| My First Trip to the Desert - MOAB!
“Elephant Butte” – 5,653ft
RT mileage – unknown
Estimated gain of 1500ft
Gear: 60m rope, webbing
With the weather forecast for Colorado looking dismal, and this being the last remaining weekend that the 3 of us could get together before some big climbs in the Cascades this July, Peter, Rob and I decided to head to Moab for the weekend for some canyoneering and climbing. We arrived late Friday night and descended “MMI” and “Lost & Found” canyons in a long, tough day on Saturday. As promised by a friend, the canyons were spectacular and we had a great time. After heading into Moab for some Denny’s (and watching a waitress pour a full glass of water on a customer), we pitched a tent on the side of the road and got a couple of hours sleep. First thing in the morning it was off to Arches National Park to climb the park high point, “Elephant Butte.”
I had gotten recommendations for multiple friends that if we could only do one climb in Arches, this should be it….and they were right.
The "rubble filled gully" that is they key to the route
Rob making his way up the 4th class ramp
We arrived at the Garden of Eden parking area around 9am and took a quick look at “Owl Tower” (5.8+, single pitch). With a long drive back to Denver looking, we decided to give Elephant a try first. We geared up and headed towards the south end of the butte (you cannot see the summit from the parking area or during most of the approach). After some confusion as to which was the “rubble filled gully,” we made our way up some class 3 boulders to the first of many secluded meadows. The formations on either side quickly narrow and we were forced to the right onto a class 4 ramp. The route is fairly obvious from here as you make a few short moves and gain a higher and more open meadow. These areas were awesome as you were totally isolated, a true privilege in a park that sees as many visitors as Arches.
Rob in the "bowl." Some of the hardest route finding of the day
From this point, route finding continued to be difficult. Actually, throughout the day there were many times that we felt we were off-route only to happen upon a landmark or feature that proved otherwise….oh well…it added to the adventure!
We followed footprints along the right side of the meadow until we were right up against a 3rd/4th class wall. After 10ft of climbing we found ourselves in a “bowl.” The route from here was not obvious and none of us were excited about downclimbing what we had just come up. I took a left at the route on the right, too lazy to change into rock shoes, I made a few mid-5th class moves to get onto the next platform. As I expected, this led nowhere and I was now faced with a dangerous downclimb. Teamwork was paramount here and I lowered myself as Rob and Peter each made a platform for my feet and within seconds I was safely back on the “ground.”
The small wall seen left is the initial choice we made that turned out to be incorrect. This was the most difficult unprotected climbing of the trip
Peter frees up the crux 5th class wall to get a look around
We knew the crux of the route was going to be a 10ft 5.3/5.4 wall and we decided that the option on the right might be this wall. It was Peter’s turn to go explore and after a few moves and then some waiting, he called back to say “let’s do it!” The fall line here is a bit intimidating and the moves are a bit stiff for the class. All 3 of us elected to shoe up at this point and were all comfortable freeing the route. If you are not a technical rock climber, a sitting belay might be useful here as the consequences of a fall would not feel good. Rob and I made quick work of the crux and joined Peter on the other side. Our beta told us that we were looking for 5 bolts that would not be visible from above. Sure enough, at the far left end of the slab we found the bolts (there were a few pieces of webbing and cord thrown around on the slab – most likely to clue us in that we were in the right spot for the rappel).
Image #6 (not yet uploaded)
The bolts for the rappel
looking back at the area above the crux wall
After inspecting the bolts, we were a bit weary. Sure there were 5 of them, but they were only ¼” and in sandstone. Fresh red webbing was fixed to 2 of the bolts (1 of the hangers was loose) and we decided we should probably back this up. We added some cordlette and utilized 2 more of the bolts. After some discussion as to who would go first, I got on rappel and started down into the alcove. This rap was a lot of fun and I quickly found myself in a small enclosed area. I was feeling quite pleased with our isolation, again, in such a popular park. I yelled up “off rappel” and walked over to my left to look at the “Scramble into the lower valley.”
Peter coming down the rappel
Looking into the final meadow...a difficult scramlbe is in the way
“hmmm, I don’t like this,” I thought, but nonetheless I started down into our final meadow. The moves were, well, interesting, but after a day of practicing stemming in slot canyons, we were up to the task. I would say it was stiff 4th class or low 5th for about 10 ft.
Unfortunately, one member of our party does not like to downclimb, and they elected to rappel down this section as well. My other partner and I looked at each other as we immediately knew this would be a problem….the rope was going to get stuck.
Peter making the diffiuclt downclimb
Our first view of the final route to the summit (summit out of view)
The meadow was a wonderful place to be
As expected, we started to pull and the rope snagged. After some debating as to who would climb up, I headed back up into the alcove, pulled the rope and made quick work of the downclimb. “Phew, that wasn’t so bad.” And we were off to the summit through the final meadow/valley/whatever-you-call-it-surrounded-by-giant-towers-thing.
The summit route is clearly visible from here as you head directly up a large angled slab (3rd/4th Class). Since we still had our rock shoes on, we kept them, but this could easily be done in approach shoes (or even trail runners). The beta says to angle right and look for a hard to spot cairn and gain the summit plateau, but we just chose our own route. After some slab walking and 2 chimney moves we found ourselves on the West end of the summit plateau. A quick walk of 300 or so feet put us on the summit (marked by a cairn and a register).
Peter leads the way
Image #15 (not yet uploaded)
Rob continues up
The views start to become absolutely mesmorizing
The weather was gorgeous, sunny and 80 with a light wind…the rock was cool and I enjoyed some barefoot moments alone on top as I waited for my partners. The views were incredible…La Sals in the distance, tourists far down below, deserts, valleys, canyons…it was hard to all take in. I truly felt lucky to be in such a remote spot on a rarely visited summit. My thoughts drifted to my 2 friends who had recommended this route and I was very grateful for their advice.
La Sal Mountains. Gorgeous.
Me on the summit
With a long drive ahead and delusions of still doing the single pitch tower at the parking lot, we headed down after not too long. The ascent route is not an option for descent given the rappel and the goal is to head down the slabs towards the final valley but cut off left towards pinnacle just before. As promised, the descent was way less complicated than it looked on paper and our first guess as to what the pinnacle was turned out to be correct. We made the chimney moves and did some class 4 downclimbing and found ourselves at the pinnacle (pass on the right or the left). The gully quickly narrows and cliffs out where we found 3 old pitons and some cordlette (again, there was some old cord further back, likely to clue climbing parties in that they are on the right route).
The pitons for the descent rap
Peter rappelling and enjoying some "free-air" time
We were unsure about the cordlette since the previous party obviously had to pull their rope, so we added some webbing and carabineer to the setup. This rappel is fun and mostly free hanging. All 3 of us were on the ground fairly quickly. After our last significant downclimb of the day we were on the valley floor and a quick 10 minute walk put us back at the car.
This route, wow, I cannot say enough good things about it. I HIGHLY recommend it to anyone visiting Arches and dare I say it was worth the drive in and of itself (though the slot canyons were equally spectacular). We started up around 9am and were back to the car before 1:30pm.
"The Titan" in the Fisher Towers. I think it is "fate" that we went this way ;)
Feel free to PM me as I have plenty more pictures that would help with route-finding.
The drive back was long and arduous, but as snow covered ridge lines entered the horizon, I knew I was home. Visiting the desert was fantastic, but I am truly at home in the mountains.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):