The desert has always inspired me with its clean crisp air and the stark contrast between the iron red dirt and cerulean sky. A time in my life existed where I would go to places like these for weeks at a time, climbing and soaking in the surroundings, while living virtually on pennies. Though it was a simple existence, it burned into my memory as a time of focus and reflection- – a period when I could breathe unobstructed by the constrictive ways of modern life. When each morning you would wake to the sunrise screams of Peregrine Falcons echoing from high sandstone walls, and observe the almost defiant way the desert sirens its guests in with an unnameable beauty, and stillness. Recently I had the chance to visit some of these places again with my friend Justin Griffin, a strong and talented climber from Bozeman with a lust for life. We had a week to soak up the sun, climb, and maybe get a chance to breathe.
Stop 1: City of Rocks
Eager, with the car ride taking a toll, we decided to stop for a quick pump in Idaho’s City of Rocks. Granite sport climbing seemed a great precursor to traditional climbing in the desert. The weather was warm and there was very little snow, so we jumped directly onto a 5.11 slab which was a little demanding after 5 hours in the car, but we fared well. An open bivy on a cold night left ice in our water bottles – it was good to feel like a dirtbag again. The next morning we visited the crags again. Justin lived in Sun Valley years before and had some unfinished business. He was able to put down two old nemeses: Spuds in the Gym, and Bombs Over Tripoli, both high quality 5.12s. The trip was starting off right. Though technically desert, this was not the splitter sandstone and warm sun of the South… the road beckoned. We tossed our packs in the car, our destination was down the road.
Stop 2: Indian Creek
The long drive to Indian Creek forced us to pull off the road before the main area for another roadside bivy. Wind, sand, thorns, and being 200yds from the road didn’t make for a place of respite. After waking groggy, eyes filled with sand and sleeping bags infested with thorny prickers, we drove into the the canyon. The perfect cracks were on all sides. Our demeanor instantly changed: this was where we needed to be. We rallied to secure a camping spot, gathered our gear, and made a beeline for the cliffs.
It had been years since I‘d climbed any true splitter cracks, so we started with a pair of classics. Justin, the seasoned vet, blasted up the first pitch of the extension of Chocolate Corner called Ocean Negro, for an impressive 5.12 onsight.
Later, we sessioned the incredibly frustrating Half Man, Half Alligator Shark 5.13 on top rope, and flamed out on Swedin-Ringle. It certainly felt like now we had finally found where we needed to be.
Stop 3: Bridger Jack Spires
After getting our crack fix in Indian Creek proper we decided that the next day was a rest day — maybe play tourist in Canyonlands. After pulling hard for 3 days straight, and traveling, we were whipped, but when we gazed at the Bridger Jack Spires perched directly above our camp, the plan quickly changed. The towers pulled us toward them like rare earth magnets- we could not escape their thrall. Entranced, we geared up and made our way to the base.
We climbed the route on Easter Island called Thunderbolts (5.10), and another tower called Sparkling Touch (5.11). Both were fantastic routes with great summits. To summit a desert tower can become an addiction: from these vantages you can see endless winding bluffs, stone towers in the distance, serpentine creeks and green glowing veg patterning the desert floor.
I tweaked my shoulder on Sparkling Touch’s 5.11 mantle. Though oxymoronic- it was a very productive rest day. The next day we planned to climb another tower, the King Of Pain, via the route Ziji, which is one of the more difficult lines on any of the desert towers. Ziji means “monumental elegance” in Tibetan, this word to me seems to exemplify the desert tower climbing experience. Justin crushed Ziji, onsighting the whole climb. I floundered up the route, especially the second pitch, which for me was really rattly, fingers certainly not my strong suit; few jams on this pitch felt solid. Ziji is an aesthetic and exhilarating route with offwidth climbing, to fingers, to loose scary blocks, the route has it all- a true classic hard tower testpiece. Time to relocate once again.
Stop 4: Castle Valley
We decided to go to the tourist mecca of Moab, to take a real rest day, get some lip balm, and come up with our next mission. We were having fun climbing towers so we decided to go to Castle Valley, Disney Land of tower climbing. After setting up camp at the trailhead we talked about our options. We convinced each other that doing 3 towers in a day would be an awesome objective. Going from North to South climbing The Priest, The Rectory and Castleton in one perfect sweep.
Justin was psyched, as he always is, and decided to hike up and stash some gear at the bases of the climbs so in the morning we could get up to the towers fast and light. Desert tower Disney Land did not disappoint. That night tons of people from all over the world came to assault different routes. The parking area was clamorous all night, keeping both of us up. We watched the sky turn from black to blue that morning , cooked breakfast, and blitzed up the trail, passing climbing parties with their heavy packs. We quickly made it to the base of the Priest and proceeded to climb Honeymoon Chimney. This route has some amazing positions and of course lots of chimney climbing including a full body bridge move on the final pitch.
Things were going smoothly for the trifecta. Next on the list was Fine Jade on the Rectory. We rounded the corner to look at the route and quickly realized it was not gonna happen. The ride was full. There were 4 or 5 parties on the route. Yeah for Disney Land! We decide to go for Castleton but the tower was literally crawling with people. We went for a seldom climbed route called Burning Inside and no one was on it. Justin gunned the first pitch but I just could not get through the crux. I fell out once, then got back on and cranked on a finger jam. The rock broke and I punched myself in the face with a fist sized rock. I got back on and tried again, and reinjured my weak shoulder from a couple days before. It was time to quit, the desert had won. Despite this seemingly epic fail there was a moment, hanging on the rope, overhanging rock above, spinning slowly in space, when the desert showed herself. It was then I realized I could take that full breath. The desert is place of monumental elegance, delicate, just as harsh, and demanding respect. Asking reverence.