“We climb it not because it’s there, but because it won’t be there much longer.”
-The Layton Kor
There are three definitions of “desert tower.” The first is dimensional: a tower is taller than it is wide. The second pertains to accessibility: the only way up a tower is to climb it. There is no walking up the backside of Castleton to set up a toprope.
The third and most important, however, is intrinsic. A desert tower looks like a desert tower. You know one when you see it.
Standing Rock is a desert tower.
It’s 350’ tall, 50’ wide and has comparable Rock quality to “rye crisps sandwiched in kittylitter.” In my first attempt, I made it a hundred feet … past the car before the heavens unleashed and it started pouring, saturating the already-weak sandstone and rendering it unsafe to climb for two days.
While we were there, Josh and I figured we’d scope out the approach. Instead of a rattly day’s drive on the White Rim 4×4, we were looking for a “government trail” 4th-class scramble down the improbably steep Grandview Point Overlook.
Two hours later, we retired in disgrace. We were unable to find any non-technical descent, let alone something casual enough for a government employee to venture onto. We did find a gully where we could fix two ropes and rap, however, and resolved to return in better conditions.
Scheduling conflicts prevented Josh from accompanying me on the second attempt, so I enlisted the aid of the inimitable, nonpareil desert dirtbag, Tyler Ofsprocket Marlow of Moab.
We returned armed with static ropes for the way down and jumars for the way up, a double set of cams to #3, and a single #4 and #5 (latter wholly unnecessary). A quick rap and downscramble led to a 150’ chimney rap and an hour of pleasant hiking to attain the start of the traditional 4WD-accessed approach. From there, a short fixed rap and a gorgeous forty-five minute stroll through Monument Basin brought us to our objective for the day: the Regular Route, four pitches of steep, shaded climbing on dubious stone. There were only a handful of places on the entire route I would have been ok with whipping. Bring your ice head.
The first pitch began with excellent 5.9 fingers in a corner, then cut under a roof to a face crux over small gear. I used an equalized #0.1 and #0.2 on this pitch and each one thereafter. Tip: don’t stop til you get to the good anchor.
Tyler ventured onto a photogenic traverse on the second pitch, which supposedly led to a splitter hand crack. If those eighty feet were a handcrack, you can call me Pamela Pack. Granted, it took handsized gear, but most the climbing involved awkward bulges where you cut your feet and pull on jugs of questionable parentage.
Pitch three started at the scariest belay ledge of all time. It was a horror show of antique pins and star drives with no supplemental gear. Please bring two ropes so you don’t have to rap from this anchor like we did.
The crux move used to be rated 5.11c, but then a hold broke, much to the relief of all those looking for excuses to A0 the perfectly-placed modern bolt. Nevertheless, the possibility of a factor-two fall on the Bad Ledge plagued the moves required to gain the bolt. Some mandatory spicy climbing over marginal gear and a delicate mantel around an absurd “elephant ear” flake brought me to a ledge with a wizened old star drive, which I slung long and passed by to a ledge with acceptable bolts.
The last pitch was ho-hum 5.8 with great exposure. We flopped onto the summit and were greeted by 30mph winds. Is it just me, or is the whole tower creaking? We didn’t stick around to get the Last Ascent and go sandstone surfing. Three single 70m raps had us kissing the solid ground and vowing never to return … that shitshow of an intermediate rap anchor core-shot our heads something fierce.
After celebratory libations of cold chicken noodle soup, we hiked an hour, jugged forty feet, hiked another hour, jugged a hundred and fifty feet, scrambled thirty minutes, jugged forty feet, and regained the car. Car-to-car in just over twelve hours.
Overall, it was an incredible summit that did not yield itself readily to our efforts. Like the best desert towers, Standing Rock must be earned.