Ardbeg, Vaca & Beyond

Sunrise Valley of the Gods

February 2013. Too many breezes around the cabin door.

Cold ones, too! It had been a hard, freezing winter around Moab. The Colorado River was as solid as I'd ever seen it. The town was silent, as if catching its breath before the next spring's onslaught of tourists and ATVs. I love Moab in midwinter; it reminds of how things had been back in the 80s. But, it was awful cold.  

Frozen Colorado River

We wanted to climb, Chip Wilson and I. We drove south, and south some more, searching for somewhere warmer and even more deserted:

Monument Valley in winter

Well, OK, not that far south. Not quite. We stopped in Blanding for gas. The dinosaur, delighted that gas was selling at over 3.5 bucks a gallon, was dancing:


Sinclair Dino sculpture

Then on to the Valley of the Gods, where we camped amid a smothering stillness so profound the very rocks seemed alive, in subtle motion as the sun's shadows slithered across the desert.


Valley of Gods Spires evening

In the heart of the Valley lies Eagle Plume Tower, the biggest, coolest tower for miles and just what we had our eyes on. Yeah! To spend time here to experience the slow unraveling of stress and time, silent minute by silent minute.


There was an unclimbed line on the south-southwest aspect. This line was Chip's idea and we'd had been eyeing it up for a several years, staring through binoculars, marveling at how, if the sun was just right, parts of the route looked just feasible and if the light were wrong, appearing blank. We hiked in. At the base was some old, stupid graffiti (WTF Nate?), but never mind. Nate was not far wrong, though what he had found did not need to be spelled out for the next visitor. Chip got busy on the first pitch. For hours and hours. All day, really, throwing down rocks, inching his way up the cliff.

Art Dog and graffiti

Poor Art-dog was worried.

Art Dog close up

Next day my second pitch turned out to be easy except for the last few feet, a traverse under a roof. It had appeared hard from below and we expected to place a couple bolts but instead a hook on a flake held, followed by what looked like a good Birdbeak. Except the Beak crumpled. As did a Tomahawk. Damn. The seam was just 3/4" deep. I'd heard that Peckers were tempered harder, so tried one. Useless: folded over, again. Three pins ruined, so far. I almost called for the drill. I tried one more Tomahawk, this time tapped more gently and precisely and it—just—held!


I eased onto it, began breathing again. Next? Nothing. Except fear, as I was farther away from the dihedral, looking at slamming back into it if things went south. Maybe an upside-down knifeblade under the roof? I picked out a knifeblade, painted sky blue. The blue was important. This was not just any knifeblade, but one that had arrived in a box from Ron "Santa Claus" Olevsky, rescued from the Kyle Copeland Collection. Kyle, long ago, had told me he was aficionado of knifeblade cracks. He'd have smiled at this placement. Ron, hardcore proponent of clean aid, maybe not so much. Next I hand-placed a baby angle behind a flake, slithered left to a foot-ledge, relaxed and placed a de-luxe two-bolt belay from where I could lean back and heckle Chip as he cleaned.


Chip clean p2 traverse

The next pitch was the crux. That was clear from the ground. Through binoculars we had spied not much, and had imagined all kinds of slow, scary beaking shenanigans. In the event, this pitch went really well, with Chip galloping up a splitter crack for 70 feet then lurching left under an overhang to another crack. My turn came and cleaning went embarrassingly fast, the “splitter” crack being flared and fragile, some of his pitons falling out under my weight. And the traverse was frightening: Chip had done real well, stacking half-placed Leepers, indulging in all sorts of trickery....


Chip Lead p3 lean out

The next, and final, pitch was mine. A couple moves up vertical rubble were followed by a splitter, Toucan crack. This time, cleaning went embarrassingly slowly....

Chip clean p4

We scrambled to the summit, where we found a parade of precariously balanced refrigerators. Among them we found Bill Forrest's original register, from 1976.

Forrest orange bag

Forrest business card

Bill Russell name register 

Rob Slater register entry

There was, it turned out, a second register, at the other end of the summit. Placed by Mike Gruber and far easier to spot, this had kind of taken over.  There had been about 30-40 ascents, so far, of Eagle Plume Tower. For me and Chip, this was our second ascent of this formation, both times by new routes, 26 years apart.

Summit selfie

Summit Chip 1987

We stayed on top for a long time. Twenty-six years earlier, we had energetically trundled huge boulders from the summit. This time round there was no need for that. We simply lingered, taking it all in.