This is definitely one of the desert southwest’s most iconic rock formations.
[Note: I originally wrote this in September 2005, the week after the climb]
Eric and I had wanted to do a big desert tower for a while, ever since our trip to Moab last November. We had climbed Owl Rock (a small, easy 5.8 tower) and that whet our appetites for more. The only problem is that Moab is a 3-4 hour drive away and there is so much amazing climbing within an hour of here. SIGH. The difficulties of living in Utah. But while we were driving down to Maple Canyon last weekend, I was thumbing through Eric’s Utah Rock Climbing book and the idea of doing a big tower was reborn. In a week and a half I’ll be leaving to go to Ukraine for two years, so this would be a great last hurrah.
The Day/Night Before
Eric picked me up on Friday at about 6ish. After filling up with gas and picking up a pizza at Little Caesar’s, we were headed towards Moab. Throughout most of the drive we noticed a huge lightning storm going on in the direction of Moab. Not a good thing, but the forecast for Saturday was clear. We arrived at the campsite at about 10ish. I set up my tent and tried to sleep, while Eric did the same in the car. Unfortunately, that’s when the storm really opened up. The winds nearly flattened my $15 Chinese tent, and Eric could clearly see all of the almost constant lightning from inside the car. We each managed to get a few hours of sleep, nonetheless, and were awake at 6:30.
We got the gear ready, had some food, and were ready to go.
The approach info we had said to follow the trail out of the campsite and through a small canyon, into a small side slot canyon, then switchback up the big talus cone to the base of the tower. Simple enough, right? Well, not so for us… Remember that it had rained the night before and so there were no footprints or anything. We followed the trail out of the campsite and through the canyon but then ended up taking the wrong side-canyon (but there were still cairns so we thought we were going the right way). The trail took us to a dirt road, which we followed, and it wound us around the right side of Castleton. We assumed that it would eventually start switchbacking up, but it never did. It just kept traversing along the base, toward the Rectory. We had read online that the approach from the campsite was supposed to take an hour. Well, it had been over an hour already and we weren’t even on the talus cone yet. We figured something was wrong. So we pulled out the info we had printed off of various websites and saw that one of the approach descriptions said that the trail that zigzags up the talus cone starts near the *left* side of the tower.
Another hour or so and another round of getting lost saw us on the right trail, and 45 minutes after that we were at the base of Castleton.
We drank some water, ate some food, racked up, scrambled up to the start of the route, and Eric started off up the first pitch.
The first pitch was pretty amazing. Double cracks with perfect jamming for 130 feet, and either 5.8 or 5.9, depending on who you ask or what guidebook you look at. Eric dominated the pitch and put me on belay. I’ve never climbed a pitch with such sustained jamming. It was awesome, and the crux was pulling over a little bulge near the top of the pitch. I arrived at the belay (2 new-ish bolts) panting heavily. We can both onsight 5.10 cracks on granite or quartzite, but this pitch gave us a run for our money.
The second pitch was my lead. This was supposed to be the crux of the route—a 5.9 (or 5.8, again, depending on where you look) offwidth. It looked pretty gnarly from the belay, but we had plenty of wide gear so off I went. About 15 feet above the belay, I placed my #3 Big Bro. It wasn’t really necessary but made me feel good. Maybe 5 feet higher I clipped an old rusty bolt, and another body length above that I placed our 4.5 Camalot. After that, the wide stuff was pretty much over.
The rest of the pitch was hand and fist jamming up nice cracks in the back of the chimney. There were some fun chimneying moves in there, too. I ran out of runners near the top and as a result had pretty hideous rope drag. The belay was on a small ledge with two fixed pins and a fixed pink tricam.
Now, it was pretty windy as we had been approaching the tower but this hadn’t been a problem once we’d started climbing, as the climb was sheltered from the wind. But a couple of the cracks at this belay split the part of the entire tower. As a result, wind was blasting us from out of the cracks and gave the eerie impression that the tower was roaring at us.
Eric joined me at the belay. I don’t know if it was the wind, the exposure (ok, there isn’t really much exposure at this point because you’re inside a chimney but you can still see the ground waaaaay below), or the approach from hell, but we were both pretty tired and a little bit scared. I just wanted to get off this freaking thing. I suggested to Eric that he combine the next two pitches that lead to the top. He said he would combine them if he felt good and off he went.
Eric climbed up the cracks in the back of the chimney for about 45 feet, then made a stemming move across the chimney.
After this point I lost sight of him as he turned a corner. As I kept paying out the rope, I guessed that he had decided to combine the two pitches. I couldn’t hear him because of the wind, and our 2-way radios weren’t working for some reason, either (maybe because I was so deep inside the chimney). I didn’t want to take him off belay just in case he was still climbing, but he pulled in the rope and I paid it out. When he ran out of rope, I yelled “That’s me!” (though he couldn’t hear me), waited a bit, then started climbing.
Good 5.7 jams deposited me on the left side of the top of the chimney. A fun and exciting stemming move across to the right side of the chimney was followed by some easy face climbing then climbing through a tunnel/flake thing. As I emerged and arrived at the last pitch’s belay anchors, the full force of the wind nearly blasted me backwards.
This last pitch is the same as the last pitch of the Kor-Ingalls, and is spectacular. You face climb up some amazing calcite holds and then traverse out left (5.7) on a crack/ledge.
A final move or two and I joined Eric at the belay on a ledge just below the summit. I couldn’t believe how incredibly windy it was! We unroped, made our way up to the summit proper, and were greeted with stunning views in all directions and 40-50 mph winds. The Priest and the Rectory looked amazing, as did the towers of the Sister Superior group. We had planned on napping on the summit for a bit but the winds made this impossible. We snapped pictures, signed the summit register, sorted the gear, and coiled the ropes for the rappels.
The standard descent of Castleton is rapping down the North Face route. It is important to not here that I pretty much hate rappelling. And there were three things about rappelling of Castleton that I was not happy about: 1) Having to go from the top over the edge with a ton of exposure underneath, 2) Getting our ropes tangled in the high winds, and 3) making not one but three double length rappels. My fears weren’t really justified. Going over the edge at the start of the first rappel was pretty terrifying, but the fear quickly left as I gawked at the amazing features of the North Face. When I feel comfortable doing 5.11 trad on sandstone, I am definitely coming back for that route. Anyway, this face was mercifully sheltered from the wind and tangled ropes were not a factor.
We did get our rope stuck on the first rappel but the flake was it was hung up on was just 20 feet or so above us and Eric was able to flick it free. The remaining two rappels went smoothly and I even bootied a nut and a biner near the base. We pulled and coiled the ropes, packed the gear, drank some water, and headed off down the talus cone. We found the right trail and made it back to the car in 50 minutes.
This was an awesome experience. The North Chimney of Castleton Tower is a great, relatively moderate climb on good rock (some ledges have loose rock on them that you need to be careful of). The views and position of the climb are simply incredible, and climbing it was one of the greatest experiences of my life. I loved every minute of it!
As we were descending, it occurred to me just how ridiculous ratings are. Some sources say that this climb is 5.8. But I would pay good money to see a 5.8 sport climber on this climb. 5.8 does nothing to describe the sheer physical nature of this route. A lot of it was full-body climbing.
More than anything else, this climb impressed on me how bold the early desert pioneers were. This climb is really not too hard and not runout at all but we benefited from big cams, sticky rubber, and a fair amount of beta. I can’t imagine climbing this route with a rack of pitons. Hats off to the early pioneers. Those guys had serious balls.
I’ve fallen in love with the desert. It’s the most amazing place I’ve ever climbed in, and I will definitely be back… When I get back from Ukraine .
(this is what we’d take if we did it again)
- One set of cams from Yellow TCU (fingers) size to #3 camalot, plus doubles in #1, 2, and 3 (Eric said he would have liked a third #3 on the first pitch, but he did fine without it)
- one #4.5 camalot
- full set of nuts
- #3 bigbro came in handy for sewing up the offwidth, but wasn’t really necessary. But this thing is pretty light so I’d probably take it again.
We took a few smaller TCUs and didn’t find them necessary. We took a half set of nuts and it would have been nice to have a full set. I took a #4 Camalot for the offwidth on pitch 2, but it was too small. I placed it later on the pitch just to get rid of it, but smaller gear probably would have worked.
From the campground, follow the road/trail and keep left. Go through a small slot canyon (you’ll have to climb up a few smallish (4-5 feet?) drops on the canyon, but they’re fine) and you’ll go up out of the canyon and down onto what looks like a 4WD road. There will be a cairn or two on the Castleton side of the road. These mark the trail that will lead you to the base of Castleton. This route climbs the obvious corner system that turns into a chimney higher up. Approach time from camp: probably 1.5 hours
Follow double cracks in corner to a small ledge and two bolt belay. The crux of this pitch is a bulge near the top. Take the nuts and most of the rest of the gear except for the wide stuff. 130’
Go up the offwidth. Face holds help. There is a bolt on the left side of the crack about 20 feet up from the belay. I placed a #3 Big Bro below the bolt (not really necessary but nice to have) and the #4.5 Camalot a foot or so above the bolt. Above the offwidth, I slung a couple small chockstones. Use a lot of slings on your gear because rope drag can be brutal. You will use a variety of sizes of gear on the rest of the pitch. Belay is at the back of the chimney on a small ledge above a slight overhang. There are two fixed pitons and a fixed pink tricam for anchors. 130’
(We linked pitches 3 and 4 to make one 100’ long pitch and I would recommend this)
Climb up cracks up from the belay to the top of the chimney (5.7). You will end up on the left side of the top of the chimney. Make an airy, fun stemming move to the right side of the chimney (careful not to knock off loose rocks) and keep climbing up. Some easy face climbing and some walking/scrambling through a kind of tunnel will bring you to the base of the last pitch. Neither Eric nor myself can remember if there were fixed anchors for this belay, but other information online says that there is a two-bolt belay. 60’
5.7 face climbing up rad calcite holds, then hand traverse left along a crack/ledge and up a small corner. There is a belay with a few bolts and slings just below the summit. 40’
3 double-rope raps down the North Face. The first set of anchors are 3 bolts on top of the north end of the tower. Second set of anchors is on a good-sized ledge with two bolts and chains. Final anchors are two more bolts with chains above a small ledge.
This was my 2nd desert tower, back in 2005. I’ve now done 27, most of which were done in 2008-2009.