Back in 1990, when I was a new to Moab, I wrote this story about a rock climbing experience that I had in Arches Nat’l Park. Sadly, the names of the people in the story, my friends’ Kyle Copeland, Mark Bebie, and Charlie Fowler, have all passed on. My friend Sue Kemp helped me edit this many years back, and get it ready for publication in the now defunct magazine “Mountain”. I decided at a later point, to not submit the story, and it has been shelved ever since. This is it’s first public appearance ever. Sue also gave up the ghost a few years back.
RIP my friends…
TALES OF BABEL
It is a land free of disease.. It’s taste is of sweetness, not bitter. It’s ancient varnish gleams like rust, redeeming it’s own relic nature. Nowhere is there a place like it. Tower’s and mesa’s touch the heavens’, reaching, searching, wandering.. solidified cathedrals of ancient sands, now standing and waiting to fall, split only by flawless vertical fractures, perfect and parallel, toward the Great Sky.
Sunday morning, a crack of noon start, a religious pilgrimage to the Main Street Broiler in Moab, to fill my lethargic body with life giving caffeine, slaps me into noticing what a fine day it is for desert climbing.
I leave the Broiler, strolling through town enroute to Kyle’s house in hopes of a day of craggin’. No avail; I approach his doorstep, but suddenly remember all too well he is out of town for a couple of weeks. But there is a note stuck to the door from yet another friend:
“Splibb, I got to town the other day, but couldn’t find you to do Zenyatta, so I’m on it solo.. Should be off it in a couple days, maybe Sunday afternoon.” – Mark
I guess Mark knew well enough how to get a message to me, but I wish he’d found me in time. In this red desert, the cracks are sometimes surgically perfect, or the quality of the rock often resembling sugar or mud, forming towers that make you wonder why they still stand as you look at them. The Tower of Babel in Arches Nat’l Parking Lot, is one such tower. Though not truly a tower at all, really, it sports 6 pitch walls, 1500 feet across, that come to narrow, square cut buttresses at either end. Although it doesn’t appear to be falling down, when climbing upon it’s super soft Entrada Sandstone, one may envision it melting away with the coming of a heavy rain. It’s most classic route, Zenyatta Entrada, put up by Charlie Fowler in 1986, is a line of all lines that bisects the fin-like southwest buttress. It’s name mimicking a longer, once desperate nailup on a bigger stone further west.
“Shit!” it thought, it’s Sunday afternoon already, I’m too late. “Might at least catch the final act of the show.” With binoculars and gear, I race to Arches in hopes of catching him before he splits. As I pull off the road, I see him even before I exit the van; he is plastered to the final A4 pitch like a slow, mutant lizard in the hot desert sun. I watch through binoculars, gripped for him as he finishes and cleans the pitch. Once done, I scream to him to meet me at the Rio for suds and celebration.
Later, at the pub, I tell him that I really want to bag Zenyatta, but now, minus a partner, it would have to be given the same treatment he’d given it: solo. Mark ponders the last couple of days a bit and remarks, “Zenyatta hasn’t seen many ascents, so it’s not totally beaten out. It’s still plenty scary, with soft nailing and some super dicey nutting; just funky enough to be exciting!”
Leaving the pub in a rather poisoned stupor, I went home to fall into a deep, hazy sleep, with Zenyatta filling my mind as I hit the pillow. I awake, not hungover, but psyched for what lay ahead.
Moab is a place where the world can, at times, seem to pass by unnoticed, a continuing saga of the desert and it’s ancient past. The people that live there are as much a part of the gleaming red rocks and the shrub covered landscape. They survive the unbearably hot summers and the cold, unemployed winters because they belong there. This is where their souls exist.
A lengthy trip through town to acquire the necessities dulled my senses. With mark’s gear beta in hand, I set off to collect what I lacked in the iron department, plus stops at Rim Cyclery to pick up a new lead rope, Pemican Bars from the Co-Op, and a brief visit to Matrimony Springs to fill my bottles, put me at the base by noon.
The first three pitches flew by rather quickly and with surprising ease; an intricate mixture of nailing and nutting in a perfect knifeblade sized crack system that shot directly toward they summit, interrupted only by two short traverses that were cruxes.
This route lies “Where a drop of water will fall from the summit”. Who said that any way? The top of the third pitch, it’s getting late, so I decide to fix and rap. I scan the Canyonlands skyline, burning hot and red, a land time and humankind has left alone. It’s hostile beauty surrounded by three great mountain ranges, The Abajos, The La Sals, and The Henry mountains, as if left there to protect it’s hidden wealth of fortune and splendor.
I drive back to Moab in my archaic van in search of shower, suds, and Mark. Two out of three were all I found, as Mark has left for Seattle to prepare for an expedition to climb a new route in the Karakoram. “Lucky bastard”, I think, yet I know of the magnificence that lie right here.
Jumaring up fixed lines in the morning, I’m happy I’ll be on top by dusk, if all goes well; satisfied in knowing that yet another dessert tower is in The Bag. The next pitch, one of the route’s cruxes, is like an interminable disease. My mind is fighting me in this stretching traverse of tied off knifeblades and strangely stacked leeper’s. Sixty feet of horror puts me to a few bad RP placements, and and one crumbling hook, earns me a perfect #1-1/2 Friend crack, that, were it right off the ground, would be one primo 5.11+ free climb. Soloing with clove hitches sees me aiding past with ease. I polish off the last 20 feet and clip the belay. Relief washes over me. It’s over, only 3 1/2 hours after starting.
I rap, clean, and jumar, trying to get psyched for the next pitch – an A3 nailing corner capped by a large roof leading to yet another crux traverse. Sliding up the corner, glibly dabbling in sideways lost arrows, the roof above somehow plants the seed of fear in my soul. Ten feet below the roof,the only thing I can get in is a shitty #1 RP with it’s wires badly frayed from repeated sloppy removals. I test it and the wires snap, leaving the “opportunity” for a more creative placement: a leper hook in the back of blown out pin scar. A Bird Beak and some other nebulous bullshit finds my aiders clipped to a drilled pin, half sticking out, beneath the five foot roof. Once out the roof, the only placement in sight is a perfectly bottomed out, 1″ deep hole. I fire in a 2″ bong, tie it off, and start bouncing it. Seeming do-able, I get on it, realizing all too well the rope now lies it’s course over the outside edge of the dihedral. Sweating bullets and filled with terror, I understood it’s implications; I have no choice. Reaching eye level with the bong, I am catapult into the atmosphere like a reject astronaut, rocketing straight towards hell and the scorching desert floor.
Enough slack in the system allows me to drop 25 feet before the rope begins to come tight. As it does, I hear the sound of death, the sound of rope being sawed, the sounds of threads and fibers being ripped apart. Flying around the back side of the moon and back, I look up to see if I’d been spared or not. A 6″ section of utterly mangled rope was all that kept me from becoming a part of the talus below.
Adrenaline shoots painfully through my body as I tie the rappel line to every placement in the corner I can find. Only then do I gingerly begin to jumar the wretched rope and onto the marginal safety beyond the cut.
Once there, a quick examination reveals less than 1/3 of my new ropes core still intact!! I’d had enough. At the drilled pin that held my fall, I drill another next to it and decide to rap. So much for that.
Driving back to Moab, I begin to fully respect the seriousness of the testpieces found elsewhere on the Tower of Babel; the Jim Beyer nightmares put up just a couple of years back, in the late 80’s.
For the next two weeks, I didn’t climb at all. Only when another friend from Seattle, Lee Cunninham, shows up and talks me into doing Standing Rock in Monument Basin, did my interest spark again. Driving to Grandview Point, in Canyonlands, my thoughts were excited, but my memory still fresh with Zenyatta. After downclimbing 1000 feet of 4th class chose, we crossed the White Rim and made a short rappel into Monument Basin.
Standing Rock is one of those towers that seems as though it could topple if the wind blew hard enough: a 400 foot totem of Cutler Sandstone that is, at best, 35 feet thick; a toothpick.
We fix the first pitch and bivy at the base under the spring desert sky. On the summit by ten o’clock the next morning, we are delighted to find that ours is only the 16th ascent in 20 years.
Filled with an enlightened feeling of beauty and obscurity from climbing in this spiritual place, we hiked backed to the car in 95 degree heat, lusting for the warm beer stashed in the trunk. We knew why we climbed here and why so many did not. There is no fooling anybody in Canyonlands, where the climbing and the environment seem more real to me than any other place on earth.
Every time I drive past the Tower of Babel, I see it smiling at me, giving me the finger as I hurry past, yet I know I’ll return to this place time and time again, for when life’s bizarre scenarios seem like a wasted hell, the red rocks whisper to me, telling me that it really doesn’t matter.