A night on the tower

Climbers endure lightning, rain, cold in unplanned stay

Matt Moore takes a foot selfie from the top of Castleton Tower during a recent outing. Moore and his climbing partner would later learn that their plan for climbing down was dashed, leaving them to spend the night on a ledge. Photo courtesy of Matt Moore

A pair of climbers recently spent the night on a ledge 200 feet up Castleton Tower after a miscommunication left the two without a means of rappelling down the rock before rain and dark skies stranded them midway through their climb.

The pair, Max Turner and Matt Moore, made it down the rock the next day, Sept. 28, without incident after a night spent on a bed of rock, with one down coat to share for cover. They slept (in a very loose sense of the term) through rain, high winds, lightning strikes and the specter of falling rock.

The climbers also slept through calls from rescuers, emerging from the treacherous night to text messages from the Grand County Sheriff’s Office, which tried and failed to contact the two during the night after friends reported the climbers’ absence, having expected them home the previous day.

Men climbing ‘long the North Chimney track

Moore and Turner said they ended up meeting two other people during their climb up North Chimney on the Friday when they set out. They worked out an agreement to rappel down together after the climb.

At least, they thought they had reached an agreement.

Turner said the couple was Brazilian and that there was a language barrier in communicating with them. He said that, partway through the climb, he suddenly heard them yell out from the other side of the rock that they were rapelling and that they would meet them at the bottom.

“At that moment, we were like, ‘Oh, we are so not on the same page,’” Turner said.

A descent job with no helping hand

Left without their planned means of rappelling—the Brazilian couple’s 70-meter rope, rather than their own, shorter rope—Turner and Moore started formulating an escape plan. They resolved to get to the top of the tower and, from there, scout out the many possible routes down.

“But then, it started raining,” Turner said.

Because of the rain, the pair could no longer safely go up, as the rock became too slippery; they couldn’t go down because their rope wasn’t long enough to get them down the route they had ascended; they couldn’t go sideways to a different descent route because they couldn’t orient themselves, as the sky darkened with the clouds and the sunset loomed.

Without anywhere to go, they stayed put.

Initially, Turner and Moore hoped the rain would desist and they could make their way down in the twilight, augmented with the little bit of light that their one, shared head lamp offered. It soon became apparent, however, that this was not an option.

The tower is alive tonight

Upon coming into a realization that they would have to spend the night on the rock, Moore and Turner started setting up camp. The ledge where they landed was relatively large—about 15 feet long and roughly four feet wide, according to Turner—but it did not protect them much from the wind or rain, which buffeted their encampment throughout the night.

The rock did, however, shield them from lightning, or at least the worst of it.

Bolts of lethally high voltage lightning struck the top of the rock a short distance above their heads. Although the sound was not as deafening as he expected, Turner said that he could periodically feel the electricity in his toes if they were touching the wet rock during a strike.

He also said there was a metallic taste in the air in the moments subsequent to the electrical discharges.

No rescue chopper coming up over the ridge

Once they realized they would be on the rock for the night, Turner and Moore considered contacting first responders for rescue but ultimately decided against it.

The things that threatened their lives, according to Turner—hypothermia from the wind and rain, nearby lightning strikes, possible rockfalls—were things that rescuers would not have been able to control. He described the pragmatism thusly: “It seemed like we were going to survive, and of the things that made it seem like we might not, rescue wouldn’t really be able [to help,]” Turner said.

So, without anyone able to offer them much in the way of aid in that moment, only patience could offer them reprieve from the dangers. Of course, they also needed to stay warm.

Sleeping on a pillow of solid rock

As they prepared for a night on Castleton Rock, Turner and Moore built a wind barrier to help them stay a little less cold. The wall, composed of the loose rock that sat beneath them, remained after they left in the morning, a “pathetic monument” to their survival, Turner said.

Because the wind was so intense throughout the night, and because it kept switching directions, Turner and Moore were forced to continually change positions behind the wall. They had one down coat to share to stay warm, and Turner said one of their legs would go numb about every ten minutes.

They did, however, get some sparing shut-eye. Turner said that he periodically glanced at his watch as the night went on and that he was surprised by how protracted the time seemed to get.

The ghost of Castleton Tower

Eventually, the storm above them broke, leaving them only with a cold wind through which to sleep, but saving them the rain and lightning. In the morning, with the sun at their backs and dry climbing routes beneath them, Turner and Moore found their way using a climbing app to a descent they could manage with their own equipment.

A few hours after they planned to return, they made it home, albeit without much in the way of rested mind and body, and headed to work. Turner said he “definitely” plans to return to the climb to try it again, although he will go about it differently next time. “I’ll probably do a different route so as not to trigger any PTSD,” he said.