April 12 , '07


The Tombstone

'Family Plot'

Written by Lisa Foster



    It was raining in the desert. Ben had arrived the night before, just in time to play guitar around the campfire and tell stories of lofty towers and scary ascents. In the morning, Brad, Ben and I piled in the Subaru and headed toward Moab . The goal for the day was to climb in Arches National Park , and maybe get Sheep Rock. As the rain fell on Highway 191, Brad sped toward town, talking about getting breakfast. Ben wasn't buying it. As we approached the turnoff to Utah 313, Ben glanced to the west. Catching a glimpse of blue sky, he commanded: “Turn right!” Brad slammed on the brakes and leaned on the wheel, turning west on the road to Canyonlands National Park .

    What ensued was witty banter about whether or not Tombstone Butte is a tower. The area around Moab is littered with literally hundreds of sandstone rock formations that are commonly referred to as “towers.” Our goal was to climb as many of these as possible during this week in April 2007. According to the generally accepted definition in the rock climbing community, a sandstone tower, in order to be worthy of the designation “tower,” has to be taller than it is wide. According to Webster's New World Dictionary, Third College Edition, a tower is “a building or structure that is relatively high for its length and width, either standing alone or forming part of another building.” Hmmm. “ Relatively high.”

    As we drove in to the Canyon Point area, on the Island-in-the-Sky Mesa, we chose an unmarked dirt road that headed west, trying to make sense out of Eric Bjornstad's directions in the book Desert Rock IV. After a few twists and turns, we arrived at the base of Tombstone Butte, leaving the rain behind to the south and southeast. We piled out of the car and Ben and Brad regarded each other. Above them stood a stately block of deep red sandstone, seated upon a broken sandstone pedestal. Webster relates that a butte is “a steep hill standing alone in a plain, especially in the western U.S. ” But we weren't after buttes; we were after towers. Brad surveyed the surrounding desert flatlands. He squinted up at the sun and blue sky, then turned and glanced toward the dark skies over Moab . “It's a tower,” he said with finality. Ben was already packing up his gear.

    I was excited. The Tombstone was truly majestic. The sky was blue. We were going to climb.

    We loaded up all the gear and made the short haul up to the base of a route called Family Plot. The Tombstone had first been climbed in the early 1980s, but strangely, this beautiful line had not been established until 2000. It is an aesthetic 3-pitch route that ascends the southeast aspect of the butte. I put Ben on belay and he aided up the seven-year-old bolts to a left-angling traverse in order to reach the crack. Ben continued to climb the crack, moving up steadily and swiftly. It was cold, the sun having disappeared behind a mass of thick clouds. Brad ran around and took photos from the base. A unique and beautiful sandstone fin stood out to the northwest, called Canyon Point Butte. “Not a tower?” I questioned Brad. “No way!” He exclaimed, motioning to the fact that you could probably walk off the other side. Ben continued to climb the steep crack as I discovered a mouse skeleton near the base of the wall. Ben gained a small, squarish ledge in the middle of the face. He fixed a rope, and Brad began jugging quickly.

    Brad reached the tiny ledge and took over the lead, climbing the crack and gaining height on the tower. Ben called to me that I could leave the ground and ascend the fixed line. I placed my ascenders on the rope and started moving upward. By the time I reached the ledge, Brad had completed leading the second pitch and climbed onto a large, sloping ledge below the summit. Ben began ascending the fixed rope Brad set up. I stood on the diminutive rock ledge and surveyed the ground and surrounding desert. Beautiful.

    The rain was slowly moving north and west, toward us. “I wonder if we'll make it,” I thought to myself. Soon they called to me that I could jug the line. When I attained the ledge, Ben had his hood up and was shivering. It was cold, but as usual, I had plenty of layers. I offered Ben my neck gaiter. I took the third pitch, a relatively easy scramble up a wide chimney that topped out on the bulging knobs of the summit plateau. Unused to desert rock, which is soft in nature, I had a hard time finding a trustworthy place to set an anchor.

    Finally I set a five-piece anchor in a crumbling sandstone crack and made the sign of the cross. A five-piece anchor is overkill, but I was unsure and thought the sandstone could just disintegrate beneath the pressure points of the camalots and nut. I called down to Ben and Brad that my anchor was suspect, and that they should go easy on the rope. To my horror, I looked down and saw Brad using the hand-over-hand method to climb the rope, all his weight pulling down on my dubious anchor. “Thank God it's equalized,” I mumbled to myself and said a little prayer. Ben got up first and ran across the first two summit knobs to try to locate a bolt anchor from which to rappel. He didn't even glance at my anchor. Brad topped out and I hesitated, then asked him to come survey it. “Ah, that's BOMBER!” He exclaimed and scrambled out of sight on the summit knob. Doubtful, I tested it, jumping with all my weight against the equalized cordalette. Sure enough, none of the five pieces even shifted, and the rock held securely. Later Brad told me that if I was going to climb in the desert much, I was going to have to redefine what I considered a good anchor, and also judge the friction of the rope dragging over sandstone, which helps with making the rope less prone to slipping.

    I took out all four cams and one nut, then scrambled up the exposed section of airy rock, littered with large pockets, to the summit to join Brad and Ben. The clouds were building. A small pile of stones comprised the summit cairn, with the straight shaft of an arrow sticking up out of the pile, marking the top.

    Ben found no bolt anchors, so we scrambled down the fourth-class chimney of the third pitch to the anchors on the large sloping ledge. We rappelled to the base, surveying the weather. It seemed like it would hold, so we headed on over to Cenotaph Spire.

Ben unpacking at the base. Cenotaph Spire is visible in the background.
Nice shiny bolts on the first pitch.
A larger shot of Ben on pitch one.
This pitch is a good mix of free and aid climbing.
Making a few free moves up to the crack.
Of course you have to jam where you want to place gear
Looking up the route.
A larger shot of Ben on pitch one.
The entire first pitch.
A few views of the splitter on pitch one.
It's surprising that more people don't climb this thing. It's a cruiser route up a neat formation with no approach. There are a lot of 4x4s and dirt bikes out there though.
A wide angle shot of the tower.
This is the best pitch on the route.
Though the best lines have perhaps been done, I bet there is still a FA or two waiting to be had on this formation.
Take that sandy wide thing to the right of Ben for example, I bet it hasn't been climbed. :)
Looking toward Cenotaph.
Looking up pitch one. It's steep!
Lisa belaying.
Looking down from the top of the first pitch.
Nearing the anchor...
A classic butt shot on pitch two.
Ben jugging pitch two.
That low angle free climbing below Ben is pretty fun.
Nearing the top of pitch two.
Hanging out at the cold and windy belay.
Lisa arriving at the base of pitch three.
She's warm from jugging in a down coat though.
Lisa decides to lead in her coat. I wished I had brought one.
Lisa on the third pitch.
It may not be hard, but it's kind of awkward.
Lisa and Ben on top.
Lisa on the way down.
Looking back at Cenotaph Spire and the Tombstone from the hike to Lost World Butte.

More Pictures from Lisa...

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