(The South Six Shooter and the North Six Shooter)
The South Six Shooter! Yes let's do it! We're finally gonna climb a classic desert tower. We've talked about doing this every year in the creek and now we are. I'm nervous and excited. This will be our rest day. A long hike sure, but easy climbing. Around the campfire, we finalize our plans. I'm now only slightly troubled by the fact that in our rush to pack, we forgot our guide book. (I was pissed earlier in the week, but had gotten over it.) By head lamp, I read the description in a friend's Falcon guide over and over, paying close attention to the approach and descent. You see, I've had a few frustrating and terrifying experiences on multi-pitch climbs. So now, I try to memorize the approach, climb topo and descent route. Falcon guides are notoriously insufficient and inaccurate. But it's all we've got. Drive between the north and south towers. Hike up to the south side. Three short 5.6 pitches. Two rapels to get down. It seems simple enough. I suggest we start between 8 and 9. We compromise with 9:30. The next morning we leave camp at 10:52.
Cody and I are undoubtedly the most excited. We're down to five climbers, since one member decided to enjoy the rest day in Moab. Soon we embark down the dusty 4-wheel drive road. After seemingly make a wrong turn, we end up at a No Motorized Vehicles sign. Sensibly, we turn around and find another wash turn-off that heads between the North and South Six Shooter. This looks good, exactly what they book said, 'drive between the two towers to the end of the road'. We've been bumping along for about an hour when the road just ends in some trees. Discussing our options, we decide to head back to a turn-off we spotted that seemed closest to the South tower. Even though this is not the south side, we presume we can head up to the mesa and wrap around to the base of our climb.
I've tried to mentally prepare myself for this daunting approach. There should be a relatively short hill to get to the top of the mesa, then a slog up the scree slope where the tower sits. Packs on, we head up the hill. Soon we find ourselves in this boulder garden, amongst massive black and tan rocks poised on red sandy stacks of sandstone.
Finally, we come to a short cliff that guards the mesa top. Jay scales a hand crack in his Sanuks with his pack on, something I'm not willing to do. Kevin finds a secret cave that leads to the top and convinces me to follow. One more barrier to go, a short 2-foot gap in the rock over a dark, deep abyss. My wide eyes clue Jay into my apprehension of jumping over. I toss my pack and Jay thankfully offers a clasped hand.
We are atop the mesa! Now we've just got to figure out where to scale this scree slope so we can actually start our climb. Generally up seems like a good idea. The hill is getting steeper and looser and we're still on the wrong side. So we convene to deliberate. I'm convinced we should go to the right since our climb is on the south west corner. We gingerly scramble up the steep rocky ridges and traverse the sandy gullies. My heart crumbles when I see the steep gully and mudwall that will prevent us from getting to that southwest corner. The guys decide to go up to the tower from where we're at, the north side.
(Jay with the North 6 Shooter in the background)
(Sam & I Hiking atop the mesa)(The loose ridges and scree to the tower base)
About 100 feet from the base of the tower the guys cross an incredibly steep gully of sand and gravel. Almost to the other side, Sam slips and slowly slides about 10 yards, with seemingly no way to stop. When he finally comes to a stop, I'm fully petrified. I cannot see a way to cross this gully without falling. And even if I do, it still doesn't get us to the intended climb. Will I have to scramble back down and across? Or climb some unknown route full of loose breaking rock? I refuse to leave my rocky perch. Jay, Kevin and Cody have all made it to the base of the tower and are discussing their options. Sam's trying to convince me to cross over. I'm convinced that I'll fall with my heavy pack pulling me off balance. I feel completely stuck. Jay spies an unknown crack that will lead to the ledge connecting to the correct route. We can see climbers popping out from the other side. They've decided to go for it. Sam crosses back over to me, still clinging to my boulder. Sam can see that I've hit my wall. There are no tears, just a glazed over look of panic on my face. A level of anxiety has taken over, preventing me from thinking clearly. I can feel adrenaline coursing through me. A fog of fear filling my head. Sam let's me know we can turn back. It's OK. Experience has taught him that at this point, I'm done. Jay & Kevin are encouraging us to continue, asking what they can do to help. I tell Sam I can turn back alone and he should go climb without me. Of course, he refuses. God, I'm such a sissy. I've hiked all the up here to stop 100 feet from the base! I'm gonna make Sam miss this climb. These thoughts just compound the anxiety. I chose this. I don't want to back down. But I feel paralyzed.
(The view from my perch)
After a fuzzy 30 minutes of this, we slowly make our way down the ridge. As we reach the mesa top, I can feel my head clearing like a chill wave washing over me. We find some shade under a boulder and sit to eat and watch our friends. Thinking clearly, I regret not being able to continue. But, I now understand what Sam was telling me. There's no continuing once I've hit that level of fear. I feel overwhelmingly thankful for him. Some negative climbing experiences have led to this understanding between us as climbing partners. He provided the way out that I needed without any judgement.
Snacking on canned sardines and fruit leathers, we watch our friends. Jay, Kevin and Cody are colorful specks slowly ascending the tower. With my cheer returning, I suggest we explore the Mesa top and walk to the south side to watch the climbers summit.
This place is like another planet. We carefully tread around the cryptobiotic soil. These living ridges of black-red ground cover is one of the earth's oldest known life forms. It seems as if we are the first people who have ever been here. Tiny curly blades of grass spring from cement hard ground. A boulder tempts us to drop the packs and don our climbing shoes. We stumble upon the most amazing rocks. Amongst a pile of sand and rubble, Sam spies something quite unique. A fossil?! A petrified bone at the least.
Finally on the south side, we watch climbers scattered over the tower. From here we can see the parking area below where we should have started. The well marked scramble over the scree pile above, to the base of the climb we should have climbed. Next time, if there is a next time, we'll know where to start. I'm surprisingly satisfied to be down here, below the summit, in this unexpected adventure.
Sam and I make our way back across the mesa. Over the abyss. Down the cave. Through the balancing boulder garden. To the car. We sit in the dirt and reminisce. Not long after, our friends come scurrying down. Their faces lit with satisfaction. We share our experiences. Theirs was quite an epic tale. Cody has been climbing only 6 months. This was his first multi-pitch. From what they share, it was quite an intro. Surely he'll never forget this climb.
(Kevin, Jay, & Cody's climb & summit)
I only have to give a brief explanation of why we turned back. These good friends understand. Any shred of embarrassment I felt completely fades. We each had our own journey. We are bonded through our adventure, yet each personal experience so individual and unique. We pile into the car and head back home, our home of tents. Re-living the day, laughing and enjoying the beautiful sunset.
Amazing photos courtesy of Jay Samuelson and Kevin Meurer. Thanks guys!