ON THE EDGE WITH GMC: CLIMBING AND CANYONEERING IN MOAB
There’s no place in the world like the red rock canyons of Moab, Utah, where the beauty of the desert landscape seems transported from another world, teeming with magnificent arches and spires, cliffs and crags, grottos and buttes.
This geologically unique area is a mecca for outdoor adventurers, with endless opportunities for activities from rafting to four-wheeling. But there’s nothing like the thrill of exploring the dramatic sandstone formations with a rock-climbing or canyoneering experience to truly feel a part of it.
Moab, located in southeastern Utah, is perfectly situated for these adrenaline-inducing activities with two nearby national parks, several state parks and recreation areas, and acre upon acre of public land. Shaped over millions of years by geologic processes in the earth’s crust and the Colorado River that carves out many of the rock features, the area is an ideal climbing and rappelling destination, attracting visitors from all over the world.
GMC Life spoke with two professional guides about rock climbing and canyoneering in Moab, and they gave us some insight on what an expedition here might entail.
ROCK CLIMBING VS. CANYONEERING
Although the two sports are closely related and share some of the same movements, equipment and locations, they are also distinctively different.
“In the simplest terms, climbing is about scaling a wall or a cliff, and canyoneering is more adventure hiking; we’re going to go down through the canyon and, along the way, do some rappels and exploration,” says Herb Crimp, a longtime guide and the owner of Desert Highlights guide service.
While there are numerous rock-climbing styles, many guided Moab tours employ a “top rope” or “leader rope” scenario. Top rope climbing involves one person with a rope attached to their harness threading it through an anchor attached at the top of the cliff and coming down to a “belayer,” the person managing the rope slack and friction from below. Leader rope climbing involves the lead climber creating temporary anchors along the way up as the belayer provides rope or stops it, depending on which maneuver the lead climber makes.
Many short climbs are considered “cragging,” or climbing up one rope length (80 to 100 feet) at various locations on a cliff, often just a short distance from where people park, Crimp says. More advanced climbers may try a longer multi-pitch climb, or scale a desert tower, a “spire,” which could reach 400 to 500 feet and require many challenging techniques.
Canyoneering usually begins with a hike to the location, Crimp says. Then, anchors — either hardware brought along for the trip or natural versions such as trees and rocks — ropes and a friction device are used to descend and rappel down the canyon. There’s a lot of exploration along the way, whether sliding through narrow spaces, walking along dry waterfall beds and through caves, or wading and swimming through water areas. In some cases, canyoners even have to “scramble” back up a bit with their hands to get back down or out of an area.
During a tour, guides will help set up the equipment and demonstrate the route, backing everyone up for safety or taking over, if necessary, Crimp says. Some deeper canyons may feature “potholes” that contain water or can suddenly fill with water during one of the area’s infamous flash floods.
Climbing often requires a higher fitness level and more discipline than canyoneering, which can suit various ability levels.
“Anyone who can handle a hike and is game for adventure will do just fine,” Crimp says.
EXPLORING MOAB AND BEYOND
Vertical adventures have steadily become popular in Moab since the mid-90s, when rock-climbing gyms started popping up across the country, says Brett Sutteer, owner of Moab Cliffs & Canyons.
Then, he says, climbing gained popularity through news stories and pop culture in the early 2000s and canyoneering made its way to Moab from Europe.
“It’s become a bit of a canyoneering epicenter here in southern Utah,” Sutteer says. “It’s really one of the more popular activities in the Moab area with this localized terrain. You can go rafting in a lot of places and rock climbing or ATVing in a lot of places, but there aren’t many places like this to go canyoneering in the U.S., or the world.”
Slot canyons — long, narrow channels with tall rock walls around them — make for especially great canyoneering and there are plenty of them in the Moab area. Rock climbers will also find great sites virtually everywhere they go.
Sutteer and Crimp both like to guide groups throughout Moab as well as outside the city. Here are some of their favorite destinations:
- San Rafael Swell features a unique geological rock dome, or anticline, that runs about 75 miles long and has plentiful canyons and a diverse terrain to satisfy participants of all capabilities. “There are some super classic slot canyons, but also really fun, long rock climbs,” Sutteer says.
- Bears Ears National Monument, particularly the Indian Creek Special Recreation Area, features inviting canyons, and cliffs with amazing “splitter” cracks, sought out by many climbers. Says Crimp, “There’s nowhere else you get cracks that are exactly 3 inches wide; it’s as pure crack climbing as you can possibly get. And, it’s one of the prettiest places in the country.”
- North Wash offers a challenge for experienced climbers with its extremely narrow slot canyons and the reward of breathtaking scenery.
Robbers Roost was once the perfect hiding place for the notorious outlaws, but the area now welcomes climbers and canyoners seeking steep, narrow, technical climbs.
- Fisher Towers is a stunning climbing area consisting of several sandstone spires that overlook the landscape and beckon advanced climbers to conquer their height — and limited surface area.
- Granary Canyon can accommodate all skill levels but is a great platform for beginners trying out a new adventure.
Both guides recommend doing homework on the area and connecting with an experienced climbing group or a mentor for independent canyon trips. Professional guide companies are an excellent way to safely build your skills or tackle the rocks for the first time.
“Working with a guide is the best way to get exposure to proper techniques, have proper equipment and go to locations that are appropriate for your skill set,” Sutteer says.
A truly unique terrain to explore, Sutteer says Moab’s scenery seems like a movie set to many visitors, who often become enthralled with how it came to be.
On any given trip, visitors might spot dinosaur tracks, wade into a hot-tub-sized canyon pool, stand underneath a naturally arched rock, cling to the side of giant red boulders or simply take in the outstanding views on all sides.
That’s why it’s also important for visitors to adhere to the Leave No Trace motto to ensure that they leave the environment in the same, or better, shape it was in when they found it.
“The more people understand this place, the more they develop an appreciation for it,” Sutteer says. “I have an opportunity to answer questions and inform people about what this place is all about so they can take that knowledge, share it and become active on how it becomes managed.”
Crimp couldn’t agree more that the area is worth preserving for generations to come.
“There’s so much room to go out and play in Moab,” he says. “With year-round recreation here, even in the middle of winter, it can be a wonderful place for exploring the canyons, taking a hike or doing some four-wheeling on the trails. Canyon country is beautiful, and there are lifetimes to explore here.”