The toppling of a colossal block of sandstone effectively destroyed a popular rock climbing route earlier this month. The collapse of the first section of the ‘Jah Man’ route, located on a tower called Sister Superior above Castle Valley, went unreported until this week as the rock was shrouded in low-hanging clouds.
“It was a high-quality piece of climbing,” said Greg Child, a well-known climber, mountaineer and author who has published many articles and several books about his experiences in the mountains. He has lived in Castle Valley for over 20 years.
Child said Castle Valley residents heard the “boom” of the rockfall on Jan. 3, but the lingering inversion brought the clouds so low that nothing distinct could be seen from the valley or foothills.
“Until the clouds lifted, which was only in the last three days, I don’t think anyone could see it,” Child said.
When visibility improved, the fallen pillar was evident.
Based on an analysis of before and after photos, estimated dimensions of the block, and the average density of sandstone, local scientist Chris Benson roughly calculated that the amount of rock that fell could be around 11 million pounds.
The pillar was essential to the first part of the climbing route, which involved “chimneying” between the detached pillar and the main tower for around 70 feet. With this pillar now gone, it remains to be seen how climbers will attempt the route.
When the clouds had cleared, Child hiked to a viewpoint of the route and took a photo, which he shared on the popular rock climbing hub www.mountainproject.com, reporting “First pitch of the popular Jah Man, on Sister Superior near Castle Valley, crashed off recently…Posting this before people start the pilgrimage to this tower.”
The route is well-known, featured in many guidebooks, and many climbers from other states or even other countries are likely to have had it on their “bucket lists.” Some members of the climbing community were so stunned they questioned whether it was true.
“There was quite a bit of speculation that it was a hoax,” said Child. “I think that the doubts are put to bed now.”
Since Child posted the news, others have hiked up to see for themselves, including Jason Ringenberg, a writer and climber who shared the news on the Moab Gear Trader website. Ringenberg wrote that the route had “become one of the most famous and beloved climbs in the desert.”
“The climbing community will miss this one,” read Ringenberg’s post.
Local climbers agree that the route was a gem.
“Until this happened,” Child said, “it enjoyed a kind of a place in local climbing as one of the really pleasant routes to do. A lot of the routes around here are a bit of a thrash, you have to beat yourself up to get up stuff. And [Jah Man] was just a really pleasant climb.”
“It’ll be sorely missed, that’s for sure,” agreed Nate Sydnor, owner of local guiding company Moab Desert Adventures.
The company offered guided climbs up Jah Man, as well as several other towers, for their more experienced clients.
Sydnor said Jah Man was probably the third- or fourth-most popular tower with guests, after Ancient Art in the Fisher Towers area and Castleton Tower, which is in the same area as Jah Man.
“It does leave a little hole,” Sydnor said of the loss of the route. “It’s unfortunate, for the time being, that that won’t be really an acceptable tower [to guide]. It definitely is one of the most classic for the grade, but there are some others around that we can substitute.”
“Grade” refers to the difficulty rating of the route. Jah Man was rated “5.10c” using the Yosemite Decimal System, a fairly moderate rating for a desert tower.
“It definitely is an all-time classic,” he said. “A lot of people would probably consider that route to be one of, if not the, best, for the difficulty, in the area.”
Herb Crimp, owner of the local guiding company Desert Highlights, echoed those very words.
“It’s an all-time classic,” he said of the route.
Desert Highlights did not guide clients up Jah Man, but Crimp said he has climbed the route 12 to 15 times himself.
“It just spurs you to climb as many towers as you can before they fall over,” said Crimp of the unexpected collapse.
“Layton Kor, he said it best when he said, ‘we don’t climb the towers because they’re there, but because they won’t always be there.’”
Kor was a prolific pioneer of routes in the 1960s who put up lines in the Moab area, including the famous Kor-Ingalls route on Castleton Tower.
Crimp remembered fondly how the top of the now-fallen pillar created a comfortable ledge from which to belay the next pitch of the route.
“The pillar that fell away was so massive,” he observed. “It’s rare for something of that scale to come down.”
“That rock layer is the Wingate Sandstone,” explained Benson. “Vertical joints in the Wingate Sandstone tend to create planes of weakness in the rocks. Moisture finds its way into these weaknesses and when it freezes, it expands, sometimes causing rock failure.”
Benson also noted that the base of the fallen pillar had sat at an intersection of the Wingate layer and another type of rock called the Chinle Formation.
“The underlying Chinle Formation contains siltstones and shales, which are prone to mass movements related to absorption of water,” Benson said.
While the type of rock layers give some clue to the underlying instability, ultimately, Benson said, “it’s hard to speculate what could have triggered this event.”
He suggested that the inversion of the past few weeks could have allowed moisture to seep into those cracks and weaknesses, as well as saturating the soils below the tower. Cold temperatures would have frozen the moisture, causing expansion, and “the process of frost-shattering or a slope failure below in the Chinle Formation triggered the rockfall,” Benson hypothesized.
Crimp recalled other rock falls at climbing areas in recent years, such as the Cobra Tower in the Fisher Towers area. Cobra Tower had a unique shape, with a narrow base and a bulky top, that led climbers to predict that Cobra Tower would fall over for years before the event, and their predictions played out in 2014, when the tower fell, apparently due to natural causes.
Crimp said he wasn’t exactly expecting the pillar on Jah Man to fall off, but that it’s not unbelievable either.
“Definitely when you’re climbing it, you get a sense of the delicate and transient nature of the stone out there,” he said.
Sandstone in the Moab area is particularly soft and crumbly when wet, which is why climbers in the area strictly wait for dry conditions to practice their sport.
“It harkens back to staying off of wet rock,” Crimp said, “because if that stuff is happening when it is wet, it’s a good example of what could happen to your handholds.”
Other routes lead to the summit of the Sister Superior tower, but Jah Man was the least difficult option. Now the climbing community is wondering who will re-establish Jan Man by finding a way up the new, exposed face.
“It’ll be fun to see if there’s any way to get up to that super classic route without it being too hard,” said Crimp. “Someone’s going to have to get creative. There’s probably a new free climb just waiting to be done now.”
“We’ll find out what that first pitch ends up being like, once somebody looks at it and sees if it’s possible,” said Syndor. “It’s likely, if it is possible, to be much harder.”
“I would speculate someone is going to try to climb the pitch at some point,” said Child, adding that he won’t be surprised if it happens as soon as next month, once the rock is dry and temperatures rise.
“Well, really hard,” Child said, venturing that it might be as hard as 5.13, a grade feasible only by very advanced climbers.
He added that the first obstacle will be navigating all the rubble left from the crumbling of the pedestal that once supported the well-known pillar.