November, '05



Alone on River Tower





     The Sun has been up for an hour when I finally pull away from the warm bed and my sleeping wife. Already I'm angry with my slacker self. If I was really serious about soloing RIver Tower today, I should have been more disciplined and awoken earlier.  With effort I push that negative thought from my mind. I'm up and moving now and things seem pretty good; hell I feel confident. After all, my only goal is to get to the base of the route. I can't be bothered with what may or may not happen after that. Just get to the base, that's the plan. That much I can handle.

     On the drive up River Road I visualize the day going smoothly. I see myself pulling the final rappel ropes after summitting and enjoying a nice hike back to the car laden with satisfaction. By the time I pass the turnoff to the Fisher Towers, I'm feeling relaxed and having a great time.

     My calm demeanor is rippled when I don't see a dirt road leading to the tower as my guidebook suggests. Many things will  have to go smoothly for me to pull this off, and finding the road that leads to the objective is not least among them. Before I can get too worried though, I find the dirt road and follow it to it's end next to a juniper tree.

     I'm back on track. An obvious trail leads away and I follow it up to a ridge line. From here it's cross country hiking to the tower which is out of site around the mesa. Having no description of the approach, my plan is to gain the hillside and contour around to the base of the north face. This plan works although some of the hiking is rather technical. I'm glad I have my trekking poles.

     At the base I easily find my route and spend a few minutes looking it over and taking pictures. The first pitch looks to be a step down from your standard, manky bolt ladder. I do see a solid looking 3/8'' stud and an angle piton up higher though. My decision process lasts two minutes and ends with "What the hell, someone rated this thing C1 for a reason right?"

     Knowing that I have to be moving all the time if I want to be off this thing by dark, I start getting ready. I tie off a small caprock down slope to bolster my unappealing anchor, which will consist of clove hitches on the first few crappy pieces. "It will hold" I tell myself out loud as I gear up. I'm full of nervous energy and have to keep reminding myself that I always feel this way before starting a solo. This is normal... It will be better once I get going... one step at a time is the answer...

     As soon as I'm ready, I start up and before long I'm looking down at a few pieces that I think might catch me. The gear is clearly not what one would hope to find on a C1 pitch, but the placements keep coming. As I stand up on another ancient, 1/4'' machine bolt, I think of the times I teased Ian about his "easy" C1 pitches. I push on with a grim grin, ready to take my lumps. The climbing is quite tense for a bolt ladder and after an hour, I still have a third of the pitch above me. I've climbed into a tube-like chimney and I'm stuck at a place where the fixed gear seems to run out. After looking around for a while, I find a semi-enhanced skyhook placement.  It's pretty damn ugly though and I have the impression that although some crazy fool has hooked here, there must be an easier way. I feel the situation growing more serious as I continue to look and find nothing. Even with 100 feet of fixed placements tied off below me, falling isn't safe. I decide to test the hook and on the third bounce, it rips and cracks into my helmet. Then, just as I'm starting to contemplate the ridicules free climbing options, I spot a tiny buttonhead. I'm more than a little stunned that I missed it before. It looks old. Its probably from the first ascent which means the damn thing is as old as I am. Still, it looks pretty good compared to getting out of my aiders so I put a butterfly rivet hanger with an aid-scream on it and stand up like it's a tied off dirt clod.

     The anchor is 4 solid pieces and a brown, booty tri-cam. I'm finally relaxed and I allow myself a few minutes to sit and take in the situation. After all, this may be as high as I go! The bolt ladder was much more taxing than I had expected. Looking up at the second pitch, it's obvious that mandatory free climbing will be involved right away. The chimney is lined with mud and there are no positive holds. I'm undeniably troubled. My guide says this pitch goes mostly free at 5.4, C1, but it looks harder. The whole things is starting to feel like too much until I remember that I don't have to make this decision right now. My only goal right now is to clean the pitch. One step at a time...

     The ground brings little comfort knowing that I have to go back up right away. I take a few bites of food and retrieve the camera which has been taking time-lapse shots while I climbed. I still haven't decided if I'm going to continue but I triple check everything and start jugging. One of my daisy chains is too long but instead of fixing it, I just push on. By the time I get to the anchor, I'm worked and irritated.

     Using my brief spurt of frustration energy, I re-rack everything for the next lead. Calmness comes as I get ready. I'm going up!

     The opening free moves are not physically hard, but my brain is working triple time. There's a ring piton a body length above me. The moves look easy but I'm loosing my head. 'One step at a time' is great until you get to the step that says... "leave the comfort of the anchor and climb easy, 5th class, mud chimney". I stare out at the Colorado River and stupidly let myself think about the absurdity of what I'm doing. This is a moment of truth and I know it. I think about Koren and what she's doing right now. I think about my goal of climbing 100 towers in my lifetime. Is that even possible if I can't suck it up on a pitch rated 5.4? I think about my partners and wonder what I would do if they were here. Suddenly I realize that I'm wedged into the chimney a few feet above the anchor with no pro and I've just spent several minutes in this position debating whether or not to bail. Obviously it must not be too hard! I start moving up.

     The moves are indeed easy though I'm nowhere close to relaxed as I perform them. Well above the fixed pin, I place my largest cams in a grungy crack in the back of the chimney. The rock above pinches down and I climb out to the edge of the chimney with something resembling unease in my stomach. Again the moves are easy but everything is loose and muddy. I'm forced to the very edge where I see that I need to move up and right onto a series of dirty ledges. The protection opportunities on the ledges look dour.  The climbing looks easy. I rock up onto the first ledge and start carefully climbing up using the cleanest and most solid looking holds. I'm heading for an obvious corner with a chimney above and by the time I reach it, I'm 25 feet out from those grungy cams.

     In the corner I find no good gear save for one old, ring piton that provides passage over a sloppy roof. The situation is underwhelming. Its an ugly, 50 footer onto the bad cams if the pin blows. Above the roof is an easy looking chimney and my salvation. I know what I have to do and am heartened to realize that I'm still calmly problem solving as opposed to anything else. I test the pin with a 250lb aid-scream until I'm sure of its integrity, push the negativity from my mind and make the move. I'm almost gleeful as I climb the much better rock above and I finish the pitch with an open grin on my face. It is the proudest 5.4 lead of my life.

      Dangling in space, 5 feet out from the lower anchor, it occurs to me that clipping my rappel rope into a directional may have been warranted. I start swinging like a kid in a park. Legs out... legs back...legs out...   My pride is gone.  Now all I'm thinking of is that anchor 100 feet above me and how screwed up I must be to want to do this alone in my free time. Eventually I have the momentum to touch the rock with my feet and I push off. Several airy swings gain me the anchor.

     I leave my boots at the lower anchor and jug in my rock shoes. With my daisy chain lengths now dialed in, jugging goes smoothly and I start to feel like the man again.

     The third pitch is an easy class 4 scramble along the top of the tower and in less than a minute, I'm looking across the gap that separates me from the true summit. I'm also dismayed to see the sun so low in the sky. I'm guessing that I have about two hours of sunlight left. Time for a decision. The summit is only 20 feet higher than I'm standing right now but it will take me an hour to stand on it and get back here. That leaves one hour to reverse the scramble, rap twice, pack and find a way down through the short cliff bands below the tower.  It's a tough call and I try to be hard and analytical with myself.  I honestly think I can make it though.  I'm still in control of the situation. The smart move is to take the next step until I have no more time to spend.

    I rap into the notch thinking about how nice it would be to have back that hour that I spent lying on my ass this morning! I deserve to hike in the dark.

     Standing in the notch brings a unexpected feeling of competence and accomplishment. I'm really doing it. The next step is to climb to the summit!  What was I thinking five minutes ago? This isn't going to take an hour. I'm the man!  I build an upward pull anchor and cruise the final pitch with some judicious pulls on Camalots and a couple airy free moves.

  I soak it in for the better part of three minutes sitting on the summit. It's quite an enthralling vista with the longs shadows.

     The descent goes smoothly and as I pull my last rappel rope I'm thinking "SWEET, now all I have to to do is hike back to the car laden with satisfaction!"  Unfortunately, the sun seems intent on exiting stage west so I pack like a madman and start down.  

     My pack feels heavy and ungainly as I rush down the hillside. I'm heading for what I think is a weakness in the cliff bands which I spied from the summit. When I arrive, I find a 20 foot concave wall below me. Shit! This is not good at all. Hiking back up the slope to reverse my morning approach is almost out of the question. It would be treacherous by the light of my LED headlamp and I'm whipped. My frustration level is rising. I have maybe 5 minutes of usable daylight left so I start jogging along the top of the cliff, scanning furiously for a way down. Trying to move too quickly, I trip over one of my poles and crash unceremoniously to the ground. My wrist is slightly sprained and I get up cursing my stupidity!  I'm still two miles from the car and it would be problematic and demoralizing to get hurt now.  Feeling foolish, I resume my search.  Less than 100 feet away, I find a way down.

When I finally reach the car an hour later, I can barely feel the pain in my shoulders.  Life is too good.

My first views of RIver Tower as I contour around the side of the mesa.

A closer look at the north face.  Click Here to see this photo with the route marked.

A closer look at the top of the tower. Sunlight is visible through the chimney/offwidth section out of the notch.

Looking southwest to Castle Valley.

Looking down the Colorado River valley from the base of River Tower.

My first look at the "bolt ladder" on pitch one.

My improvised anchor. I also clove hitched the first few pieces until I thought the whole rig would hold. Pretty spicy really.

I shot these with a time lapse function on my Coolpix.

A typical example of the fixed gear on the C1 sections of this route.

That may be a fairly new wingnut, but the bolt that it's on went in many years ago.

A large picture showing much of the route.

The chimney leading out of the notch is visible in the upper right.

The second half of the first pitch is in a tube like chimney which makes the exposure less but not the feeling of seriousness.

Looking up at my jug line after cleaning the first pitch on rappel.

Jugging the first pitch. The old, 3/8" bolt in this picture is one of the best pieces on this pitch.

Looking up at the second half of pitch one.

Looking down at the exit from the narrow, lower chimney and the dirty ledges leading to the upper chimney. On lead, the last protection is out of site, down below those chokestones.

Feeling the moment.

Looking up at the second half of pitch two. This is where you get to aid off of an old ring piton while you're 25 feet above your last protection.

Nearing the anchor as I jug to the top of the second pitch.

Looking south to the Fisher Towers after rappelling into the notch.

Looking back across the notch at my anchor and the LATE day shadow of River Tower on the wall behind.

Looking over the prow of River Tower and across the Richardson Amphitheater.

Summit self-portrait with the Colorado River in the background.


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