Moses Tower, Primrose Dihedrals

By: George Bell, Jr. | Climbers: George Bell, Bill Wright |Trip Dates: March 20-22, 1999

Photo: Gary Clark

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Moses Squared

It seems like I've always wanted to climb Moses, but I guess I have a short memory. It probably started with the photographs of desert climbing I saw in Ascent '80. At that point, I had done a lot of hiking and scrambling in the desert, and technical climbing in Yosemite, but had never really considered climbing on friable sandstone. When the original Desert Rock came out in 1988, I immediately bought it and there on the cover was Moses.

In 1993 I rode around the White Rim Trail with a group of bikers and took the side trip up Taylor Canyon. After walking our bikes up the sandy wash the desert prophet appeared around a corner. There was no mistaking that famous pose. Rising 600 feet off the talus, it is one of the taller spires in the Utah desert. Walking around the spire I realized it is even more slender than it first appears. It is near vertical on all sides and from certain angles has an interesting grooved appearance, as if it has been extruded from the earth rather than eroded.

Even after I saw the spire, it took many years and several attempts to finally climb it. At one point John Byrnes (aka Lord Slime) and I were training for the Primrose Dihedrals route on Moses, widely acclaimed as perhaps the best route in the desert. However John really wanted to try to do the route free, while for me this wasn't a big consideration - it was hard 5.11 after all. Bill Wright had also the route on his list, but for one reason or another plans often went awry. For one thing the route was hard enough that we couldn't just jump off the couch and climb it, even at 5.10, A0. Crack training was required, and it is easy to convince oneself that you're not ready. Last fall we awoke at the drop-off to Mineral Bottom. We were fit but the sky was filled with gray clouds and it was cold. The day before we had had an epic on a "mere 5.9 route" on Lighthouse Tower (a long story in itself, later we learned we were off route and did the FFA of the NE corner route, originally rated 5.9, A3!). Without saying much, we all got back into the car and drove back. Fortunately that day it was to rain over half an inch by noon, so we didn't feel like complete wimps.

Bill reasoned that it had been a mistake to "warm up" on Lighthouse before going for Primrose. After we had one tower under our belt, it was just too easy to stop. This time, Primrose was to be the first climb on the list. But Bill was also attracted by another challenge - he wanted to ride the entire White Rim Trail on a mountain bike in a day (80 miles of 4WD road rim to rim). I thought it foolish to attempt two huge feats on a single trip, yet Bill wanted to complete them on consecutive days.

(Report of ascent of Dunn route deleted. Story continues the next day - Ed.)

We had a reservation at a site along the Green River but the occupants of Taylor Camp below Moses had still not arrived and it was getting dark. We started cooking dinner while watching the evening light on Moses and its neighbors. It was a beautiful evening in the desert and everyone was tired and happy from the day's adventures. The fun was soon shattered when a crew of bikers arrived with several vehicles - the true owners of this campsite. I wolfed down my food as we packed back up and drove down to our Hardscrabble Campsite.

That night a windstorm blew in and filled our mouths with sand - we hadn't bothered with tents. The next morning was again clear and surprisingly warm. Several curious horses came by and were making a nuisance of themselves until Tom scared them away by screaming after them waving pillowcases. Mark had already returned to Boulder the evening before, now Judy and John headed off to Arches for a day of easy climbing (if there is such a thing on desert sandstone). Bill, Tom and I headed again up Taylor Canyon for Primrose. Today we reached the end of the road much earlier, about 8:30. As before there were no other cars (other than the bikers).

We opted for the easy but devious start, a horizontal 5.8 traverse from the notch East of the spire. I led this, probably the easiest pitch of the entire climb. It was still a great pitch, the exposure was immediate and wild. The rock on Moses is some of the best in the desert, Wingate as is Indian Creek. Fortunately the cracks on Moses are not as continuous as at Indian Creek, with a rest every 20' or less.

Pitch 2 fell to Bill, and I had heard this was one of the harder pitches if 'The Ear' is aided. It is mostly between finger size and hand size, with a lot of finger jams and lieback moves. Tom and I were smiling in the sun and enjoying yet another day alone on the tower. We knew of the traverse left at the end of this pitch, but because of this Bill ended up traversing too soon rather than too late. This would have been a good place for the belay, as the third pitch went straight up from there, but there were no anchors. So he traversed back right, went up, and then back left to the normal uncomfortable stance below a roof.

Tom made the pitch look easy and soon it was my turn. At the start it was desperate off fingers, but with the benefit of the top rope I just kept moving and made it to a nice rest below a roof. Here a beautiful finger crack led upward. Gary Clark had given us critical beta on this puppy and we all succeeded without hanging by grabbing the nice lieback edge to the left. Then more difficult lieback moves followed.

I traversed left early (but not early enough) and Bill expertly lowered the rack right down the rope to me. Back on the sharp end, my confidence evaporated. Here one climbs down a crack and then traverses left to some thin cracks. But where to traverse? There is a nice 4" wide chalked ledge, I tried inching over standing on this but there are absolutely no handholds. Finally I discovered that going down to where I could just grab the ledge with my hands made the traverse doable. A couple of short crack moves with tricky pro (since I was still below the belay) and I reached a huge sloping ledge with at least 5 bolts. This belay is only a few feet higher than the last!

The upper 3 pitches were in full view now for the first time, and looked intimidating. This, in fact, was the spot where one of the memorable photos in Ascent '80 was taken. Tom dispatched the next lead with apparent ease, a tricky finger crack followed by perfect hands around an overhang. Bill followed and then prepared to lead while I stayed below on the big ledge. It was a near perfect day - still not a cloud in the sky, warm in the sun, although not quite warm enough for shorts. An occasional strong gust of wind was the only flaw. We were still the only climbers on the tower, and in fact the entire canyon.

Just below the Ear, Bill encountered a short section of wide crack that was problematic. He struggled to place our #5 Camalot, but shortly made the moves to the hanging belay below the Ear (a belay we would skip). This pitch is rated only 5.9 but is no gimmie. After reaching down to retrieve the big cam, he started aiding the bolt ladder, which consists of 1/2" angles driven into holes. The last bolt is 10' shy of the end of the ear and sticks out about an inch. The bolt looks dubious for pro but makes a good foothold. Bill stemmed off this last bolt and tried to place our #5 Camalot, but the ear is still much too big. A couple of 5.10 free moves are the only alternative here; fortunately after a few feet it is possible to get a cam in a subsidiary crack inside the Ear. Still, it was a ballsy lead.

Tom belayed me up and then on toprope Tom zipped up the short 5.9 pitch and continued free climbing up the Ear. After some wild stemming he tried to transition into the offwidth and came off. He pulled on a few slings and then freed the rest of the pitch. I had no such illusions and had brought my jumars just for the Ear. I climbed the 5.9 pitch free and told Bill to fix the rope. Soon I was at a big ledge above the ear and Tom was already on top. We tunneled left into a weird 5.8 chimney and then repeated the face pitch to the top (all as one pitch).

Strangely, I did not feel elated as I realized my dream of climbing Primrose. In fact I had climbed Moses twice in two days! It was a beautiful day with two great partners and yet I was quiet and despondent as we shook hands and congratulated each other. Perhaps no climb can live up to your expectations if you dream about it for fifteen years. But there was more to it than this, I had to admit I felt bad leading only two of the easier pitches. When you give up a lead, but then complete a pitch on toprope without falling, there is always the nagging question of whether you could have led it. But of course you will never know.

We rappelled for the second time down the North Face and returned to the car. Once again Taylor Camp was deserted and Moses stood alone. Bill had the energy to finish the White Rim Trail on his bike. As we waited for him (a surprisingly short amount of time) I wondered if my peak as a rock climber was past. I never used to train for climbs, and I reasoned that increasing age could be counteracted by training.

Perhaps now I will go back to hiking and exploring the desert. The remoteness of desert towers, combined with high difficulty, soft rock and potentially bad belays often makes desert climbing a terrifying experience. But there is always one more tower to be climbed.

Editor's Note: See George's mostly climbing related web site to find this trip report (with photos), other trip reports, photos, the definitive guide to the Cirque of the Unclimbables, and lots of other good stuff. The author is a Major Contributor to the North American Classics project.