On Friday, December 22nd, my buddy Danny picked me up from a closing shift at Backcountry Experience. We drove three and a half hours in his knock-off Sprinter van before arriving in Castle Valley, Utah just before 11pm.
A few weeks before, Danny and I, along with his partner and fellow BCEXP Crow, Madison, had climbed up Castleton Tower via the Kor-Ingalls route. While this climb offered a bit of spice due to terrible protection, the crux was not difficult and it left us craving a more challenging ascent. Standing on top of Castleton, Danny and I overlooked one of the neighboring towers called Sister Superior and decided to come back and climb it.
After arriving in the valley at night, Danny and I curled up under a plethora of blankets and fought off the 15 degree low. Morning came and the sun provided a soft glow behind an overcast sky. It was now apparent that our hike in would be accompanied by five inches of snow. I put on every layer I brought and kissed my toes goodbye, because I only had my mesh La Sportiva trail runners for the approach. We cruised two and a half miles up a snow filled wash and I didn’t dare stop because my fast pulse was the only thing that kept my toes pink.
The author, Aidan Multhauf, hiking to Sister Superior (unseen), but Castleton is on the right and the Rectory is on the left.
View of Sister Superior (on the right).
Another half mile of skating up the icy talus and we made it. The tower was narrow, steep and bone dry. Something I’m starting to realize is that towers look large in photographs, and larger when seen at a distance. But standing at the bottom of Sister Superior, Danny and I agreed that the summit was not as far away as we had imagined. We geared up, threw on our dry climbing shoes, and played roshambo to decide who would take pitch one. Normally Jah Man, the route we were following, is a five pitch climb, however the pitches are quite short. We decided to link it up the usual five pitches in three using my 80 meter rope. The crux was now on pitch three and is rated a solid 5.10c. So who ever won roshambo would also get to take the crux pitch, an honor that most climbers fight over.
I ended up winning two out of the three rounds that we played and almost immediately started up. The first pitch had a small scramble off the ground that took me to a 70-foot tall chimney with just enough features to grab and cracks to protect to keep my smile glowing. Now perched on top of the two foot wide flake that made up the chimney’s summit, I was reminded of the exposure and it took me a long minute before I was situated in a comfortable enough position to belay Danny up to me.
Danny then set out to climb pitch two, but a dozen feet up on the tight hands splitter, he fell. Nothing big, but enough to remind him of the exposure below. Normally, Danny is a stronger climber than me, but mentality is a greater force than physical strength and I was still riding the high from pitch one. He handed pitch two’s lead to me, and after a technical crux and an easy roof, the climb simmered down to a 5.7 and I was able to move through it with ease.
Following the agreement we had made at the base, I would take pitch three as well. The start resembled the crux of pitch two, but the climb did not ease up nearly as quickly. I rounded a corner to find another 20 feet of tight hands splitter before a visible ledge. I did not allow myself to slow down because I was nearly out of gear and fatigue was setting in. The splitter was now taking .75 camalots, so my palm was only able to kiss the crack and I had to use all of my strength just to stay on the wall. A few feet away from the ledge and I decided I was too tired to force another hand jam. Instead, I stepped my feet up to my waste and lunged my left hand blindly at the lip.
Once above pitch three’s crux, I found two more significant feats before I was able to gain the summit. Both of them resembled boulder problems, the first a V1 and the second a V2. Normally this climbing wouldn’t be challenging for me, but hundreds of feet off the deck, I was a novice again. As I moved over each bulge, the freezing wind strengthened and my fear increased. I finally mounted the tower and felt the air push me from every direction, ultimately holding me completely still like a gargoyle perched on a church.
View from midway up the talus approach. Castleton: right, and Rectory: left.
When we climbed Castleton, there were probably 20 groups of climbers on just about every route between there and Sister Superior. But from the top of Jah Man, we saw that there was nobody else in sight; all that filled the valley was a deep blanket of snow. The summit is just large enough for a team of two to be comfortable, but with the blistering chill from the wind, we took a few glory photos and headed back down. We got to the base in three rappels, meandered our way back to the wash, and then back to the van. We cranked up the heat, stripped off our soaked socks, and grabbed Thai food in Moab just after the sunset. I scarfed down the vegetable curry as quickly as I could and hopped back in the van so we could squeeze in some much needed sleep before work the next morning.