Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Itinerary Not Recommended

Angels Gate are the white summits to the right of the tallest mesa in the background, which is Wotan's Throne

I’m on a year-long quest to toughen myself up for long adventure days. Each month I planned to do an adventure that took at least 18 hours. Eventually, such an adventure will be the Third 
Flatiron, but I’m still reasonably fit and not ready for a walker, so my sights are set higher. Plus, I need to be a worthy partner for my 21-year-old son Derek. Luckily I’m friends with a lot of really tough people willing to bring me along.

In December I did the Top Ten Flatirons climbs in a single, winter day with the Modern Major General (Danny Gilbert). That was 16 hours, but I’m counting it, since the level of suffering was extreme. In January I climbed Mt. Harvard with Danny and Homie. It was less than 12 hours, but the winds were positively Patagonian, so I’m counting that too. Yes, I’m aware my standards are slipping. Perhaps in response to this I did the Running Up For Air in Salt Lake City - 9 laps up and down Mt. IcantRemember in February. Yes, it was a fully supported hike-athon with hot food every 2 or 3 hours, but I stayed in the game for more than 23 hours. Nothing like a continuous 23-hour adventure, but good enough to count.

Which brings us to March and the Grand Canyon. This is a good place for ultra runners to train vert when the mountains are too snowy. When Homie got into Hard Rock, I knew he’d be the ideal partner for something long in the Big Ditch. Most people think of the Grand Canyon as just…well, a huge canyon, but it is so huge that it has over 200 summits located in it. Some of them higher than the canyon rims. These summits are called temples. I’ve been slowly climbing the summits in the Grand Canyon and it was time for another.
Brahma (left) and Zoroaster (right)
My first temple was Zoroaster, which I climbed with the desert sage Opediah over three days. This temple, like so many I’m interested in, is located north of the Colorado River, yet the only access, in the spring anyway, is from the South Rim. Which makes for large adventures. I later went back and did Zoroaster and Brahma in a single 18-hour day with Homie, Stefan, and Buzz. The most photographed summit is Mt. Hayden, which is close to the North Rim. I climbed that with Homie and Loobster many years ago. We climbed it in the fall from the North Rim. The Loobster has been my partner on most of the temples, I’ve done, including the three toughest I’ve done: Buddha, Isis, and Vishnu, the latter with Homie as well.

The amount of suffering required to stand atop some of the temples is so extreme that it takes years for me to be interested in trying one again. They look so appealing, but the amount of just brutal, horrible, off-trail hiking is staggering. What better way to toughen up? To Homie, I proposed climbing Angels Gate. This is a twin-submitted temple with one called the Doghouse and the other Snoopy. The latter looks exactly like Snoopy sleeping on top of his doghouse. A summit that cool deserves some effort and this one required it: 50 miles roundtrip with maybe 13,000 feet of vertical gain, rim-to-rim. Of course it was on the north side of the Colorado River.
Pausing to admire Angels Gate while Hiking the Clear Creek Trail
I’m not sure if Homie used a full second to sign on, but it certainly wasn’t more than that. Derek was in as well and we scheduled it for the start of his spring break. Derek had previously done two temples: O’Neill Butte when he was ten years old and which he doesn’t really remember and Isis, which he’ll never forget. Isis was a super cool temple for me because my teammates were my 16-year-old son and my long-time partner - the 70-year-old, eternally youthful Looby Dooby Doo.

For this trip, Homie had an ace in the hole. He had met a New York ultra runner named Steve Hawkins on Bear Peak one day and ran with him for all of 15 minutes. He found out that Steve accepted a job at the Grand Canyon. He now lives a 5-minute walk from Bright Angel Lodge on the South Rim. This is a guy with which I was determined to form a lasting relationship.

Steve and Homie crossing the Black Ridge at Khazad Dum
With Steve in as our fourth, he lined up an overnight permit to camp at Clear Creek. This site is 17 miles from the South Rim (ten miles up river from Phantom Ranch) and the logical basecamp for an attempt on Angels Gate. Our plan was to leave Superior after work on Friday and arrive at the South Rim at noon on Saturday. But, Steve really does work at the Grand Canyon and he needed to be in the office Monday morning. So, when he signed up for a permit that said we’d go 17 miles on Saturday afternoon and then 32 miles and 9000 vertical feet on Sunday, the rangers made him sign a form that said “Itinerary Not Recommended.”

Our 2-pound Big Agnes tent at Clear Creek camp.
Our drive went smoothly and with the hour time change (Arizona abstains from Daylight Saving Time) we got to Steve’s house around 11 a.m. We ate some lunch, packed our gear, and hopped on the shuttle bus. Our plan was to hike down the shorter Kaibab Trail via the shuttle, since you couldn’t park there, and then come out the Bright Angel Trail and hike directly to Steve’s house. We started down from Yaki Point at 12:45 p.m. Six hours later we arrived at the Clear Creek  camp. Two other tents were here, but we found a nice spot between the two and out of sight of both. Steve brought a stove and we all cooked up some hot food. Homie scoped the half-mile descent of Clear Creek before we’d turn up a tributary and head for Angels Gate.

Heading up through the first cliff band out of the wash, before traversing into the Red Wall gully.
We got up at 5:00 a.m. and were moving around 5:30 a.m. Homie led us down to the confluence and we turned up the almost-entirely-dry wash. A mile or so up the wash it looked like it would dead end into a 200-foot cliff band. We found a cairn leading up the slope on the right and then followed our nose up to a bay with a big overhang. We hiked out left of this on steep terrain and onto the sloping, prickly-pear-encrusted strata above. We made a tedious traverse across this slope and eventually into the wash that led up to the Red Wall break below the Wotan’s Throne/Angels Gate saddle. Getting through the Red Wall was steep 4th class scrambling, though not long or sustained. We arrived at the saddle in less than two hours. Elated with our progress, Steve uttered the words that would doom us: “Heck, we’ll be back in camp by 9 a.m.!” We were not.
Steve starting up the 4th class climbing through the Red Wall break.
We take full responsibility for the flailing that ensued. It was our job to find the route on our own or do enough homework to help us find the route. We failed. Detailed information on how to climb this temple is non-existent. Or at least we couldn’t find it. I own the latest version of the Grand Canyon Summits guidebook (out of print) and while I highly recommend this book and very much appreciate the effort that went in to compile this information, the info on Angel’s Gate is confusing and a bit frustrating. The black-and-white photo of the route from the saddle through the Supai cliff bands is of extremely poor quality. A key bit of missing information is the aspect from which the photo was taken. I had mistakenly assumed it was taken from the saddle. This was a dumb assumption on my part. Also, the text description in the guidebook does not match the track on the photo. The terrain from the saddle through the Supai bands is complicated to say the least. A climber must negotiate three smaller bands before reaching the impressive 150-foot final barrier, which just leads to the temple itself.

At the Wotan/Angels Gate saddle. The summit above us but the red Supai bars the way.
We got through two of the bands via a continually rightward traverse to the base of the third band. Here we made our first mistake. The photo showed the route traversing right underneath the fourth and largest band. Instead, we traversed under the third band, way around to the north and then to the west, without finding any break in the wall above us. The difficulties here were only supposed to be fourth class, but we found nothing easier than 5.10 or 5.11 or worse, which we were not prepared to do with our 100-foot, 7.8mm rope and rack of four cams. The route on Angels Gate, which we wouldn’t get to, is supposedly 2-pitches: 5.7 and 4th class. Hence, the minimal gear.

At the corner at the base of the third Supai band - the wrong place.
At one point Homie found a possibility and wanted me to check it out, as I traversed back towards him, I moved around a mini cliff and the top of it broke off. As I started to fall down the slope I immediately thought of my buddy Dave Mackey, who had rocks collapse on him and follow him down the slope to land on him and crush his leg. I pushed aggressively with my legs to avoid the rock coming with me and hit awkwardly and then tumbled once down the slope, bashing into a multitude of nasty rocks, but miraculously no cacti or yucca. I stopped, battered, bruised, and bleeding, and Steve was on me in seconds. He got my pack off and I got my breathing under control. I had cuts on my legs and shoulders, but what hurt the most was my right index finger, though it showed no sign of trauma. It felt like it had been partially crushed. After a few minutes I was able to continue, though a bit shaken and definitely more respectable of the suspect nature of the Supai.

Derek climbing through the third Supai band.
We finally figured out our mistake and traversed all the way back around and then had to traverse even further to our left to find a scramble through the third band. We then proceeded to the imposing fourth band and traversed right again. Sure we had it right this time, we scanned the wall above as we moved right. We went around the corner and saw nothing climbable. Disappointing to be sure, but the next corner wasn’t far away. Surely it was around the corner. Nope. The next corner was a substantial traverse. Dejected, we stopped to re-read what we had and to look at the photo again. Homie continued more than halfway across to the next corner and found nothing climbable, nor did he find any tracks of previous passage. Even on our mistake on the lower tier, we followed some footprints for most of it. Assuming it was wrong, he retreated back to us. We now think that going around that next corner was the key. The photo was taken from a position more around towards the north than we had assumed.
Exploring a dead end passage at the base of the fourth Supai band.
Now we traversed all the way to the left, thinking that maybe the photo was reversed. The text said to head southwest and south was definitely to the left. Southwest seemed to be directly up from the saddle but the photo showed a continuous, rising traverse to the right. Maybe the author got the directions wrong. We went clear around that first corner and again found nothing climbable and nothing that looked feasible all the way to the next corner, which was at least 15 minutes of traversing. This time Steve went out to scope it. No go. We took a bit of a siesta here. It was frustrating. We couldn’t find any way up, yet we weren’t ready to give up. We ate some and rested and re-read everything. Finally, we started down in retreat. We had to get back to the rim that night and we had a long way to go. I had a hard time quitting and kept thinking about it. Shortly into our descent I had the others convinced that the only thing left to do was to go back to the upper traverse right. They were convinced it was the only thing left to try, but none of them wanted to do it. I didn’t push it. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it. If I had pushed it, I’m sure I would have got Homie and Derek to try it. Steve had to go down, though. If we went up again, we’d be spending a second night at Clear Creek, which Steve couldn’t have done. We wouldn’t have anything hot to eat, but we’d have been fine, though a bit hungry by the time we emerged on Monday. Alas, the fight had been driven from us. Down we went. Snubbed by the Supai.
This was the photo of the route from the saddle through the Supai bands. Pretty hard to see details...
It was not trivial finding the path back through the Supai bands to the saddle and we searched around a bit. When Loobster, Derek, and I did Isis we couldn’t find our way back through the Supai bands in the dark and had to do an unplanned bivy, sans any sleeping gear. But we had the light and figured things out before long. The rest of the descent back to camp was familiar, but my feet were blistered and I fell behind my companions, limping a bit with my left leg in an attempt to limit the blister discomfort.

Derek finds the way through the first Supai band
Back at camp it took us nearly an hour to pack up, eat, and take care of our feet (Homie was having some issues as well). We left Clear Creek at 4 p.m. Steve took the lead here and pushed a steady pace. He’s a veteran of many 100-mile races and is even faster than Homie. I knew who the anchor was on this trip: me. My only contribution was supposed to be leading the technical climbing and I couldn’t even get us to the start of it. That was certainly disappointing to me.

We started with a 750-foot climb out of Clear Creek and up onto the Tonto tier. Once there the terrain rolled and we’d do 1500 feet of climbing before descending steeply, in the last vestiges of light, to Phantom Range. I just barely maintained a 3 mph pace on the 10 miles to here. It was full-on dark when I arrived but the moon gave me just enough light where I didn’t have to stop to pull out my headlamp. I was the last to arrive and when I got there Steve had already told the others of his plan to blast for the rim in the hopes of getting a reasonable night sleep before work the next day. We bid goodbye and good luck. Steve took off, then Homie, Derek and I ate, drank, and filled our water containers for the stretch to Indian Gardens, five miles away.
This is an agave (I think). Best not to run into these.

The hike out was long and dark and slow. Derek and I listened to our audio books a lot, when no one had the energy to chat. We spread out a bit, with Derek mostly in the lead, Homie next, and me bringing up the rear. Probably never more than a couple of minutes between each of us, I could keep track of the other two by the glow of their headlamps. We got to Indian Gardens at 10:15 p.m. Here we found a couple that were in rough shape. They asked for and received some Motrin from Homie. While we took a break to re-fill our water, eat and put on long pants, they continued on. We would pass them not that far up the trail and the woman was lying down to rest. I didn’t know if they had sleeping gear. I doubt it. If they did I would have strongly pushed them to sleep at Indian Gardens. I hope they got out okay.

I predicted a 1a.m. rim time, based on the 3200 feet of climbing still to do and pace I thought I could maintain. I seriously thought about sleeping here, at a nice shelter. I had no permit to do that, but wasn’t very concerned about it. I’d be up early and knew no one would even know I was there. But Homie and Derek were set on finishing this baby off. I was out there to have long, hard days, so I shouldn’t have been looking to shorten it. The three of us headed for the top.

Traversing below the third Supai band, which was incorrect.
I surprised myself and did better than expected on the rest of the way. I was still the caboose and still slow, but I was steady. We regrouped at the 3-miles-to-go Rest House and the 1.5-miles-to-go Rest House. On the final stretch to the rim I was surprised to be keeping up with Homie. He was fading fast. Despite being a super strong hiker and ultra runner, Homie had a history of trouble on the climb out the Grand. Mostly because by the time he heads out he’s done quite a lot. He made the rim with me right behind him, but had to sit down and dig out some food before he was able to hike the 10 minutes to Steve’s house. Derek had been waiting a bit and had his shell on to keep warm. Once Homie ate, we navigated through parking lots and the railroad tracks to Steve’s neighborhood and his fully enclosed front porch. Once there we just inflated out pads and crawled into our sleeping bags. I was so thankful to take off my boots and let my blistered feet breathe. I was so thankful to lie down and stop moving. I was so thankful to sleep. It ended up being a 19.5-hour day. This will definitely count.

No way up these cliffs...
The next morning I was up before 6:30 because I knew Steve left for work then. I wanted to ask him for a towel. I spent a sticky night in my sleeping bag and now craved a shower above all else. Once showered, we all craved food and headed to the cafeteria. Here Homie and Derek both had two breakfasts, like a couple of hobbits. I limited myself to one.
Crossing the Silver Bridge over the Colorado River and starting the 10-mile, 4500-foot climb to the South Rim
We lingered and then returned and packed up for our next objective: Coronado Butte. This was another GC temple, one Homie had tried before with Jeff V. They tried to onsight this climb in the late afternoon after driving all the way from Superior. This temple is only rated fourth class, so they didn’t bring a rope. Homie made a strong attempt, but didn’t ascend the correct gully and had no time for mistakes. They retreated summit-less.

Coronado Butte, an "Easy" temple, from the New Hance trail.
We headed in to right this wrong at 11:45 a.m. Yes, crack-o-noon start, but the previous day had been taxing. We packed our tiny rope, light harnesses, and a small rack, just in case. We were very determined to stand on top of at least one temple before leaving the Grand Canyon. We hiked a quarter mile along the highway to the New Hance Trailhead (no parking at all here). This is a very steep, rugged trail and drops clear to the Colorado River. We descended 1100 feet before leaving the trail and heading up to the saddle and ridge that we’d follow to the base of the butte.

Lots of loose sandy blocks, camouflaged gray prickly pear and vibrant agave led to a traverse to the right around the steep cliffs above us. The guidebook said to go up the third gully. We looked up and saw a weakness and wondered if that counted as a gully. One deep, chimney system seemed to qualify, but we didn’t see any others until we got around to the north and found the first real gully. The third gully matched the route description and we headed up it.
Scrambling the ridge up to the base of the temple.
Loose slopes led to some solid scrambling and then more loose slopes to a headwall above a ledge. I traversed way to the right along this roofed ledge, crouching low to avoid bumping my head. I had spotted a weakness over there, but once below it, ruled it out. It was climbable, but probably not easier than 5.9+. I came back and climbed up a steep crack for just a hard move or two to another ledge. Some easy scrambling got me to the exit move. A steep mantle leading directly to a steep dirt slope. I tried a few different options before committing to the move and made it up onto the slope and up to a tree. I pulled out the rope, tossed it down to Derek and Homie and belayed both of them up. It was just too dangerous for everyone to do this move, especially when we carried a rope.
We traverse around to the right until finding the third gully on the north side.
Above this section, Homie led us to the right and up a short squeeze chimney of very sharp limestone. I thought it felt at least 5.5, but we didn’t rope it, as it was pretty short and above a pretty good ledge. Then Derek took the lead and led us left and then up a steep 15-foot limestone wall with a tricky finishing move. Then we went left again, up, back right, up, and finally back to the left and the summit. We found a nice summit register up here and Homie perused it. We languished like lizards in the sun, eating our Oreos and chips and hydrating. It took us over 2.5 hours to make the summit.

Looking back at tree below the correct ascent route.
After 40 minutes on top, we reluctantly started the descent. I didn’t want to leave, not only because it was so relaxing, but the view were tremendous and these would be our last, at least for this trip. We carefully reversed the limestone wall and then I set up a rappel for Derek and Homie on the limestone chimney section. I then pulled the anchor and downclimbed. Above the dangerous-mantle wall, we left a sling and a carabiner around a tree and rappelled down. We then reversed our route back to the car. The 1100-foot climb out of there was arduous. This trail is extremely steep, and we had to use our hands in a couple of sections. It is nothing like the Kaibab and Bright Angel trails, which are highways in comparison.

On the summit of Coronado Butte.
Back at the car, we drove to Tuba City for dinner. Derek had two dinners. Kids. We slept below the bizarre Mexican Hat formation. Years ago, Homie and I climbed that en route to climbing Shiprock. We awoke to a heavy frost on our bags. Motivation was waning this morning, but I really wanted to climb South Sixshooter Peak. This was supposedly one of the easiest desert towers with some rating it 5.6 (this is incorrect). It had been on my list for at least a couple of decades (obviously not very close to the top of that list), but I hadn’t done it mostly because it involved driving an hour past Moab, past countless other towers. But now we were already south of Moab. The detour was only 30 minutes to the dirt road leading to the trailhead. Neither Homie or Derek seemed very excited, but they weren’t calling to skip. When we got the junction, Homie turned toward the tower.

Hiking back out on the New Hance trail.
After a brief bathroom stop at Newspaper Rock, we found the dirt road and using the good directions in the comments from Mountain Project, we drove to the trailhead. We were the only car there and we spread out our tarps to organize our gear. Despite the easy rating, we brought a double rack of cams to #2 Camalot and one #3 Camalot. I wanted Derek to handle most of the leading and didn’t want to handicap him with a spartan rack. The trail to the base of the route is steep but well marked and it was a joy to approach a climb completely on a trail.

We geared at the base and Derek scampered up the first pitch easily. Homie and I followed with Homie tied into the middle of our 70-meter rope and me on the other end. This worked out great as no pitch was longer than half a rope length. The first pitch went up a crack with lots of footholds and handholds and then traversed left to what would be a hard squeeze chimney if not for the three handy chockstones.
South Sixshooter Peak
On the second pitch we sent Derek up the wrong way, though a path traveled by many others given the deep rope grooves cut into the soft sandstone. Derek climbed up steepish, blocky cracks and then downclimbed to the rappel anchors in the middle of the pitch. Not sure how to proceed, he brought us over to him. We figured out which crack to climb next and Derek polished it off quickly, placing a single #3 Camalot near the top of it. Following this crack both Homie and I found it pretty stiff climbing at the top. It felt like 5.8 to me, at least for the last two moves.

Atop the second pitch.

By this time Brian had caught up to us. He popped through on the same second pitch Derek did. He wore fancy man-pri tights and…nothing else. Not even shoes. He was climbing barefoot. His partner, Millie, wore a bit more clothes. At least she had a top and shoes on. Derek was belaying at the rappel chains with the final pitch above him. When I got there he asked, “Do you want to just continue?” I did because it would be slightly faster. I was feeling a tiny bit of pressure only because I don’t like holding other climbers up. Brian was super nice, though, and any pressure I felt was purely self-imposed. As it turned out we didn’t hold them up at all.

The last pitch of this tower is interesting and certainly had my attention. Easy climbing leads up to the much-talked about “hard for 5.6 mantle.” Indeed, this pitch seems to be 5.8 also, though not very sustained. The tricky climbing amounts to about three total moves. Doing the mantle is easy. The problem is standing up on the one foot you get up there. The wall is quite steep here and there is hardly anything to grasp. I used the arete on the right, but it was marginal. The bulk of the work is doing a one-legged press. Once I stood on the ledge, I could clip the bolt, which protects the final moves which are positive face holds with very marginal feet. I thought this move was at least 5.8. In the gym it would surely be 5.9, but Derek gave it a grade of 5.8. Anyway, the 5.6 rating is complete bullshit and a 5.6 leader would probably have a hard time leading this route.
Homie starting up the crux pitch.
Homie and Derek soon joined me on top, both confirming the dicey step up after the mantle and burly moves at the top. Homie had previously told us that the summit of this route wasn’t the true summit of the tower, which was the southern summit, only thirty feet across a gap. Sure enough that summit looked a foot or two higher. We rapped to the notch and I set up a belay below the 20-foot pitch. Derek led it with a few cams for protection and Homie could feel good claiming this summit.

On top of the lower summit, which the Regular Route ascends.
We rapped to the chain anchor at the base of the last pitch on the regular route, now vacated by Millie and Brian. From there it was one rappel on our 70-meter rope to the ground. We didn’t have a lot left of our rope at the ground. A 60-meter rope would be quite marginal. I suspect if you were heavy enough it might be fine with rope stretch. On my way down the last rappel I passed a team of two guys. The leader was struggling on the steep crack that Derek led. He would eventually back off and have his partner lead it. He appreciated that I told him I thought it was 5.8.
Derek at the base of the summit pitch of the true summit with Homie about to rap off the Regular Route summit.
Back on the ground we celebrated a safe, successful ascent and ate and drank. On our hike out we passed a family of four and their dog heading up to do the tower. I felt lucky that we had been the first team up there, despite our late start. Despite failing on our main objective, the trip had been a tremendous success, with the most satisfying part being that we made a new friend. We’ve already vowed to return at least every year to join Steve for a Canyon adventure and I’ve invited him up to my house for a Colorado mountain adventure, once the temperature advantage swings in our favor. Adventuring with partners as great as Homie and Derek is the most satisfying. The objective matters a lot, but that is nearly meaningless compared to the camaraderie of my companions.

Homie following Derek's lead to the true summit.
Derek rappels while Homie packs up.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Crooked Arrow Spire and Sister Superior w/Tom

Starting the 4th pitch of Jah Man on Sister Superior

Tom and I headed to the desert this weekend, hoping to link up some towers. We were blindly ambitious. Blind about the weather. Blind about there conditions. Blind about the route difficulty, the hiking difficulty, and our abilities. Oh well, we still had fun. We did a new tower and an old tower and enjoyed the awesome beauty of the desert.

We spent the night at the Rabbit Valley campground near the western border of Colorado.
The night was clear and cold. I was thankful to have my big sleeping bag. We slept out in the open, just on our pads. In the early morning hours I marveled at the stars in the sky and picked out Venus and, I think, Mars. Our sleeping bags were covered in frost and it was in the 20’s. We lingered in our warm bags until past 7 a.m. Though it only took a few minutes to pack things up, my hands were pretty wooden by the time we jumped in the car. Tom made us some coffee and that helped warm us up.
Crooked Arrow Spire

We drove to the parking lot at Ida Gulch Road. The last time I went in here, to climb Sister Superior, we could drive the wash for a mile or so. Not any more. Now you park just off the River Road. We threw down our tarp and organized our gear while eating breakfast. We originally planned to climb the Convent and then maybe link Sister Superior, so we loaded up tons of cams for both routes. It was chilly even in the sun and looking at the shaded west face of the Convent didn’t inspire us to rush. Just about then I noticed the Blackfoot Tower splitting off from the north end of Parriot Mesa. I’d forgotten about that spire, but it had been on my list for awhile. It was three pitches long with two 5.8+ chimney pitches to a long C1 bolt ladder with a few other placements. The Loobster had done it and said it was good. It looked spectacular, but more importantly, it faced east and even though most of the route was shaded, the approach was in the sun and hopefully the rock would be warm when we got there. So, in addition to all our other gear, we tossed in two sets of aiders, but no jugs. We decided that the second would aid up the pitch as well. Might as well do a bit more climbing, we thought.

We started hiking around 9:40 a.m. Very late, I know, but it was still cold. The approach we took wasn’t correct. We found that out while reading the approach description at the base of the route. We should have read that at the trailhead. Stupid. We struggled up mud, sand, very loose slopes, hard, steep slopes, and were thwarted by rock bands, but eventually arrived at the base of the route. Danny and his partners (of which I am sometimes one) always play rock-paper-scissors for the first lead. Tom and I just decide together, based upon desire. Tom was easy, so I took the first lead. After months in the gym, I was dying to climb some cracks.
Crooked Arrow Spire can barely be seen here at the far right of the sunshine on Parriot Mesa.
The climbing was a bit challenging off the deck because it was a complicated jumble of chockstones in a wide crack. I placed a couple of pieces and deciphered it. Twenty feet up, the steep climbing abruptly stopped and I entered a 2-foot wide chimney and hiked up it. Yes, hiked. The angle was probably just forty degrees and hiked up the dirt floor. It was tight, though and one short step did involve some chimney moves. Fifty feet later I had to head vertically upwards, as I hit the wall in the back.
Tom climbing deep in the Longbow Chimney of Crooked Arrow Spire
The next hundred feet of climbing was quite engaging. The cracks before me were mostly wide ones, offwidth, but I was in a tight chimney so I could use a combination of chimney moves, liebacking the wide cracks, jamming when the cracks were small enough, and some face holds turning chockstones. I started the steep climbing by liebacking with my left hand in the left off-width crack and my right hand in the right off-width crack. This worked surprisingly well.

I climbed up about forty feet and found the pitch one anchor (rope wrapped around a giant chockstone), but elected to continue up to the notch between our tower and Parriot Mesa. From there it would be one pitch to the top. Above this belay I ran out a section and then got in a #4 Camalot that was tipped out. There was no other option. A #5 Camalot would have been useful here. I carefully climbed above it and was able to sling a chockstone fifteen feet higher.
Tom leading the bolt-ladder pitch to the summit of Broken Arrow Spire.
I stopped at the notch and called “Off belay” before I noticed the two bolts twenty feet above me. I put in a single cam and slung another chockstone, as they were the only possible anchors. But the ledge was huge and I wasn’t worried. Tom followed and then led the steep 20-foot section (solved with more chimney technique, while using the finger crack for gear and additional holds) up to the 2-bolt belay ledge.

I soon joined Tom on the ledge and then he pulled out his aiders and started to get organized. He brought just three cams with him and some stoppers, along with all 17 (not enough) of our slings. It was all aid climbing from here to the summit, save for a tiny bit of scrambling at the very top. The angle was vertical to gently overhanging. Tom placed a 0.75 Camalot early and then clipped a few drilled angles before getting to a small crack where he placed a couple of stoppers to get to the next bolt. From there on up, it was bolt clipping. He ran out of slings, though. He’d already back cleaned a few of the bolts and used a single biner on others. At the very top he was using the slings on his few cams to clip the rope into the bolts. I was wearing my pile sweater and the jacket that Tom left behind when he started the lead. It was cold belaying, mainly for my hands and feet.
The northwest end of the Convent. The West Chimney climbs the big left-facing dihedral near the left edge.
When it was my turn, I knew it would be a bit more physical, as I didn’t bring my adjustable daisies. I just clipped a sling into each aider so that I wouldn’t drop them and so that I could hang in my harness from them. I figured if I needed to, Tom could take me on tension, but I didn’t any help and thing went relatively smoothly.

On top we snapped some photos, but didn’t linger long. I was glad to be in the sun and happy to have Tom descend first so that I could warm up a bit more. We only brought one 70-meter rope and this just barely works for this top pitch. We tied knots in the end of the rope and those knots jammed into my rappel device just as I hit the ledge below.
An old, aluminum hanger.

The next rappel was interesting because it was down the tight chimney. I couldn’t lean back like you’d normally do because it was too tight. I couldn’t turn 90 degrees to lean back because the chimney wasn’t wide enough. No big deal, but not often I rappel with my entire body upright.

We had to stop at the top of the first pitch on the chockstone because our rope wouldn’t have reached the ground. The last rappel was a pain because the rope just collected on the dirt floor of the lower chimney and I had to laboriously pull that tangled mound of rope down the chimney with me. At the final steep part I had to pause to untangle it and then the ropes just barely reached the ground.

It was 2:30 by the time we got the gear packed up. We knew we wouldn’t be climbing the Convent that day as well. Instead, we followed the correct path down, marked by cairns, and then down the wash to where we thought we’d approach the Convent. We dropped our packs and hiked up a couple hundred feet to find the approach trail and scope things out. We could see our intended route, the West Dihedral. It looked steep and intimidating, but was one of the easiest routes that led to the summit.
Tom rappelling in close quarters.

We hiked back to the truck and decided to head into Moab for some Mexican food at tiny Miguel’s. It was delicious. Afterwards we grabbed a coffee and then drove to the Castleton Tower camping area because it was free. We slept here and had another cold night, but stayed warm in our bags.

The next morning we drove around to the same parking lot, the Ida Gulch Equestrian Trailhead, and had coffee. Then some breakfast. Then organized gear. Then read. Then hiked around down to the river. Our route was west facing and it was cold in the direct sun. We knew we wouldn’t be able to climb until the sun hit the route. Two ladies showed up, headed for Jah Man on Sister Superior. They took their time getting ready as well and they left around 9:45. Finally, we couldn’t stand it any longer and at 10 a.m. we started hiking.

We found the path from the day before and labored up the hill, losing the best track above the one cliff band, but it seems to hardly matter here, as the trail isn’t that defined anyway. We got to the base of the route around 11:30 and found more cold, only now we were in the shade. We snacked and drank. We hiked over to the Choir Boyz (5.12-) to check it out, only because it was our descent route, not for any climbing ambitions. The start of this route is a tiny layback crack with no feet and slick sandstone. We estimated that if this route was in Movement Climbing Gym, it would be rated mid-5.13. Tom onsights 5.12- in the gym and looking at this crack my only thoughts of ascending it were in a pair of aiders. I could maybe see working this baby relentlessly on toprope and maybe in a few years after to get up it. But never in my wildest dreams could I imagine leading it free because placing gear, for me, isn't conceivable. This is why I stress to people that, while I've climbed 5.12 in the gym, I'm really max out at 5.10 in the desert. The problem is that 5.10 is where most desert climbing starts. Which also explains the incredible popularity of anything in the desert easier than 5.10.
The crawl to the start of the West Dihedral route.
We chose our route because it was the easiest route up the Convent that didn't sound like it was also dangerous choss. It is rated 5.10, but looked harder to me - no footholds, no ledges. Getting to the start is super cool, though. We had to crawl along a ledge that is sort of a tunnel, except that it is open on one side. It's a 3-foot tall crack that cuts into the tower. We could access it from the far right side and as we crawled to the north, the ground fell away until it was more than fifty feet down to the steep scree slope. Once through, it was a careful traverse on loose blocks to the base of the route, where I blanched.

Tom was worried about how cold it was and with my poor circulation, that was going to be a serious issue for me, but if the climbing had looked easier, I'd have pushed to start up. I didn't though. And the longer we lingered at the base, indecisiveness ate at us, eroding our psyche and our confidence until there was little left. We discussed options and I even suggested going for a hike in the sun. I turn tail so easily these days. I've got some toughening up to do before I head to Fitz Roy. Around 12:30 p.m. we finally decided to retreat, save this route for better conditions, and go climb Jah Man on Sister Superior, a route we'd both done before.

Tom at the top of the Sister Squeeze flake.
At first we tried to traverse along the base of the tower, hoping to run the ridge all the way over to Sister Superior, but the slope was so steep and so loose, that it didn't seem safe. Two aborts for the price of one. Our ego sufficiently battered, we descended the slope, passing a running stream (from where? bubbling out of the ground!) doing considerable damage to the stability of the slope. Once back in the wash, we headed another half mile or so south before finding the cairn marking the route up to Sister Superior.

We had hoped by getting to the spire so late that no other parties would be clogging up the route. We figured they would all be well up the route, or descending. But there could have been multiple parties queued at the base. The 1500-foot trudge up the slope in the sun was fitting punishment for our whining about the cold. I cursed my black pants and slowed my pace as the angle increased. We got to the base of the route around 2:30 p.m. Gonzo, the two ladies' white Chihuahua, came down the trail a bit to greet us. The good news was that only two parties were up here. The bad news was that one party was just starting up the second pitch. In my younger days I've have been bothered by this and raced up, trying to pass them. Nowadays, I'm more mellow, or more accurately, less of an asshole. It was really nice in the sun, so we relaxed, shot photos, ate our lunch, and played with Gonzo.
The crux of pitch 3 is traversing left at the bolt.
The party above us was a man and woman. The guy led the Sister Squeeze pitch and the woman took over for the next two crack pitches. They clearly hadn't read my Speed Climbing book, because they were like so many teams: just amazingly slow at change-overs. You don't have to rush, in the slightest, to change over leaders in two minutes. That would look very casual if you watched a team doing it. These two took 10-15 minutes even when they didn't switch leaders. Oh well. To each his own. The two women we met in the parking lot were finishing up the fourth pitch. The second was doing a fair amount of dangling on the rope and I got the impression that she was being guided. They arrived at the trailhead in separate vehicles and that added to my impression.

We waited at the base until the leader got through the crux of the third pitch. She took one fall and then aided up on three pieces before continuing. Once she was through it, I started up. I strung the first, short 5.9 pitch (really a boulder problem), into the 5.8 Sister Squeeze chimney pitch and joined the guy, Aaron, at the top of the second pitch. Tom was starting up before Aaron started following the third pitch.
Tom starting up the short, summit pitch.
Before Tom started to lead, he wanted the upper belay cleared of all but one person. Soon after Tom arrived at my belay, the ladies from above hit the third pitch belay on their way down. The other party didn't seem to even prepare for the next pitch until both ladies had rappelled off and pulled their rope. So different from my style. So, we waited another 15 minutes on the giant flake. At least it was comfortable. Tom asked if I was taking a headlamp up the route, but I didn't. I figured if we ran out of time, we'd just rap off, without the summit. Blasphemy, I know.

Tom styled up the 0.75-Camalot crack with good footwork and powerful jamming. He clipped the bolt at the crux and then pinched the flake and powered up to the stance. He cruised the 5.9 crack above and was soon at the belay. I followed, taking advantage of his beta and the toprope. I was glad to have lots of gym training when I got to the face climbing and made it cleanly through.

The fourth pitch is rated 10b and is tight hands - #1 Camalot size - but it has occasional edges for your feet and I took great advantage of these. The pitch is spectacularly steep and has bomber gear, so it seems very safe. Even a longish fall wouldn't have you hit anything, not that I'd want to take a long fall. I felt pretty solid on the first two thirds of the pitch, but the final section doesn't have any good footholds and the crack is very tight hands. I solved the last problem by locking off a marginal jam and making a big reach to a face hold. Above there is a short bit of unprotected, but easy face climbing and I joined Aaron's partner, Thuvia Maid of Mars (or something like that), on the spacious belay ledge.
Looking at the elusive Convent from the summit of Sister Superior. Next time...
Tom led the last pitch, which is about thirty feet long: climb ten easy feet and clip a bolt; climb ten more challenging feet and clip two bolts right next to each other; do a really hard face move to a jug and then scamper ten more feet to the summit. Tom took quite a while before he committed to the move and made it look easy. Following, I had two choices for my left hand and chose the lower, more positive, though tiny, crimp. I stepped up on the one foothold, which is the size of a pencil eraser tip, and then found I couldn't reach the jug. I couldn't reverse the move. I tried in vain to find another foothold. Before falling off I made a lunge for the jug and got it. It was the closest I came to falling on the route and I thought this was the crux move by a long shot, though just a single move.

We took photos on top before doing three single-rope (with a 70-meter line) rappels back to the ground. What a great climb. I highly recommend it. It is a low-commitment, very well-protected, well bolted route with great ledges at the top of each pitch. There is only one caveat. I noticed in the comments on that David Champion (an old friend of mine) mentioned that the Sister Squeeze chimney widened three inches from 2013 to 2017. While I was belaying Tom on the third pitch, I was sitting on this flake and the two ladies were setting up their final rappel on the far end. All three of us heard a rumbling of rocks that scared the crap out of us. We saw no rocks fall anywhere. My guess is that the flake settled again. I suspect, based on this movement and David's comments, that this gigantic flake might not last my lifetime. I just hope I'm not near it when it falls. Along those same lines, though on a much smaller level, there is a comment by Max Schon on this same site about the handhold flake is "going to break off, someday soon." He wrote that January 28, 2004 - 15 years ago. Turns out that little flake might outlast the monstrous Sister Squeeze flake...
Rappelling our route - steep it is.
We packed up and hiked out, getting to the truck at 7:45 p.m. just before it got too dark to hike without turning on our headlamps. After a quick dinner of ravioli, Tom drove us all the way home, arriving at 2:30 a.m. We didn't get done what we had hoped to do, but we did climb two towers and the desert never seems to disappoint us.

The Sister Squeeze flake. How long will it remain upright?