Hatching May Flies billowed from the Colorado River in a desert snow storm. Our new friend Mark a local Ichthyologist was amazed at their numbers. Beez, a fast looking dog with endless energy, raced up and down the banks of the river snapping and twisting after the swarm of powder white bugs. Robyn and I sat with Heidi and her friend Ben nursing a cold growler of Moab Brewing Company Pale Ale as the evening sun lit up the red rimrock bluffs to our North. Ben pointed out some of his favorite rockclimbs, pinnacles and desert towers soaring up several hundred feet from the canyon floor. All Robyn and I could do was stare in awe – neither one of us had seen a landscape like this before.
“You guys should climb Owl Rock before you go. You can’t come to the desert without bagging a tower” Ben said. “I’ll give you doubles between #1 and #2, you guys will do awesome. Just turn right at Balanced Rock and drive a mile to an overlook. The route is right there, you can’t miss it!”
Robyn and I finished the growler and sat sporting underwear in lawn chairs as stars came out and the heat of the day’s sun lingered in the canyon. It was far to hot to sleep so I amused myself with long exposure shots on our camera. Only after the 5th or 6th car went by illuminating me standing on the side of the road in my underwear did it occur to me that I might actually be scaring the shit out of people.
I looked at the clock, 4AM and it was finally cool enough to fall asleep, just two hours later the alarm went off. If we were going to find this tower and make an ascent, we needed to get up early to beat the heat. Word-of-mouth directions and route descriptions led us to the base by 8AM and I found myself pulling on the starting holds of our first desert climb. Owl Rock is a one pitch 5.8 tower in Arches National Park. The tower rests on a relative high-point and although it can be done in one pitch the summit and exposure of the climb were quite surprising. The stone was red and smooth at first, but with a fine grained sand paper feel. The moves were between large bread loafs and hand jams to a perfect mushroom top summit. The view from the top was vast including several arches and red rock domes. The landscape here is so unique to us. Fields of cactus meet scrubby forests and river canyons streak away for miles lined with red rock cliffs.
We spent the remainder of the day touring the park before retreating from the heat back to the beach along the Colorado for a refreshing dip. Before arriving in Utah we had an idea we may like to climb at an area called Mill Creek. Essentially all we knew about Mill Creek was that it existed somewhere in Utah and was supposed to have amazing rock. Hand drawn map in my pocket we left Salt Lake, over the Wasatch and into the desert interior toward Moab. Driving to the desert when Salt Lake was hovering near 100F seemed like a death wish, but rumor had it that Mill Creek’s higher elevation and shaded slot canyon remained cool even when Moab was boiling.
After an exhausting drive we arrived at Mill Creek and proceeded to hike a half mile down the wrong canyon before catching a view of the crags the next drainage over. Bushwhacking our way to the top we fought briar patches and dusty cattle trails till our exposed arms and legs dripped with blood and stinging sweat. This mistake set the tone for our afternoon. The climbs at Mill Creek are held behind some mysterious veil for out-of-towners. Somewhere along our bushwhack we lost our hand drawn map to the briar bushes and were forced to navigate by vague descriptions and memories of online photos. The routes seemed hard, the air was muggy and bolts were used sparingly. In short, we were exhausted, flustered and intimidated. The climbing was beautiful, but ground-up onsight climbing was not to be taken lightly.
The following morning, rested and with no doubt where we needed to go, we felt much more relaxed. The morning temps were cooler, and we ran into a local who pointed us toward some tens and elevens to try along with this wisdom “When you know all the beta the routes can seem like 5.10, but if you don’t it seems fucking impossible.” With more realistic expectations akin more to trad climbing than sport climbing we set out and completed 3 excellent routes. The rock is minimally featured for large stretches broken up by flat crimps and occasional ladders of featured pockets.
Limited online research before arriving had Robyn and I drooling over a photo we had seen of a 5.11b/c route called “Ferns Have Feelings Too”. After a morning of confidence builders we were ready to step it up a notch, so I waited for a cloud to roll over before setting to it. A smeary dihedral led to a thin face up to some nice in-cut crimps and a small rest. High stepping and arching my back under an awkward bulge I felt the ground tugging at me from my precarious clipping stance. Safely clipped, I continued on to a better hold before the feet disappeared and I was forced into an off balance high step which put the kibosh on my onsight attempt. The day prior I would have finished the route off and brushed it aside, but with a bit more confidence and patience I pulled the rope, rested as Robyn worked the route, and sent it second go!
Robyn flashed our first two routes and cleanly top-roped a third before making some impressive links on Ferns. Feeling accomplished, we had regained our confidence and decided to celebrate with a shared Vincent car wash shower and a sampler from the Moab Brewing Company.
For an unexpected plunge into the desert unknown, our swing through Moab turned into one of the most enjoyable stops on the trip. The scenery was incredible, the access to recreation was top notch and the town was really just a pleasant place to hang out in. Moab had friendly people, a bustling but not overbearing main drag, a skatepark, ballpark, swimming pool, and Chinese food by the scoop! What else does a small town need? Our last day in town was spent touring Canyon Lands National Park and then catching a late movie to wait for cooler temps before setting out across the desert back to Salt Lake. With Maple Canyon ablaze and plans with friends changing left and right, our minds are again wandering to the next destination of our trip – Lander, Wyoming. One more weekend here with friends and it’s off to the wild west.