For over 50-years, the desert of Southeastern Utah has been the site of some of the world’s most electrifying ascents. But the climbing is also rooted in its history, anchored by the wild characters that came from across the country to set hundreds of first ascents across the desert. This is the story of some of those first ascents and how a group of climbers sparked a unique community of Utah desert climbing.
Southeastern Utah might as well be the surface of Mars. Between the buttes and mesas of an arid landscape, there is little besides long stretches of open wilderness. It’s here that sagebrush grows from the cracked nutrient-rich soil, and where tumbleweeds blow across the roads.
The Wild Beginning
In the late 1950s and early 60s, much of the climbing community was fixated on the Yosemite. While the rest of the world’s attention was on the Himalayas, a group of Colorado climbers ventured into a landscape of unclimbed sandstone towers and perfect parallel cracks. They established a unique brand of climbing in a wild, untamed environment.
Layton Kor was an established climber in the Boulder community. At the time, he was ticking a number of first ascents in Boulder and Eldorado Canyon. At the same moment, Huntley Ingalls was working on geological missions in the Utah desert. He was searching for uranium deposits for the government. In Castle Valley, a district of towers and mesas 22-miles northeast of Moab, Ingalls first lay sight on Castleton Tower. And he was immediately excited about the idea of climbing the 400-foot sandstone monolith.
At the time, the Castle Valley was considered a wild, remote, and inaccessible landscape. Ingalls needed to find the right partner, but he discovered that there was little to no interest in climbing the towers. After meeting Kor at a Boulder party, the two hit it off instantly and climbed Eldorado Canyon’s Bastille Crack together. It was then that Layton suggested the two go and see the tower.
First Ascents Lead the Way
On September 14, 1961, Kor and Ingalls hiked up to Castleton’s southeast face and found a series of cracks and dihedrals that looked extremely climbable. Utilizing hemp ropes tied around their waists, body belays, and armed with pistons, the two started up with Kor leading the pitches. Layton was particularly delighted at how solid the Wingate Sandstone was.
They climbed the first 100-feet of the first and second pitches, a combination of cracks and squeeze chimneys. They utilized aid and offwidth styles before rappelling and continuing the route the next day.
On September 15th, Kor and Ingalls began up the crux of the 3rd pitch, a wide chimney. After a long and exhausting chimney pitch, the two pulled onto the summit establishing the Kor-Ingalls Route (5.9+). As the two briefly celebrated on the summit, they raced a rapidly approaching storm. Kor descended first, but a ground strike shocked Ingalls. Uninjured but shaken, he finished his descent and the two hiked off the tower.
After the first ascent of Castleton, Kor and Ingalls saw a wealth of other first tower climbs across the desert. Their next objective was The Finger of Fate of the Titan (5.8 A2). It was so ambitious it was supported by The National Geographic Society.
The Titan, rising 700-feet, is the tallest natural sandstone tower in North America. Unlike Castleton, the rock on the Titan is flaky, rotten, and supported by a layer of caked mud. Kor and Ingalls, along with a Colorado English professor named George Hurley, found a route on the northeast face, which started with a 300-foot direct aid pitch up an overhanging face. Kor led the pitches via a series of aid bolts. When coming to a section with flaky mud, he would excavate the face with a rock hammer or piton to find a suitable crack.
At 500-feet up, with the ropes still strung up, the three climbers opted against rappelling and having to climb the route again. So they spent a long night, against the bitter cold and ferocious winds bivouacking on a ledge. Kor, who was 6′ 5″, took up much of the space. The next two pitches, which Kor led, combined a series of easier moves with aid climbing, where Layton still struggled to find cracks for protection. By noon on four days of climbing over the span of a week, the three climbers pulled onto the summit.
With the publication of the article in the November 1962 issue of National Geographic, Kor and Ingalls’ exploits were becoming known worldwide. The two would continue onto the first ascent of Standing Rock in Monument Basin a climb where Kor described the rock quality as “layers of rye-krisp sandwiched between layers of kitty litter,” then Kor would ascend Monster Tower in Canyonlands National Park and Argon Tower in Arches National Park.
Climbers Started Catching On
Soon, the Utah desert was attracting climbers from across North America. Eric Bjornstad and Fred Beckey came from Seattle to establish routes in Monument Valley. In Zion National Park, Jeff Lowe of Ogden established Moonlight Buttress (5.8 A1). Many came for the towers and unclaimed summits. But for some climbers, there was only one area that held their interest. It was a corner of Canyonlands National Park that was known as Indian Creek.
In 1976, a group of climbers out of Colorado, led by Ed Webster and Earl Wiggins, drove into the Creek. They packed scarce knowledge of a hand crack they’d seen on a previous trip that was near perfect in symmetry and broken only by a small roof. Armed only with a rack of hexes and rudimentary nuts, Wiggins slotted his hands into the flake. He twisted his foot into the crack, and stepped off to change desert climbing forever. In this era, crack climbing was an obscure and fringe sport.
Nobody knew if hexes and nuts would catch the soft, crumbling sandstone if one were to fall. Not wanting to risk finding out the consequences, Wiggins led the first 100-feet of the three-pitch route without stopping. He gruelingly jammed his hands and used only his weight to find a secure stance where he could place another piece. Placing the anchor, he brought up Webster, and by the end of the day, the two were at the top of the buttress. It was originally known as “Luxury Liner,” and then became “Supercrack” (5.10). In Webster’s words, they established “a new frontier of desert sandstone crack climbing.”
In 1979, on the eve of the development of sport climbing in the 1980s, Steck and Roper published their list of the 50 Classic Climbs of North America. It included the Kor Ingalls Route on Castleton Tower and the Finger of Fate on The Titan.
Climbers from all over the world were coming to Southeastern Utah. But, they’d developed more technique, they were armed with spring-loaded cams, and were stronger than any previous climbing generation. The desert was a hotbed for hard ascents spurred by the publication of Eric Bjornstad’s Desert Rock guidebook in 1996. Since then, the Utah desert has become a playground for futuristic free-solos with BASE Jump descents, from climbers such as Steph Davis, to soaring slacklines between the towers.
Still today, test pieces of up to 5.14 are being established in the depths of Indian Creek. The bold towers that Kor and Ingalls established over days are now being climbed within hours, many of them free. But while Utah is on the mainstream map of the climbing world, to truly appreciate it is to imagine two climbers wandering the unpaved canyons 22-miles northeast of Moab, and dreaming of the first ascent on the rust-red desert pillars.
When asked why he climbed Standing Rock, Kor, who passed away in 2013, simply replied: “We climbed it because it won’t always be there.”