Think back over your climbing career. I bet you’ll find a climb—or two—that define you. These won’t be your hardest sends necessarily. They will be the beautiful ones, the scary ones, the ones that came into your life at just the right time. The ones that tested you, that possessed you, that shaped your character and made you who you are today. They are the ones that inspire you to keep your crampons sharp and your chalk bag full, and though it may remain unspoken, in the back of your head, they are what you mean when you tell someone you’re a climber. I have a small handful in this category, but one stands out above all others, an obscure formation that grabbed my imagination and never let go.
Story and photos by Josh Smith from Volume 19
Texas Tower is a craggy 750-foot-tall sandstone monarch that that broods over its domain, and it has a reputation for dispensing its own form of desert justice to climbers who wish to stand on its summit. A distant glimpse was enough for it to worm its way into my subconscious and lurk there for more than a decade like a suppressed psychosis. That glimpse came on my first trip into the remote and mysterious stretch of high desert that lies west of Blanding, Utah. Soon after I started climbing, I visited Indian Creek to study the craft of cracks, but the vast canyon mazes of the Colorado Plateau south of Moab always felt too complex to explore based on a vague description in Eric Bjornstad’s guidebook Desert Rock. My dog-eared copies of that multi-volume red-dirt bible had inspired a few adventures but also a certain gun-shy wariness when it came to seeking out objectives in some of the hidden corners of the Utah backcountry.
My lifelong friend Kennan Harvey was the one to drag me out of my comfort zone and into the canyon country. On that first trip, I picked him up in Durango on my way up from New Mexico, and we puttered west on Highway 160, pushed slowly through the gently rolling hills around Dove Creek by the laboring cylinders of my geriatric Ford Ranger. The fields and farms along that stretch with their widely separated barns and grain silos are beautiful, but in a subdued way, like Dorothy’s Kansas. That the land can so suddenly transform from bucolic into the polychromatic Oz-like wonderland that is Utah’s southern desert is one of Earth’s grand and magical mysteries. The switch happens just west of Blanding where a north-south geological upthrust called Comb Ridge sharply separates the two worlds with an eighty-mile-long sandstone wall that erupts hundreds of feet above the landscape. Beyond that wall are canyons of all imaginable dimensions, from gentle troughs with verdant bottoms that the Ancestral Puebloans found suitable for agriculture to tortuous slots so deep and narrow that light is consumed and semidarkness rules at midday. And sometimes in those canyons, one finds the eroded spikes of desert towers.
Kennan and I were headed to a camping spot overlooking the confluence of Texas and Arch Canyons a handful of miles off the pavement beyond Comb Ridge. Our intent was to spend the night and then climb a 250-foot-tall wand of stone called Dreamspeaker, which lies downcanyon from Texas Tower. We punched through the deep gash that the road makes in Comb Ridge and dropped into the cottonwoods that line the wash below, then up the far side. A relatively short but bumpy drive through sage and pinion and juniper brought us to a flat spot on the canyon rimrock where we looked a thousand feet or so down on Arch Canyon’s eponymous Angel Arch. The formation that contains the arch is hundreds of feet tall and resembles a massive chair, and even dwarfed as it was by the distance from the rim, it had the surreal beauty of so much of the desert, as if the laws of gravity and forces of erosion had been suspended for aesthetic reasons.
From where we stood, the 750-foot-tall Texas Tower was hidden a mile or so upcanyon and Dreamspeaker about an equal distance down. I’d only read the bare-bones route description for Dreamspeaker and knew nothing about Texas beyond its name. Dreamspeaker, at 250 feet, seemed manageable. What worried me was how we would descend the nearly vertical walls to the canyon floor to approach the tower. I was also uneasy because we were meeting and camping with two of Kennan’s friends. They were there to climb Texas Tower, and I was out of my league with all three. Jeff Achey was a legend, with first ascents all over the West, including many test pieces in the desert, and he was one of the best climbing writers in the country. His partner, Steve Levin, had been on the cover of a magazine, wiggling in a micro nut six hundred feet above Mills Glacier on a 5.12 on The Diamond of Longs Peak. Though not as familiar a name in the climbing media as Jeff, his resume of hard climbs was equally as impressive.
Kennan had taken that cover shot of Steve and had been on a list as one of the ten best climbers in the country. I, however, had a desk job, had gotten my first pair of climbing shoes not long before, and was still buying one or two carabiners and the odd on-sale cam as paychecks allowed in order to build a rack.
I was there because I grew up with Kennan. He is a year older than I am, which when you are seven or eight (or even fifteen) can be a big difference, but I looked up to him for a lot more reasons than the prescience and maturity conveyed by twelve additional months of existence.
As a kid, I introverted and spent much of my time feeling lost and baffled by the complexities of the world around me. Given that my siblings were widely recognized as gifted, my poor showing in school caused lots of adult head-scratching and earned me remedial education and stern lectures, all of which just left me more confused. I did better with my friends, and Kennan invariably had my back when I once again needed help in understanding how the world worked, from showing me how to build a stove out of a tuna fish can, cardboard, and wax for a camping trip in the backyard (at eight) and how to ask a girl out (at fifteen).
Kennan’s intelligence, passion, and vision led him to a profession in climbing, with a string of accomplishments that spanned the globe and included such oddments as a week-long stint on ESPN’s Survival of the Fittest, a gritty precursor to American Ninja Warrior (he took second). He was always fiercely loyal and stayed in touch, and so when I “discovered” climbing for myself in my late twenties after moving to New Mexico, he happily included me on those adventures that suited my limited abilities.
When Jeff and Steve showed up, we all went to a different overlook to gaze down on Texas Tower. It was enormous and ominous, standing free of the rim on the opposite side of the canyon. Jeff and Steve compared notes about the route, focusing mostly on the 5.11+ off-width that guarded the entrance to hundreds of feet of unprotected 5.9 chimneys. Their secondhand horror stories about the rotten rock and the difficulties of the off-width made a deep impression on me, and I was having a hard time digesting the level of experience and competence that would allow them to calmly launch up the route. At that point in my life, I badly wanted to become a “real” climber, and listening to them talk began to crystalize for me what, within my limited experience, that aspiration actually meant.
That night we built a fire to ward off the November cold, and as is the wont of climbers in the desert, the warmth of the flames was supplemented with several liters of cheap wine. A good rule of thumb is that the level of wine in a bottle is inversely related to either argumentativeness or lugubriousness depending on the hour, and as that level fell Steve, Jeff, and Kennan faced off in a high-volume, spirited debate about what made an off-width 11+ versus 12-, with supporting examples reenacted from past experience with illustrative gesticulations and vocalizations.
Someone (I forget who) even took the counterintuitive and inflammatory position that 11+ off-width is sometimes more difficult than 12-, which in turn led to the excoriation of both sandbaggers and soft-graders and the psychological issues of both. As the wine level slipped below the bottom of the label, the conversation turned introspective and melancholy as they commiserated about the challenging economics of climbing as a profession and how white-collar weekend warriors were the only ones who could afford adequate desert racks. I had little to contribute and eventually slipped off to bed.
The morning dawned overcast and cold, and we wished each other good luck as they headed up canyon and we went down. Kennan and I, following vague directions, hiked through the woods and then fixed a static rope over a cliff band, rappelled, scrambled, and downclimbed. Then we came upon something that was so unexpected and startling that at first I didn’t think it was real, like glancing out a car window and seeing a cow with sunglasses; here, in the exact middle of nowhere, there were buildings in the cliff.
Blended in with the rock were largely intact rock-and-mud structures mortared into the sandstone bands, perched out on improbable sloping ledges with hundreds of feet of air below. Granaries, Kennan said, from the Ancestral Puebloans. It seemed nonsensical to me that people would build in such precarious places, and I didn’t understand how the structures could be in good shape so many hundreds of years later for us to see on a random hike through a trackless side canyon. Pressed by the increasingly dense clouds, we merely glanced at them as we passed.
When Dreamspeaker came into view, I was confounded by its slenderness. It is about 250 feet tall, the color of rust, and as comically and improbably balanced as a circus clown doing a handstand on a bicycle. We located a crack in the ridiculous formation, and I led the first pitch, a sandy thin-hands splitter. The day had gotten colder, and isolated snowflakes drifted by as I struggled upward. Before I reached the ledge a hundred feet up, my hands had gone numb, and I slumped onto the rope to warm them in my armpits. Kennan quickly dispatched the second off-width pitch to the tiny summit, and we spent a few minutes admiring the canyon before descending into increasing snow. The snow continued intermittently as we slowly made our way toward the rim, stopping to tiptoe carefully out on exposed shelves of rock to stick our heads in granaries that were still strewn with corncobs from an unimaginably different time.
Back at our camp, we rebuilt the fire and waited for Jeff and Steve to return, which they did late in the afternoon. They reported having made it to the off-width pitch just as the snow started in earnest, which in turn had driven them down. Everyone was subdued as we said our good-byes.
That first trip to Cedar Mesa did a lot to shape my idea of climbing, and as I learned more and practiced my desert craft on lesser objectives, I would think about Texas Tower, wondering what it looked like close up, wondering what would happen if I were to tie in at the base and start up. Finally I felt I’d grubbed my way up enough soft, wide cracks to convince myself that, if I could find the right person to join me, it was time to give Texas Tower a go. Choosing my words carefully, I told my friend George Perkins, “There’s a tower I’ve been wanting to climb. It’s a classic.”
I’d met George when I needed a partner for the Black Canyon, and a mutual friend had suggested he might be a good fit. He is about ten years younger than I am and at that time was just getting interested in climbing longer routes in the 5.11 range. We got to know each other a little on the drive to The Black, then arose predawn and launched up a long climb called Atlantis that starts at the river and goes almost two thousand feet to the rim. He was quietly competent, unfazed on the runouts, and calmly accepting of my personal brand of incompetence when, on pitch three, I sat on my CamelBak hose and drained all my water onto a ledge, leaving me with a single Red Bull for the rest of the day.
I didn’t share with George the full extent of my obsession with Texas Tower because at that point I’d built it up so much in my imagination that I no longer knew what was true about it and what wasn’t. I also had a suspicion that if I talked about it too much, I’d talk us out of actually going. We climbed a few wide cracks in New Mexico, but in my mind that was akin to boxing a few rounds with your little brother before getting in the ring with Mike Tyson, and it didn’t do much to boost my confidence. My generic philosophy is that no one is ever adequately prepared for their greatest challenges, and thus my planning is often a dysfunctional polygamous marriage of anticipation, apprehension, and impatience; when I decide I need to do something, I generally want to do it now. The result was that we picked our next available weekend, which happened to be in February. When it came, we packed the truck and headed west.
After we turned off of the pavement toward the juncture of Texas and Angel Canyons, our tires occasionally crunched through patches of snow. When we parked and walked out to look at Angel Arch, I experienced the same awe and sense of an overwhelming sweep of space and ancient history that had imprinted the canyon so deeply on my psyche during that first trip.
My mood was tempered by the cold, overcast sky, and I felt the incipient pressure behind my eyes and sinuses that indicates a cold or flu. George and I admired the arch, then went upcanyon to look at Texas Tower. It, too, was as I remembered: distant, impervious, threatening, and grand. Neither of us said much, but we did spend some time trying to figure out how to descend to the canyon floor. The ledges beneath us were covered with nearly a foot of snow on the directly north-facing slope, and we could see small vertical bands of sandstone that we would have to negotiate to make it to the tower.
That night we didn’t bother with a fire. Winter darkness and temperatures in the midteens forced us into our sleeping bags around seven, where we shivered until dawn. In the morning, I was feeling worse, but neither of us wanted to just drive away, so we packed for the day and started for the canyon bottom. Our shoes filled with snow and the leafless, bony scrub oak clawed and grasped at us in objection to our trespass, but we slowly picked our way down the stone benches, leaving two lengths of rappel line to help us ascend that evening.
It was a tardy and inauspicious 11:00 a.m. when we reached the base of Texas Tower. As I struggled with congestion and unease, George began matter-of-factly racking up. Pitches of awkward stemming, squirming, groveling into slots, and delicate protection followed, and eventually we found ourselves at the base of the crux pitch: the 5.11+ off-width that had been the centerpiece of the majority of horror stories about the route.
Both of us laughed nervously at the belay, which was three antique pins driven upward under a flake, then looked up at a crack that went from reasonable to an extended section of #5 cams before widening even farther to #6s. In my mind, I’d seen an overhanging maw eight or nine inches wide with a decomposing patina, but this crack actually looked doable—tough, sure, but not much different from some I’d climbed at The Creek. Emboldened, I took our two #5s and two #6s and a selection of smaller pieces and launched upward. I made good progress at first but then slowed dramatically as fists gave way to arm bars and chicken wings. At that awkward width, shoe rubber doesn’t seem to catch well at any orientation, and my feet began to jitter and jerk for purchase as if I were being electrocuted, which at that moment I might have welcomed. Twenty feet shy of the stance that marked the end of the pitch, my remaining resolve dissolved, and I fell, gasping as my head throbbed and my lungs burned. I walked my cams the rest of the way to the anchor, wheezing and resting on each placement.
George followed the pitch, and we assessed our situation. Looking upward, we could see the entrance to an extended section of chimneys that were marked 5.9 unprotected on the topo. That’s a scary grade, it was easing into late afternoon, the short February day would be gone in a matter of hours, and we would be unlikely to find our fixed lines on our way back to the rim in the dark. Bailing off was an easy conclusion, but I was weighted with the leaden feeling of failure after so many years of anticipation. A few rappels got us back to our shoes at the base, and we began the extended battle against snow and scrub oak and altitude. When we made it to camp and crawled into our sleeping bags again, we were exhausted and covered in twigs and dirt and snow.
By April, we had digested the experience sufficiently to believe we were ready for a do-over, so we loaded the truck again and headed west. When we got to the rim and looked down on Angel Arch, we could see that spring was brushing the canyon with strokes of gentle green, as the scrub oak and alder created new leaves from melted snow. That night was much warmer than either of my previous experiences, and I had none of the close-your-eyes-and-jump feelings of the last attempt.
We arose before dawn and began descending with headlamps, greatly helped by knowing where we needed to set our fixed lines and without the burden of calf-deep snow on the steep ledges. When we reached the bottom, the perennial stream was flowing with water, and the sand retained enough moisture to make walking easy.
Sparrows and canyon wrens flickered through patches of sunlight, filling the air with their trills, and pale shoots of grass were unfurling beneath the trees. It was only 7:30 when we reached the base and began racking up, leaving us an inspiring amount of daylight to deal with difficulties above. The pitches that led to the off-width crux went smoothly, and I was soon taking the large cams from George and looking up into the sandy slot, trying to remember the crimps and protuberances I’d used and if I’d been facing right or left last time while mustering my commitment for an all-out effort.
Foreknowledge has two edges: it takes some of the mystery out of a difficult and possibly dangerous climb, but the advantage of prescience is sometimes counterweighted by prior failures that can lace the next effort with strength-sapping self-doubt. A quick glance at the literature or online forums will reveal generations of climbers with a wide range of intellectual and analytical skills all self-importantly counting the angels on the head of the pin.
Why is it so important to fight so hard and risk injury or even death to avoid resting on the rope or the equipment? No one but me and George would ever know or care that we had ever climbed this route or in what kind of style—and on the crux, even George couldn’t see me after I left the belay. My own two cents is that atavistic longing drives us to pour our all into the clean send. There is so little in modern life over which we have more than illusory control that there is a great (if illogical) satisfaction in holding ourselves to a standard and then trying really hard to meet it, even at the price of injury or death. Victory may be arbitrary, but it is also distinct and easily measured (setting aside, for the moment, the pit of online vipers), and the battle gives temporary respite from the chaos and crush of modern life.
The first part of the pitch went smoothly, but as the crack widened and began to steepen, my feet again began to slip, and my arm bars began to sag as I lost strength. I settled into a familiar panic-inducing rhythm: right hand moves up, rotates to fist, still not wide enough, elbow almost locks but not quite, torso tips back as elbow slips and body begins sliding toward an inverted fall, but forearm catches as left hand desperately tugs against the other side of the crack, then dim intelligence penetrates and a desperately thrown hand-fist stack suddenly feels magically secure, generating a smile that quickly vanishes with the realization that the last cam is a body length down and that the hand-fist stack ties up both hands, so I can’t place gear, but rotating a foot for a precarious heel-toe that wedges against a bulge frees a hand to place a cam (should have taped my ankles; something is bleeding), but at least my hand is free, only the cam is on the wrong side and is wedged between my body and the crack—ah there’s one on the other side, but what the hell, the rope won’t move, George must be napping and won’t feed me slack (while I’m fighting for my life! Asshole!), but no, it’s me (sorry, George), I’ve trapped the rope with my toe and can’t clip, shitshitshit, now what?
The frustration and exhaustion created by grunting twelve inches upward only to slide back down six while staring at a stance twenty feet away is the stuff of familiar nightmares, and when I’m in the thick of it, I often swear in a dying-on-the-mountain style religious conversion that if only I live through this I’ll go straight home and learn better technique or give up off-width climbing for good (which, unfaithfully, I never do, thus condemning myself to a Purgatory completely of my own invention).
I was progressing though, and I found a hidden edge inside the lip of the crack and managed to lock my knee and approximate a rest. I waited for my heart rate to drop past hummingbird levels, then started climbing again. The difficulty seemed to ease somewhat, and the last section to the stance at the end of the pitch simply required that I not capitulate to fatigue and fear or make a stupid mistake.
“Off belay, George.”
“Hey, good job!”
“Thanks! That was fun.”
As George followed, I looked down and cheered him on through the toughest spots. He reached the belay with some grunting but without weighting the rope, and I began to entertain the giddy thought that we might both actually get the route with no falls. We took a brief moment and discussed the next few pitches. The crack went over a small roof right off the belay and then widened to the point where it was clear we would need to climb into the middle of the tower via the “unprotected chimneys.”
“Unprotected” might mean a terrifying struggle for mental control while climbing over ledges on flexing holds, or it might indicate a chimney so secure that it would feel as safe as crawling into bed. George left the belay to find out and soon disappeared inside the cliff. The rope fed out, jerked, stopped, fed out, stopped, continued. I didn’t hear any moaning, and eventually he called off belay.
When the rope came tight, I squeezed into the interior of the formation, and the sky compressed to a line of dim light behind me as I bridged and shuffled and worked my way upward. A sliver of day was visible straight through the other direction as well, showing that this massive stone was cleanly split all the way to the summit. It was a surreal and magical environment, more akin to being hundreds of feet underground than halfway up a desert tower. A few years prior, I’d climbed Astroman in Yosemite, and the famed Harding Slot—which is a tight squeeze that often seems to create PTSD in climbers that have experienced its intimate granite embrace—had been my favorite part. In some ways, this felt similar, possibly because of the purity and simplicity of the situation. There were few distractions, either visual or audible; it was just me and the dusty rock and barely enough light to see as I worked to solve the physical puzzle of upward progress.
I reached George at the belay and took the lead. The climbing remained consistent and easy, and soon we were standing on top. It was still early afternoon, and high clouds washed the azure sky with thin bands of white, moderating the desert sun. The view from our tiny platform in the sky was almost identical to the one from the rim the evening before, with the small trees and rocks below decorating the broad canyon floor, giving it the appearance of a well-painted museum diorama.
Inside me, pleasure in our position on the summit warred with melancholy, as if in our success I had lost something important. Had George and I bottled a bit of the lightning that I was so convinced Jeff and Steve had possessed those years before? Maybe a few sparks of it. But I was starting to internalize the truism that success is often best viewed as an act of becoming rather than a discrete achievement, which is why when questioned, so many of us mumble about the value of the journey over the destination. However, when the door is closed on an important project, all of the energy invested into anticipation, anxiety, and training dissipates, leaving a void and a question.
“Hard to believe we’re up here.”
“Yeah. How do we get off this thing?”
“There’s a rap anchor right there—gotta be the right one. You know, I saw some cracks down by the arch. Might be a new route there?”
“Might be. Let’s go take a look.”
We flaked our ropes and then tossed them into the afternoon sun. They drifted down the sheer sides of the tower like fingers questing into the future. We quickly followed, leaving all melancholy on the summit and suddenly eager to hike downcanyon to see what we could see around the next bend.
Josh Smith lives in Northern New Mexico. He is currently working on fostering a meaningful relationship with his new #7 and #8 Camalots.