Monday, April 09, 2018

I-Can’t-Believe-It’s-Still-Standing Rock

I probably first became aware of this tower from Layton Kor’s book Beyond The Vertical. Kor was a hero of mine. How could he not be if you ever read Climb: A History of Colorado Climbing? Kor climbed everything. With anyone. He succeeded on extreme climbs with neophyte partners. My buddy Opie made one of the most apt comments when discussing Kor approaching Castleton Tower (he did the first ascent) via a very steep, loose cone: His balls were so big he had to carry them up there in a wheelbarrow.

Indeed, Kor was bold. One look at Standing Rock and a sane climber would turn tail and immediately dismiss it. But Kor climbed it via scary A3+ and I had no intention of following in his large footsteps. Too scary. Or it was. Then it got free climbed, mostly at 5.10. New, safe belay and rappel anchors went in and when they did, the climb went onto my to-do list. That was ten years ago. Since I’m not sure medical science will solve the dying thing before I reach 100 (they might), I decided I better get that tower done. When Tom mentioned it, I didn’t hesitate.

Standing Rock is located in Monument Basin - a place rather difficult to get to. This is a remote area of Canyonlands National Park. Most climbers drive the White Rim Trail for 4 hours and then rappel down into the basin. We didn’t want to do the drive and found some information about accessing the White Rim directly from the Island In The Sky mesa. There is a, possibly mythical, route called the Government Trail that descends from the mesa that doesn’t require fixed lines. We read about someone descending it, though they called it 5.5. Neither Tom nor I wanted to onsight down solo 5.5 on a 500-foot cliff with heavy packs. Still, it sounded like the easiest way down. We never found it.

We drove out Friday night and slept just off the Mineral Bottom Road. I’ve crashed there many a time before riding the White Rim Trail. No sooner than we had laid down our bags than it started raining. We popped up, emptied out the back of Tom’s truck and slept in the back. The next morning we drove out to Grand View Point. Somewhat surprisingly, I’d never been there before. Mainly because there is no trail (other than the phantom Government Trail) that gets one off the mesa. There is a nice 1-mile hike that goes out to the very tip of the mesa, which is well worth doing.

We packed up a rack, a 70-meter lead line, and two extra ropes for fixing: a 30-meter 9.8mm and an over-due-for-retirement 60-meter 7.8mm line. We both carried a jugging setup as well, to ascend any fixed lines we might place. We hiked a 100-feet out to the viewpoint and then hiked to our left, north, along the eastern edge of the mesa, looking for a way down. The cliff is huge and very steep, so it was difficult to see much when peering over the edge. After a quarter mile or so, we got to a steep gully cutting into the cliff. We figured it was our only shot for descending.

We worked our down some small ledges to the lip of the first vertical cliff. It looked no more than 100 feet high and ended in a hike-able gully that led to another steep drop. We decided to descend and check things out. We anchored our rope around some huge rocks near the lip and then dropped in, wearing our packs, which was the wrong decision. Our packs were quite heavy and the rappel was free hanging for nearly the entire way and the weight of our packs pulled us back uncomfortably. We lowered the packs down separately from then on.

We descended the gully to the next steep section, which was only about 30 feet high, but also overhanging. We fixed the skinny rope here and dropped down onto the ledge below, which was right above another 100-foot cliff. Our rope reached the bottom and we did our third completely free-hanging rappel down to the steep slope below. I cached my jugging setup here, since we were out of fixed lines.

We hiked down the slope, found our way through the black cliff band and down more steep terrain to the final cliff band above the White Rim. After some searching we found a way down this as well. We hiked out a wash until it hit the White Rim Road. We continued across this to the very rim and then hiked along it, looking for any way down into Monument Basin. We had read about a fixed 20-foot line. We never found that and I can assure you that there is no fixed line anywhere near where the White Rim overlooks Monument Basin.  We did see a bunch of bikers, though.

We saw one spot where a steep slope got to within thirty feet of the rim and we headed over there to check it out. Sure enough, we could get down here, but we’d have to leave some cams as an anchor and then climb back out, as we couldn’t leave our only remaining rope. We searched further, determined to find the fixed line, with no luck. We could have left some cams and continued on to the tower, but by the time we gave up looking for another way, we were a bit short on time. Plus, we didn’t know if we could leave part of our rack behind and still climb safely. We decided to bail and try again on Sunday. We’d hike back up and check again on how long the drive would take.

We hiked back up the wash, but before we started up steeply, we cached the rack, rope, water, and climbing shoes. We were committed to returning.

Once back at our tiny, ratty 7.8mm line, we donned the jugs and set to work. Tom was not thrilled about ascending this line and I didn’t blame him. When we first headed back, our plan was for me to jug it and then haul up our lead line for Tom to jug, but we had cached it. He jugged it. He didn’t like it, but he did it. I went first and then hauled up both packs. I did the same on the next two jugs. The next two were a bit difficult at the top, as the rope ran tight against the rock as it rolled over to the ledge above.

We left both of these ropes behind, as well. At the top of our last line we stashed our harnesses, helmets, and jugging gear. We hiked back to the car with near empty packs. With some time to kill, we hiked out to Grand View Point and then went to the Visitor Center to confirm the length of the drive. The rangers confirmed a 4-5-hour drive time. No way. I felt that now that we knew the route, we could get down to the White Rim Trail in under two hours. So, we decided to repeat our route the next morning.

We drove back to Mineral Bottom Road and found a place to camp. Once again, we laid out our tarp and were about to throw down our bags, when the rain started. It rained off and on, mostly on, for the rest of the evening and well into the night. We hung out in the truck - Tom in back and me in front, reading. Tom cooked up some ravioli for dinner and we slept in the back of the truck again.

The next morning the ground was soaked, with puddles everywhere. We wondered if the rock would be climbable and figured it wouldn’t be. Either way, though, we were headed down to the White Rim to get our gear. Originally we wanted to be moving by 7 a.m. but everything was so wet that we took a bit longer and didn’t leave the pavement until just before 8 a.m.

We followed our familiar route again, but this time we carried two more ropes (both 30-meters) and four extra cams to fix the rope at the White Rim. We descended to our first line, geared up and rapped in, with our packs, this time, clipped to our harnesses. At the second drop, with the ratty, skinny line, we replaced the first 30-foot rap with a 30-meter 7.8mm rope that was in much better shape (no core shots) and used the extra line from that to fix our second extra line, a 9.8mm rope, which just made it down the 100-foot cliff. With three fixed lines behind us, we continued down to the White Rim, to the location we found before. It took us just 90 minutes to get back to here. We put in the four cams and fixed the middle of the ratty, skinny and rappelled 80 feet down onto the steep slope. We carefully picked our way down this slope and into the winding wash that led us directly to Standing Rock.

We got the rock just 2h15m after leaving the parking lot. We took a break here to survey the tower, eat, drink, and tape up. Tom started up the first pitch around 11 a.m.

Standing Rock is just over 300 feet tall and is normally climbed as four pitches of 5.10, 5.10+, 5.11+, and 5.7. The first pitch is super cool and heads up a dihedral to a huge roof, where you have to traverse hard to the right, around from the east side of the tower onto the north side - the shaded, windy side. Tom dispatched the pitch nicely, working out the gear and finding the belay with the shiny, bomber anchors. I followed without much trouble, except for a steep (slightly overhanging), awkward section above the roof..

I led the second pitch, which traversed on an easy, but airy ledge to a vertical crack system. I climbed up this crack, fighting my way over two overhanging sections which were a bit pumpy. The protection was mostly cams, with a stopper or two, a couple of ancient bolts, and one fixed pin. I passed one three-bolt hanging belay and arrived at a second 3-bolt hanging belay. I was confused if this was the end of the pitch or not. I thought each pitch was going to end on a good ledge. I yelled down to Tom if I was supposed to be at a hanging belay and he thought so, so I belayed there, hanging on the edge of a tower that shouldn’t even be standing.

While Tom followed the pitch, I convinced myself that I made a mistake and should have gone thirty feet higher. I couldn’t see any anchors above, but it looked like there might be a ledge up there. As Tom took off on next lead, I told him my theory, and he said, “No problem. If that’s the belay ledge, I’ll just bring you up to there.” He then climbed up to a very wide crack where he placed our only #4 Camalot. The climbing here was crux-y, as you had to make a big reach on steep ground to a cupped-hand jam and then pull up with marginal help from your other hand. This led directly to another bulge with marginal holds before reaching a great hold just on the belay ledge. Still, getting up and onto the ledge was tiring and Tom did a great job getting the gear in on this pitch. I felt that section was the crux free climbing of the climb…for us.

The next pitch, now my pitch, is the free-climbing crux. It was rated 11c, but that was when there was this hold called the Elephant’s Ear, which no longer exists. I climbed steep ground up to the bolt that protected the crux. After a brief look at the crumbling edge I’d have to grab and pull on, with no feet at all, I quickly decided to aid it. I put a sling on the bolt and pulled up and stepped in it. From there I could reach a fixed pin, which I clipped and then pulled on it. I climbed maybe ten feet above the pin and clipped another bolt. Here I went to the left a bit, to some limestone and pulled over the bulge onto a good ledge. I followed this well to the right, up an easy section and back a bit to the left, where I found a belay from two old bolts and one newer bolt. I belayed here and Tom followed, using aid as well. He felt there was no way he could free climb the crux move and Tom’s sent 5.13. Regardless, it was beyond me to free it, but I’m really good at cheating on bolts. It’s sort of a specialty of mine.

Tom led the final 5.7 pitch to the summit, which spiraled further around the spire to the south side. It was runout and the rock quality wasn’t great, but nor was the difficulty and Tom tread lightly. The summit is roughly six feet by fifteen feet. We found a summit register in a water bottle stashed on the summit. Inside was a single piece of paper, which documented at least three or four ascents this year, including one by two friends of mine: Timmy O’Neill and Erik Weinmayer. Erik’s blind and I once again shook my head in amazement by what he can do. Just approaching this tower is an adventure. The only other thing in the water bottle were two joints and a lighter. We left them unsmoked. We couldn’t even add our names since there was no writing instrument.

We took some photos and then descended, easily, via three rappels from bomber, 3-bolt, chain anchors. Our 70-meter rope comfortably made the first two rappels and just barely touched the ground on the last one. We knew a 70-meter would work and opted to bring it instead of two 50 or 60-meter lines.

We ate and drank some more, before packing our gear. The tower took us about 4 hours to climb, roundtrip. All we had left to do was to ascend 2000 feet back to the Island in the Sky, jugging and collecting our four ropes along the way. By the time we topped out, our packs were really heavy. Tom jugged the first line and hauled the packs and I went first on the next two and hauled the packs. We got back to the car just before 5 p.m. and just before ten hours.

What a cool adventure this was! Standing Rock really is a crazy tower. Almost the entire tower is offset from the base, so it seems even more precarious. Once on it, though, the rock is surprisingly reasonable. Yes, there is some of bad rock too, but all the gear seems solid and while it would have been scary to fall on this tower, I felt all my placements would have held a fall. The three rappel anchors are the most bomber I’ve seen anywhere. That’s pretty shocking considering the rock on this tower.

I suspect this tower will stand for a thousand years or more, but eventually it will topple. When it does, you don’t want to be on it, but it would be very cool to watch it go from a safe distance. Get it while it’s Still Standing Rock.

Postscript: The drive home was a nightmare, as we drove through a driving snowstorm so fierce that we could hardly see the road. This was over both Vail Pass and up and through the tunnel. The worst of it was probably descending to Georgetown. This is a 3-lane highway and we were the only vehicle on the road, driving as close to the center as we could. The only way we knew we were on the road was sighting the median on our left and the guard rail (not always there) on the right. Visibility straight ahead was around fifty feet or less. We drove 15 mph. Finally, past Georgetown it let up to rain and then stopped. We got home at 2 a.m.