Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Alpine Sandstone: In Pursuit Of A Castle Valley Testpiece

Last April, I attempted a challenging link-up in Castle Valley, Utah with my good friend Steffan Gregory.  For those who aren’t too familiar with the area, Castle Valley is located just outside of Moab.  The area is centered around Castleton Tower, which was the first Utah desert tower ever climbed, but contains several other towers and island mesas.  Desert tower climbing is a unique climbing experience.  Imagine 4-6 pitches of steep sandstone cracks to summits that are sometimes pinnacles just wide enough to stand on.  Throw in some loose rock and sections of funky climbing for a bit of an alpine feel, and you’ve got Castle Valley.
                                       (The main Castle Valley attractions, R-L: Castleton, The Rectory, and The Priest.  
                                       Sister Superior is about a mile to the North from the Priest)

I had stood on Castleton before and been inspired by the very aesthetic ridgeline that connected the towers- from Castleton to The Rectory, The Priest and, a mile down the ridge, Sister Superior.  Each tower held at least one classic route in the 5.10+ to 5.11 range.  Here the idea to connect them-doing a route on each of the formations in a day- was planted in my mind.  It would be the perfect testing ground for where we were at both in strength and technical ability.
                                       (The link-up, as seen atop Castleton Tower.  The formation to the far North 
                                     along the ridge is called the Parriot Mesa, and wasn’t included in our objective)

When we arrived in Moab and started putting the gear together, we quickly realized that this was going to be more difficult that we had originally thought.  3+ miles of hiking, and 18 pitches of full-value, gear intensive climbing.   After doing some research, we also discovered that the somewhat broken ridgeline between Sister Superior and the others did not have an established trail, and the topo map showed what looked to be some vertical steps in what we could only assume was some classic Utah mudstone, which is just as it sounds- terrifying.  We spent some time debating from which side to start.  In the end, we decided to shuttle the gear that wasn’t needed for the far-off Sister Superior to the bottom of Castleton and start on the far end the next day- get the longest amount of hiking over with.
                      (Leaving camp in the predawn light.  Sister Superior would be the first tower of the day)

We got a predawn start towards Sister Superior, and despite having to force our way up steep sand to the tower, arrived just as the sun was coming up.  Our route on Sister Superior was Jah Man, a classic 5 pitch 5.10. 
 The route was indeed amazing, with a bit of everything- chimneying, face climbing, and a steep and pumpy crux pitch culminating in a summit just big enough for the two of us to stand on.  We took some pictures, and started our rappel.
                                             (running along the broken ridgeline toward the Castleton group) 

Unsure how the ridgeline was going to go, we began to run to make up time.  We were stoked to find passage through the rock bands that didn’t involve down-climbing mud.  Coming up towards the Priest, we found the steep steps more difficult, with some mud-aneering required, but just as we got to the steepest part, we found a knotted rope hanging from the top of the cliffs.  Rather than fully commit to using the questionable rope to ascend the cliffs, we simply used it as a measure of protection and free-climbed to the top.  At the top were many pieces of re-bar fixed vertically into the sandy rock, the rope anchored to a few of these.  We would find out in conversation with a local guide later that these were most likely left in place after an adventure race that was held along the ridgeline a decade ago. 

    (Steffan contemplating the mental crux of the Honeymoon Chimney- a committing move off a ledge into a 
     squeeze chimney.)

Our route on The Priest was called the Honeymoon Chimney, and featured 2 pitches of chimney climbing, followed by some 5.11 face climbing to the top of the tower.  The first pitch was said to be pretty mentally taxing, so chimney-master Gregory agreed to put the rope up.  The chimney, while only rated 5.9 was just tight enough to wedge your body in, and establishing yourself required a wide lie-back which could only be marginally protected without the use of a big-bro or appropriately sized 2x4.  Some cursing followed by the sound of metal scraping on sandstone, and Steffan yelled, “Off-belay!”  My pitch featured enjoyable chimney moves protected with a Beckey-era pin.  The face-climbing proved to be quite a bit harder than 5.11, and in an effort to keep our momentum, we ended up french freeing quite a bit of it.  An airy step-across move would prove to be one of the highlights of the link-up. 

                                                (The ultra rad step-across leading to the summit of The Priest)

 Upon hitting the ground, we made a dash for our route on The Rectory, Fine Jade. This was statistically the most popular route in Castle Valley and sure enough, upon our arrival a party was on route, with two in line.  The sun was approaching the horizon.  We were hosed.

If we were smart, we would have left the gear stashed on the ridge, and attempted the link-up after a day of rest.  Instead, we started driving for Zion early the next morning.  100 miles down the road, we stopped for coffee.  An off-hand check of the smartphone yielded a 70% chance of T-storms in the Springdale area.  We weren’t going to be climbing in Zion anytime in the two days we had left.  “We could go home to the ladies,” Steffan suggested.  But we both knew that the link-up would persist in our thoughts until we put it to bed.  We had to find out if we had what it took.

            (Leading up to the crux on pitch one of the NF)                                        (Castleton Tower’s North Face)

First thing the next morning we left our camp at the base of Castleton.  An hour and a half later, the gear was stashed at the bottom of the iconic tower.  Tomorrow we would start with Castleton, and work our way towards Sister Superior.  An alpine start the next morning, and I was leading up the first pitch of the North Face of Castleton as dawn broke.  Endless fist-jams led to a difficult move on slick calcite rock to the chains.
                                                    (Stoked after making great time to the top of
                                                           Castleton Tower on our 2nd attempt on the link-up)

Steffan followed quickly up and took the lead on the next pitch of funky 5.10+.  I took over again at 8 AM, an hour and thirty minutes after starting the route.  We dispatched the last two 5.10 pitches and began our rappel.  Reaching the ground we ran towards Fine Jade, the route that had SNAFU’ed us two days before.  We were moving well and had a great chance of finishing in the day light.  To our dismay, two parties were on route, with one waiting.   
     (The Rectory from atop Castleton, with the Priest in the background.  Fine Jade takes a crack system up the center of              the sunlit face.)

Our only hope was to continue on, with hope of hitting Fine Jade last, but adding 2 miles of hiking and 9 pitches of climbing before we’d have our turn.  Quickly dispatching Honeymoon Chimney, we sprinted towards Sister Superior.  A long shot.  We roped up for the first pitch of Jah Man at 3pm, and with the desert sun berating us on the windless face, we fought our way to the summit.

(On the summit of Sister Superior, getting worked by the                   (Racing up Honeymoon Chimney)
desert heat)

Running back towards Fine Jade pushed us to beyond our fitness.  At the base of the Priest, with a waning sun, we sat and tried to recover our psyche.  “Let’s go see if it’s open at least,” Steffan said.  I followed, fully ready to demolish mac and cheese back at camp, but, like Steffan, unwilling to admit defeat.

There were no parties blocking our way on Fine Jade. We sat underneath the route absolutely spent, and watched the sun sink to illuminate the splitter cracks of Fine Jade as it made its descent.  The pursuit of the link-up would have to wait for another time, when we were stronger, and luckier.  
                                                                     (Witness the thin-ness: Sister Superior)

As we made our way down to camp in the waning light, a perma-smile took residence on my face.  I noticed the same gleefulness in Steffans expression as we humped our gear-laden packs down the side of the ridge.  There were no feelings of disappointment, and no regrets.  We had just realized the climber's dream- to attempt something we weren't sure we could finish.  And though we were defeated, in our shortcomings we were able to honestly evaluate the progress we had made in our sport.  As we laughed and joked our way down the hillside, it was obvious we had won in at least one aspect.

-Andy Stephen
Guide and Instructor at the Institute

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