Castleton Tower, Kor/Ingalls Route

By: Gary Clark | Climbers: Gary & Lynn Clark, Mike Baker, Mark Schraad |Trip Dates: May, 1990 through April, 2001

Photo: Gary Clark

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Former Title: "Is It Just Me, Or . . . ??"
New Title: "Yep, It's Just Me."

Four trip reports for the price of one!

Preamble, 1990:

Lynn and I had just started climbing again after about a 5-year hiatus. In California we had grown weary of the long drives in traffic from the San Francisco Bay area to the Sierras, and decided to try some other games we could play closer to home - hang gliding, bicycling, river rafting, etc. After moving to New Mexico in the mid-80s, I soon started bumping into climbers at work. I could no longer pretend to have much skill as a climber, but I could still talk about climbing with the best of them (Yeah, if we hadn't had that haul bag, we'd have done the Nose in a day, easy . . . ") Soon a new acquaintance convinced me to drag my old EBs (the original smooth-soled rock shoe, for those not versed in climbing history) out of the closet and go with him to the local crags. The cliffs weren't very high, but they were 20 minutes from my office, the day was perfect, and the quality of climbing excellent. I learned two things that day: first, that I was really, really rusty as a climber ("What do you mean, 5.8! What a sandbag!!!"), and second, that climbing was still really, really fun. Back home, I pulled my dusty copy of "Fifty Classic Climbs of North America" off the shelf and wondered if maybe, just maybe, I could get in shape again to do some of the climbs that were now relatively close to our new home. Sure enough, there were a couple in neighboring Utah, within reach in a long weekend! We set our sights on Castleton Tower as a first big objective, and soon thereafter were on the road to Moab.

The tower wasn't hard to locate, but a bit trickier to approach. The higher we got, the stronger the wind became, until, arriving at the base of the climbing, we were reduced to crawling to keep from being blown off our feet. Gravel and sand pummeled our faces as we roped up for the first pitch. By the time I got to the first anchors I was demoralized by the conditions and the prospect of dealing with the ropes on the descent in these winds. We rapped down and spent the rest of the day engaged in one aspect of the sport at which I have few peers - shopping for climbing gear. This was actually a wise move - I desperately needed new shoes, ropes, and even hardware, since everything I owned was seriously out of date. After returning home, my renewed enthusiasm for the sport and its paraphernalia made our local climbing shop owner very happy. Secondly, Mike turned out to be a nice guy and an experienced climber. I now had some shiny new gear and someone who could potentially drag me up some hard routes! Castleton seemed much more within reach.

June, 1990:

A few weekends later, the three of us were back on the now-familiar highway, laughing and singing along with our tapes - part of the emotional release that comes when the work week is finally over and it's time for some serious fun. Moab was still a pretty sleepy town in the BMB era (Before Mountain Bikes), and we were able to camp inconspicuously on the river bank just north of town. The next day we drove to Castle Valley (Yep, the tower was still there - didn't blow over), and started up the climb. Conditions change quickly in the desert in the spring, and our problem was now the heat. We used every bit of shade available and moved slowly on the approach to keep from sweating through our clothes. We had agreed in advance that Mike would take the crux pitch #3, so he led the first, I took the second, and Lynn came along in the middle. Pitch two is quality, and would be discharged quickly by a competent leader, but I was still getting my feet under me. I took too long to lead it, but we had all day and were alone on the route. Eventually we were setting up Mike's lead. As he worked on the crux high above, a few invectives floated down, and I was grateful it was his lead. As I followed it, I was doubly glad - I would not have enjoyed this lead! It was simply too hard, and the protection, although probably adequate to prevent death, was less than comforting. My final lead seemed trivial in comparison and soon we were celebrating on the incredible summit. We shook our heads over the fact that a major car company had once built a huge wooden platform here to set a car on for a television commercial, then just left it behind. Isn't anything sacred to those morons?

June, 1998:

Lynn and I were hiking to the Castleton group, intent on an aid route on the Priest. An hour or so into the approach, I went after a water bottle in the pack, only to discover that I had left the etriers in the car. Now what? Well, we could always do Castleton again - I shouldn't need any help leading it this time. Lynn even felt confident enough to lead the first pitch, since we again were in no hurry with no competition on the route. We moved quickly through the 2nd, but not before moving the belay to an intermediate spot at the base of the vertical corner to provide a better photographic vantage point. I was putting the North American Classics project together by this time, so adding photographs to the collection was a bigger motivation than just doing the route again. I eyed the third pitch with little more than anticipation of an interesting set of moves. Little did I know.

The first section of dihedral went smoothly, and then I was at the crux. A decent bolt appeared on the face to the right, but I was quickly well above that, and then it got hard. I tried a layback, but it was too tentative. I tried a bunch of other things. Finally, I resorted to a long stem to a poor edge on the slick calcite that plates the wall to the left - a move I was not comfortable with, but options were running out as my strength ebbed. Clawing and scratching, I pulled up into a narrow slot with just enough energy left to jam my body inside and gasp for air. That was certainly one of the hardest bits of climbing I had done in a long while, but the worst was yet to come. The slot turned out to be a deep chimney, and I wanted to move well back into it so I could rest and regroup. I had a waist pack on with a camera inside that was jammed so hard against the rock in front of me that I could barely breathe. The next 20 minutes was a struggle to get the waist pack and protection rack and a sweater off so I could get skinny enough to make some progress up this dark claustrophobic slot. I was not having a good time. On the summit, we realized I had not only crushed the camera beyond repair, but Lynn had also done some damage to one of her shoulder joints in the miserable squeeze chimney. This was not a route we were likely to repeat.

Back at the car, I visited several climbers' camps. In each camp, I heard the same story - they had done the Kor-Ingalls, but agreed it was not one of their favorites, and harder than advertised. Inclusion in the Roper and Steck collection seems to have been more motivated by the history of the route than its quality. Pitch one is too easy and has little interesting climbing and lots of loose rock and dirt on the ledges that begs to be dragged off by the lead rope. Pitch 2 is excellent. The third is one of my least favorite pitches of all times, and 4 is routine and unremarkable. I would suggest the North Chimney as an alternative (haven't done it yet, but I hear good things) or the NW face if you're solid at 5.11. Of course, maybe it's just me. There is good evidence that I'm even better at whimpering than talking about climbing or buying new gear.

April 1, 2001:

I cut a deal with a relatively new climbing partner - Mark would join us for a climb of the Corkscrew Summit of Ancient Art, and I'd help get him up the Kor-Ingalls. Lynn was flabbergasted by this announcement, but she is amazingly game for anything, and soon was convinced by my arguments that we really needed to check out the topo I had just drawn for the NA Classics project for accuracy, and also to see if all the negative things I had written about the route were accurate, or just amounted to whining based on our lack of readiness for the challenge this route presents.

We had spent the last day of March as an exercise in patience on Ancient Art, the amazing formation in the Fisher Towers just north of Castleton. Thus I was resigned to the fact that we'd be waiting around a lot for other parties on the Kor/Ingalls as well, even having gotten up before dawn in Moab and gotten here very efficiently, sans breakfast. Sure enough, there was a party of three just leaving the car as we drove up. When we reached the end of the newly constructed trail, there were already two other parties on the route. I won't relate all the grim details, but we logged about 5 idle hours at the base and on ledges that day waiting for the inexperienced party ahead of us. I had my patience knob turned to maximum, and enjoyed chatting with them, but Mark and Lynn were fit to be tied thinking about the 8 hour drive back home that waited at the end of the climb.

Notes and impressions:

Here's the important stuff: Not only did I make numerous corrections and improvements to the topo diagram from this climb, but my attitude toward the route has also changed substantially.

Pitch 1: Is OK - not fabulous, but just fine, especially if you commit to the straight-up variation. If this is your first chimney experience (as it was for many we have seen on the route), you'll not be as charitable. I rated it 5.7 - the 5.4 rating of the original descriptions is way off by modern standards. I've had an easier time in chimneys rated 5.9. Strenuous, but a classic in the off-width chimney genre.

Pitch 2: Tricky, unusual, exposed, mental, quality. Not for a weak leader - Mark did it smoothly and competently, but we heard a less-experienced leader below us dissolve in tears before backing down and eventually rappelling.

Pitch 3: Hard, strenuous. I had heard from a good source that a layback would avoid the terrible thrashing I took at the crux in 1998, but it took me three tries and a lot of soul-searching before I committed to it. With feet smeared on slippery calcite and sweaty palms wrapped around a too-rounded edge, I moved carefully and slowly upward for the next 8 feet with my eyes glued to the top of the calcite plate on the left wall. I was depending on having a "thank-God" finger edge there to deliver me from the hated lieback. The key protection bolt below was not much comfort; I had rotated and wobbled it freely with my fingers after clipping it. Holding the layback with the right hand, I felt around the top of the plate with the left until I had the best hold it was going to offer, then pulled over to a tiny foot hold on the face. I was in familiar terrain now, and quickly stuffed a right leg into the squeeze chimney and drug myself in. I had less junk on my body this time, and it seemed almost roomy in there as I repaid my oxygen debt with interest. The climbing was now more secure, but still strenuous. I plugged a couple of small cams in a good crack on the left wall on the way up, a task that would have been much easier if I could have turned my head freely - it was narrower than my helmet in several spots. Mark and Lynn had less trouble with the crux, and I've now concluded from their experience that the best technique is to face-climb the calcite plate on small holds, using a right foot in the crack for balance when necessary. Next time . . .

Pitch 4: Many people miss some of the best climbing on the route by going up and slightly left to a straight-up chimney/crack system. This is strenuous and difficult. The best route goes up a few feet, then right 10 feet, then up a clean chimney past a small ceiling. Above the ceiling, walk up right through a wide chimney toward the light on the North side. The wall in front of you looks improbable, but once started up it via a stem behind, you'll find delightful 5.7 face climbing with a hand traverse back left toward the end. If you get nothing else from this report, this bit of beta will make all the reading worthwhile. The most enjoyable pitch of the climb, absotively posilutely classic.

The Descent: The North Face has become the standard rap descent, since it is so much less crowded than the Kor/Ingalls. Rather than continue to wait for the party we had come to know so well, we dropped back down the way we had come. Everyone below us had gone home, either because they were tired of waiting, couldn't handle the route, or both, so finally we could move at our own pace. The first rap goes with a single 50m rope; the others require two ropes.

Mo' Beta:

1) Don't bring anything up the route you don't absolutely need. Climbing with a pack will add substantially to the difficulty. If you must have one, plan to haul it on the 3rd pitch, either on a separate line, or below you on a daisy at the cruxes and in the squeeze chimneys. We took light wind jackets that could be clipped to our harnesses, no food or water (possible on a cool day, your mileage may vary.)

2) Gear: Placements are limited and fairly widely spaced, so a big rack will just be in the way on the off-width and chimneys. Huge pieces seem like a good idea back home reading about the route, but I have seen none successfully placed. Most of the key pro is fixed, either bolts or tied-off chockstones. A single set of active cams will be adequate, from very small to 4-inch. 60m ropes will make the descent much more efficient, but don't help on the climb.

3) Rating: At three times up and counting, I still believe the classical rating to be a sandbag. Almost everyone I've heard from agrees. I think it is 5.10, but hesitate to challenge the rating of a route with such a long history. I'll conservatively call it 5.9+ on my topo, but even that masks the true difficulty, because it carries no indication of the physical effort involved. Beginners will have a truly miserable time on this route, and you'll be doing them and everyone else waiting for them a disservice by bringing them along. Any resemblance of this route to a 5.10- sport route or indoor climbing wall is pure coincidence.