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Most of the famous sandstone towers of the Colorado Plateau are in Utah, and most of them are 5.10 or harder. But deep in Big Gypsum Valley, in southwestern Colorado, there’s a seldom-climbed tower that goes at a modest 5.9+, yet holds one of the most exciting pitches in the desert. From some angles, Psycho Tower looks a bit like the Geico gecko standing up on its hind legs; the lizard’s enormous jaw projects into space and provides the route’s thrilling crescendo.
The late Charlie Fowler, who pioneered hundreds of desert climbs, did the first ascent of Psycho Tower with Telluride attorney Steve Johnson in 1996. The normal route (Psycho-Path, 5.9+) spirals around the tower in three short pitches. (You can add a slightly sporty, bolted 5.11 pitch at the bottom, but this is easily avoided.) After a fun start with a couple of bolts and easy crack and flake climbing, you arrive at the business: a heartstopping traverse over a huge roof. This lead is well protected, with closely spaced bolts, but your feet are on small holds just inches above the lip, with a drop of several hundred feet below. A final bolt-protected pitch, with the route’s crux moves, gains the summit, high above the winding Dolores River.
PITCH 1 (5.8+, 75 feet) Scramble up to a big ledge on the northwest side of the tower and find a bolted anchor at the start of the climb. Face climb past two bolts and continue up a corner and flake system, then trend up and right over ledges to a bolted belay.
VARIATION, PITCH 1 (5.11a, 70 feet) Ascend the southwest face directly to reach the shoulder on the north side. Climb a thin face past five or six bolts.
PITCH 2 (5.9, 50 feet) Step up and right, around a corner, then edge along the lip past several bolts. Crank up to a spacious belay ledge, and walk north about 20 feet to an anchor below the bolts of the final pitch.
PITCH 3 (5.9+, 50 feet) Face climb past several bolts, with a bulge crux that’s likely 5.10 if you’re shorter than 5’10”. Above the last bolt, easier climbing protected by a few mid-sized cams gains the top.
DESCENT: Rappel to the northwest. Two raps with a single rope. About 15 more climbs can be found on the sandstone walls several hundred yards east of Psycho Tower. The obvious bolted arête of Sizzlin Summer Solstice (5.10) is particularly good.
Guidebook: Charlie Fowler posted information about the climb at his website, which, at press date, was archived here.
Equipment: Single 60-meter rope and a single set of wires and cams, with extra slings to prevent rope drag.
Season: Spring or fall are best; sunny days in winter can be fine.
Driving Directions: The isolated Big Gypsum Valley is northwest of Highway 141, about halfway between Naturita and Dove Creek, Colorado. Allow nearly two hours from the Telluride area or 2.5 hours from Moab, Utah. From Highway 145, just east of Naturita, follow Highway 141 south for about 22 miles. Turn right (northwest) on Road 20 R and follow the gravel road about 12 miles (passenger cars should be fine; watch out for speeding mining trucks). The tower is high on the right when you reach the Dolores River. Continue about a half-mile to a BLM parking area, and walk back along the road until you are directly below the tower; follow a faint path past a prominent boulder and up the hill for about 20 minutes. This approach crosses private land, so please park at the BLM lot to keep a low profile.