Castleton Tower — North Chimney

Rock climbing is going through some changes these days, with the explosive rise of indoor climbing gyms, joining the Olympics as a competition sport, and the popularity of bouldering. It’s easy to be confused when someone tells you they’re a ‘climber’ — this could entail any number of different activities.

At its most basic, climbing involves using gymnastic ability to reach places generally considered inaccessible by humans. And there is nothing that fits this definition better than a desert tower.

Castleton Tower set against a stormy sky at sunset

Sheer vertical on all sides, set atop a big hill and looking out over the expansive desert — the ONLY way to the top of one of these things is technical climbing. There is no hiking trail, no cable car. You are going up under your own power — and if you’re a true adventure sports junkie, you’re flying off the top.

Castleton Tower, located near Moab, Utah, is one of the most famous towers in the USA. It was the first desert tower ascended by climbers, and it remains a coveted summit to this day.

I had climbed Castleton via the Kor-Ingalls route (5.9+) last spring. This time we climbed the North Chimney route (5.9), technically the easiest climb on Castleton Tower (although in my opinion, the North Chimney route is more sustained than the Kor-Ingalls). We did NOT fly off 😉

Castleton Tower North Chimney Climbing Route

  • Grade: 5.9, II or III
  • Pitches: 3 or 4 (I suggest linking pitches 3&4 to make this a 3-pitch climb if you are confident & competent).
  • Approach: 1hr or so
  • Required Gear: 2x60m ropes (best option if you might bail), 1 70m rope, or 1 80m rope. #6 cam.
  • Beta: on Mountain Project, or in the High on Moab guidebook.
  • Best Season: Spring or Fall. The climb is north-facing and mostly in a chimney, so you can expect it to be significantly cooler than the ambient temperature.
  • This Climb Is For You If: You are an experienced multi-pitch trad climber who knows how to hand-jam and feels comfortable on well-protected #3-sized cracks. Ideally, you own a #6 cam for the pitch-2 offwidth crux.
  • Are The Belays Bolted? Pitch 1 has a bolted anchor about 45 meters up. You will need two ropes to bail from this point. Pitch 2 is a piton anchor which you would be wise to back up with natural gear. Pitch 3 (optional) would be a gear anchor. Pitch 4 has a bolted anchor a few feet below the summit.

North Chimney Trip Report

The North Chimney follows the deep cleft up the center of the left face here. The North Face route (5.11) is on the right side of the tower as seen here. The tower is 400 feet tall (~120 meters).

I climbed the North Chimney with my friend Ted, a man many years my senior. Ted is a seasoned climber and thirsty for life though — meaning the age difference doesn’t matter much.

When I met Ted, he was the more experienced climber, and he took the leads when we went ice climbing. He’s still the more experienced climber, but he spent the last few years bike-touring around the world (that project on pause due to covid), while I spent the last few years getting strong and confident on the rock. I took the leads. He followed, somewhere between amiably and angrily.

Working through emotions at the first belay.

Working through emotions at the first belay.

Looking down the first pitch — mostly #3 hand cracks. Ted is approaching the crux of this pitch — a small overhanging bulge between him and the belay.

Pitch 1 is the most sustained part of the climb, a long vertical section of#3 hand crack with plenty of face and foot holds which make things a bit easier than climbing straight-in Indian Creek style splitters (which we had been doing for several days prior to this). Having triples in hand-sized cams is nice for this pitch if you protect conservatively.

Looking out from the pitch 2 belay. An image which does a good job conveying the experience of being deep inside the chimney. The human eye can pick up on the detail of the walls much better than a camera lens. The walls of the chimney are coated with calcite, a slippery white mineral deposit, which at this belay, looked as if it was dripping down the sides of the rock.

Pitch 2 contains the (short) offwidth crux and famously janky bolt — a decades old relic which inspires NO confidence. Bring a number six cam and you won’t have to stress about the bolt. Although my buddy who weighs easily 200 pounds says he clipped it…

Personally, I’d just bring the big cam.

After the offwidth there’s several sections of climbing around overhanging piles of flakes/ blocks (a bit loose). These will definitely be smeared with calcite and might be covered in bird shit — making things a bit more slippery than you would like.

Exiting the chimney and joining the Kor-Ingalls route for some fun 5.7 face climbing to the summit.

Pitch 3 takes you up until the chimney dead-ends. I used about 10 feet of actual chimney technique on this pitch — the ONLY chimney climbing I did on the route (a bit ironic for a route named the North Chimney). My follower reported using a lot more chimney technique than I did, so your YMMV.

After exiting the chimney (into the sun!!) with a funky traversing move or thrilling leap from side to side, the route joins up with the final pitch of the Kor-Ingalls for easy but somewhat sparsely protected face climbing to the top.

Sign the summit register (contained in an old ammo can) and rappel the clean North Face route back to the ground. Chug water.

The walk down the talus cone takes about 45 minutes; hot, sunny, and with all the water gone. But it feels better with every step. It’s done.

Carpe Diem

Sitting around the campfire in Indian Creek a few nights before, Ted had said “If I want to do all the things I can in my life before I turn 75 and get ready to die, I have one of my daughter’s adolescences left. And my daughter grew up in the blink of an eye. So I thought I better get going.”

Ted’s been lots of places, and done lots of cool climbs.

Back at the parking lot, sitting on the tailgate of my cheap sedan, suspension sagging, I ask him: “Was this a bucket list climb for you?”

He smiles. “You know,” he says, “I used to keep a spreadsheet of all the things I wanted to do. Now, after the bike trip I’m not quite sure where it is. But yeah, Castleton was on quite a few of those sheets. Thanks again, for taking me up.”

My pleasure Ted, truly.


All photos my own originals. This article contains one affiliate link. Affiliate links help me fund further adventures.

This article originally appeared on Medium.

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