60 Years of Weird, Wild Climbing History on Castleton Tower
The first ascent of Castleton Tower, the world's most iconic desert spire, went down 60 years ago. So what has changed—and what hasn't—since?
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
A kangaroo rat zips past in the half darkness as I re-latch the summit-register ammo can and we—my partner, Sheamus, and I—gather our ropes. We laugh about our lazy late-afternoon hike to the route, our lengthy delay freeing a stuck rope on our ascent of Kor-Ingalls, and our luck that at least one of us remembered to bring a headlamp. An alpine finish, we joke: A few rappels in the dark are worth a summit sunset that blows the doors off.
It’s May 2021, nearly 60 years since Castleton’s Tower’s first ascensionsists, Layton Kor and Huntley Ingalls, climbed the 400-foot formation via a series of chimneys and wide cracks on the south face. In the ensuing decades, the route that bears their name found its way into Allen Steck and Steve Roper’s Fifty Classic Climbs of North America, and from there onto the tick lists of climbers from around the world who travel to Castle Valley, Utah, to sample it, plus the handful of other classics that line every facet of the calcite-covered obelisk. Our climb of Kor-Ingalls is one of the hundreds of ascents Castleton sees each year; if you were to compile all the entries in the summit register—which has been filled and replaced many times over—you’d see that thousands upon thousands of climbers have stood atop the tower. And although we now stand alone on the summit, the red desert spread out beneath our feet, there’s a sensation of timelessness and connectivity—the decades dissolved by the aggregate experiences of so many fellow-climbers.
We take one last visual stroll through the panorama before we rig the first rappel. To the east, the snowy La Sals ring the head of the valley. The sun pokes through a low cloud and Castleton’s shadow suddenly appears—and then it’s gone. Turning south and then west, we admire the rich greens of the fields beneath the Porcupine Rim; toward the north, past Parriott Mesa, the Colorado River snakes beneath a backlit wall of sandstone. Close at hand, we pause on the glowing orange wall of the Rectory, separated from us by several hundred yards of empty space.
It’s the same view that Kor and Ingalls observed 60 years earlier, in September 1961—only instead of gorgeous sunset colors, they were greeted at the summit by rapidly approaching storm clouds and lightning bolts that nipped at nearby buttes. They descended quickly to beat the impending tumult, although Ingalls was electrocuted by a ground current that traveled through the rope on the final rappel. Remarkably he was unharmed. He and Kor crammed under an overhang at the base of the tower to wait out the storm before picking their way down the talus. “I was wet and cold, but far from discontent,” Ingalls later wrote in an account printed in SuperTopo’s Desert Towers Select guidebook. “We knew we had played a part in the Golden Age of climbing in North America.”
He was right: Castleton quickly became synonymous with desert tower climbing. And six decades after Kor and Ingalls madly tried to outrun a desert tempest, stories from one of the world’s most iconic towers—epics, beatdowns, desert transcendence, and everything in between—are still in fashion. Seems like everyone’s got one. My own Castleton story began when I first saw the spire on the way home from a trip to Indian Creek; I was immediately captivated. I drifted in and out of the tower’s orbit many times in the ensuing years, sometimes climbing it, sometimes just passing through, but the jolt of fascination (of veneration?) when the tower suddenly appeared on the skyline, solitary and commanding, struck me every time—it still does.
We toss our ropes over the edge, bid a silent farewell to the unseen rat—perhaps Castleton Tower’s only full-time resident—and drift down the flank of the monolith in darkness.
The First Ascent
Daybreak, Castleton Climbers Campground: The cloudless sky transitions from steely gray to pale morning blue. There’s the perfume of cliffrose on the air—the smell of desert springtime. It’s quiet but for the occasional car door clunking shut as a few drowsy climbers emerge from their truck beds and van cocoons. Next to my truck, two young climbers talk in low murmurs about their plan for the day. They’re brewing coffee on the trunk of a sedan with Ohio plates; the car overflows with camping gear. They steal nervous glances at the sandstone giant, poised high on its talus cone above camp.
The first rays of sunlight brighten the south face of the tower. Little by little, groups of twos and threes trickle out of camp, where some 20 climbers are gathered, and begin the approach.
The duo headed west in September 1961, towards the small uranium mining town of Moab. Castle Valley—first inhabited by the Fremont people, then the Utes, and later the residents of a few small boom-and-bust mining settlements—was then a quiet spot with just a couple of ranches.
Huntley Ingalls, who may well have been the first climber beguiled by Castleton, called the tower “forbidding but inviting” when he first saw it in 1956 while working as a field assistant for the U.S. Geological Survey. Ingalls moved to Boulder, Colorado, in 1959, where he set about convincing climbers—Layton Kor among them—that the towers in the desert were worthy climbing objectives. But desert climbing at that time was, to use Ingalls’ words, “an esoteric game,” and soft desert sandstone was a tough sell. Still, Ingalls persisted. And one day, as he later wrote in a letter to guidebook author Eric Bjørnstad, “Layton simply said, ‘Let’s go look at that tower you keep talking about.’”The grandiosity of Castleton Tower is difficult to overstate: A prismatic acropolis of red Wingate, the tower’s four walls heave 40 stories from its base atop a hill of talus into the cerulean desert sky. It is the archetypal pinnacle of rock glimpsed off in the distance in an old Western. Look closely, and you’ll see streaks of calcite, the hardened white mineral dripping down the walls. The talus pile supporting the tower, a jumbled graveyard of boulders stripped from the ridge of stone above, sits 1,000 feet above the floor of Castle Valley. North down the ridge from Castleton, the broad cliffline of the Rectory rises; the space between accentuates Castleton’s prominence.
On September 14, they scouted the South Face and, pleasantly surprised by the solid stone, fixed lines 200 feet up the lower cracks. But with ominous afternoon weather looming, they retreated. The next day, they tackled the steep, wide cracks on the upper face, drilling a few bolts for aid and belays. An efficient team, Kor and Ingalls squirmed up the slippery, calcite-covered chimneys and offwidths, topping out just as the storm began to move in, having climbed the route at a grade of III 5.9, with one point of aid.
Today, the first ascent of Castleton is the stuff of desert climbing lore, but it’s also only a starting point for an often-bizarre history befitting this iconic formation. Take, for example, the second ascent of Kor-Ingalls: Harvey Carter, another Colorado climber and serial first ascensionist, was originally supposed to join Kor and Ingalls for the first ascent—but he showed up two days late and missed the party. (He did, however, find some redemption the very next day, when he, along with his recently wedded wife, Annie—plus Fred Beckey and Kor—made the first ascent of the Honeymoon Chimney on the nearby Priest.) Determined to one-up Kor, Carter returned to Castle Valley in 1962 with Cleve McCarthy, making the first free ascent of Kor-Ingalls, and the second overall ascent. But there was no pencil in the summit register—Kor and Ingalls, in their hurry to get off the summit before the storm hit, had forgotten to leave one behind. This confusion led the third-ascent party, Steve Roper and Chuck Pratt, to mistakenly claim the second ascent—and the first free ascent—in 1963.
Another early summit party found a much quicker route to the summit: A 1964 television ad featured a Chevy Impala convertible perched atop Castleton, complete with a blonde model in the driver’s seat, her hair blowing in the desert wind. A helicopter had lifted the car, the model, and a production assistant to the top of the tower. After shooting was complete, strong winds forced the model and assistant to wait several extra hours before they could be safely helicoptered off again. The car was not immediately removed, and some climbers, including Ingalls, threatened to trundle the vehicle. Alas, it was removed before the disgusted climbers could take matters into their own hands.
In the years since, Castleton has been the site of numerous spectacles and stunts: It has been featured as a backdrop for TV shows and movies spanning the range from Hollywood flops like Slaughter of the Innocents (1993) to HBO’s recent Westworld series. It has hosted summit barbecues, in which climbers have hauled up full-size grills and enough burgers, dogs, and beer to satiate scores of unsuspecting summiteers. Perhaps most impressive, a group of slackliners strung up a highline between Castleton and the Rectory in 2015, and the Frenchman Théo Sanson walked nearly 500 meters across the gap.
But there’s another kind of drama that plays out much more frequently, one that draws a line directly from the tower’s everyday climbers back to its hardman pioneers. Kor-Ingalls retains a stout reputation, and for every climber who has scoffed at its 5.9+ rating—how hard could it be?—there are a few more who have learned the hard way that old-school, calcite-covered chimney and offwidth climbing is, well, kind of hard—maybe even really hard. A comment written in the campground visitor’s log sums it up best: “Kor-Ingalls yesterday blew my fragile mind!”
The Second Wave
The North Face of Castleton, April 2021: I heave myself through the awkward final moves of the first pitch and beached-whale onto the belay ledge to join my partner, Matt. My toes are wooden nubs inside my climbing shoes, and my fingers had already numbed out in the first 20 feet of jamming. Now they are rapidly, painfully rewarming. The screaming-barfie sensation is intense; waves of nausea accompany a growing lightheadedness. Nice way to start the day.
“Think I need to sit down for a second,” I mumble to Matt. I extend my clove, sit on the narrow ledge, and shut my eyes against the dizzying, 140-foot drop to the talus.
Our dreams of a big tower link-up of Castleton and the four other formations sharing the ridgeline recede faster than we can climb after them as we move sluggishly up the North Face. Overeager, we had left camp at first light, screamed up the talus, and began climbing. But the relentless, bitter wind chilled the sweat on our backs and turned us both into shivering messes barely capable of climbing, let alone climbing quickly.
After Kor and Ingalls opened the gates in 1961, the years that followed saw a plethora of development on the tower. In 1970, Daniel Burgette and Allen Erickson, two Purdue University students on spring break, established the North Chimney (originally rated 5.8, and a bit of a misnomer, since it’s more on the tower’s east face), which today rivals Kor-Ingalls in popularity. The West Face, regarded as one of the most difficult desert rock climbs of the day, was first climbed in 1971 by Jimmie Dunn, Stewart Green, and Bill Westbay, and clocked in at III 5.10+ A3. Five years later and 40 miles to the southwest, a group of climbers, Dunn among them, made the first ascent of Supercrack, redefining what was possible in desert free climbing. Another of those climbers, Ed Webster, brought his steep-crack skills to the North Face of Castleton, climbing it free with partner Buck Norden in April 1979, at 5.11-. (The line was first climbed with some aid in 1972 by Dunn and Doug Snively; the first free ascent climbed an alternate first pitch that is the standard today.)
Even through my film of cold misery on the North Face, the beauty of the route is stupendous—particularly the narrow dihedral of the first pitch, which will eat all the No. 3s you care to carry. Webster, when he freed the pitch , carried none: Ray Jardine’s newly invented camming devices—Friends—would not be widely distributed in North America until later that same year. In an unpublished account of the ascent, Webster describes his heavy, cumbersome rack, which bulged with large Hexes, as well as his “secret weapons”: two large bongs and piton hammer—“Just in case things got too hairy and the crack became too parallel-sided to slot a Hex into,” he writes.
Feeling grateful for our rack full of cams (perhaps Webster, too, was grateful to have his Hexes, rather than the wooden blocks slung with rope that Kor and Ingalls used on their ascent, 18 years earlier), Matt and I continue shivering up the calcite face holds and wider cracks of the route’s second pitch, and then through a final squeeze below the summit.
Webster, a fixture of Castleton climbing with the first free ascents of Black Sun (5.10), The Arrowhead (5.10), Stardust Cowboy (5.11 A1), and the West Face (5.11-), shared with me a photo he snapped of Norden on the summit after their North Face free ascent. Norden’s arms are outstretched, saluting the sun; his expression is one of exaltation, gratitude, and happiness. Looking at that photo, 40-odd years melted away: It is nearly the same pose Matt and I adopt when we finally crawl off the shady face and onto the sunbathed summit. The morning hardly went according to plan, but at least now we can bask in the sun, like so many climbers have before us.
Later, I’ll ask around for people’s Castleton stories, and feel dizzied by the collective human experience in this most unlikely place. There are stories of climbing Kor-Ingalls in whiteout fog; tales of heat stroke and of frigid blue fingers and toes; birthday rappels in the dark; dropped ATCs; a dropped rope and subsequent heli rescue from the summit; perfect, splitter days and horrendous thunderstorms; summit marriage proposals; a toy llama excavated from deep inside a chimney; traffic jams on rappels and unexpected solitude; untold summit snacks and slews of summit beers; and innumerable summit embraces, kisses, smiles, and laughs.
Rewarmed and recharged, Matt and I descend. We find that we’ve got energy for a few more towers after all. We get perfect views of Castleton’s dripping-calcite North Face from belays on the Rectory, and later, atop the Priest—and already it’s easy to laugh about our clumsy, cold climb earlier in the day.
Faces and Arêtes
Winter 2011-2012, Castle Valley: The desert’s red is cloaked in a blanket of white. Parriott Mesa pokes through the snow like an orange submarine surfacing from the depths of the ocean. The valley is silent. Below Castleton, the parking area is empty, yet there’s a single set of footprints in the snow leading up the wash toward the tower. The tracks seem to hesitate briefly at the base of the talus and then charge uphill through the snow-covered maze of boulders to the tower.
Chunks of ice suddenly spill down the southeast face, thudding into the rocks at the base and shattering the quiet. High above, a lone figure hanging from a rope dislodges more ice—rime plastered onto the wall during the previous night’s storm. The striking dissonance of the scene—Patagonian conditions in the red-rock heart of Southern Utah—is the reward for those willing to stick around after the cottonwoods have shed their last leaves and the cold nights begin to stretch on interminably.
The figure on the line, Sam Lightner, Jr., now jokes that his 2011–2012 winter spent equipping The Ivory Tower (III 5.13b) actually was the perfect training for a trip to Patagonia later that season. He often made the commute up to the tower in plastic boots through several feet of snow, clearing ice off the bouldery step that guards the route.
Lightner, then a Moab local, had noticed a potential line that danced between arêtes on a spine of rock between Kor-Ingalls and the North Chimney, but the nature of the calcite made it difficult to tell if the moves would be 5.10 or 5.14—or even possible at all. When he and Chris Kalous freed the new line in October 2012, they called it 5.13b, upping the standard of difficulty on Castleton for the first time since the legendary Jay Smith’s Sacred Ground (5.12) on the north face.
The Ivory Tower brings Castleton climbing into modernity. Lightner views the tower’s climbing history as a microcosm of the progression of climbing: There’s the first ascent by aid, the subsequent free ascents that increase incrementally in difficulty, and finally the transition away from cracks and onto faces and arêtes where the moves are harder still.
Perhaps it’s fitting, if Castleton is indeed a microcosm of climbing history, that The Ivory Tower received its fair share of controversy in the wake of Lightner’s and Kalous’s ascent. Online forums exploded with angry voices decrying Lightner’s rap-bolting the route, as well as the sheer number of bolts placed—the crux pitch, which climbs calcite edges with no natural protection anywhere in sight, contains 16 bolts over 32 meters. A “sport climb,” as some said, did not belong on Castleton Tower. Others defended Lightner, citing the outstanding quality of the line, the nature of the bolting (far from excessive), and, of course, the forward-moving arrow of progress. (Lightner, for his part, would prefer to let the line speak for itself: “Anyone who says there’s too many bolts on it,” he said, “Should go up and skip some bolts.”)
The controversy underscores an obvious truth: The experience of climbing Castleton today is not the same as it was in 1961. Crowds are increasing. It can be difficult or impossible to squeeze into the campground on a busy weekend. Lines form on the classics, and solitude may be hard to come by. Adventurousness and an attitude of self-reliance are curbed by reliable cell service on the tower and good odds of a successful rescue should an accident happen.
As in the rest of the climbing world, the question of whether these things are good or bad has less relevance than the question of how best to deal with their inevitability, preserve access, and maintain stewardship of the land. And in this department, Castleton climbers have taken some important strides: When land near the tower was threatened by a housing development in 1999, climbers, Castle Valley residents, and outdoor-industry companies collaborated with the land trust Utah Open Lands to purchase the land and protect it in perpetuity. Camping at the Castleton Tower Preserve, as it’s called, remains free, and climbers benefit from an onsite outhouse—now more important than ever as visitation numbers increase. In addition, climbers like Lightner have taken great pains to replace old, shoddy hardware and webbing on Castleton and nearby formations with durable stainless-steel bolts and anchors.
In 2018, climbers hauled a seismometer to the top of Castleton, part of an effort by scientists to understand the resonance of geological features in response to vibrations deep within the earth. They found that Castleton vibrates at a frequency similar to a human heartbeat.
A tower of stone does not live and breathe in a traditional sense, of course, but anyone who has spent time in the desert knows that the land has something of a pulse: The breeze at dawn and dusk whispers through shrubs; lines of sun float across slickrock; sand moves on the wind from one place to another and back again. Exposed ancientness is the desert’s backbone, and the backbone has a rhythm. Things feel old here. The timeworn, eroded past steeps into the present.
A human lifespan is a mere blip on the timeline compared to Castleton, whose stone dates back approximately 200 million years—an age impossible for us to fully understand. But I think, maybe, this is part of the allure of climbing such a tower: For a brief moment, two timescales that have seemingly nothing to do with each other intersect. And in that intersection, we get a little closer to comprehending something that is incomprehensibly old—and 60 years of time feels fleeting.
One climber I exchanged messages with during my research said that she had never felt as connected to the pioneers of climbing than when she climbed Castleton. And it makes perfect sense, really: In the geologic eyes of the tower, Kor and Ingalls are still hastily descending, trying to outrun the storm, even as generations of climbers queue up for a chance to climb the classic they left behind.
Max Owens is a climber and writer currently living in Lander, Wyoming. He dreams of stumbling upon a full-on summit barbecue the next time he climbs Castleton.