Climbing the Palisade
Bumping along a rarely used dirt road in the desert of the Dolores Valley, I cranked my head upwards and peered through the small window of the Jeep. A towering wall of desert sandstone loomed 2,000 feet above. Perhaps it was my restricted view that made the fortress of rock look impenetrable? Yet, a few minutes later and disgorged from the vehicle, the route up the Palisade seemed no clearer. The Palisade is a narrow fin of sandstone, an iconic formation which stands guard above the hamlet of Gateway. From every angle its appearance is imposing, but it can be climbed, so I was told.
Luke Reece of Gateway Canyons Adventure Center generously offered to show Chad and I the route, an old uranium miners trail which provides the only access to the summit. With Gateway guide Nick Kroger leading the way, the four of us set out across the desert, a mile from the base of the wall.
Crossing several arroyos we headed for a rib of steep and loose talus which connected the valley floor to the base of the cliffs. We scrambled up the spine and after an hour and 1,000 feet of gain reached the wall, a more solid surface, albeit close to vertical. Despite our now intimate position, the way up was no more obvious. “If you can’t go there, it’s not the route” was Luke and Nick’s simple response to our questioning. In reality the route unfurled before us and our path through the labyrinth became clear as we went. No doubt because we followed Nick who traced the bold footsteps of the old miners up the rock face. Although more than half a century has passed since the original trailblazers forged their way upwards in search of riches, evidence of the intrepid miners abound. When the rock failed to give a solid foothold, they chiseled their own or hammered a piton into the soft rock. The route consisted of a series of ledges which we climbed and traversed. Though not technically difficult the climbing was exposed so we roped up occasionally. With the security of the rope, climbing was fun. We pushed our hands into cracks between slabs or smeared our boots onto the sticky slickrock, gradually making our way higher.
With no protection and the penalty for failure quite high, traversing the wall was a more nail-biting experience. As I tentatively inched my way across the smooth sandstone ledge, I forced the precipitous drop to the periphery of my vision and focused only on the placement of my feet.
Adding to the pressure, the longest traverse was interrupted by the debris of a recent rockslide. The smell of sap from the broken limbs of pinions, still clinging to their improbable foundation, hung in the air. Fresh rocks and dirt were covered with a layer of green pine needles. With danger from above as well as below, we hurried through this section, and took the extra precaution of going one at a time, in case of another ‘incident’.
Two hours later we made the final climb of a bulbous rock face and popped out onto the top of the fin.
Expecting the crest to be flat and barren, I was surprised to find a desert garden in the sky, a combination of slickrock domes and crytobiotic soil scattered with pinions. Treading carefully we made our way towards the ‘point’, the summit of the Palisade as seen from Gateway. Here the fin narrows to about 30 feet wide.
The exposed point generated wind gusts of 30 mph, enough to guarantee a tummy wriggle along the ground in order to peer over the edge.
The views were ample reward for our several hours of effort. Gateway was a long 2,000 feet drop below. The Dolores River glistened as it wound its way along the valley floor and sliced through the canyon walls towards Utah. Far in the distance the snowy peaks of the La Sal Mountains rose above the desert landscape. Clouds were building and a storm forecast to move in, so we quickly retraced our route. Traversing wet slickrock was not high on my list of preferred activities. Luckily the weather held off and the descent was as much fun as the climb. Arriving back at the Jeep seven hours after we left it, I stopped and turned to look back at the seemingly impenetrable fortress. Although I could now see where we had been, I marveled at the improbability of our route and at the fortitude of the miners who had pioneered it. It had been an outstanding day and one of the the most interesting desert adventures I have had in a long time.