This blog post is about climbing Castleton Tower in Utah, more importantly that adventure is just as much about the journey as the destination.
Although our trip to Utah was four days long, this blog post is going to focus on an 8-hour section of it that occurred at the backend of the first 24 hours. These 8 hours set the tone of the trip, and quickly became a rallying point for any of our decisions.
Our trip began 7AM Sunday morning in Ferris’ Prius. The plan: Make it to the campground parking lot by 11PM, finish the approach to Castleton Tower around midnight, jug up 400 feet of fixed-lines, reach the top by 2AM, sleep, and awake to a beautiful desert sunrise atop an iconic desert tower.
After half a day of driving, having picked up our friend Kate and Ferris’ ladyfriend Bailey on the way, we arrive at the campground at 11:30PM. We meet up with Ferris’ aunt Dana and start packing any essential gear we’ll need for our ascent. Having sufficiently disturbed the sleeping climbers in the campground, we begin our approach to Castleton Tower as the clock strikes midnight.
The approach to Castleton isn’t too strenuous. Mostly gentle inclines mixed with a few sections of steep hiking and scrambling. The group morale is high, reinforced by the light of headlamps from friends currently atop Castleton Tower. We take on a leisure pace, with periodic stops to turn off our headlamps and appreciate the clear night sky. Around 1:15AM, we finish the approach and reach the base of Castleton. The light of headlamps we saw at the beginning now replaced exclusively by the light of stars above the tower.
Once at the base we begin divvying up the gear. The friend that put up the fixed-lines only left us one ascender and we have four grigris between five people. Luckily we have much less-efficient micro-traxion pulleys to cover our need of ascenders, but a grigri will still have to be lowered each time.
For those unfamiliar with jugging up fixed lines, there are various ways of doing it. According to Ferris, we did it the less efficient way. The process involved sliding an ascender up a rope (the rope was fixed on an anchor above us) and then stepping on webbing while simultaneously pulling the rope through a grigri to secure the new height. It was sort of like kick starting a motorcycle in mid-air while simultaneously doing pullups. You gain about a foot each time if you are doing it properly.
At 2AM we begin jugging up the fixed-lines one at a time. Ferris is the first to go because he has to show 3 of us how to actually do it. We all look on in amazement; Ferris’ past as a high school quarterback is clearly shown through his endurance, as he quickly ascends the first rope in around 10 minutes (far outpacing any of our future times).
As Ferris gets to the first anchor he gives us a motivating yell of, “Hey guys try not to bounce too much when you come up, the rock is sharp and the rope is rubbing against this ledge.” Our resolve bolstered by these words, we graciously offer the next turn to each other.
Well-after 3AM, Kate and Dana have begun their ascents up the second fixed-line, Bailey begins the ascent up the first, and I wait silently at the bottom having an internal debate on whether I should even bring my sleeping bag/pad with me. Once Bailey reaches the first anchor with Ferris, I decide to suffer just as much as the rest of the group and keep all the gear in my pack.
I begin the slow trudge up the fixed-line; every part of the ascending-system feels like it’s fighting the other part while these parts collectively fight my body. Any notion of not bouncing on the rope is quickly abandoned, as the need for keeping myself alive is surpassed by the need to get to the first anchor.
Upon reaching the first anchor it is nearing 4AM and talk of seeing the sunrise before sleeping is echoed throughout the group. We quickly realize that our ambitious thought of jugging up 400 feet of fixed-rope in two hours was more of an audacious thought. Regardless, we jug on.
By the time I’m fifteen-feet below the second anchor, a thin string of light is forming on the eastern horizon. Dana has begun the ascent up the final section, and Ferris, Bailey, and Kate wait to greet me. Even after being up for 21 hours, driving 800 miles, hiking a couple miles, and jugging up 275 feet of fixed-lines, we all have a collective laugh at the absurdity of the position we’re in. We quickly come to terms with the fact that we will still be witnessing a sunrise; it just won’t be after getting some sleep at the top.
Once Kate has made her way up the final line, I begin making my way up, and leave Ferris and Bailey alone at the second anchor to enjoy the romantic aspect of a desert sunrise. When I get about 30 feet up the line, my micro-traxion pulley quits gripping the rope. Not wanting to ruin the moment Ferris and Bailey were having, I keep sliding the pulley up, quickly pulling on the grigri while stepping hard on the webbing hoping that it will finally catch. I keep trying this in hopes I can get past the section of thin rope, and not interrupt Ferris and Bailey’s romantic moment, when I hear, “Hey Dad! … Yeah we’re just on the side of Castleton right now. Dana and Kate made it the top, Quinn’s right there jugging up and Bailey and I are sitting here watching the sunrise, see!” I look down to see Ferris FaceTiming his dad.
After the FaceTime ends, I lower down and switch pulleys. I jug up the final rope, followed by Bailey and then Ferris. By 7AM, the five of us are atop Castleton Tower to greet the climbers as they wake up. We all talk for an hour and enjoy the rest of the sunrise, but by 8AM (24 hours after getting into the car the morning before) our group is ready to crash. We roll out our sleeping bags, find some reasonably shaded area and pass out. Two hours later, with no more shade to speak of, we are awake and rappelling back down the tower; we’re headed towards the town of Moab where pizza and beer awaits.
Yvon Chouinard once said, “For me, when everything goes wrong – that’s when adventure starts.” Whether the CEO of Patagonia would deem this section of our trip as an adventure is unknown to me, but the group consensus was that things definitely didn’t go as planned. With our sleep schedule wrecked the rest of trip, we all ended up making delirious decisions involving swimming in ice-cold rivers right before thunderstorms, acro yoga at gas stations, and sleeping on the pavement 30 feet from the freeway.