Arid. Not Devoid of Life | Climbing In Utah's West Desert

By Stio Mountain on

Words by: David Kamp

Photos & Video by: Asher Koles & Sean Black

(Disclaimer** As we all know, we are living in uncertain times. Please monitor and respect all closures during this time and enjoy your outings responsibly once restrictions have been lifted. Happy exploring!)

Utah’s west desert is most often associated with places like the salt flats or seen as a mere impediment to getting further west. Stretching from the southwestern portion of the state all the way north and west to its borders, it encompasses a huge swath of western Utah. A vast arid landscape, liberally salted with sage and peppered with mountain ranges rising out of the hardpan, the west desert is a region filled with the stories of lost mines, hermits, and wild horses. From the limestone cliffs of the House Range, to the glassy quartzite of Ibex and the granite domes of the Deep Creek Range, it is a fascinating place to explore. Places like these, teeming with the promise of adventure, have fueled my love of climbing from my earliest moments of dancing on stone.

In my pursuit to find new areas free from the ever-encroaching crowds of the city, I happened upon a copy of ‘Utah’s West Desert’ by James Garrett. I was guided to a landscape devoid of the mechanical sounds, corrosive smells and the rampant visual clutter of human society. The croak of ravens, pungent smell of sage and juniper, and hazy outlines of distant ranges, are all rewards for eschewing the path so often trodden. My initial experience only strengthened my desire for this landscape and increased my resolve to continue to return and thoroughly acquaint myself with this vast region and all its hidden treasures.

 

As the years have passed and the road miles have accumulated, this place has become a second home, as well as a catalyst for personal growth. It is becoming rarer to find a place or activity that truly pits one against the elements, and oneself, such as climbing in a place like this does. With no cell service and hundreds of miles of rough gravel between you and the nearest services, a broken hold or slip of the foot could be highly consequential. However, the adventurous climbing only sketches an outline of the experience eeked from this place. It's the ring-necked lizards lethargically basking in the sun. The helicopter-like buzz of the tarantula hawk (a fearsome cousin of the wasp with the second most painful sting of any insect). The distant bleating of a flock of grazing sheep. The dust floating on the horizon, remnants of a passing herd of wild horses. These are the layers of color and texture that fill in the outline and complete this image of the west desert for me.

Though the region as a whole has a firm grasp on my heart, there is one piece of stone in particular that has held my unwavering attention as of late, Notch peak. While relatively small in comparison to other peaks, what it lacks in altitude it makes up for in the prominence of its sheer north face. Notch’s 2,700 vertical feet of limestone, towering over the desert below, makes it the second-largest cliff face in North America putting it only slightly behind the notorious ‘El Capitan’ of Yosemite National Park. Who would have guessed that such a face could be hiding out in the dust of western Utah? After reading this statement, many may question why it is not more well known or more often climbed? Perhaps it’s the 4-wheel drive only road, the miles of approach on foot, or the loose and often runout climbing?

It is precisely those elements that continue to draw me back. The uncertainty of whether the bolt you just placed will hold. Pulling onto a ledge hundreds of feet off the ground to find an ancient bristlecone, long hidden from the eyes of man. Sharing a fire with friends, sitting in the shadow of your day’s efforts. Notch and its surrounding desert have become more than mere cliffs and bluffs for me, but rather, beacons of the endless possibilities for adventure and exploration that still exist.

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