Kennan: The pitch
It’s ten o’clock on an early September morning and I’m at home in Durango, minding my own business. The phone rings. It’s Noah Bigwood. Noah lives in Moab, Utah, where he operates the guide service Moab Desert Adventures. He is the most proficient desert climber I know (though he studiously avoids offwidth cracks), so this call could mean trouble.
“I have an idea, and I need a partner,” says Noah. “I want to climb ten desert towers in a day.”
I knew it. Trouble. I’m out of shape and he wants to compress a month of weekends into one day.
“Ten towers? I sputter, along with a few expletives. “I would have to run for a year to get in shape for that!”
“Yeah, well, you’re the mountaineer — hills are your thing. Besides, who cares about how fast or how hard? It would just be great to hang out and get you climbing again.”
Noah climbs 5.13 in his approach shoes, and ten towers might make a pleasant day’s work for him, but would be something quite a bit more for me.
“How about the Bridger Jacks?” I venture.
This I can envision. The Bridger Jack Towers form a serrated ridgeline of eight closely spaced summits in the crack-climbing Mecca of Indian Creek. When viewed from below, their profile spans the sky like bear claws on the necklace of some great spirit. I climbed six of them once with my friend Marco Cornacchione before getting rained out, so I know what I’d be getting into linking all eight. Even out of shape, I’m keen.
“Sure,” Noah replies. “That could be a good warm up for ...” I block out the rest of Noah’s plan.
The towers range in height from 200 to 450 feet. Any route provides a great climbing experience, but linking several or all of the towers is a logical way to up the ante. Chris Kalous, who managed the first complete linkup in 1998 with Rob VanAernum, maintains that it is “a reasonable goal for any fit desert climber,” and “an incredible day of tower climbing, a linking of almost all great pitches.” Of the many potential variations, ours would require twenty-four guidebook pitches up to 5.11c, with most pitches favoring thuggery over finesse. I’ll need to begin my training immediately.
In preparation, Noah and I do several warm-up forays, including a linkup of all five formations on Castle Ridge, including Castleton Tower. My climbing rhythm quickly returns. After a couple rest days we drive down to Indian Creek. I rise in the warm, predawn darkness, and as I walk across the desert floor, I notice I’m treading along the shadows of the Bridger Jack summits, cast by the setting full moon. If only it were so easy! Climbers have named each spire, after rock songs and Native America themes, but surely to the Anasazi the rocks must have represented some great council in the sky.
I arrive at the truck as Noah begins great council with his coffee pot. We check our essentials — five liters of water each, extra rope, tape, double set of cams. We’ve waited a month for cool temps, but daily highs are still pushing over eighty degrees, and in the sun we’ll be hotter than the kettle now singing on the stove. Our route order revolves around maximizing shade.
, a gaping, overhanging, due-south-facing offwidth, comes first.
Editor’s note: The photographs in this story were all shot during a continuous one-day link of the towers, using point-and-shoot cameras, plus one assistant, Cheryl Albrecht, on the ground (or the last tower’s rappel line) with a good SLR camera.
Noah: Waking up
Sometimes the approach hikes in Indian Creek feel like real work, but today we flew up the hill with lungs that were glad to be gulping in the morning air. Standing beneath the hulking form of the aptly named King of Pain spire, I enjoy a moment watching the sunlight creep onto the summit. As the intimidating south face lights up, we tie in, check our gear, and start up our first tower of the day.
Desert towers require a unique climbing style. Some call it choss-wrangling, but I prefer to think of it as choss-ballet. The first pitch of
does not lack good holds, nor is it too steep or balancy; it is hard because you must delicately climb around TV- and refrigerator-sized boulders loosely perched like toy blocks left behind by a disinterested toddler. Protection must be carefully deliberated, since a cam could lever a ton of rock off the wall in the event of a fall. Our first pitch ends with a daring mantle onto the huge, flat notch between King of Pain and Hummingbird Spire.
“Good morning to you, Mr. Harvey!” I say as Kennan reaches up, grabs the lip of my belay perch, and swings his heel up to mantel.
“Yes indeed!” he grins. As he stands up, his eyes take in the face above. The grin turns to a grimace.
“That’s a fat crack up there,” I say. I’m hoping Kennan will school me in some technique that will save me from the bloody knees and ankles I sustain every time I climb offwidths.
“Is it possible to do them without a skin donation?” I ask.
Kennan mounts the crack and stuffs in his leg up to the thigh. “Hook your foot around the outside of the crack ... like this,” he says. “Look, no hands.”
“How come you’re breathing like a hurricane?” I ask as he wriggles up.
A bit later, Kennan stems past an enormous loose block, yelling, “Whoa! Heads up down there!” Quickly finishing the final twenty airy feet of sideways offwidth, he clips the belay and hollers, “I’m off!”
The techniques work beautifully, and for the first time ever I actually “enjoy” a difficult offwidth. I move up, playing with hand stacks, butterfly jams, and different knee tricks. The early morning warmth enlivens me — yet promises a hot day to come.
“Here, you’ll want this,” says Kennan, handing me a #3 Big Bro as I stare up the next pitch, a long, overhanging slot.
“Oh boy! 5.9+ chimney, eh?” I have always interpreted the “plus” on a chimney rating to mean, ‘This is really much harder, but your body is good protection!’
I find a blue TCU placement after ten feet, and look up. The chimney flares like a drainage ditch, and the inside is too tight for my hips. Placing the Big Bro tightly above me, I hope I won’t have to test its mechanical-advantage action.
“Have I mentioned lately I am not having much fun?” Several tense moments later I squeeze one hip deep into the chimney and begin to inch more comfortably for the summit.
The sense of completion that comes from standing on a tower is unique. There is nowhere else to go. All my thoughts, including those of descent and the towers still to climb, are pushed aside by a sense of well-being.
Kennan: A sketchy rappel
We rap back to the notch between Hummingbird Spire and
and are astonished by the fifteen feet of overhang. No wonder my biceps were twitching!
Next up is
on Hummingbird, which faces Sacred Space across the notch. Marco calls
, “a three-star pitch on a one-star route,” due to the scary, blocky, 5.9 first pitch it shares with
. Starting from the notch, we get to do just the three-star part.
Noah floats through the overhanging hands pitch, placing only three pieces. We balance atop the highest point of the delicate pinnacle for a moment, then descend to the ground in one sixty-five-meter rap.
I take over on Sunflower Tower and the sweat is soon running in my ears and — for the first time I can remember — even between my “no chalk in the desert” fingers. Thankfully, Sunflower will be our hottest route of the day. The East Face has short, technical, 5.10 cruxes and a super-soft summit block. Noah notices how we could analyze the tower’s ascent record by counting the length, depth, and frequency of the rope grooves cut into the soft sandstone, like ring-dating an old tree.
“Can you find your rope groove from the last time?”
“No, but we might cut the tower in half pulling this rap.”
Noah: Zen moment
We take advantage of our brief stop in the horizontal world by guzzling some water before trotting off to
on Bridger Jack Butte, the castle-like endpoint of the fin that forms the spires. Rounding the north end of the mesa, we step into the shade and breathe a sigh of relief. The heat will now be bearable.
begins with a clean, two-inch, splitter crack. Making short work of the tight hands and wandering slabs of the first pitch, we are soon standing on a huge belay ledge, looking up at an unusual feature. A perfect hand crack splits the back of a four-foot-wide stem box, Devils Tower-like, but made of varnished, undulating sandstone. I can’t resist the urge to goof around, switching from comfortable hand jams to chimneying, to stems with a foot on either wall. On the last pitch I swim past another tight-hands section through a roof. Sand cascades from around my feet and onto Kennan until I pull up into better rock, slam home a cam, and wander up a beautiful, steep corner to the summit.
Tower summits, though unique as fingerprints, all feel like sculptures: hard, beautiful, proud. Mesas are different. They’re more like Japanese gardens, with hearty shrubs standing like bonsai trees and oddly balanced rocks forming natural pathways across their otherworldly surfaces. We take a moment to admire this little Zen retreat in silence, and then begin the rappels to the ground.
“I’ve got that half-time feeling,” I say as we dive into a mess of turkey, avocado, and cheese sandwiches waiting in our packs.
A few minutes later, Kennan begins a seventy-meter linkup of the first two pitches of the classic
, on King of Pain North. When I first climbed this route in ’89 there was a little glass jar summit register on top, containing a note that the route should be re-named
. Kennan’s lead was smooth and casual, belying the sustained difficulty of the thin finger laybacks and knee-scraping wide sections. Only a trickle of dirt and a few pebbles descended on me as I steadily threw rope from my
Linking the final two pitches, I follow awkward offwidths and chimneys until I find myself stemming between the north and south towers with 300 feet of air between my legs. Kennan soon joins me, and as we walk the narrow summit towards the rap anchors I notice shards of broken glass from that first delicate summit register. I wonder if it had been dropped by an irate “dirt-fest” survivor or blown from its perch in a storm.
“What would you write if the register were still here?” Kennan asks me.
Without hesitation, I reply, “‘Thanks to all those struggling bodies who have helped clean up this route!’”
Kennan: Storm clouds lurk
Easter Island is the easiest tower in the Bridgers — a short bit of 5.9 crack, some easy scrambling, and bolted face climbing to a great gendarme summit. It was the tower I had been rained off of with Marco that ended my first linkup bid. Since then a huge, piano-like block that had been wedged into the narrow notch had fallen off — fortunately not while someone was standing on it.
With only three towers left, we’re feeling pretty good as I scramble to the notch and yell for Noah to begin simul-climbing. Then I notice an increasing westerly breeze and thick frontal clouds approaching. I might get skunked again by weather! We pick up the pace.
On top I belay Noah, who is now climbing in his approach shoes at a near run. To the east I notice the weekend traffic filling up the campsites along the Bridger Jack road.
“Hey Noah, there must be 100 cars out there!”
I remember our huge Halloween parties at the Super Bowl Camp in ’96 and ’97, where cars gathered like tumbleweeds and Lorne Glick and Kent McClannen stole the show by dancing around the bonfire in Bali hunter costumes complete with penis gourds.
“Not long ago I used to camp below Battle of the Bulge,” Noah recalls.
“A busy weekend back then was two cars, and if you got to watch someone else do
you were psyched for the Beta.”
“What do you think will happen?” I ask, thinking of the new BLM management plan, as we thread ropes for the descent.
“Only thirty climbers expressed an opinion during the public-comment period,” Noah shouts down the rope with surprising vehemence in his voice. “Climbers are the primary reason for the management plan, but if we don’t add our voices, the BLM is going to think that we are a bunch of apathetic self-centered adrenaline junkies!”
Noah: Waxing Philosophical
I land below Easter Island, pull the twisted rope ends through the searing-hot belay device, and pick up where I had left off when Kennan descended out of earshot.
“We climbers love to praise ourselves for being low-impact compared to cows and jeeps, but we can’t possibly deny that we
having an impact here and that as a group, we
in control of that impact,” I say, giving the rope a final tug and ducking as the frenzied ends whip to the ground.
“Yes, but do we really trust the BLM — a government bureaucracy — to manage our impact for us?” Kennan protests.
“No of course we don’t! But who can we trust? Most of our fellow climbers don’t really give a damn, or are just trying to recapture lost solitude or bohemian freedoms. I’ve heard complaints that the few good trails we have around here are making matters worse because easy access increases visitation. It’s logic like that which makes it hard to trust our own peers.”
“Climbers are industrial environmentalists,” Kennan calls up as I begin ascending the jagged fist cracks of
, our next-to-last tower. “Dissent and diversity are just part of our tradition. Faced with regulations, we dilute and disperse.”
As I climb past the second belay anchor and step sideways onto the delicate face-climbing crux, I wonder what could be done to balance the needs of climbers, BLM, ranchers, and most of all, to protect this incredible basin from being loved too much.
The wind whips across the summit, and sand stings my cheeks as Kennan steps up and examines the anchor, a series of potholes threaded like a bizarre Chinese puzzle. A storm is wracking the cliffs of Lockhart Basin to the north, and we can see lightning flashes in the dark, gunmetal sky a few miles off. Thoughts of politics are vanquished as a stray beam of sunlight peeks through the clouds and lights up the whole array of towers to our north with eerily perfect accuracy.
“I think we’re going to make it,” I say.
Our final route is
Learning to Crawl
on Thumbelina tower, an .11c testpiece of face and arête climbing.
A few stray raindrops pelt down from the sky as I contemplate the blunt crux arête, finally discovering the summit key with a crucial left-foot smear.
The storm passes scarcely a mile to our north and we’re standing together on top of Thumbelina, blessed by nature’s random gift of diversion. The desert spreads out around us in shadowy evening light. Yellow cottonwoods, rich red cliffs, towers and valleys — we absorb it all in silence.
Eight summits, countless cruxes, loose rocks, cracks galore, and precarious moments have made up our day. Now, as we stand atop the final tower, you’d think there would be some monumental cathartic experience to sum it all up and make us one with the universe — but, of course, that’s just not how it works. Or does it? The clouds part for several seconds and a rainbow materializes, beckoning us to the “pot of gold beers” waiting in the truck.
Kennan Harvey, a longtime Climbing contributor and globetrotting adventure climber, lives off the grid (with supporting photographer Cheryl Albrecht) in Durango, Colorado. Noah Bigwood owns and operates Moab Desert Adventures and usually manages to avoid the spotlight, despite being one of the best all-around rock climbers in the country. This is his first feature for Climbing.