November, 03


New Routes and Old Friends in Castle Valley

Written by my friend and partner

Lisa Foster



    On a chilly Friday afternoon in November, Brad and I met at the Big Bend boulders on Utah 128 near Moab.  Guillaume and Jennifer were there, making time in their busy fall road trip schedule to hang out with us.  Jason showed up shortly after I did, and we tackled a few choice problems on the haphazard jumble of boulders, pocked with erosion and looking alien with white climbing chalk marring the deep red of the sandstone.  I marveled at the nature of the rock:  slick, sandy, smooth.  How very different from my home turf on the granite slabs of Rocky Mountain National Park’s Lumpy Ridge! 

    We were all together for a weekend of adventure in a seemingly foreign land of tall sandstone escarpments and crumbling towers.  The Colorado River flowed on the west side of the busy highway, carving the ravines that make up the sculptured maze of Utah’s canyon lands. 

    After a pitcher of beer in Moab, we drove out to Castle Valley to set up camp.  I couldn’t see Castleton Tower in the darkness, so my ignorant bliss continued for another night of good sleep.   

    We awoke to overcast skies and sprinkles of rain.  I knew that didn’t mean anything.  Years ago, when Brad and I retreated from RMNP’s Spearhead from the threat of rain, and then found ourselves, a few hours later, eating pizza and playing pool in a dark joint on a blue sky day, Brad had uttered our mantra:  If it’s not raining, we’re CLIMBING!  And I knew that Brad had even taken it one step farther to If it’s not POURING, then we’re CLIMBING! so I knew a little drizzle wasn’t going to stop us. 

    I looked out from my tent and saw Castleton Tower for the first time in my life.  I bit my lip.  It was BIG.  Brad and Jason had both climbed it twice.  The whole gang got up and shuffled around, preparing for the day.  Guillaume and Jenny were set to climb “Fine Jade” on the Rectory.  Brad, Jason and I were considering a route on the Priest.  Scanning the horizon to the east of Castleton Tower, I saw the Priest, a tall, stately-looking tower separated from the blocky ridge called the Rectory by a v-shaped notch in the sandstone.  It actually looks like a priest, poised erect, hands underneath the folds of his robe, looking sternly toward the Rectory and eminently aloof from the rest of the formations.  I could feel that familiar knot in my stomach reminding me that I was in over my head, that I knew nothing about this area, this unusual landscape, or what it means to ascend a tower in the desert.  I was about to take my lumps with the rest of the inexperienced souls who wrestle their way up sandstone for the first time. 

    The hike to the towers was stunning.  We scampered over the red dirt of the desert, climbing through narrow, hard sandstone chutes that funnel water down valley to the river during the rainy season.  A massive cone of loose, maroon colored sand with a veneer of plant life tenuously holding on to the eroding topsoil spread out from the base of Castleton Tower, and we picked our way up the disintegrating trail, weaving to and fro on the cone-shaped hillside, struggling upward through the collapsing rock litter beneath our feet.  

    Looking west, the clouds were building and the wind was bitterly cold.  The group paused, considering the prudence of pushing forward to climb these towers in inclement weather.  Brad stepped past all of us and said with assurance, “My team’s going.

    As we crested the cone and traversed beneath the base of Castleton Tower, the Priest loomed ominously at the end of the ridgeline.  We passed over a narrow earthen bridge connecting the Castleton Tower shaft to the degenerating pillars of the Rectory.  Contouring past the route “Fine Jade”, we saw Guillaume and Jennifer racking up at the base, shivering in the harsh wind.  We picked our way over broken, leaning sandstone fingers, over crumbling, rocky earth to the base of the route “Honeymoon Chimney” on the Priest.  I took off my glove and touched the rock wall.  It was cold and smooth.  Red dust came off on my palm. 

    The route left the ground and ascended a deep crack that soared vertically into a narrow squeeze chimney.  Brad didn’t hesitate.  He racked up, stood boldly at the start of the route, eyeing the off-width fracture and the steep blocks that represented the plinth of the Priest’s robe.  He soloed the first 20 feet to gain a stance at the top of a protruding wedge.  His confidence was inspiring.  As Jason belayed him, I snapped photographs of my friend assertively firing off a difficult section of a demanding route.  He placed a piece of protection in the flaring fissure, then moved higher to a bolt on the right facing wall.  A large bulge protruded above him, but without pause, he climbed upward and placed another cam.  My nervousness at how well cams hold in sandstone made me slightly nauseous.  Moving higher, brad fished for another piece of protection from the gear loops on his harness, struggling to suck his body into the widening crack.  He was about 45 feet up the pitch.  A 4.5 Camalot slipped off his harness and began to whistle groundward.  Brad, busy tackling the crux, didn’t realize that he’d dropped the piece.  I could see it falling, faster now, toward me.  It was worth about $150, and I figured I could catch it.  In retrospect, this was a stupid move.  But at the time, saving a valuable piece of gear seemed reasonable.  The impact of the cam against my hand was dynamic.  It pushed my hand into my face, and the cam smacked against the bone above my eye.  Immediately, blood gushed down my face.  The cam hit my pack and rolled unharmed near my feet.   Jason said I probably didn’t need stitches, so I pasted a piece of athletic tape over the cut to stop the bleeding and yelled more encouragement to Brad.  He was in the thick of it, fighting a wide crack and a slippery, slightly overhanging bulge that begged to be lie-backed.  I heard him mutter, “Good pro, probably won’t hit the ledge, going for it” as he inched up bravely on tiny footholds, with his hands pasted on the sloping angle of the crack edge. Moving quickly above the crux, he disappeared into a narrow chimney and before long had set up a belay. 

    As the fear of leaving the ground engulfed me, I felt the rope come tight to my harness.  I was on belay.  I started up the route and struggled through the moves.  Jason offered plenty of encouragement and I finally reached the squeeze chimney.  It was dark in there.  I smashed my body into it and shuffled toward Brad, who sat smiling at the top of a large chockstone lodged into the chimney.  It was tough going.  I had to rest every few feet to catch my breath from the exertion of upward progress.  “Is this thing ever going to relent?”  I implored, as Brad laughed at me.  Finally the chimney widened, and I climbed behind Brad into a spacious cavern that looked out the other side of the formation. 

    Jason’s turn.  He floated up the first section to reach the squeeze chimney, but was faced the wrong way and spent a lot of energy trying to make the entrance moves.  Finally he turned his body and wormed his way to our stance. 

    Above us a wide chimney system with slick, featureless walls looked formidable.  “I wonder which way we go,” Brad mused until he spied a piton near the light at the east end of the chimney.  He climbed to it, clipped in, and vanished.  Jason and I shivered in the brisk wind and suddenly Brad was above us, visible through a memorably narrow slot.  He was warming his hands, and the wind was whipping around him madly.   He continued and set up a belay out of our sight.  I had no idea what was coming. 

    I stemmed up the wide chimney, marveling at the insecurity of my position, held in place only through opposing pressure between my feet on one wall and my back on the other.  I had never experienced climbing like this before.  I stepped out around the corner and the exposure was overwhelming.  High now on the tower, the ground seemed miles away, and the huge walls of the other formations flaunted themselves in the distance.   My fear mounted.  Every move seemed difficult.  I pushed myself forward, ending up on a small platform that sported an airy gap between it and the wall that led to Brad’s lofty perch 60 feet above.  I could feel the blood pounding in my veins and my irrational fears rising and weakening me.  I had never felt this kind of fear before.  I took a minute to collect myself, because, after all, what choice did I have?  I couldn’t retreat.  Brad was above me, Jason below, and the only way down was up.  Slowly Brad’s coaching words filtered through my fear and I heard him telling me what to do.  I obeyed his commands and stepped across the abyss to place one foot on the sheer wall that was ornamented with 5 bolts.  Hesitantly, I grabbed the sling attached to the first bolt and pulled my other foot across the three-foot gap.  Brad taught me how to aid climb right then and there.  Put a sling in that bolt.  Put your foot in it.  Grab the sling on the higher bolt.  Stand up in that sling.  Pull yourself up there!  You can do it.  There ya go.  Just keep going.  Finally I was at the top of the bolt ladder and had to make a few free moves to reach Brad’s roost at the belay.   Still absolutely gripped, my strength failing, I grabbed a small hold with my right hand, and as it crumbled beneath my fingers I threw desperately for the sling Brad had placed higher.  I caught it and hauled myself up to Brad.  Brad didn’t seem to mind my poor performance and as I stacked the rope he hollered to Jason that he could start climbing.  Jason climbed the pitch without difficulty.  As we were reunited on the sloping ledge of that belay, I looked at my friends and at Castleton Tower looming in the distance and attempted to gain control of my fear.  I needed to pony up.   

    Brad led up a steep, overhanging crack, making sure to leave slings for Jason and I to aid up on.  He disappeared from sight, and I felt the pull of the rope halt as he figured out the last section.  Little did I know that it was a completely blank section of sandstone, without protection for 25 steep, committing feet.  As I followed the pitch, pulling on gear, I gained the precarious ledge at the base of the unprotected section that led to the top.  Brad’s legs dangled off the top of the tower as he sat comfortably on the flat surface of the summit.  “I can’t do it”.  Brad looked over the top and replied, “Yes you can.”    I leaned my helmet against the slippery dihedral in front of me and made the decision to grab Brad’s end of Jason’s rope to pull myself up.  As I did so, Brad shook the rope and told me I was cheating.  He was right, but I couldn’t help myself.  I let go of the rope.  Filled with alarm, I attempted to hold on to the sloping crimp and smear my feet on the walls of the dihedral.  Fear consumed me.  I grabbed the rope again and fought my way to the top of the tower.  I was fatigued from panic and tension.  The sun was setting on the desert walls as Jason climbed the last pitch in effortless style. 

    As the shadow of the Priest stretched across the dusty land, we prepared to rappel.  Brad set a double fisherman’s knot in the ropes because he didn’t trust the “European Death Knot” (overhand) that I like to use on my super skinny and stretchy 8.1 mm Beal Ice Line ropes.  As we alighted on the ledge below and tried to pull the ropes, we realized that the fisherman’s knot was catching on the summit edge.  Brad had to re-climb a section of the route to gain a higher vantage from which to pull the ropes.  He freed them and we continued down the Priest, Jason finishing up the last rappel in the dark. 

    It hadn’t rained all day. 

    The hike out in the dark was uneventful, and we got back to camp in time to dodge good-natured reprimands from Guillaume about how we were late for dinner.  As we sat around the fire, I re-lived the climb, marveling at Brad’s leading abilities and Jason’s good head.  My meltdown up there could only be used to further my progress as a climber, to help steel me against future episodes of uncontrolled fear.  The flames flickered, casting shadows on the faces of the people around me.  Brad, in the last year, had become a skillful, competent 5.10 leader.  His strong mental sensibilities combine with his physical strength to make him an extraordinary partner.  His love of the sport is undeniable, and his encouragement and friendship on the rock are invaluable.  Jason jumped into climbing with the energy of a warrior; embracing the learning curve and becoming a solid climber in less than two years. 

    My own performance, on the other hand, can be summed up briefly with the appropriateness of my sandstone spanking, and my resolve to learn from the experience and be in control of, not controlled by, my own emotions.  Fear can be a special experience, lending energy and strength to one’s mental state, or it can be a crippling, debilitating curse that leaves one sobbing three pitches up on a 5.9.  The best part about fear is that it is a choice we each make for ourselves.  The Priest, with its stoical, unrelenting sandstone walls and narrow, skin-eating chimneys, taught me a lesson and helped me realize my new goal:  for my fear and I to become partners, not enemies. 

A Note From Brad...

Don't let this TR fool you, Lisa is too modest, she pushed herself on this trip and her skills were more than enough for the challenge! She's a rock star. Her indomitable, positive attitude has seen us through many difficult situations. Usually ones that I created.  :) 

This day was no different. Except that we also had Jason to bolster us. Our collective energy was intoxicating.

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Leaving camp in the morning under ominous skies.
Jason stretching out during the approach. The Priest, who faces right, is obvious on the left end of the photo. 
Jason in front of the Priest and the Rectory. The routes are marked in this photograph.
Myself and Jason remembering previous adventures on Castleton.
Guillaume and Jenny approaching Fine Jade 11+  on the Rectory.
The saddle between the formations makes for a wonderful hike.
A close up of the previous shot.
Jenny and Guillaume, in the background, are preparing for a cold day on Fine Jade while Lisa and Jason continue our approach to the Priest.
Gaining the top of the 20ft wedge, which guards the start of the offwidth.
I may be err... uhh... kinda... uhh... blatantly hanging on that bolt. This would be a sadistic honeymoon!!!
There is no aiding the real crux though. 
Lisa reaching the belay at the top of the squeeze chimney. 
Jason enters the squeeze chimney facing the wrong direction.
But manages to get turned around somehow without weighting the rope. Let me tell you, it sounded fun.  :)
Starting up the wide chimney on the second pitch. The protection is lacking but the friction is excellent.
To add to the excitement, you chimney out as well as up on this pitch so that you are eventually looking down a crack that goes all the way to the ground.
The chimney gets too wide at the top and you have to pull onto the 5.11 face of the main tower to continue. 
Fortunately, there are a lot of bolts to grab and the pitch is not that hard.
A few delicate moves on a ledge and Jason joins us 25 feet below the summit. I think Jason climbed this pitch in less than 5 minutes!
Lisa, getting her money's worth, at the base of the last pitch.
Jason and me at the last belay. (this is the reverse perspective from the previous picture)
I may not always go the right way but I never leave my seconds hanging, except in slings of course.  :)
My belay on the summit. This was one of my most memorable climbing days ever! It is so fun to climb with these two.
I was exceedingly happy to get to climb with Lisa on her first trip to Castle Valley. 
Team HOPE.

It's all we have sometimes. :)

Jason has really turned into a desert rat. This route didn't even faze him.  Nice climbing bra! (as always)
Guillaume on Another Roadside Distraction 10b at Potash Road.
Jason stepping it up and leading a 10+. This is probably three grades harder than any of his previous sandstone leads.
It didn't seem to slow him down though.
The route offers a thin crack in a dihedral with friction stemming. 
Until you get to the roof. Then the crack widens to 5 inches.  :)   Jason now has the dubious honor of taking the first fall on my #5 Camelot.  
Lisa taking a shot at the end of the route. Lisa also took her first lead fall on a sandstone crack this day.  :) Everyone was breaking barriers. 
This is Guillaume on a nice 10a. Sandy face climbing leads to wonderful finger locks in the crack above.
Topping out on A Fist Full of Potash.
Jason, surveying his traversing options on a 10b called Pinhead.
Lisa, opting to traverse lower on the same route as the previous photo.
Taking a toprope lap in my tennies.
While Guillaume waits, like a hawk, for me to fall so he can rib me. Ha! Not today my friend, you'll have to content yourself to my lousy footwork for fodder.  :)
After I left for Logan, Jason and Lisa went to Ancient Art together.
This was another step up for both of them to go out alone to climb a big desert tower.   Right on guys!!!
Jason hangs ten on the titillating summit.
Lisa, earning her stripes just like everyone else on her first trip up the corkscrew.
Two desert towers and a 10+ trad lead,  yeah,  you ought to look happy my friend.  :)

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