After two months of fantastic ice and mixed climbing in the Canadian Rockies, the seasons were finally beginning to signal a change with warm temperatures melting off ice pillars and sending avalanche ratings up to extreme levels. Colours of Instagram were also transforming, from the white, blue and grey of the alpine to the rich orange and red of the desert. Canadians were flocking southwards to the sandstone splitters of Moab and I felt compelled to join them.
Over the course of two days driving through several degrees of latitude, the snow-caked plains of Canada finally morphed into the desert landscapes for which Utah is famous. Living the dirt-bag life near the banks of the Colorado River, we warmed back into rock-climbing with the ridiculously convenient Wall Street crag on Potash Road.
Five minutes from Williams Bottom campground, Wall Street is home to hundreds of crack climbs and face routes all literally right next to the road. Belaying from a lawn-chair next to the car is commonplace. After a few days perfecting our finger-locks and toe-jams, Tim Banfield and I teamed up to climb our first desert tower, Sister Superior.
Our early start was sabotaged by a tyre puncture on the off-road approach drive, allowing another party to scoop us to the route “Jah Man”, a four-pitch 5.10+ on the southwest face of the tower. Sister Superior is just one of several classic spires in the canyon-riddled area, with the famous Castleton Tower dominant on the horizon.
The first pitch came at the standard sand-bag grade of “5.8+”, which often means unusual climbing in the form of a wide crack or chimney, poorly protected or just plain weird – not something pulling plastic can ever prepare you for. Coined the “Sister Squeeze”, this had us wedged up a body squeeze chimney for a full pitch and Tim seconded with his camera gear hanging off a sling on his harness. From the top of this detached pedestal, thin hand jams led the route crux, which had thrown off the previous party several times as we waited at the base. A few tricky moves past a flake required alternating heel hooks to reach a “thank-god” hand jam.
After some more cragging at Wall Street, we soon felt the desert call again. This time the calling took us to the famous Castleton Tower and a spectacular looking route on the North Face. Along with Jon Bouchard, we ascended a stellar pitch of wide hands, leapfrogging our three #3 cams, to the route’s 5.11a flake lay-back crux, an exciting sequence with feet smeared onto slippery calcite face holds. Tricky finger cracks led to a bulging hand-crack. An off-width followed by a jagged fist crack also led to easy but run-out chimneys to the summit. It really was the full gamut of crack climbing all in just three quality pitches!
What a route. Belaying up Jon to the summit, I was hit by a hailstorm. Shivering at the exposed belay in meagre base-layers, Jon arrived and we hurried down the rap line and ran down to the highway.
An afternoon of bouldering in the hot sun at Big Bend by the Colorado River made for a totally different style of climbing. But as the day cooled off, we were psyched to make a quick ascent of the Lighthouse Towers (namely the route adorning the guidebook cover, Lonely Vigil, a four-pitch 5.10 route that climbs up a unique stem-box chimney system).
As you approach this intimidating blank looking section, it takes a few moments to realise that the fused overhanging seams can be avoided by simply stemming wide up the chimney, until you slap the glory jug. Standing on the very summit is the most exciting of all, gaining the detached block requires a bouldery mantle with average gear at your feet. With no anchors on top, the moves simply need to be reversed to descend.
Fine Jade was our final tower route and was one of the best. The classic line fires up continuous splitters for three pitches on the south prow of the Rectory, opposite Castleton. The hardest climbing is off the deck, via steep flared hand-cracks, but the technical 5.11a crux is a finger crack through a bulge half way up the gorgeous face.
The desert sandstone was pristine, especially on these most popular routes, and the quality of the crack climbing was superb. If only these routes were longer! But perhaps that is asking a bit much of these slender stacks of red rock. Moab’s tower routes are perhaps lesser known than the amazing crack climbing at nearby Indian Creek, but offer more adventure into the amazing desert landscapes of Utah. Definitely worth checking out on your next road trip through the States.
This article originally appeared on Alastair’s ‘Mountain Adventure Blog’ on 24 March 2017 and is reproduced here with permission.