Friday, September 20, 2013

Hot Route: Independence Tower Otto's Route (III 5.9 R)

Independence Monument in Western Colorado
Approaching Independence Monument
Trailhead: Lower Monument Canyon
Distance: 5 miles
Elevation gain: 1,200 feet
Difficulty: 4 pitches, 5.9

Independence Tower is not a mountain, nor is it alpine. It is a desert tower, which makes it somewhat rare for Colorado. And this is Otto's Route, a classic of Colorado climbing established in an age before climbing was set in its course towards what we know today.

Some people are against this route because it follows of line of chipped pipe holds the entire way. In a sense, I see their point. By modern standards this route would be an abomination. But John Otto, the man who drilled the holes in 1911 so he could insert pipe handholds, was considered a steward of nature and the forefront figure for establishing protection for the Colorado National Monument. He was an adventurer who loved these desert formations. If while climbing this route you are upset by the unnatural jugs throughout, consider a couple of things first: John Otto led this climb with a hemp rope in cowboy boots, without the chipped holds this route would probably go in the 5.11 range, and the chipping occurred over 100 years ago.

I encourage people, and I feel like most climbers who have climbed this route agree, to view Otto's as a historical route and not be bothered by its manufactured feel. It is still a great climb and the climbing itself despite everything is still fun. The positions are spectacular and the exposure is invigorating. Each pitch, not just the legendary pitch 4, has sections that are runout and hard to protect.

Approach: From the Lower Monument Trail, hike 2.5 miles (gaining 800 feet) to the base of Independence Monument. The route is on the northwest side of the tower following an obvious crack system. You will have to climb a small talus cone to get to the bottom.

Pitch 1: climb a 5.easy step to a junky 5.6 corner. Pass this to a nice finger crack with chopped steps. Climb up and left and gain a large ledge with a bolted belay. 130 feet (5.6)
Bighorn in the Colorado National Monument
You might have an audience...
Otto's Route (5.9) in Monument Canyon
Starting pitch 1
Pitch 2: move the belay to the right and scale a funky, over-hanging off-width. This would be a tricky pitch without the chopped holds. Here you will probably want a #4 and possibly a #5 too, though you can get away with less if you have good technique and a go-for-it attitude. There is some ledgefall potential pulling through the OW without big pieces. Pull, claw, thrutch through the OW and gain another huge belay ledge. Once you have belayed everyone up, most people with de-rope to pass through the next section. 70 feet (5.8+).

The OW P2 on Otto's Route
Climbing the overhanging OW on Pitch 2
The Time Tunnel on Otto's Route
The Time Tunnel between pitches 2 & 3

Scramble: Squeeze through the Time Tunnel, a tight gap between a the main tower and a detached spire. It is a little scrambly in one spot, maybe some minor, non-exposed class 3. At the other side is another massive belay ledge called the Lunch Box Ledge. Here you can leave most of your gear behind for the rest of the climb. All you need to get through the last 2 pitches are draws, maybe a few slings, optional tri-cams and gear to tie into the chain anchors at every belay.

Pitch 3: Pitch three is not hard or exposed, but it is runout between pitons. Tricams can be used in several spots but just trust those slightly sandy chopped buckets and the pitch will be over in no time. Climb up a seam and move up and right following the pipe holds through spaced pitons. Mantle a ledge and arrive at a bolted belay on Sundeck Ledge, where you might see get direct sunlight for the first time. Here the exposure might hit you for the first time. While this belay ledge is also large and comfortable, pitch 4 looms above you, and for some it can look pretty intimidating. 80 feet (5.7)

P3 of the classic Colorado climbing route Otto's Route (5.9)
Pitch 3 follows this seam then goes up and
right (the chopped holds can be seen
in the center). Pitch 4 can be seen top left
Pitches 3 ad 4
Pitches 3 & 4 seen from the Lunch Box Ledge
Pitch 4: This is the classic money pitch and a great lead for the grade. The position is spectacular and the exposure is tremendous. Leave the belay on the right-ish side of the fin and climb fifty feet of unprotected but easy climbing (5.3 R/X). Pay attention to your footwork and your hands on this sandy, dangerous section and keep your mind focused on careful movement. The climbing is easy and it's over in no time. There is potential to use a few tricams to moderate the danger somewhat. Clip a couple of solid pitons and arrive at the route's excellent crux: a fun overhang on massive, bucket holds. This section is well protected by pitons and there is potential for a couple cams to back them up if you want. It may be useful to extend a draw or two at the crux to reduce drag while top-belaying your follower. 90 feet (5.9)

Climber of the Pitch 4 crux of Otto's Route
Pulling the crux on P4 of Otto's Route
The top of Indy Tower
Looking down from the top of 
Independence Tower

Pitch 5: This "pitch" is really just a couple of moves from the big belay ledge at the top of P4. There is no protection, and the climbing is probably about 5.8. Some people "aid" through the botto by standing on the old flagpole base and/or the chains. What makes it a bit scary is that you are fully exposed at the top of the tower with air all around and no protection. Some choose to do this on belay. The top is spacious. On Independence Day you will find many people up here. You also have to downclimb P5, it is hard not to use the flagpole now.... Some people will want to be on belay for the downclimb too. NOTE: The flagpole has since been removed. You will have to climb the rock. There are still chopped holds, however, making it exciting because it is so exposed but not too difficult.

summit panorama from Independence tower
Panorama from the summit of Independence Tower
A shaky but mostly comprehensive helmet cam look at this route from Youtube:

Descent: Double-rope rap from the summit to the Lunch Box Ledge (the bottom of P3). Scramble back through the Time Tunnel. From the bolted anchor you can do a double rope rap (180') from these anchors straight to the ground or rap the route to the anchors of P1 (70 feet), then from these anchors to the ground (110 feet).

The first rappel
The first rappel to the Lunch Box Ledge

The last rappel

Rack: This could be debated and depends largely on your comfort. If you wanted to protect it as well as it can be, bring a full rack of cams to BD #4 Camalot (and possibly even a #5) with extras in the small to mid size, a set of tricams, slings, possible stoppers (though we didn't use any), 6-8 slings and 6-8 quickdraws.

Independence Monument
Otto's Route follows the crack system right of center
then the top via the right skyline
Follow Grand Avenue from downtown Grand Junction west where it turns into Broadway and crosses the Colorado River. Continue on this road 8 miles through a neighbrhood and past many intersections (the road becomes Highway 340) until you reach a small dirt road marked with a sign for Lower Monument Canyon. This turnoff is notoriously easy to miss so be alert. There is a small parking lot here at this popular trailhead.

What does Independence Mean to You? Four days climbing in western Colorado including Unaweep Canyon, Monument Canyon, bouldering, and an ascent of Otto's Route on Independence Monument in the Colorado National Monument.

Check out this helmet cam video guide for Otto's Route

Otto's Route on

Otto's Route on

Monument Canyon- more info on climbing/hiking in Monument Canyon

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