El Cap of The Desert. High Adventure! - Notch Peak: Western Hardman & Book of SaturdayDate:
It’s been a long damn time since I wrote a TR. Having move to Salt Lake almost 4 years ago didn’t help. But the fact was really that I wrote TR for my friends, and Facebook allowed me to do so a bit lazier since I all really care about when reading a TR are the photos, the grade, or a funny story/epic. Finally, there are so many climbs out here I haven’t done that are 4-5 star and have been done by others countless times. Not a lot of motivation to do new routes out here (although I’ve done a few and I think I posted the one on Wheeler Pk, NV). Anyway, here’s a TR from my new neck of the woods that doesn’t get a lot of traffic and is what I consider “TR” worthy.
I first saw a photo of the North Face of Notch Peak in a photo book on Utah. Since I should have surely heard of a climb on a face this big, I assumed it was unclimbed. Too cheap to buy the book, I quickly forgot the title and name of the peak. A year or so went by and I rediscover it when a climbing partner of mine, James Garrett, told me of a Half Dome sized route, square in the middle of the salt-flat badlands of the West Desert of Utah and Eastern Nevada.
The mountain is called Notch Peak, and is located in the House Range near the desolate Utah/Nevada border. The north face rises 2200’ straight up out of the Tooele-hardpan (salt flats) and is a limestone/dolomite conglomerate. The center of the face is split by a giant ramp connecting the lower with the upper face. The lower face houses two routes, Appetite for Destruction (a 5.12- mixed trad/bolt nightmare), and Western Hardman ( 5.11 mixed trad/bolt). The upper face has two routes, and obscure wandering line (swiss route 5.10) and a straight-up plumb (Book of Saturday 5.11 mixed trad/bolt). Both lines together total over 25 pitches of trad climbing on limestone, mixed in with some welcome bolts, and a couple pure “sport” pitches. Both routes are a masterpiece of perseverance by the FA parties since anyone who’s ever put up a limestone route knows how loose and dangerous new lines on that rock are.
Notch is in a pretty cool spot, and the north face terrorizes the valley below like an Evil Half Dome in some bizarro desert Yosemite. Ibex is across the valley and offers world class bouldering, and 1-6 pitch trad and sport climbing on unique sandstone/quartzite. It lays directly above the salt flats, and you could literally land an airplane at the base of the routes. Many a drunken climber speed race (I got my Taco up to 110mph), weapons display (someone brought an Ak-47 once), or just crazy party (I got drunk on hard seahorse juice with Tim Toula once) has occurred in this place. A climber’s Burning Man. Down the road is Marjum Canyon, a shady limestone sport climbing area. Deep in the range is Crystal Peak: a pure white pyramidal mountain, absolutely crazy. Finally, just below Notch Peak, lining the canyon walls is Paintbrush Springs. Paintbrush springs is a lifetime of 1-7 pitch pink granite spires and slabs, al la’ Joshua tree. Check out James Garrett’s Ibex guide (new ed coming soon) for more details.
MAKING OF A NEMESIS
How many trips does it take to climb the entire NF of Notch? I lost count. I originally tried dragging my wife up there. The plan was to hike up and stash bivy gear (10 liters of water too) on the midway ledge, hike back down and climb up to it. We got rained out on the first attempt, but we left our kit there, and camped back at the car to save water after a side trip into town for dinner to kill time. Delta, UT is the closest town (60miles away), and is the apex of shitty, sketchy, small town Utah. Don’t be different. I’ve had enough sketchy experiences to know not to tell locals where you are camping, or what you are doing. My wife did not. She told some crazy f’d-up local at the gas station who asked (people that start conversations at the gas station are almost always nuts) what we were doing. He said that he owned some grazing land behind the peak, and sometimes drives an ATV to the top.
So the next morning Britne, my wife, and I slogged back up the canyon to our bivy, having decided to just climb the upper route. The canyon narrows into a tight slot with several fixed ropes, including an ancient rope ladder. The face is directly above. I was standing on a cliff in the canyon while Britne was batmaning up the rope when the first rock fell – directly behind her. I hear another falling like a missile, and instantly grabbed Britne by the pack and threw her up above the cliff. BLAM! BLAM! Two more came, and more were coming. “Run!”, I screamed! We sprinted down the slot canyon with rock, and in fact, medium sized boulder came screaming down and exploding in front and behind us. Just up ahead was the rope ladder, which came up out of a cave. “Dive!” We both jumped into the cave. The assault continued. The rope ladder was hit and the deafening slam of the boulders on top of the cave was not reassuring us of the structural integrity of the cave. It was, in fact, a cave created by chockstones – and the roof of stone could collapse on our heads. “WE HAVE TO GET OUT OF HERE!!!!” But it was like the asteroid scene in the movie Armageddon. I was white with fear and Britne was crying hysterically.
Then, after about 15 minutes (I timed it) we heard voices on the summit, and what we thought to be the sound of a motor. We screamed and screamed, but they continued to shower rocks and boulders (assisted by an atv?) off the summit. For 90 minutes. I was eager to just bolt for it, but Britne wouldn’t have it so we agreed that if an hour passed without a rock falling, we’d run like hell for the car.
Back in Delta, finding the cops was impossible since it was the 3rd of July, and Delta takes this weekend very very seriously. It was a clusterfuck of parades, kids, rednecks, and noise. Not a place to be dealing with PTSD. I really wanted to file a police report, but I literally could not get a cop to talk to me and the station was closed. I wanted a cool place to lay down and watch t.v. more than retribution, so I didn’t bother with 911. We got a crappy motel and planned on going back the next day to get our shit. Forget about climbing it.
The cannon went off at 5am. It also went off a 5:15, 5:30, 5:45, etc… until the local party planning committee made damn sure that the entire town was up at the ass crack of dawn to celebrate our independence. Going back to get our shit was an exercise in mind control. There is no way to avoid the narrows, fixed ropes, or back to the wall traversing across the open face. Somehow out tent was not swiss cheese. We escaped quickly with the worst, most unorganized job of packing I’ve ever done.
My wife was no longer a willing partner so I had to call in the big guns: Marcus Donaldson. Marcus was willing, but he strangely changed subjects or faded out of the conversation when I told him of my prior experience. The plan was the same – stash gear halfway up and climb the lower routes to the bivy. We camped on midway ledge and hiked down early one frosty October morning and began up Western Hardman. The route is excellent, offing 13 pitches of some purely bolted pitches, some fully trad pitches (including the 5.11 crux pitch which is all trad!), and some mixed. Once on top of the climb, we were on the ½ way ledge, but still ¼ mile from the bivy and upper route. A long traverse, with sometimes really scary steep talus crossing above cliffs, brought us home to our bivy. We passed below the NE ridge which is the route La Fin Du Monde, a 12 pitch mixed route to the top. Looks kinda fun. Unfortunately for me, Marcus was done with the peak, mostly due to low water. 10 L is ok for Britne and me since we’re used to the desert, for not quite enough for someone almost a foot taller than me. Still, I was psyched to have half the peak completed. Now to find a sucker for the upper face which was reportedly “a lot more serious”. Great, a lot more serious than a 5.11 trad route called Western Hardman.
Having come so close, I was on a full-on mission to climb the upper face. After a year, the trauma wore off, and Britne was interested in giving it another go. We decided to wait until after the 4th of July and on a weekday to lower the chances of getting a rock dropped on us again. To be proactive, we decided to hike to the top on the hikers trail around the other side of the peak. It’s a pretty cool spot, with meadows, canyons, and a severely creepy abandoned stone house. On top, we could not see signs of ATV, nor could we see a way to drive one up. Were the voices real? We’ll never know, but in all my years climbing, I’ve never seen a 1-2 hour burst of concentrated heavy rockfall on a cliff-face. We left a big sign at the trail head warning hikers that people do indeed climb the face below which they stand, and that tossing a rock could be murder.
Since we waited until late July, it was too damn hot to climb (we were probably really just making excuses). So we hiked out and got another room in Delta. The new plan: sleep all day, wake up at midnight, and get to the route pre-dawn to beat the heat. That night was moonless and cloudy, and we stumbled around the canyon I’d been up way too many times. Somehow we found a side-canyon and wound up way way above the valley floor, totally in the wring place. We backtracked, and in the stillness of night, we were sweating our asses off. Fuck it.
Britne was out for good. The place freaked her out (it does have a spooky feel), and she wasn’t sure she’d be able to climb it in the first place. I was a bit relieved since I’d have to lead every pitch. Of all people, I convinced my real estate agent to give it a go! For the millionth time, I slogged up the canyon. We decided to camp just before the narrows, and do the approach/climb/descent the same day. He brought his handgun, and we had a blast blowing shit up. The climb also went smoothly the next day, and 13 pitches of full on limestone trad/sport brought me to the summit … finally! The route, Book of Saturday, was a bit more intense. One pitch goes up and over a massive limestone drip (a tuffa) that hangs out like a snaggletooth – 2500 feet above the valley floor. Another pitch had two bolts in 50 meter with no other gear. My most exciting besides actively braking holds off of the 5.11 crux, was the run-out 10c pitch. I was paying so much attention to gear opportunities, that I skipped two bolts. – making the runout on 10c (and fellas, grades in the intermountain west are a LOT stiffer than the PNW) a lot lot lot worse.
So that’s my Notch Peak TR. This all occurred between 2008 and 2010. It won’t be until 2012 until I can manage to drag my ass back there to link both routes in a day, or have an easier day on La Fin Du Monde. Maybe Britne wants to come???
I’m surprised this face doesn’t get more press in the climbing world. It’s supposed to be the 2nd biggest cliff in the lower 48, below El Cap (although I still think ½ dome and Mox are bigger), and it is in just the most absolutely wild area. Between this, Ibex, and the other climbing nearby, the West Desert could be a climbers paradise….if only there was a town nearby. Wheeler Peak’s NE face is just down the road an hour or two. Check out the TR from the ground up FA my buddy and I did on that sucker. It makes Notch seem like a safe Squamish slab in comparison.
Since adding photos is still a royal pain in the ass, these are in no particular order
wrong way at night canyon
Book of saturday
The upper wall
looking down book of Sat
Book of Sat
Britne happy...not for long
last fixed rope
looking down the rope ladder with cave below
on western hardman
me and marcus
on western hardman
Marcus below upper face
Me below upper face (book of saturday is above)
going up the rope ladder
high on book of sat
Upper face from top of Western Hardman
on western hardman
looking down from w.hardman
marcus on w.hardman
upper pitch on w.hardman
on book of sat
high up on w.hardman
Marcus and britne (sep trips) on the bivy ledge
summit shot with Ibex and Tooele hardpan below
britne below headwall
part of the cirque
again, notch with painter springs granite belowGear Notes:
cams, nuts, and draws. 2 ropes to rap.
Most imporant: willing partners/hardmen/hardwomen(wives, realtors, friendly giants)Approach Notes:
up the wash, wear a helmet.