Yes, it wobbled. Three feet high, one foot wide, a foot deep, probably outweighing me, the block sat at arm’s reach above my head. No way to avoid tangling with it—I was standing in aiders, hanging from a piton. I should bolt around it…
by Steve “Crusher” Bartlett (Note: the full version of this piece, is our photo essay for Volume 11, now available in print. Click here to get a copy or to subscribe)
But, I pondered, if I made it fall, and in that moment before it built momentum, shoved it hard enough, maybe I could steer it clear of me. Maybe. I reached up, hammer in hand, wiggled the tip of my pick under the boulder. It began to move.
Ground-up onsight climbing entails hoping for the best but being ready for anything. My favorite partners embrace this approach. One such is Strappo Hughes, who was belaying me on this occasion. Like me, he hails from the UK. Like me, he is of a certain age, mid–baby boomer vintage, born into post-war suburbia.
My parents survived the Depression years to face yet greater trauma and dislocation during World War II. My father served in the Royal Navy, talked little of what he went through. My mother was born into poverty. Her own mother died soon after; her father, a soldier, was too poor to look after her and farmed her out to whoever would take her in. She never spoke of this, took her secrets to her grave. By the time I was born, my parents wanted no more struggle and adversity; they craved security, stability, a pretty garden, outward respectability. I was born into this, took it for granted. In my shy teens, I set fires, got into fights, dreamed of bigger horizons. Meanwhile, my mother grew inward, shedding friends, embracing an increasingly puritanical, repressed view of life: nothing mattered beyond outward appearances. She demanded conformity. My father acquiesced. I escaped in the same way my brother had, six years earlier: by studying hard, getting good grades, and going to college in a far-off town. Where, in turn, I joined the university’s mountaineering club and, in 1976, first embraced the fabulous uselessness of climbing steep, dangerous cliffs.
By 2002, at age 45, rock climbing, perhaps not useless after all, had brought me to a different country, on a different continent, settled in Colorado, on my own terms, which included regular climbing trips to the Utah desert.
Strappo and I, on this trip, were in the southern San Rafael Swell. This sector of the Swell is dead space on a map; people hurry through. Factory Butte is the local landmark. This colossal stack of debris topped by a wavy fin of shale looms 1,800 feet above the surrounding desolation: its dull-gray color and industrial-plant profile gave it its name. We were a dozen miles east, searching for a shapely tower I’d spotted a year earlier from Factory Butte’s summit. We wandered beneath a six-hundred-foot escarpment that blocked the April sun. To the north, dull slopes rose and fell half-heartedly. Silence enveloped us like an invisible mist. The tower, when we found it, was 250 feet tall, beige, steep, an upside-down ice-cream cone. It was guarded by a slope of dust and sand sparkling with gypsum flakes. No talus here—this formation was melting, not eroding, melting. Damn. I had been hoping for Fisher Towers–style sandstone. Neither of us had climbed anything quite like this—where were the cracks? Or flakes? Holds? But…it was unclimbed…
There were some gypsum veins; one reached the ground near the west end of the south face, so we began there, Strappo first. Eighty feet up, the crack closed up tight. He placed a bolt, retreated. My turn.
I jumared warily, eyeing up the pieces he’d placed, assessing their worth. To make the best of the bolt in the soft rock, I clipped a Screamer (a quickdraw with extra stitching designed to rip, progressively, if shock loaded, absorbing a fall’s impact forces) into the bolt, using two locking carabiners for peace of mind. Above, I tapped a couple of our tiniest pitons into the still-tight seam, then, mercifully, the crack opened up, allowing better and safer placements. A rhythm began: clean the surface crud, place a piece, step high, repeat. I tackled each step meticulously so the next could be stress free. Then, a subsidiary seam intersected mine. Where they met was a fractured zone. Atop a laptop-size ledge was the three-foot-tall boulder.
With my hammer-pick tip, I worked the boulder to its tipping point. I warned Strappo to move far, far leftwards, out of the way. He pulled the ropes tight against me, to keep them away from the fall line. I leaned left, ropes in outstretched left hand. My right hand reached back up, nudged the rock one more time, and it toppled.
Time slowed. The block moved fast. I had to move faster. With no conscious thought, my hand clamped itself on to the boulder, and assessed weight and trajectory. Like a spotter fielding a tumbling pebble-wrestler, I steered the beast. It brushed my shoulder, missed my legs (which were leaning right to counterbalance my upper body), arced gently past the ropes. A hundred feet below me, the boulder impacted—boom—and careened down the approach cone. An apocalyptic dust cloud enveloped me, Strappo, and our tower. I breathed again, yelled with release and relief. Strappo shuffled back into place below. Behind where the block had been was a fine crack; I got back to work.
Higher—we were nearly out of rope—was an overhang. I still remember placing an upside-down #2 Friend in a too-shallow hole and fearfully swinging onto it, eyes closed, braced for the cam to explode from the weak rock, wondering how many of the pieces below would also rip out if it did. Dangling in space, I whacked a piton into unseen crud above my head. The fight to stand up above the overhang was followed by grimmer moves up a disintegrating chimney before I could beach myself on a ledge, place a good bolt, and yell, “Off belay!”
In the Fisher Towers, this full-rope-length pitch would be a classic A3. Amid the vast San Rafael desert, the pitch—like the climb—is unrepeated, unknown. For all I know, the formation has melted into dust. But I know for sure the adventure Strappo and I shared still makes me smile.
Had Crusher known he’d live to be so old, he’d have climbed more dangerous climbs and ridden faster motorcycles. Otherwise he would not change a thing. He is the author of Desert Towers, a boisterous history of the select band of rock climbers who have thrived amid the chossy pinnacles of the Southwest.
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.