The high-adventure draw of desert tower climbing

The desert of the Colorado Plateau, where Arizona, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico meet, gives visitors a glimpse into geologic time. Here, among the canyons, bending rivers and red sandstone landscape, pencil-like spires poke out of the earth, the last remnants from 600 million years of erosion.

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To adventure climbers, these spires in the vast 240,000-square-mile region represent “the last holdout in climbing in the ground-up ethic,” Steve “Crusher” Bartlett says. Bartlett, a desert connoisseur and author of “Desert Towers: Fat Cat Summits and Kitty Litter Rock,” has tagged the summits of 180 towers over the last three decades, with 49 first ascents.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona — drawing desert-lovers since its designation in 1931. Photo: Courtesy of Steve “Crusher” Bartlett

Unlike cliffs, which often have trails up the backside, there is no easy way to reach the tops of towers, as they’re vertical or overhanging on all sides. Desert towers vary in height from 50 to more than 1,000 feet. Jamming hands in the often nasty, dirty cracks in the rock is like reaching back in time, as you’re touching different layers of stone from over the millennia.

You also have to deal with scorpions and precarious hanging blocks.

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Heading into the unknown hours away from society, surrounded in silence, “that is the draw,” Bartlett adds with an affirmative nod during a visit with GrindTV. “You have to deal with whatever you find. You have to be ready for anything.”

Bartlett, from Boulder, Colorado, doesn’t mind the long drives required to climb first ascents in the desert. He’ll commute 800 to over 1,000 miles round-trip in a weekend, then repeat the drive if necessary the next to finish off a project.

Cleopatra’s Needle (275 feet tall) on the morning of the second day of climbing, September 1956. Photo: Courtesy of Jerry Gallwas

But long-distance driving out to the middle of nowhere isn’t required to access many towers. The 400-foot Otto’s Route on Independence Monument, outside of Grand Junction, Colorado, makes a great intro tower. First climbed in 1911 by hard-rock miner John Otto, this unique route has many broad pipe holes — which make secure handholds — that were drilled into the rock during the first ascent.

However, if you’re going to climb just one tower in your lifetime, it should be the 300-foot Ancient Art route on Stolen Chimney, outside of Moab, Utah, with its incredible corkscrew summit.

Jane Klein on the summit of Ancient Art, Fisher Towers, Utah. Photo: Courtesy of Steve “Crusher” Bartlett

Standing upright on top of Ancient Art, surrounded by a cluster of the mud-coated Fisher Towers and endless mesas in the background, it feels like you’re about to lift off.

One of the pioneers of tower climbing in the Colorado Plateau is Jerry Gallwas. Gallwas may be most famous for making the first ascent of the Northwest Face of Half Dome with Royal Robbins and Mike Sherrick over five days in 1957, but his tower-climbing résumé is no less impressive.

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In March 1956, he, Mark Powell and Don Wilson climbed the first ascent of 800-foot Spider Rock in Canyon de Chelly National Monument in northeast Arizona. The team experienced much rotten rock and at one point had to squirm through a narrow hole in the tower.

The following year, Powell, Wilson, Gallwas and Bill “Dolt” Feurer climbed the 400-foot Totem Pole in Monument Basin, “the tallest, skinniest spire on the planet,” according to Mountain Project. This is the unforgettable tower that Clint Eastwood climbs in the 1975 film “The Eiger Sanction.”

This June 13, 1957, summit photo was taken during the first ascent of the Totem Pole in Monument Valley. Left to right: Mark Powell, Jerry Gallwas, Don Wilson and Bill “Dolt” Feuerer. Photo: Courtesy of the Jerry Gallwas collection

Gallwas and his three partners climbed the Totem Pole over three days in frigid conditions and encountered strong winds and rain. “That was our last climb together, as Don went off to graduate school and Mark teamed up with Warren Harding [who made the first ascent of El Capitan], which is another story,” Gallwas tells GrindTV.

“Thirty years ago there was no information, no [formal] guide services … Back then it was a case of going out with your friends when you had to trust them and they had to trust you,” Bartlett says.

Climbing on Spider Rock and the Totem Pole is restricted, as they are on Navajo land and are sacred.

“It used to be a much more immersive experience; you couldn’t buy your way into it. You had to try your luck and see what happened. You’d have a fantastic adventure no matter what,” Bartlett continues. “Getting to the top would just be the icing on the cake.”

Today, those familiar with basic climbing and the use of removable protection (such as cams and nuts) can hire a professional climbing guide who will all but guarantee a mishap-free outing.

The best times of the year to visit the Colorado Plateau are during spring, when the wildflowers are in bloom, and in the fall, when the weather is most stable.

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