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Adventures on the Titan


 

by John Peterson

December 29, 2001

Every climber should have a hero. Back in the 70's there were lots of good candidates: Royal Robbins, Pat Ament, Ghastly Rubberfoot (as my old climbing instructor called him), and many others but mine was Kor. Two things set him apart from the others: his drive to climb (instead to talk about climbing!) and the places he climbed. Layton climbed everywhere - just about any area or route in Colorado back then was one of his. One of the games climbers play is getting to the top: going places nobody else can go. The sandstone of the desert southwest is where this game is reduced to its essentials: you see some impossible chunk of sandstone and get to the top by any means possible. Gotta climb it while it's still there. Before I started climbing, I read the National Geographic article about Kor on the Titan: `We Climbed Utah's Skyscraper Rock'. Even then I knew I wanted to climb it too.

The Titan is an amazing piece of rock. Along with the other fantasticly shaped summits of the Fisher Towers, it towers over the Colorado River just east of Moab. A hiking trail leads through a maze of spires to the base of the tallest one: the Titan. The rock of Fishers Towers is unique. At the core, it is a relatively hard (for the desert) sandstone, much better than Standing Rock or some of the wild spires on the Navaho reservation. Covering the rock is a thick coat of mud and sand, constantly refreshed by each passing storm. This rock has been eroded into bizarre Gothic shapes with towers, spires, buttresses, and fingers everywhere. The texture is unique: unlike the sharp lines of Monument Valley or Castleton tower, every surface is grooved and fluted; every corner is rounded.

The publication of the `50 classic climbs' (a very dubious list!) demystified the route on the Titan. I had moved to Salt Lake City and it was time to follow in my hero's footsteps: on to the Titan!

November '81: Mark

Mark Bradakis was one of the few rock climbers in the CS department when I first arrived. Not knowing too much about the Titan, he foolishly agreed to join me on my first attempt. I had caught Mark at a vulnerable time: he had just divorced his wife and was probably feeling suicidal. He agreed to spend his Thanksgiving attempting the Titan.

We arrived loaded down with tons of gear. We brought 4 ropes to fix lines, lots of nuts and my old pin collection. After toiling up the trail, we started looking for the climb. After scouting around a while, we found a route up to the saddle which separates the Titan from the main cliff. The route rose above us: discontinuous cracks led up a wall toward the finger of fate, a thumb about 300 feet below the summit of the Titan. Four belay anchors could be seen along the cracks although it was only 300 feet to their top.

Mark graciously allowed me to take the first lead. Starting up, I was able to free climb the first 20 feet. Then, the wall steepened and it was time to start aiding. Back in the days of my youth I had done a fair amount of aid climbing (as did my hero); this was relatively easy. Good cracks got me up to the second belay stance with little trouble. Mark followed on jumars, cleaning as he went. Belaying on the Titan is rather unpleasant: a constant stream of sand and pebbles cascade down from the leader. We found that the route gets absolutely no sun in the winter (and very little in the summer); Mark was rather cold. Reaching the belay, he suggested I should take the next lead.

The climbing gets a bit harder at this point. The cracks pinch off in many places, leaving only the holes where Layton had managed to drive pins into a nearly non-existant seam. These holes were now usually about the size of large angles although they were originally made by knifeblades. They were also distressingly far apart. Fortunately, I'm an inch taller than Layton so it wasn't too bad. The next pitch went fairly fast and we arrived at the base of the third pitch. Again, Mark was not excited about leading so up I went. At this point, the crack is almost completely gone, forcing the leader to climb from hole to hole. Although this sounds easy, the pin usually bottoms out. As you stand in the top rung trying to reach the next hole, you always seem to feel the pin you are standing on slowly slide out of its hole. About halfway up I reached a bolt (placed by someone without the necessary reach). I was growing dark rapidly so we abandoned out gear and rapped off. November is really not the time to do this climb - the weather is cold and the days are too short.

The next morning we trudged back and reestablished ourselves. Upon reaching the top belay, I asked Mark `up or down?'. He replied `down', ending my first effort. Mark never wanted to return. One biner lost. Score: Titan 1, Me 0.

October '86: Dave

Dave Youkie was one of the first climbers I met when I moved to Arizona. Dave was a fellow wild man: he was willing to try anything. This sort of gullibility is bound to get a climber into trouble and in October of 86 we made the long drive from Tucson to Moab. Dave had never done aid before but this didn't bother him. This time I knew what to bring and where to go; we reached the start of the route early. Swinging leads, we spent the day getting to the base of the finger of fate. Dave was a little slow on aid, but learned fast. His biggest problem was lack of reach, but he was able to get up anyway.

At the base of the finger is the first non-hanging belay of the climb. A small ledge with numerous dubious looking anchors marked the place where the route traverses right on bolts and then climbs into the notch behind the finger. We decided that this was a good stopping point and rapped down, leaving all our gear for the next day. As we climbed, we noticed clouds building to the west. That night the wind began to blow, almost blowing out tent out of the parking lot. Near morning it began to rain, harder and harder. The next morning was miserable. There was no question of climbing - this was a downpour. This isn't supposed to happen - this is the desert! We spent the day driving around the slickrock watching the tremendous waterfalls that had developed in the pouring rain. Every gully had a torrent of water; every cliff had a waterfall. The scenery was incredible, but all we could think about was out gear (just about everything we owned!) sitting on the Titan. Than night, we were soaked so we crashed at a cheesy Moab motel. The next morning, we got up and ran to the window: no more rain! It was snowing!! We had no choice - I had to be back to Tucson the next day. We trudged up to the climb wading through over a foot of snow in places. Our feet were freezing; the trail to the base of the climb was hairy. When we finally arrived at our ropes we found them completely encased in ice. Our jumars slid freely, their teeth filled with snow and mud. After scaring myself to death getting 5 feet up the rope we decided to give up. We would rather return next week and finish the climb instead of climbing 300 feet of icy ropes. We said goodbye to just about every bit of climbing gear we owned and headed back to Tucson.

The next Friday Dave and I started again on the 12 hour drive to Moab, playing endless games of trivial pursuit. All signs of snow were gone - the desert had returned to normal. The next morning we arose before dawn and were at the base of the route just after sunrise. Our gear was still there (whew!) and the ropes looked fine, although a little sandy. We quickly jumared up and started up the next pitch. Dave led. This was our first real encounter with the original Kor bolts. These had funky homebrew hangers and looked decidedly fragile. After a horrifying traverse right on a couple of these dubious bolts, Dave had to reach over a bulge and tap in the tip on an angle. After gingerly stepping up on it, he was in an easy chimney behind the finger. This led up to a nice stance at the notch behind the finger. The climb changes noticably here. Instead of climbing a vertical wall, you are on the crest of a ridge leading up to the summit. Except for occasional walls, the climbing is usually less than vertical and real ledges appear at the belays. On the advice of the 50 crowded (oddly enough, this one isn't too crowded!) we leave a rope across the traverse for retreat. The next pitch is nice mixed free and aid and leads to another good ledge. Dave then led an easy (but scary) free pitch which traverses around a tower to the bivy ledge. We have no intention of bivouacing - we're going to bag this before the day is over. The next pitch starts with a tricky move up to a short pin filled crack (the rock can't be that soft if there's fixed pins!). After the top of the crack, the climb follows the exposed summit ridge. No more cracks till the summit overhang - it's all bolts. The exposure is tremendous - 700 feet on the left and probably 800 on the right. The second bolt is mysteriously missing - fortunately(?) someone has left an old angle with the tip driven into the bolt hole. Terrified, I step up to the next bolt as fast as possible. A few more bolts lead to the belay: a doormat sized ledge in the wildest setting imaginable. The anchor is an old Kor bolt and a couple of drilled angles which don't inspire much confidence.

Dave soon arrives and looks at the next pitch. He generously offers it to me but I politely decline. It starts with a bit of free climbing, them another antique bolt. Above the bolt is a mystery. We see another bolt about 10 feet higher but nothing in between. I prod Dave to go take a look. Standing in his top rung, he sees no cracks or bolts. Hmmm - what did Layton do here? After fiddling around for a while, Dave decides to free climb a little. A small ledge is just out of reach. Dave bravely steps out of his stirrups onto the sandy rock. He works up, getting his hands on the small ledge. As he begins to pull up, suddenly the ledge crumbles. I have no time to react - suddenly Dave is flying through space. The Kor bolt barely tightens the rope before it pops. Everything is on the anchor. Dave flies by and I stare at the anchor, wondering how old those pins are. Suddenly, the rope tightens and Dave is swinging about 20 feet below after falling almost 40 feet through space. I look down and ask if he's OK. He's shaken but alright.

"Dave, we go down now. OK?"
"OK!"

We have no bolt kit, so there's not much choice anyway. We rap the now tested anchors to the bivi ledge, then reverse the traverse on the free pitch. Then down to the notch behind the finger. Using our fixed rope, we manage to reverse the next pitch but are not having fun. Finally, two long raps and we're down. It's almost dark and we're exhausted. I have a brilliant idea: I'll lower Dave and all the gear off the other side of the saddle down to the trail, saving almost a mile of hiking. Dave agrees and off he goes. Halfway down we realize it's more than 150' so I get Dave to wait on a tiny ledge while I tie on another rope. Finally he hits the trail; I hike around and join him. The next day we visit Indian Creek and cower up a 5.8 before we realize just how wasted, both mentally and physically, we are. Dave may still have a `go for it' attitude, but that no longer includes the Titan. He gets to keep Layton's bolt. Score: Titan 2, Me 0.

July '88: Jim

The Lisp conference is in Snowbird this year so I head back to Utah. After climbing some old familiar routes in Little Cottonwood (and getting my car nearly totalled) the conference is over and we head for Moab in a rented car. I've managed to dig up yet another willing partner. I've only climbed with Jim a few times but he is highly regarded by another partner of mine. Jim had left Tucson to seek fame and fortune in Telluride. He also has a `go for it' attitude (definitely necessary on this route!) and actually has some wall experience: he had done Half Dome a few years ago. However, Jim's big thing is expeditions. He's been to G-IV and is in tremendous physical shape. We plan to do the whole thing in one day. I've got the route wired and know just how much rack to bring (lots of those 1.5 inch angles!). We're on the rock right at sunrise and cruise up. Jim really isn't that fast on aid but we're doing OK. Up the wall, around the finger, up to the bivi ledge. As I climb I notice I'm not feeling too good - maybe I'm dehydrated. Anyway, I lead above the bivi ledge knowing Jim is going to save my butt and get us up that last pitch. Someone has been up replacing bolts - two shiny bolts have replaced the angle and the bolt Dave pulled. Unknown to me, Jim decides to leave our pack at the bivi ledge when he follows. Arriving at the belay, he, as expected, generously offers me the lead. Sorry, Jim, the honor is yours. Go for the glory. I still have no clue what to do above the first bolt - the pitch looks the same as when Dave fell. Jim goes up to stand on the new, shiny bolt and sees nothing. Foo. After he steps down, I go up for a look. At this point I realize I'm really not feeling too hot. As much as I want to finally bag the climb, I just can't seem to do anything. I step down and talk with Jim. We have a bolt kit but he left it in the pack on the bivi ledge. He doesn't even want to stand on the bolt again - he's had enough. Damn. Nowhere to go but down. We rap down just past the bivi ledge and arrive at a rap anchor Dave & I had seen previously. It appears to go straight down without those stupid traverses so we go for it. Sure enough, another anchor appears just before the rope ends. I'm so wasted I can barely feed the rope through my brake system but I figure it's dehydration. One more rap and we're down. Well, not really. We land on a rubble covered ledge 30' up. The only anchor is an antique piton driven into a non-existent crack with an old sling. No cracks anywhere. I had seen this anchor on the climb up and wondered how it got there. Well, there was no choice - we had to trust it (I was too wasted to think about a bolt). It was only 30 feet and it's SOFT rock, right? Easy landings! Well, the pin holds and we're down. Not even dark yet. I eat and drink and start to feel a little better. Jim wants to get going. He doesn't hike - he runs. Gotta keep in shape. We divide the gear - probably 50 pounds apiece. He says `see you!' and disappears. About 5 minutes later I figure out than I'm not healthy. I feel awful. I can barely move. Since Jim is way gone, there's nothing to do but stagger down. It seemed to take hours to get down. I kept hearing voices but nobody came. I think I see my 6 month old kid crawling up the trail to take my pack. Finally I stagger to the car to find Jim sipping a beer while my wife fixes him dinner.

It took me a couple of days to recover - some sort of stomache flu. Jim heads back - he's had enough of the Titan for one lifetime. We arrive in SLC to find a message - our condo's been broken into and ransacked. Oh well. Score: Me 0, Titan 3.

Well, it's not easy having Layton as my hero. Now than I'm in New Haven it's rather hard to get back and try again. My wife thinks I'm crazy. Dave is willing to do Half Dome but not the Titan again. But hey - I'm going to get up that thing someday. Maybe my kid will be a climber.



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