The Castle Valley ridgeline is such a feature for me, so much so that you can see the photo on the header of this blog. A serpentine line of piled dirt and sand, the ridge is capped with five proud towers, jutting up the remains of a Chinese wall. It's an obvious and compelling objective, to traverse the length of the ridge, and to summit each tower along the way.
Last fall, with my frequent partner-in-sending, Blake, I made a jaunt out to Castle Valley to attempt the "Castle Valley Enchainment". Though normally adept at logistics, we punted on the first attempt, underestimating the difficulty of walking the ridgeline, planning on walking both out and back, and picking a late fall day that was both too short, too cold (in the morning), and too hot (in the afternoon). Having one gallon of cached water taken (by well meaning but unhelpful fellow climbers) didn't help either, and the day ended with both of us totally parched, trudging back to camp in the dark, having only sent three towers.
The initial failure, however, only increased my desire to return and try again. At first, I had thought it might be too easy, just a leisurely day of ridge walking and climbing, nothing challenging or memorable. But after being bouted royally, it was clear to me that this was a worthy goal.
So last week, with Blake in the passenger seat, and now a bike in the trunk, I sped over the Rocky Mountains, pointed west to the glorious red desert of Utah. We pulled into the mostly full Castleton camping area, and quickly threw down bivy gear and tried to get some good rest. Early the next morning, we took our time making coffee, frying breakfast burritos, and building up the psyche.
Blake maximizing the food-value of our "send-wiches" the night before the linkup
A full view of the ridge. From left to right: Convent, Sister Superior, The Priest and Rectory (overlapping in this shot), and Castleton.
A brisk uphill walk brought us to the first tower of the day: the Rectory. Though Castleton would be the logical first tower, the South-east facing route "Fine Jade" (5.11-) enticed us in the chilly morning. This route was not new to either of us, and we cruised up and down the three pitches of amazing crack climbing in about an hour. A short walk later, we were at the base of the "North Face of Castleton" (5.11-). Since I'd never been on it, Blake graciously offered me all the leads, and I savored the perfectly cut Wingate splitters, occasionally iced with Calcite edges. Again three pitches, this tower took maybe another hour, and we felt confident having established such a quick start.
The Priest, also new to me, was definitely a highlight. We chose the classic route "Honeymoon Chimney" (5.11-). Put up by the all-star team of Layton Kor, Fred Beckey, and Harvey T Carter, this unique route is more of a vertical spelunking expedition than a tower route. After a first pitch of wide laybacking, you enter the chasm in the heart of the tower, and proceed to chimney up most to the way, protected from the infinite Castle Valley exposure by massive walls of sandstone. Finally, on the last pitch you emerge for an airy crux move onto an arete, and the romp around the tower for an easy summit pitch.
After the Priest, we had the first major ridge crossing, which had drained us last fall. This time, though, the day was mostly overcast, and we were protected from the brutal desert sun. Using some interesting fixed lines fixed to big chunks of rebar, we descended onto the knife-edged ridge and ran across towards Sister Superior.
Another favorite route, "Jah-man" (5.10) was not new to either of us. This didn't stop us, though, from enjoying two amazing pitches of chimneys, handcracks, and the obligatory sandy top-out. Finally, we had four towers down, but the crux remained.
The first part of the crux was simply getting to the final "tower", the Convent. I'm not sure of the true definition of tower, and the Convent might actually be a mesa. It is perhaps a quarter mile long, and caps the north end of the Castle Ridge. The narrow and eroding bridge of dirt that connects Sister Superior to the Convent proved tricky, but the real slog was traversing under the entire bulk of the mesa, side-hilling on loose gravel and ball-bearings, constantly having to out-run gravity and the forces of erosion.
The route, "The Value of Audacity" (5.11++) would be final challenge. By far the hardest and least traveled of the routes, VoA features a massive roof on its first pitch. We had fortunately tried this last fall, so we had some idea of what we were up against. Blake led up first, re-sussing the sequence out the tiny underclings and crimps. A huge toss with the left hand gains a jug at the lip, but the feet are all but useless on the overhanging sandy wall below. Blake tries valiantly for a while, and then lowers back to the belay and we trade rope ends.
Benefiting from his beta, and my added 6" of reach, I gain the jug. Once there, though, I spend five minute trying to find the correct knee-bar position that will allow me to reach up and around into that tantalizing hand-crack. Finally as the pump-clock is about to expire, I get a perfect right leg knee bar, pivot around the lip, lock in the hand jam, and pull around into a welcome rest.
The remainder of the route is cruiser cracks, and we top out in two more pitches just as the sun nears the Western horizon. One more challenge: getting down! The previous fall, we'd had two 60m ropes, which made for an easy descent off the route to the left. This time, we opted to go light and bring just one 70m cord, and try an unknown descent to the right. After finding a more-or-less stable boulder to sling, we rapped onto a recently established (and bad-ass looking!) route "The Middle Way", and used two single bolt anchors to make the ground.
An easy romp down gravel ridges brought us to the road, and the bike that we had stashed the previous evening. A fully-loaded game of rock-paper-scissors determined that I should face the 7 mile ride back to our car. It was definitely worth it, though, because we'd sent the Castle Valley!
A compilation of our five summit photos