Thursday evening finds us and a crapload of gear bound for Moab, our sights set on some “easy” desert towers that will require a mix of free and aid climbing. Prior to this trip Dominic and & I had each gotten a 2 hour crash course in leading aid and demonstrated some level of competency, Pete had practiced following, and we all got our jugging setups dialed in. Brian, the seasoned veteran, was of course ready from the get-go.
“Crooked Arrow Spire” is a detached pinnacle off the north end of Parriot Mesa in Castle Valley. Well disguised, it blends in with the adjacent rock from all but a few select angles. However, when viewed from these certain vantages the skinny sandstone pillar is quite intriguing. The gap between it and the mesa wall it parallels is small, from about 2 feet at the point of separation near its base to perhaps 30 feet at the top. With two pitches of moderate free climbing followed by a single pitch of relatively easy aid it seems like a reasonable testing ground for our noob crew on day one.
We essentially park directly under the spire but it remains camouflaged by the cliffs of Parriot Mesa until well into the half mile, 1000 foot approach hike. Its eventual visual emergence sparks some excitement and helps take our minds off the steep grind. Once at the base we gear up quickly.
Pitch one is very short, probably 25 feet, and contains the toughest climbing of the day. A few rather dirty 5.9 moves are required to overcome a stack of large, tightly wedged but somewhat suspect chockstones guarding the entrance to Longbow Chimney. Dominic wastes no time in executing a flawless lead and makes it look easy. The rest of us follow and the crux seems to be enduring the near constant stream of sand being funneled down by the rope above as we try to look up to find our next hand hold.
While Pete belays me up pitch one Dominic is already getting busy leading the long and incredible 5.8 chimney on pitch two with a belay from Brian. To my surprise there isn't much grunting and groaning going on, just joking, laughing and burping? Again Dominic confidently cruises the pitch and belays the rest of us to the airy ledge above. One massive chockstone about 2/3 of the way up is scary loose so we hold our breath and stem delicately around it. If you like chimney action, it doesn't get much better than this! Longbow definitely sparks some chimney love within Mr. Krzanowsy; it however does not seem to have the power to soften that dark chimney hatred deep within Mr. Crim. Dominic & I are longtime chimney fans.
Brian takes over for the final aid pitch which is right up his alley. A piton, two nut placements, and then he's off to the races around the corner, loudly admiring the ancient fixed hardware as he moves up, praying the suspicious looking bits of metal don't blow. Fortunately there are newfangled, confidence inspiring bolts every so often. As I belay I occasionally prepare for the yank when I hear phrases like: “ok, this one doesn't look too good so watch me... ooh, I'm standing on it and its starting to come out”. Miraculously they all hold and Brian's on the tiny summit lickety split... which is of course a relative term when you're aid climbing. He fixes the line and the rest of us take turns jugging the pitch.
Atop our small perch we take some time to soak in the stunning scenery which includes incredible views of Castle Valley and the Colorado River. After we've had our fill two rappels land us back on terra firma and we stumble down the steep, loose climbers trail to our vehicles very much satisfied with the course of the day.
The eyes of anyone who has driven through Arches National Park have surely been drawn skyward by the group of improbable monoliths known as the Courthouse Towers. Steep on all sides, these formidable sandstone spires carved from soft Entrada sandstone appear unconquerable, at least by mere mortals. Before this trip I sure never dreamed of standing on top of one!
The Three Gossips formation is perhaps the most aptly named and recognizable of the bunch; the shape and positioning of its trio of summit pinnacles causes them to resemble people standing together gossiping. Although this impressive tower isn't exactly at the top of our hit list for this weekend's trip its straw is drawn Friday evening and I'm very glad because this ends up being my favorite climb of the weekend!
I have to admit I'm a bit skeptical that we can successfully “cheat” our way up two long pitches of burly 5.10/5.11 splitter crack but I'm anxious to discover the outcome of this experiment. Armed with three ropes and a huge rack that includes quadruple cams to #2 and doubles from #3 to #5 we limp the short distance from the car to the base of the climb.
Brian takes the first pitch and tediously but efficiently aids his way 100 feet up the crack system to the first belay ledge. The crack is fairly consistent and much back cleaning of key cams is necessary (#2/ #3). Surmounting the 5.10+ bulge at the top requires some trial and error and determination. After triumphantly grunting his way to the beefy bolted anchor he fixes the rope and raps back down to the base of the tower to chill in relative comfort for the next couple of hours.
Next batter up. Dominic and I jug to the ledge and Dominic begins aiding pitch two. For the first half I'm showered with a constant rain of sand particles. Despite being very new to the aid game Dominic moves well and with confidence and cruises the 130 foot pitch in a mere 2.5 hours. In the meanwhile I get a good schooling on how important it is to establish a REALLY comfortable stance before agreeing to belay an aid pitch! Damn this sloping ledge and short tether! I also think a lot about how weird it is to be standing here in trailrunners. I feel sort of naked without rock shoes on this kind of terrain but boy am I glad I don't have to be wearing them right now.
As Dominic nears the anchors the team's gears begin to turn. Brian starts jugging pitch one and Pete gets ready to do the same. Dominic fixes the line on pitch two and I jug pitch two as Pete jugs pitch one. Upon arriving at the belay station in the col between the Northern & Middle Gossips I'm greeted by an array of clothes strewn about and a climber who's clearly been doing some work. Dominic claims the crux of the pitch had been not dying of heatstroke whilst trying to wrestle his way up the final squeeze chimney adorned with the mass of aid gear. He eagerly chugs the entire liter of water I hauled up.
Soon Brian and Pete arrive and we regroup and take a breather to contemplate the final summit pitch. Brian, given his aversion to chimneys as well having to put on actual rock shoes, has been trying to convince me to lead this pitch all day. I haven't really been entertaining the thought up until now but it somehow feels like the right thing to do. It looks reasonable. Its only rated 5.7. But given the poor protection and the fact that we're on top of some crazy ass tower I'm kinda scared. All signs are pointing towards go and I know I will be kicking myself if I don't do it.
The pitch begins with a short section of sandy 5.7 slab with one decent cam placement in the middle. A few nervous moves and I scramble into the security of the final chimney that splits the summit block in two. This is quite the place to be!
The final chimney is rated 5.5 and chimneying is one of my strong suits but this one's a little wider than I'd hoped and its not clear how secure the exit moves are. Given that there doesn't seem to be a single confidence inspiring gear placement in sight it would really suck to blow it here! I quickly belay Dominic over to me so he can give me some mental support and get on with it. This game is purely a mental one and I overcome my fears by reminding myself that even though there is no pro I have done similar and much more difficult stuff canyoneering without a rope at all. I do my best to pretend I am in a canyon and not tunneling through the top of a desert tower and it works. I place a few small cams behind thin, hollow flakes, add a screamer for good measure, and know none of them will hold unless I win the lottery. After working my way up, back on one wall and feet on the other, I'm ecstatic to find some good features to pull up to the summit on. Yeehaw!
My three teammates arrive in short order and we amuse ourselves by jumping over the chimney to the other half of the small summit plateau, with a long tether to the anchor of course! The Middle & Northern Gossips are tantalizingly close but there is no reasonable way between the trio of summits. To our surprise, it is absolutely impossible to tell which of them is tallest; they all appear to be within inches of each other.
Having read plenty of horror stories about stuck ropes we choose to descend the route in three raps even though it can theoretically be done in two. One minor glitch ties us up near the ground and causes Dominic much frustration but soon enough we're packing up our gear and headed for the cold ones. Back at camp with perma-grins a bottle of Crown serves the occasion well.
After two full and consecutive days of adventure Dark Angel seems like the perfect Sunday desert dessert before succumbing to the long drive home. This small but conspicuous obelisk is somewhat of an oddity and looks a bit out of place amongst the pink fins and arches of the surrounding landscape. While scaling the small tower isn't easy, it involves just a single short free climbing pitch followed by a single short aid pitch on fixed gear and seems like a good half day objective for our group.
A casual 3 mile approach via the popular Devils Garden Trail lands us at the base of the climb. Dominic bravely takes on the first pitch and deftly maneuvers his way up an initial slabby section of poor quality, unprotectable 5.7ish rock. When confronted with the subsequent 5.9 finger crack his brain beats out his ego and he wisely opts to aid through it rather than risk an injured ankle taking a fall onto the ledge below. Some clever a-zeroing and a tight rope from Brian gets the job done. Exiting the crack onto the belay ledge above is surprisingly awkward and clearly a little unnerving.
Brian quickly and shamelessly beats the pitch into submission with a tight belay and without delay gets to work leading the next. An awkward mantle move yields access to a good bolt ladder and after a short while he calls down that he's preparing to free the final runout 5.4 slabs. Soon he's on the summit.
Dominic belays Pete & I up the first pitch. Judging by the large quantity of blood decorating the crack when I arrive its obvious this has been the site of quite the battle! I struggle a bit but am happy to find a few hand jams that actually feel good to me. After cleaning the comforting directional at the top of the crack I carefully manage to execute the funky mantle without cheating and join Dominic on the belay ledge. Meanwhile Pete's already starting to jug pitch two. With two days worth of jugging under our belt we quickly reach the top of the second pitch. From the rappel anchors it is just a few feet of 3rd class scrambling to the true summit.
Rigging the double rope rappel is made challenging by the considerable breeze. Brian goes first and sorts out the mess with several groups of tourists watching. The hike out is quick and before we know it we're blazing down the highway with a pocketful of great new memories.