THE GOOD ULTIMATELY PREVAILED
AN ASCENT OF ZOROASTER TEMPLE
It all began in 1983 with the arrival of the September - October issue of Summit. The cover photograph of that issue showed two climbers approaching Zoroaster Temple in the Grand Canyon. The accompanying article described an ascent of the tower and made it sound like an adventure filled outing. After seeing the photos and reading the article, I placed an ascent of this remote tower on my list of climbs to do despite the fact I lived in New Hampshire and the tower was in Arizona.
Fifteen years later, while thumbing through old climbing magazines, I came across that old issue of Summit. After re-reading the article, I decided it was time to make a pilgrimage to the Temple. Searching for potential partners, I mentioned this idea to a friend of mine, only to find out that friends of his made the first ascent of the tower in 1969! Don had missed out on that trip of long ago, but was still eager to climb the spire. Plans were made to climb the tower during Christmas break. As it turned out, Don was selected as a juror in a complicated civil trial and was unable to make this trip either.
Our first attempt began at the South Kaibab Trailhead on December 21st. My wife and I hiked the seven miles and nearly 5,000 vertical feet down to Phantom Ranch and met up with Ranger Andrea Lankford. The three of us left Phantom early the next morning, and hiked about two miles and one thousand vertical feet up the Clear Creek Trail. The route to the tower left the trail at this juncture, and followed a drainage up another five hundred vertical feet to the base of the Redwall formation. This five hundred-foot limestone cliff was ascended via a large gully system. Two sections of easy fifth class climbing (not so easy with huge packs) deposited us at our campsite atop the Redwall.
We spent the afternoon weaving our way through numerous cliff bands in the Supai and Hermit rock layers. This involved several fourth class chimneys and a short 5.4ish pitch. We dumped our climbing gear and water at the base of the tower and retraced the one-mile and one thousand vertical foot route to our campsite.
We awoke the next morning to three inches of new snow. The route back up to the base of the tower had become quite treacherous now that is was covered with snow. A slip in one of several places could deposit you at the base of the Redwall formation a thousand feet below. The fifth class climbing sections were desperately slick as though someone had smeared axle grease on the holds. Luckily, we had fixed a rope on the most problematic section and were able to prussik up the rope to reach our equipment.
After retrieving our gear, we descended to Phantom Ranch, which is the same climate as Phoenix, Arizona (hot enough to melt candles in the summertime). Before the storm moved eastward, it had snowed at Phantom producing a beautiful albeit unusual Christmas.
The second attempt almost ended before it began. We arrived in Williams, Arizona (Gateway to the Grand Canyon) on April 7 to an inch of new snow. While the upcoming weather forecast was good, we were afraid the rock bands just below the tower might be covered with snow and insurmountable. A telephone call to Andi at Phantom Ranger Station convinced us to head down the following morning.
We left the South Rim at eight oclock in the morning and arrived at Phantom before noon. After loading up with six gallons of water, the three of us struck out for our now familiar campsite atop the Redwall. Four hours after leaving Phantom, we arrived at camp and settled in for the night.
I awoke at dawn and unpacked the stove to heat water. Unfortunately, the stove and fuel cylinder we brought were incompatible. Breakfast consisted of cold oatmeal and no coffee a diet reserved for only the worst of prisons.
We arrived at the base of the tower an hour and a half after leaving camp. Due to the cold, we scraped the idea of climbing the standard route up the northeast arete and decided to climb something in the sun. Ever eager to do a new route, I located a line on the south face of the tower.
The first pitch climbed a left-leaning flake system and went at a moderate grade of 5.8. A short scramble along a ledge led to an alcove and the base of an obvious dihedral. I spent the next hour unsuccessfully trying to circumvent a Yugo sized loose block partway up the dihedral.
After this fiasco, the northeast arete sounded like the route of choice. Despite being armed with a written description and topo, we had trouble locating the start of the route. We eventually determined this was due to rock-fall that had obliterated the first pitch.
A 5.7 off-width to the left of the original line got us to a ledge. A short rappel off bushes accessed the top of the old first pitch and the base of an obvious, right-leaning corner system. We ended the climbing portion of the day by fixing a rope from the top of the second pitch.
Arriving back at camp before dark, we attempted to resolve the stove/fuel incompatibility problem. Despite employing a number of MacGyver techniques utilizing parachute cord and duct tape, we were unable to make the stove work. With our cold dinner, we shared a can of Fosters Special Bitter beer, which seemed fitting, given the days events. The final insult came soon after we crawled into our sleeping bags. My wife grabbed her toothbrush and loaded it what she thought was toothpaste and began to brush. It didnt take long to realize she had grabbed the tube of Neosporin in the dark instead of Crest.
The third attempt began on a slightly more positive note - breakfast bars instead of cold gruel. By now, the approach from our camp to the base of the tower was just another morning commute. Upon reaching the fixed rope left the previous day, I ascended back to our high point and belayed the others up.
The next pitch moved out right onto an exposed slab then followed a crack to a bushy ledge. A huge, triangular roof that was psychedelically colored like something out of the sixties capped the corner directly above our belay. Andi avoided this obstacle by chimneying up a huge, detached flake to reach another ledge. A straightforward pitch up a crack system above ended with us all tied into a loose pillar and one old bolt. Large roofs again blocked upward progress and forced a long traverse to the right on a narrow ledge. This ledge ended at the edge of a large, wide chimney. A scary move into the chimney (despite the comfort of an old bolt for protection) began upward progress again. The final pitch was 5.7 according to the paperwork we had with us and from the comfort of the belay ledge looked straightforward. It proved very deceptive - I was barely able to free climb the pitch.
We arrived on the summit at 5:30 p.m. and began the descent after a few obligatory photographs. Four double rope rappels down the east face deposited us at our packs. The majority of the Supai cliff bands were descended before the light completely failed and we arrived at our camp under the light of a full moon.
The next morning was windy and cold, which made sure we broke camp quickly. The descent of the Redwall involved easy down climbing and two rappels. We arrived back at Phantom Ranch before noon and had our first hot meal in a few days. Donette and I began the long march to the South Rim about one oclock and arrived on top before dark. Overall, the trip involved about 20 miles of hiking, nearly 25,000 feet of elevation change and seven pitches of climbing on the tower. We spent our final night of the trip in Williams and awoke Easter morning to yet another snowstorm.
Zoroastrianism: The religious system of the Persians before their conversion to Islam; its principles include the belief of a continuous struggle between good and evil, with the good ultimately prevailing.