Moses Tower, Primrose Dihedrals

By: Gary Clark| Climbers: Gary Clark, Rick Smith, Mark Zander |Trip Dates: May 7, 1998

Photo: Gary Clark

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When I began the "North American Classics" project in the winter of '97-98, I asked as many climbers as I thought might be interested in the subject to list the climbs they believed should be in the top 50. Primrose Dihedrals showed up on so many of these lists that I decided I had to go have a look. But there was one small problem - it was rated 5.11, had a reputation for continuous difficulty, and in short exceeded my wimp factor. Not to worry, if I could only recruit two qualified leaders, I could make a good case for being in the middle in order to take lots of photos! A couple of my regular climbing partners had done the climb a few years ago, so it was just a question of negotiating the amount of beer I would provide after the climb.

May 6: We put the rack together in the desert somewhere between Moab and Moses Tower where free camping is still available, and settle in for the night with visions of steep cracks dancing in our heads.

May 7: A not-so early start sees us at the parking lot in Taylor Canyon looking up at the amazing Moses group. I would have been totally intimidated if it were not for my company. Mark has proven a solid partner on many climbs in the past, often getting us through a crux I wouldn't have been comfortable leading, and Rick is one of the best rock climbers in the state - someone who floats up 5.12s while spectators shake their heads. I knew that the harder pitches on Moses would be at my limit, but Rick wouldn't be breaking a sweat.

We left the car and headed toward the tower. I saw a sign saying "Moses Tower" on a trail, but Mark said "trust me . . . ", and led us up an arroyo heading off into the desert. An hour or so of steep hillside and talus later, we were at the base of the route. Only later on the descent back to the car would we discover we shouldn't have "trusted him" - a newly constructed trail now takes one comfortably to the base without the cross-country scramble that Mark remembered. We were on the north side of the base, planning to skip the first 5.11 pitch by using a 5.8 traverse in from the small saddle between Moses and Zeus. The tower seemed incredibly thin from this perspective, a red fin jutting vertically into the sky like no other I had ever seen. Even at 5.8, I was glad Mark volunteered for the first lead.

Although he had remembered it as largely unprotected, he got in some decent cams in this almost horizontal lead and made fairly quick work of it. I found a good vantage point for photos, then tiptoed out when my turn came to make my way around to the south face and the belay. Soon Rick joined us and racked for pitch 2, which we knew was the crux. He climbed over an intial bulge, after which the only way I could see him was by by leaning back against the anchor and craning my neck. Then it was my turn; I knew that conservation of energy was going to be the key, so I tried to forget the exposure and climb quickly and savor each small resting spot. Still, my forearms were going fast as I placed jam after jam in this thin and very steep crack. At a small roof I knew I was getting in trouble. With failing forearms and tunnel vision I stuffed my fingers once more into the crack, which was now flaring as well as overhanging, and tried to pull up over the ceiling. No such luck - I was soon hanging on the rope, disappointed but not too surprised that this would not be a redpoint for me. Another try yielded the same result, and I started to wonder whether I really belonged on this climb. Dogging on a sport route on the local crags was one thing, but this was a major route, and 3 people needed to get up and back down by sunset. Finally I got my brain in control enough to look around a bit, and thought I saw a bit of chalk on a thin flake to the left. I grabbed it to discover a sharp edge - perfect for a wild but solid lieback that proved much easier than what I had been trying. The rest of the pitch was continuous but not severe and soon I was at the hanging belay, shaking my head and congratulating Rick on his lead. When Mark arrived, I told them both that I'd be happy to rap from there and let them get on with the climb - my confidence was demolished, and I certainly didn't want to be hauled to the top of a route I had no business on. This was when their former experience with the route came in handy. They assured me that the second pitch was the crux, and I should have no trouble with the rest. It's nice to have friends who know when to lie.

Now came one of the more interesting and unique pitches I have ever seen. The leader lowers on the rope about 40' in a dead vertical dihedral from the belay, then traverses out onto a fearsomely exposed wall and begins climbing a blocky crack. The problem is how to protect such a pitch to avoid rope drag. Mark solved it by placing a piece, climbing up a bit to place another, then reaching down to clean the lower. He repeated this until above us, then climbed conventionally to the belay about 50' above us and to the left. As I followed, my confidence returned - "Now this is more like it!" I genuinely enjoyed this pitch, but still wasn't up to leading the long soaring 5.10 dihedral of pitch 4. Rick grabbed the rack, and I mentally noted that I was going to owe these guys more than just a six-pack of their favorite brew.

Consensus had it that this "human haul bag" should do at least one token lead, and it would be the next. The free climbing was rated 5.9, but that runs out at a bolt ladder. Now 5.9 and A0 bolt ladders I could do. The bolt ladder seems to change rapidly with time, though - the last report we got indicated missing hangers, but I was encountering nothing but smooth clipping until I noticed that there were no more bolts, nor was there any reasonable exit onto free climbing. I fished around with my finger to discover an empty hole at arms reach. Oh great . . . now what? I fidgeted around in my etriers, trying to imagine stepping out onto the only feature at hand - the upper part of 'The ear', an aptly named semi-circular fin of rock separated from the wall by an off-width chimney. Getting out of aiders onto one's feet again is always an awkward and intimidating proposition even when the holds are substantial, but I couldn't see how I was going to be able to climb this thing at all! I called down to Mark to inquire whether I was past half-way, figuring that if all else failed, I could lower off and let Rick lead it. Sure enough, I had the rope, but just barely.

I guess I had experienced enough humiliation for the day, what with falling repeatedly on pitch 2, then demurring the lead when it was logically my turn on pitch 3. I needed some redemption. Clipping a couple of short "hero loops" to the top bolt, I worked my feet up into them while pinching 'The Ear' with both hands to keep from tipping over backwards. Then ignoring my brain's instructions to the contrary, I stepped out and began struggling upward. The top bolt was soon far enough below that I felt I had to let go with one hand long enough to grab an active cam and stuff it in the crack. A bit more struggling above this questionable piece put me on a broad shelf. Here I lay panting for a minute or two before I cared to think about what should come next. I was still pretty dazed by the effort by the time both my partners had arrived and Mark had set out on the final pitch. Still, I felt I had earned my way on the climb. Soon we were all on this amazing summit enjoying the incomparable desert views as evening shadows lengthened. We spent quite a while there before feeling the necessity to get back to the job at hand. A long rappel descent waited on the North Face; not a picnic, particularly with 3 people on the hanging stances. All went relatively smoothly, with the exception of Rick missing an anchor on the way down and being forced to anchor himself in a crack until we could rediscover the well-concealed bolts and swing the ropes over to him so he could continue down to the next regular anchor.

Synopsis: The climb was everything I had heard. The climbing is interesting, diverse, and challenging, the feature is impressive, and the setting sublime. There is no question in my mind that this belongs not only in the NAC collection, but on my personal list of the best few routes I have ever experienced. The next day I returned with my wife just to show her the tower, walk around it and take pictures.

Beta: Take several medium hexes for pitch 5 - the dihedral you'll be climbing has a slot in the back that doesn't accept active cams so well, but eats chocks for dinner. You'll use a lot of finger to hand sized cams on the other pitches. I felt it was worth having a real set of etriers for the bolt ladder for the leader. Spring and Fall are best, as with any desert climb, or possibly winter on an exceptionally warm day.