Towering challenges

On summiting, and saving, the desert

One of the RS 2477 claimed roads.
Elizabeth Miller | Boulder Weekly

When water washed away the red sandstone of the Colorado Plateau, it left the improbable spires of rust-colored rock, fingers flipping off the over-baking sun and the sand-spitting wind and the improvised protection the climbers who lusted after the tops of those towers would have to rely on in pursuit of a summit.

It’s these spires that Steve “Crusher” Bartlett explores in his book, Desert Towers: Fat Cat Summits and Kitty Litter Rock, a historic tome loaded with images to twang the imaginations of any climber who loves to lock hands with splitter cracks. Desert Towers chronicles almost a century of climbers laboring their way up precarious stacks of sandstone, drawing from around a hundred interviews and submitted photos and essays. The narrative arch stretches from John Otto’s first ascent of western Colorado’s Independence Monument in 1911 up to the 2008 ascent of what may have been one of the last sizeable, steep-on-all-sides tower in the Colorado Plateau. He tried to bring it all to life, Bartlett says, from the hemp ropes and Z pitons to Wild Country’s 1978 invention of the “Friend,” the camming device that made it possible to protect far more climbs and put a lot more people in the desert — including Bartlett.

“I thought that the history of climbing the towers of the Colorado Plateau is unique. It’s a very unique thing because it’s just confined to that one area, but it’s also a microcosm of the entire climbing universe. You have to start from the bottom. You’re going to be faced with God knows what kind of challenges between where you are and the summit, and there’s no way of finding out what those challenges are without actually launching upwards and hoping for the best,” he says. “If you are on the top of a tower after doing the first ascent of that tower, it’s a fantastic feeling because where you are is somewhere no one has ever been before, no one has ever seen what you can see from the top of that tower, no one has ever seen that view before, no one has ever stepped on that same bit of rock or that same bit of dirt, and that’s a rare thing in this day and age.”

Bartlett had been mulling the concept of the book for years, he says, before he found himself on the top of Colossus, 400 feet of Entrada sandstone near Bryce Canyon. It took four visits over several months, exploring various routes, to find one that led to the top.

“When I got to the top, I just felt a sense of being completely exhausted, completely wiped out, and I started to wonder if maybe I should put my energies toward something different, rather than just doing one tower after another,” Bartlett says. “That was one of the things that really galvanized me to try to put together a history, a book.”

In three years of full-time work, preceded by unknown numbers of hours of work on weekends and evenings, he put together a book that went on to win best book in mountaineering history at the 2011 Banff Mountain Film Festival.

“People seem to really like it,” he says. “What more could you ask for from a book, that people who are interested, involved — the people who care, that they liked it. That’s great.”

Beyond the history, the book captures the spirit of what it meant to be a climber in an era in which climbing was far more dangerous and climbers had to be vastly more enterprising.

“The idea of starting at the bottom of a climb with no real idea of what you’re going to find and just getting to a specific summit, that has gone by the wayside over the years,” Bartlett says. “People start climbing in a climbing gym now, so what they learn in the gym is very much the sport climbing ethic — clipping bolts, lowering off and just doing hard technical climbs with no element of risk or uncertainty or route finding. There are a lot of people who climb in the gym who go sport climbing, who’d actually love to climb more adventurous things, but they’re not prepared mentally to tackle really adventurous, demanding climbs where there are no bolts and there’s some uncertainty about what’s going on — the rock might be unstable, the protection might not be very good. It’s a huge leap from what you can learn in the gym or what you can learn on a sport climb to tackling hard desert climbs.”

Bartlett still has a to-do list of towers to climb. Where? He’s not telling.

“I don’t really know what the future holds for the Colorado Plateau for the sport of climbing desert towers,” Bartlett says. “I hope I maybe inspire people to go out there and explore the place for themselves. And if it turns out that before too long there are not many desert towers left to be done because they’ve all been climbed already, at least I’ve done something to bring to life the stories, the pictures from the first ascents so people can see what it was like back in the day when the desert was empty, vacant, nobody knew what was there. When it was a huge adventure.”

On May 17, Bartlett will speak at Neptune Mountaineering on the responsibility that falls to those of us who treat Utah as a favorite destination: protecting our playground. For as long as the man who has summited 130 towers, 30 of them first ascents, has been climbing Entrada and Wingate sandstone, people have been fighting to protect those wilderness areas and the experiences only that hard-bitten landscape can offer. They’re working to preserve as much of that empty landscape in pristine condition for other adventurers, whether they’re enjoying it from atop its towers or sunken into its canyons.

The quarrel over which lands and how many acres of it should be protected dates to the Bureau of Land Management’s inventory of roadless areas, completed in Utah in 1980. Their survey came back with 2.4 million acres suitable to be designated as wilderness areas (the Interior Board of Land Appeals later ruled this inadequate, and the acreage was increased to 3.2 million acres). Citizen conservation groups completed a fieldwork survey — based on the BLM criteria — and came back with 5.7 million acres to be protected based, according to the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA, a coalition of those conservation groups). Today, SUWA and other conservation organizations around the country are still trying to see those lands protected.

“The goal has been the same for the past 25, 30 years — it’s the same lands, but we keep having to change our approach because the political climate changes and we have to adapt to that,” says Arnaud Dumont, with Coloradans for Utah Wilderness (ColorUWild). “What we’re trying to protect deserves to be protected, and it’s just a matter of finding the political will or the mechanism to do so.”

ColorUWild is one of about 35 state-specific organizations, some as far away as Maine and Florida, that advocate for protecting Utah’s wilderness, according to Dumont.

Given the political climate, the strategy for protecting the areas has changed from pushing one big wilderness bill, America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act, through Congress to trying to get the attention of the executive branch.

“We’re putting pressure on the Obama administration to designate national monuments around the Canyonlands area,” Dumont says. “That’s something that the president can do with the stroke of a pen.”

The best way to protect ecosystems — and the desert holds many diverse ones — is in large roadless areas, and protecting them now is the only way to ensure there will be anything to enjoy in the decades to come. A road destroys more than a few cacti in its wake. The federal act that created wilderness areas in 1964 defines wilderness as “an area untrammeled by man.”

“If there’s a road through there or a building or a radio tower or a dam, then it can’t be wilderness. It’s no longer pristine,” Dumont says.

So, the state of Utah is arguing that the roads already exist, and using a legal loophole, RS 2477, dating to the 1860s to claim 25,184 roads that need to be maintained. The evidence from the ground would be laughable if it were not so sad — the “roads” are at times downright invisible. A map of what the state government submitted as rights of way looks as though a plate of spaghetti has been dropped over Utah. They’ve claimed every inch manageable, and will by tying up tax dollars litigating those claims in court.

“[The BLM] pretty much put everything they could find in a map,” says Neal Clark, an attorney with SUWA. “Sometimes you can’t even find them.”

It’s in the name of extractive industries. Below Utah’s desert, oil and gas deposits wait. But Dumont argues the math doesn’t work. In all of the lands proposed for wilderness protection, the oil that could be extracted given current technology — discarding whether it’s financially viable — would satisfy U.S. demand for four days, and the natural gas would provide for four weeks, he says, drawing numbers from the Utah Department of Natural Resources.

“It’s not a whole lot. It’s not going to change the dynamic and our dependence on Mideast oil,” he says. “But it would change those landscapes forever.”

The economic benefits of maintaining the landscape for tourism, though, are undisputable. SUWA reports the outdoor industry contributes $6 billion annually to Utah’s economy. The counties neighboring federal lands were some of the only counties that saw growth through the recession, Dumont says, and tourism in the areas has seen steady growth, rather than the boom and bust cycles oil and gas companies are known for.

The task falls to Coloradans to push for protections in Utah — to use the dollars spent and the interest in this purple state’s voters to push for protection.

“We’re animals not too many generations back, and we have evolved to be in nature. We get things form being in nature that we just don’t get from being in cars and buildings and houses,” he says. “We’ve put our handprint on so many things in this world, we should keep a few places intact where we haven’t molded it to our expectation and substantially changed it.”

Visit the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance website for more information on the oil and gas industry’s presence in Utah and photos from and a map of the RS2477 claims.

IF YOU GO: Cliffs, Canyons & Climbers, featuring Lynn Hill
and Steve “Crusher” Bartlett 8 p.m. May 17 Neptune Mountaineering 633
S. Broadway, Suite A, Boulder