Saturday 8 February 2014


Climbing the Corkscrew, Ancient Art Formation, Fisher Towers
There is a very special place to be found near Moab, that seems to bring out the most vigorous in us, youngster and veteran alike. It is a landscape of gothic spires, full of Gaudi-esque delicacy and statuesque grandeur, and of a color not unlike the brown baked bricks on church towers you can observe in ancient cities on the Southern Baltic coast. Walking amongst surreal sculptures, ambling below towers as large as skyscrapers and descending into canyons like avenues on Manhattan, and all of that in the clear air of nature unencumbered by the activities of modern city life, renders you hilarious and eager to exploit your physical capacity to the fullest.

Kingfisher Tower and Ancient Art Formation in early morning shade
If your are still young, your dearest wish is to acclaim the crest of any vertical incline you meet along the way, however funky and difficult. But climbing is just the beginning of your exercise. Why not add to it by jumping from the highest tops, parachute or glider at your back, and fully savoring the red cliffs you pass by on your way down, as well as, in the far distance, vermillion plateaus beckoning you to come closer, and even the silver ribbon of the Colorado resting in lazy slings along high cliffs to the West.

If that would prove too easy, why not put a line between some high tops and test your slack-lining skills by balancing from peak to peak? There is no end to activities to satisfy your thirst for adventure in between those miracle towers! You don't believe me? Well, take a look at this VIDEO! Pictures say more than a thousand words.

By now you could have guessed that I am talking about the Fisher Towers of fame, reachable in just half an hour by car from Moab, following a beautiful road upstreams the Colorado river.

Travelling North on Utah Route 128 in the Colorado River Valley 
The closeness to civilization of this fountain of youth, as well as the compactness of the scenery (there is but one trail to see it all, taking only 4 hours roundtrip), is very tempting for anyone, not only the youngsters. Even us veterans get wings under our feet when treading under those brick red giants and, believe it or not, doddlers flatly refuse to be carried by their parents, insisting on walking the walk, on unsteady small paddies and being blessedly unconcerned with the dangers of slanting slick rock and unsecured crevices. As proof, why not click on this BLOG POST to watch a baby girl having fun on the slopes!

There is only one drawback, and it concerns dog owners. About mid-distance on the trail, there is a deep cleft to cross, where the park services have put a ladder, so you can descend easily on the slippery stones. This proves a ladder too far for men's best friend and many a master has been forced to cut short his adventure tour so as not to miss the company of his dear companion.

Where dogs won't tread
With all this excitement going on, does it surprise you that companies have joined in, to get recognition for themselves with commercials from the area? Indeed, there is an iconic video, produced by Citibank, that you may wish to have a glance at. In particular, Members of the fairer sex among you readers should definitely click on this PIECE. It will tickle your feminist sensitivities, I am sure!

Climber on top of "Corkscrew". Screenshot from Citbank Commercial
But enough of these trivia. Time is too short to neglect the grand scheme of geologic progress! The Fisher Towers can be understood to be the last outpost, on its Northeastern side, of the grand Colorado Plateau. It is as if nature, with its powers of erosion, had decided to make there a last big effort in creating beauty and amazing scenery, before moving on to the task of grinding away at the Rockies in Colorado to the East.

The towers are mainly built up of the so called Organ Rock sandstone formation. This is a very old stone stratum, contained within the Cutler Sandstone Group. Those of you readers that crave a deeper understanding of this intriguing stratum, are encouraged to study this pedagogical ARTICLE. The lesser mortals among you may still be interested to hear that Organ Rock sandstone has about the same age (just a bit less) as the Mesa Verde Sandstone and (just a bit more than) the White Rim Sandstone. In fact, all three strata are contained in the Cutler family, which was formed in Earth' old age, in the Permian Period. So we have covered almost the whole Cutler group within three blog posts, quite a substantial achievement, don't you think?

Organ Rock stone is rather brittle and easily eroded by the forces of the seasons. This explains, why the towers' sides have a muddy look to them, as if a giant were constantly occupied with throwing big slabs of that sticky material at them.

Kingfisher Tower, "mud"-clad, with highest top protected by Moenkopi "cap"
How is it possible for large spires of Organ Rock to survive, despite the material's brittleness? Well, it is precisely that characteristic that helped to form them in the first place. The tops of the tallest spires look a bit darker than their main body. The reason is that they consist of a younger, but much hardier stone strait, from the Moenkopi Formation. These hardened "caps" are protecting the spires from above, whilst the seasons are busy with eating away at the sides. As result, we can admire not only the slimmest, but also the tallest free-standing natural towers in the Americas. Does it still surprise you that visitors get exhilarated simply by approaching them?


None of the above I knew, of course, when starting our last hike in Utah on an early morning, still dewy from nightly chill. I do not usually indulge in research prior to a trip, be it hiking or otherwise, much preferring to get fresh impressions from any activity about to engage in. So, at the outset, the Fisher Towers were an unknown entity for yours truly.

We were off to an early start from Moab, that morning, but I still managed to take a quick memorial shot of the garden in back of our cosy inn, as a "Goodbye" to a nice place where we had spent five pleasant nights. 

Autumn morning in garden of Sunflower Hill Inn, Moab
The trip to the Fisher Towers was pleasant enough, presenting us with fresh morning views of the Colorado River valley, this time from below, so to speak. But soon we had to leave the river, taking a dirt road towards the right, which was winding its way lazily Eastward. Then came the first surprise: in the clear morning air, suddenly, around a bend, emerged a group of voluptuous red spires and walls, like the ruins of an ages old Babylonian city state. They appeared almost pink in color when you glanced at them with squinting eyes – due to the sun shining against us and the towers being in shade.

As soon as we arrived at the trail head I rushed out of the car and started shooting off with the camera. One of the shots turned out quite nicely, you can perceive the result as the second picture from the top above.

I will never forget the views that met us that morning in the lucid light engulfing the scenery. Unfortunately, I was too carried away to get really good compositions with the camera to show for it. Let me nonetheless present you with an additional view, this time away from the towers, in an Easterly direction. This view shows the plateau lying thither of Onyon Valley, the latter putting an abrupt end to the Towers region, as you will see further on in the story.

View Northeast from Fisher Towers Trailhead
After having climbed a bit upwards from the trailhead (as usual, I am tempted to state), we reached the basin you see above, which stretched widely Eastward; to our surprise the trail seemed to tend in the same direction, away from the mighty towers we by then were eager to explore. Still, it provided us with a marvelous view, even if it took us away from the main scenery.

Far on the horizon, we could glance some vermillion formations that border on Castle Valley. These rocks are famous among climbers who have tired of getting excited about the Fisher Towers. The lonely tower to the far left there is called Castleton Tower, and the formation just to the right of it consists of the Refectory. It has a slim tower at its right, called The Priest. Another tower, Sister Superior, is almost hidden behind the next hill, showing only its top over it. Here is another treat for the fairer sex: don't hesitate to click on this VIDEO. You may wish to jump directly to minute 6.15, to see an engaging young lady climb Castleton Tower without ropes and thereupon jump off the top.

The hike begins: Castle Valley towers on the horizon
To our delight, the trail soon turned around and led us to the feet of the great towers we were looking forward to investigate. There began an arduous half hour of clawing our way upwards, but we hardly noticed the hardship since the high risers started to beckon behind each curve, getting more visible by the minute.

Approaching the Fisher Towers. Kingfisher Tower in the background
Still, there was a long way yet to climb. We had to round the towers at their "root" towards the right and start the main access from the opposite side of those walls. Whereas they beckoned pink in the shade, they would soon start to shine in brick-red when lighted by the sun, after we had arrived at their frontside at long last. And now came the first reward for our troubles. Before us the huge amphitheater of cathedral towers was opening up, and the wonderland of gothic spires became ours to enjoy!

Fisher Towers Amphitheater: Ancient Art Formation at left, Kingfisher Tower at center
Our trail would eventually arrive at the towers towards the right – and not even yet in the picture. But there was yet a lot of climbing to do and distance to cover. Now and then, I turned around and took pictures in the opposite direction. Here is the last one still showing Castle Valley, wishing us for now "Goodbye and Au Revoir".

Backward look at Castle Valley
After half an hour's continuing navigation along tower flanks, over and around large boulders, we arrived at one of the highlights of the trip, Cottontail Tower. It was time for a little snack by then, since the trail, all in all, is not overly long, but rather strenuous, at least for this old-timer. Whilst munching on a sandwich, I couldn't help feeling rather small, sitting under this enormous spire, with neck aching from constantly angling the head upwards to take it all in. 

The picture does not really give the structure credit; all tall towers appear small with the camera angling upwards when taking their portrait. Especially if taken on the forefront, like here. But, to give you a general idea of its height, I was looking at a top at least 300 meters above me, a bit like admiring the Empire State Building from below.

The Group of Eight picnicking at the front of Cottontail Tower. Kingfisher Tower  to the left
And a good idea it was to take a rest under that top. The continued journey would prove the most adventurous part of the hike. Once having approached the right flank of the tower, there yawned a deep canyon we had to navigate, by first climbing down along the Tower's base and than bridging a gulch, ultimately the cleft where dogs will not tread. You can see the start of this precarious descent in the picture below. Please note that I could only get about half of the Tower's height into the picture. This confirms what I meant earlier, the Cottontail Tower being one hell of a tower!

Right flank of  Cottontail Tower
Start of canyon trail along Cottontail Tower's foot
Let me shortly interrupt this engaging story by a lament and condemnation! Have a look at the picture below, taken of a fellow hiker from our group just when she ascended out of the cleft where dogs will not tread. It looks a bit strange doesn't it, as if an amateur was trying to mimic the artistic flair of a painter in watercolors!

I assure you that I had nothing to do with this. My otherwise trusty Nikon suddenly chose to get difficult on me and started to produce only these watercolor imitations whilst I was busy documenting our descent into the void. This destroyed a lot of engaging pictures for me, I can tell you! Those pictures have been "baked" by the Nikon and there is nothing I can do to change them back.

Nikon camera getting funky on me!
How is it possible for a camera to disobey its Master in such an atrocious manner? It appears that there is a wheel on top of the camera (a Nikon D5200), with which to choose various modes of exposure. I always leave that wheel on "A", which means that I choose the opening of the lens and the camera chooses the shutter speed. By the way, I can recommend this method for anyone, it works smoothly most of the time. Just put your lens opening at f 8 and fire away with exposure mode "A". 

But Nikon has decided to go much further in the range of possible exposure modes, in fact they offer fully 13 modes. A bit over the top, I think. But the important issue is that this wheel is easily turned around. Many a times, when I am in a hurry to lift the camera out of its holder and shoot away, the lifting of the camera will inadvertently turn the wheel and give me a funky exposure mode like the one we see an example of above. What a design miss! Shame on you, Nikon, for not putting a safety lock on that wheel. It wouldn't be that much of an effort, would it?

View Northeast from Cottontail Canyon
Let's console ourselves with the only real picture the camera chose to offer me whilst we were toiling ahead in the deep canyon. It is taken in a Northeast direction, about to where the trail is heading towards its bitter end. With the mid-day sun shining against me at an angle, the sun-lit cliff took on a very special red shine, contrasted by the vermillion glow of the shadowed cliffs in the background. Nothing compares with the powers of a real picture!

With this, we can leave the canyon behind us and get on to greater things. For, as we stumbled over the ridge bordering the void, the main attraction of the day came to sight: the Mother of all Towers rose before us in its red majesty! None less than The Titan greated us with solemn calm. Make no mistake, this is the tallest – natural – free-standing spire in the Americas. I had to add the word "natural", since there are skyscrapers taller than the Titan, but only three of them in the Americas!

The Titan in all his majesty!
It almost hurt the eyes – and mind – to stand close to it and being forced to lean your head backward as far as you could, so as not to miss one single inch of this red giant. It is so forbidding that nobody dared to try its ascent until the early 1960s. First after several timid exploratory efforts, a group of three very experienced climbers, Layton Kor, Huntley Ingalls and George Hurley finally managed the deed and arrived at the top on 13 May 1962. 

As example of the difficulties they had to face, they later told an amazed audience that they often had to dig almost half a meter through mud-like surface before being able to fasten their piton on solid rock. They climbed the last stretch of the route together and, after reaching the top, Ingalls later wrote: "It was a strange, awesomely isolated place, a flat, rough area of bare orange sandstone about 70 feet [21 meters] long and 40 feet [12 meters] wide. Its boundary was the free air. It overhung the body of the tower below it, which plunged in rippling bulges and converging fluted ribs to the distant desert floor." (National Geographic Magazine, November 1962) 

Even if much water has run under the bridge since then, this 1962 first ascent of the Titan is considered a landmark in American desert climbing. It showed that skilled and brave climbers, using techniques developed in much firmer granite stone in Yosemite Valley at that time, could successfully climb the most fearsome sandstone towers. Nowadays, of course, everyone and his grandmother is following their lead, sometimes even without piton and rope. 

The Group of Eight dwarfed by The Titan. Peak of Cottontail Tower at far left
Does it surprise you that we made haste to put some space between us and this cathedral among towers, the more so since the trail led us to a nice viewpoint, from which we could study the behemoth from a safe distance? The tower's uphill position, as well as its height lead it to dominate all other structures in the vicinity. Look how small Cottontail Tower appears in comparison, even if we had perceived it as a monster of a tower just half an hour earlier!

But let us not dally here, time to get on with our hike! There followed a long stretch of relatively easy trampling on a level, but gravely surface, until it was time for the next wonder of nature: a tiny natural arch we had to bow under, the only one to exist in this region of giants.

And here it is, in all its humble splendor! Anyone wishing to follow the trail to Trail's End has actually to go through this trap. There is no other way to continue the trip! After the passage you tend downhills for a hundred meters, before ascending the goal of the hike, a ridge the top of which you can just about glance on the upper left of the picture, and to the left of the two towers you can notice there.

The "Big Bro Arch", tiny but shiny! 

Isn't it nice to pay homage to a small wonder of nature for a change?

Bowing under Big Bro Arch
The continuing hike was somewhat embarrassing. We clearly could see the ridge to reach in front of us, but the trail had disappeared mysteriously. Even our guide had to amble around a while until he found a path upwards that appeared to be the right one. But not to worry, upwards we trotted and arrived eventually at the ridge.

This gave us a marvelous view of the Towers, as well as the valley below, all the way down to the Colorado. Unfortunately, since this was midday with a clear sky, there were no contrasts to be found in that direction, so I don't have any pictures to show for it. You just have to trust my word that this was indeed an outstanding panorama.

It seemed that we had reached the end of the trail, since the ridge ended rather abruptly on a huge boulder that seemingly barred all further progress. I was very surprised to see this, since, some ten meters below us, there was another ridge, angled towards our's at about 90 degrees. Furthermore, there were people on that ridge, that seemed much more eager than us to enjoy the scenery!

"Nu var goda råd dyra!" (Good advice was sorely needed); but there was no one to help us out of this one way trap. Eventually, the most adventurous member of our Group of Eight stepped forth and started to slide around the boulder on its left hand side; slightly counter-intuitively, since the lower ridge we sought was angling off towards the right, and an almost vertical void opened up on the left.

Void bordering the boulder's left hand side
Soon he had rounded the boulder and disappeared from sight. A few moments later came his triumphant call: there was a path down to the lower ridge! I would never had dared this slide-around on my own, had not a trusted "expert" shown me the way. But soon, all of us were sliding along the wall, trying not look down towards the left and – Voilá! – just around the corner there was a split in the boulder, through which we could squeeze and thereafter descend down to the treasured viewpoint.

And it was well worth it to dare fate in such a manner, since we now had arrived at the very end of the way. Just a wee bit further rose what only can be described as the outlier tower rounding off the last rampart of an enormous medieval fortification. Book two of "Lord of the Rings" comes to mind.

View down Onyon Valley

To show you what I mean, have a look at this model of Hornburg, made in Lego by an intriguing artist.

Hornburg, from Tolkien's Tale of Two Towers. Lego model   Source: Danieldt
Did I walk the walk all the way to the last round-point in my picture above, looking down "on the armies besieging the castle"? I could well have done so, but what would have been the point, from a photographer's view? Hadn't I got my picture already. How could I have improved it by shooting straight down into Onyon valley from the round top?

Much better to let other, more vigorous Members of our Group of Eight do the task for me. Let me take a picture of them striving to the very end, so as to provide scale to the deep and formidable landscape! Seen from the valley floor, this outpust must have looked like another giant tower, positioned as it was at least 300 meters above it.

Hikers on last outpost to Onyon Valley
This scene spoke to me like the deep clang of a gong, the grand finish of a great symphony. How could this scene, letting my deepest sensitivities vibrate like a violin string, possibly be surpassed by just back-tracking my steps down again to the trailhead in the valley? Surely not; but rest consoled, dear readers. Even if we on our return would re-visit all the views already described, their appearance would have greatly changed in the mean-time.

It would be later in the day, with the sun at a different angle, and we would look forward upon scenery we hitherto had left at our back! So there was plenty yet to experience and document. Still, I fear that your patience is running thin by now; so let me concentrate on four highlights from our back trip, before coming to the grand finale.

The first picture shows a small marvel already well known to you. That notwithstanding, I feel the urge to present another view of it, lest this brown delicacy fades from your memory amidst the manifold of red giants.

The Big Bro an hour later
The view below leads us back to the land of grand scenes. After passing by The Titan on our way back, we eventually arrived on the rim of the canyon that borders Cottontail Tower. You may recall the pictures I took from that Polypheme among towers, both from the forefront and at an angle (with hikers entering the canyon at its feet).

I trust you admit, that this view of its flank conveys a completely different impression of the giant's stature and grandeur! It is not so much a spire we are looking at here; rather, it resembles a giant fin, like the one you can see – at a much smaller scale – on an aircraft's tail or a shark's sharp-end.

Hikers on flank of Cottontale Tower
Now back to a more humane scale! Further on along the trail I suddenly stumbled on a charming scene that had completely escaped my lazy eyes in the morning. A group of intricate stone "goblins" stood assembled on the slope underneath Kingfisher Tower, as if to constitute an entourage for this king of towers. If the tower were indeed a king, these would seem like toy soldiers to him, so much smaller in scale they are, compared to his mass. I gather none of them to be taller than, say, some fifty meters.

But what they lack in scale they more than make up for in pleasing shape. I found the statue below especially endearing. It looked to me like a cobra, slithering its way upwards – as if charmed by Baba Gulabgir –, whilst balancing a small tablet on its head. Later on, I discovered that I was not alone in that interpretation, this goblin is called "The Cobra" and – does it surprise you? – is the structure to climb, if you are an enterprising youngster.

An intriguing "goblin", called The Cobra. The Corkscrew on upper right
How can we explain this garden of goblins? Well, there is an interesting story behind it. As erosion continues to eat away at the giants, small slabs of their caps – of hardened Moenkopi sandstone – keep falling down from "heaven". Wherever they land, they are protecting the meeker Organ Rock sandstone on the ground underneath. Since erosion never stops, the land around those small caps keeps melting away and leaves the goblins for us to admire! We stand aghast at nature's creative imagination!

Let us round up this hefty adventure trip by showing a last scenery, which met the weary hiker, when almost back at the trailhead. By then, I was rather exhausted and had left my fellow hikers far ahead of me. But the end was near and I trusted them to wait for me patiently at the car. So I still took some minutes to preserve this view for posterity (or at least for this blog!). This being the last day of the hiking trip and all!

View of Castle Rocks towards end of Fisher trail
But let's not finish this tale too soon. Why not put some extra views in there, taken through the windshield of our car? The first shows the dirt road from the Fisher Towers to route 128. And the second illustrates the many beautiful scenes, with delightful greenery, we could admire in late afternoon sun, whilst cruising along that route in the Colorado Valley, on our way back to Moab.

Dirt road from Fisher Towers to Route 128

Colorado Valley, seen from Route 128


Anonymous said...

Lieber Emil,
America was reality for you and will remain a dream in all eternity … Ich bin physisch in Huntington Beach, the surfers' city, geniesse kalifornische Sonne und fuehle mich mit Weltenbummlern wie Dir verbunden.
Herzliche Gruesse,

Anonymous said...

Du ger verkligen relief åt min uppfattning om USA, som mest kommer från några få storstäder. Fantastiska bilder av ett otroligt landskap!
Men jag är också imponerad av att du tar dig fram tillsammans med det, till synes, vältränade gäng som dyker upp på bilderna. Och du har väl ändå en massa fotoutrustning att släpa på?
Tack för dina bilder och berättelser! Göran W

Unknown said...

Amazing pictures

Anonymous said...

Hi Emil,

I'm very drawn to the Fisher Towers. As my friend Layton Kor would say, we climb them "not because they are there, but because they might not be there much longer." Sadly Layton (who led the first ascent of the Titan) passed away last year from kidney failure. I had the honor of climbing with him a few years ago and doing a first ascent in Arizona with him when he was already in his 70s, so the rocks beckon to those of all ages. Seeing your shots of Cottontail remind me I have yet to climb that spire, but the rest you identified I have climbed, some like the Cobra and Kingfisher just three years ago.  Others like the Titan, more like 20 years ago.

BTW you have a slight mistake in the Castle Valley spire ID's. From left to right as seen from the Fishers they are Castleton (correctly IDed), The Rectory (the wide mesa-like mass), The Priest (the skinny spire on the right end of the Rectory) and Sister Superior, which is quite a ways to the right of that, with just the top showing above the hill above and slightly left of the hikers.

I'm glad you had such an enjoyable hike!


PS.: My girlfriend hula-hooped on top of the Corkscrew Summit of Ancient Art (where the Citibank girl is nervously standing - believe me I was nervous standing atop that too - the spare tire-sized cap on top wiggles a bit). DS.

Anonymous said...

Dear Emil,
thank you for this stupendous report. It must have been an exciting trip, best described as JUVENILE EBULLIENCE.
Congratulations, Frank

Emil Ems said...

Dear All,
Thank you kindly for your many encouraging words. They make my work with the blog worth-while.

John, thank you especially for correcting my mistakes about the Castle Towers. i have already changed the text in the post in accordance with your guidance. Permit me to add that I am amazed at your and your girlfriend's powerful climbing exercises. It probably takes continuing practice to keep abilities sharpened up to middle age, or even to older age, as in the case of mighty Layton. What a privilege to have climbed with him!

Göran, you humble me with your comments about my stamina; the camera is the absolutely smallest, cheapest and lightest of SLR Nikons I could get hold of and this camera is the only equipment I am carrying around (weighing less than half a kilo). The art of the picture making lies in post processing. Most of the pictures on the blog could not have been taken by a single shot, not even with the widest wide angle lens existing. I love wide angle shots and am doing this by taking several pictures (sometimes as much as 10) and merging them together in post processing. I always have a polaroid filter on the lens, so as to get as clear colors as possible. In addition, I am taking out the raw computer data from the camera and developing the pictures myself. This permits me to correct for the extremes in light that you meet in nature. In addition, this allows me to correct camera short-comings as concerns the rendering of specific colors. For instance, Nikon cameras are notoriously bad in capturing some shades of green. I always take care to compensate for this short-coming in post-processing. So you see, it is not the equipment, which is important in this digital age, it is the handicraft of post-processing.

Humbly yours,

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for sharing these beautiful pictures. Brings back memories of hiking in the Arches National Park - also spectacular but not quite like this.