Castleton Tower, Utah

May 16, 2003

Dave Svilar, Matt Alford

 

Thin red line shows our route - the Kor-Ingalls.

 

Looking up from the base of the route.  Numbers show the position of each belay.

The one plan we had for the trip was a stupid test I had to take in Grand Junction, CO on May 17.  Two days prior to the dumb test we found ourselves in Moab, UT looking for something to climb and somewhere to camp for free.  We had one day to climb, so we figured renowned cragging area Indian Creek would be the best bet.  That was until we laid eyes on a picture of the Castleton Tower.  A striking desert, sandstone formation rising to improbable heights on each of its vertical sides.  Who wouldn't want to sit on top of such a wild piece of rock?  Truly a place only birds should go.  Fortunately I had Matt.  While not a bird, Matt will scrape, claw, and fall until he gets to the top of anything.  The route attempted the next day would be the Kor-Ingalls, supposedly one of the classic 50 climbs in North America.  It featured a crux 5.9+ off-width (off-width = awkward and hard), but Matt didn't seem concerned.

The night before the climb we took the camera and tripod for a run to the Delicate Arch in Arches National Park.  There seemed to be an inordinate number of other people with tripods and cameras, so I struck up a conversation with another photographer and learned that a lunar eclipse was on the way.  Unknowingly our timing was perfect.  The eclipse over the La Sal Mountains in the crisp desert air was breathtaking.  I called my Dad back in Washington state who usually gets excited for this sort of event.  I wasn't the least bit surprised to hear that he couldn't even see the moon under a sky of clouds.  (Pictures at bottom of page)

We weren't in any particular hurry when we awoke the morning of the climb.  Neither of us would be considered lazy, but we had taken to the relaxing pace of the sport of rock climbing.  We drove from our Moab camp spot near the famous Slick Rock mountain bike trail to Castle Valley via Highway 128, a must-drive for anyone in eastern Utah.  If Highway 128 is a must-drive, then getting a glimpse of Castleton Tower is a must-see.  What a chunk of rock!  How did it form?  How come it doesn't just fall over?  Good questions for a geologist, but I was more concerned about how my scrawny body could get to the top.

Matt on the approach trail.  Other Castle Valley formations - the leftmost tower is known as the Rectory.

We made the approach through a tight flash flood canyon and then up a switchback trail to the base of the tower.  Even though we had a late start we were the first on the route.  With my unsavory rope drag-creating skills I was able to turn the first pitch into two pitches.  Mostly scrambling and a simple chimney to reach the belay bolts.  Matt then led up what looked from my vantage to be a simple 5.8 crack.  Matt huffed and puffed his way up the crack making it look more like 5.10.  Thinking I would make it look easy I followed his lead and fell out of the crack at least three times.  I'm here to tell you that if a crack is wider than your fist, you can't fist jam it.  Perhaps I should have tried a layback.  Whatever the case, after a couple of weeks on 40 grit granite (Joshua Tree) I wasn't accustomed to the 220 grit sandstone of this area.  A couple of days cragging in the Moab area would have benefited, but we were now stuck on this tower.

Matt climbing the 5.8 crack.  The heinous 5.9 off-width is barely visible higher in the picture.

Judging by my struggles on the 5.8 pitch I wasn't sure I'd even be able to follow the 5.9+ off-width, so I dumped the backpack and grabbed a piece of webbing for an emergency prusik.  I was about to suggest to Matt that we could just back off the climb and find something more mellow, when I heard "climbing."  Matt set off from the belay on an awkward corner smearing his feet on one of the many calcite deposits that splotch the tower.  If the texture of the rock was like 220 grit sandpaper then the calcite was like a high gloss varnish - Spiderman couldn't have stuck to it.  Matt continued on making a tricky switch from the corner to a face then lie-backing up the off-width.  I expected him to fall at any moment, so my eyes were glued to his every move and my hand to the brake.  What I saw next was a piece of climbing I'll never forget.

He aborted the lie-back and dove head first into the off-width crack.  Then he seemed to roll over onto his back, with only his legs protruding from the wide crack in a fierce scissor kick motion.  One would have thought he was in a pool practicing a side stroke, not three hundred feet off the ground on a desert tower.  If I wasn't so concerned for his well-being I would have doubled over with laughter.  I could tell that a pair of climbers coming up behind us were watching Matt as well, as their silence spoke for their astonishment.  Looking for words to describe Matt's unorthodox climbing style all they could say was, "Oh my God."  Despite the heinous nature of the pitch Matt reached the bolts without even falling. 

Forgetting my troubles with the last pitch I was once again sure that I would climb the pitch with the utmost style.  I actually did feel stylish until reaching the off-width.  Instead of fierce scissor kicking my head got stuck in the crack.  I lost all style points, but did make it without having to break out the prusik.  The final pitch was much easier and felt like a joy compared the the rest of the climb.  One note of interest on the final pitch was being able to hear other climbers voices seeping through the cracks of the thin tower.  On the other side I could hear a lady trying to find a place to use the bathroom (#1).

Matt and I were first to the top followed shortly by a familiar character.  Stifler!  It had to be Stifler from the movie American Pie.  I'm sure he would have started telling dirty jokes if it wasn't for the annoying girl he had dragged up the tower whom he was trying to impress.  I couldn't even look at him with a straight face, so I took a nap in the hot sun.  We needed to rappel our route, but more climbers kept coming.  It was becoming standing room only on the small summit, so we finally decided to head down regardless if any others were still climbing.  We shared a line with two fellows from Jackson, WY and reached the ground in four rappels.

The climbing didn't merit "classic" status, but the position of the tower certainly did.  Such a spectacular monument surrounded a myriad of other rock towers, green orchards irrigated by the Colorado River, and the snow-capped La Sal Mountains - the same peaks I stared at from the Telluride lifts all winter.  Matt and I waited for over three hours on the summit, but didn't mind.  The top of Castleton Tower is a flat 60' x 20' platform dropping 400' down on every side and an additional 600'+ to the true desert floor.  I was glad to have spent the day on such an unusual climb instead of studying for my stupid test the next day.

-written June 2003

Delicate Arch, cloud-capped La Sal Mountains, and a red-head running in the lower right of the picture.

 

Partially eclipsed moon rising over the La Sal Mountains.  It was actually dark, but camera trickery makes it appear light.

 

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