To help define what I mean by “desert climbing,” let me start by saying what it isn’t. Indian Creek is not desert climbing. Indian Creek is crack sport climbing, which is fine and good if that’s what you’re after, but don’t confuse the cragging here on single-pitch splitters with anchors far short of the top of the wall—with the true desert experience. I’m talking about adventure, variety and, most important, a summit. If you aren’t climbing a tower, then you aren’t desert climbing.
So, what’s the best 5.10 tower route in the desert? After more than 20 years of tagging the summits of over 50 different desert towers, I have come across a handful of extraordinary 5.10s. There’s the off-the-beaten-path Eye of the Newt (5.10c) on the Cauldron in Hell Roaring Canyon, the wildly unique Window Route (5.10++) on Echo Pinnacle, and the Fetish Arete (5.10c) on Shark’s Fin in Monument Basin—all great adventures and worthy summits. But the best is, without question, Jah Man on the slender Sister Superior.
Situated 20 miles outside of Moab in Castle Valley, Sister Superior is indeed superior for climbing variety, setting and summit to her more famous neighbors, Castleton Tower, the Rectory, the Nuns and the Priest. Isolated on the north end of the Castleton ridgeline, Sister Superior gets a tenth the traffic of Castleton et al, thanks to separate access via a narrow 4WD gully/ wash road and quad-crushing talus trail. Unlike the trail to Castleton, which some kooks have turned into a virtual paved walkway more suited for a Japanese Zen garden than a desert adventure, the trail to Sister Superior remains blissfully rough.
The mighty Jah Man checks in at a legit 5.10c. It’s not some super-hyper-sandbagged mid-range 5.11 masquerading as a 5.10+, like that Gunks route Russ Clune recommended in Issue 190. Jah Man tackles Sister Superior’s sheer West Face via three pitches of climbing that require a Kama Sutra of crack techniques, from chimney to tight hands to fingers. It’s 250 steep feet of Wingate sweetness with exposed climbing, plus great gear and perfect belay ledges.
The first pitch is a fearsome-looking chimney that, once you get into it, turns out to be quite tame due to plentiful foot edges and a hidden small crack for gear.
The second pitch is the crux, a pissed-off-from-the-start tight hand crack that abruptly ends, forcing you into a committing traverse left on tricky feet before hooking back into a crack (use your slings on this pitch or face nasty rope drag).
The third pitch is a fun romp up discontinuous cracks through bulging terrain. A final 30-foot pitch can easily be linked with the penultimate pitch, but be warned that your belayer wouldn’t be able to see you on the testy, bolt-and-pin protected face-climbing finish.
Then … you’re on the summit! There is no better feeling in desert climbing than summiting a tower, especially a classy spire like Sister Superior with its small, flat summit and sweet 360-degree scenery: to the east are the Onion Creek and Fisher Towers, to the north is the Convent and the mighty Colorado River stubbornly winding its way through the canyon country, to the west is Parriot Mesa and Crooked Arrow Spire, and to the south are the Priest, the Nuns, the Rectory and Castleton. Dominating the southern horizon are the typically snow-clad La Sal Mountains. Sit down and soak up the richness of your position and you’ll be left with one inescapable thought: desert climbing is the shit.
From the State Liquor Store in Moab, head north on Highway 191 (Main Street), driving past all the fat-bellied zombie families queued up outside of Pasta Jays, past the mountain-bike dorks shopping for energy gels and the latest lycra arm warmers at the Poison Spider bike shop, and past the idiot-stick ATV and Jeepers gearing up in the Motel 6 parking lot until you reach the turnoff for Castle Valley (UT 128) right before the Colorado River. About 15.5 scenic miles later you will come to the turnoff for Castle Valley. Keep going. Just under a mile later you will see a dirt road on the right that obviously leads toward Sister Superior. Follow this gully/wash/road for as long as your 4WD can make it and then park. Walk up the wash, looking for a well-cairned trail on your left that leads up to the spire. Plan on a stout 60- to 90-minute hike up the talus cone to the base of the route.
All belays are bolted and very comfortable … party ledges! The first pitch is 5.8/5.9 and the trickiest bit is just getting into the chimney. The second pitch is the crux, with most people finding the traverse only slightly harder than the starting moves off the belay. The third pitch is tight hands (#1 Camalots) through some bulges. It’s easy to link the third pitch with the 25-foot last pitch.
Option A: Have a helicopter pick you up. Option B: BASE jump. Option C: Rap with one 60-meter rope, making sure to use the new anchors on the far south side of the Pitch 1 belay ledge (otherwise you’ll come up short).
Leave the super small stuff and Stoppers in the car. All you need are a #1 and #2 C3; two #.4, #.5 and #.75 Camalots; four #1s and one #2, and slings and biners for rope-drag management and clipping bolts and pins. Don’t forget beers for the summit.
Jonathan Thesenga, 38, has spent the last two decades climbing all over the world, from Mali to Siberia to Venezuela to China to Provo, and currently works as content manager at Black Diamond Equipment. He lives in Salt Lake City with his gypsy wife, Brittany, and his beloved dog, Sydney. He has too many bad habits to list.
This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 191 (January 2011).