Castleton Tower, Kor/Ingalls Route

By: Greg Opland | Climbers: Greg Opland, Tim "The Toolman" Scheider, Karen "Goob" Schneider |Trip Dates: September 04, 1994

Photo: Gary Clark

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A Man's Climb

"...not so much because they're there, but rather because they may not be there much longer."

- Layton Kor on climbing desert sandstone towers.

My title will undoubtedly set off some ERA proponents in the crowd, but I've never been one to be politically correct, and I ain't about to start now. It's my trip report, and I'll call it like I see it. Besides, I think you'll understand when you get to the end.

Friday, Sept. 2:

Here we go again! By noon, me and the Toolman had been down and picked up the rental van. A bit of an extravagance, but one we hoped would make the weekend a little more comfortable for us, as we would be doing a lot of road time over the next three days. Tim's sig-O, Karen (Goob) would be joining us. Actually, this trip had been originally planned as the "road trip from hell" weekend of the Phoenix Bouldering Contest last April, but complications and last minute sanity set in, cancelling the trip for a later attempt. The extended weekend provided by the Labor Day holiday gave us the motivation for another try and we were going to do it this time.

The goal was simple: to summit on our "next" Fifty Classic Climb. In this case, Castleton Tower smack in the middle of Utah's awesome canyon country. Since this was just inside the radius of bearable weekend climbing road trips, climbable in a day, and an amazing looking summit, it was the logical choice. I'd also been imagining and thinking about climbing Castleton since I started climbing. The first guidebook I ever bought had Castleton in it and I can remember wondering if I would ever be able to climb it. Anyone who's seen a picture of this incredible desert tower can easily imagine why it is worthy of desire. Standing atop a thousand feet of sandstone deposits like a big square golf tee without the ball. A climber's carrot if I've ever seen one.

The miracle of the information superhighway allowed a quick check on the cloud cover for the next few days. The electronic weather report was proffering rain in the general vicinity of Utah. Dammit. Oh well, this was a done deal. I had my stuff in the van and was over to Tim's by two. Karen had hit some severe Labor Day rush hour traffic on the way over from Mesa and arrived by three. We were on the road a half-hour later headed north for Moab. By the time we hit Sedona, the rain was coming down at a pretty good pace. Flagstaff came and went and the rain continued. East to Kayenta, four and a half hours out, we were still getting a non-stop car wash. Me and the Toolman were thinking the same thing: "The closer we get to Utah, the rain will stop and things will dry up." Here we were thirty miles from Utah and it wasn't even slowing down. We stopped for gas in Kayenta and who do we run into, but a couple of guys we knew from Phoenix, headed for climbing and mountain biking in Telluride. Man, you can't go anywhere. I'm surprised we didn't run into any rec.climbers at the Burger King (we didn't see the King either).

Onward and northward. We had no real idea how long the drive would take, but a rough guess had it between eight and nine hours. We hit Monument Valley in the middle of the night, and couldn't make out pinnacle or buttress. We missed the "hat" at Medicine Hat, made out the Twin Rocks just north of Bluffs because they were lit with spotlights at night, cruised through Blanding and Monticello as the wipers scratched interminably across the van's oversized windshield. Moab finally came and the rain was reduced to a periodic light drizzle. North on 191 to River Road and, 17 miles later, the turnoff to Castle Valley. The drizzle was gone by that time, finally. We guessed five miles to the tower and I pulled off onto the side of the road, killed the lights, rolled down the window and looked around to see what I could. The cloud cover had the sky blackern' hell, but I could just barely make something out behind and north of the road. I got out and looked again. We'd stopped just past the tower, that could barely be made out, black against an even blacker sky. Not bad for guesswork.

Backtracking a bit, we spotted a large pullout and I pulled in. The rain held off long enough to let us pull ground cloths, pillows and bags out of the back to throw on the ground. Five minutes after official "lights out," a handful of drops hit the top of the bag. I started laughing, "That figures..." Goob sat bolt upright, said "Tim, it's raining!" and in one smooth motion, snatched up pillow, shoes, and had the air draining out of her Thermarest, as she headed for the van. Amazing dexterity! The drops stopped as the Toolman and Goob prepared to stuff themselves into the van for the night. I was saving that for a last resort as I pulled my bivy bag up around my sleeping bag. Luckily, that was it for sprinkles and we all stretched out and were soon out like a light. It was one a.m.

Saturday, Sept. 3:

Morning came early. Heavy clouds still covered the sky. We could only see the top quarter of Castleton over a small knoll just north of the pullout. We all woke up with a wonderful surprise...ants. They were crawling all over the place and that included us. Oh joy. So much for sleeping in. We loaded up the van and drove back up the road to another pullout, larger and obviously more used than the "ant farm." From there, the entire tower was in view and incredible looking. Tim and I were both thinking we should just go for it, betting that the rain would hold off and we could enjoy the cool weather. After discussion, we decided that the heavy black clouds still floating past looked a little too grim, so we opted to check out some of the area's natural attractions instead. Part of the reason was that we figured we'd get better pictures if the sun came out the next day.

The rest of the day was spend checking out some of the amazing rock structures of Arches National Park, a trip out to Deadhorse Point at the tip of Canyonlands NP, and some quick passes through the bike shops in Moab. Lin Ottinger's (I think) rock fossil/climbing shop won the prize for being the most interesting and for having the best assortment of gear. From there, it was back out to Castle Valley for dinner, beers and off to hit the sack for an early start the next morning. We took a short hike out to scope the approach hike for the next morning. It was easy to spot the cow path heading up and left along the bottom of the talus cone that rose to the base of Castleton. As usual, someone pulls in when I'm just about to start sawing some serious logs and then spends the next forty-five minutes slamming the car doors and trunk and talking.

Sunday, Sept. 4:

Five-thirty came too early early and I was going through my usual rationalization procedure before finally unzipping the sleeping bag. Stuff like, how we didn't need to get out that early, and we would be fine with a late start, after all it was only four pitches. It didn't take, so half an hour later, we stuffed the remaining gear in the car, shouldered the packs and headed down the trail. We passed two German guys camped nearby as they packed for climbing. A short conversation with them revealed that they would be headed for the North Chimney route. We were headed for the Kor-Ingalls, number thirty-seven of the Fifty Classics. We pounded up the trail, making good time. I thought we would actually cruise right up to the base of the Tower, but it was not to be. Castleton sits at the southern apex of Castle Ridge. The squared-off block of Wingate sandstone stands on top of a thousand-foot talus cone constructed of prehistoric, decomposing Chinle sandstone deposits. This has to be seen to be truly appreciated, but it's pretty eye-catching. Anyway...the trail took us left and then through a notch in a thick, loose layer of rock. A gully full of loose boulders led to a couple of steps below a solid sandstone cliffband. The Germans smoked on by as Goob was "discussing" with the Toolman how he should have gone up instead of breaking left across the suicide slope of loose ball bearings. A fairly obvious track made a left turn along the kitty litter below the band. The final 200 feet of the approach was when things got really nasty. Ball-bearings on steep slope. We tiptoed up this junk, fighting off what would be a normal instinctive reaction to get the hell out of there, and arrived at the saddle just below the north side of Castleton Tower.

From the parking area, the Tower looks kind of innocent and not that big. From the saddle, you realize that a four-hundred foot chunk of sandstone is big, no matter where you're looking at it. Time to rock. The Germans headed straight up to the bottom of the North Chimney. We took a more liesurely approach and racked at the saddle, stashed the packs and headed up. The base of Castleton forms a ledge system that can be traversed to get to the bottom of the various routes. We chose the left-hand route to get to the south side of the tower and the four-pitch Kor-Ingalls route. The Toolman gave me the crux third pitch lead, so I got the first as well. I knew this one wasn't that hard, so at least I was looking forward to a bit of warm up before we got down to business.

A short, low-angle hand crack led to a squeeze chimney. I think this pitch gets a rating of 5.5, but it was a little skinny for me and I grunted, and squirmed my way to the top of the 20 foot section thinking it was kind of a rude wake-up call. Another section of easier chimney and I was at the anchor. Inventory on the bolts: one 1/4" Star Drivyn, one 1/4" split shaft and one rather ancient looking, but otherwise normal 3/8". Hmmm...well, that oughta hold something as long as it didn't weigh much. Tim cruised to the belay with Goob right behind. She didn't enjoy the chimney at all and was not a happy camper. Kind of a rude awakening for her too, I guess. The Toolman had dibs on the second pitch, so he grabbed the rack and off he went. Loose ledges are encountered for the first fifteen feet, at which point you gain a flaring slot on the left-hand wall of a corner system. He swallowed hard and entered the flare with hand jams and several contortions accentuated by occasional grunts. After finding a single bolt, he found his rhythm and finished the flare, occasionally commenting on how good the pitch was. Fingers and an interesting lieback section led to the right, where a small tower presented a few easy chimney moves to end the pitch at another small ledge. I followed, and found that the pitch was excellent. The flare's right wall had a lot of "wavy" features that kept the climbing pretty reasonable, although thought-provoking, awkward, and enjoyable in a weird sorta way.

The higher we went, the more we noticed an interesting feature of the rock on Castleton. On the outside of the sandstone, there seemed to be some kind of quartz-like coating that appeared like the frosting on a birthday cake. The layer was about an inch thick in some places and very slick where it was smooth. Luckily, it seemed to have at least a few holes, edges, and rough spots to use for hand and footholds. An interesting phenomenon and one I suspected had kept the tower standing all these years while the outside layers of sandstone peeled away. The sun was beating down on us, exposed on the south side of the tower, but a small breeze kept it from getting intolerable. I jammed down next to Tim on a small seat, and squeezed myself back in a corner as much as possible to maximize the shade. As I reached the ledge, I was thinking that Goob was going to be unhappy with the pitch because of its burly nature, but she seemed to pick up and really did a nice job of it, arriving at the belay in good time. I had been kind of napping while Goob did the second pitch, as staring up the third pitch wasn't doing that much for my confidence. There was no putting it off, so we swapped the rack and I launched off on pitch three.

In 1961, after an initial day to the second pitch ledge, Layton Kor and Huntley Ingalls had returned to the ledge and Kor had started up the same pitch I was now going to lead. I wonder what his thoughts were as he looked up into the gaping maw above? Kor had finished the pitch, placing two bolts for direct aid, so how hard was this going to be? Only one way to find out...

A number four Camalot slid nicely into the wide crack just above the belay. I could see the sides of the fissure were lined with the quartz "frosting", and a test pull of the piece made my skin crawl. A good tug made the cam skid along the slick surface. Shit! I played with the placement a bit and found a spot that had enough of an indentation to at least give me the psychological protection to get past the section. As I moved past the piece, it caught on my foot and spun upwards in the crack and was no good anyway. Halfway through the move, there was nothing I could do so I stood up on an edge. The climbing wasn't as hard as it had looked. I pulled the number four, now useless with the stem pointing up at me, and placed a better piece behind a small chockstone above. Onward!

The next section was chimney. Tight for me, but I found some decent edges on the left and also within the right wall of the chimney so that I could kind of stem my way up at the mouth of the chimney without actually diving into its depths for security. The chimney went for about 25 feet and then pinched down. I had no pro past the two pieces I'd place at the very bottom, so I was definitely looking for something to make me feel better. Looking around, I discovered a bolt on the outside of the right-hand wall. Hooray! A large block was the reason for the pinch in the otherwise huge crack, and getting past it would require a long reach right and fairly balancy lieback on the edge of the block. This was only a couple of moves, and not really too bad. Once on top of the block, I was again in a narrowing large chimney. Somewhere up there was the anchor, I could feel it!

The start of the chimney wasn't too bad. More of the stemming, toe/heel jamming but fairly secure. This crack pinched as well, and as I got further and further from my last piece of pro, I was getting a little worried. The pinch looked a little awkward, like it would be waiting to spit out unwary climbers on a moment's notice. Near the top of the pinch, a glimmer of hope came alive and I whipped out my trusty #6 Big Dude, the largest piece we'd brought with us. As it rattled between the crack walls, bouncing back and forth, I pushed it high where the sides converged a bit more and found a place where it was just within what would be considered a completely tipped out placement. "Better than nothing...?" Looking around, I then found hope. Behind me on the outside right hand wall was...a bolt! Hey, just 'cause it's on the topo is no reason to actually look for it! As I was facing the other way, and turning around seemed to be a sure solution for falling off, I finally just squirmed a bit higher in the crack and did a blind clip behind me. Finally, some pro! That was the good news...the bad news was that the bolt was pretty much the only pro between me and the belay anchor, a distance of about forty feet. I launched off and found the climbing eased off slightly until the last couple of moves to the anchor. A couple of weird moves were required to get out of the wide crack and onto the broken ledge above, and I was forlornly taking note of that lonely bolt in the distance. After setting up the belay and wiping the sweat off, I belayed Goob up the pitch. "You'll love it! Great Pitch!"

Over the next forty-five minutes, Karen gave the climbing performance of a lifetime. If she has a type of climbing for which she was never suited, this crack was the epitome of her own personal climbing hell. Tough, burly, wide and slick. And in spite of all this, she rose to the occasion, climbing the pitch an inch at a time, hanging on the rope when she had to, and resuming when her arms had some of the blood back in them. I kind of had to hand it to her for continuing the fight, even with all the cursing and obvious lack of enjoyment down there at the end of the belay line. Goob's pretty stubborn. I could hear the German dudes somewhere behind and over me, and sure enough, two heads poked over the rim of the summit to see what was going on. I think only one of them spoke any English, so we talked a bit (kind of hard to talk with all that yelling going on below). :-) We discussed the new rappel down the north face, but they only had a 200-foot rope, and didn't think it would make it. I agreed, so they hung around on the summit a while. Eventually, Goob thrashed her way to the belay, sweating, dirty, but unbowed. I clipped her in and congratulated her, as the first German started his rappel down the Kor- Ingalls. I suppose this is one of the possible negative aspects of this climb, being the most popular in the desert, having to cram and squeeze to let parties rappel on by.

Tim had started climbing, so when the German dude reached a small ledge to the side of the belay, I asked him to wait until Tim had made the belay and then left on the last pitch, to allow Tim to climb without distraction and us without getting squished at the belay. Graciously, he consented, but was not totally happy with the delay. Tim did a fine job on the pitch. I could hear some grunting, but no profanity coming from below. While coming through the top pinch section, I watched his water bottle detach from his harness and fall away. I yelled "ROCK!" The guys below wouldn't be happy. I did offer words of encouragement to him on the last section of the pitch, "Hey, don't use it all up down there, you still have to lead the fourth pitch!" He was not amused. Once at the belay, we did a quick trade-off on the lead rack and the Toolman headed for the summit, about seventy feet away. The two Germans dropped to our belay and, after asking if I would throw their rope down to them (a move I thought was kind of risky), tied their 200-foot rope off to one of my locking biners at the anchor. As they rappelled off the ledge, I asked one of them if he would bring back a beer for me. He laughed. The 200-foot line allowed them to rap all the way down to the first belay in one go. They reached the bottom and I untied the rope, yelled, and tossed. The heavy rope sunk like the Titanic, but a little tugging and whipping got the entire length to the ledge with no trouble. "Who's going to do that for us?" :-)

Meanwhile, back on planet Hell, the Toolman was dealing with the intricacies of pitch four while we listened to our stomachs shrivel from lack of water. We were dry. I didn't figure we would be up on the route all that long, and didn't want to deal with the extra bulk while leading wide cracks, so I left the bottle at the bottom. Bad move, especially in light of the Toolman's aerial liquid assault bomb ten minutes before, and the loss of Goob's bottle of foul-tasting energy drink on the first chimney. No one left to share, dammit. With the sun beating down, we were turning into non-happy campers in a hurry.

The initial part of pitch four was no biggie. Some broken ledges and a tummy- mantle over a block. Then, the fun started. The rock formed a wide slot with a pinch at the bottom. Didn't look all that difficult from the belay, but the Toolman wasn't up there talking about what a great piece of climbing it was either. Turns out, from rumors after the fact, that this section used to to have a chockstone in the flare that could be mantled onto. Supposedly it was now a full grade harder, something the Toolman was now becoming painfully aware of. He was up there dried out, thirsty, dirty and tired, thrashing up a slot where two moves would put him on easy ground to the summit. Finally having enough, he gained the slot with some judicious tugs on the Big Dude. Enough was enough. We wanted to make the summit as soon as possible so we could go down and get some water. He cruised the rest of the way to the bolts, just below the summit, and tied in.

My climb of the summit pitch isn't worth of comment. I was so dry, I just wanted to make the summit so we could go down and get some water. After driving myself into the flare headfirst, I got into the slot backwards and had to wriggle and thrash to get out of it. Eventually, I made it. Two down, one left. Goob started up the pitch. The last mile. She got a bit stuck at the pinch in the flare and it took a few minutes to talk her through it. This was no easy task as the first three tortuous pitches had left her body spent and her nerves shot. Finally, with a little prompting from the peanut gallery (me and the Toolman) she yarded on the Big Dude and made it into the slot. Once there, she reached the anchors in a matter of a few minutes. Having the anchors just off a small ledge a couple of feet below the summit allowed us to reach the summit together. A team victory. We shot some pictures, gawked at the incredible views, and checked out the summit register. As it turns out, our ascent was number two-thousand seven-hundred sixty-five (#2765). Incredible to think that over the first twenty-seven years since the climb was first done, it had received just over one thousand ascents. In the previous six years, it had been climbed in the neighborhood of seventeen-hundred times. Almost twice that of the twenty-seven years before! Definitely the most popular and ascended desert spire these days.

We had to wait a bit once we were ready to head back down. The two guys climbing behind us were, shall we say, less than cooperative with our efforts to descend. One was leading the last pitch when we went back to the anchors to go down, so we decided the polite thing to do was to wait for him to finish. He came up wearing a pair of retrofitted Reboks with a 5.10 resole and a bag over one shoulder. He sets up his anchor by clipping a single draw into the rap rings, which I casually mention that we were planning on using, and then ignores me and clips it anyway. That eliminated our plans to start rappelling, so we got to sit there and twiddle our thirsty thumbs until his partner made his appearance at the top. Mr. Rude (belayer), is up there flipping the rope all over the place, giving him a body belay with no brake hand for the most part, and trying to film him with the video camera which had been extracted from the bag he was carrying. If the partner had fallen, they would have been picking up his pieces for days off the talus below. The partner reached the anchor and then continued on to the summit past us. Once Mr. Rude decided he was through, he unclipped, and brushed past on the way to the summit. Thanks, pal.

The rappel was pretty orderly. We'd heard stories of possible rope hangups on the rappels, but we didn't have much of a problem with that. Forty-five minutes later, we were back at the base of the route. We reached the packs and took our time getting rehydrated and repacked for the descent. I expected the descent to be pretty interesting. As nasty as the ball bearings were on the way up, they had to be even worse when going back down. I think Goob had hoped it wouldn't be so bad on the way down, but she quickly found that wasn't the case. Suffice to say that it took us quite a while to descend the climb and none of us were particularily happy with it. Goob's gas tank hit "E" somewhere along the line and she arrived back in camp on the verge of being sick.

Monday, Sept. 5, Labor Day:

The morning after, we slept late. The weather was beautiful and lying in the tent reading a book after waking up was very enjoyable. We pulled all the junk out, repacked the van, and were headed south by around 10am, after a quick stop in Moab for gas and a Texas hot weiner fresh off the hot-dog treadmill. We'd earned it. The trip home wasn't too bad. The scenery that we'd missed while driving at night was beautiful. We passed through the Valley of the Gods and then through Monument Valley on the way into Arizona. Beautiful. If it hadn't been for that Labor Day traffic jam coming back into Phoenix from the north causing bumper-to-bumper traffic for the last 35 miles, we would have been back in just under eight hours. But still a very successful trip!


Let's see, what's aftermath...oh yeah, study hall... :-) NOT! Overall, the climb of Castleton was incredible. Another fifty-classic bites the dust, my third. The lack of water and the time we took made it seem like more work than the other classics I've done and maybe took away from the experience somewhat. There's nothing like the feeling of cruising up a great route with awesome rock, great views, and fantastic climbing. The best part of Castleton Tower comes once you make it back down and you're staring back up at the tower in wonder, saying "I was up there?" Then, it starts to hit you what a unique and awesome place it really is. I'm ready to go back for more, and I'm taking the mountain bike next time. The slickrock awaits! We discussed the climb on the way home, with its wide cracks, chimneys, and burly nature. Karen agreed....Castleton Tower was a "man's climb."