re-sized tower

Awesome rock climbing adventure

I know you didn’t believe me when I told you I read the Wall Street Journal but here is another great article, courtesy of Michael J. Yabarra who describes his adventures in Canyonlands National Park, Utah with such entusiasm and in such an entertaining manner that it makes you wish you were there. This is rock climbing at its best and I send out a big shout of thanks to Michael and the Wall Street Journal – read on and enjoy!

“The crack was a thing of imposing beauty, steep and smooth, splitting the red sandstone tower like a bolt from the sky. It was also really hard to climb. The wall was flat, devoid of features; the crack too narrow to take a foot, but too wide to jam my fingers into without their greasing out.

Elizabeth Szyleyko
A ground-level view of Ancient Art, part of the Fisher Towers.

I could climb a few feet off the ground but no further. After flailing wildly for about half an hour, I cheated: I yanked on a camming device I slotted into the crack and pulled myself to where my hand fit better and I could work my way up without resorting to pulling on gear. The climbing became enjoyable, but the fun didn’t last. Soon the crack yawned wider and reared overhead, becoming an overhanging off width — a term of dread among climbers.

I hauled myself into the gap, the void swallowing almost half of my body, desperately trying to twist my right arm and leg into an elusive combination of shapes that wouldn’t slide out. Grunting and groaning, I slowly struggled upward a few crucial inches until the crevice opened wide enough that I could securely wedge my whole body into it and catch my breath.

Next, I had to grab a small hold with my right hand, shuffle my toes on a rail of rock, lean sideways until I could barely reach my left fingers around a corner, and then delicately transfer my weight and finish the traversing move to a good stance where I belayed my partner Liz up to me. Whew.

It was time to enjoy the view. We were scaling North Six Shooter, which rises dramatically from the fringe of Canyonlands National Park in southeastern Utah. North Six Shooter (along with its shorter sibling, South Six Shooter) is a sheer sandstone tower crowning a huge talus cone that etches an unforgettable silhouette against the desert sky.

Around us spread the massive Colorado Plateau, which stretches across four Southwestern states — a stunning, crumbling tableau of erosion that opens a geology textbook writ large everywhere you look. Plateau is something of a misnomer, however, since the landscape is constantly relieved: cut by great canyons, hogbacked with buttes and mesas, and pierced with spires — many of which are catnip to climbers. I spent most of April climbing towers around the Moab area. Toward the end of the month, as spring wildflower season began splashing color across the desert, my friend Liz arrived. She’d never climbed a tower before, let alone sandstone. For some reason, I decided to introduce Liz to desert climbing by ascending North Six Shooter via the Lightning Bolt Cracks route (a 5.11 on the climbing scale, which is to say fairly difficult).

Liz didn’t have too much trouble with the first pitch, but the next rope length was a different story. Crack climbing becomes dramatically easier — or harder — depending on the size of a person’s hands. Looming above us was a massive roof cleaved by a wide, fist-sized crack. This looked like good news for me; not so good for Liz.

I pushed my fists into the crack above my head, stuffed my feet in as well, and struggled to pull over the roof. I fell off, discovering the hard way that the crack becomes too wide in places even for my big mitts. On my next attempt, I managed to fight my way up.

Entering a chimney, I wedged my body against opposing walls while the ground below me dropped away to hundreds of feet of empty air and a perfectly framed view of South Six Shooter, which so amazed me that I froze in midmove to admire the scenery.

The chimney stopped, forcing me to reach blindly over a roof, groping for a crack to pull myself out onto the face of the tower. I found a crack, but my feet slipped off the sandy, sloping footholds — and suddenly I was hanging by a single hand jam, my legs kicking uselessly in space.

Then it was Liz’s turn. I grew a bit alarmed when the rope barely budged during the better part of an hour. Eventually she came gasping to the belay and told me what had happened. The crack had proved as difficult as expected, so she decided to aid through the roof, standing in slings attached to gear. But the rope got entangled with the gear, and after much effort she found herself hanging even lower than before. Finally a climbing team on a nearby route offered to drop a line to her, which Liz ascended Batman-style, hand over hand. On the way up she also dropped a carabiner — something I’ve never seen her do before.

I was even more clumsy. Fishing in my pocket for my topo (route map), I realized I must have dropped it earlier. Moving through a tight gap, I felt something unsnap from my harness and tumble toward the ground.

“It looked like your camera,” Liz said.

Actually, it was my brother’s camera. (Sorry, Gary.)

Entering a squeeze chimney before the summit, a space so narrow that turning your head sideways was impossible, I eased off my sunglasses and tried to stuff them into a pocket. You can guess what happened.

Soon we were standing on top, reveling in a panoramic view, vast canyons snaking this way and that, buttes cutting into the sky, eons of geology falling away to the horizon in tiers of sedimentary history.

Over the next week we climbed a number of desert classics. There was Ancient Art, a blood-red pile of mud topped by a corkscrew-shaped finial, part of the Fisher Towers and famous for its poor rock quality (“the most hideous sandstone imaginable,” author Stewart Green called it). I was hoping that stories of climbers pulling out protection bolts with their hands were exaggerated, but the first hold I touched crumbled into dust.

The climbing, thankfully, was not very hard (5.10a, we thought, instead of the official rating of 5.10d). Low on the route I was pinching pebbles embedded (I hoped) in a mud wall. High up there were a couple of delicate moves on suspiciously friable sandstone and then I was walking (crawling actually) across a rock bridge no wider than my waist before pulling myself up a series of bulges and then mantling onto a summit about the size of a large pizza box. A fierce wind was blowing and I didn’t have the guts to stand upright on the pinnacle. Liz, when her turn came, did.

Then there was Castleton Tower, a blocky 400-foot tower of Wingate sandstone, sitting atop a 1,000-foot cone of lesser rock. Much of the rock is covered with white calcite deposits that make for excellent climbing. We went up the north chimney route, gaining a huge summit with great views of the Fisher Towers and the Colorado River across the valley and the snow-capped La Sal Mountains in the east.

None of the other towers, however, really compared with North Six Shooter. Maybe it was the fact that we had to work so hard to get up — or that for all my clumsiness the tower seemed quite forgiving of my foibles. After we rappelled to the bottom, I walked back to where we had left our packs. Sitting next to mine was the missing topo.

Looking around I quickly found the dropped carabiner. A little more searching turned up my sunglasses — none the worse for a 300-foot fall. Then we located the camera; It was intact and actually worked.

Even Liz, after the fact, seemed to enjoy the climb. Driving past North Six Shooter another day, she shook a well-bruised fist at the tower and made an oath. “Just wait,” she said, “until I get better at crack. I’ll be back.”

Mr. Ybarra is the author of “Washington Gone Crazy: Senator Pat McCarran and the Great American Communist Hunt.”

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