The Three Mudskateers

By Bill Wright ( and
George Bell (

October 1995

The Trashman had just been freed from a four month sentence in a wrist cast and his desire to climb something memorable greatly exceeded his ability to do so. His wrist was stiff and his left arm, normally bulging with muscles, was so wimpy even I could best him in an arm wrestling match. Nevertheless, he wanted to climb the King Fisher - the second tallest of the Fisher Towers, which are giant, flowing, vertical, scary mud spires near Moab, Utah.

Last year the Trashman and I had climbed Kor's Finger of Fate route on the Titan, the patriarch Fisher Tower. That route scared the hell out of me, but that was more than a year ago and the memories had faded significantly. So much so that I also wanted to climb King Fisher, but not so much that I wanted to lead every pitch. We needed another iron basher...

A few weeks after the Trashman broached the subject of King Fisher we went to a very entertaining slide show given by the father of modern aid climbing, Jim "The Bird" Bridwell. Coincidentally, Andy "The Android" Blaylock also showed up. I had met Andy last year as he was a partner of Dr. Offwidth. I had climbed with the Doctor and the Droid a few times and had always felt a bit out of place among these 5.11 leaders, but thoroughly enjoyed their company and their uncanny ability to haul me up routes for which I was way overmatched. I had never climbed with just Andy though and never on an aid route, but now seemed to be the time.

Andy reminds me of Dudley Moore, only slightly taller. Andy talks exactly like Dudley Moore. "Bill, I'm really pysched for King Fisher," he would excitedly tell me on the phone and I couldn't help but think about Dudley Moore as Arthur in the movie by the same name. One distinctive difference between Dudley and Andy is that the latter is lean and ripped. Having twice the bulk and half the power, I was glad this was mostly an aid climb. I can't keep up with the Droid on free terrain.

The Droid immediately jumped at the suggestion and called me the next day to get the trip on the calendar. Two weeks later we were hammering west in my newly acquired, but well used, Saab 9000 Turbo. Normally a six hour drive, we made the trip in 5 1/2 hours with a dinner stop. The Droid liked to drive flat out, setting the cruise on 85.


We hit the end of the road to the Fisher Towers and crashed out. I was unrolling my pad in my headlamp beam when suddenly a huge red caterpillar writhed into it. Bill had brought along his -40 degree down bag that he had recently bought used. "Good God, Bill", I said "that obscene thing's got over a foot of loft and it's not even below freezing!". He had bought this bag for a trip to Alaska yet he was using it in the desert. In it's storage sack, it took up practically half the car!

The parking lot filled up remarkably during the night, with people milling around and an obnoxious radio playing. We had learned our lesson from our last trip and didn't crash out right in the parking lot as before. Seven AM crept past and still we snored.

Bill was the first to get up and start rummaging in his car for breakfast. As we sat eating and admiring the desert view, doors opened and weary, crusty souls emerged; then as we munched our cereal packs appeared and there were ominous clunks as they were dumped out. Climbers! Hey, those guys are sorting gear! I had never seen so many climbers in the Fishers. I joked at Bill "This place is getting crowded - now we'll have to find some place even scarier!"

In my role as human haul bag, I had little to carry and no rack to organize. I figured I should race up to the base of the climb and reserve our spot for several reasons. First, the NE Ridge of the Kingfisher is one of the two most popular routes here and also I guessed Bill and Andy might be having second thoughts since they were doing the leading. Shortly I grabbed my pack and raced off, and just in time as two other climbers soon started behind me.

The Fisher's certainly are one of the most surreal areas in the desert. Fred Knapp claims this area was named for the fissures in the rock, but I find this hard to believe as there simply are no cracks visible in this rock. Their soft, rounded forms seem often to defy gravity. Ancient Art is well named and as I went past it I remembered well climbing it this spring with Bill.

Moving off the trail and steeply up toward the base of the climb I spotted a figure below, and as I passed the tower known as the Cobra it became clear he was gaining on me. How could someone with a full pack be going that fast? I switched into high gear and practically ran up the hill ahead. Still the madman was closer! The race was on and it didn't look like my head start would be enough. Then I realized the figure was Bill! Duh!

Soon all three of us were at the base of the route, then a party of two from Vail appeared. Lines for Fisher Tower mud! What a concept. They said they would follow behind us, although I don't think I would want to follow anyone on a Fisher Tower route, because of the potential for rockfall. At least we all had helmets.

Lazily racking gear in the parking lot, I was shocked when two climbers walked by and answered a query from another climber about what they were headed to climb: 'King Fisher.' King Fisher! Ack! That was our climb. I looked down at the mess at my feet. I wouldn't be ready for ten minutes. A ten minute lead for a forty minute hike was insurmountable. Disgust at my laziness swept over me and then despair filled me. Sure the Trashman was already off and would surely beat them to the base of the climb, but what claim does a single climber without a rack or a partner have on a route?

I thought about running after the Trashman to call him back. Giving up before we even got started. I suggested this to Andy, but he thought we should hike up there anyway and just see what happens. We finished packing up and hit the trail.

Now that I was committed to going up there, I wanted to make a play for the route. George could hold them off for awhile and if I arrived soon enough we may still claim the route. I started off at a brisk pace. Fifteen minutes into the hike, I spotted the other team way ahead on the trail. At this point I felt I had a real chance to arrive close behind the competing party. I shifted into my highest gear and powered up the steep, loose ground, taking a more direct route and got ahead of the other team before they even knew I was behind them.

When I reached George at the base of the route, sweating profusely with aching legs and heaving lungs, I wondered if I had forgotten what I was racing for. I was so caught up in the race to the prize, that I didn't fully consider if I actually wanted to win the prize. Having another team claim the route would be an ideal excuse to try something shorter, easier, safer, less frightening. I'd have an excellent excuse for not going up. But now...I had no excuse except fear and I wasn't ready to voice this to my partners. Not yet.

The first pitch was straight forward, except that many of the bolts lacked hangers. No problem, I'll just hook wires over them. Problem: All the Droid's stoppers have yellow paint liberally splashed over the bottom of the stoppers, gluing the stopper to the cable. I only found a few stoppers which I could slide up the wire. I collected these special stoppers on a single biner and used them for hooking hangerless bolts. I had to back clean a few of these to avoid running out.

Eventually I got to a section with a missing bolt. True to the guide, it did look possible to free climb past this section by pinching pebbles stuck in the mud. That is, if the pebbles stayed stuck in the mud. I briefly considered a free attempt, but oh so briefly. I pulled out the cheater stick, two tent poles that could be attached together. I only needed the two foot length, but had to attach a wired stopper to the stick in order to hook the hangerless bolt.

I tried not to concentrate on the terrible shape of most of the bolts. Heck, I was only putting body weight on these suckers and they have held many climbers before me. But of course, bolts do pull, which is why I needed the cheater sticker the first place.

Once at the top of the bolt ladder, I left my aiders and cheater stick behind. I started up the second pitch which was a fun, sandy, runout 5.8 chimney. I really enjoy this type of climbing. I found this chimney to be easier than the 5.8 chimney on Ancient Art because it isn't as steep.

The belay at the top of this pitch is simply incredible. A foot wide notch that plunged over 150 feet on both sides. I was now on the ridge proper. It had taken me an hour to lead the first two pitches. I fix the ropes, hauled the bag (it got stuck in the chimney of course) and reclined in the sun to admire the view.

Andy jugged up and made me feel like greased lightning as he took over two hours to lead the next 125 feet. It was the technical crux of the climb and had the only hammering on the whole route: six pin placements, but the Droid looked very tentative.

Andy's lead turned out to be tricky and involved a number of piton stacks. The Droid is a firm believer and ardent practitioner of "bounce testing." He would bounce up and down on most of his placements. It looked hilarious - little Dudley Moore up there splayed out in a frog position bouncing up and down like he was trying to jump up the rock but, failing to stick to the red mud, would crash back down.

After taking numerous photos, the Trashman jugged up and kept me company at the belay. This is certainly one of the joys of a three man climbing team. Having George along didn't slow us up at all and just added to the fun. Plus he didn't steal any leads away from us, though I'm not sure this is a good thing on the Fishers.

"Smashing lead, old man," I told Andy upon reaching his stance. "It was a bloody `ard lead."

Andy's belay was a small stance about a foot deep and two feet long poised right on the sharp Northeast Ridge. From here the route went straight up, dead vertical to the summit capstone roof. The capstone is a different layer of sandstone of much higher quality and hence it hadn't eroded as much as the rest of the tower, creating a three to ten foot roof that completely encircled the top of the tower.

While Bill started his second lead, I was still enjoying the sun at the top of the first pitch. There was really no hurry for me since it takes much longer to lead an aid pitch than to jug. It was a strange climb for me. The time pressure was all on Bill and Andy and I couldn't do a thing about it. It was already past 2 and with the short fall days I was wondering if we should have gotten up earlier. The party of two behind us had wisely backed off.

Bill moved up on desert bolts until reaching a blank section. His tent pole cheater stick is light and collapsible, but lacks an easy clip in point and neither the two sections or the end biner are tied together very well. The thing had already unclipped from Andy after he cleaned it off the first pitch, and I had brought it back up from the bottom. Now Andy and Bill messed around getting the stick set up for the cheat. If they dropped it, it could mean the end of the climb! Hard to believe but true. Aid climbing is a weird business.

The sun left me so I began to set up my jumars on the line above. Bill had cheated past the blank spot but had encountered another longer blank section. "I'm going to have to free climb it!" he screamed down. Andy and I couldn't believe this. It appeared a dead vertical smooth arete of mud. How could he possibly think of free climbing that?

With a "Watch me!", Bill was moving up. I decided to wait before jumaring, those belay anchors could use as little strain as possible. Bill made several impossible looking moves, leading out a good 10 feet before he encountered another bolt. Andy and I were holding our breaths as he clipped it, and we didn't find out until later that there was a huge jug formed by the top of a flake at this point and he wasn't about to take a 25' screamer as we both thought. But those first 5.8 free moves took guts on this rock with these dubious looking bolts. And imagine the fun if that bolt after that long lead out had pulled!

I joined Andy at the belay spot as Bill reached the roof. Bill was at a belay spot but we hoped it could be avoided as it was a hanging stance and we were running out of time. As I looked up, this pitch reminded me a lot of the last hard pitch on the Titan. Both of them have this weird little perch of a belay ledge right on the spine of an arete with tremendous exposure to either side. But it wasn't quite as bad here - maybe only 400 feet off each side!

Bill started the roof by clipping an incredibly manky pin, the thing was bent a full 90 degrees! But he soon encountered a crack and started stuffing camming units in. This crack actually flared inward, which made placements difficult and not so secure. As Bill reached the lip of the roof, the haul line dangled behind our backs. "That is one steep pitch" said the Android, "I wonder how we're going to rap back to this stance?"

Soon the Android was cleaning away, and he agreed to clip my line in at the belay below the roof so I wouldn't have to jug a free line all the way. Man, it's downright scary jumaring with such exposure if you haven't done so for a year or so! This jumar was the crux of the route for me, as I couldn't put more than about 20 pounds of weight on my left hand. For this reason I had my left hand in my bottom jumar, but time and time again I struggled to release the cam with my wimpy left thumb, only to slump back down with curses of frustration. How strange to be spinning 500' off the deck on a 9mm twine with one hand so weak I could barely hold a beer bottle - was I nuts to think I could do this? I thought of Mike Wellman, the handicapped man who has climbed El Cap. How easily we take the full use of all four limbs for granted! At least my wrist will recover (I hope!). I was sweating and breathing like a maniac as I finally reached Bill at the belay. The android had already flashed up the free pitch above and was on top.

Contemplating the free climbing section was terrifying. Heck, aid climbing on this gear was scary enough. I knew I had to at least try before I could retreat though. I took me awhile to get ready and commit to the moves. The moves were probably only 5.8 but they held my full attention. I moved up and grabbed a huge flake. Once I stood on the flake I could finally clip another bolt. My aider hung completely free from the rock. Steep.

The overhang that blocked passage to the summit was problematical. It jutted out horizontally only about three feet, but I had to move around the corner to the left at the same time. Dangling, bat like, underneath this rotten roof from pins hammered into incipient cracks and bent ninety degrees, I stretch way to my left and struggle endlessly to place solid cams in a cylindrical crack. The opening is small, but the insides are large. The only way to get a placement is to place the cam right at the edge of the crumbling crack. Yikes!

Once over the roof, the climbing eases, but is not over. Another short bolt ladder and then twenty feet of vertical, but blocky 5.6 climbing. My rope drag is becoming a problem and I leave my cheater stick behind. Finally, I crest the ridge.

The pitch ended on a large, comfortable ledge and I fixed the ropes and relaxed. Andy soon joined me and continued on up a short steep wall and then up an 5.8 offwidth which thankfully only lasted for a few awkward feet. This put on basically on the summit where we could walk about unroped. The "tippy top", as my friend refers to summits, was located atop a ten foot 5.7 boulder.

I bouldered onto the summit and discovered a relatively new summit register. It was installed on May 28th of the year and we were the 4th ascent since that time. As I soaked up the incredible panorama of the Fisher Towers, I heard an eerie drumming sound. It was almost as if we had finally violated the sacred summit and the Indians were getting restless. What fate would befall us upon descending?

This drumming continued incessantly as we performed the scarier, overhanging rappels. It continued on the dark, confusing hike back to camp. We had only one headlamp and lost the trail at one point. The drumming continued through dinner and we feared it would keep us awake all night. Finally a troop of teenage, white boys pranced out of a slot canyon and eventually the pounding ceased.

After dinner the Droid asks me, "Are we going to get another early start tomorrow?" He was dead serious and I thought it was hilarious. Obviously, he is no alpinist. I smiled and said, "Don't you mean: 'Are we going to get another late start tomorrow?' " He smiled and I said yes.

The urge to pee, as it often does, drove me from my -40 degree bag the next morning. The temperature was about 40 degrees out. That gave me a comfortable 80 degree temperature range before I was supposed to get cold. What amazed the Trashman was that I wasn't sweating - even with the bag zipped. I thought it was warm and oh so comfortable. This bag is truly decadent.

A leisurely, no, a lazy breakfast in the parking lot under cloudless skies got out day off to a slow start. We didn't really have a plan for today, but I wanted another tower and choose the smallest of the Fishers: Lizard Rock.

Lizard Rock is only eighty feet tall and it sports two routes. The regular route (Entry Fee Route) is a scary 5.8+ and the other route (Leapin' Lizards Variation) is a scary 5.10-. The Trashman and I ambled over to try the former, while Andy sat in the parking lot and soaked up rays.

I led up the initial crack section and placed a cam. Above is some exciting, overhanging climbing where a crucial foothold appears to be a block of mud plastered on the face. Once above this section I traversed around to the right and had to make the final mantle move. The runout at this point is probably almost twenty feet and there was no possibility of any gear. I felt out the moves and, feeling confident, powered onto the summit.

From the top, I could see the Droid lounging in the parking lot. I called over: "Get your lazy butt over here if you want to climb this tower." George started to clean the route and I was concerned how he would get by the overhanging section and the final mantle with this weak wrist. Amazingly, he flashed the route in his tennis shoes!

After Andy joined us on top, we all descended back to the ground. I asked Andy if he wanted to try and lead Leapin' Lizards, but he declined on the basis of the manky and spare protection possibilities. Once again feeling confident, I volunteered to lead it.

This pitch starts out with a hand crack that quickly tapers to a finger crack and then disappears altogether into a mud wall impregnated with tiny stones. I put in loads of dicey gear in the mud crack and then faced the crux. The next piece was ten feet up: a bolt. The climbing to that bolt was very dicey face climbing via pebbles pinches and foot smears. I made it and clipped the bolt with a sigh of relief. The final section goes directly over the overhanging summit via big holds and protected by another bolt. Exciting! After all that climbing (two half pitches), we were certainly in need of a rest and decided to have lunch.

After lunch we went for a hike to scope out our next Fisher Tower objective. The Trashman and I have now climbed the two tallest towers, the shortest tower, and Ancient Art. The obvious next towers to do are Echo and Cottontail. Unfortunately, these towers seem to be considerably harder and scarier. We checked out West Side Story and Brer Rabbit on Cottontail, and Jagged Edge and Phantom Spirit on Echo. Andy is keen to do the Sundevil Chimney route on the Titan. This appears to be by far and away the most classic route at the Fisher Towers. Unfortunately it looks horrific and is rated A4 - no thank you!

We noticed a fixed rope one pitch up on the south side of Echo Tower on what appears to be a new route. We also saw some tat on the south side of Cottontail but it had to be the bail-off point. The route looks impossible without a truck load of bolts. There was also a fixed rope up the Jagged Edge route on Echo.

It was fun hiking around safely on the ground dreaming of scary adventures to come high up on the mud walls of the Fisher Towers, but these routes would have to wait. It was time to head home.


Weeks later I dreaded a visit to my dentist, but by a strange coincidence ;^) my dentist is Cleveland McCarthy, the man who together with Harvey T. Carter made the first ascent of the Kingfisher. Between sessions with the whining drill, I mentioned that I had recently done his route. Cleve was excited to hear about the Kingfisher, as he hadn't talked to anyone who had done it in the last 20 years or so. Our conversation was somewhat sporadic because obviously I couldn't talk most of the time!

Cleve related some of the circumstances surrounding the first ascent, which was done in the spring of 1962. Layton Kor had beaten Harvey Carter with the first ascent of Castleton the fall before and the Titan just weeks earlier. So Harvey figured they would climb the second biggest Fisher Tower. To warm up they put up a new route on the Rectory then did the Kor-Ingalls route on Castleton (second ascent and first free ascent). Pretty impressive warm up!

By now they had enough nerve to attempt the Kingfisher. The bolt ladder on the first pitch was controversial at the time. Apparently Layton came up to Harvey later and asked him why he put it up when there was a perfectly good crack on the NW (other) side of the ridge. Cleve and Harvey had looked at the other side, but the crack looked unappealing and disconnected, and this also made the route longer. Cleve said that a storm rolled in on day three when Harvey was leading the pitch below the final roof. As Harvey crouched under the summit overhang, a bolt of lightning hit the summit, and sparks of electricity crackled through all their metallic gear. A quick retreat was initiated, but they went back up and finished the climb the next day. He also said they used prussiks since jumars had only just been invented.

After the drilling and filling was over Cleve had some time left so we went into a back room to view my slides. It was really fun talking to this desert pioneer and hearing of his experiences of 33 years ago. This was probably the most enjoyable trip to the dentist I have ever had! Hopefully, I'll do another desert trip before the next one!

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