There are those things that inspire us, but I believe that inspiration is of little value without action. As we rolled into Moab, I realized that we had an opportunity to act on something that has inspired me for a long time. Castleton Tower is a well known sandstone tower about 25 miles east of Moab, Utah. You’ve probably seen pictures of it without even knowing. I’ve often confused it with the pinnacles of Monument Valley, AZ, but the towers of Castle valley are more closely grouped, and the area is ringed by denser, and more striking sandstone walls. The scene is difficult to describe, but the new camera helps.
My climbing of late has been fraught with more insecurity than I’d like to admit to. I know that much of it has to do with the considerable amount of pain still present in the surgery site on my left foot, and now new and increasing pains from the bunion on my right foot that the doctor was surprised hadn’t been giving me trouble. Perhaps I’m scared that my resolve to climb is weak, that I’m doing permanent damage to my feet, or that these plans, and this trip that I’ve been so excited about, might have to change form significantly as a result. Jordan and I had planned to goto Indian Creek, the world famous crack climbing area, but on our way to Moab, we discussed the amount of crack climbing required, and the considerable pain associated with foot jamming (a common technique extremely useful and secure in crack climbing). It just didn’t make sense to drive another 2 hours to a place that I may not be able to climb in, so we started looking closer to Moab.
I didn’t know that Castleton Tower was so close to Moab, but I also did surprisingly little research in what I wanted to climb before I left Portland. Glancing through the guidebook I saw the route, and got excited. I had never done a Layton Kor route, but the legendary Colorado climber put up hundreds of famous first ascents during the 1960‘s, and the routes are known for being “full value”- meaning a solid amount of physical and mental challenge. When the friendly guys at Pagan Mountaineering mentioned free camping at the base, it was the obvious choice. The forecast looked good and we boogied out to the tower.
I normally would have considered the route well within my abilities, but have a healthy respect for old school ratings and knew I’d be doing all the leading. Jordan doesn’t lead on traditional gear, doesn’t have a lot of self rescue skills, and it’s hard to bail off if you only take one rope. The risks started to weigh on me, but we met another group around the campfire on Thursday night, and realized with the popularity of the route we would be in good company even on a Friday. The next morning we left around 6:30, 15 minutes or so after Barry and Dave, and the excitement started to rise as we hiked up to the tower.
The first pitch is a tight chimney, and even though the clouds had cleared out it was still quite cold inside. The tower is coated in calcite, a slippery white mineral, giving the climbing a slick, risky feeling despite a mellow grade. Jordan elected to bring his nice camera up the route, but quickly realized that hanging the pack below him was both necessary and frustrating.
When I got to the second pitch, both Barry and Dave were there, we had not expected to catch them- until I noticed that most of Dave’s right pinky finger was missing. He had taken a 15′ whipper off the beginning of the second pitch and tore his finger open on a crystal. It’s an odd feeling to see someone bleeding and bailing off the route while telling you to go climb it. The thing was only supposed to be 5.8 (moderate climbing for those that don’t know), so I knew it was time to get up and on it. The first pitch was 140′, and with Dave and Barry rapping off, our chance to bail went with them. Needless to say, I took the second pitch very seriously.
After finishing the second pitch, my feet were screaming. Painful to the touch, I had my shoes off as soon as I put Jordan on belay. There was another team coming up behind us, and I debated asking them to trail our rope, or let us bail. The thoughts sickened me, I didn’t want to bail, I did want to lead the climb in good style to the top of the tower, and my feet were tanked. The crux 5.9 offwidth above me was an ugly hole laughing down at me. Jordan and I talked through the options. I had a vicodin in my back pocket and suspected it would take the edge off the pain well enough to keep me moving upwards. I thought about all the training I’ve done this year, all the times I’ve heard my body ask me to stop, and that I answered ‘no’. I refused to give up. I took the pill, took the rack and led off the ledge.
It was a battle. The #5 cam I had borrowed was hilariously inadequate, but I was grateful for two retro-bolts to protect moves that I could only do via lie-backing. I got stuck. I had to re-rack my gear. I had to downclimb and re-climb part of the pitch- but I did not take on the rope and I did not give up. Full value seems appropriate.
The last pitch was short and easy. The summit was gorgeous, and I felt more satisfied than I have been in a long time. This might be the coolest thing I have ever climbed. Many thanks to Jordan for being a great partner, climbing the route quickly and clean, and for taking some great photos (and helping me edit the ones you are looking at).
We made fast friends on top and rapped off in short order down the chilly north face. Mac and Cheese rarely tastes as good as it did last night.
“When you aren’t sure where to go next, further is usually the right answer.”