Climbing desert towers

The Colorado Plateau is the most colorful landscape on Earth. It boasts exquisite canyons, soaring natural bridges and arches, and, the lure for climbers, vertical pinnacles of every scale and description, from the majestic Titan and Monster Tower down to single-pitch humble hoodoos. For a hundred years, the colorful pinnacles of the Southwest have challenged and inspired an equally colorful cast of characters to try their luck at climbing these accidents of erosion.

The first desert tower to be climbed was Independence Monument, back in 1911 by John Otto, using burly iron pipes and a fearless (and rope-less!) determination. In 1939 when four climbers from San Francisco ascended Shiprock, in northern New Mexico. David Brower, Raffi Bedayn, Bestor Robinson and Johnny Dyer spent four days scaling this massive, 1,800-foot-tall, formation, using techniques and equipment that had never been used before for serious climbing. With the start of World War II, the same year, most climbing activity ceased. Many of the leading climbers of the day served in the elite Tenth Mountain Division, using their mountaineering skills to excellent effect during the long slog northward through the Italian mountains after the invasion of Italy.

During the war, in the drive to build tanks, planes and ships to help defeat the Japanese in the Pacific, the US government poured millions of dollars into California, creating a huge economic boom. The prosperity lingered long after the war had ended. By the mid-1950s, grateful adults enjoyed a comfortable, secure lifestyle, a wonderful improvement on the pre-war era. But a new generation of youngsters, blessed with wealth, security, leisure time and of course the famously pleasant California climate, wanted more.

More than 15 years after the Shiprock climb, some of these youngsters began a push to climb things that far exceeded in difficulty anything done before. Within the span of just six years, from 1956-1962, climbers from California climbed Spider Rock and the Totem Pole, sandstone formations far steeper and more intimidating that anything previously done. Fellow climbers from Colorado to visit and find their own previously unclimbed pinnacles—Castleton Tower, Dark Angel and North Six-shooter. The Colorado climbers moved on to ascend some of the most intimidating formations ever scaled by humans: The Titan, Cottontail, Standing Rock.

More people have stood on the summit of Mt Everest than on the summits of any of these three towers.

The most impossible-looking towers were now climbed, but many, many more existed, each with they own personalities, challenges and rewards.

And new, unclimbed towers exist to this day. Desert tower climbers are drawn by not only the climbing itself but the beauty of the landscapes and the wildness of the experience. And the unique thrill of standing on a summit never before touched by human feet, looking at a view never before seen by humans. As Stevie Haston says: "what need of Art when Nature is so exuberant"