Look at Me, Dad! Err . . . Actually, Don't! - A Climb Up Ancient Art & Other Utah Rocks

November 26, 2011


Ancient Art and King Fisher under the desert night sky.

At heart I'd say I'm a desert kid. My fondest childhood memories came from the many trips my dad and I used to take from Salt Lake City to the trinity of Utah desert fun: Arches NP, Canyonlands NP, and the San Rafael Swell. I have hiked, scrambled, and canyoneered many miles in this wonderful landscape with my dad. I also did my first +18 hr day and +20 mile dayhike here. My realization that I could work through my fear of heights with a rope occurred while rappelling on a backpacking trip with my dad as we descended into one of the desert canyons.
I never had a chance to enjoy the desert as climber, though.

Summit spires of Ancient Art from the NE with climbers on pitch 3
Climbers on Ancient Art at the crux, seen from the parking lot (the SW).

Fast forward to 2011. I have been been climbing on and off for a number of years, and have been going for about a year on a lead climbing binge, climbing nearly every weekend. Unfortunately, while I've been getting out and enjoying nature more than ever, my father's Parkinsons disease has by this time progressed to the point that he can only manage short walks, and his tremors preclude the possibility of any scrambling. I nearly overdid it when I suggested we hike Mt. Elbert together, which led to some dangerous freeze-related falls when descending the trail as he tired out from the hike.

Dad & Me at our Indian Creek campsite (by Peter G.)

In an attempt to find a way to continue sharing our enjoyment of nature with each other, while letting out some of my pent up energy, I suggested that my dad come along on some of my shorter rock climbs to lounge at the base of the cliffs where he could watch me climb. He's not a technical climber, so I figured I could share my new outdoor passion with him while finding a way for us to be outside together. We could walk to and from the climbs together, he could chat with me or my climbing partner while we were belaying on the ground, and he should be able to hear and watch us throughout the shorter climbs. What could possibly be a bad idea about that? :-)

Little Cottonwood Canyon Trad (June, 2011)

I tried this idea out in Little Cottonwood Canyon in June with my friend Alec L. A combination of too much coffee before the lead, and a harder than expected 5.9 lead (it turned out to be my hardest to date at the time) left me feeling more nervous than I normally do on lead. That, or maybe knowing that since my dad was watching, I'd better not fall on lead!

Shameless LCC Climbing Plug Photo Series

Indian Creek (November, 2011)

I've never climbed in Indian Creek, and I finally felt ready to tackle some of the 5.10 cracks in the area. While Pete & my main objective for the trip was to climb Ancient Art, we spent the first two days over Thanksgiving warming up to desert sandstone climbing at Indian Creek.

Ancient Art (November, 2011)

Manly pose atop The Milk Bottle (by Steph Abegg)

The coolest summit I had ever stood atop up to this point was Starlight Pk (14,200').

While the silly summit outfit may have been vital to my success on Starlight, and although I lacked the Gandelf costume or giant Dr. Seuss hat that I envisioned wearing atop Ancient Art, I felt ready to lead the even wilder corkscrew summit.

Fisher Towers. The Titan is on the right. It is the largest free standing spire in North America.
King Fisher and Ancient Art. The spire on the right is our objective.
King Fisher (behind) and Ancient Art (front)
Ancient Art. The Stolen Chimney route is easily seen in shadow & skyline profile.

We were surprised to see just how scenic the Fisher Towers area was. You had excellent views of climbers on the towers merely by looking out your car window at the trailhead. The trail leading out to the towers isn't that long, and every bit of it is so scenic that I never even noticed the hike. It was also very accessible for my dad to hike along at a slow pace and take in the sights with me and Peter.

Pitch 1

About to start aiding the bolt ladder of P1 of Lost Chimney on Ancient Art. (by Jay Thomas)

We were fortunate enough to arrive at Ancient Art before the crowds. There was one party ahead of us, but by the time we were ready to start climbing that party was already heading up pitch 2. My dad made himself comfy at the base to watch the show, and off I went on the lower low-5th sandstone ledges.

Peter following the pitch 1 bolt ladder

Apparently one of the bolts on the bolt ladder had ripped out sometime in recent years, but it had been replaced by now. I stemmed partway up the water grooves then quickly switched to aiding the bolts with a PAS & one alpine aider. I left another alpine aider with Peter so that he could aid the bolts as he followed. While the aiders weren't necessary, they sure made it easy!

Pitch 2

Clean rock on the P2 5.7 chimney.

My guidebook called this pitch 5.7. Steep, yes. Intimidating crux? Yes. But I'd say it's about right for old school 5.7. You never really do any chimney moves. More like a bunch of wide stems.

P2 Approaching the intimidating crux. Fortunately it's easier than it looks!
Confidence-inspiring fixed gear below the crux of the P2 chimney. Note the drilled angle on the right, which is an angle piton driven into a pre-drilled 3-8" hole in the rock.

Fortunately the roof is split by a wide crack that wasn't too grainy. This made for a great cam placement to protect the crux of stemming out backwards from the chimney and climbing around the roof.

Leading into the crux of the P2 chimney (5.7) (by Jay Thomas)
Stemming outside the chimney to pass the roof.

My topo said to squeeze behind the chockstone at the top of the chimney, so I did, at a tight but secure cl. 4. A party behind us later came up the face directly out of the chimney beside the chockstone, which I guess is shown in the ST Topo.

The P2 anchor seen through the Wombat tunnel-through. Suck in tight!
Pete following the tunnel-through on P2.

The ledge here was flat & spacious. It would make a wonderful lunch ledge.

Lovely rock on Ancient Art. This made for interesting climbing and pro placements.

Unfortunately, Peter was trailing the second rope for the rappels, and the nice crack splitting the crux roof likes to eat ropes, so just as he pulled through the chockstone, it stuck tight. He had to downclimb on belay to free it. I recommend, if bringing a second rope for rappels, to wear it as a backpack on this pitch instead of trailing the line.

Base Jumpers!

It turns out the climbers ahead of us were base jumping from the catwalk ridge leading to the Ancient Art summit. First they threw their climbing gear off, suspended by a mini-chute. Then each climber took their leap of fate and quickly deployed.

The deployment of the parasails in the amphitheater made quite a loud bang! There were some hikers with a dog below, and with each jump the poor dog made yelping noises like it was shocked to see these bodies hurtling towards their imminent death. Then once they sailed off to safety, the tone of the barking changed more to a higher pitched yipping, as if the dog were excited or confused at the spectacle.

Base jumpers on Ancient Art!

I figured it was a good thing to have the base jumpers ahead of us. Although my dad had his concerns about the safety & sanity of rock climbing, at least now I had some concrete examples that I wasn't the craziest one here! :-D

Pitch 3

P3 of Stolen Chimney (5.9-5.10ish). The first bolt was pulled out, so you had to run it out a bit. Cl. 4 to the first remaining bolt.

The third pitch was the one I was most concerned about. Discussions on MountainProject mentioned that the first of 3 bolts had pulled out on this pitch, and as of several years later still had not been replaced.

Leading P3 of Stolen Chimney (5.9-5.10ish). I decided to lightly French-free on both bolts rather than risk falling on them.

I placed a cam between a detached flake and the rock wall (heh, yeah right) and scrambled up a bit higher. I could see the old bolt hole, and really it only saved you about a half body length of additional class 4 scrambling.
I clipped the rope to the first bolt and started face climbing, as my topo called this pitch 5.9 (SuperTopo calls it 5.10d). I started into a move and just could not find a final secure hold to move up on. I thought for a while, and decided that maybe since the first bolt had pulled out, and my dad was watching, that perhaps now was not the best time to be taking risks. Plus I had already french freed on P1, and this sandstone face climbing seemed like something I wouldn't mind missing, so I yarded on the cam as a jug and moved up to clip the next bolt.

Looking down P3 of the Stolen Chimney Route from the P3 catwalk belay. Good pitch to French-free.

My experience at the next bolt was the same but with less time spent deciding, and soon I was yarding on that bolt and on top of the final catwalk ridge to the summit.

Ancient Art shadow seen from the P3 catwalk belay.

Pitch 4

Exposed catwalk leading to the Ancient Art corkscrew summit spire! Stepping across and down over the little notch was slightly scary. No pro until you climb atop the camel head!

Even after looking at photos, the walk to the summit spire from the belay was longer and more exposed than I had expected. There was even a notch where the ridge dropped down a bit, which I shamefully downclimbed instead of just stepping down.

Confidence-inspiring pro: A drilled angle and a star bolt with an aluminum hanger. First pro on the pitch. Time to equalize!

My guidebook showed a bolt at the very tip of the camelhead thingy. Happy days! I just had to make it to that cantilevered block. To my dismay, once I got there I didn't see any bolt. I did, however, see a pair of fixed pieces at the base of the protruding rock, but I would either have to mantle the block, or traverse the left side where maybe I could reach the "bolts".
I chose to undercling the camel head and shuffle to the shaft of the spire. The bolts were still out of reach, requiring a committing 5.7 stemming & mantel move to reach. Falling here would send you on a very big pendulum directly off the belay before you smacked into the tower. I'm guessing I was about 20 ft or so out from the belay. Now why did I decide to do this climb with my dad watching?
The move seemed secure enough, so I carefully climbed up the head.

Confidence-inspiring 2nd piece of pro. This drilled angle protects the 5.9 crux (slightly overhanging buckets). Maybe I should have tied it off short?

Once again, photos had failed to capture what the 5.9 crux was like. Yeah, I was feeling pretty confident at leading 5.9, but that has been on crack climbs in Yosemite granite. I've been avoiding face climbs like the plague, and this one was a tad gritty and overhanging. Also, overhangs and exposure get to me.

Looking back at Peter before launching into the summit crux

What am I doing here? Oh well.

The 5.9 crux: slightly overhanging buckets. Short but heady!

I carefully investigated the crux and figured out the few moves needed. They seemed somewhat secure, with some sloper holds in buckets to pull on and a nice vertical pincher between the holes to grab as I advanced my stem up a step. From there I should be able to reach past the overhang. I just hoped the higher edges were positive for a secure finish!

Leading the summit crux. Photos by Dad (gulp)

They were and soon I was through the crux.

Is that a thumb tack? Confidence-inspiring pro just after the 5.9 crux. Fortunately it is an easy but awkward cl. 2 ledge traverse here before you reach the next piece of fixed gear.
Looking down just after the crux. Can you spot the 2 people below?
The summit & lowering slings. Almost there! To the left is the last piece of confidence-inspiring pro. This drilled angle protects a 5.4-5.5 mantle on a solid bucket and a side-crimp on an extremely flexible flake!

As I pulled on a flake & dish to mantel onto the summit, I felt the flake flex noticeably in my grip, and I quickly changed from pulling on it to pushing against it. Take care on this part.

Standing atop Ancient Art. It's a little exposed up there!

I clipped the summit slings and then scrambled to the top of the cap. The rock felt very hollow when I tapped it with my palm. Pure junk, but it was bearing enough on the more solid sandstone beneath that it should be stable enough to stand on.

View down from atop the summit cap.

I was surprised that, once on top, Peter asked if I could clean the pieces while being lowered, as he was nervous with the exposure of the route and wasn't sure about following. I would have none of it. He has always been the bolder climber in my mind, and as he led mid-10s on sport, he should be able to handle the 5.9 crux on top-rope. I couldn't let him miss out on such an amazing summit! After a bit of cajoling I talked Pete into being willing to follow on TR to the summit after I got back to the belay (note, that with the constant traversing nature of this pitch, it is only mildly more secure for the follower than the leader).

Other Ancient Art summits. Check out the wacky slung horn atop the middle summit!

After summitting, Peter lowered me off the top, which was surprisingly unnerving given the exposure and awkwardness of working around the protruding rock. After lowering down to the catwalk, I awkwardly reversed my undercling/shuffle moves on the camelhead and walked carefully back to the belay, knowing that a fall here would still result in a nasty pendulum, this time back into the summit spire.

The web of ropes show where I traveled on the corkscrew summit of Ancient Art.
Peter following up the summit pitch.

The rappels went smoothly, and my dad congratulated us on a great climb. Although he did say that at some moments he was a bit worried, I jokingly tried to ease his concern by saying that hopefully the worst judgment I exercised in my climbing was having a parent along to watch!:-P

Other Pretty Fisher Tower Pictures

After climbing Ancient Art, the three of us walked out to the end of the trail for more spectacular views of the Fisher Towers and to see the Titan up close (I'd love to climb it someday). Later that night, with temperatures hovering just below freezing, I left the campsite and returned to the trail, armed with my DSLR, 2 bottles of Sierra Nevada beer, and Roper's "Camp 4" book to spend the night reading and tending the camera as I gradually worked my way back along the trail taking night photos. I brought a puffy jacket, puffy pants and bivy sack to stay warm and comfy while lying around waiting for the long exposures to finish (The bivy sack was a bit much and served better as a pillow while reading).

The Cobra

The Cobra. Castleton Tower is in the distance.

This has got to be the coolest tower in the Fisher Towers, maybe only second to Ancient Art. Next time I'm in the area I've got to aid this thing!

The Cobra and Ancient Art seen from the NE on the main trail.
The Cobra seen from the East on the main trail. Ancient Art is on the left and on the right is the Mintaur & King Fisher.
The Cobra at sunset.
The Cobra at night. I light-painted the rock with my headlamp. Aliens!

The Titan

The Titan. Read the sign! The Oracle is on the left. The Titan is the largest free-standing tower in North America!

This thing is BIG. It is still hard for me to imagine that these towers are the size of New York skyscrapers, only much more slender and made of rock that liquefies in the rain.

The Titan at sunset.

For aid climbers not satisfied with the "50 Classic" climb, Finger of Fate (IV, 5.9, A2+ or C3), you can avoid the crowds and climb Sundveil Chimney (VI, 5.9, C4) on the right. Apparently several parties have worn crampons on the route and thought they were helpful (from Selected Climbs in the Desert Southwest).

The Titan at sunset.
The Titan at sunset.
The Titan at sunset.


Castleton Tower from the Fisher Towers. The Priest and the Rectory are on the right.

This trip worked out perfectly. I've missed the desert and I think I've caught the desert crack & tower bug. I'm seeing the desert landscape in a completely different way than I had in my younger years, both for the climbing and the photographic potential. This spring I plan to come back with a similar agenda with Peter & my dad: Warm up in the Creek for a couple days then finish off with a desert tower or two. Perhaps Castleton is next?

Cottontail Tower

Echo Tower & Cottontail Tower from the SW.
Echo Tower & Cottontail Tower from the SW base.
Gothic mud rock of Cottontail Tower. You can tell that this turns to sludge in the rain and dribbles down the side, rehardening as it dries out.
Start of an A3+ aid route on Cottontail Tower (S end). Apparently hauling is a pain on this route.
Cottontail Tower & Echo Tower from the East.
Cottontail Tower at night. I light-painted the rock with my headlamp for better exposure, as there was no moon out this night.

Other Towers

King Fisher. These Fisher Towers remind me of the mud sand castles I used to make at the beach, only quite a bit larger.
The Oracle


For the complete sets of photos, if you want to see larger versions of some of these photos or if you want to see any of the photo data, check out the albums on Picasa.

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