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Note on Bridge Climbing

Note on Bridge Climbing. The region of southern Utah and northern Arizona is famous for its scenic attractions. Colorful mesas, cliffs and canyons occur in great profusion, and many of them are well known to the travelling public. This sandstone wonderland contains a large number of natural stone bridges and arches, some of which are of great size. Many are readily accessible; others are hidden away in remote and seldom visited areas. An ascent to the top of one of these spans often provides interesting problems. Rock climbers visiting the area might be interested in exploring some of the possibilities. The climbs are necessarily short, rarely over one or two hundred feet, but this distance is sufficient for the average person on a hot summer’s day in this particular region.

Many of the ascents are literally walk-ups. Examples are Owachomo and Sipapu Bridges in Natural Bridges National Monument and Double-O Arch in Arches National Monument. At the other extreme are several, such as the two spans of the Double Arch in Arches National Monument, which appear to be unclimbable except by direct use of artificial aids. Examples of intermediate difficulty are Rainbow Natural Bridge, Turret Arch and Landscape Arch, the latter two in Arches National Monument. In the writer’s experience, climbs such as these have proved interesting and worth while. Indeed, anyone who visits the incomparable Rainbow Bridge in southern Utah and does not make the 300-ft. climb1 from the bottom of the canyon to the top of the span, misses much that he might otherwise add to an unforgettable experience. Years ago, a series of niches was cut in the sandstone in the one difficult pitch. Without them the ascent would be rather more of a problem.

Of the spans requiring some amount of actual climbing, the top of Rainbow seems to be the most frequently visited. In fact, it has a summit register in a weather-proof metal cylinder. The list of names in the register is surprisingly long, though still very small when compared with the several thousand signatures in the main register beside the trail in the canyon below.

Probably the most easily accessible group of natural arches and windows is to be found in Arches National Monument,2 situated a few miles N. of the town of Moab in southeastern Utah. Thisrelatively small area of 34,000 acres contains over 60 arches large enough to be designated as such. Landscape Arch, in the Devil’s Garden section of the monument, is 291 ft. wide at the base, and is said to be the longest natural stone span in the world. In this respect it surpasses even Rainbow Bridge, which has a span of 278 ft. However, the thing which is bound to impress the visitor is not its record length, but the unbelievable thinness of the fragile looking span. Its life expectancy is short, geologically speaking.

I first saw Landscape Arch in 1947 and unsuccessfully tried to climb it by three different routes. The most likely possibility was an open chimney on the extreme S.E. end of the rock fin in which the arch is formed. But after 30 ft. the exposure proved too great for a solo attempt with no equipment. In 1949 I again visited the area with my sister, Irene Ayres, this time bringing climbing gear. On August 19th we attempted the same chimney and found that it led to the top of the arch with no serious difficulty. The 100-ft. ascent was surprisingly reminiscent of pitches encountered on more conventional rock climbs. For 80 ft. the route was more or less in the open. Two pitons and two expansion anchors were used on the upper portion of this pitch. At the 80-ft. level we crawled for six feet through a narrow, tunnel-like cleft, and emerged in a deep trough open to the sky. A 15-ft. scramble up the steep northern side of this trough brought us onto the “summit ridge” of arch. We walked across the airy span to a dead-end ledge at the far side, where there was an excellent view of the arch, end-on.

At the thinnest portion, the transverse cross section of the arch is approximately a right triangle oriented with the hypotenuse up and the short leg to the S.W. Both the long leg and the hypotenuse slope downward to the N.E. In other words, when on the arch, we had somewhat the impression of standing on the wing of a big airplane taking off at a steep angle into the southern sky. We found the “hyptotenuse” to be 26 ft. long and the short leg somewhere between six and ten feet. The latter measurement was an awkward one to make. Having found no evidence of a previous ascent, we built an inconspicuous cairn on the high point of the span, a hump near the E. end. The descent was accomplished by means of a rappel down the E. end of the fin, approximately where we had climbed up.

Another unique structure, though a much smaller one, is Delicate Arch, centrally located in Arches National Monument. A close-up view of it is well worth the two-mile walk required to reach it. This arch is probably climbable, but the writer never seriously considered it, mostly on the ground that clambering about on this particular one, delicate as it is, would hardly seem appropriate.

Turret Arch, in the Windows Section of the monument, is a short scramble with one six-foot pitch requiring moderately cautious friction work. This arch has been climbed several times. In this same section, our attempts on the two spans of the Double Arch and on the N. and S. Windows were unsuccessful, though we did not explore all the possibilities. The sandstone is, in part, extremely weak and rotten in this area. High-perched Skyline Arch in the Devil’s Garden section is a spectacular structure. The spacious window beneath the arch was reached without difficulty (on the back side), but no feasible route to the top of the fin itself was found.

It must be admitted that these climbs, as such, would hardly justify a long trip to reach them. But if a trip to the region is already planned, they should be an added incentive.

F. D. Ayres

170 ft. of rappel line will be found useful.

2 For additional information, see the National Geographic Magazine for Aug. 1947.