A pre-dawn mission up stolen chimney

Photo Essay: Summiting Ancient Art Tower

Photo Essay By Photo by AP and Catherine Sawula
Click the arrow to follow the ascent.

The sun still hadn’t crested the Colorado River when our dust-covered van pulled into the Fisher Towers trailhead parking lot. We were gloriously alone in the red rock desert. Many of the desert climbs that Moab, Utah is famous for are packed from the early season in March and April until the first snow begins falling in November. Our pre-dawn mission to climb the Stolen Chimney route up Ancient Art Tower had been precisely timed to avoid spring crowds on the rock, and after a few light storms the previous days and an ungodly wake-up call, we had the crag to ourselves.

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First climbed by Bill Roos and Paul Sibley in 1969, Ancient Art is easily one of the most iconic traditional rock climbs in North America. Stolen Chimney links together a relatively easy boulder field start, 100-foot sandstone chimney, and finally, a long, pumpy face climb on an exposed arête to the summit.

The tower is tall enough, and there are enough technical issues, that it must be climbed in short sections, called pitches. An early boulder scramble that quickly turns vertical gives way to the main portion of the route. The second pitch is a study in classic chimney climbing: imagine wedging yourself between two cliffs with just enough space to put your back and knees against the rock — this complicated by the fact that the Moenkopi sandstone that makes up the entirety of the climb is extremely brittle. This type of climbing is simple enough in principle, but involves more skill that just plain brute force, especially to keep moving up without raining chunks of rock and mud down on climbers below you.

What puts the tower on the bucketlist, though, is its particularly nasty top section. The final corkscrew summit is reached by some creative gymnastics, belly flopping on a couple of exposed ledges (800 foot drops in every direction), and finally hauling yourself to the top. Once there, you can only stand on an area that’s not much larger than the Eames Chair sitting in your office.