climbing the Mystery Towers of Labyrinth Canyon
WHEN THE MUSHROOM CLOUD dissipated over Japan that fateful day in 1945, Moab was still a sleepy cattle town, doing a small side business in uranium. Soon, however, the fallout from the atomic bomb would forever change the desert canyons in the town’s backyard.
A post-war arms race broke out between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, sped along by a new government agency called the Atomic Energy Commission. The uranium boom was on. Moab’s population swelled to 4,600.
The AEC paid out some $25 million from the late 1950s to the early 1960s. Instead of awarding the job to a single big contractor, the commission encouraged prospectors of all skill levels to get a piece of the pie, handing out guidebooks, Geiger counters, road-building supplies, and a $10,000 bonus for new lodes of high-grade ore. Everyone and his brother were running all over the desert backcountry, plowing, blasting, and carving roads. Over 300,000 claims were filed, and a cobweb of primitive roads expanded over mesas and down every wash. It was a frenzy in the name of mass destruction, and within 12 years the AEC stockpiled enough uranium to arm 40,000 nuclear warheads.
By 1964, the boom was over, but the countless Jeep trails that had been established, traversing dizzying heights and descending terrifying grades, would greatly simplify the lives of future climbers. The Morrison, Chinle, and Moenkopi formations explored by all those prospectors happened to sandwich the Wingate sandstone that defines Canyonlands climbing. This ribbon of hardened vertical stone winds its way for a thousand miles throughout the generally crumbling strata of southeastern Utah, providing the theater for countless desert climbing epics.
WE HAD A DESERT TRIP in mind with plenty of epic potential—and our plan depended on those Cold War–era Jeep tracks. Captivated by a half-page photo and scant description in Eric Bjornstad’s Desert Rock series, we’d located an old mining road that led deep into the canyons of the Green River, north of Canyonlands’ famous White Rim Trail. This section of the Green is aptly known as Labyrinth Canyon, named and explored during John Wesley Powell’s famous 1869 river expedition, and here lay a mysterious cluster of Wingate towers. Although Powell and party named countless canyons and buttes in the area, including Buttes of the Cross and Turks Head, they apparently found our towers too insignificant to christen. By default, they have become known as the Green River Towers.
Armed with a single photo and no guidebook or other descriptions, our party of four set out to see what we’d find. There were no recorded ascents of the Green River Towers, but we figured that since Bjornstad’s book came out in 2003, other tower baggers surely had seen the photo and tagged a few of these summits. We agreed to climb as many towers as we could, and if no existing routes were found, we’d blaze our own path, whether by crack or bolted face.
THE “WE” INCLUDED Pete Vintoniv from SLC, my right-hand man for adventure-neering, who lives by a simple equation: the crazier, the better; Rob Pizem from Denver, a superpsyched climber who is always game for new development and not afraid to go all-out, all day, every day; and Orin Salah, an electrician who would depart for work in the Middle East and had decided to spend his last week stateside on our quest.
Heavily laden with food, boats, water, gear, and more gear, we picked our way down an old prospecting road that led from Island in the Sky to the bottom of Spring Canyon and Green River. When we launched our canoes, they rode so low that we were thankful there was nothing but three miles of flat water between us and our objective. We were still dry as we rounded the final corner of Bowknot Bend and the beautifully scrappy towers came into view. They had a Dr. Seuss-like appearance, some standing erect while others leaned beyond comprehension.
Tamarisk thicket choked most of the river’s banks, and we worried about finding an adequate basecamp. Much to our satisfaction, a parking-lot-sized sandbar appeared adjacent to the towers. Only a simple canoe ferry across the swift current, a short but heinous tamarisk bushwhack, and a talus scramble up the hill separated us from tying in.
After three days of bruised hands, bloodied ankles, and dump trucks of sand covering everything and everyone, we were worked, even without doing any of the hard labor of new routing. As we drifted down the Green toward the Mineral Bottom take-out, I thought back to Powell’s historic journey and wondered what other towers we might find if we just kept floating.
As Climbing’s Senior Contributing Photographer, Andrew Burr is a husband, father, and wildman based in Salt Lake City.
The Green River Towers stand on the southwest corner of Bowknot Bend, river-right, just before Oak Bottom. You will need a boat to reach them. Belknap’s Waterproof Canyonlands River Guide is the best map. No guidebook info exists for the towers; Bjornstad’s Desert Rock IV: The Colorado Plateau Backcountry shows one photo.
Choose your put-in point according to how much paddling you’d like to do. To run the entire length of the canyon, put in at Ruby Ranch, a few miles south of the town of Green River and I-70, and fl oat 32 miles of flat water to the towers—a trip well worth the effort for its scenic beauty.
For a more focused climbing trip (and a much shorter car shuttle), you can drive to the bottom of Spring Canyon. From U.S. 191 about seven miles north of Moab, take the Island in the Sky road (Highway 313) that leads toward Canyonlands National Park. Go 8.2 miles and find a dirt road on the right. The turn is a few miles before the popular Horsethief Trail, which leads down to Mineral Bottom and the western side of the White Rim Trail. Drive about 10 miles to the rim; 4WD is not required, but a high-clearance vehicle is advisable for the steep descent into Spring Canyon. From the river, it is a three-mile float to the towers.
Both options require a car shuttle to Mineral Bottom, the take-out point 12 miles beyond the towers. A free permit is required to run any stretch of Labyrinth, and may be obtained through the BLM: www.blm.gov/ut/st/en/fo/price/recreation/labyrinth.html.
Bring dry bags, coolers, beer, and gallons of fresh water or a filter and five-gallon buckets for settling the silty river water. Live the river-rat lifestyle!
Two 60-meter ropes and a triple set of cams up to six inches allow adequate protection for most pitches, but I wouldn’t make fun of you if you brought more. All towers but the farthest from the river have routes and go free, so bring your rope gun for climbing up to 5.12, or simply step in your aiders; be ready for plenty of wide 5.10. Don’t forget new webbing for those crusty and faded rappel anchors.