Thursday evening finds me on my way to Moab in deep contemplation of whether agreeing to join Derek and Noah for a multiday tower bagging expedition was a sane decision. Why these two accomplished desert hardmen want my companionship isn't completely clear, but a few days in the sand with such good company is hard to justify turning down. One way or another I'll claw my way up whatever monstrosities they decide to take on. When the climber in me fails, the peakbagger that remains is not ashamed to employ any means necessary to get to the top.
Sister Superior is the second most climbed tower in Castle Valley after Castleton. Jah Man, the classic five pitch summit route, boasts a variety of fun and well protected climbing including an excellent thin hand crack (females rejoice). It seems a strange choice for this pair of choss lovers, but apparently everyone loves a classic now and again.
The first two pitches are largely casual and easily combined. A few thoughtful 5.9 moves culminating with a throw to a heavily chalked but loose-as-shit looking jug lands Derek on a big ledge. Walking a bit right, he shoves himself into the P2 squeeze chimney. There is some great heal toe action once inside, and then it widens a bit and a small crack on the back wall offers good pro while squirming upward, back on one side and knees on the other.
We reconvene at a sizable but airy belay ledge and Noah begins tackling the crux pitch. A pumpy and hard to read 5.10+ traverse to the left requires a combination of crack and face climbing techniques and feels especially rough after the mostly blue collar introduction of the first two pitches. Noah impressively manages the on-sight and scampers up the remainder of the pitch which is no harder then 5.8.
Derek links the final two pitches, the first one being a long and incredible thin hand crack. I am in heaven. After struggling up countless cracks that are slightly too wide for my hands, finally I have the advantage over the guys. I get perfect jams until the tippy top where the crack narrows even a little much for my liking. Numerous edges for the feet all but nix the need to execute painful foot jams in the narrow crack. It doesn't get any better than this!
The last bit to the summit is a tough, height dependent boulder problem protected by a pair of bolts. It's easy to see why many choose to do this part as a separate short pitch. Blowing the moves with a bunch of rope out would mean hitting the ledge. Derek however seems to pull off the linkup with ease and then reels Noah & I to the top.
Proud of our rather efficient ascent and anxious to escape the sun's increasing intensity, we admire the views for but a few minutes before we begin the descent. And what a doozy it will be.
Our first rope toss lands one strand in an offwidth crack at the back of the topmost belay ledge. It manages to stick itself in a narrow gap at the bottom of the crack in a one in a million sort of way. Apparently we should have played the lottery instead today. No amount of trickery or brawn can free it and half an hour later we resign ourselves to the lengthy task of severing it in two places with soft, blunt rocks. If we only had a knife...
With one rope intact and the other in two pieces we execute two more rappels, the final longer one accomplished via a pull cord rig.
All happily on the ground with that home free feeling, the rope puller (who shall remain nameless) announces that the rope is stuck once again. Huh? What could it possible be caught on this time? This is a very clean line. Hmm... it doesn't take us long to determine that the rope puller, spacing the fact that a biner block was being employed, pulled the wrong side of the rope! Ooops. This is getting to be quite comical. Noah valiantly re-leads the first pitch and then makes a few sketchy moves to grasp the other end of the rope dangling high above the ground and we're back in business.
Drama over, we pack up and sweat our way back to the car pondering our next objective. Immediately upon our arrival the guidebooks and refreshments come out and, after careful consideration, we have a winner. Monster Tower. The fact that three of the five pitches are 10+/11 has me very intimidated, but the prospect of seeing a whole new area of the desert is exciting.
Monster Tower graces the Island in the Sky section of Canyonlands National Park, playing the role of big brother to the more famous but slightly shorter and easier to attain Washer Woman. This iconic pair of towers is accessed via the impressive and exceptionally maintained 4WD White Rim Road; thankfully they're only 20 miles along the slow 100 mile loop. A free permit is required to drive this spectacle and no camping is allowed outside of the few established $30 sites which apparently sell out months in advance. Climbing logistics in this area are frustrating but, as I'm about to find out, well worth the hassle. The drive to the towers is worth the trip in and of itself.
Beta suggests that our intended route up Monster Tower's North Ridge, comprised of a variety of tough cracks ranging from fingers to offwidth and everything in between, is best summed up in one word: “burrrrrly”. As we ponder and assemble the resulting large arsenal of necessary gear, I am plagued by the decision of whether to bring my ascending rig or not. I have serious doubts I'll be able to free some of the pitches even on toprope, but in the end repeated encouragement from my partners persuades me to reluctantly leave the security of my frog behind.
As we slog toward the base of Monster Tower, pausing for reprieve from the already sweltering sun in every remaining shadow cast by the occasional large boulder, the coolness of the dark North Ridge draws us in despite its intimidating demeanor.
The optional first pitch, which we opt to do, proves worthy of the effort. The initial low angle hand crack gives the impression that it's a gimme, but the route steepens and becomes more technical out of sight higher up, certainly earning its 5.9 rating.
The first belay ledge is the least comfortable of the day, but it's not much to complain about. The more than vertical pitch looming above us looks quite serious. A snaking and slightly overhung #3 and #4 crack must be overcome to reach slightly easier ground and then a final unseen offwidth obstacle guards the next belay. Crackmaster Derek is up to bat. The hard won onsight is his after a nail-biting performance highlighted by a powerful dyno hand jam! Noah cruises up behind him and succeeds in repeating the key dyno hand jam.
Rated 10+, this is my nemesis crack size and I know it'll feel even harder with my small hands. If I were at the Creek, I'd thrash and give this crack my all. But here on the tower, so exposed, and with the clock ticking and two more even harder pitches remaining I resort to shamelessly pulling on gear right out of the gate. Comfortable foot jams and strenuous camalot holds do the trick until the crack graciously narrows to #2 and I can actually start climbing for real. More quality, and now doable, crack climbing leads to an interesting offwidth finish that has become the site of the first ever deployment of Dom's #4 Big Bro. An old, brittle log left behind by a previous climber is wedged in the slot as well; it inspires not confidence, but laughter. However in this land of the wide with no other options, Derek has slung it as well for good measure.
From the comforts of the most awesome belay ledge of the day, we gaze up at the route's crux, a 20 foot section of 5.11 finger crack. None of us are good at finger cracks, and being well aware of this we have come prepared with plentiful 0.5 cams. Noah feels it out on the sharp end, decides on a little french free whoop ass, and then resumes free climbing 5.10 terrain to the next anchor. Another offwidth problem near the end rounds out the pitch.
Derek's initial plan of trying to free climb the crux crack with the security of a top rope are quickly abandoned after a slip results in a boingy but unnerving 8 foot fall thanks to rope stretch!
I've been reminded of a thing or two while following the last pitch. Getting myself past the hardest climbing will require much less effort if I apply some slightly more refined aid tactics here. Slings substitute for etriers and my personal anchor for a fifi hook. I'm in business. C1 on top rope baby!
Pitch four, beginning on another large and comfortable belay ledge, comes as a relief. Though it looks sort of chossy and suspicious in places, its only 5.9! Cautiously we work our way over and around the jumble of large blocks and finally into the unwelcome sun.
The fifth and final pitch is the business and requires quite possibly R rated 5.11 free climbing... which is of course a job for the great Noah McKelvin! Thoughtful and strenuous 5.10 climbing leads to the slabby crux. Noah's out of sight while delicately tiptoeing up the difficult bit, but the steadiness with which the rope feeds out seems to suggest that he's not wavering one bit. Off belay, he yells down from the top anchor! Derek and I follow in true we-don't-give-a-shit-about-freeing-at-this-point style.
From the top anchor, an easy but very exposed scramble leads to the true summit. So this is why they call it the White Rim...
Its a strange feeling finally standing atop Monster Tower. I never dreamed I'd ever be here. All morning I've been plagued by the thought that I really have no business being here. In an impressive effort, Derek and Noah have really blown the doors off of this thing; I simply reaped the benefits of experiencing this climb with them and through them. And for that I will be eternally grateful.
Nervous about the descent after the events of yesterday, we're all keen on starting down without too much delay. Suffice it to say that we DO indeed make it back to terra firma with both ropes intact this time despite moments of doubt!
Derek proposes Echo Pinnacle for Sunday to round out our trio's trifecta of classic desert tower climbs before Noah heads back to reality. This 200+ foot oddity situated in Courthouse Pasture fifteen miles northwest of Moab is the highest point in the Determination Towers grouping. Several other lesser pinnacles lie directly to the south. The main attraction is a wild final pitch which reportedly contains some of the most unique free climbing in the desert. Regardless, we're psyched to explore yet another new corner of the greater Moab area.
The modern route of choice ascends the west side of the tower in three pitches, two of which are rated 5.10+. I'd been looking forward to some reprieve from the hard climbing today, maybe even a some straight up rope jugging, but alas, tough free climbing seems to be the recurring theme of this trip. Why ruin the streak? At least its only a three minute approach! And sunrise is amazing!
My halfhearted hopes of taking the first 5.9 pitch melt away as I size it up; the quality of the rock leaves something to be desired. Derek volunteers for the job, sending down a steady flow of dirt and tiny pebbles as I belay him. Although the crack system offers good protection, I do not regret my decision. The largest pile of animal shit I've ever had to climb through adds to the opening pitch's charm.
The crumbly crack system ends in a large window that is actually a hole that extends all the way through the pinnacle! The first ascent party aided up the opposite (east) side of the tower and joined our route here.
Derek takes the lead for the second pitch as well, this one on excellent rock and very Indian Creekish. A handcrack in a dihedral begins with, what else, tricky and overhung big hands. Damnit! Crackmaster naturally manages the onsight, as does Noah. I choose to aid through the initial difficulties given that with rope stretch I'll likely deck on the large boulder at the base of the pitch if I blow the opening moves even on toprope. The rest of the corner is delightful, the crack pinching down to good hands and eventually shrinking to very tight hands at the top. Sweet!
Arriving at the next belay, however, is not so sweet. What a cluster! The three of us hang practically on top of one another. Although Noah's now up against the heady crux, the thought of escaping this unpleasantness encourages him.
The final pitch involves climbing up an airy offwidth gap formed by the main tower and a subtower on the northern end of the formation. Protected by closely spaced but ancient bolts of highly questionable integrity, Noah chooses to aid through the hardest moves rather than risk falling on them. Soon he reaches the top anchor and belays Derek & I up.
The summit is a pair of easy mantels away, the first of which has been made easy via two small chipped holds. Now in the sun, things are becoming nuclear.
Its not until several days later, Moab in the rearview mirror and a tear in my eye, that I become fully aware of how memorable and special these past few days have been. The desert satisfies my soul like nothing else can, and the views from the shoulders of giants are especially moving.Sister Superior Slideshow