Steve “Crusher” Bartlett Talks Desert Towers

It’s 10am on Tuesday at climber and author of Desert Towers: Fat Cat Summits and Kitty Litter Rock Steve “Crusher” Bartlett’s house. He’s cooking up sausages and bacon at his spacious home in downtown Boulder. His kitchen has turquoise tile countertops with an orange stroke around the edges. The walls are tall and white and windows surround us. The humming of the fan mixes with the sound of crackling grease. He pours coffee beans into a red grinder.

“One of the lessons you’ll learn from me is the advantages to getting up late,” he says. Then he pours a few chopped up potatoes into the gray skillet and replaces the lid.

grand viewWe talk about desert towers, his forté. He’s summited 142 towers, and 37 previously unclimbed towers. It seems no matter which tower or route I bring up he knows who put it up, what year and in what style.

“Since October 1976,” he says when I ask how long he’s been climbing. “The number keeps changing, it keeps going up. “Yeah, that was in northeast England, Northumberland. I took to it right away. I loved it. I was at college there so I joined some clubs. I could have been a caver but the van broke down so the next weekend I joined the climbing club. I just loved being high up on the side of a vertical cliff,” — he extends his arms – “and seeing the earth far below.”

“The situations you get into climbing — I’ve always liked that. When aid climbing in the desert you can get to places no one has ever been before. It’s a rare thing in this world to be able to do that.”

He sits down and digs into his breakfast. He quiets down, looks about, takes fast bites of his food, and a swig of his coffee.

“That’s a big part of why I got into towers. It’s also really exciting doing new routes. But there’s more to it than that. It’s a tradition in climbing that forces you to do things ground up because there’s no other way to get to the top.” The empty sausage pan, burner now turned off, continues to sizzle.

His wife Fran walks down the stairs and asks Crusher if he’d still be interested in going climbing during the next weekend. I ask what he plans to do. “I have no idea,” he says. “We’ll probably figure it out Friday evening.”

“I didn’t do much in the desert until 1988 when Eric Bjornstad’s Desert Rock book came out. I bought a copy of that as soon as it appeared. Strappo [Hughes] and Simon Peck and I went out to the Fisher Towers [outside Moab, Utah], a place we never heard of before. Page after page the guidebooks showed these really impressive towers with A3, A4, and A5 routes like you see in Yosemite. But it was of course nothing like Yosemite. The rock is really dark and intimidating and there’s mud dribbling down the sides of all these things. Spooky place.”

“We did this route Phantom Sprint, named after a little English car. It was put up by Jim Beyer and he thought it was really easy and straightforward.”

“So Simon, who is a good aid climber, starts up the first pitch, and suddenly falls off and disappears. It turned out he’d fallen 60 feet. He fell upside down but he was not hurt because he didn’t actually hit the ground. So I went up there and did it slowly and carefully.”

“And I started leading the second pitch and kicking loads of mud on their heads and they decided they didn’t want to belay me anymore. So we bailed and I was not happy. I went back a few weeks later with a guy called Bill Roberts. [We made] the second ascent.”

“I soloed the Sundevil  Chimney [on the 1,100 foot Titan] in 1991 in February and it was bitterly cold. Before going to bed I would lay out bread and cheese on the picnic table. This way I could eat bits of sandwiches and put my hands back in my bag again [he also slept on the table]. Once I got warmer I headed out to the Titan.”

“Getting to the top [of towers] is just fantastic. The really good moments — you would think the good moments would be getting to the top. Sometimes getting back down is a really good feeling. When everything is off the route and you can finally walk away from it — that’s really satisfying.”

Any tips for aspiring desert tower climbers, I ask?

“There was as phrase from an Eric Bjornstad to Charlie Fowler interview when Eric asked the same question. I liked what he said, ‘I like people that go their own way and follow their own path.’ I’d have to agree that if you just plug away at something, on one narrow field, it’s really nice to get good at it. That’s the great thing about desert towers. You have to do it the old-fashioned way, and just deal with whatever has to be dealt with. Convenience has never been of interest to me. The bigger the struggle the bigger the reward.” He takes a swig of water. “It’s nice to have some uncertainty.”

The author and Crusher climbed a tower with a David Levene, a reporter from the guardian, who made a the following video: Climbing in Canyonlands, Utah: ‘Whatever you do here you’ve got to do it on a grand scale’.

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Chris Van Leuven

Raised sailing and backpacking, Chris began climbing rocks as a teenager. 20 years later, Chris still climbs several days a week. He writes about travel, adventure and climbing. Follow him on Facebook: