The Tower Project: Interview with climber Jeff Achey
December 4th, 2019
New Castle, CO
Note: This interview was lightly edited for clarity.
Keywords: climbing, crack, climber, tower, Indian Creek, pitch, Chip Chace, bolts, gear, route, cams, splitter, chimney, spire, hike, canyon, first ascent, Bears Ears, Ed Webster
Matt Jenkins: Can you tell me your name one more time? And when did you begin climbing?
Jeff Achey: I'm Jeff Achey and I started climbing - let's see a couple field trips when I was younger - but, I pretty much started when I was a junior in high school - growing up in Princeton, New Jersey, I climbed at the Gunks, areas near there. Ralph Stover State Park is where I did my first lead - but, east coast climber originally.
Matt Jenkins: What brought your family to Princeton, New Jersey and what were your parents doing?
Jeff Achey: My dad worked for the Bell System, Western Electric, now AT&T - that whole thing as it was fragmenting. He worked a little bit in New York City and they had a place down in Princeton. He commuted to the city a little bit and then we were nearby. Then the family moved to North Carolina right when I graduated from high school. He was following the same job. My mom worked a little bit in special education for a few years. That’s what my parents did.
Matt Jenkins: Did you have any siblings? Did you spend time with them when you're younger?
Jeff Achey: Yep, I had two brothers and a sister. I was the oldest in the family. My youngest brother was killed in a skiing accident when he was 21 or so. But, my brother and sister are still alive. Neither of them are climbers although my brother and I have climbed a little bit together. He was one of my first climbing partners. He lives in Florida now - so does my sister.
Matt Jenkins: Who introduced you to the outdoors, and what were you doing when you were younger outdoors?
Jeff Achey: Well, kind of typical kid stuff, climbing trees, riding bikes in the dirt piles, exploring the woods. Princeton was actually a pretty rural kind of place. I think it sort of still is - surrounded by farms and woodlands and things. I spent a lot of time outdoors as a kid. I spent summers at Lake Georgia in upstate New York. I did a lot of swimming and sailing, fishing, stuff like that. I had that kind of outdoor experience - very little rock climbing or backpacking or anything like that. My parents didn't do any of that sort of thing. I went to summer camp and summer camp was the first time that I ever tried rock climbing and I found it pretty scary. I was 10 or whatever when I first tried it. Later on my parents took us on a tour of the national parks and I saw the Grand Teton, Yosemite, and Zion. I took a half day rock climbing class in the Tetons with Jackson Hole Mountain Guides and came back from that trip and decided I want to be a rock climber.
I bought the Chouinard Catalog, which is that cool one that had the Chinese landscape painting on it and Doug Robinson's clean climbing essay. I had Royal Robbins’ Basic Rock Craft. That was the other book that kicked me off into my climbing career. I basically self taught through those two books about how to be a climber. I bought my gear, threaded all my hexes and stoppers with perlon. I still remember burning my fingers, melting the ends of those things. I clanked on out to the local crags and managed not to die. I got through the first few months climbing. That was that.
Matt Jenkins: Who were you climbing with? Were you going out by yourself?
Jeff Achey: I took my little brother out a little bit. My parents got pretty nervous about that, rightly so. They hooked me up with an older family friend, Frank, who came out, belayed me and watched the systems. He also was not a climber, kind of scientifically minded. He got it, pretty simple systems. He figured belaying and anchors pretty quickly. He went out with me a few times.
Fortunately, before too long, I got hooked up with a few other climbers. I met a guy, Bob Palais, who's a longtime climber and professor in Salt Lake City. He introduced me to some of the local climbers. There was a shop called the Wooden Nickel in Princeton. Doug Growl was the manager there and he was an awesome climber and boulderer. We had some local boulders in Princeton that we could just cruise out to. I did my first Gunks trip, I think, with that team. And met another guy went to Princeton High School, Mark Sonnefeld; and, he and I became really close, regular climbing partners. We cut a bunch of school in senior year and kind of worked our way up through the grades at the Gunks. That was what really kicked it off.
Matt Jenkins: What kind of climbing was established at the Gunks at that time? Were you guys doing road trips? How far was it?
Jeff Achey: It was two and a half hours from Princeton to the Gunks. It was a pretty good road trip, but we would go every weekend. As I recall it, I don't know how we pulled this off. I remember at least during the season, we would take at least a day off every week of the school year and go out there. I'm sure we didn't go quite that much, but we're pretty much getting three climbing days a week as high school students. I remember getting a bunch of speeding tickets driving up to the Gunks.
Yeah, we climbed a ton. When we weren't going to the Gunks, we were bouldering at the Crater Rock boulders, which was actually really good training, sort of slabby, a lot of it, careful footwork, and that sort of thing. The grades were hilariously sandbagged. When I later did slab climbs that had real ratings, 5.7 at the Crater Rock Boulders was equivalent to about 5.10c. That was a good way to get started.
Matt Jenkins: Keep it pretty honest.
Jeff Achey: Yeah, kept it pretty honest.
Matt Jenkins: Three days a week as a high schooler.
Jeff Achey: Typical bouldering around on the brick walls of the high school and stuff like that was kind of classic way to start climbing as a kid in the 70s.
Matt Jenkins: Sounds great. So what was next after that?
Jeff Achey: I went to college, graduated high school. The day after graduation I headed out west with my girlfriend at the time, who became my first wife, Jane, mother of my two kids, Ian and Sarah. That was significantly later.
I headed out to do another little road trip through the West and landed pretty quickly that fall in Boulder. I stayed in Boulder for 12 years. I took a year off school, climbed a lot, did a year of college, took another year off, climbed a ton, and then got back a little more seriously into school. I had some work study jobs and tons of time to climb while I was in college.
Once I graduated, I picked up some of the typical climber jobs. There was a furniture company called Contemporary Comfort that a bunch of us worked for - Charlie Fowler, Jim Holloway, Dan Stone, Chip Chase. Many of us worked for that little furniture company, sometimes night shift. I never worked the night shift. I just couldn't do it, but there was plenty of time to climb and work at that place. There were a couple of other little secret jobs that are nice climber scams that we had going. I just worked odd jobs in Boulder and climbed a ton.
Matt Jenkins: What do you think was compelling you to spend so much time outside when you were younger? I'm guessing you were in your 20s about that time.
Jeff Achey: Early 20s, late teens, early 20s through college and then early 20s. Being a climber was all consuming at that point in my life. There was no indoor climbing. If you wanted to practice, keep in shape, it would always be up to Flagstaff Boulders. That was just an outdoor lifestyle. Any climbing you did was always outdoors.
Matt Jenkins: What led you to the desert?
Jeff Achey: I was climbing near the top of the pack in Boulder in the late 70s. There was lots of talent in the small climber pool there. I really enjoyed climbing hard, doing first ascents, sort of got that in my blood pretty early on from meeting Jimmy Dunn and Ed Webster, who I met through my high school friend Bob Pele. I knew those guys as mentors from pretty early on, especially Jimmy Dunn.
I had a first ascent orientation to my climbing and that was a pretty demanding program in Boulder, then and now, to try to do something that hadn't been done before. That meant 5.11X climbing. That was before sport climbing really was a thing. Bolted climbing was just starting to creep into the consciousness, but Boulder climbers especially weren’t bolting at all those days. Jim Erickson and Steve Wunch. No bolts, no pitons. That was very much part of what was going on as opposed to California where they were always bolting these run out slabs. We were all clean climbers there. That meant a lot of fiddling with gear, scary routes, and stuff like that. That suited me. I was pretty patient - good down climber.
That just kept becoming a more and more demanding game, or more dangerous. It would take a long time to get not that much done as far as first ascents went. When sport climbing started appearing then the athletic standards really skyrocketed.
I really didn't like training very much. I never could quite get the enthusiasm for it. I stayed in pretty good shape by climbing but sport climbers started training more. I felt like the writing was on the wall that I was falling off the back. Through some friends of Colorado Springs climbers who I knew, Jimmy Dunn and some of his circle of friends, I got introduced to Canyonlands. That was a whole different kind of climbing. As it turned out, right when you'd have to be climbing hard 5.11 or 5.12 with bad gear, run out, you could do much better first ascents by onsiting casual 5.11- tower cracks. That became super addictive. That's how I got into Canyonlands climbing - just all of the low hanging fruit on the towers.
Matt Jenkins: Why were you more compelled to climb on the towers rather than cragging in the desert?
Jeff Achey: It's a good question. Why the towers and not the walls? In Indian Creek there is, every 20 feet, a beautiful splitter crack. When I first started climbing in Canyonlands those cracks were inaccessible. They were like death, dream routes that you could launch up. We were good crack climbers. We could climb some of those 5.12 cracks, but there was no way to protect the climbing. You would just go up until like you reached a pod and you can drill a bolt or you fell off. There were just so many of them.
The tower cracks were much more featured. You'd go from a wavy, little finger crack into a section of hands. Then the crack would open up and you could drop in a perfect hex and punch it another 20 feet and get a fist jam, and go back to fingers for a while. The gear of the day, hexes and stoppers, worked really well in the towers for the most part. The first few climbs I did there were without any kind of cams at all.
Then I got a small rack of cams. My typical tower rack would have four cams on it or something like that, #1 through #4 Friend. That was it - hexes and stoppers. That worked really well for those cracks. The style of crack climbing was more varied, less painful, more fun. Still is more fun than those endless splitters of tweaking your ankles into those cracks forever, bad locks forever. I've had some good days climbing cracks like that, but I was never very good at it and I never really liked it very much.
I’d much rather mix it up, punch through a hard section, sink a hand jam, place some gear, go do some fist moves, a little slot climbing, get back into a finger crack, some stemming. That was a lot of fun. The grades were a little easier, climbing up into the mid 5.11s. You could cruise on that kind of terrain. It was fun. Then you get to these amazing towers. You’d top out on this summit. The look of the landforms is what really focused our attention. You’d see this freestanding tower and the skinnier it was, the more unlikely that there'd be a crack that you could free climb to the top of it. Towers like Moses went free. Primrose Dihedrals. Zeus, a skinny little tower had a free route on it. Priest. Castleton had a bunch. It was so cool that you could climb these inaccessible pinnacles by these amazing crack lines. It was really 90% of the climbing I did in Canyonlands was finding the next cool tower and seeing if you could find a free route - sometimes another free route if it had already been done.
Matt Jenkins: Can you tell me what you mean by Canyonlands? Specifically, do you refer to the park or the broader area? And the second part of that question is, do you think that variety of the towers is part of the appeal?
Jeff Achey: Canyonlands is what we called the entire desert. Those were the two words we would use to describe a trip. We were doing a desert trip where we were going out to climb. Canyonlands meant everything: Arches National Park, the River Road, Castle Valley, Texas Tower, down Grand Gulch area, Escalante, all that stuff was Canyonlands.
Canyonlands National Park was what it was, but it was just a small fragment of what we called Canyonlands. Sometimes we'd say the desert because that was the desert we could get to. I had never climbed out in the Great Basin. Joshua Tree was its own thing. I didn't think of that as a desert trip, that was a Joshua Tree trip. That was Canyonlands to us, all of the Colorado Plateau and all of those amazing canyons, whether they were in one of the national parks or not.
And, there was a second part of the question you asked.
Matt Jenkins: You talked a lot about comparing this style of climbing on splitter cragging versus towers. Do you think the variety on the towers was part of what compelled you to climb on the towers?
Jeff Achey: The variety of the climbing itself on the towers was one of the things that made it cool. If you were a thin hand specialist, that would be great for 12% of the route or whatever. You also knew there was going to be all kinds of stuff you were going to face. Inevitably there would be some offwidth climbing. Instead of like Indian Creek, where you kind of cherry pick the kind of crack you're in the mood for where it's like, “I've got thin hands and I can send a 5.11+ thin hands crack really easily. I like that kind of climbing.” You can pick that a little more.
On a tower climb, for the most part, you were going to have to do a little bit of everything. That's how I learned to climb offwidth is not by ever seeking them out on purpose, but because every single tower route seems like it has at least 20 feet of offwidth climbing, sometimes pretty hard. If you didn't know how to climb offwidth, you would get shut down on your route. You pretty much couldn't do any high standard tower route to the summit if you did not climb offwidth. That variety was really fun, to mix it up. It was less painful on the feet. If you ripped part of your tape job, chances are in 20 feet, it wouldn't matter anymore. You'd be on a different part of your body. That kind of variety makes for an enjoyable pitch of climbing - three pitches of climbing - to be mixing it up and never knowing what was going to come next, but knowing that if it was good, it was probably going to turn bad in a little while and you were going to have to man up. Or, if you were cruising, you knew that the hammer was gonna fall and the crack was going to go to off-fists or pinch down to tips, or whatever it was, and something was going to happen. It just made for an adventure.
In addition, you had this focus that there was a summit involved. Instead of gunning for the chains, which wasn't a concept when I learned to climb. You always, even at the Gunks, topped out the cliff. Always. You topped out and walked off. That was just the way rock climbing was. You didn't spend a lot of time standing around on the ground. You hid your pack, and you wouldn't be back to it for a couple hours. Then you would walk back in your climbing shoes.
That summit aspect was - everybody was affected by it - the first climbs in Indian Creek. Most of the cracks were dismissed, because they didn't go to the top. Supercrack was one of those that went to the top. There were a few of them like that, Generic Crack, the Y-cracks in Fringe of Death Canyon. All of the routes that got done in the early days went to the top, because that's one of the first things you’d look for in a line. It had to go somewhere.
It makes perfect sense to do the good climbing and put it an anchor and rap off. But, a lot of things make sense now, that when you grew up, looking at climbing in a certain way, made no sense at all time.
Matt Jenkins: You talked also about how the development of gear, protection specifically, played into your development in the climbs you chose. Can you talk about your relationship to gear, especially through the 70s and into the early 80s when Friends were invented? You started with nuts and slung hexes, that kind of stuff. Can you tell me a little bit about your experience and how it shaped your climbing?
Jeff Achey: The way climbing gear has evolved has really affected the climbing experience, not just made it safer, but it just really changed the way that you move on rock, the kinds of lines that you choose, the minute by minute experience you have when you're climbing.
When I started climbing in 1974, I never learned to use pitons. It was right when pitons were going away as free climbers’ tools. Anybody who was a little bit older than I was, was a mentor. If I'd had anyone who really taught me the ropes - would have been trying to learn a new way of climbing. They would have been getting rid of their pitons and starting to use nuts. So I was right within a couple years of being one of the first generations of climbers to just learn with no fluency in pitons whatsoever.
The gear was hexes and stoppers. Those tools are really simple. They're light. The racks were pretty small for the most part. There were no triggers and springs and things to get tangled or to feel. I remember the first time I carried cams on my rack. I felt like I had some sort of Star Trek, Star Wars sort of thing going on with this gadget. “What are these gadgets?” It's like, “Why do I have gadgets on climbing?” It should be a little wedge of aluminum that I slot in a crack and move on. It was really hard to absorb the techie look of cams.
The climbing style was different too. You could see a hex placement or stopper placement coming up, especially Canyonlands style climbing, when a crack is a little bigger. You're not fiddling in these tiny wires like you were in Eldorado or something. You would be placing a hex, maybe a couple, and then you would gun it through the hard climbing. I'm going for a pod where you’d get a little bit of a break. You’d get a finger lock, leave the pod so you could slot a stopper in there. You knew where your next piece of gear was going to be instead of, “Okay, I've got 40 feet of off-fingers. So, go up a couple moves, place a cam, go up.” I never really learned how to do that well. Where, I could place some gear on the go, but it wasn't lacing something up in that same way - be sprinting between rests and gear placements.
So it made the movement a lot more free. You'd be much less likely to be placing gear in a strenuous position. You would climb through that strenuous position, get to a pod of some sort, and then you’d get gear - do the hard moves. Granted, standards are a lot higher now and you wouldn't be climbing 5.12 and 5.13 with that little sprinting, rests, and stuff like that. It just doesn't add up that way.
I never worried about climbing 5.13. Never bothered, never could. The gear made a difference. I think the feeling of the tools was a lot simpler. We would typically hip belay, typically not fall, and not lower each other. My early partners, Ed Webster, Chip Chase, Glenn Randall, those guys - when we went out we would typically do a desert trip with no falls. No one would at any point weight the gear. We would be onsiting first ascents of very modest difficulty, 5.11- or, sometimes, we would punch out of 5.11+, or something. Typically hip belaying, Swami belts, which are actually very practical for desert climbing. You could swing the knot around to the side when you had to squeeze into something - and, the rope could be moved to the outside of the crack. If you're never hanging in your harness, there's certainly no need for all of that - leg loops, all that stuff, and gear loops getting in the way. We always had a gear sling, which could move to the right or the left depending on what kind of crack you were climbing. As long as you're not falling a bunch or hanging around in your harness, the tools are super efficient for the job and it was really fun to climb that way. Climbing with cams, the racks got a lot heavier and you spent a lot more time placing gear. It was cool. You could climb these amazing splitters, but not without cost. The experience was really nice, flowy-er, satisfying. You really conformed to all of the different variations in the rock, rather than you can get gear anywhere you want, so you space out your cams and whatever is appropriate. So, anyway, it worked for me.
Matt Jenkins: Great. You talked about a couple big trips earlier that you had, formidable trips, either with Chip Chase or Ed Webster. Can you tell me about some of those trips and some of those early first ascents?
Jeff Achey: My first really successful adventure out to Canyonlands was with Chip Chase. I had been out a few times, done a couple of climbs with Leonard Coyne and my friend Bob Palais. I had done a few things, but never like a trip where we just went boom, boom, boom, a bunch of great tower climbs in a row. Chip and my first trip together - can't remember what order we climbed them in - but, we climbed a very early, maybe second free ascent of Primrose Dihedrals on Moses, which is an amazing tower. We approached that from above, which was the beta at the day. The White Rim Trail area was much more four-wheel drive at that point. You could go partway down the sandy road and then hike out to the rim. That was the way everyone who I knew had been on the tower. Ed Webster gave that beta to us. That was really cool to hike out there to this amazing overlook and look out at Moses and Zeus and that whole collection of towers, first time I'd ever seen them. Then camp out there. I remember stringing a hammock in a juniper and spending the night out there, and then rapping down, hiking out, and climbing Primrose Dihedrals, which was untouched with no chalk on it. Like I said, maybe the second free ascent, 1980ish.
It was part of an amazing trip. We did the North Face of Castleton, which is an amazing hand crack climb. We did the first free ascent of the Priest, which all we freed was the little bolt ladder there where it is a little bit of calcite face climbing, which was pretty straightforward for a couple Eldorado climbers. Then we found this little sneaky way where the aid line went up this headwall crack. It goes free at 5.11+, or something like that. We were able to sneak around in this cool little face climbing way, and get around to this easier crack. I think that pitch went at 5.8, or something. I was super proud of that. I remember Chip being disappointed that we didn't have to climb the 5.11+ tips dihedral. I was super psyched that we were able to avoid it with a 5.8 pitch. It's kind of an insight into our different mentalities at the time.
We climbed a couple more cool things along River Road. We did the first free ascent of the Sorcerer's Apprentice. Jimmy Dunn had a route on the left side which, I think he freed a little bit later - used a point of aid or something like that. Maybe he did it free. The right side route was untouched and hosted a really beautiful dihedral. It’s a little softer. I think it's the Entrada Sandstone rather than the Wingate down there, but that was a cool route.
Another crack on the River Road that had a splitter fist section in it - I remember doing a #8 and #9 hex stack to protect the crux fist crack, because we didn't have anything. I don't think there were #4 friends at the time, or at least we didn't have any. I was really proud of myself that I could figure out this little hex stack and it fit my hands perfectly - perfect fist crack for me. Iit really wasn't very hard, but it felt very bold. That was a great trip. It was a tower a day, a few first ascents, four, I think, first ascents thrown in there, first free ascents. We had a few great desert trips after that. That one was particularly memorable.
Matt Jenkins: Sounds like a great trip.
Jeff Achey: Yeah. It was a great trip.
Matt Jenkins: Even still, without the first free ascents.
Jeff Achey: It was a little later on that I started climbing out there with Ed Webster. Ed was an amazing desert pioneer, just a real exploratory spirit. He had done many, many desert first ascents by the time he and I ever climbed together. I learned a lot about desert climbing and possible objectives from him. He was the first one to take me to the Bridger Jack Spires, where our first route together was King of Pain. Vision Quest was the name of our route. He brought me as his secret rope gun to climb this front face of the King of Pain where he and Peter Gallagher and, I can't remember who else was in that team, made the first ascent of that spire. They had walked around to the back and done the route called Rites of Passage, which was a much less intimidating looking crack system that ended up being a full number grade harder than the route that he and I did.
Vision Quest is really steep and impressive looking, but it turns out that the cracks are mostly really good size and everything fit together. We just fired up that thing, no problem, at 5.10+. It was kind of funny that they had done, I think, three 5.11+ pitches on the original route. The next step up in difficulty turned out to be the trade route on the spire. That was fun. I remember placing no bolts on the whole route. That was unusual. Usually we'd have an anchor bolt at the belay, but we did the whole spire clean. I remember we had to jump across the gap to get to the rappels and we left no trace. That was really cool. I think there are bolted anchors on that right now. When we did it, we just sort of fired up there pretty fast, pretty easily, and that was that.
Matt Jenkins: Do you know about what year that was when you were doing that? And, was that part of the bigger trip?
Jeff Achey: I want to say that the first ascent of Vision Quest was 1984, sometime around that. I'm pretty sure that Ed and my trips were between ‘83 and ‘87, something like that. I can't remember exactly what the years were. I climbed there a little bit with Chip. On that same trip, we made the first ascent of Thumbelina Spire. That was the second day of three days for that trip. We did Vision Quest. Then, the next day, we walked out to the spire on the end of that group that had never been climbed. It had no crack systems on it, but it had this super cool arete.
We made a foray up there. That was one of the first lines I remember just really feeling like it was a leap of faith. There was no bolted arete climbing that I had really seen before. I ended up putting a ground up route, mixed gear and bolts, and face climbed that arete, which was super cool. It was an unlikely route at the time. That was that same trip. Ed and I also got off to a great start with our Canyonlands adventures.
Ed had a full complement of cams. That was another huge advantage of climbing with Ed - not only was he a really good climber with a lot of knowledge of cool things, objectives, but he really had the gear. My rack of three cams had its limits at times, but with Ed there was always plenty of cams to go around. That was nice.
Matt Jenkins: Going back to Thumbelina a little bit. What do you think inspired you to do that climb? I think Crusher described it in his book as fully original. It was unusual at the time to do a bolted arete, especially in the desert.
Jeff Achey: I'm trying to remember when the first pictures of some of the Smith Rock - Alan Watts’ Smith Rock - early sport climbs hit the magazines. I think this was before those, or possibly this was my interpretation of those. I don't really remember having bolted arete climbing in my concept. I was a face climber way before I was a crack climber so I was always looking for that and the desert varnish was a really cool medium to climb on. I did a bunch of bouldering at Indian Creek and a bunch of bouldering period, so messing around on Wingate edges was something that we did on the boulders all the time. To have a hundred foot spire where you'd be doing that on a route seemed super cool.
There were some cracks here and there so that there were only a few places where it was a featureless looking arete. How could you even get the bolts in? Ground up rules, you could stand on the bolt you had just placed. One of the bolts we typically used in Canyonlands was a drilled angle. I guess it's not really a bolt. It is just a hole, then maybe a baby angle piton driven into it. That had the advantage that you could actually stand on the piton itself instead of down in an aider and get another foot of reach for drilling the next one. I remember drilling at least a couple of bolts using that drilled angle advantage down low on that.
Then, a couple of star drive bolts which were our secret weapon - that's awesome, three eighths inch bolts that we now know to be almost completely worthless with a little lead sleeve and the aluminum nail or whatever. We thought they were the cat’s meow. They were certainly good enough for that day. I think it took us two days to equip and then send that route the next day, or however it worked out. That was a cool thing. I think that was the first, first ascent of a tower, to actually be the first person to stand on top of some landform. That felt super cool. Ed and I had a bunch of fun adventures.
Matt Jenkins: Can you tell me a little bit more? Some more history in the Bridger Jacks - stepping it up a notch even beyond that?
Jeff Achey: Ed and I, our are other objectives - we did some stuff on the River Road and had a really good couple of things out there. We did a route called the Poseidon Adventure, which was this cool wide crack. I remember watching Ed lead the crux pitch of that where he had his three cams that fit the crack that he had tethered to his harness. He just sort of chimneyed the whole thing and then had these long slings with the cams that he would move up the crack, because if he left one, he was going to run out of gear for what would happen. That was the first time I'd ever seen the slide-the-cams-with-you as you went. That was pretty cool for that.
On that same tower, the Lighthouse Tower, we did a route called Iron Maiden, which had some really hard stemming. That was a cool route. We used a little bit of aid I remember, Ed’s pitch after the hard stemming pitch - it was an even longer route than I’m remembering. There was a low stemming pitch, which was 5.10+ - then, a 5.12 or 5.11+ stemming section.
I remember placing a bolt off of a Crack’n Up to protect that little stemming section. Then there were some hand traverses. Then there was actually an overhanging hand crack that ended on a little ledge. Then we thought we had the thing licked, and we were almost at the top of the tower, but then there was a sandy little bulge with some thin cracks in it that Ed aided. We got to the summit. I remember being very disappointed that we used aid. But, I was also impressed that Ed just aided the thing and didn't waste any time - just finished the route. At the time, I would have been fiddling around with nuts, and being afraid to do the moves, and we would have bailed.
Ed, no - a couple pins of aid, no big deal. I think it was Jimmy Surette who came back and freed that. It was 5.12- or something. I hope someone's put some bolts in it and not those old pins that Ed placed.
The other Bridger Jack climbs - I did another face climb with a woman, Karen Radokovich, who was the wife of Casey Newman. She was a great climber, and I don't remember why Casey couldn't come on that trip. I took his wife out to Canyonlands and we did this awesome, first ascent on the last of the Bridger Jack Spires, the Easter Island. It kind of had that shape like the statues. That was a cool, spiraling, face climb, up the backside - I little bit easier than Thumbelina.
The other route that I remember doing - Ed and I climbed Hoop Dancer, which is on Sunflower Tower, if I’m remembering right. It's been a long time since I've climbed in the Bridger Jacks. I forget the names of them all. That was cool. It had some kind of sketchy climbing to get up to the notch and then it had this amazing, splitter hand crack, a mixed crack that just had this arching hands-thin hands splitter. That was just one of the cooler tower cracks I remember doing and that was another good climb with Ed.
It was funny. When we climbed in the Bridger Jacks then, we would drive into some of the ranch property. The whole deal with the Red’s and the ranch there was different than it was now. They were friendly and accommodating for the few climbers who would pass through there. They're still friendly and accommodating, but now there's so many climbers there now. The whole scene is different, but we had no problem trespassing there. It was no big deal. We would run into the ranch hands sometimes. They didn't seem to care what we were doing. We would crash in one of the fields down there and just hike up from there. There was no campground at the Bridger Jacks or anything - a different kind of more remote feeling zone over there at the time. Definitely, no climbers, we never would see anybody climbing up at the Bridger Jacks or Indian Creek for that matter, for the most part. It was very rare to see another party my early days out there.
Matt Jenkins: Were you attracted to the remoteness over there?
Jeff Achey: It was really nice to go and have this wilderness experience where it would be just you, the cracks, the ravens, the blue sky, and you and your partner. You would see very few cars. That road was not at all busy in those days. There would be a very occasional car to go down to the Squaw Flat campground. There was nobody in Indian Creek in those days. If there was someone, you probably knew them. That was a very different experience. I know a lot of places we climbed were like that. We were pretty spoiled - lots of days climbing in Eldorado Canyon in the winter and there'd be a beautiful, splitter, 60 degrees at the Red Garden Wall - T-shirt climbing weather. There would be no one else in the canyon. That was normal for my early days as a climber. We maybe didn't appreciate it as much because it was a lot more common in the desert, and elsewhere.
Chip and I did a great climb in the Bridger Jacks, Sacred Space, which was the South Face of the King of Pain, the same formation that Vision Quest was on and the biggest of the towers in the group. That was one of those amazing looking - from looking at that aspect - the South face of King of Pain was really remarkable. The face itself overhangs and it's got this one splitter crack, fractures into a couple different cracks in places. But, it's just this amazing line, the only line on the face. I remember looking across at it from Hoop Dancer, because you're just basically staring straight at it. “Wow, that is an objective right there.” Of course you never know what size the cracks are going to be. “Everything looks wide enough, maybe a little too wide here and there.” It kind of had that look. It was going to be one of those burly things, but it was the look of the of the crack that attracted attracted me to the feature.
Chip agreed to go along and had never really seen it before. He's always a good secret weapon to have whether he had seen the thing or not. He would have something significant contribute to the effort. That was a fun climb. I remember climbing up again to that same notch, a 5.8 pitch or something to the notch there. Then there were a couple little ledges as I recall from where we belayed before the real business of the climb started. I remember climbing up onto this ledge. It was my lead, the first pitch. There was this obvious, beautiful splitter crack, looked just like a piece of Supercrack that started off this little edge. We couldn't really tell from below what size it was going to be. I got up onto the ledge and I stuck my hand, and I stuck my fist in it. I rattled my fist back and forth in a just started laughing. It's like I have no idea how to climb this. I knew what levitation was. I know I'd seen pictures of Randy Leavitt. I knew Randy actually. He was living in Boulder in those days going to business school. I’d seen pictures of him in the parking garage in California where he Tony Yaniro invented the staking techniques. I kind of knew about that technique, but I had never used it. I didn't really understand how it worked very well and how you would move your legs, how you could move both hands at the same time. I just kind of scratched my head there, but I had a #7 tricam, which fit the crack. I put that thing in there and yanked on the sling. They're kind of rattley. I got some gear. It was a little scary, but it's not going to be a solo or anything. Or rather, I'm not gonna just immediately bail, because I certainly wasn't going to solo that crack.
I slipped that thing in the crack and clipped my rope to it. Alright, alright, I’ll try this thing out. I got in there and I tried a few things. I gastoned the edge of the crack, mostly just trying to figure out what my feet where going to do. I stuck my leg in the crack and pulled my foot out, and my knee just wedged perfectly.
I realized that was a game changer. I got the #7 tricam in there and I slid it up a little bit higher. I got off the ledge. I had my knee wedged in there and I think I gastoned the crack and shuffled my legs around. I put my knee back in and got the wedge and just sat there. It's like, “Wow, I can't tell if this is 5.10 or 5.2.” I'm just sitting here on my knee. It was like fifteen feet of that, perfect knees, which I'd never experienced anything like it. For me that was the memorable moment of the of the climb - that I climbed this splitter offwidth that looked completely impossible. Truth be told, for my knee size, it was 5.2. I could take both hands off. I could do a stack or just gaston the crack, and just slid my leg up and every time I pulled my foot back out of the crack, I'd have a no hands rest - totally casual. It got a little scary once I was 15 feet off the ledge with that rattling #7 tricam, but eventually there was another ledge or something. The crack changed sizes. The rest of the pitch was actually really burly, but it was like normal Canyonlands hands and fists. There was a hand traverse, a sandy hand traverse, I remember. That was that. I drilled a bolt and put it in a tube chock, I think. I belayed Chip up and then the rest of the climb was a squeeze chimney.
I think someone was telling me - or maybe it's in a new guidebook to Indian Creek - where it says that the crack is too narrow to actually get inside and chimney which is completely not true unless the crack has changed sizes, which is conceivable. Those cracks do change a bit. Eventually half of that tower is going to fall off. Maybe it has squeezed itself down. At the time, at least, it was a full squeeze chimney, even for me. I was quite a bit thicker in the ass and the chest then Chip was. We've had a couple of wide crack experiences where he was able to just fly through some squeeze chimney, where I was really not fitting in it at all.
In this case, we were both able to squeeze chimney the thing, but we didn't really know what was going to happen. There was a chockstone up on that pitch. Chip led off. We had nothing that fit the crack. The #7 tricam was not big enough. Chip just led up, but it was squeeze chimney climbing. We all were used to that. As long as you could get inside, in theory, you could just kind of slide down the crack. Actually, in practice, we've done it many times. Bailed off of a squeeze chimney that was just too exhausting or scary with no pro, but you could just relax your hands and feet a little bit, skid down the crack. That was a well practiced technique back in the day before there were Valley Giants or big cams that you could actually protect the thing. You'd have to be on your own up there. The escape plan was really important.
Chip headed up and there was a chock stone, which looked like it was going to block his progress somehow. A typical maneuver you have to do is climb a chimney in Canyonlands, get to a chock stone, and then there's some crux move getting around it. A lot of times you can get a stopper around the top of it and get some pro for that move, but not always. So that was the big unknown, but Chip was a master of cracks like that. So he just flew up that squeeze chimney in 10 minutes or something. He got 80 feet up to that chock stone or however high it is up there, way up there. The rope is just running from me to him. He reported that he was able to just squeeze behind; and so, that was that, he finished the pitch and we topped out the spire. Super cool, really amazing line.
It ended up being not that bad because of various, fortuitous things - my knee fit that crack, the chockstone didn't go all the way to the back of the crack, and Chip could get behind it. Bridger Jacks is a fun place to climb. It had a little bit of the best of both worlds. It had the Indian Creek convenience where there were several towers all lined up so you could do tower climbs, but it also had these summits. For people like me who that was really important to, for whatever reason, it had legitimate tower top outs so, the routes, you could justify the rock climb for someone stuck with an old school mentality.
Matt Jenkins: Is that the same trip you did North Six Shooter?
Jeff Achey: Yeah, it is, Liquid Sky, which was basically the sister crack of the Lightning Bolt Cracks. We started the cracks - there's two optional starts and two optional finishes for this sort of “X” crack system that splits that face of the tower. Since we had both already climbed the regular route, we started on the other crack, which I don't know whether or not that was a first ascent. I don't remember seeing signs of travel but I wouldn't be surprised if some underground crusher like Brett Ruckmann, or someone, had done that crack. It was not really our objective. Our objective was to climb the roof with a wide crack through it, which I was really hoping was going to be a squeeze chimney because I didn't have any techniques to do the thing, but somebody had to try that line. It was just too amazing looking. We went up the day after Sacred Space. I think it was that day. I can't remember which order we did them in. They were both such outstanding climbs and they were kind of separate in my memory. The maneuvering up to the roof was actually the hardest. I can't remember who led the finger crack. That was kind of straightforward, 5.11 finger crack climbing that protected fine. By that time, we were a little later in the 80s, we had plenty of cams, so whatever it required we had.
But I think that is the technical crux of the climb, at least as I understand it. Then you join the Lightning Bolt Cracks. There's a couple of crack options. We basically were just trying to climb cracks that we hadn't done before. I can't remember if we did the left, or the right, or the middle fist crack bulge. Eventually, we got into the summit crack that went up through the roof. The approach to the roof was definitely the crux of the day. It started out as an offwidth the whole way, 5.9ish sort of corner with some chock stones and stuff. I remember Chip placed a six inch tube chock and went up to this little roof on that pitch. He was climbing it classic offwidth style, right side in and he came up so that the roof was just overhead. He couldn't get any more pro. The thought of offwidthing out around this roof, which he could have done, but he would have been 15 feet above the tube chock at that point. He was like, “It's not happening. I’m not leading this thing. It’s stupid.”
So, Chip turns back on a wide crack pitch. I'm like, “Chances are slim to none that I'm going to do it, but I know how it will go driving back to Boulder if I don't try this pitch. I'm gonna hate myself and I'm going to be second guessing. I’m going to come back up here.” Chip came down - lowered down off of his tube chock. We switched ends of the rope and I went up. Because I was top roped through this 5.9 section instead of offwidthing up there, I just lied back the crack. It was pretty moderate terrain, but it gave me a whole backwards perspective compared to what Chip had seen. Instead of the roof hitting me in the head and looking at this offwidth over my shoulder, I was laying back on the crack and I could see the whole formation. I noticed that there was a foothold out at the lip of the roof that Chip couldn't have seen unless you just really craned his head. He didn't see it, regardless. When I get to the tube chock and up to the roof, I look out there and say, “I can lay back out there to the lip of the roof, and I don't even have to offwidth out there. I can go out there, stand on the foothold, tuck my leg in the crack, and then see what I see.”
I do that and I undercling out this little three foot roof, and no big deal, 5.10- or something and the foot hold is like four inches. I'm perched there and I stuck my left leg in the crack, and I was like, “Sweet. I could actually drill a bolt here, I think.” We had a rule that we didn't drill bolts next to cracks, that was just Boulder climbers, that was what we did. If it was a closed seam or something, okay, fine, there's no crack. But, if you can offwidth the crack, we didn't.
We'd never encountered anything where we couldn't figure it out or tough it out and deal with it. That was our rule. We would break our rules. At some point, you break your rules. At that point we had not broken that rule. So I'm standing there pretty comfortably and I'm looking up at this seven inch crack - beautiful, perfect Wingate, dihedral, sharp edged crack - no gear that fits it. Seven inches. The #7 tricam is useless. It looks like it's got a good edge. It's not overhanging really. I stand there for a while and think about things. I decide that - Okay, I know that there's an alcove below the roof. It looks like there's an end to this lie back. Right now I’m 10, whatever, feet out from the tube chock. I'm going to have to pull this off. I can't fall off this lieback, but it's a perfect lieback crack. I’m a good liebacker. I go for it and it's 5.9+. I don't know what it is. It was a sprint, but once I got going it was no problem and rounded off into this alcove where I could get a stance and get some gear. I drilled a bolt and we belayed there. I was super proud of myself. This was probably the boldest onsite pitch I'd ever done, 5.10, or something. It was super cool - such a beautiful feature. I didn't drill a bolt, so proud.
We got underneath a roof and I looked at. It's like, “Oh, man, yeah, it looks like it's gonna be squeeze chimney.” It looked wide in there and the lip was definitely kind of flared. It definitely looked like you could climb in there. It looked pretty narrow, but that was good. You want it to be kind of tight, or otherwise it's just way too scary. Chip comes up, easily climbs the pitch on top rope and takes over the lead. I don't think he was able to get anything at all pass the belay. I think he fussed around back in the chimney, but there was no tube chock placement or anything. He just starts climbing out the roof. His feet are maybe two feet or so from the lip. He's kind of up in it, so all I can really see it once he gets going - because it's this weird shaped crack - can't really see his body - is just his feet. The rope is running straight out from my hip belay, farther and farther, looping through space. I'm looking straight out this roof crack and there's South Six Shooter in the background. There's my buddy, t-stacking his feet and squirming on out there and just sending. So psyched. Ten minutes later, he's through that pitch, 5.10- or something.
I think we belayed before the top of the tower, maybe ran it out to the top of tower, can't remember. He puts me on belay. It's my turn. I get up in there and everything's fine for the first five feet or so but then it pinches down. I'm wider than Chip in the chest and hips. Man, It was super tight. I've told this. This is one of my favorite Canyonlands stories. I've told it enough times to bore myself. Probably anyone else who's ever heard stories about Canyonlands has probably heard the story, but, anyway, to make a long story short, it is the narrowest crack that I physically could ever fit through in my life. I had to orient my body at about a 45 degree tilt. There's this imperceptible, lens-shaped wideness, in the too-narrow-to-get-through thing, where there was a path to survival. This was all trial and error. I had to figure this out. “Okay, my hips are wedging but my chest can still move. So all right, I think I need to turn.” I ended up having to orient at about 45 degrees, tilt so that my hips and my chest would track through the widest part of the super narrow squeeze chimney at the same time. I later did Astroman and the Harding Slot was roomy. I had no problem getting through the Harding Slot. It felt like no problem. So, it's a narrow squeeze chimney.
I figured out the orientation I needed to do, but with my feet kind of over there, it's even harder. It's hard enough to make progress in a squeeze chimney when your feet are down. Off to the side, it's just really awkward. I could make one inch of progress per sequence of moves. If I slipped out, I could go into the narrow place and I’d be stuck in there. I wasn't really scared. I was just so psyched that we were sending this thing - that I was just mad that it was taking so long. I remember in order to move I would have to exhale completely. I would make my chest as skinny as it could be and then do my little t-stacks with my feet, and chicken wing through, make an inch, inch and a half, of progress. Then, I would take half a breath and I just wedge, so I could let go of both hands - chest was just fully wedged in the crack by taking three quarters of a breath. Then I would empty my lungs out and squirm a little more. I don't know how long I struggled in their, eternity. Eventually I could grab the edge of the crack outside and drag myself through. I had to strip off everything I had, some slings I was carrying. I had to take those off, girth hitch them through my swami belt. I had just the T-shirt on which was better than no shirt because it's a little bit of a teflon surface that I could slide a little more easily. When I finished, I had deep like streaks, gashes on my chest just from dragging myself. I finally got through that section, cruised up to Chip, and topped up the tower. I was so psyched to have sent this amazing roof crack which involved no roof climbing at all. We were just back in the squeeze chimney. It could have been vertical or horizontal or whatever, but it was way too tight. And I'll never ever, ever do that climb again.
So, yeah, that was the wide weekend.
Matt Jenkins: Perfect.
Jeff Achey: (Laughs) (Break).
My partnerships with my Canyonlands compatriots were - at the time, I really took them for granted. I look back now at those adventures that we were having. They were the finest climbing experiences in my life. That value has really grown over the years. At the time, going out with Chip, we were just young men on a mission.
Jeff Achey: I wanted to get a picture of that of that pitch, because it was so dramatic. I took Craig Luebben, who's the best off with climber I know, and Topher Donahue, who's good at all kinds of climbing out there. Super psyched.
I guess I had forgotten just how tight it was. I was remembering how easy it was for Chip to lead that pitch. Craig had Big Bros with him and climbed the offwidth that I had laid back in perfect offwidth style, laced it up. He laced it up for Craig which was a Big Bro every 20 feet, or something, 15 feet and offwidthed it in classic style. I mean laybacking an offwidth crack was considered poor form to the old school or so. I kind of cheated it but I still still proud of my lead.
Craig climbed it properly using the Big Bros in there. Those guys we're going to do the roof but Craig - oh man, I miss that guy, such an awesome dude - but, he was a big dude. He was bigger in the chest and in the ass than me. He went up into that, maybe it was Topher who went up first. I can't remember who went up first, but they both went in there. There was no way. It was colder. I think it was February or something. They couldn't strip down to T-shirts, but whether or not, that wasn’t a deciding factor, Craig, for sure, could not fit through that crack. Those guys had to bail and were unable to repeat Liquid Sky. I think that's how the reputation got started. It had nothing to do with their climbing ability. They just physically could not fit through this hole. If you can fit through the hole, it's a 5.10 pitch. If you can't fit through the hole, it doesn't go. How do you rate things like a squeeze chimney? It's not even that hard, if you can fit.
Matt Jenkins: It’s always the problem with offwidths.
Jeff Achey: Exactly. That climb, in particular, got a reputation as fearsome. That's funny. A lot of the information that appears in topos, in forums, and stuff, all kinds of clients, but these ones in particular - Sacred Space offwidth, it's like an unprotected offwidth where it's actually a squeeze chimney and you don't need protection in a squeeze chimney. You're just kind of in there. It's almost physically impossible to just go rocketing down a squeeze chimney. It's just a squeeze. You slide, but not that fast. That pitch isn't really nearly as scary as it's made out to be. It's 5.9 squeeze chimney pitch. Liquid Sky, for me, the hard climbing was below the roof and then it's a tight squeeze. I was a little too big for the thing. It was an easy pitch for Chip. If you can fit through the crack, it's not really - you have Big Bros for the offwidth below - it's not that hard of the route. The crux is the finger crack, which doesn't even register on people's radar. That's funny how reputation of these climbs grows.
Eventually, Pamela Shanti-Pack, the offwidth mistress of the universe, called me up and - I don't remember how she found out that we were kind of in the chimney and instead of at the lip of the roof - I might have said something. She got the idea to climb the thing on the outside of it. She went and had some adventure out there and did an inverted 5.12, which is kind of what I was imagining our ascent to be like even though I didn't really know how to climb in that way. I probably wouldn't have been able to do it and definitely was glad I didn't have to, but that roof crack has also been climbed offwidth style. I've never seen any pictures of it, or video, if it exists, but hopefully Pam got something out of it. That was a few years ago. I don't know. I haven't seen any media. The climb lives on and continues to provide me with amusement.
Matt Jenkins: What did you value about the partnerships with Chip and Ed that were extended over a better part of a decade?
Jeff Achey: My partnerships with my Canyonlands compatriots were - at the time, I really took them for granted. I look back now at those adventures that we were having. They were the finest climbing experiences in my life. That value has really grown over the years. At the time, going out with Chip, we were just young men on a mission.
We would leave Boulder Friday after work, drive till midnight, throw sleeping bags out in Castle Valley, or wherever we were, wake up early, and fire off the climbs - finish up the day, drink some beers around the campfire, and relive the day a little bit. Get up and do it the next day. Drive home, and try to stay awake driving, always driving back to Boulder, so eight hours. I was in the car getting back after a day on the tower, very often trying to fight off staying awake.
We didn't hang out a lot. We were working. Always those climbs tested us in some psychological way. The technical climbing was well within our abilities. We almost never - I don't think we ever did any 5.12s. Back in Boulder, we would climb 5.12s regularly. Boulder hard on flat stuff. The technical aspects of the climbing were not what really made those big adventures, but there'd be some wide crack, or some run out you'd have to do, or something would be tested, or you had to believe in the line going. We’d always leapfrog who had the vision to send the pitch. I would lose heart and Chip would be a machine - and, oh my god, I can't believe I just witnessed this mastery up there. We would inspire each other. I like to think that sometimes I was the master up there sending the pitch and helping my partners be inspired too. We really felt like we wanted to do our best out there.
All of us had read the Carlos Castaneda books - Tales of Power, Journey to Ixtlan, Tales of Don Juan. To a greater or lesser extent, we had this sense of ourselves as spiritual, psychological warriors out there, exploring our psyches. The terrain there was just perfect for that, because we weren’t ticking face holds and working out intricate sequences. We were really just faced with these amazing natural features, these cracks and dihedrals. We would shoulder the rack and we would just be on - just would face it like battle in a way - not battle - sort of grunting, ugly way, but with the sort of finesse - this sense of a samurai type approach. That's how we’d like to think of ourselves. Whether or not somebody watching our performances would perceive that same grace and mental power - we sure felt it. They’re really rich memories of times out there with Ed Webster, and Chip, and Glenn Randall, Roger Briggs, Dan Stone. They're probably similar to the memories that people have from the soliders that they fought with, if they saw action somewhere, but in a much more beautiful setting.
So, the question is, how do I value those relationships? Things that really strike me is that I wish I knew then just how rare and magical those experiences were that we were having. Just had them. I remember saying to Chip, “I don't think I'll climb this crack with you, because it's not - I want to climb this different crack.” I sometimes would prioritize an objective over the opportunity to go climbing with Chip.
I think of that now and it's like, “What the fuck is wrong with you?” I would love a chance to come with Chip and I never will again. I could have done so much more. Instead, we were focused on our objectives. I don't think it was just me who was that way. We were all a little bit that way. What really strikes me is that those friendships have just really grown. Those experiences have really grown in value. Maybe that's the way it is, you don't understand magical once in a lifetime experience while it's going on. You're just completely in the moment. You're not valuing anything. You're just completely living it, side by side, with another warrior, and that's awesome.
I feel like he never knew how much I valued his friendship, thinking especially of Chip, because he died not that long ago and I never got a chance to say goodbye to him. I just had to realize that I was never going to get to sit around the campfire and relive those glory days.
I try to keep that in mind with my other friendships.
Matt Jenkins: Do you think your experiences with Chip allowed you guys to see a little bit of your best selves with each other?
Jeff Achey: I think we brought out the best in each other in that very limited show your best self on the rock sort of way. I know I didn't show my best self as a friend to Chip, or really any of my partners. Part of the magic of our partnerships was we were both, all of us, very focused on what we wanted to accomplish out there in these amazing landscapes and much less focused on having an experience together as friends. We were - maybe I should really speak for myself, because I hope my other friends weren’t as afflicted with this short sidedness as I was - but, I certainly was.
I was really just so awed by these climbing opportunities, and these cool cracks and towers that we were climbing, that it was out of focus for me - these amazing people I was climbing with. It's much clearer focus now, but now I never see those guys. What kind of friendship is that? It's funny. I moved away from Boulder. A lot of my best partners stayed in Boulder, and I would have kept closer friendships with them if it hadn't been a three hour trek over the mountains.
Some of them did better with each other than I did with them, but it is what it is. They were amazing times and I'm really grateful to have shared those experiences with those guys and grateful for those landscapes for just being there at a time where we were lost boys. We needed something like that. What a cool thing to be given.
Matt Jenkins: Moving on to the broader landscape, can you talk about some of your climbing experiences in Texas Canyon or Arch Canyon? We had talked earlier about Cedar Mesa in general. What was that like for you?
Jeff Achey: The terrain of Canyonlands climbing for me was really centered around Moab and Indian Creek, because there was nobody, almost nobody, climbing down there. There was really just a handful of desert climbers. There was no need to explore far and wide when Zeus had no free route on it and you could go to the Bridger Jacks and there were four unclimbed spires. It was right there. I wandered around a little bit, past that, kind of now completely overrun, part of Canyonlands around Moab, the most popular areas. I did most of my climbing there, because that was the low hanging fruit.
I remember definitely exploring around a little bit. I remember one really cool road trip I did with Roger Briggs, who really didn't like climbing in Canyonlands. He preferred to get up super early, cruise up to the Diamond, then be back, and enclose the climbing within a day. It was really hard for him to get away from his family and his obligations with school. The tower climbing just never really appealed to him in the way that did to some of us, and the whole environment there was, for whatever reason, not something that captured him, but I did drag him out a couple of times. I remember climbing Monster Tower with him, and we also climbed, or was it Washerwoman, one of those. Then we went out in search of other towers and he had a four wheel drive truck, which I didn't, Chip didn’t, and most of my friends who I climbed with out there didn’t. There was all kinds of places out by the Maze and all this Wingate that was only accessible if you had a good truck. I thought it'd be really cool for Roger and I to go find some towers. I did some research on topo maps and I was pretty good at identifying likely places for towers, the Moses and Zeus group in Taylor Canyon, the point of land comes out and pinches off in a certain way. There's these tiny little dots on the topo map where the towers are. I got pretty good at locating features like that and found a couple of towers out there. We went out on this big excursion down toward the Maze and out onto all the high meses there that sit above the Maze District of Canyonlands. We got out there in his truck and we hiked around a little bit and we scoped around with binoculars. We found some cool stuff that was worth climbing. We were sort of looking for that hidden Moses-like, pencil thin tower. We never really did find it. We cruised around a bit, mostly just did recon. Then the weather started to crap out and we were pretty far back there. We started getting kind of nervous that we were going to get stuck and so we didn't end up climbing anything and did the kind of gnarly-est part of the four wheel drive road - got back up out of the Golden Stairs. They have some crazy names for some of the Jeep roads that go down in there. I can't remember which is which. We climbed up out of there and got up on the top of the mesa before the storm hit, pitched our tents, crashed for the evening, and just got dumped on - just eight inches of sloppy, wet snow.
If anything, it would have been better to be down in the canyons, because it's just this windswept pinyon-juniper, no man's land up there on the mesa tops. It's cold. The road was really skinny that we came out on. I remember it being really hard to see with this eight inch blanket of snow where the actual road was, because the pinyon-junipers have space between them.
Is that the road? Or, is that the road? It's only a little more clear, and the road was a little windy. There was not a b-line. I remember it being really tricky to find the road. We were getting pretty good traction. It was a little muddy and slippery, but not too bad. I remember we stopped to take a leak or something and looking back at our tracks and it was just this crazy line of truck tracks through this winter wonderland. “Really. Were we driving on the road?” We got down off the mesas. We got out of there, drove home, no problem. That was a cool, little exploratory trip off the beaten path away from Castle Valley and Indian Creek and stuff.
Texas Canyon was another place. Texas Tower down there - we knew about it. Tim Toula had climbed it. I am pretty sure that Brett Ruckman had free climbed the thing before I ever tried to go in there. I don't think we were gunning for the first free ascent or anything, but it was later on in my Canyonlands climbing. I came back to do that after a few years of hiatus, and I went in there with Chip. We were trying to drive in from Arch Canyon. I think you actually can drive in there. I remember there was some little pinched down place and his truck was kind of new. He said he didn't think he could get through. I was like, “oh, man, you can fit through there.” It was easy for me to say, because he had his brand new truck. Anyway, we ended up not going into even see Texas Tower. We just stayed back out near Comb Wash and found some random Wingate cliff that had some really cool splitter cracks on that that we climbed. We didn't know what they were. They had - typical of Canyonlands exploration - there would just be a little anchor up there and I don’t remember seeing any plaques, but we did a couple pitches of crack climbing and that was the end of that.
I went back with Steve Levin and we came in from the top. It was sometime - I don't know if it was dead of winter, but it was short days. I remember that. We camped up on top and it was a little more time consuming getting down in there than we thought it would be. We got to the tower and made pretty good progress, but it was a big burly route. It’s long. It's significantly longer than Primrose Dihedral. It is a big tower. It's like two Castleton Towers. We got up there. There were some sandy sections. I remember one scary pitch that had some face climbing, a flake that even I thought was gonna fall off - usually I was pretty good, solid, with weird flakes.
I remember that one being scary. Steve took the crux offwidth pitch. He just fired it. Just masterful job. He wasn't fast, but he had his gear all worked out. He had it just right. He didn't run out of cams, placed some big bros, just did this amazing job just working his way up this burly-ass offwidth. It's hard. It's long. There’s no extreme part of it, but it's just like 100 feet of cruxy offwidth. There’s some rests, and stuff. He fully sent that pitch, all free.
I followed the pitch, managed to free climb it. It wasn’t extreme, but was really glad for the top rope. We got up there and we had 200 feet of straightforward chimneying to the top of this tower that we really, really wanted to climb, but it was a chilly day and it was very late. We had an hour of daylight left to - if we turned around at that point, we would have been caught in the dark, on the exit back up our fixed ropes. If we went any farther, we were going to be on the summit in the dark and we didn't know the descent route. It was down the other side of the tower. We had to bail, so heartbreaking. It was such a hard climb up to that point, and we had it in the bag. Chimney climbing was not intimidating to us at all. We had plenty of experience with unprotected chimneys. We're not expecting anything to slow us down. But we didn't have time. I’ve never been back. Never been to the top of Texas Tower. It's probably the coolest tower in Canyonlands. It's the one that got away, one of several.
The short answer is I didn't really do that much exploratory rock climbing beyond what are now the super popular venues. I did some cool stuff along the White Rim. I remember doing Charlie Horse Needle, which is not actually very remote. It's right off the White Rim Trail, but it's not as well known as some of the others - super cool climb, fun, a few things like that.
Standing Rock in Monument Basin, that's kind of a trek to get out to. I’ve done that spire three times - combined with cool mountain biking trips around the White Rim. That's a great combo.
As far as really getting out there to the hundreds of remote canyons, there's so many spires out there, the Witch and the Warlock, Crows Head Spires, whatever they’re called, there's so many cool spires that I never went out to, kind of moved on to other stuff.
I started climbing more in the Black Canyon. I got more than my share of cool first ascents out there. Climbs were starting to get harder and harder and I kind of prefer the easy, 5.11 sends.
Matt Jenkins: What do you value about the landscape now? How do you see us moving forward as a community?
Jeff Achey: The whole scene with climbing in Indian Creek is going to be an interesting puzzle for the next generations of climbers to work out. I'm really glad it's not my problem to solve. That rock is so soft and fragile, that even climbers using totally normal climbing practices, just putting their hands and feet and gear in the cracks, the popular buttresses in Indian Creek are getting worked. It's kind of heartbreaking for me to go back there, where I remember walking to Supercrack Buttress where there was one climb on the entire formation, and walking underneath those cracks and looking up and there were just these absolutely gorgeous splitter cracks. I remember bouldering 15-20 feet up these things and I could have just kept going, but there was no way to protect those cracks. Cams hadn't appeared on the scene. It was just this spiritual ideal of these cracks that were completely inaccessible. A perfect hand crack, like Supecrack, okay, you had someone like Earl Wiggins who could say, “Okay, if I get 100 feet up there and I can't get a pod, that pod doesn't work out, I can't get an anchor, I'll just down climb the crack.”
Many of us were like, “Okay, it's a perfect handcrack, fine.” Anything that was anything other than that, which almost every crack in Indian Creek, is other than perfect hands, there was just no way that you could taint those dream cracks, because you just couldn't protect them. Very quickly, as soon as cams came into the world, then that was all different, but for the first decade, plus, there really weren't that many people climbing at Indian Creek. Sometimes there'd be some chalk on a crack. The cracks just didn't really show any wear.
But, the sandstone is really soft. Now that hundreds of people have climbed those, for someone like me, who saw those lines when they were sharp edged, varnished, square cut, laser slits in the rock - to be these sandy, rounded edged, just really abused cracks - I mean, I was one of the people who started it - my fault. Any given climber is not doing anything any worse than I did. There's a lot of top roping on those cracks and I don't have anything to say about anything. It's like it's just what happens when that many people climb soft sandstone. It's the first time I'd ever really seen it. You have a place like Garden of the Gods, where you're peeling off face holds or something. It doesn't really change the look of the formation very much.
But, soft sandstone cracks, they turn from these things of beauty into these very worn paths - it's like a trail through the woods that gets beat out by a herd of cattle coming through or something. Nobody really did anything wrong. It's just it was so cool out there, and so many people got psyched to go out there.
Here we are. I don't have any solution. I don't go there anymore. It's just really hard for me to look at it. I see people talk about Creeksgiving. We're all going to gather out there and it's such a great gathering of the tribe, but the rock is just so beat up now.
My time out there was spent where we'd never see anybody in Indian Creek. We'd be climbing some new route at Fringe of Death Canyon, or something, and a car would go by, and we’d be like, “Who’s that?” Even tourists were barely going down there. My Indian Creek experiences were very much just the rock, the ravens, these pristine cracks, and just a few of us feeling like we're doing this cool thing.
I don't go there anymore. The climbing is super cool, but I just don't climb there. When I go out to Canyonlands, I’ll be hiking in Grand Mesa or doing some obscure tower climb that I haven't done. But generally, my trips out to the Colorado Plateau are to hike some cool Canyon or go explore some back road that I’ve never been on - camp out away from everybody, which you can still do, just not in Indian Creek, and not in Castle Valley, not at those places where I did the most climbing. I'll just go out and enjoy all those things I loved about the experience out there, the camping, the hiking around, the landscape, the Anasazi, little granaries in the alcoves, the petroglyphs, and just the amazing colors and shapes in the sandstone. I don't rope up in Canyonlands much anymore.
Matt Jenkins: What's important about the broader landscape to you?
Jeff Achey: The whole Bears Ears area, that greater Canyonlands (pause, crying baby).
The importance of the landscape out there - Ever since I started going out to Canyonlands, I was strongly moved by the wide open spaces, the lack of people, the unspoiled landscape, just the sounds, the clearness of the night sky, just how much acreage there was where the hand man was invisible. There was nothing going on. In my climbing days in Canyonlands, what was important to me was the next objective, the towers that hadn't been climbed yet, a challenge that we had seen that was the next step for us.
It was in the background that we would get to camp out in Canyonlands and see those beautiful clear skies and smell that Juniper and those little campfires, and all of that stuff was just kind of out of focus a little bit. It was part of those climbing trips that we were very focused on some cool new climbing objective that we were all fired up about.
Now, I go out to the Canyonlands specifically for those other things, for those little camp fires, to hike around in the washes and just look at the cliffs, and maybe imagine some possible climb, but chances are, that's not really what I'm interested in. I just can't help myself when I look at rocks. But, mostly, it's walking around out there, being able to drive down some dirt road in the junipers, pull into a little pull-out and just camp and do whatever I want - run around naked on the slick rock or just be out there and have all that open space. It just is such good medicine to be out there and see wild lands and not hear people, and just tune in to the way water flows through the desert, how the animals move, the change of the seasons, and different looks of the plants, names of the little, scrubby plants that live down in the washes there. Those are the reasons I go out to that area now. It is just to be in that and climbing objectives are not important to me out there anymore. I really got my share. I'm really grateful for being able to participate in the golden age of tower free climbing. Now, I see a cool formation that I haven't been to the top of and I’m psyched, but I kind of would rather, if I don't have to rope up, if I can I just scramble up to the top of it, just go light and fast, make a hike out of it. That's almost more appealing, not because I don't enjoy the climbing out there, but it just seems like I mostly go out there to wander around and just be in that environment.
Matt Jenkins: Is there anything that I haven't asked you think should have been asked?
Jeff Achey: I don't think so. You've covered a lot of ground and a lot of the stories I have to contribute to the climbing lore of the place. Working for Climbing Magazine for as many years as I did, I got plenty of chances to spray about climbs I did, climbs I knew about, or places I loved. I really feel like I got more than my share of time to talk about the things that are important to me, the adventures I had, or the glory days that I participated in.
We've talked about the best of those stories, I think. There are a thousand little details, climbing with Craig Luebben on the River Road, climbing on The Sorcerer where I got to climb with this amazing master of a climber, and put up a really cool offwidth tower climb with the man himself - and, then losing him just a few short years later. I really value the - not so much that climb - but, just the time I spent.
We got shut down by weather a bunch of times while we were trying to climb out in Canyonlands. We did get a fair amount of time to hang out and that was a little later in my climbing career. I started to become a little more conscious of the importance of my climbing partners by then. I wasn't expecting to lose him that fast - but, certainly a memory we didn't talk about that stands out was spending time with the man, Craig Luebben, out in the canyons.
I remember Glenn Randall was another good partner of mine. We tried to drive out to - I think we were trying to do the Dunn Route on Moses was our objective. We were blazing along in the middle of the night, in his, whatever it was, a Chevrolet Impala or Vega or some sedan like that. It was a Maverick. We're cruising out across the flats in Glenn’s Maverick and every once in a while there'd be a wash that would cross the road and there would be this deep rut. Glenn was pretty good at seeing those come in, but I don't remember how it happened, but anyway, one took him by surprise and, “Bam.” We just slammed into some rut going 45-50 miles an hour. The car was - “Oh man, we blew out both tires. We've only got one spare. It's the middle of the night.” We don't pull over because we can’t really drive the car. It's not like we're stopping traffic or anything. Nobody's going to come by for days. We get our headlamps and, look at the passenger side tire. “Glenn, it looks all right.” We walk around to the driver’s side. “Tires fine, man.”
I look and one tire is going 45 degrees off to the right, and the other tire is going 45 degrees off to the left. We just bent the shit out of that tie rod. There was no steering possible in the car. There are no cell phones or anything. There were like 12 miles from the highway, three or four miles from the nearest road where we are expecting any car within the next couple of days. We're way, way out there. Nowadays there'd be plenty of traffic, but then - so we managed to, with a piton hammer, a jack, and a bunch of maneuvering, managed to beat the tie rod back into shape. We pulled the wheels back so that they were close enough to aligned that we could kind of drive. One wheel would roll and the other one would kind of skid on the gravel. At the sacrifice of one tire, we could skid our way back and finally get back, almost to Moab before we blew that first one and then got the spare on. We limped our way all the way back to a shop in Moab. Then, we went hiking up Courthouse Wash as we waited for the car to get fixed. There was a time that I was out there with a climbing partner, where we were just
hanging out, brought a couple beers, hiked up, found some quicksand, and, just like two little boys having fun out in the desert, instead of just being on a mission. There were a few times when I got to spend some time out there with some friends.
If we spent a few hours around a campfire, there'd be a hundred more stories that would come out. That's probably about it for now.
Matt Jenkins: Sounds good. Would you tell me your name and a full sentence and when you started climbing again.
Jeff Achey: I'm Jeff Achey. I started climbing in high school, pretty much, couple times dabbling before that - but, I started as a full time climber in my junior year of high school in 1974 and I’ve been at it ever since.
All right, right on.
Matt Jenkins: Thanks, good job, nice work.