Three weeks ago, I stood atop my first desert tower in the Canyonlands National Park. Kurt Ross and I reached the Islands in the Sky via the windy White Rim, packed a rack for the following morning, and slept until we woke to a blissful, breathtaking sunrise that gave prominence to the unique tower features in the distance.

We hiked early in the morning with Primrose Dihedrals (5.11+) in mind. With seven pitches to the top, Kurt originally suggested a 5:30 a.m. start. I think I blew snot out of my nose from laughing so hard, feeling pretty rugged from the drive and our late arrival time. Although I wasn’t underestimating the route, I felt confident that we’d summit and be back to the car for post-send beers before sundown.

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Islands in the Sky at day break

Even the drive out to Moses felt like an adventure. I’ve climbed splitter Wingate sandstone before but Primrose felt a little new, a little foreign. There was just a different sense of adventure tingling in the air: this was not the Creek.

We jumped into the deep end with the first 5.11+ pitch (protected by both a 3 and 4 for the crux move). A few more hard, bouldery moves brought us to the base of the second pitch, which I happily took the lead for: a perfect finger to hand crack with beautiful movement the entire way.

The fourth pitch proved to be a bit harder for me. Meanwhile, Kurt was exultant swimming up the crack, his hands considerably larger than mine. I struggled somewhere between janky cupped hands and too tight fists; as I flopped to the belay, we decided that we made exceptionally good cracking climbing partners considering our vastly different sizes. This was especially true on the ear pitch that Kurt was able to avoid using any off-width technique until the last several feet.

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Lie back ALL OF THE OFFWIDTHS

As a rest day, we climbed at Long Canyon off of Potash Road during the later part of the day, having ambled through Moab to enjoy a lazy coffee morning and big burrito breakfast. If you are to only climb one route at Maverick Buttress, let it be Miss Kitty Likes It That Way, a fiery little pitch of 5.11+. A relatively short route, Miss Kitty was quite fun through the perfect hands section and then reveals her claws, becoming nails hard after the pod. With about ten feet to the chains and desperate thin hands and shit feet, you can clip the anchor or finish the continuation, Just The Tip (5.12+). Despite being known for enjoying wide cracks, climbing thin fingertips make my heart go all aflutter and I highly recommend the thirty-foot extension for a challenging, fun finish.

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Dirtbag state of mind at Maverick Buttress with one of the most scenic views

The next day, we chose Castleton despite its popularity and the fact that it was spring break. Having climbed most of the classics to get atop Castleton in the past, Kurt wanted to try Sacred Ground, a four-pitch 5.12b that starts just to the right of the classic north face route. We watched parties come and go, waiting to climb the uber classics, Kor-Ingalls Route (5.9+) and North Chimney (5.9), or head in the opposite direction towards the Rectory.

Kurt led the first pitch of Sacred Ground. It went at 5.11c and was by far one of the coolest, most interesting cracks I’ve ever climbed. Not feeling super confident about the hard grade, I surprised myself following it clean.

Sacred Ground was butt hard, to say the least. Sandwiched between two very difficult pitches, the first and the fourth, are two very fun 5.10 pitches. The final pitch to the summit is purely sport climbing that goes at 5.12b and involves a few very big moves and some techy (and painful) calcite crimping. I didn’t like the less than quarter pad crimping but I certainly didn’t mind the exposure.

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Sport wanking is hard

And so, just three weeks ago, I stood atop my first desert tower. I don’t know how I’d spent so much time out west without having done one before, and it will be some time before I’ll be able to do it again. The slightest of ripples have a way of changing the direction of our lives, and instead of mourning being far away from the desert and the mountains, I’m embracing the change (that suspension in mid-air feeling, the fickleness and fragility of life—the things that make life so staggering and so sweet.) Life has a funny way of pulling us in new directions when we least expect it but that’s just part of the absurdity of living. We can plan to climb, strategize and plot it out, pitch by pitch. But life…is not for planning.

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View atop Castleton Tower

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