New Routes and
Old Friends in Castle Valley
Written by my friend and partner
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
hadn’t rained all day.
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.
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
This day was no different.
Except that we also had Jason to bolster us. Our collective energy was intoxicating.
|Leaving camp in the morning under ominous
|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
|There is no aiding the real crux
|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
|Starting up the wide chimney on the
second pitch. The protection is lacking but the friction is
|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
|The chimney gets too wide at the top
and you have to pull onto the 5.11 face of the main tower to
|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
|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. |
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
|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
|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
|Topping out on A Fist Full of
|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
|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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