Desert Treasures: Climbing New Routes in the San Rafael Swell

The author, Ari Schneider, climbing pitch one on the first ascent of the Gummy Worm Buttress. Photo by Lane Mathis

By Ari Schneider

Ari is a freelance writer, climber, and 2019 ROAM Awards Essay Winner

Dakota Walz thrashed up the second pitch of a brutal offwidth crack, propelling himself with his knees and elbows jammed in the crevasse like he was performing some unorthodox, death defying swim stroke. This was a new route, never attempted before, up a beautiful sandstone buttress in the San Rafael Swell.

If he fell at that point, he would’ve gone for a dangerous ride. His last piece of protection was a 7-inch cam about 20-feet below him. Above that, the crack became too wide to place any further gear. He would have to run it out to the top.

He paused for a moment and yelled down to me at the belay. “Ari, I can almost squeeze all the way into the crack, but my knot is in the way!” Dakota tied into his harness with a big figure-eight knot—as is custom—but the knot was keeping him from slipping his hips into the crack so he could climb inside it like a chimney. This would make the climbing much more secure and much less strenuous. Dakota would just have to figure out how to get in.

“I’m going to untie from my harness, then I’ll re-tie the rope around my waist belt,” Dakota said.

I was speechless. Untying on lead is never recommended, and tying just around the waist band instead of through the two hard points at the front of the harness could result in a painful and potentially dangerous inverted catch. But this would allow Dakota to move the knot to the side of his hip, out of the way so he could fit into the chimney.

Dakota clipped himself directly to a tipped-out cam jammed desperately into the crack—enough to hold his body-weight but questionable to catch a fall. I held my breath as I watched him quickly move his knot to the side.

***

The San Rafael Swell, also known as “The Swell,” is a land of sandstone canyons and towers in central Utah, home to the Fremont, Paiute and Ute people, rich in desert plant life and microorganisms. It also hosts some of the longest climbs in Utah. But the rock there isn’t like the famed wingate sandstone split by aesthetic cracks found in nearby Indian Creek. Instead, it’s a playground for the most adventurous of climbers who fear no choss, nor fiddly gear, nor pitons pounded into what amounts to dried mud. The established routes are few and far between considering the vast amount of rock out there. Thus, the opportunities in The Swell are endless for those keen on climbing challenging first ascents.

Dakota found this particular feature—a prow of fairly solid sandstone jutting out from a miles-long cliff of otherwise crumbly unclimbable rock—while wandering desert canyons in search of future climbs. He aptly named it the “Gummy Worm Buttress” after its squiggly topographical appearance.

Dakota recruited me and photographer Lane Mathis in October 2019 to help him develop new climbs there. I trusted Dakota and Lane, even though this was my first time climbing with them. All three of us had track records of first ascents in other parts of The Swell, and I felt confident that we would make a good team.

We saw no one else during the few days we spent there. The solitude of The Swell is a gift, a delightful reprieve from the hectic crowds of the more popular climbing destinations in the region. But if anything was to go wrong, we would be on our own.

I led the first pitch, a nice corner that started with a layback finger crack that gradually widened into an offwidth requiring such moves called chicken wings and hand-fist stacks. Near the top, I climbed between a giant flake and the opposing wall. Suspicious of the flake’s integrity, I gave it a few taps. It sounded solid enough near its base. Nevertheless, l continued up it warily.

I established a belay off to the side, and brought Dakota up. Then, as Dakota stepped out on top of the flake to begin leading the second pitch of our route, I saw it wobble ever so slightly. The shift was subtle. Even Dakota, while he was on top of it, didn’t notice it move.

My jaw dropped. “Dakota, dude, that thing is about to rock off!”

“What?” He replied. He looked down at his feet, then back up to me—his eyes wide and his face pale.

He clipped directly into a cam to keep himself from riding the flake down the wall like a surfboard, then carefully pried the top four feet of it away from the wall with a gentle flick of his foot. A giant block of stone tore away from the wall and crashed down below, leaving scars on the route, exploding as it hit the ground where Dakota had been belaying me from just moments before. We paused for a moment, silently acknowledging our narrow brush with disaster (which you can watch here).

Dakota kept moving upward, high above the point where he chose to re-tie the rope around the outside of his waist. With each move he yelled at full volume, igniting his motivation to continue climbing. He had no other choice. His last piece of protection was so far below that giving up or falling were no longer options.

Off to the side, Lane hung from a fixed rope taking photos. He swung back and forth in the cold autumn wind. Shivering, and disassociated from the intensity of Dakota’s efforts while viewing them through his camera lens, Lane asked, “Is the wind coming all the way through the crack?” The chimney Dakota was climbing opened all the way through the back of the Gummy Worm Buttress, creating a tunnel for air to blast through.

Dakota snapped back, “I don’t know, man. I’m just trying to not die right now!” Dakota, engaged in the climbing, facing severe consequences, and focused deep in his zone, would not later recall having said that.

That night, we told him the story of his plight. He laughed, reflected, and said, “I probably wouldn’t have died. It just feels like it sometimes.”

After a gripping hour of desperate climbing, Dakota pulled himself up on top of the formation and let out a scream of success across the desert. He took us to the top—safe and sound through uncertainty and excitement, through a battle that revealed the spirit of climbing new routes in The Swell.

It was scary and beautiful, it required friendship and trust, and it demanded strength beyond physical climbing ability. Those are the kinds of routes I live for. It was an adventure at its purest, and it was exactly what I hoped to find in that stunning sandstone wilderness.

X