October 12, 2013
With the daytime temps dipping into the 60s and the leaves turning bright yellow it is time to start visiting the desert. Places like City of Rocks are getting a little chilly if you aren’t in the sun, but the Utah desert is just starting to get comfortable. Jon and I decided to take advantage of this by going after a desert tower last Saturday. The common objective is Castleton Tower, a 400 ft sandstone tower, but there are other worthy objectives in the vicinity, namely Sister Superior. This tower is north along the same ridgeline as Castleton Tower. There are a number of routes on it but the one that everyone goes for is Jah Man (5.10+). The route goes a little more than 3 pitches up primarily on thin hand cracks (#1 Camalots).
We camped near the entrance road on Friday night and had the place to ourselves. There is a dirt road, or more accurately there was a dirt road that would bring you fairly close to the base of the tower. However on Friday night we saw that it wasn’t passable with my WRX so we decided to walk the 2 or so miles in the morning. To avoid potential crowds we got an alpine start around 6am in the dark. As we walked along the road it quickly turned from rough dirt road to total washout. The road appeared and disappeared for the entire way. In some spots the drop from the road to the wash was a couple feet. Only a fully prepped Jeep would have a chance of getting back via the road. Or a couple ATVs.
We had neither so we just walked, as we got to the turn off from the wash there were some obvious cairns leading us left to the tower. From afar Sister Superior doesn’t look all that impressive. It is bookended by the Rectory and the Covenent which are two tiny mesa outcroppings. Their bulk and Castleton’s isolation make Sister Superior seem like a tiny objective. However it is mainly an optical illusion and the illusion goes away as you get closer.
Patchy clouds which had dropped rain a day or two prior still dotted the sky giving great lighting and depth for the sunrise. We reached the tower after puffing up 1000′ of rubble below the tower. Once at the base of the route, and all alone, we decided to take our time getting ready to climb. The sunrise and location we viewed it from was well worth the early wake up.
Finally we got our act together and Jon picked the odd pitches. P1 is moderate but has a squeeze chimney to negotiate. The start of the chimney was by far the hardest point. The trick was just getting in there and let it swallow you. Once you can worm your way up about 20′ the chimney starts to widen a bit and it allows more comfortable travel with small ledges and other features inside to use as hand and foot holds. There’s even protection within in the form of cracks. Quite fun after the initial bit.
P1 dumps you on top of a large detached flake. The space behind the flake is the chimney you come up. Pitch 2 is the business and that fell to me. At first glance the tight hand crack is stunning, going up about 40 feet before shooting left under an overhang. I grabbed the copious amount of gear from Jon and made the first move and grabbed a broken block wedged in the crack. My plan was to get on top of this block and place my first piece of protection from the stance it would afford. As I grabbed it it rattled in place. Probably not enough to come out but it was enough to go back down one move to the belay ledge and place my first piece from the security of it. Confident I wouldn’t fall onto the belay I went up again.
I don’t typically tape but I decided for this climb, being mostly tight hands, that I would. It helped a bit on this pitch. I proceeded upward with the normal amount of pain and insecurity a crack of this size usually gives me. I placed 2-3 pieces of pro along the way. Getting to the overhang I reached out left and clipped the bolt, which is at the crux. I’m not sure why the bolt is there but I wasn’t questioning since I was getting super pumped. I moved a little more left after the clip and my strength failed and hung on the bolt. I tried working the tricky sequence traversing under the overhang on thin hands and rattly fingers. I made a couple of attempts and hangs before I found the sequence and hand holds. Once passed that point it wasn’t a gimme getting around the end of the overhang and up on the 5.8+ ramp. Once I finally did it wasn’t too bad getting to the next belay ledge. Jon was able to get through the crux a little easier than I did but still had to hang a couple times.
Jon’s pitch was also a money one. This probably clocks in at 5.10 or .10+ as well in a similarly sized crack. The differences is there’s no traverse under an overhang. Jon did a great job leading it and was able to protect it well from the few stances it allowed. Definitely a sweet pitch, perhaps a bit steeper than the one I did too.
At the top of P3 I racked up for the 5.9+ face climbing that lay ahead just before the summit. From our vantage point and the book’s info it was unknown if there were just bolts or natural protection as well. I scrambled on top of a block to the right and got hit with a nice dose of exposure. At this point the tower was tapering out and this move right put me on the arete of the thing giving me a greater than 180 degree view of the valley below. I reached up and clipped an old 1/4″ bolt and made a delicate boulder move on top of a small ledge. From here another reach clipped a solid looking drilled piton. This move proved to be a bit harder and was a definite boulder move to get up a little higher. Turns out after making that move you are essentially on the top–only 30 ft from the belay. Guess I didn’t need to take all that gear after all.
We lounged on the summit which is about 8-10 feet wide at it’s widest and about 20 feet long. The sun, warm breeze, and 360 degree views were awesome. We ate lunch and waited for the French couple who’d showed up behind us to arrive so we could combine ropes for the way down.
While we’d been on route there were five other parties that showed up so rapping down was a little bit of a pain since the belay ledges aren’t all that big. Eventually we got back to our packs and walked out. Jean-Jacques and Martine were super friendly and had been climbing in the States many times before. They had wanted to climb in Zion but the government closure nonsense kept them away.
We chatted the afternoon away back at the car with them and a couple of girls from Bozeman, MT who were serious crushers. They could out climb me and Jon on their worst day. Over beers Martine and Jean-Jacques told us some of their stories from their many years of climbing. They have been to Denali, Yosemite, Pakistan, Morroco, Madagascar, Himalaya–seriously well traveled climbers. Martine is also the first woman to have been certified as a guide in Europe! After a few beers, some of which were mixed with Sprite for Martine and Jean-Jacque, we parted ways but it was nice to make some new friends. Hopefully I’ll see them again sometime soon.