What We Talk About When We Talk About Choss by Steve “Crusher” Bartlett

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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.

Strappo Hughes at a belay on Mudstrosity. Photo by the author.

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.

Bomber? Photo by the author.

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.

Lizard Head

And then there’s Lizard Head.

I have never climbed such rotten volcanic rock in my life. I didn’t know volcanic rock could be so chossy. The real kicker, which I mulled over as I struggled to not fall off the decomposing top pitch, was that this was first climbed in 1921—a century ago!—one of the proud, classic climbs of early Colorado.

My wife, Fran, and I climbed this in 2004. We were visiting Chip Wilson in Telluride. Chip was—still is—stubborn, practical, and fearless. He introduced me to desert towers in the mid-1980s; I taught Chip concrete-form setting, and he took this newfound trade to Telluride. Climbing opportunities near Telluride were few back then, and we assumed that Lizard Head, at 5.7 or so, was some mountaineering moderate that everyone and their brother climbed. We were in for a shock. Later, we discovered this little gem of a description, by Albert Ellingwood:

“A rottener mass of rock is inconceivable. The core may still be solid but the ‘surrounding tuffs’ are seeking a lower level in large quantities.… Absolutely the whole surface of the rock is loose and pebbles rain down from the sides as readily as needles from an aging Christmas tree. In many places one could with one hand pull down hundreds of pounds of fragments, and occasionally we could hear the crashing of small avalanches that fell without human prompting.”

Who was this person who took such risks to climb this obscure formation? Ellingwood grew up in Colorado Springs. In 1911, a Rhodes Scholarship took him to the UK’s Oxford University for three years where he joined their mountaineering club. This prosperous, post-Victorian era was a pivotal time for the sport. There was an expanding middle class, wealthy, educated, intellectually engaged, enjoying leisure time and energy to enjoy it. Previous to this, mountaineering had been an exclusive upper-class hobby. The leading climbers were young, strong, fit daredevils who formed clubs (Oxford University’s was very active at this time) and shared resources and information. They crafted better techniques for belaying, anchoring, and rappelling. And, they developed a new attitude:

“The true joys of mountaineering are…only to be had when the climber…goes to the mountains because he loves and respects them and not just for display of his skills, or to compete for records or first ascents, or the collection of summits. These latter rewards are froth, none of them worth a man’s life—or even his time. If the approach is right—for love, not gain, mountains enrich life and are worth all the risks entailed.”

These words were written decades later by a Scot, Bill Murray. He lamented how so many climbers and the ideals they developed were lost during WWI. But perhaps Ellingwood preserved something of that attitude when he returned to Colorado in 1913.

Certainly, he began putting up harder routes than anything previously done in Colorado. The bit about the mountains being “worth all the risks entailed” would seem appropriate for Lizard Head. A fist-size rock hit Ellingwood’s helmetless head; on the descent, their rappel rope jammed and had to be abandoned.

Lizard Head is serious in ways that all the modern equipment in the world cannot change. A great partner—self-sufficient, unflappable, and with an understanding of when and when not to engage “the risks entailed,” —reduces the fear factor. Fran is definitely on my own list of Great Choss Partners. We met in the mid-’80s in Joshua Tree, round a campfire, and decided to go climbing together the next day. And the one after that… Whatever needs to be done at her end of the rope will be done just right.

Sugar Daddy

I’d been driving past this rock, near Hanksville, for years. It’s just begging to be climbed but looked impossible without drilling a ladder of large holes for spikes (rebar? footing stakes?) of some kind. And what kind of fun is that? The “rock” appeared to be too soft to nail, too crumbly to bolt. There were traces of seams, but each led into blank shields of rotten sugar. Perhaps this was the ultimate choss formation: unclimbable by any means. An untidy frustration at the back of my mind, that damn thing is right by the highway, flaunting itself.

In early 2008, my annual reconnaissance, to laugh at this ridiculous tower, was different. I’m not sure what had changed, but a crack system on the south face now appeared feasible. In late May, Chip Wilson and I got started.

The climbing involved a glorious mix of pitons, cams, nuts, the whole gamut of climbing paraphernalia and choss-aid complexity. We made one hundred feet in two days, fixed ropes, left. The next weekend was ninety-five degrees in the shade, of which there was none. We climbed this in three pitches, though for each, the belayer stayed on the ground to avoid the awkward and dubious hanging belays. The last pitch was a doozy, starting with tipped-out #5 Camalots under a temporary-feeling flake roof. The crack quickly turned to dust, twigs, and dead insects, so I started nailing Toucans (large hook-shaped blade pitons) into a calcite seam in the flake, hoping that the whole thing, trembling with the hammer blows, would not fall off with me under it. Above, “Mudstrosity-style” pitons forced alongside brittle seams led to the summit.

Except this was no Mudstrosity summit. There was no rock! Instead, thin grasses grew out of a layer of dusty soil that would never hold an anchor. A foot down were shards of shale, which, once disturbed, had no cohesiveness. There was no solid rock at all! I pondered pulling up a rope and rappelling the backside, using Chip’s weight as an anchor. But the summit was over two hundred feet up, so two sixty-metre ropes would not make it up and down. Besides, retrieving the rope by pulling it across the top would never work; the rope would dig into the choss and jam. It was getting late, and I was stumped. Would I have to bivy on top? Call for a rescue? Or laboriously down-aid the final pitch and then send Chip up and down, cleaning as he down-aided?

The answer was an ice-climbing-style bollard anchor. Two parallel grooves three feet apart crossed the summit, and six feet back from the edge, another crossed these. I deepened these and created a coffin-size bollard, surrounded by a foot-deep trench in which I laid thirty feet of rope. With enough tension, this rope would surely pull right through the soft silt of the bollard, but one person’s bodyweight would not generate that much tension—or so I hoped. I untied from the anchor and watched nervously as Chip jumared and the rope bit deep into the pastry. He arrived on top with a big smile, trusting my judgment more than I did.


Wreckers’ Slab

The sandy beaches and cute villages of Devon and Cornwall draw tourists by the hundreds of thousands. Nightclubs heave with youths just at the perfect age where drinking till one passes out or pukes, night after night, seems the one and only purpose in life. John Cleese, who wrote the Fawlty Towers comedy show, claimed to have based his hotel on some he’d stayed in around Devon, and sure enough, proto–Fawlty Towers hotels still exist, featuring enigmatic service, ex-military types in sport jackets and cravats, animal heads on tobacco-stained walls of dingy lounges, complemented by the timeless sounds of Captain and Tennille, Donny Osmond, Tony Orlando, and their ilk.

Close by are narrow lanes so hemmed in by foliage they seem like dark tunnels winding their way into the earth itself. Such a lane may arrive at a churchyard bedecked with mossy gravestones that date back five or six centuries. Or it may descend to a lonely cove where Atlantic breakers fling themselves across a shingle beach. Such a cove may be framed by impenetrable, near-vertical woodland. Here and there, usually visible only from out at sea, are little jewels of crags and buttresses defying the relentless assault of the sea. As with the Utah desert, these cliffs, poised forever on the verge of collapse, are daunting and irresistible. If I have roots anywhere in Britain, it is in Devon, where my grandparents lived. My fondest childhood memories are of exploring cliffs, alone, traversing just above the sea, below the vegetation. Always excited to see what’s around the next corner.

One of the largest of the cliffs along this coast, Cornakey Cliff, is home to Wreckers’ Slab. Three pitches long, four hundred feet tall, only reachable at low tide, this climb is composed of thousands of finger- to fist-size teeth, slotted together. In the best traditions of British dentistry, these teeth are not very firmly attached, and any given one can be extracted and thrown away. If the climb were much steeper, it would be unclimbable. But it leans back enough that one stands on a wobbly molar and balances to the next. Fran is a perfect partner for this, dancing lightly up the near-unprotectable first pitch and bravely launching up the third, where furniture-size flakes are bound together with sturdy, caterpillar-shaped grass clumps that sometimes peel away with the sound of ripping Velcro.


Six months ago, I had a hip replacement. At fifty-nine, I’m not sure if it’s a smart thing to still be climbing at all—should I quit, take up biking or swimming instead, as I was advised by one hip surgeon?

A couple weeks ago, Fran and I road tripped to Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains. We visited Ten Sleep. The perfectly groomed crags drove us away after a half day. Farther north, in a different canyon, dolomitic limestone pinnacles on Highway 14 appeared more intriguing. And, sure enough, the ambience—no dogs, no babies, no people at all—was that of a high-altitude plateau. Clouds floated by so close it felt like you could reach up and caress them. Scattered crags and pinnacles emerged from lush greenness that undulated to the horizon. And the rock—unchalked, unpolished, with few fixed pieces—presented puzzles to be solved more than brute strength.

Superpecker, 60 feet high, only 5.8 but looking far more difficult, was the best of the pinnacles we climbed that day. It appeared to be composed of fragile, loose flakes and blocks. I was hesitant at first, making small, deliberate moves, mentally mapping a trail of bread crumbs should I need to downclimb. Fran, belaying, knew exactly what to say, what to not say.

Climbing is a basic human urge. Moving, employing hands and feet, engaging the senses, challenging one’s skills. Forty years I’ve been doing this, embracing the risks entailed. Lessons learned along the way have enriched my life in countless ways. Riding a bicycle or swimming could never replace this, no way!

I examined the dolomitic limestone. Fingers caressed the surface; hundreds of thumb-size scoops provided holds aplenty. Calloused knuckles tapped; I knew to rely on the holds that made little noise because these were the solid ones. Old eyes darted around and found slots for—surprise!—excellent protection. I smiled at Fran; she smiled back. My body began to relax, moving more fluidly and with more confidence. A little higher, flowers sprouted neatly from a crevice, magenta petals highlighted by cream-colored stone—a rockery-garden feature my mother would have appreciated.

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.

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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

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