A half-hour drive east of Moab, Utah, visitors from all over the world flock to see bizarre desert rock formations known as the Fisher Towers. Although the Fisher Towers are one of the most difficult places in the desert to climb, they just happen to be some of the most spectacular.
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Several of the Fisher Towers, including the Titan, Oracle, and Kingfisher Towers, are huge soaring fins of mud up to 1,000 feet high; yet the most popular feature in the area is a corkscrew spire merely 30 feet tall on a popular wall named Ancient Art. The arrowhead pinnacle of the Stolen Chimney route has appeared on posters as well as magazine and guidebook covers over the years.
Stolen Chimney is included in a Gary and Lynn Clark's "exclusive" list of North American classic climbs. They say, "The route made the list not for its exceptional history, its significant length or rating, and certainly not for its rock quality. The route has made the list for one reason and one reason only: the unforgettable summit! This is arguably the wildest summit you'll ever have the privilege of standing on: a one square foot 'wedge' atop a 30-foot spire protruding out and away from the main formation, 'suspended' 250 feet above the surrounding desert."
We happened to be at the parking lot of this desert icon by virtue of dumb luck and the benefit of some local knowledge from a nice salesman, who served us up $600 of new climbing gear. While the parking lot bustled with foreign chatter, a climber balanced delicately on the distant horizon atop Stolen Chimney's toilet-lid-sized apex. The route's difficulty rating sounded like a piece of cake in the store, yet now mirrored a dance with death. The wall appeared small during the drive up the three mile dirt road, but now looked scary-huge. We snatched up our gear and headed out for the backside of the wall where the climbing began.
The mid-afternoon temperature was blazing into the 70's and except for the shade in the chimney, it was hot by Juneau standards. With my shirt off, I called myself the great white Alaskan dope on a rope.
"Good for me," I thought to myself. "Here I am on a climbing trip in late October and I have been going barefoot in camp for the past two days. Tah-daht!"
When we arrived at the base, the line was plugged up with three teams on rope. Three sturdy-looking 20-somethings were slowly coming off the summit by rappelling the 200-foot wall while a young coed party waited at the upper belay station for a turn to visit the top. Ahead of us, two guys from Salt Lake City had just finished an 80-foot section and were working up the 120-foot chimney to a ledge the size of a picnic table. What sketched me out, though, was seeing people heave ropes over other climbers' heads and rappelling down over the top of other teams in ascent. I had never seen this dangerous practice, and then again I have never been to Mount Everest to witness the bottlenecking that takes place on the Hillary Step either. Thankfully, we were the last traffic of the day.
I took the first lead, highlighted by some pinchy moves on a face with pebbles sticking out as holds. My partner, Ray Dezek, led the long chimney that consisted mainly of stemming moves between two walls of Cutler sandstone, best described as stacked sheets of cross-bedded mud deposits.
Waiting for the fellows from Salt Lake to retreat from the summit, I blurted out to one of the youngsters, "I don't want to carry all this gear up for the final 50 feet. What kind of rack do you need up there?"
The first guy replied, "Two cams for those cracks right there and then you'll need about eight quickdraws (for clipping into permanent protection in the rock).
Sucking wind at an elevation of 6,794 feet, I belayed my partner up to the final station. Ray strived to climb the short 20-foot section clean by finding holds with his long arms. I chose to lanyard off quickdraws to surmount the crux, a technique known as aid climbing. It didn't matter to me because we wound up in the same place. As Ray joined me, I exclaimed, "What country."
Immediately to our left the rock dropped off about 300 feet and to our right it was more like 500. The infamous Castleton Tower loomed 10 miles due west and silhouetted the yellowing horizon. Below, half-inch tall people waved their walking sticks to say hello. I called out to console them from thinking we were out of our minds by saying that I was trying to be careful. As my echoes bounced around the tower-hemmed cul-de-sac, I corrected myself and continued, "No, that's not true. I am being very careful."
I turned to Ray and piped, "This is where Ed Viesturs says, 'We're almost halfway there.' The other half includes getting off the climb...safely."
The experience of the corkscrew summit pitch and the photo opportunities it provides are a climber's dream and a mother's nightmare. It begins with 12-inch wide tightrope-tiptoe out along a 30-foot sidewalk. Sitting on the precipice while belaying Ray across the sidewalk was unnerving and my concentration felt super-heightened. Ray took the rope's sharp end and promptly dropped down to straddle the sidewalk in order to scoot his way safely across. As with my aiding, I didn't fault him because it is the same technique Viesturs used to summit his nemesis mountain, Annapurna, in his quest to climb all fourteen of the world's 8,000-meter peaks. Though Ray took style points for the section leading up to the sidewalk, in my mind, his straddling maneuver cost him whatever he had earned just minutes ago. I was even more disappointed when he avoided surmounting a chest-high diving board outcropping and chose to duck under it to pull some routine moves to attain the location.
Without a word, I fed out the rope through my nervously sweaty hands until Ray could go no further.
"Wow," I thought as I listened to him whoop with exhilaration at the summit. Waiting for a photo atop the mantle, Ray crouched on all fours like a smiling panther. I sat stone-faced, almost shaking, because I knew I was next. When Ray returned, he boasted about the summit spire. I stood up, stretched my arms and calves, and hyperventilated to mentally re-pump my focus. I attempted to gulp down my nervous fear, but I was too parched to muster any moisture. Instead I just groaned the words, "On belay? Climbing."
My focus was right on, but as I turned and put one foot in front of the other, I could hardly believe I was headed out on the scariest walk of my life. Still, there was no way I was going to straddle the little pony. No way! In my mind I would do nothing less than ride this blazing stallion standing upright. Everything in my vision was out of focus except for my feet and the rock I stood on.
From behind, Ray began blurting out stuff about danger. Suddenly, I wasn't getting the slack in the rope I needed to continue and Ray is giving me some crap about safety. I vigorously tugged on the rope and said firmly, "I need some slack. Give me some slack!"
Ray obliged my command and I took out some three feet of rope in preparation for a long step outward and down to a clump of rock the size of a dinky spare tire. Moving my body forward with determination, I nailed the step landing and heaved my chest into the outcropping of stone, welcoming its embrace. Ray's voice rang out with negativity. I thought to myself, "What is going on?" I didn't ask to hear him belch some buzz kill point of view, so I cut him off and silenced him by declaring, "This is my climb, Ray. This is my climb!"
With my belly against the rock I said, "Slack, please...little more, little more. That's good." I heaved in some power breaths and lunged my body up onto the diving-board outcropping. Reaching the wall of the corkscrew I clipped my first quickdraw into a fixed piton, the first protection in 40 feet. Next, I had a creepy five-foot crawl onto a small ledge. The pinnacle's bulge, exacerbated by inertia, sought to carry the climber's body off the rock and into a gravity-powered orbit towards earth. Fortunately, two large jugs in the rock above my head allowed me to gain the bulge and access the top for the most unforgettable summit of my life. Now I understood why Ray whooped atop the feature.
Safely back at the belay station, Ray and I hugged and high-fived. We always work things out after a great climb, and as I think back, purchasing that gear back in Moab was the best climbing move we ever made.