Angela and I first saw the Castleton Tower in March, 2001 on our first trip to Moab. We'd read a great deal about it before this and were well aware of it's inclusion in the "Fifty Classics". However, reading about it and actually seeing it are two entirely different things. It came into view as we drove down "River Road" and I immediately understood its appeal to climbers. It is, after all, the archetypical desert tower.
While we had no real intentions of trying to reach the summit on this first trip (it was our first time every climbing on sandstone), we did want to at least get a feel for it and attempt the first couple pitched of the Kor/Ingalls route.
Our friend, Rick, was along with us on this trip, but even with three minds we still managed to completely screw up the approach hike. We veered off to the right when we should have gone left and never actually saw the trail that leads to the base of the tower. Instead we ended up circling around the northeast side of the Tower well below the talus slopes that lead up to it. After hiking for some time we were desperate (and stupid) to get up to the Tower. Access to the Tower is guarded by an almost continuous band of cliffs in the middle of the talus slopes. Eventually we found a weakness in this cliff line and decided to just head upwards--trail or no trail. This turned out to be quite an adventure in and of itself. Not only was it much further than it had appeared to the top of the ridge, the footing was incredibly loose. Occasionally we would send boulders rolling down the slope, and often we slide back once for every two steps forward. I kept waiting for Angela to get grumpy (as it was now obvious how stupid climbing up this slope was), but every time I waited for her to catch up she would have a big smile on her face. I thought she was off her rocker! Later she explained to me how this had been a life altering experience for her. It stretched her estimation of just what is possible if you put your mind to it.
Finally we did make it to the top of the ridgeline on which the Castleton Tower sits. However, we were now standing under The Priest instead of the Tower which was still a half mile to our south. On top of this, it had begun to snow lightly and was downright cold. We knew at this point our chances of actually climbing were about zero. Our new plan was to find our way along the ridge to the Tower and then attempt to find the actual trail in order to descend.
My mood quickly turned from ecstatic (when I first reached the ridgeline and looked down into Castle Valley) to cranky. I felt very stupid indeed for messing up this approach so badly, and I was tired and probably hungry too. Finally, with the help of some climbers on The Rectory, we managed to make it across to the Tower. It was some very exciting hiking across steep scree slopes. There was a bit of a trail at this point, but it didn't amount to more than a footprint here and there. We found the trail where we should have arrived originally and headed downward. Now that we were on it, the trail was painfully obvious. We couldn't believe that we had missed it that morning.
Over the next two years we made two more trips to Moab but never even went near the Castleton Tower. I still wanted very much to climb it but was now more aware of the fact that my desert climbing skills might not be up to snuff. We spent our trips to Moab cragging with friends and practicing aid climbing.
In the meantime, I read more about Castleton and dreamed. Interestingly, every time I read an account of the crux pitch on the Kor/Ingalls route, I got sweaty palms. This bothered me considerably! Fortunately I came across some pictures of the North Chimney route and learned that while it is not one of the "fifty classics," it might be a better route--at least for me. Angela wasn't entirely convinced, but we had progressed quite a bit as climbers and were keen to give it a go.
So we planned a trip to Moab in April, 2004 with the Castleton Tower as our primary objective.
After a couple days of cragging to get used to sandstone again, we set off in the dark for Castleton Tower. This time we weren't taking any chances. We had scoped out the parking and the first bit of the approach earlier so that we could do it in the dark. We were set on being the first ones there (plus we know we're slow) and not messing up the approach again.
Things went great this time and we made it to the base of the Tower in an hour and a half. And indeed we were the only ones there. We took a bit of a break to relax and eat before we started the climb. The sun was shining, the day was beautiful, and the first pitch of the climb looked out of sight!!!
As I started up the first pitch loaded down with cams, a couple climbers from Brazil arrived. They offered Angela a smoke. I think Angela was a bit annoyed to have to smell cigarette smoke in such a beautiful natural setting.
The first pitch of this climb is touted by many to be the "best 5.8 pitch in the desert". It certainly didn't disappoint. It follows a remarkable corner with numerous cracks with are constantly changing size and orientation. Keeps you on your toes. Then when you've just about had it, you reach the crux of the pitch--a slight bulge followed by an immediate offwidth crack. I didn't fall here but had to climb up and down about three times before I could piece together a sequence that would work for me. It was quite awkward and strenuous but then quickly eased off as I reached the first belay anchor.
When Angela arrived at the first belay, she was quick to point out that while I had climbed that crux with almost no gear left on my rack she had to pull it with a full load! Not wanting to let her 'get one up on me', I quickly reminded her that she had been on toprope and I had been leading!
The belay stance was crowded and as soon as we had re-racked I set off on the second pitch. The brazilians were already on their way up pitch one and there was definitely not room for three at this stance.
The second pitch proved to be the crux for me. It starts with a true offwidth crack. Definitely too big to jam and definitely too small to crawl inside of. To top it off there is a very old and crappy bolt to protect this section. I had difficulty just reaching the bolt to clip it. When I reached out to clip it the hanger spun ridiculously. Finally I managed the clip but couldn't see how I was goint to gain another inch in that crack. I gave in to my weakness and ended up pulling on the bolt in order to gain a couple of feet. (Kinda surprised it even held my bodyweight!) Then the crack narrowed slightly so my biggest cam (a #4 camalot) would just barely "tip out" in the crack. As I made progress I moved my cam up along with me until it actually fit well and then the difficulties were over.
I had now gained access to the North Chimney, and the climbing got considerably easier. There was just an interesting move here and there as I surmounted the various chockstones that were in the way. The belay stance at the end of the second pitch was even more confined than the first. When Angela arrived we had to practically stand on top of one another as we exchanged gear.
The third pitch contained fun moderate climbing and some interesting route finding. We knew from route descriptions that we should reach the end of the chimney and join the Kor/Ingalls route at the end of this pitch. However, the topo that we had brought along wasn't quite drawn right and almost led me astray. I felt something just wasn't quite right about the topo so I followed my instinct instead--and for a change, my instinct was right!
The North Chimney ends in a small notch filled with boulders between the Tower itself and the enormous flake that forms both the North Chimney and the Kor/Ingalls route. The walls on either side of this notch are covered with the most amazing calcite formation we saw on the entire climb. Looking down out of the notch to the south, we could see the talus slopes fade into Castle Valley almost 1700 feet below!
One more short pitch and we would have this thing in the bag! We were so psyched! The weather had been outstanding--hardly a breath of wind (even sitting in that exposed notch where one would expect the wind to howl through).
The final pitch, while only 5.7, was certainly one of the most exhilarating parts of the climb. I started out by crimping my way up chunks of calcite that had glued themselves to the sandstone to a small crack that lead out to the left. This is were it got exciting as I stepped out from beyond the confines of the chimney and felt 1700 feet of instant exposure below me! What a rush! Then, suddenly, I was on top of the Castleton Tower! I couldn't wait to belay Angela up to the top! I quickly crammed a couple cams in a crack to belay off of and pulled up the excess rope. "On Belay," I yelled with pure giddiness in my voice!
The last pitch had been quite short and it wasn't long at all until I saw the top of Angela's helmet appear. Then I saw that she too had a huge grin across her face. She popped up onto the summit and did a little dance--it was hilarious and awesome.
The summit was more incredible than we could have ever imagined it to be. It was made even better by the fact that we'd been dreaming about it for over three years, and that it had been some of the most intense free climbing we'd done to date (okay, mostly free, I did french that one move). The views in all directions are simply awesome!
We'd made pretty good time coming up the climb (5hrs) and were in no hurry to head back down. That was until the wind decided to kick up out of nowhere. Our pleasant, sunny summit was suddenly bombarded by constant 25-30 mph winds. So much for our plans of having a peaceful picnic on top!
We rounded up our gear and headed over to the northern edge of the summit to find the rappel route. Boy, what a sight! The north face drops straight down from the summit with hardly and interruption for 400 feet! We quickly set up the first rappel, and hoped that once we dropped over the edge we would get out of the wind. This, however, was not the case. The wind was blowing from the west and made a real nuisance of itself as we rappelled down the face. Our ropes were constantly blowing out of sight around the corner to the east face, and more than once they nearly got hung up over there. On top of that, a couple of the rappels angled slightly to the right, and the wind was blowing us to the left. This made it a real chore to dock at the next set of anchors. We crossed our fingers each time we pulled our ropes down and hoped they wouldn't get stuck in a crack somewhere. Our luck held out and eventually we made it back to the base--safely and in one piece!
The relief of being off that windy north face and having been to the top of the Castleton Tower left huge smiles on our faces. We relaxed for a while before heading down the trail, refueled our bodies, and simply reveled in what we had just accomplished.
To celebrate (after a nice afternoon nap) we went to Eddy McStiff's for dinner and some good brews. When we arrived we were smelly, dirty, and dazed from our adventures of the previous few days. The host gave us a funny look, conversed quietly with some of the wait staff, and then proceeded to lead us to the furthest corner of the restaurant away from all the other patrons. We got a huge kick out of this!