“If you just stop for a second, I can show you there’s no road out there!” Ben said.
“I know there’s a road there; we drove it a couple years ago!” I fired back.
We hadn’t even started an ordeal that would surely drive us to our wits’ ends, and we were already lost and arguing. At least on our first attempt, unlike our present situation, we were able to locate the road to North Six-Shooter.
by Matt Pickren (with assistance from Ben Kiessel) This story is published in Volume 13, now available
Banner photo of Pickren on the Shark’s Fin, Canyonlands by Bill Grasse. Not part of the link up but a damn good photo.
For years, I had told Ben we needed to combine Moab’s two most classic tower linkups into a day. And for years, Ben dismissed the idea as impossible and contrived.
The seemingly impossible goal was to summit all of the towers on the Castle Valley ridge and the Bridger Jack skyline. The iconic Castle Valley ridgeline includes Castleton Tower, The Rectory, The Nuns, The Priest, Sister Superior, and The Convent. To the south, in the Indian Creek climbing mecca, the Bridger Jack skyline includes Bridger Jack Butte, North and South King of Pain Spires, Hummingbird Spire, Sunflower Tower, Easter Island, Sparkling Touch, and Thumbelina. In addition to the Bridger Jacks, we thought it necessary to add both North and South Six-Shooter, as the Bridger Jacks are seldom viewed without the majestic Six-Shooters in the background.
Finally, in a weak moment, Ben agreed to give it a go.
I picked up Ben in a borrowed Toyota Land Cruiser at City Market, our typical rendezvous spot in Cortez, Colorado. I only owned a small commuter Jetta and an old 1989 beater truck that would have never made it outside Durango, never mind to the desert. Meanwhile, Ben got around in a two-wheel-drive Mazda hatchback, and we knew we would need some off-road capabilities. He had just gotten off work in Farmington, New Mexico, and Cortez was the natural intersection on the way to the Utah desert. We worked on different shifts at the fire department, and our schedules conflicted. Meaning we only had forty-eight hours when we were both off work to climb. We drove toward Indian Creek with the sun at our backs and the clock ticking toward when I had to report to work at the same fire department. We found our way up the wash that splits the Six-Shooters and has become the typical trailhead for North Six-Shooter.
Full of excitement for the adventure ahead of us, we raced up both Six-Shooters in just over three hours. Although the weather was a touch windy, we were off to a great start. We bumped the borrowed Toyota back to pavement and headed over to the Bridger Jack parking. Having never climbed Vision Quest before, I was excited to add the classic desert route to my résumé. I put the first two pitches together, and Ben took the upper two. On the final pitch, I found desperate stemming, long reaches, awkward arête laybacking, and other survival climbing. What was supposed to be a cruiser pitch was turning into the crux!
I’m not ready to climb for the next 20+ hours! blurred my mind and stole concentration away from the next objective. I can barely climb this easy pitch. I made it through the pitch, but my mental game was already shot. We tagged South and North King of Pain and rappelled into the North King of Pain/Bridger Jack Butte Notch. If following the last pitch on Vision Quest had worked my mental game, looking up into the wide-crack last pitch of Wildflower finished it off. I should have thrown in the towel then. Instead, I started chimneying.
I climbed up through the pitch’s easier beginning and clipped two lead bolts. Then the climbing got harder, and my mind took over. The wind was howling through the Bridger Jacks and had been for the last three hours. Ben was shivering in the notch, nonetheless still motivating me. I wormed up a couple moves above the second bolt and slid back down. That pissed me off, so I tried harder and again slid back down. At least I was staying warm. Fifth try and I didn’t slide back down. Only I wished I had, because I finally realized what was ahead of me. I wasn’t going to get any gear until the top-out mantle twenty feet away. Without a #6 to protect the climbing and focus blurred from fatigue, I made the decision to willingly slide back down to the bolt and bail.
Mike Anderson discusses goals in The Rock Climber’s Training Manual: “The first step in achieving any great feat is to identify the primary objective.” Now climbing sixteen towers might not be a “great feat” to the Honnolds of the world, but it was to Ben and me, and it was a clear objective. Ironically, Mike continues, “That’s the easy part, though it presents some pitfalls as well. With the primary objective defined, one can identify the gaps between the desired end-state and the present state.” To me, these pitfalls fall into one of three main categories.
One: pure physical ability. I believe that achieving goals that only seem unattainable due to lack of physical ability will eventually succumb to hours of training and projecting. This wasn’t an issue since none of the climbing in the forty-five pitches was going to be all that difficult. If anything, staying awake was going to be the limiting factor.
Two: having the fortitude to continue once the type-one fun transitioned into type two and finally the dreaded type-three fun. This is where I feel like our partnership excels. On previous linkups and long days of climbing, we’ve always seamlessly taken over when the other begins to lose steam. On a San Juan ice-climbing linkup, I was dragging on the last route fifteen hours in at 1:00 a.m. Ben led the entire route, no questions asked. While enchaining all six summits in the Fisher Towers, around 2:00 a.m., we made the ‘fair’ deal for me to lead eight pitches if Ben took two of the harder ones. This symbiotic relationship certainly has allowed us to maintain a drive others have described as unrelenting and uncompromising.
Three: scheduling. While the difficulties here may not require hours of hang boarding and hundreds of whippers, this can be a real stopper to those who have everyday lives and adult responsibilities. Pitfall number three was ‘mostly’ what prolonged the reality of this linkup.
Ben and I are all packed for a second attempt. We are both on separate shifts at the fire department. We each work a forty-eight-hour shift, Ben on A shift and me on C. The result of the schedule gives us the remaining forty-eight hours of B shift to climb together. Intermittent texts are interjected into our daily duties at the firehouse, attempting to figure out gear for each set of towers and best techniques for moving fast. Nothing was actually figured out.
Toward the end of the shift, I had cooked a large meal of actual food, albeit in a Ziploc bag, to supplement energy bars while driving between towers. Another gallon bag of Chris Mac’s power putty caused my coworkers at the firehouse to project looks of confusion at what resembled dog shit. Unfortunately, we were both up most of the night fighting a brush fire. Needless to say, we headed home and slept instead of climbing.
Ben whips into the grocery store meeting location in Cortez. Three years later and our work schedules still don’t allow more than forty-eight hours for this stunt. He throws all his gear, including a sleeping bag he won’t need, into the back of my truck. We spend the next two hours listing what gear to bring for which routes. This ultimately saves time later when we are reracking for each route.
As we drive through Indian Creek, we discuss strategy. We decide that in addition to bringing a #6 for Wildflower, we are going to do all our belaying from above with a Micro Traxion. We discuss the added risk of the teeth of the Micro Traxion for 10 miles of Route 491 but ultimately decide it’s worth it. The cumulative energy savings throughout the day outweigh the slightly increased risk.
As we pull onto the dirt road that leads to North Six-Shooter, Ben finally shuts up about there not being a road. Turns out his map and his memory were wrong the whole time.
We park exactly as we did three years before and head up toward North Six-Shooter. I decide it’ll be faster to just lead the route in one megapitch, but to keep it “safe,” I place a Micro Traxion on top of pitch two. Now, if Ben pops off while simul-climbing, he theoretically won’t pull me off with him.
It turns out this wasn’t the best technique for us. Because of all the rope drag, in order to move upward, I have to pull up slack through the Micro Traxion, which stimulates Ben to start climbing. Unfortunately, as he enters the first crux, I stop pulling up rope and start climbing at a slower pace. Now Ben is midcrux, unable to stop, and is forced to climb into a giant loop of slack. This is the exact scenario that must be avoided with a sharp-toothed ascender. This happens twice before I finally get to the top and put him on belay with our second Micro Traxion. Needless to say, he wasn’t thrilled with the technique, and we refrained from using it for the rest of the day.
Next up was South Six-Shooter. We hiked up with a single backpack and a single 60-meter 8.5 mm half rope. We belayed the last 10 feet to the summit, having soloed the easy 95 percent of the route. We arrived back at the car thirty-five minutes ahead of schedule. Fully committed to the clock at this point, I drove with a sense of perplexity. I wanted to race through the desert like I was in a stolen car; however, I was in my ’04 F-150, a vehicle I did not want to damage. Maybe the borrowed Land Cruiser in 2015 was truly the ticket to success.
The first two pitches of Vision Quest transpired far easier than I remembered. The famous squeeze atop pitch two was casual, and Ben insecurely laybacked the entire eighty-foot corner in fifteen seconds. A quick gear exchange and Ben took off on pitches three and four.
“When you get to the #1 Camalot, tunnel through to the other side,” Ben yelled down from an out-of-view perch above.
“Ok, copy, tunnel at the #1.” My professional firefighter-appropriate radio communications came out.
Yes, tunneling to the other side of the dueling arêtes that form Vision Quest made all the difference. Information that wasn’t relayed three years ago and subsequently kicked my ass. This year, I saved a lot of calories taking Ben’s advice.
Our ultimate goal was to summit all sixteen towers and not necessarily climb a full route on each tower. This distinction allowed for some time-saving shenanigans. For example, North and South King of Pain can be reached by climbing Vision Quest plus one small summit pitch. After a thirty-five-meter rappel to the notch between Bridger Jack Butte and North King of Pain, there is only one pitch of Wildflower keeping you from the summit of the Butte. Luckily, this time we had lugged the #6 up Vision Quest, and now I had protection for the last twenty feet of off-width on Wildflower. This and an intact mental game got me smoothly to the chains.
Once back on terra firma, we devoured a couple granola bars each, drank some water, and moved our pile of climbing equipment sixty feet to the left. The rating for the first pitch of Hummingbird Spire of 5.9X and the stacked blocks were fairly intimidating. As Ben led, he avoided most of the loose blocks and placed only a small handful of gear behind solid-looking rock masses in the forty-five-meter pitch. I followed the seemingly delicate pitch and after cresting the notch found him huddled in a sliver of shade, shoes off and a mess of rope on him. Luckily for me, the junky first pitch guards a great 5.11 splitter to the summit of Hummingbird, and it was my lead. This pitch is a perfect representation of the five-star cracks that line the canyon walls less than a mile in every direction from the Bridger Jacks. I ran up it with a giant smile on my face.
On the rappel, we discovered that we could skip a few pitches on Sunflower if we climbed the last pitch of an old route, The Way of Friends. This pitch took Ben to the summit with the only C0 move of the 45 pitches we climbed that day.
“You just testing the system?” Ben poked while I seconded the short summit pitch. I had just fallen on a 5.8 section when a foothold broke off and fully weighted the Micro Traxion we were belaying with. This technique we had never used before, and it was definitely not the preferred method, but it saved lots of valuable energy by replacing a typical belay device on the anchor.
“Yeah, I guess that little Micro Traxion actually works!” I yelled back.
On the way down, we decided that the rappel into the Easter Island notch wasn’t going to go and that we should knock out Thumbelina when there was still some light. We finished the rappel and racked up for what was mostly a sport pitch but also involved the hardest few moves of the whole linkup. Ben eventually got the rope up, and I followed it clean.
Sparkling Touch was next, and I was up. As I passed the first anchor, Ben realized what was happening and yelled up, “Dammit, do I have to lead that bullshit third pitch?”
I had no clue what he was talking about. At that point, I was just trying to keep the transitions to a minimum.
“I thought this was just two pitches of 5.10,” desperately exited my dry, sticky mouth. I sounded like a combination of an asthmatic and an old man gumming words after he lost his dentures.
“No!” Ben snapped. “The third pitch is a hard boulder problem right off the belay. I was hoping you’d just go to the top!”
Obviously, I really did have zero recollection of ever previously climbing the third pitch. I finished leading the first two pitches and hastily started belaying Ben up while I studied the boulder problem and caressed every hold.
“I’m glad this is your pitch,” I teased down while hauling rope through the Micro Traxion at warp speed.
In typical Kiessel fashion, he hiked the five-move boulder problem, finished the pitch, lowered, and I followed on a toprope.
Easter Island was the only Bridger Jack route I actually remembered from recently guiding it, and of all the Jacks, it was the only route I’d ever repeated. Since this was the case, we had left it for last, for after the sun was completely gone. I led the first pitch, and Ben took the second. Tenth summit of the day and we were still able to pull it off in thirty minutes, ground to summit.
The excitement of completing the Six-Shooters and all the Bridger Jacks was apparent as we hurried down the talus cone back to my truck. We were talking nonstop about eating and drinking all the way to Castle Valley.
“I’m so freaking excited to put on new socks for the next talus cone!” echoed through the still night air. It was 9:40, and four campfires were dispersed throughout the piñon juniper camp spots.
“I brought fresh socks too!” Ben replied. At a relatively early time, the 21 pitches thus far had obviously worn on us, and it was evident as we were both so damn excited about new socks.
Down at the truck, we threw our packs into the back, grabbed snacks and cold drinks, and jarred our way out of the Bridger Jacks. As we crossed Indian Creek, we hopped out and each took a ninety-second bath in the turbid water. I’m not sure if I rinsed off or reapplied more fine desert sand with the thick runoff. Either way, eliminating the dried sweat and splashing the invigoratingly cold water on our bodies felt amazing and temporarily woke us up.
The drive to Castle Valley was spent discussing the new rack to build at the Castleton parking lot and which packs to bring. We were truly still planning this endeavor in the middle of it taking place. Apparently, I never read Mike Anderson’s part about prior preparation in his rock climbing manual. As the clock struck 11:00 p.m., we drove down the rarely empty Moab Main Street, and my eyes were beginning to shut. Just in time, a trash deposit and pee break at the River Road turnoff. Yes, we stopped in the middle of a sub-twenty-four-hour-push attempt to throw away our trash; neither Ben nor I can stand trash rolling around the floorboards of a vehicle.
As we hiked up toward Castleton, we passed a couple that looked exhausted, hiking down. In the moment, I thought it pretty odd to see people hiking down from Castleton at midnight. However, I later realized I’ve never been on Castleton’s talus cone at midnight to see said people.
Not far after passing them, I noticed that I was following a trail of fresh blood. “What’s that from?” I yelled to Ben, who was way ahead of me.
“I blew my nose too hard, one too many times,” was his nonchalant response. I suppose I should write that I was worried for my friend’s safety and well-being. However, truth be told, I was already so tired in the early hours of the morning, the blood only slightly spiked my curiosity, and my mind returned to how exhausted my legs were.
I took the 5.8 first pitch on Castleton’s North Chimney, as Ben remembered it being super sandbagged and wasn’t keen to lead it. After following the pitch, he commented that it must just be way harder to lead the pitch than to follow, since it felt casual. I countered that I was a hero for leading the pitch and nestled deeper into my incredibly cozy belay nook. As I panned out rope with my eyes closed, what felt like only mere moments advanced into seventy meters, and the rope came tight. Kind of a rude awakening, as this tightness meant I had to immediately start simul-climbing. As everyone who has climbed the North Face of Castleton well remembers, the initial moves of pitch two include a problematic bulge. I gingerly squirmed up it thinking about the shitty consequences that result from a fall while simul-climbing.
Combined, we’ve climbed Castleton over twenty times, and that day was certainly the shortest time ever spent on top. The climb had taken one hour and five minutes, and we spent less than sixty seconds on the summit. We rappelled down the North Face and without delay hiked toward The Rectory.
We’d left the truck with two small packs, a Black Diamond Creek 20 and an Osprey 30-liter Mutant. The strategy was to carry all our gear up Fine Jade and across the summit toward The Nuns. This plan had two benefits: We would be able to treat The Nuns as more of a ridge traverse rather than a full separate tower climb thus saving up from climbing two additional pitches on The Nuns. Secondly, walking across the summit of The Rectory is like walking on a paved road versus the boulder-ridden, angling talus cone on the west side of The Rectory. I excitedly took the sharp end on pitch one at 2:45 a.m. I’d climbed Fine Jade twice prior and luckily got to lead the entire route both times. It truly is in the top three of the best routes in the desert. One continuous crack for 350 feet, it’s glorious!
My original intention was to repeat the Lightning Bolt Cracks technique, but fatigue, backpacks, and previous results put the kibosh on that plan. I put the first two pitches together and lowered Ben my end of the rope to haul his pack once the halfway mark made it to the Micro Traxion. He was stoked to get rid of his pack, which was equipped with his approach shoes, #4 and #6 Black Diamond cams (in tow for The Convent), and 5 liters of water.
“That’s so much better!” I could hear the excitement in his voice. “You couldn’t have taken that before I climbed the crux?” he yelled into the darkness.
“What? The crux is still above me on pitch three,” I said.
“Hell no, that shit is easy! That supersteep hand crack above the off-width right off the ground. When it traverses up and to the right and you have no feet. I hate that part! It feels instantly desperate every time I climb it. It was way hard with that damn hundred-pound pack on.”
I just laughed. Then I apologized and laughed some more. Obviously, I was apologizing for nothing; I should have made his ass climb the whole pitch with that pack on! Those and other random thoughts raced through my head as I belayed, awkwardly balanced on the ledge in the calm, cool darkness.
I continued leading the beautiful next pitch and again hauled Ben’s pack up. Being at an anchor three hundred feet off the deck with no rope threaded through your harness isn’t really a big deal. I’ve done it a million times. While jugging big walls or rapping off multipitch routes, I’m constantly not tied to a rope. However hanging from a thin Dyneema sling clipped to a single bolt with only the insufficient, albeit dying, headlamp for truly knowing what the hell is going on combined with the effects of fatigue and having climbed twenty-eight pitches jacking with your mental game is a weird feeling. A feeling that while I type this, I long for and feel a slight addiction toward.
Another routine belay change and Ben flew up the final pitch, leaving the rack sitting below the four-bolt 5.11 finish. He led with my smaller, lighter Creek 20, as I had on the lower three pitches. The climbing below the bolted section was easy, and carrying his bigger, much heavier pack wasn’t an issue at all. However, now standing below the sporty face climbing with the big thirty-liter pack and the rack I’d just picked up, I started to get mad.
Dammit, I hauled this pack for him for three pitches, and now I’m about to climb the most insecure part of the route weighed down, and he’s not going to help! I silently reflected. Pure-evil thoughts were spontaneously overwhelming my head, and my Boston heritage was about to come out. Just in time, his light leaned over from above and illuminated the prerigged rope end and locking carabiner.
“You gonna clip that rack and pack to this or just man up and climb with it?” he asked as he jiggled the rope.
“Oh, thank God,” I mumbled. “I was just about to start bitching you out!”
Ben laughed; he knows me well enough to have already deciphered my previous silence.
On top of The Rectory, true overtired-little-kid syndrome was taking place. We were both acting semi-intoxicated, as proven by a video I have of Ben talking shit to our friends. Further exemplified is the fact that I thought it a mature decision to text those lads that video at 4:15 in the morning.
A pleasant stroll across the summit of The Rectory landed us atop the The Empirical Route. We located the chain anchors and tried to shine our lights toward the ledge we knew should be somewhere in the down direction. This cued us to change our headlamp batteries and like Genesis 1:3–5 declared, “There was light…and [that] light was good.”
Even with fresh batteries, it was hard to tell if we were going to make it with a single seventy-meter rope. Ben headed down, and as the ends of the rope popped out of his device, he landed on the ledge we were looking for. Perfect. A sidewalk took us to the last pitch of The Nuns, which was a short lived but great, steep diagonal splitter. Ben will tell you it’s 5.11+, but it’s more like 5.9, even in approach shoes. The summit was a dark, befuddled blur, and I don’t think I could describe it if asked to.
We rappelled the stellar-looking calcite-encrusted face where the 5.11c Holier Than Thou resides and walked around The Priest to the Honeymoon Chimney.
Ben laybacked up the opening off-width corner at the speed of light and then disappeared into the chimney. He stopped on top of pitch two, and I took us to the top. Neither of us had ever given the 5.11 stemming a free-climbing effort, but in the early morning light, I decided to give it a go. The pitch served up exciting-yet-excellent climbing and a plethora of cramping from my toes to my core. Ben also freed the pitch and was stoked about how cool it was. As the sun popped over the horizon, we looked north toward the two remaining summits. We rappelled down Excommunication reminiscing about the five-star climbing.
At this point, the sub-twenty-four-hour push was riding the line of possibility; it was right there. I know Ben wasn’t too worried about completing it all in under twenty-four hours. And by “not too worried,” I mean he didn’t give a shit. I was just toying with the idea throughout the day and couldn’t help but do the math while we walked over to Sister Superior.
Our friend Adam Ferro had informed us about some rebar we may encounter on the ridge heading toward Sister Superior. Adam had enchained the Castle Valley towers a couple years prior, so we bounced some ideas off him before setting off on our third attempt. Sure enough, we found three rebar stakes driven in an in-line orientation into the dirt for rappelling. We decided against using them and down scrambled. Five minutes later, we found more rebar with a horrendously shredded rope affixed to the rebar. We cautiously lowered ourselves hand over hand past multiple five- to twenty-five-foot-long core shots. After the tattered rope, we delicately tiptoed over ball-bearing-covered, angling hardpack into a gulley of sand. While sand filled my shoes and turned my no-longer-fresh socks reddish brown, I was happy to be in the sand and off that rope.
During the initial drive out of Colorado, Ben and I discussed the number of talus cones. At the base of North Six-Shooter, he’d proclaimed, “One down, three to go.” After arriving at the base of South Six-Shooter, “Two down, two to go,” and shortly thereafter, “Three down, one to go,” at the base of the eight Bridger Jacks. Now, six hours after completing what should have been our last hike up Castleton’s monstrous talus cone, we were hiking forty-five minutes across a surprisingly long ridge to Sister Superior from The Priest. So much for our countdowns.
We were both happy to be done with the fifth hike of the day, and Ben took off up Jah Man (5.10+) without much of a plan as to where he was going to stop. He ended up linking the first three pitches through the short lived 5.10+ crux. I then took over leading and brought us to the top. Jah Man might not get the recognition of Fine Jade, but it sure is a damn close second. We shot what was sadly only the eighth and ninth photo of the entire linkup on the summit, causing us to linger a little longer than any other summit to this point. We managed to climb the route in exactly one hour and complete Jah Man in one hour and twenty minutes round trip.
The dagger of shamefulness, which we completely ignored during the forty-minute walk to Sister Superior, that was buried in our backs was only deepened and twisted when we spent over an hour walking to The Convent from Sister Superior. Fatigue and pain were definitely real symptoms while emotions toiled from wanting to be done and annoyance at basically everything. Neither Ben nor I had ever climbed The Convent, but twenty-four hours prior, we were excited to explore new terrain. In addition, it would add a summit to our tower lists: over 350 collectively. However, while now trying to find the route, The West Face Dihedral, we were no longer excited about new intents.
Ironically enough, we had never even contemplated climbing The Convent as part of this pipe dream. While getting beta from Ferro, he made it quite clear that The Convent was part of the Castle Valley Ridge and therefore must be included. I protested that we would be forty-two pitches in by the time we got to it, and neither Ben nor I had been up it before. He didn’t care and lost interest in aiding us if we weren’t going to do “the true ridge linkup.” Obviously, we gave way to his peer pressure.
We chose the route the day before because it had the easiest grade of any of the routes listed on Mountain Project. We figured we’d be beat by this point and would want a gimme. True to form, we were fucking over it. Walking back and forth under various crack systems trying to get our bearings wasn’t working. We’d been familiar up to this point with all the terrain, even if the memory was a bit fuzzy. There hadn’t been a question of where to go on the approach or where to climb on a pitch until now. But now, as we were racing an imaginary clock on the sprint to the finish, we were lost. Over thirty minutes were wasted when I thought I finally located the first pitch in a corner; I could even see the anchor at the apex of the corner. The only problem was that I couldn’t figure out how to get to it. There was a chossy layer blocking the dihedral above and no obvious way past it.
“Screw it; I’m gonna climb up this,” I proclaimed to Ben like I was some sort or hero. I tied in, shouldered the rack, and surprisingly managed to get two-thirds of the way to the start of the pitch when The Convent slapped me back down. There was no safe way to get into the corner, and I was twenty-five feet off the deck with no gear. The rock above resembled a house of cards that honestly looked scary. The reason we were infatuated by the linkup was that it was forty-five pitches of quality climbing. Now I’m precariously balanced and sketched out, acting like a typical American male trying to put my head down and push harder to get through a difficult experience.
“Dude, that looks like death,” Ben supported with a base of fear.
“Yeah. I know. Thanks,” was all I could mutter in return.
“Come down; that can’t be the way. This is supposed to be a clean route, and that doesn’t match the description at all.”
Shenanigans transpired, and I uneventfully climbed down, and we found the real base of the route.
As I looked at the time, our likelihood of pulling off the twenty-four-hour mark was dwindling, but a hint of light still remained. Of every route thus far, all had been dispensed in an hour or under, except The Rectory at 1 hour and 25 minutes of 5.11 climbing with all our gear in tow and Vision Quest at 1 hour and 15 minutes. Unfortunately the past twenty-three hours were catching up with us.
The first pitch was rated 5.9 and felt harder than any 5.10 pitch we had climbed thus far, minus the last pitch of Wildflower. I led pitch one and yelled to Ben once comfortable on the belay ledge, “That felt pretty damn hard! Maybe I’m getting tired but damn!”
“Oh, great.” I could hear his excitement for what was about to commence.
“You’ll be fine; just lay it back.” I gave him his own typical “if you can’t climb it, lay it back” inspirational quote that has gotten us up a lot of routes.
On pitch 4, Ben led up with the #6 Camalot that we had dragged across the whole Castle Valley Ridge for this particular pitch. The description stated, “This pitch is X rated without a 6.” Turns out, if you tunnel deep into the crack, the hard off-width crack turns into an easy squeeze chimney. He didn’t even place the cam!
I took the last thirty-foot pitch to the summit. Ben followed. There was no excitement. Zero. No high fives, no smiles, no pictures. We’d officially shifted into type-three fun. Forty-five pitches and roughly 3,500 feet climbed, 31 hours awake, 4 talus cones and 2 ridge traverses, dehydration and hunger combined with a dirty, sandbagged route, put us 1 hour and 35 minutes over the 24-hour mark.
We both just want to get down and are onsighting the raps with a single seventy-meter cord. Luckily all goes well, and we escape the blistering-hot summit. I’m secretly hoping that Ben’s rope gets stuck on the last rappel so we can leave it behind, resulting in a much-lighter pack on the long hike down.
The reason for the lack of enthusiasm is that the day isn’t over. We’re out of water, it’s ninety degrees, and our vehicle is parked a very long way away. The linkup is over, but we’re still planning it. We decide to hike in the opposite direction of the truck and toward River Road. Once at the highway, we can hitch around Parriott Mesa back to the truck. The hike down is completely off a trail, painful, and hot. Luckily, after hitting pavement, it only takes ten minutes before we’re picked up and driven straight to the truck. A female from Ouray bypassed her original destination at her parents’ in the small town of Castle Valley and deposited us within five feet of my truck where we had left it fourteen hours and forty minutes earlier.
Slowly, as we start consuming food and water, our attitudes elevate. Ben takes the wheel first, and I fall asleep before laying eyes on Hole in the Rock. Fifty miles south, Ben pulls into the Maverick in Monticello; he can’t keep his eyes open. I take over driving, with a fresh cup of coffee, and Ben sleeps all the way back to the grocery store in Cortez where the amazing adventure began.
For both Ben and me, the day of climbing was a complete success. We set out to stand on sixteen summits in the desert where our climbing roots run deep in the red soil. We’ve climbed in the greater Moab region for over fifteen years and still get excited to take trips there and explore new canyons, towers, and climbing possibilities. We hadn’t climbed some of the routes throughout the day in over twelve years, not because the route wasn’t amazing but because there is an endless amount of climbing to discover out there, and we aren’t the type of climbers to repeat routes. For that reason, we have no intention of ever trying the less-than-twenty-four-hours linkup. We did what we set out to do, and the twenty-four-hour mark was only an attempt to up the ante a bit more while in action.
“That’s most climbers’ season goal, or even a multiple-year goal!” a really good friend and climbing partner Brad Brandewie exclaimed when I told him the plan prior to our second attempt. Because of the truth behind his comment, Ben and I are guessing the assortment of summits had probably not been interconnected in the past, but there are a lot of secret crushers out there!
We didn’t climb to be the first to do the linkup, and we won’t return to set a new speed record; we just enjoyed a fun day of climbing and have plenty of other plans for the future.
Matt resides in Bayfield, Colorado, with his wife Amber and their two pups, Lily and Imogene. When not working at the Farmington Fire Department, he is either found reworking old projects at the numerous sport crags in Durango or chasing Ben through the Utah desert on tower first ascents. Linking multiple climbs into a megaday came about when he and Ben realized they would only have limited time to climb and figured sleeping would be a waste of said time. Matt’s best piece of advice for success on such linkups: fresh socks.
For those of you who look at the Playboy NOT for the article but for the pictures. Here’s what we did as simplified as possible:
Tower Project Link Up
Realized April 26 & 27, 2018
45 pitches (by the book)
Times: Projected Actual
North Sixshooter (3 pitches, 5.11)
Leave car- 10:45 10:50
Start- 11:30 11:20
Summit- 12:30 12:00
Base- 1:00 12:15
Car- 1:00 12:40
Climbing- 40 mins
Car to car- 1 hr 50 mins
South Sixshooter (3 pitches, 5.9)
Leave car- 1:15 12:45
Start- 1:45 1:15
Summit- 1:50 1:25
Base- 2:10 1:30
Car- 2:30 1:55
Climbing- 10 mins
Car to car- 1 hr 10 min
King of Pain North (+1 pitch after Vision Quest, 5.7)
Leave car- 3:15 2:40
Start- 3:40 3:00
Summit- 5:40 4:30
King of Pain South (4 pitches on Vision Quest, 5.10)
Summit- 5:45 4:15
Climbing Vision Quest- 1 hr 15 min
Bridger Jack Butte (1 pitch, 5.10)
At notch- 5:55 4:35
Summit- 6:15 5:00
Base- 6:30 5:15
Hummingbird (2 pitches, 5.11X)
Start- 6:40 5:20
Summit- 7:45 6:15
Climbing- 55 mins
Sunflower (+1 pitch after Hummingbird, 5.10 C0)
At notch- 8:00 6:25
Summit- 8:15 6:45
Base- 8:35 6:50
Climbing- 20 mins
Easter Island (2 pitches, 5.10+)
Start- 8:45 8:40
Summit- 9:45 9:10
Ground- 10:00 9:15
Climbing- 30 mins
Sparkling Touch (3 pitches, 5.11)
Start- 10:10 7:50
Summit- 11:15 8:25
Base- 11:25 8:35
Climbing- 35 mins
Thumbelina (1 pitch, 5.11+)
Start- 11:35 7:10
Summit- 12:05 7:40
Base- 12:10 7:45
Climbing- 30 minutes
All Bridger Jacks:
Climbing- 6 hrs 10 minutes
Car to car- 7 hrs 40 minutes
Castleton Tower (4 pitches, 5.9)
Leave car- 2:15 11:50
Base- 3:15 12:35
Start- 3:15 12:45
Summit- 4:00 1:50
Base- 4:15 2:10
Climbing- 1 hr 5 min
The Rectory (4 pitches, 5.11)
Start- 4:45 2:45
Summit- 6:15 4:10
Climbing- 1 hr 25 mins. (w/ all gear)
Nuns (+1 pitch after Fine Jade, 5.10)
Notch- 6:30 4:40
Summit- 6:45 5:00
Base- 7:00 5:15
Climbing- 20 mins
The Priest (4 pitches, 5.11)
Start- 7:30 5:45
Summit- 9:00 6:40
Base- 9:15 6:55
Climbing- 55 mins
Sister Superior (5 pitches, 5.10+)
Base. 10:20 7:40
Start 10:30 7:50
Summit- 11:30 8:40
Base- 11:50 8:55
Climbing- 1 hr
The Convent (5 pitches, 5.10)
Base. 12:50 10:00
Start- 1:00 10:25
Summit. 3:00 12:55
Base- 3:20 1:20
Climbing- 2 hr 30 mins
Road- 4:15 2:15
Car after hitch-hiking 2:30
Castle Valley Ridge- 12 hrs 10 min
Start North Six to top out Convent
25 hrs 35 mins
Car to car
27 hrs 40 mins
About us: The Climbing Zine was started in 2010 by Al Smith III and Luke Mehall. It continues to the day with the mission of representing the true essence of climbing. Our crown jewel is our printed version, but we also do the interweb thing, and Kindle.
We have also published five books: Graduating From College Me, American Climber, The Great American Dirtbags , Climbing Out of Bed, and Squeak Goes Climbing In Yosemite National Park (a climbing children’s book) .