Utah Desert Climbing: A Brief History of Electrifying Ascents

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.

The Titan
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.

©istockphoto/Forest Woodward

Inter­na­tion­al Atten­tion
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.”