Burrito Worthy 1 : Ancient Art

A story from the desert.

Our car trundled into the parking lot of the Fisher Towers around 7 am. The plan was to be at the trailhead before the heat and the impending crowds I had dealt with too many times before. So far, we were on schedule. I unloaded a bouldering pad and took a seat. I lathered up my first of what was sure to be many peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. As I smeared the brown matter onto the squished bread I started going through the rack in my head.

Cams, nuts, draws, slings, biners, lockers, chord. Organized by size I knew I had at least one hundred feet of chimney climbing and had really no idea what the difficulty was going to be so I decided to bring it all. I slid the pieces of bread together and started chewing. It had only been 12 hours of desert life so far, but I could already feel the crunchy grit of sand in my molars. I swallowed the dirt.

As I chased the wads of sticky sandwich down with water, three vans pulled up into the lot. I squinted my eyes as they poured out of the their rigs. Bags packed, harnesses on. A team of three, a team of four, a team of… seven? When my crust was gone I went to piss.

When I got back to the car, Zach was talking to two guys who looked like true old school dirtbags. “If you boys really want to climb that thing today, I’d suggest you rack up, put your running shoes on and pass them on the trail. otherwise you’ll be sitting at the base til noon.”

“You think they’re all going to climb Ancient Art?” I asked.

“Well..” chuckled one of the guys, “are you going to go climb Titan? ’Cause be my guest..”

As soon as they saw the parties already headed out, they had decided to bail and go find something less trafficked.

We were not going to climb The Titan. The Titan is an x-rated mud crawl on the tallest freestanding tower in the west. Climbing is already painful enough, we didn’t want to add more to that. What made our climb, Ancient Art, so appealing to us was the same reason that it was appealing to everyone else. The route was easy. Even the hard sections were simple aid (meaning pulling on gear to achieve the next piece of protection). But damn, I thought we were early enough. And the fact was that we had been, we just were not prepared to go out and get on the rock. The junk show that showed up was gung-ho, racked up, and ready to go.

Maybe that made us the junk show.

We bailed like the dirtbags and went bouldering and explored the Colorado River with one of Zach’s desert rat friends for the rest of the day. He took us to his “beach” across from the cave he lived in and poured us midday red wine to easy the pain of our failed tower ascent.

We got back to camp right before sunset. My fingers were torn up from Big Bend and shoulders burnt from a day in the southern sun. But Zach was down to try the tower again in the morning so moral stayed high. The sun started to fade as I picked through all the gear. This time I physically laid it all out, piece by piece I sorted through the weird stuff I spent so much money on. What a strange way to experience a place I thought, mitigating a natural landscape with this little steel drumstick, why? Why can’t I just hike? I need expensive ropes, I need to spend thousands every winter on ski equipment. So much simpler if I could be happy just walking around in the woods in my underwear.

But alas, I’m a slave to extremes. The feeling of freedom climbing gave me was and is worth it all.

I got all my stuff in order and after I poured all of the clothes I brought onto the floor of the car, I loaded the gear into my faded green women’s backpacking pack. I set the pack next to the rope bag and looked at my handy work. I smiled, and considered even if we got shutdown again, we were going in prepared.

I kicked my feet up on the cooler and listened to the juniper fire sizzle. The sage we added created a blue aroma that floated around our heads, it smelled like a room in an ancient house, walls lined with forgotten books. We ate a light meal and called it a night.

We got to the trailhead at almost exactly the same time as the previous day. We quickly took a load off at the porta-pottie and shouldered our heavy bags. We padded in silence down into the cool canyon, following the small trail that had been made for white man to explore the wild. The Fisher Tower loop is a five mile walk from the parking lot out to the Titan and back. We weren’t going that far, instead only a mile to the Ancient Art pillars. As we walked, I looked for another formation I had read about, The Cobra. A classic Fisher climb which had unfortunately tumbled off its delicate perch earlier that year. I knew it would be hard to find, because its tell tale cobra head was now detached from its body. I looked for a minute but was then distracted by our own objective. The Ancient Art formation.

It was a set of 4 seemingly equi-tall sandstone spires that erupted out of a massive mud headwall. Like many of the formations in the Fishers they resemble the drip castles one would make at the beach as a child. We stood on a large sandstone bluff, still a ways from the base of the climb and with wide eyes stared up at this vertical pitch that lay before the summit spire. It was dauntingly steep. Like something out of a ruined empire, collapsed cathedrals, dull sword blades and civilizations burnt, it loomed.

“Let’s go,” Zach said.

At the belay we were surprised to find that we were not the first ones on the climb that morning. Another party was just finishing their first pitch. Initial anger was suppressed by the realization that if anything I could watch how they were going about the thing and as they were only two, they seemed fast and proficient. As we unpacked our steel items and flaked our rope, we watched and said howdy.

We looked up at the route, now in a better position to actually see where the climb went, unlike just peering up at the headwall. It didn’t look anything like the photos I had seen, a weird starting pitch to a good belay. Then into the chimney, or what looked like a long narrow elevator shaft, the end of which I could not see.

The deal Zach and I had worked out was that I would lead and he would follow. That was about it. We had been close friends for years and climbed a lot together. So the comfort level in terms of someone I could trust was there, and I knew communication would not be an issue. But as he had not really climbed anything tall, getting up the thing was entirely up to me. This added another level of excitement to the route because until now, any of my multi-pitch efforts had been with someone either better or equal to me when it came to the climbing and rope work. But we had been climbing all summer and I wanted to stand atop the sandstone so I said “screw it” and tied in.

When I stepped off the ground and felt how obscure and dirty the stone was I immediately regretted my decision. “What is this shit?” I bellowed as I crawled over weird blobs of dusty red toads. I placed one piece of gear and chugged my way to the first set of 5.10 climbing. This was protected by permanent “bolts” as we call them. Which is to say I don’t have to trust my own rickety steel toys. Although, this stone is notorious for not holding anything well so falling is still not advised. Stemming in the red choss was equally as unpleasant to get up, but I felt safe and only jarred once or twice on draws to assist in achieving the top of the first pitch. As I pulled Zach up after me as I looked up at the chimney. This was pretty much the last chance I had to bail safely.

We hung out on the large flat shelf for a few minutes while we sipped water and re-racked our gear. Bolts and chains had been drilled into the side of the mountain for our safety, and we sat there for as long as seemed reasonable. We both agreed the 5.10 was indeed sandbagged and that we hated the quality of rock. But we were excited on having made it this far off the deck and it seemed like the only logical direction was up. Once again I stepped off the safe zone and immediately hated myself for it. I made noises like a deranged dumpster dog that was scrambling for food as I hauled into the first bubbly roof.

“Zach I don’t think I can do this man,” I huffed after I placed my first cam. I stared up at the long haul above me.

“You got it, just turn yourself around and stem out on both sides of the thing,” he calmly responded.

“Hmm.. that sorta makes sense,” I spit back.

I did as he suggested and chugged my weight over the first of three visible bulges. This is one key to climbing, collected teamwork. If either member starts to doubt, it is up to their teammate to help them find it again. Ultimately it comes down to the individual to know their limit but a little reassuring is always welcome in times of uncertainty. Because he was right, I did have it.

The next 60 feet of climbing went smooth. I chugged and puffed, I placed what I would assume to be useless protection and climbed through it. Besides the occasional roof the climbing was very moderate, lots of feet and juggy sand features that allowed me to get into my groove. When climbing like this, it’s fluid. Years ago once I learned the basics, this movement has felt like an art. It’s a skill one needs a lifetime to perfect and with so much diversity of rock and style all over the world, it is a limitless canvas. I flowed through the slot, the stone in my face and the sun chasing me up as the day went from morning to hot.

Then like life in general, it went from natural ease to relatively impossible. I had come to the last fin shaped roof. The end of the tunnel was in sight but still an impasse and still could not see the end. I imagined it couldn’t be far but my last piece of garbage protection was 20 feet below me and I was starting to get shaky. I stood with my neck crunched under the roof and my torso and arms uncomfortably twisted between the gritty walls of the chamber. Body tension and a little faith in the rock allowed me to cling to the wall. I mentally scrolled through my options. Struggle to free my gear sling and try to find a piece that fit a non-existent crack; climb through the roof and continue on unprotected; or fall and die.

The prospect of door three made my foot start to do what we in the climbing world call “sewing machine” that is to say, really bad. So as my foot jigged and I felt my forehead grow hot, I started struggling with the steel toys around my chest. I plugged one, it didn’t fit. So I yanked on another that would theoretically be the right size. It was jammed among the mess. I groaned and moved my feet to a less painful position. Muscles tensed, my toes seared with a stuffy ache. I jiggled all my life lines around, they clanked and clanged, reminiscent of a gentle chime that hung in my childhood house in Vermont. I freed the yellow number two. It didn’t fit.

I looked up at the roof in my face and dropped the cam back onto my chest. Falling was out of the question, placing was out of the question. I was going to climb. Breathing, I remembered from some distant advice, was something that needed to happen. I paused and slowly started filling my lungs. A few deep breaths later I had calmed my body, stopped the sewing machine.

I bear hugged the giant blob and as I flopped my weight up and over the mantle. I screamed like a child after the womb. My face dragged on the sand and I clawed my way along the top of the thing until I hit the back of it that was the wall of the chimney where there was a good ledge to pull up on. I didn’t die, that was good. I ran out the rest of the chimney, placing nothing, and eventually found my way to a “thank God” style belay.

I was happy and safe, set on that tan slab, sand eating grin all over my face. I hauled Zach up the medieval birth canal and contemplated the end of our climb. Far below I could see the crowds lined up at the belay. I wondered if they had heard my shriek. They definitely had.

At the summit pitch we were met by more air than I have ever experienced. While it wasn’t as committing as the last unprotected chug, it was exposed. We climbed another pitch of sandy slab and came to “The Sidewalk”. They say The Sidewalk into The Corkscrew is “one of the coolest pitches in the desert.” This is true if one enjoys terror and potential for a long flighty fall over the Fisher Valley. I literally crawled across The Sidewalk and clipped the first bolt. Safe again. I scrambled up The Corkscrew, placing quickdraws on bolts that I followed around the sandy pinnacle.

As I pulled up on the final move, to get to the very top, I noticed that the last hoodoo of mud on the spire was hollow. It was completely ready to blow off. Like The Cobra far below, this tower was also deteriorating. I pulled up the on corkscrew and had my picture taken, becoming one of millions of silly outdoor enthusiasts to summit the thing. The desert stretched out below me in all directions. For a moment I wondered if this is how a bird must feel, amazing air. After a few breaths atop the fragile form I lowered.

Zach and I switched rolls and I belayed him to clean my gear and have his summit moment. His mindset on committing to The Sidewalk was a bit different from my crawl, he wanted to get it over with. With hundreds of feet of air on either side of him, I watched in awe as he sprinted across the narrow thing!

When he was safely back at the station we lowered another short pitch to the big ledge after the chimney. I struggled with the rope for a few minutes, hunting for the midpoint. Finally I found it, right at the chains where I had hoped it would be. Great success as other climbers made their way to our repose.

I tossed the rope to rappel and it tangled. I once again said screw it and jumped on rappel to sort it out mid-rap like an idiot. I hung in the air for a few minutes and flicked it ’til it wasn’t a complete mess. I dodged a couple guys coming up the chimney as I lowered down over them. And finally, after a full 35 meters, I was back on the ground.

While I waited for Zach I saw another 15 people chilling in the shade of the mud formations at the base of the climb. From expensive Black Diamond gear to natty dreadlocks, many demographics of privilege were present. All waiting their turn to struggle up to the top of the crusty form. They sipped from Nalgenes and smoked hand rolled cigarettes. I thought about use and overuse. I wondered how long we had until, like The Cobra, Ancient Art spire would expire.

I stood there and gazed over the eroding landscape. What part had I played in the collapse of this piece of nature? Would the loud guy wearing shiny new gear see what I saw on top? Do we recognize the fragility of the landscape around us? Can I, out here screaming in the hot dust help in this cause? I had certainly achieved a visceral and wild experience. But for some reason the lines and bolts made it feel more like an amusement park ride than something raw. And still we go up one after another. In the purest sense, climbing does connect us to a place, to the natural environment. I hope that future climbers will see the importance of this even with a summit fever and bolts to tug on.

Zach and I shouldered our packs, we gave a little beta and watched one of the parties start the route. They went solo up the first part of pitch one, which looked like smart and fast.

“You guys are done early, what’s your next project for the day?” asked some guy with a German accent. Zach and I gave each other a crooked smile and I responded.

“Uhhh… Well we have a bottle of nice bourbon and a block of sharp cheddar at camp, so… I guess that!”

We laughed as the confused crowd watched us jog back down the trail into the valley so we could celebrate our success in the sand and solitude.