AmbitionOnce in a while you come across a picture of a mountain, a rock, a gully, a canyon, whatever, where you just go "Wow, I really need to hike/climb/ski/descend that". This is what came to my mind the first time I saw a picture of Standing Rock, a freakishly skinny desert spire located in remote Monument Basin, deep in Canyonlands National Park in Southeast Utah. Having recently read "Miles from Nowhere: Tales from America's Contemporary Frontier" by Dayton Duncan (I highly recommend it), I was very psyched on what Duncan dubs as the Contemporary Frontier: any county in the USA with a population density of less than 2 people per square mile. San Juan County, where Standing Rock is located, is included in this list. I had been journeying through this contemporary frontier for some 7 days before I met up with Noah (noah213), a trip that took me everywhere from partying with recent college graduates on a houseboat on the channels of Lake Powell, to a snowy hike in the Henry Mountains, to freezing my butt off whilst wading through the chilly chest deep slot pools of Bluejohn Canyon. Needless to say, I felt like I had the desert on lock down when Noah and I drove the bone rattling White Rim Road towards Monument Basin. Our climb of Standing Rock reminded me that the desert is one of those places where you must keep your wits about you in order to survive. Noah and I had one of the best climbs of our life that day, and here is the tale of our fun.
Driving InOriginally we wanted to do Standing Rock and Moses, but White Rim Road in the vicinity of Taylor Canyon was closed a day prior to our arrival due to flooding. This meant that the only option for Moses was a 6 mile approach via the Alcove Springs Trail from the Island in the Sky, which neither of us were excited about. It didn't put too much of a damper on our plans, for Standing Rock was our main objective. We picked up our permit to drive White Rim Road and our back country permit for bivying at the base of our objective. We hoped in my Jeep, and took off down the Shafer Trail, a steeply switchbacking road down the steep side of the north end of Island in the Sky, two tower junkies giddy with excitement. Not 5 minutes would pass before one of us would remind the other how stoked we were. After 30 miles and 3 hours of driving the White Rim Road, we arrived at the eastern edge of Monument Basin, and saw our goal for the first time. Standing Rock stuck out like a stick in the sand from our vantage point. Around the spire we recognized some other familiar monoliths we had seen on the internet and in guide books. We quickly began the process of finding our descent into Monument Basin.
The descent into Monument Basin did not come easy for us. Noah had a diagram of a view of the Basin taken from a vantage point on Island in the Sky. On it, it showed a gully where there supposedly was a fixed rope to rap into the Basin. We parked and wandered around the area in midday with the hot sun beating down on us. Not being able to find it, I drove further down White Rim Road a bit to see if I could see anything from the other end of the Basin. Monument Basin is a complex valley perhaps 2 miles long and 5 miles across, surrounded by the White Rim on 3 sides with no easy access into it. After searching around for about 3 hours to no avail, we decided to check out the "old road" my guide book described as leading to a downclimb-able descent gully. We found the old road, located towards the west end of Monument Basin, with little trouble, parked, and started out on a quick reconnaissance mission to find the downclimb. We followed the road out onto a finger peninsula, and sure enough, found a gully that looked like it would give us access to the Basin 400 feet below. We walked the 1.5 miles back to the car, packed all of our gear and enough provisions for a one night bivy and started back down the road to the gully.
In the gully we had to negotiate a little bit of routefinding, but with some careful down scrambling over loose 4th class, we entered the Basin. From the bottom of the gully, we turned left, hiked along a very faint use trail along shelves, turned a corner and were faced with the intimidating silhouette of Standing Rock in the late afternoon sun.
Reality Sets In
Within 30 minutes Noah and I reached the base of the spire. For twenty full minutes, we just stared blankly at the 350 foot tower, not saying a word to each other. We were scared and psyched, a common mix of feelings that would stay with us throughout the climb. This thing looked downright intimidating. That familiar feeling of "what have we got ourselves into" sank in. We studied the route. First pitch (this would be Noah's lead): a rude awakening finger crack in a corner that lead to a dicey looking traverse under a massive roof. Second pitch (mine): an easy but exposed traverse that lead to a series of very steep and very thin cracks rated at 5.10d (which is probably over my limit on trad). Third pitch (Noah's): An overhanging black face with difficult moves of 5.11c protected by bolts, followed by "easier" climbing to the summit. We were squeamish. We began discussing tactics of what gear to place where, where the rests would be, and how we would aid up the thing, should it come to that. I tried to keep pleasant thoughts in my head about the climb, trying not to think that this was going to be my hardest trad lead ever, coupled by the fact that it was on a tower that was so skinny and so tall that it looked like you could push it and it would collapse.
The rock quality was also of great concern. Standing Rock is comprised of Cutler Sandtsone, the same type of rock found in the Fisher Towers, which has a reputation for being horribly loose. One of the early ascentionists of this tower described the rock as "rye-krisp sandwiched between layers of kitty litter". Luckily, all of our beta mentioned that the route had been traveled enough that most of the loose rock had long been cleaned, so that gave us a little comfort. A little.
Trying not to psyche ourselves out, Noah and I turned to other random conversation topics, yet we would always somehow stray back to how scared and psyched at the same time we were. The sun set. It was a very warm night. We laid out our pads, crawled into our sleeping bags and star gazed. The last thing we talked about before falling asleep is which way the tower would fall, should it collapse in the middle of the night. Our conclusion was that we were in the red zone. We fell asleep with Standing Rock looming over us in the dark.
Time to Sack Up
We arose with the light. After some quick bathroom duties, we donned our harnesses, racked up and walked the 20 seconds to the base of the route. It was Noah's lead. He cruised up the 5.10- corner with no difficulty, got situated underneath the roof, traversed and pulled the crux move around the bulge exiting the roof and jaunted up the dirty crack dubbed "The Vertical Sandbox" to the belay ledge and trucker chain anchor. I followed the route in decent style. Soon we were both on the belay ledge. So far so good.
Now it was my turn. Another long pitch stood before me. Noah handed me the rack and I started climbing, feeling pretty good. I made an airy but easy traverse out right, reached the crack system and started climbing up. The gear was pretty good and I felt solid. Then I came to the first crux, a 5.10b bulge. Puzzled, I abandoned my free climbing attempt (I figured this would happen anyway) and placed a nut to aid on. Problem was that the nut was just a little too big for the crack it was in, so as I shifted the weight from down to horizontal, it ripped out of the crack and sent me flying. I yelled "falling" as I saw myself pass my previous piece, a number 2 camalot that was bomber, but placed in what looked like straight-up dirt. "That's not going to hold me" I though as I went sailing past it, but to my relief, it did, and I stopped about 20 feet below where I fell, conveniently at a large ledge for me to sit on and collect myself. But I couldn't collect myself. That was the most scared a fall had ever made me. I kept yelling down to Noah that I couldn't climb it, and he would answer with shouts of encouragement. I sat on the ledge for a few minutes, and then climbed back to the number 2, placed another cam, and hung there for a long time, trying to gather my thoughts. Finally, though I didn't want it to come to this, I yelled down to Noah and asked if he could lead the pitch. This was not part of the plan. After much discussion, he lowered me back down to the traverse and I went back to the belay.
"What did you just drop?" Noah asked.
"Huh, wha, I dropped something?" was my reply. Then I looked down to the bottom of the rock and saw that I had in fact dropped two slings.
At this point I was not psyched, neither was Noah. With two less slings, the lead was going to be much more difficult because we had already been carrying a minimal amount of slings. With some clouds coming in and the wind kicking up, Noah got down to business. We were not bailing from this climb after the first pitch. He took the rack and started up the pitch in what now was very gusty, chilly wind. Our spirits were down from the fall and the weather but we were still determined. Mid pitch Noah had to back clean to help rope drag. After the very sustained, long, and difficult pitch, he got to the anchor. I followed in very horrible style, pulling on gear when I could. I didn't care anymore about style points. I just wanted to top this thing out.
When I arrived at the belay, the clouds weren't looking too good and before I could even say anything, Noah started handing me gear. I knew it was my turn to lead, Noah was not about to lead this entire tower. I took a deep breath and started climbing the crux of the route, a 5.11 sport pitch, much akin to Eldo style face climbing. The opening moves were heady and unprotected. I gained a small ledge and made a long, insecure reach to clip the first bolt, a good twenty feet above the anchor (which consisted of three hammered in pins, one star drive, and one bolt. Gotta love desert towers!). A fall here would have sent me plummeting past the anchor. Luckily I didn't fall, clipped the bolt, and french freed the crap out of the crux. Three or four bolts later, I mantled onto the ledge with a scary loose flake, and that marked the end of the hard climbing. Relieved but still scared, I scurried up easier rock, climbing over two harder bulges and arrived below the summit block.
I already had my trademark triumphant "YEAH" ready at the back of my throat, scrambled onto the summit and started whooping. But I stopped suddenly. I felt a very strange, foreign feeling within me, something that I had never felt before. It took me a few seconds to realize that it was static electricity in the air. A thunder cloud moved over the summit just as I topped out. I started freaking out. I touched a carabiner on my harness and it shocked me.
"There's a lot of static electricity up here!!" I yelled down to Noah, 120 feet below me. "Do you want me to belay you up?"
"YES!" was his reply. He wanted to be on top of this thing very bad.
I clipped myself into the beefy chains that hung off the summit, so that just in case I got struck, I wouldn't be knocked off the tiny summit. Noah followed the pitch very quickly, pulling on the draws as I had done. Within minutes he was on top.
"No more static!"
I joined him on the summit and we marveled at our accomplishment. We almost didn't make it. Spirits were high. The storm clouds were clearing. We dutifully signed the register, a newly placed piece of paper in a ziploc. We wondered if we were the youngest people to climb Standing Rock. We noticed some people driving along White Rim, but I don't think they noticed us. We stayed on the summit for 90 or so minutes and then started to descend.
3 rappels took us to the base. The sun came back out and we basked in the shadow of the monster we just scaled. After some celebratory food and beer we packed our packs and started the deproach back to the car, taking one last look at Standing Rock as we rounded the bend into the gully. Getting back to the car went much quicker event though it was uphill. In an hour and fifteen minutes we reached the parking spot on White Rim Road. It was 5:30 pm, just about 24 hours since we had left the car. We were so stoked. We drove out, content with the fact that Moses will have to wait for next time. We stopped briefly to talk with a ranger who wanted to know how our climb went and gave him some beta, for he also wanted to climb it. By 9 o’clock we were back at Noah's car in the little parking lot at the junction of Utah Highway 313 and US Highway 191 north of Moab.
I was physically and mentally wiped. Though only 3 pitches, it ranked as one of the hardest climbs I ever completed. I was so amazed with myself how we still managed to summit, despite my small freakout. I owe a lot to Noah's determination to summit. It was what got us to the top. And that was the end of our ascent of Standing Rock, one of the tallest and thinnest rocks in the world.