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North Six Shooter


by Bill Grasse

February 04, 2003

Many people rarely get the chance to do something that can have the possibility of death and the assurance of adventure. Climbers, on the other hand, do this on a regular basis. Diving into situations that require attentiveness, strength and guts in order to come out successful and alive. This is the story of what it is like to be in one of the possibly serious situations that climbers get themselves into all of the time. The tower is called North Six Shooter and its located forty minutes south of the Utah climbing town of Moab. By technical definition a tower is a freestanding rock that usually requires climbing to get to the top. Not only is there a chance of things going wrong but also the possibility of getting stuck since getting up is only half of the battle. Despite the fear involved, a buddy Josh and I have been climbing for a few years and North Six Shooter has always been on our tick lists. So, one weekend in late October of 2002, we decided to try to climb it. As you will soon learn that is not always an easy venture.

On the morning of the climb we woke up at about 8am and were driving to the trail soon after. We left the car at about 9am and lost the faint climber's trail around 9:05am. So we were off to a dismal start. The base of the tower is only reached after about three miles of what ended up to be bush whacking and a climb up six hundred feet of a talus cone with a thirty-pound pack. At around 11am we reached the base of the talus cone and decided to make our own way up; we didn't reach the base of the tower until noon.

Off to a late start but too far to turn back now; we were conveniently ignorant of the possibility of running out of light. Though the tower is only three pitches or three rope lengths, about 350 feet, it's close to the limit of our ability. Under the Yosemite decimal system it receives a grade of 5.11, my or Josh's hardest lead on this style of climbing (crack climbing) was 5.10+.

As I started to lead the first pitch, which supposedly was the crux or hardest part of the route, I felt surprisingly strong. Forty feet and twenty minutes later that was most definitely not the case. I was fighting to keep my self on and scared of the one thing that climbers dread the most, falling.

In this type of climbing the climber ascends a crack and places cams, which are devices that expand when weight or force is applied the proper part of the device. That is the part if the device that the climber's rope is connected to and in the event of a fall the force is applied to. The force of expansion is usually what arrests the climber's fall but these only work around ninety five percent of the time. One of the things that goes through you mind is that other five percent when you are five or ten feet above your last cam. Also, the lobes that expand have to grip the inside of the crack and in sandstone the sand particles can cause a ball baring effect causing your cam to rip from the crack when the force of your fall is applied; The other five percent.

After about an hour I finally reached the belay and Josh arrived about forty-five minutes later. The next pitch consisted of tricky moves up a not so steep ramp and then to move over and through an overhang about fifteen feet deep. As I started I found the moves to the overhang easy but when I arrived all hell broke loose.

The moves over the lip or crest of the overhang were not too hard but difficult enough to freak me out. So as I sat with my legs spread across a three-foot span, my body hanging from my hand, strength fading and jammed in a crack the exposure was getting to me.

With two hundred feet of air straight down to the packs and six hundred feet of steep talus below, the sun was getting low so I placed some cams and pulled on it to move over the lip giving up on the hopes of freeing the whole climb. Once I did this I noticed a problem, the rope had so much drag that I couldn't climb any higher. So I was stuck, three feet above a lip where rock stops and there's nothing but air for two hundred feet straight down, unable to go up any higher and the light quickly fading. What ever I had to do to get my self out of the situation I'd better do it fast. We did not want to be on a tower that's three miles away from our car and friends after dark because we had forgotten our head lamps in our packs mocking us two hundred feet below.

Noticing another problem, that I only had two cams left, I placed them, lowered below the rock overhang to clean the cams under the lip, alleviating the rope drag and climbed back up only to finish the pitch. We started the last pitch to the summit at dusk and arrived on the top of the tower when only the slightest orange could be seen in the star ridden sky. No time for congratulations we had to get off and fast!

When Josh arrived at the top we immediately went to work setting the ropes up and threading them through the fixed anchors to start rappelling. It was now dark and starting to get cold.

First I went down, rappelling about a hundred and twenty or thirty feet to another set of fixed anchors. Moments later Josh joined me. Not only were these anchors the most sketchy anchors I have ever used, they were on a two foot wide three foot long ledge about a hundred and fifty feet from the ground. When we were both clipped in to these lower anchors we started to pull the ropes through the anchors on top. In this case we were pulling one of two ropes tied together because the rappel is so long that to get off you have to tie two ropes together to reach the lower sets of anchors and from there the ground.

As we started to pull the rope out of the anchors on top to thread the ropes through the lower anchors, something terrible happened, the rope became stuck. It was now so dark that we could only tell which strand was which was by the texture. First we tried pulling the other end but that didn't work. Then we tried to whip the ropes out of what ever was holding them up but that didn't work either. So after twenty frustratingly frantic and cold minutes I decided to climb back up the ropes. While this could be a dangerous venture it was a good option because we still had both ends of the ropes and we knew that the anchors the ropes were through on top were good. As I became near the top my emergency ascender slipped and severely frayed my line to the point that I had to cut that end off a few months later. Inspecting the line and deeming that it was safe enough to get us to the ground; I dislodged the ropes and rappelled back down. Josh was waiting on the ledge.

As soon as I arrived back at the ledge we started pulling the rope again. Though hard, we were able to make progress. As our hopes of getting off of the tower started rising, thump! The knot that had tied the two ropes together had hit something and the ropes were stuck again. Pulling one rope then the other only to hear the thump again as the rope halted, we were in disbelief. This time it was Josh's turn to climb the rope. Cold, dehydrated, tired, frustrated and scared I decided to try one last thing. So, with out telling Josh I tied one rope to the anchor with about five feet of slack. I knew that what ever was stopping the knot was something like a ledge or a bolt and that just weighting the rope would pull downward causing the knot to just get stuck again. I would have to apply not only a lot of downward force but outward force as well. So, with the other end of the rope tied to the anchors with some slack, I tied the knot end to me, unclipped from the anchors and stepped off the ledge.

As I hung their maybe six inches off of the ledge and a hundred and fifty feet above the ground, Josh screamed "you pulling me off!" Some how I was hooked to him. So I stepped back on the ledge, unhooked myself from him and thought for a while. If that wasn't enough then more outward force seemed necessary. So I took a deep breath and jumped as hard and out as I could trusting my judgment to the pitch black void below.

As soon as I jumped the rope came tight but then clunk, I felt a jolt and started to freefall with no perception of were I was going other than down and fast. About twenty feet I fell until the rope again came tight and I started swinging. My stomach was in my throat because it was a moonless night and I couldn't see anything. Bam! I smacked into the side of the tower, frightened and at the same time happy that I got the rope unstuck. Oddly, as my blind swinging settled, the wind momentarily stopped and it became silent long enough for Josh to say, "that's great but how are you going to get back up to the ledge?" I laughed and ten minutes later I was back up on the ledge.

We didn't arrive at the bottom of the tower until 7pm and at the car until 9pm. To top it off I sprained my ankle on the hike out, but all in all I was just happy to be off that freakin tower. We learned many things from that experience and came away with a pretty good story, but the one thing that I learned the most from that experience was how much I fear death and love climbing. I hope to try the tower again.

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Live To Climb