Island in the Sky is a 6000’ high mesa in Canyonlands National Park to the west of Moab, Utah towering over the Green and Colorado Rivers. This section of Canyonlands is home to the most infamous of desert towers, the most notable of which are Moses, Zeus, Washer Woman, Monster Tower, Standing Rock and the Witch. The extreme temperature range in this region is one of the widest in the world at -25F to 115F. My first climb there was In Search of Suds, a stellar route up Washer Woman. My second was the ultra classic Primrose Dihedrals up the southeast face of Moses, perhaps the most prominent of all towers in Canyonlands, located in Taylor Canyon. Both of these climbs offer remote climbing experiences where on many occasions you are likely to have an entire tower to yourself and possibly an entire canyon as well. For these reasons as well as considering the climb itself, Primrose Dihedrals makes for one of the best adventure desert climbs in North America.
Moses is the tallest of the towers in Canyonlands National Park. Moses was first ascended by Fred Beckey and company in 1972 (via a lot of direct aid) on a line later named Pale Fire, the same line we used for descent from the summit. Ed Webster and Steve Hong made the first free ascent of Primrose Dihedrals in 1979, actually utilizing this climb to introduce camming devices to the desert tower climbing community. Primrose Dihedrals’ 7 pitches breaks down into five stout pitches at the 5.10 grade or more. Although Supertopo calls for eight pitches, it makes more sense to combine the final two pitches into one. A traverse first pitch can replace one of the 5.11 pitches making the entire route more of a moderate objective. This is a commonly used variation.
Head north out of Moab on US 191, turning left on the paved road heading for Canyonlands National Park (Island in the Sky). After 11 miles on a paved road that heads for the park’s visitor center, turn right on a gravel road marked for Mineral Springs Bottom. Do not make the mistake of turning right for Mineral Springs Point which is the dirt road that runs past the Horsethief Campground. Rather take the next right, .2 more miles down the road, on a gravel road heading for Mineral Springs Bottom. Follow this road for quite a distance until it finally dumps onto steep switchbacks to the bottom of the canyon. High clearance vehicles are highly advisable for this descent. Once down to the Green River, turn left for the sign marking Canyonlands National Park. This narrow dirt road follows the river for several miles to a campground along the river on your right and a marked sign telling you to turn left for Taylor Canyon. The Taylor Canyon road is much more primitive requiring even more of a 4x4 type of vehicle as it meanders along several washes for approximately five miles up canyon to the base of Moses where it dead ends. Follow a marked trail from the parking area as it ascends to the ridge line heading for the southeast face of Moses (backside from the parking area).
500’+/-, 7 Pitches, 5.11d
1st Pitch- 70’- 5.11d/The Primrose Dihedral line is pretty obvious to spot on the southeast face. Below the huge dihedrals above, are broken rock bands. Climb these bands through an inverted chimney slot (kind of a boulder crux problem) to a significant belay ledge above with a fixed belay.
1st Pitch Variation- 70’- 5.8/Keep walking around the tower to the northeast ridge and come in from that direction and actually down climb onto precarious loose ledges and traverse evenly with the ridge back into the first pitch line. Once you turn the north east edge of the tower and climb up a move or two, you will be able to protect the traverse from there via solid horizontal cracks. Make a final move up to the belay ledge.
2nd Pitch- 80’- 5.10+/Climb up easy ground a meter or two to the left and make a bold move over the bulge above and jam up a steep crack/corner, lie backing and finger jamming over a roof past a fixed pin (and fixed link cam-2009). You make kind of a burly move out from underneath the roof (crux). Whenever the climbing gets hard, some sort of foot feature shows up. Build a belay along with a fixed pin at a crowded stance on top of the roof.
3rd Pitch- 50’- 5.10/ You won’t get much of a net gain on this pitch as you are really just moving the belay up to a significant ledge up and to your left. Down climb at least 25’ until you can access a bomber finger ledge that you use to traverse left (this traverse is void any foot features). The leader is basically top roped on the down climb but placing any gear through here for the second will be awkward when you start your ascent up the flakes and cracks to the left. Hand walk the ledge left until into the small cracks and ascend a weird flake with good small pro up to the large, but sloping, ledge above with a fixed belay.
4th Pitch- 70’- 5.10+/ This is another great hand crack. Start up a loose flake and get into the crack above on the smooth big wall. It starts to overhang above where you jam, lie back and follow the crack to the right (crux) with a foot move showing up here and there. Stop at a small, but comfortable, stance with fixed belay below a loose corner pitch.
5th Pitch- 70’- 5.9+/ Run up the loose corner above until into a small roof. Nuts protect this line the best due to the nature of the rock. Protect under a flake out right. Then reach up and right to what looks like a manufactured finger hold in cut and make a bold move to the right side of the flake and lie back up the flake to its top where you can build a belay below the first bolt of the bolt ladder running up the “Ear” of Moses. This is an uncomfortable full on hanging belay.
6th Pitch- 40’- 5.11b/ A bolt ladder runs to the right of a huge overhanging flake that represents the “Ear” on Moses’ southeast side. Either A0 or free the pitch via an aggressive lie back up this bolt ladder to a comfortable spot where you can go “right side” into a chimney and finish the pitch up to a comfortable fixed belay ledge.
7th Pitch- 110’- 5.8/ Squeeze through the chamber to your left into a more spacious chimney space. Ascend this easy chimney up to a shoulder spot on the north side of Moses. Continue up easy ground to a short eastern face and climb past two bolts to the summit.