To Mr. Jim Wise and Mr. Stephen Wilfong, congratulations on your first desert tower, and thanks for coming out, the weekend wouldn't have been anywhere near as memorable without you two.
Jim, Out of the Slot
Steve, Elephant Butte Summit
Ah….fall is here! That can only mean one thing, it’s time to head west into my favorite playground, Utah. This trip’s been my tentative agenda since early August when Aaron Johnson announced a Fall SP Gathering in Arches over the weekend of October 16-17. Sounds like a good enough excuse to pay a visit. Who’s in, and what are we going to climb?
Last November, Mike and I meandered over to the base of Off-Balance Rock. He graciously humored me while I got a through butt-kicking squirming up ~20 feet and sheepishly retreating. This time, with another year of training in the books, things are going to be different. Aaron knows nothing about this tower, but is willing to plow ahead regardless. Steve, Jim and Mike are all interested in seeing what’s going on up there. All of a sudden we have a solid group of five to work out any dilemmas. Let the festivities begin!
Saturday morning starts slowly as Friday night’s campfire social burned deep into the night. We don’t arrive in Arches into well after 9:30. While waiting at the visitors center, Aaron spies a Mini-Mexican Hat close to the parking lot and wanders off. Seeing him on the formation draws me over to check out this small beauty. I’ve just pulled the overhang when my phone rings with Steve wondering who let the two of us wander off without adult supervision. Long story short, let’s just say lowering yourself into midair while trusting worn tennis shoes to smear on sandstone isn’t the most comfortable feeling.
The drive through Arches is unbelievable, as normal, and we’re at the Balanced Rock parking lot ~10:30am, focused on the task at hand. Eager to get started, I throw on two ropes and my climbing pack, and head for the far side of Off-Balance Rock, away from the throngs of people in this popular area.
The solitude on the tower’s north side is welcomed and I spend several moments alone flaking ropes and gearing up until the guys show up. The group’s collective nervous energy is noticeable with the daunting route towering over us, yet everyone is ready to see how they do on the heights.
When Aaron’s ready, I start working on the crack through the lower section of the tower. I slowly make my way skyward, sewing things up and figuring out the challenges as they present themselves. In places I get stuck and frustrated, but my mind stays calm and I’m able to piece this puzzle together.
At the top of the crack, a wide ledge offers escape to my right. This position isn’t as easy as I thought from the ground and I fumble around a bit getting my body facing the proper direction before scooting across towards a wider chimney.
This second, wider chimney proves to be easier than the lower section for me. The extra space between the rocks makes climbing less stressful although pro opportunities are rapidly becoming scarcer, but show up exactly when they’re needed. The final obstacle below the belay station proves to be the crux of the pitch as a 5.7 bulge puts an end to the easier travel of the last 30 feet.
Where Does the #5 Go?
A few interesting smears and a lovely hold on the left wall get me through this section which would have been much simpler if the birds hadn’t have used this area for their personal outhouse! With this crappy situation behind me, I take dead aim at the chains and climb up onto a luxurious shelf halfway up Off-Balance. The blackness of P2 intrigues me, but I have to get the guys up here first.
On toprope, Steve and Aaron make short work of the pitch, and I offer Aaron the lead on P2.
He starts into the darkness while I belay Jim up. Aaron’s grunts from the tunnel behind me aren’t encouraging, but I have to focus on Jim’s needs for the moment. When he reaches the belay, Mike decides things might be going too slowly to meet up with the SP group for the sunset hike out to Delicate Arch and passes on the climb. Down a partner, we toss one now unneeded rope to the ground and turn to the upper pitch. Things are about to get wild!
With frustration of not knowing where to go lining his voice, Aaron calls me into the slot to help work things out. Jim puts me back on-belay and I pop over the tricky bulge before disappearing into the darkness. With unadjusted eyes, I have problems seeing Aaron despite being less than 15 feet away. The tightness of this slot is immediately apparent as I’m forced to scoot up and down a foot or so here and there to make progress. One spot is so tight I have to take my helmet off to squeeze past. The others avoid this dilemma by crawling through a wider part at one’s knees. Once adjusted to the tunnel, I tell Aaron that Radek’s instructions on SP say to go all the way to the back of the crack before heading up. Without knowing it at the time, I was wrong and this error would cost us a good hour or two.
Upon arriving at the back of the slot, Aaron and I decide that the chimney above us is climbable and holler back to our teammates to come up. Knowing that the summit is less than 100’ away, Steve and Jim discard another unnecessary rope before joining our position.
With renewed energy that we’re headed in the right direction, Aaron starts up the chimney towards the faint light.
Aaron Starts False P2
His progress is smooth, but this pitch is horrible on me as a belayer because the curves in the slot block him from view most of the time and when he’s visible, I am forced to cover my eyes from a constant stream of sand and dirt. Right about the time I’m convinced we are reaching a point where he’d pop out of the slot, Aaron calls down that he reached a point where he could climb no further. What? How is that possible? With his pro is place, I lower him and head up to see if there was anything to work out higher up. Near the top of this chimney, I notice some thin holds just over the lip our hopefully exit point. Not wanting to be too far above pro, I place some more while heading towards my goal. All it holds is false hope as the crest of this section is a prelude to a sheer drop-off to the desert floor and my thin holds aren’t leading anywhere I dare to climb, let alone lead.
Being lowered down is deflating as I figure our climb is finished seeing we can’t find a path to the summit. While Aaron goes back up to clean, Steve and I poke around the slot seemingly looking towards a possible weakness near the middle.
Fortunately, Aaron isn’t ready to throw in the towel and wants to investigate if our start could be connected with the crack higher up. Back at it, he immediately places a #3 and works his way ~15 feet off the deck to a spot where he decides to go for it, and calls for the full rack to get shipped up the haul line before resuming our climb towards the thin line of light up high.
Free of belay duty I scoot back and forth to monitor his progress while relaying any relevant information to Jim and Steve. After seemingly forever, Aaron yells down that he’s near the chains. The three of us get excited until hearing that the climb isn’t in the bag yet. From my spot I watch as Aaron pushes his way into the light, and out of sight. The ropes move slowly for the next 5 minutes until we receive Aaron’s off-belay upon reaching the anchors. Excited to finally be free from the slot, I second the pitch pulling the gear except in positions where I deem it might be beneficial to my teammates behind me.
My Turn Slotting
Near the top of pitch I’m released from the slot only to discover the nasty reality to the finish this climb. Here the gap becomes too wide to stem forcing one to push him/herself off the back wall into a small nest of sorts. A 5.7 slab with a fingers crack on the right is the only thing separating me from Aaron, only 15 feet away. The climbing doesn’t look terribly difficult, yet the daunting gap to one’s left constantly pulls at your mind. Man, this climb never gives in! Not wanting to lose it so close to the top, I began working on the crack before scampering the final few feet to the safety of the chains! Man am I glad to be done!
With two teammates still in the slot, I get out of Aaron’s way to start belaying Steve. The views from the top are spectacular.
Elephant Butte oozes out of Ham Rock to the east with Balanced Rock grabbing the spotlight from Bubo Tower in the immediate vicinity. Arches’ western border in the early evening is unmatched as usual with the multiple colors and towers dancing away through the streaks of orange and yellow light.
Ham Rock and Elephant Butte in Evening Orange
Back at the anchors, I discover Steve’s height is working against him as he works his way up. He’s repeatedly muttering some word, but the slot must is muffling his voice. When he emerges from the depths, he is overjoyed to see that his trials will be over soon. Topping out, Steve’s quite relieved to be on top of his first desert tower. Aaron is also since his back is throbbing from sitting in an awkward while bringing two climbers up. With Jim patiently waiting the chance to summit his first desert tower, I take a final turn on belay until the team is reunited on top.
Jim Finishing the Task
Big smiles are the theme as we bask in desert sunset knowing we have just slayed an uncivilized monster.
Aaron Up Top
Celebratory hoots and hollers draw the attention of shocked tourists wandering the Balanced Rock area.
Group Summit Shot
Despite wanting to lounge on this summit, we know we’d better descend. Mike has to be finished with the Delicate Arch hike and we don’t want to cause any angst if we aren’t easy to find. Steve and I lounge around a few more minutes, taking pictures and soaking in this climb while Aaron and Jim rap into the waning light. Once Steve begins descending, I go over to the best vantage point and stand there silently thinking about how proud I am of our team today and what we accomplished. Steve’s “off rappel” breaks my train of thought and I descend to the ground, reaching the desert floor in total darkness. Here my stubborn rope tries to get the final word. It won’t pull. In one final team act, we walk the rope as far away from the tower as possible before forcing it to succumb to our will until it falls effortlessly to the ground.
Loading up the rack and a rope, I’m last leaving the tower. Walking around the tower I hear the others voices in the parking lot and know that Mike has found us. None of this matters right now as Off-Balance Rock tugs on my mind for a last bit of attention. Glancing back through the darkness, I feel humbled that we are fortunate enough to have another successful day in such a fantastic place. My stomach growls, and my thoughts turn to food. Quietly, I continue walking across the slabs towards my friends wondering when we’ll find another adventure like this.