Part 1 – White Rim – Setting the Stage

“We climbed it not because it’s there, but because it won’t be there much longer”

So said famous climbing pioneer, Layton Kor, of Standing Rock, an improbable, inimitable sandstone tower deep in Canyonlands National Park. This formation was one of the three towers we scaled on our six day bikepack of the White Rim Trail – 100 bumpy miles through an ethereal desert landscape carved by the Colorado River.

After conceiving the idea for the trip, I set about calling the craziest dudes I know, and put together a crew:

White Rim Team. Photo Credit: Charley Mace

Charley Mace – Everest teammate, legendary high-altitude mountaineer, and long-time blind-guy climbing partner and tandem bike pilot.

Rob “Piz” Pizem – The desert “Rope-Gun”, guaranteed to put up the hardest parts of each climb. Doesn’t drink coffee, wear shorts, or visit the Front Range.

Timmy O’Neill – Hilarious, irreverent, and somehow still relevant, Timmy has spent his life and career putting up first ascents in Patagonia, Yosemite, and everywhere in between. He is also an environmental advocate, a stand-up comedian, and a stand-up guy.

Mike Brumbaugh – Though sidelined by a foot injury, Mike B. masterminded the logistics necessary to pull off the trip. When he isn’t planning once-in-a-lifetime experiences he won’t get to attend, he is a bike and ski mogul, owning 5 stores in the Vail Valley. Check out Venture Sports for all of your gear needs.

After assembling the crew, booking our campsites, reserving bikes (notably, neither Timmy nor Rob had ever used clipless pedals before the trip), and setting up a support plan, we dropped into the Canyonlands to begin our journey.

Camp in the early morning light. Photo Credit: Connor Koch

Part 2 – In the Footsteps of Legends

Why was my face so cold? I wormed out of my sleeping bag and flopped off my cot into the desert sand, regretting my choice to sleep sans tent. As I rubbed Paleolithic sand out of my eyes, I was filled with anticipation for day one of our White Rim adventure. The team fueled up with coffee and a vegan smorgasbord from our camp manager, Reid, and we hopped on our bikes for a short ride to our first tower, Standing Rock.

Standing Rock, Monument Basin, UT. Photo Credit: Connor Koch

Standing Rock is unique for sitting below the White Rim. To climb the tower, we didn’t do a standard approach up a broken desert landscape. Rather, we dropped down off the rim, completed a short rappel, and navigated a horrendously loose gully to the floor of Monument Basin, before arriving at the base of the tower. We walked around the tower (this didn’t take long; the formation is only 50 feet in diameter), roped up, and got vertical, climbing four pitches of varied, unusual climbing. Funky bulges, insecure cracks, and hidden holds comprised the route to the summit.

Timmy O’Neill taking the lead on Standing Rock. Photo Credit: Rob Pizem

Before long, we grouped up on top, and I could hear the vastness of the basin from our tiny perch.

Our group celebrates atop Standing Rock. Photo Credit: Connor Koch

On the top, Charley described to us a classic climbing book cover featuring Layton Kor and Huntley Ingalls questing up into the unknown on their first ascent of Standing Rock. This shot had inspired some of his adventures, and he shared that sentiment with us in a note of gratitude after the trip:

“As a wet behind the ears college kid, I was blown away by these exploits and never thought I would be good/crazy/stupid/strong or skilled enough to get up that thing. I still am not sure I could have done it without your help. It is with deep respect and gratitude that I want to thank each of you for allowing me to draft you up those towers.”

Standing Rock summit. Photo Credit: Charley Mace

Sharing the wonder of these vast landscapes with friends brings meaning to all of these adventures, so it was special to hear that from Charley. After reversing our path, we settled in for the night near the next day’s objective: Washer Woman Tower.

Part 3 – Earning It

Day two dawned, and we made the short but strenuous trek to the base of Washer Woman Tower, another astonishingly unique sandstone formation that I’ve heard looks like an old woman bending over a laundry tub.

Approaching Washer Woman Tower. Photo Credit: Connor Koch

The route to the summit is wondrous: you climb up the arms via perfect hand cracks, onto the shoulders on a featured face, across the shoulders on a spiny ridge, and are met with your final obstacle: a nearly blank varnished face, dead vertical with a spicy move requiring balance and commitment, guarding the summit. You climb up the face onto the top of Washer Woman’s head as space drops around you.

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Rob Pizem firing up pitch 2 on Washer Woman. Photo Credit: Connor Koch

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Washer Woman’s summit pitch: straight up the face. Photo Credit: Timmy O’Neill

Cruising the last few moves to the summit. Photo Credit: Connor Koch

After a summit party and safe descent, we again feasted on Reid’s delicious camp meals, slept, and woke up early for the big day: 45 miles of hard riding, with an unrelenting climb out on Shaffer Trail to the top of the rim.

Stopping for a photo opp with Charley. Photo Credit: Timmy O’Neill

The ride began easily enough, as we stopped along the way at various viewpoints, overlooking the Colorado River and the mystical desert of Southeastern Utah. After we dispatched the grueling climb, however, we were hammered first with light rain, then graupel, then snow, and finally with arctic headwinds strong enough to shove us backwards as we pedaled to the next campsite. As we dropped back beneath the rim, the moisture abated briefly and the world opened up beneath us; the White Rim trail steeply switchbacked down a barely-there hillside, meeting the Green River and paralleling that clay-banked, flowing entity on its journey to the sea.

Our team descends once again into the Canyonlands, this time via Mineral Bottom Road. Photo Credit: Connor Koch

Finally, cold and damp, we made it to Taylor Canyon and made camp beneath our final tower, the intimidating and wondrous Moses.

Part 4 – My Soul, Made Stone

Moses stands proudly at the end of Taylor Canyon, chin jutting out over the Martian landscape, taunting anyone audacious enough to attempt to climb it.

Moses standing proudly over Taylor Canyon. Photo Credit: Connor Koch

We slept fitfully; the persistent wind pressing my tent against my face wasn’t exactly calming, and thoughts of the tower raced through my mind. 4 pancakes, 2 cups of coffee, and 2 veggie sausages later, we hauled ourselves to the base of the climb and, several hours later, achieved the summit.

With Charley high off the desert floor. Photo Credit: Rob Pizem

This wasn’t my first ascent of Moses, but it was the most memorable. Highlights included:

  • 600 feet of perfect Wingate sandstone
  • Difficult and unnatural climbing through an ocean of crack systems and polished rock
  • “The Ear” of Moses, an imposing flake of rock near the summit just wide enough to squeeze your shoulders into
  • T-Shirt weather on the sunny south side of the climb
  • One dropped and vaporized phone (Sorry Piz)
  • Veggie lunch buffet waiting at the base

With our climbing objectives achieved, we now had to complete the White Rim Trail itself on our bikes. We wrapped up the day with 24 miles to our final campground, Candlestick, named for the wide formation adjacent to the remote site. We shared stories that night, the towers growing taller, the moves harder, and the bonds of friendship stronger. Here in this place, we felt natural, beyond the news cycle, beyond the horror of mass shootings, mass hysteria, and the stress of daily life. Somehow, the vastness of the desert created in us a sense of wholeness. As Timmy put it: “The trip was a highlight for many reasons, including the landscape and the fact that it defines in geology and topography what I think, feel and aspire to be in this single spin through the universe – the place is my soul, made stone.”

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Timmy, seeking nirvana in the Canyonlands. Photo Credit: Connor Koch

Morning dawned on our final day, and the last 18 miles of riding went quickly and smoothly (with the exception of one tandem bodyslam), until we found ourselves, as always, back where we had started. We hooted and hollered into Monument Basin, casting aside our bikes and edging close to the rim, feeling the wind lifting up over the edge and hearing our shouts echoing down down down until they were no more. And that was it. We drove home, to our families, to real beds and real responsibilities. The hot shower, my first in a week, rinsed away the dust of the desert, but I couldn’t scrub away the feeling we had done something timeless. I am so thankful for adventures and friends to undertake them with. For sore legs and bleeding hands, for camp meals and putting on dirty socks. What more could I want?

Our group celebrates our completion of the White Rim. Photo Credit: Connor Koch

A special thanks to Reid, Kirstin and the team at Rim Tours Moab, who made the trip possible.