Aiding Up The King Fisher Tower

Adam, enjoying the view from the top. Snowy LaSalle's in the back ground, and the Titan presiding.

Adam, enjoying the view from the top. Snowy LaSalle's in the back ground, and the Titan presiding.

Last week I got my first taste of  desert tower climbing and aid climbing. Let me tell you, they taste sandy and sour. Sandy because the rock – that material in which we put so much trust when we climb – was crumbling before my eyes. And sour, well, because standing in the top rung of my aiders on a rattly cam with 300 feet of exposure below me just put that funny adrenaline taste in my mouth. But you know what they say – sour grapes lemonade does not make (they say that, don’t they?). And sure enough, when the fear subsided, I took in the beauty of our bird’s eye view, I marveled at the smooth technical geekery aiding requires, and I felt pretty damn euphoric.

My friend and climbing partner, Adam, convinced me to have a go at the King Fisher Tower’s Colorado Northeast Ridge route  (III, 5.8, C2) in Utah’s Fisher Towers (home of such classics as Ancient Art). After cragging outside Moab on Wall Street, we picked up some groceries, drove out to Castle Valley, drank some of Utah’s finest 3.2 beer, organized our racks, and got some shut eye for an alpine start. The grade four climb would surely take us most of the next day.

The next morning, in the quiet gray of desert dawn, we parked in the Fisher Towers lot, ate breakfast and put the final touches in our packs: 4 liters of water, plenty of wind layers (a wind advisory had recently subsided) sun screen, and a tent pole. That’s right a tent pole. See, as we were about to head out, a climber zombie-walking to the outhouse saw us stuffing aiders and Jumars into our packs and wandered over to see what we were up to. When we told him we were going to try the Colorado Ridge, he said he’d been up it a few days before, and that he and his partner had to fix their first two pitches because they got stopped where a group of pitons had fallen out and left a big hole in the rock. They back tracked, grabbed a tent pole from camp, and ascended the next day by stick clipping a bolt 10 feet above the insurmountable gap.

Adam and I sped along the approach (mostly to make good time, but partly, I feel, to work out the nerves – this climb was going to be a challenge for us). Between quick breaths I got the down and dirty version of how to aid climb. Sensing my nerves, Adam asked, “How you feeling about this?”

“Well, I’ve never aided a pitch in my life, and this is nasty sandstone we’re talking about, so, all in all, pretty good.”

“You can lead the first two pitches,” he said. “One’s a bolt ladder, and the next is a 5.8 mud chimney. I’ll take the C2 pitches.”  Fair enough.

On the first pitch's bolt ladder. In the desert, just because they're bolts, does not mean they're secure! My first aid pitch.

On the first pitch's bolt ladder. In the desert, just because they're bolts, does not mean they're secure! My first aid pitch.

We found the beginning of the bolt ladder on the mud-coated tower, and began racking our gear and stacking ropes. Adam showed me how to connect my aiders to my daisy chains, and then use a fifi hook to high step. Confident in my ability to –  at the very least – not totally F up, I tied in, went on belay, clipped the first bolt, and headed up via a mix of expansion bolts and rusty mud nails. On bolt number two I laughed out loud at the novelty of stepping up in my webbing ladders. Such fast, tangible progress! On bolt three, my aiders got dismally tangled with all the other crap dangling off my harness and gear slings, and I looked down at Adam dutifully belaying: “Honeymoon’s over!” I shouted. From there the learning curve accelerated. Step, step, clip, hang, clean, clip, step, step, repeat.

Adam, leading up the third pitch and trying to find the least bad placement. Note the tent pole taped to his harness.

Adam, leading up the third pitch and trying to find the least bad placement. Note the tent pole taped to his harness.

Pitch two was a fairly easy but unprotected mud chimney that got the heart racing, but it felt familiar and comfortable to be free climbing. Then I passed the lead to Adam for the next two C2 pitches. We punched the clock, ’cause it was business time. Adam soon found himself in the first crux of the route: a flaring, crumbly constriction requiring a small tricam. “Watch me dude, I’m kinda scared up here,” he said. “I’m going to bounce test this piece.” As he bounced he looked down at me to keep the rock from shattering in his face. Sure enough, the tricam blew out, and Adam fell into a surprisingly soft catch on the piton a few feet below him. Reality check. After reworking his placement, he continued up through tenuous terrain taking tipped out cams and rattly tricams. He finally gained a ledge, where he unleashed the secret weapon: the tent pole. He taped an open ‘biner onto the pole, put the rope through, and made his reach. The wind had picked up, and we were both shivering in the shade in the middle of the sunny desert (remember, it’s the Northeast Ridge). The wind made Adam and his tent pole look like a fly fisherman who suddenly finds himself in a terrible dream. He became audibly frustrated as the pole whipped in the gusts. Finally, in a calm spell, he clipped the bolt, and hauled up on the lead line. Four hours in, pitch three complete.

That's me dangling from my mental crux: the roof on pitch 5.

That's me dangling from my mental crux: the roof on pitch 5.

My crux of the climb was the fifth pitch (C1), where the line split a free hanging roof. A flaring crack took two lobes of a size 4 camalot, and then two lobes of a size 2 camalot, but I threw in a slotted tricam and a size 1 camalot just for confidence’s sake. Hey, the rock sucked and so did the rusty piton below me. Not to mention the 300 feet of wind beneath my feet. After wiggling like I was in an offwidth and smashing my hands about a gazillion times between carabiners in the crack, I pulled up over the roof and clipped a bolt. Then I got the pleasure of run out 5.8 face climbing to a big ledge and our next belay.

Adam finished the route up a 5.8 chimney, and then we bouldered the cap rock together. 11 hours, bottom to top. The sun was dipping low, and we had to curb our urge to laze around on the summit for infinity. Below us hoodoo canyons rippled through the land. The Colorado river flowed lazy to our west. Red rock and shadows textured the earth for miles. I looked down at places I had camped as a kid, and an overwhelming sense of time, nostalgia and catharsis rushed over me. Time to descend.

The light oozed sunset red as we rappelled the route on solid, but scary looking desert anchors: bundles of old webbing around geriatric pitons. A route that took us 11 hours up required about one hour down. And if we’d gotten any ropes stuck, we would have had a long night ahead of us. We made it back to the car in the dark as the stars erupted from the atmosphere, thirteen hours after starting. Behind us the silhouette of the King Fisher was crowned by a single point of stellar light. Across the parking lot a family roasted marshmallows, children laughed, and dogs yipped. We sat on the tailgate and relived the day’s events: “Dude, and then you were like…oh my god, and your aiders were flying out to the side, and….Dude…” We sat quiet, too, and basked in the peace of struggle and accomplishment. All the while reconciling the vertical life with the horizontal; the bird’s eye experience with the human condition.

Mmmm....desert anchors. And this is a good one!

Mmmm....desert anchors. And this is a good one!

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