Long Weekend: Climbing Towers in Castle Valley, Utah
Driving into Castle Valley, Utah gives one the feeling of crossing some kind of threshold, the way an astronaut might feel when he finally goes into orbit.
Skylines of tumescent towers and squat mesas define this iconic landscape. You feel like you have entered your own personal Western drama with Castleton Tower, the Rectory, the Nuns, and the Priest as the main characters. This ridgeline of calcite-coated Wingate sandstone towers is one of the most popular and stunning climbing destinations on earth.
Last fall, I spoke to my friend Hayden on the phone. “Dude, I feel like standing on top of something,” he said. “Ya know? Ya’ever feel like that?”
I did. The summit is a sacred place to any climber. Summits have certain force fields that prevent you from carrying up the everyday emotional bullshit. There’s simplicity and peacefulness up there that can’t be found anywhere else.
Hayden, a Colorado native, was in Oregon and on his way home. I was in Colorado. We made plans to rendezvous for a long weekend of climbing towers in Castle Valley.
Castleton Tower is a 400-foot monolith of Wingate sandstone standing proudly atop a 1,000-foot Moenkopi-Chinle cone. Saying Castleton is popular puts it mildly. Some estimates reckon that Castleton has had over 40,000 ascents. For many climbers, it provides their first experience of “standing on top of something”—their first summit. Its unique position, extraordinary exposure, and handful of moderate routes draw hordes from around the world. Climbing Castleton is an absolute must-do for every climber.
“You have to be open-minded when you climb up here,” Hayden said, during the hour we slogged up the dreaded Moenkopi-Chinle cone. “If the route you want to do is occupied, you have to be prepared to do another one.”
Hayden is a fan of obscure climbs. And he’s actually talented enough and bold enough to get away with this perversion, too. When it’s sandy, hard, and run-out—that is to say, when most climbers would be completely horrified— that’s when Hayden appears to have the most fun.
Needless to say, most climbers will want to stick to the trade routes—of which there are many. The most popular route on Castleton is the Kor-Ingalls (5.9), one of the 50 Classic Climbs of North America. Huntley Ingalls and Layton Kor teamed up for the first ascent in 1961, making it one of the earliest desert routes. The Kor-Ingalls is no gimmie at the grade, though. Quite the opposite. Its wide pitches will have climbers not versed in the ways of desert trad likely shitting their pants. A south-facing route, the Kor-Ingalls is a slippery calcite-covered route best done in the cold winter months.
The second-most popular climb on Castleton is the North Chimney (5.8), the easiest route to the summit. Facing northeast, the North Chimney gets a bit of morning sun before this dark, wide, relatively well-protected cleft goes into the shade.
Hayden and I chose to climb the North Face (5.11b) via an alternate, more obscure 5.11c first pitch. Having already done the normal first pitch of the North Face a few years back, we decided to try the unique finger-crack splitter about 30 feet to the right. Despite the tough finger locks, small gear in creative placements, and the wee run-out in the middle, Hayden styled this 5.11c lead with ease. After a straight-forward 5.11 jamming pitch and run-out 5.9+ offwidth, we soon found ourselves standing on top.
“Ahh,” Hayden said. “That’s what I’m talkin’ about!” The view was one of snow-capped La Sal mountains to the south, Arches National Park to the West, the paper-like Fisher Towers to the east and a seemingly infinite barren desert to the north. No bullshit. Only peace.
Though the Kor-Ingalls can provide a quick 4-rap descent with a single 60-meter rope, it’s considered taboo to rappel this popular route due to the fact that it’s all but guaranteed to be occupied by at least one party of climbers. The North Face’s bolted anchors can also be quickly and easily rappelled, but you’ll need two ropes to do so. Read more about Castleton Tower on Mountain Project.
We camped with dozens of other climbers in the campground located at the trailhead to the towers, right off of Castle Valley road (aka La Sal Mountain Loop Road). Here, there are various tent sites, a pit toilet and parking. Currently the campground is free, though donations of $2 (or more) are greatly appreciated and go toward maintaining this incredible open resource. At one point, it’s worth remembering that the whole Castleton region was under the threat of development, but a number of entities joined Utah Open Lands to fight for preservation. Over $640,000 was raised to keep Castleton Tower’s base lands, campground and public access protected forever.
We passed the previous night around a fire with a bottle of peach whiskey. The next day dawned clear and perfect. We lazed around the campground, cooking breakfast employing a secret dirtbag-climber cooking technique that has leaves one with no cleanup and creates instantly delicious breakfast burritos. We brewed coffee using the Aeropress—the quickest and best way to make a strong cup of coffee, if you ask me. We took our time and left to go climbing around 10 a.m.
After hiking up the great cone to the ridge, we traversed over to the Rectory, the middle, flat tower that looks like a giant brick. The most classic and popular route here is, undoubtedly, Fine Jade (5.11a). It is deserving of its popularity, too—Fine Jade is one of the most perfect four-pitch splitters on earth.
We arrived at the base only to find two other parties already up on the route. No matter. We were prepared to do whatever was open. We skirted around the corner to an obscure route that is slowly becoming a new-wave classic: Coyote Calling (5.11++). Originally rated 5.11d, this four-pitch finger and hand crack is all of 5.12a and quite demanding, too. It throws everything at you, from liebacking corners with blind placements to tricky roofs. There’s a very bouldery crux up high that, should the leader blow it, would result in a factor-2 fall onto the bolted anchor.
All of this, of course, was right up Hayden’s alley. He deftly linked the first two pitches into one 180-foot rope-stretcher, and generally just bone-crushed this hard, tricky pitch as easily as if it were a 5.10 gym route. Though not as well-known as Fine Jade, Coyote Calling might be one of the best desert routes I’ve ever done. It was absolutely fantastic climbing but the best of all was, once again, standing on top of something.
As the afternoon sun cast its warm yellow glow, we joined all the parties from Fine Jade on the summit of the Rectory, enjoying what can only be described as contentment and peace.
From the State Liquor Store in Moab, drive north on Rt 191. Turn right on 128 (River Road) and follow for about 20 miles to Castle Valley. At the sign for Castle Valley, turn right on the Lasal Mountain Loop Road. At about 4.7 miles, the campground and parking for the trailhead are located on the left, down a dirt road.
The approach to Castleton Tower is quite straightforward, but it isn’t easy. Follow the obvious trail up the cone to gain the ridgeline between Castelton and the Rectory. Plan on taking an hour to two hours to hike up the cone, depending on how fast and fit you are.
There’s free camping right at the trailhead in the climber’s campground. It’s social, often crowded and can be loud. Tent space is plentiful. Flat spots for sleeping in your trucks or vans are limited.
Climbers are required to register (free) to camp at this campground, though registration doesn’t guarantee you a site. Continued free use of the campground is absolutely dependent on climbers being a good user group. See www.leavenotrace.org for proper camping etiquette outdoors.
You’ll need to bring plenty of water, food, toilet paper, and firewood, assuming there are no fire restrictions in place. You can purchase WAG bags for a $2 donation at the campground.
Depending on what route you want to do, a rack of double to even triple cams will get you up almost every climb. Research rack lists for individual routes on MountainProject.com. Don’t forget a helmet, headlamp and jacket, as it can get quite windy up there. And make sure you bring a camera and some beers for the summit.