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Tower of the Damned, Climbing the Crystal Tower

Jeff Jackson and Jose Miranda overcome ghosts, storm and altitude to make the first ascent of Colorado's Crystal Tower.

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Crystal TowerDR basically ripped his arm off in an ice-climbing accident on the last day of winter and all of our well-plotted plans for summer were shot. He was out of commission for a year while he healed, but one idea for an outrageous climb up a backcountry spire persisted, and he brought it up again and again. The tower, known to climbers by various names (Mineral Point, the Grey Poupon), sat way up Gunnison County Road 3 between Marble and Crested Butte. The road was reputedly the most dangerous in Colorado, rough even for four-wheel aficionados, but DR was keen to take students to the ass end of nowhere and teach them how to shoot climbing as a part of Rock and Ice’s 2010 Photo Camp. He just needed a route up the spire to photograph.

It was a Saturday, sometime in June, when DR first took me and Jose Miranda to see the Crystal Tower. We gunned up Daniel’s Hill, the rear wheels stripping rocks out of the freshly thawed road on the east side of Marble (population 105, elevation 7,992 feet), and then crawled down another steep hill to Lizard Lake, a mirror of green glass on which the actual pine, aspen, white cliffs and blue sky were somehow even more vividly rendered in the spotless morning light.

“This lake has no native fish,” DR alleged. He has lived in the area for 20 years and seemingly knew every nook and cranny of the high country, as well as a big passel of the history and tall tales. “Only salamanders. You can see them floating above clumps of vegetation and burrowing into the mud. They have these feather-shaped external gills, and when the old timers saw them they thought they were lizards and named the lake after them. Salamanders, lizards. What’s the difference, right?”

“Ignorance is bliss,” Jose said in his sonorous Venezuelan accent. Jose, 34, is a farmer, splitting time between Sustainable Settings, a progressive farm in Carbondale, and his own patch in El Caripe, Venezuela. He’s also an inspired climber, one who can milk the cows, feed the chickens, build a fence, drive the goats into a new paddock and butcher a hog by lunchtime, and somehow still find motivation to climb in the afternoon. Where does he get the verve and brass? It must be the beard, a menacing black crenellation that took up most of the back seat.

“The Utes didn’t think so well of the white man’s ignorance,” DR observed in his creaky Oklahoma drawl. “No, sir. According to various accounts, a Ute medicine man hexed this valley in 1879 when the White River band was marched off to the Uintah reservation in Utah. They say the old shaman turned around, forked his fingers and declared that the greedy white man shall never prosper here. Some got rich on the minerals or marble, but no business venture has ever lasted in this valley. It’s the curse of the Utes.” He emitted a rather bilious bubble of mirth given the pretext, but I was used to his predilection for the macabre.

With a gray hedge of stiff Choctaw hair picketing his Black Diamond visor like a haycock, and rapid, sure fire gestures DR reminded me of a game bird going after a grasshopper. The outdoors is his barnyard and he struts over great distances with long strides, crowing with laughter. He doesn’t have a cell phone (“the white man’s toy”), own a watch or mind hiking a few miles to get to a crag.

Consequently, we drove until a snow berm blocked our path, then parked, crossed the frozen, eight-foot-deep drift on foot, and walked until we saw the rusted undercarriage of a demolished car at the base of a sheer talus field.

“People say that’s the Hermit’s car,” DR said. “He rolled his pickup down this slope one dark night. People say he was never the same. He’s been living up here for as long as I can recall. Snowshoes out about once every winter for supplies. People call him a loner, but he probably just loves this place more than he likes people.”

I followed DR’s gaze to the incomparable horizon. White House, Treasure and Galena Mountains gleamed with waterfalls and snow patches.

“Yes,” Jose said, his lips wrestling in his beard like two red grubs caught in an afro. “I see what you mean, my man.”

Four miles later we walked past the old Crystal “mill,” which DR informed us was actually a water turbine that once drove an air compressor. The compressed air was used to operate mining machinery back in the 1880s.

Just past the compressor station, we entered Crystal City, a collection of mountain cabins owned by a few families that come up for the summers. Crystal is a ghost town in winter, however, buried under an average of 20 feet of snow, and it was still uninhabited this early in the spring.

“The only year-round resident up here is the Hermit,” DR said, shaking his head. “Can you imagine living up here all winter? Up here all alone in the cursed valley?”

He laughed again—a crazy laugh.

Jose was eating sunflower seeds, poking them into the deep, black beard-hole and ejecting the hulls in quick succession. His tongue poked through the fleece like the arm of a demented octopus throwing abalone shards out of a craggy black grotto. The hulls hung up in his beard. It was peculiarly horrible.

Suddenly, the uncanny combination of DR’s ghost stories and Jose’s beard started to get to me. Truth be told, Jose smelled riper than usual after mucking out the chickens and the reek of barnyard nitrogen and Venezuelan pong seemed to contribute to my almost physical apprehension.

“Down there are the Devil’s Punchbowls,” DR said. “You know why they call them the Devil’s Punchbowls? Because they are filled with souls, that’s why. Something like 14 people have driven off these rock steps and rolled into the pool at the base of the waterfall. One time a guy tried to drive a Suburban across those steps—probably a Texan—no offense, Jefe. He tipped off the cliff and took out his entire family. A bunch of kids. Even grandma and grandpa. Three generations wiped out, just like that.”

DR snapped his fingers.

“Curse of the Utes?” I asked.

“Can’t say for sure,” DR said. “Just can’t say not knowin’. Anyway, here’s what I wanted to show you.”

He indicated Mineral Point, a huge cliff band at 10,000 feet, just a few minutes past the turn-off to Lead King Basin. Thirty minutes later we stood at the base of the cliff, looking up at a crazy, tilted spire, imposing in its sheer, remote inaccessibility and for its purely exposed, singular summit.

“I’m in,” I said, hesitantly, still mildly unnerved.

Jose nodded. “Let’s do it.”

“I can’t join you guys because of my crippled arm,” DR said. “But I’d be psyched to see this thing get climbed.”

The Crystal Tower curled off Mineral Point like the devil’s toenail—a 500-foot scab of slate, coal, quartz, iron, silver, gold, marble, pyrite, limestone, soapstone and more, folded together in a volcanic bread, burped, cooled, uplifted, buffed, irradiated and frozen for millions of winters. Minerals gleamed blue, gold, copper, green, and swirled through the face in cursive tendrils, like batter stirred into water. The pockets were sharp, lined with crystals. The edges were square. Cracks were finger-sized and peregrinated drunkenly into the face, as if they were cut with a rubber knife. Some sections were cob-rough, coated with coral croslies. Twenty-foot-high bands of glassy green quartzite crossed the face like stripes on a huge dark flag. The cliff leaned way out. The wind picked up the 70-meter trail line and it kited horizontal. Clouds rolled in over Treasure Mountain. Lightning struck and a big roll of thunder poured down with snowflakes thick as pelspan. Jose and I leaned together at the hanging belay, teeth chattering like squirrels scolding a cat, and watched the snow blow past well behind us.

“We probably should have packed the down jacket,” Jose said.

“We probably should have packed the whiskey,” I said.

“Where’s the whiskey?” Jose asked, alarmed.

“At the base,” I said. “In the pocket of the down jacket.”

Jose was taking the lack of whiskey hard, and who could blame him? It would be a long, cold belay. Thankfully, he had trimmed his beard since our initial recon two weeks previous when we cleaned the route and placed bolts to protect the face climbing, or we both wouldn’t have fit on the small, cantilevered ledge. I stripped off my wind layer and gave it to Jose, resigned to later receive a differently-scented garment, and started woodenly ascending the last pitch.

The first moves were tenuous—numb hands and thin gastons. A rising traverse gained incuts and a shake. I fed a little cam into the base of a hanging dihedral and stemmed for 30 feet of overhanging 5.9. Big chocks slotted. The slings levered out when I clipped the rope. The exposure seemed like a loud voice, the gale a whisper in comparison.

I was pumped at the first green band and glad to clip a bolt as the climbing got perceptibly harder and the 10,000-foot altitude felt like sand in my forearms. The holds tipped out and down. I high-stepped and slapped the arête, trading hands on a slick black sloper like a hippie beating a djembe. Marginally recovered, I began the crux sequence.

Lightning jabbed the bruised cloud above me, followed instantly by a Wagnerian thunderclap. Snow built up like sugar piles on the footholds as I climbed out of the overhang, turned the corner and lurched to a sidepull. My right leg flagged and I felt snow pellets striking my ankle. I grabbed a draw off my harness and reached to clip the last bolt.

Just before the carabiner nose cleared the hanger, my left foot skidded off the wet stone and I zipped into the gulf, swinging into the shadow of the cliff and out of the snow. As I swayed there, 400 feet above the talus, a thousand feet above the terrifying road, pumped and full of doubt, I thought about the curse of the Utes.

Was I simply another acquisitive white guy fated to fail in this gorge? Was I cursed and doomed? Would my cage of bones join the husks of Jeeps and the Hermit’s truck—relics of hubris littering the Crystal Valley? Not today.

“Lower me!” I squealed.

Jose cranked down the Grigri lever. I swung into the belay and we beat a most ignominious retreat.

The next weekend was the Rock and Ice Photo Camp. Carlo Traversi and Phil Schaal, both 5.14 climbers, were slated to visit and climb as models for the photography students. We would be heading to the Crystal Tower for the second day of the camp, and Carlo and Phil would send our route like a Cajun sucks the head of a crawdad—just because—and they would nab the first ascent.

I talked to Jose and he agreed that we couldn’t let that happen, so I petitioned DR for a day off (“Oh, sure thing, but mind the curse”) and Jose arranged to borrow the truck from Sustainable Settings one more time.

We rolled past the weird Lizard Lake and looked at the salamanders floating in the water like tiny black dragons, and it felt like we were entering another country, a land of legend where anything might happen. We slowly bumped past the Hermit’s truck, past the quaint mill, through the town of Crystal and onto the rock steps above the Devil’s Punchbowls.

We parked and hefted our packs, glancing up at the rock needle poking a low bank of clouds like a knife tip on a water balloon. Again the submerged bodily dread hovered to the surface and I whispered a spontaneous appeal to Colorow, the last chief of the free White River Utes.

“I know you have a lot to be pissed off about,” I said. “Relocation, starvation, mistreatment, discrimination. I don’t blame you for cursing the white man. But I’m also teed off about the legacy those ignorant fools left us. I know that salamanders aren’t lizards. So please, if it isn’t too greedy and hypocritical, maybe you could let us redpoint this damned tower before the tweakers get here and snake the route.”

“What are you mumbling about?” Jose asked as he threw on his pack.

“I was asking Chief Colorow not to hose us.”

“Chief Colorow?”

“The last chief of the White River Utes. Maybe he can undo the curse,” I suggested meekly. “Just for today?”

Jose nodded pensively. We eyed the clouds building over the witch’s finger.

“OK, I hear you, my man,” Jose said. “But this time we’re packing the whiskey and the down jacket—just in case.”

Jeff Jackson is the editor of Rock and Ice.