CANDLESTICK TOWER FIRST ASCENT (March 1974)
Larry Hamilton, June 2001
The town of Eldorado Springs was home to a close-knit community of five climbers in the fall of 1970. When I first moved into town, and joined their circle, it felt as if I had dropped in on a family -- albeit, one of the free-form and unrelated families that were flourishing around Boulder in those days. Paul Sibley opened the door by inviting me to stay in the attic of his unfinished house, until I could find something better. Something better appeared soon in the form of an opportunity to share the Rocky Rest, a tiny stone cabin, with Ron Cox for $25 a month rent. That became my home for the next two years. Much of my social life involved the five-climber community; besides Cox and Sibley, they were Margaret "Yum Yum" Durrance (daughter of Jack Durrance, of Tetons and Devil's Tower fame), Julie Clements and Bill Roos. Many of our conversations involved climbing. Sibley and Roos had made the third ascent of the Titan, and told stories about the unearthly spires around Moab. On the wall hung a photo from their 1969 first ascent of Ancient Art's corkscrew summit. During one winter-evening conversation, Roos drew my attention to a topographic map of Canyonlands, pointing out the steep contours of unclimbed Candlestick Tower. Fixated on El Cap, for which I was then getting ready, I noted Candlestick as a more distant goal.
Many of Eldorado's hard free routes today were considered hard aid in 1970. These routes -- The Wisdom, Canary Pass, Evangeline, and their kin -- became my training ground for El Cap. Through a winter of nailing overhangs in the canyon, I built up momentum for longer routes. Conventional wisdom held that one should climb three grade V's before attempting a grade VI, and the grade V nearest to Eldorado in early March was the mud-classic Titan. With excitement about this legendary prospect, Cox and I planned our first desert trip. At the last minute we agreed to bring along an acquaintance, a young Colorado Springs climber named Jim Dunn. Dunn's big climbs and his reputation were still in the future. Cox and I had no idea what a force he would turn out to be, until his character became apparent halfway up the Titan. According to plan, I led the first pitch and Cox the second. But from then on at each belay, while Cox or I stared doubtfully up at the next wall of mud curtains and protruding bolts, Dunn would be rapidly racking hardware and saying "Can I take this pitch? I really want to lead this one." He ended up leading half the climb. We bivouacked on the route's only ledge, forced to halt by a river of wind. On our final day I led to the summit, and stood briefly alone in the morning light.
One year later (March 1972), I was back near the Titan, with a mellower co-ed crew. "This is the nicest thing I've ever done for you," Cox had said honestly, when he introduced me to Leslie in Boulder the month before. Indeed she was everything I'd been searching for: attractive, intelligent and willing to go on this desert trip. Accompanying Leslie and me were Tom and Jean Ruwitch, who had joined the growing community of climbers living in Eldorado Springs. The four of us spent several days climbing in Onion Creek, doing early ascents of the Hindu, Mongoose and Sari. Tom and I made the first ascent of what would later be called Unknown Sister in Castle Valley. Our main goal, however, was Candlestick Tower. Leaving Leslie and Jean at a lonely camp up on Island in the Sky, Tom and I navigated an approach that we had worked out from the map. It took us the better part of a day, fixing three ropes to descend off the mesa, then trekking two miles out the canyon to the scree cone at the base of the tower itself. We bivouacked there, and in the morning picked out a promising line. Unfortunately, it turned dangerously rotten midway up the second pitch. Not wanting to place a bolt ladder, we rapped off and went home. (Right: Leslie Hamilton on Island in the Sky, 1972.)
Moab's night life back then seemed to happen at the A&W, where local teens cruised through the parking lot in a scene from American Graffiti. Outside of town, night skies were dark and starry. Beyond the end of an unpaved road and a technical approach, Candlestick Tower felt remote. It remained undisturbed until late the next year, when I returned with John Byrd and John Denne. Byrd and I had been friends since our freshman days at UCSB. Both of us were self-taught climbers. We roomed together in college and shared coming-of-age adventures. He subsequently became an all-around outdoorsman based in Durango, with seasonal occupations that rotated among river rafting, mountain guiding and skiing. John Denne was a different kind of outdoorsman, who Leslie and I got to know during our year spent on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. His competence at basic skills -- how to gut a deer, work a chainsaw, deal with drunks -- helped us survive a cold winter in the badlands. (I sought to repay the favor, later, by helping him survive graduate school.) Denne's skills did not include climbing, but he was game. (Right: Hamilton on Candlestick Tower, pitch 3, 1974.)
Byrd, Denne and I retraced the approach that Ruwitch and I had followed the year before. We trudged through snow to spend a long December night camped below the tower, and the next day reconnoitered its base. Then, for vague reasons, we did not leave the ground. The weather looked uncertain, and the tower loomed too large. Out there on our own, there would be no support if a winter storm hit or we got into trouble. When Byrd and I confessed to being "not psyched," Denne expressed surprised that we would give up so easily. But he couldn't start leading either. I left a cache of hardware at the base, to promise myself I'd return. Grumpily, we reloaded our packs and began the long haul back to Island in the Sky. This required ascending our free-hanging fixed ropes, which proved to be the worst site for instruction. A struggle ensued when Denne's Jumar got jammed at the lip of an overhang. I descended from above, and Byrd came up from below, so that all three of us were swinging around on one goldline to resolve the situation. Daylight faded before our chastened party reached the rim. We could not find our tent in the darkness, and wandered for hours as snowflakes blew past.
After this ignominious failure of planning and will, I was more determined than ever to climb Candlestick Tower. When I met Byrd in Grand Junction a few months later (March 1974), en route to another attempt, I was accompanied by Jim Dunn, Ron Cox and Doug Snively. "Do you think you brought enough gunpower this time?" Byrd asked, bemused. The five of us drove back to Island in the Sky. We got an early start down the familiar approach, which was getting faster though not any more fun. By mid-afternoon we had reached the tower. Understanding that free routes were better, Dunn geared up to attempt an evil-looking offwidth crack. An hour later he had gained twenty feet, knocked down a hundred pounds or so of holds, and nearly fallen twice. His offers to relinquish the lead to someone fresh were met with weak laughter. Finally he was forced to retreat. Our disappointment at this failure a bit mixed with relief, we strolled over to a west-side aid line I'd seen on the previous trip. There in the heat of the evening sun I led the first pitch. (Right: Dunn on the last pitch of Candlestick Tower.)
At daybreak, Cox left us to go meditate in solitude. Dunn and Snively jumared to yesterday's high point, where Snively led the second pitch. From the ground, I shot what became a cover photo. Byrd and I caught up with the others as Dunn set to work on the rotten third pitch. Rocks, dirt and ominous remarks ("This whole ledge might come off!") rained down from him steadily, but he kept moving up through the crux. I followed, extracting his pitons with a few hammer taps. Then I grabbed the fourth lead, eager to get past the loose rock. Several bolts allowed me to circumvent a flake suspended wickedly above the belay. Soft aid and careful free moves led up the final corner, then onto the summit slopes. I tied the ropes to a large boulder and sat back, overwhelmingly happy to have climbed Candlestick Tower at last. Dunn came up second, and scrambled past me to the top. He had soon built a cairn. When the others arrived, someone balanced a camera, and took the summit photo that has stayed with me ever since. (Below: Jim Dunn, Doug Snively, John Byrd, Larry Hamilton atop Candlestick Tower, March 1974.)
Back at our bivouac that night, we held a party in the tower's shadow. There was a sense of wild exuberance, in a cosmic time and place. I recall being impressed by the stars, painfully bright overhead, and by the crashing fireworks of boulders that we trundled into a ravine below. When LA-to-Denver jets sailed silently through the starfield, six miles above us, we chose to believe they were UFOs.
In his retrospective 1970 Ascent article, Steve Roper suggested that "1962 marks the end of the golden age of desert climbing." I can see his point, although some might argue that there has been more than one golden age. In any event, the most spectacular spires of the canyon country, from Spider Rock (1956) to Moses (1972), had all been climbed before our 1974 ascent of Candlestick Tower. Envelope-pushing aid routes in the Fisher and Mystery Towers went up in the early 1970s. Throughout that decade, climbers -- Jim Dunn prominent among them -- established difficult lines up sandstone towers and walls, raising free standards and tracking down the remaining unclimbed summits. The milestone of Supercrack, in 1976, marked the arrival of a new era. Candlestick Tower had no importance in this climbing history. Two years of attempts had spanned a phase shift in my own life, however. On my first try in 1972, I was an unemployed climber, just getting to know the woman I invited along. By the time of the successful ascent, Leslie and I were married, and her influence had been deep. I was completing a degree, and moving toward a career that had been nowhere in sight when we first viewed the tower.
After our team hiked back from climbing Candlestick, we had a symbolic parting of the ways. Byrd, Cox and I drove east to resume other identities. Byrd returned to Durango, where he lives happily today -- now a member of the college faculty, as is his wife Shere. Taking the other path, Dunn and Snively stayed in the desert for more first ascents. Like his Boulder contemporary Roger Briggs, Jim Dunn would become one of the few early-70s pioneers who stayed right on the cutting edge, and was still authoring bold new 5.12 routes in the 90s.
As for others in this short story's large cast -- this ending is a work still in progress.
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