As we sort and pack gear for the climb Noah inquires very matter-of-factly, "You have a hammer?” A hammer? No, afraid I don't have a hammer Noah. What have I gotten myself into?
The little beta we have from Mountain Project for a 5.7 A1 route called Tuktoolong, put up in 1997 by Cam Burns, Jesse Harvey & Mike Baker, indicates a tricky approach which may or may not include technical climbing. From the parking lot we hike east and south, contouring around the head of a small canyon. This is interesting terrain and the views alone would be worth the short hike. Rocky Top blends in with the backdrop but is visible from afar if you know where to look.
After squeezing by the Great Googly Moogly on a narrow ledge and hiking past Putterman's Pile, two other interesting small towers still on Noah's list, a rounded ridge appears to be the best option for making upward progress toward the base of our objective. It looks easy enough but turns out to be a bit funky, with some 3rd class scrambling up exposed heaps of dirt. As Noah forges ahead I again ponder what I have gotten myself into. I push thoughts of downclimbing this crap out of my head and try to keep up.
The short ridge takes us to a cliff band directly below the tower and we spend some time walking along its base to find the tastiest option for breaching it. We choose a low 5th class chimney-ish line on climber's far left where the cliff is shortest. I am very curious to find out what climbing on this stuff that looks like pure mud is like.
Noah starts up the crumbling mess and the bits falling off don't seem to phase him one bit. He pounds a piton into the mud, attaches the rope with a screamer, and hangs the hammer on it. "You know how to clean these things?" Um... no. “You hammer it up and down until you can pull it out.” I'm skeptical its that easy but take his word for it.
Soon he places the #6 and disappears around the corner. I can't see him but I can hear lots of crap falling off as he climbs. I just hope part of what I'm hearing is never him falling off with it. Before long he yells off belay and I am serenaded by more rock fall as he prepares an anchor.
My turn. I can't imagine leading this horror show. Hammer up, hammer down, hammer up, hammer down, like magic I pull the piton out. I somehow manage to carefully tiptoe up the remainder of the short pitch without causing any more significant mudfall and join Noah on the huge shelf above.
Strolling toward the base of the tower, our attention is directed toward the most natural looking line on the northeast side. A dirty crack/seam leads to a short muddy face and then an offwidth crack in better rock terminates on a large ledge at the base of the severely overhung summit bulb. We try to spy the bolt ladder that supposedly enables relatively easy aiding over the roof. A single bolt is visible on the overhang, as well as one more well above it. Maybe the rest have gotten buried under mud over the years?
Noah gears up and methodically works to the ledge halfway up the pitch with a skillful mix of free climbing and aid, placing cams and an occasional piton.
What he finds (or doesn't find) on the ledge gives him substantial pause. There is no fixed gear, no bolt ladder. Just a single bolt taunting him high above. I hear bits and pieces of his grumblings as he sizes up the situation.
Hammering commences and I take cover as debris rains down. Being mud rock, all of the larger chunks Noah breaks off bounce and smash into harmless smithereens before they reach me, which is kind of nice. I suspect he's crafting a bail anchor for himself but a few more minutes reveal that is not the case. Of course its not.
Mind made up, Noah begins nailing his way up into the overhang with determination, pounding a selection of pitons into small, sometimes highly suspicious, cracks in the crumbly rock. The ledge looms below, a constant reminder of how bad a fall here would hurt. Its a gripping half hour.
I can only imagine Noah's relief when he reaches the relatively good bolt at the top of the roof. Hallelujah! The remainder of the the climb requires more sketchy nailing but having a bolt and some air between him and that ledge helps. The summit comes without much more ado.
He fixes a line and lowers the hammer to me while I prepare to follow. I have jugged and cleaned enough pitches by now to know this ain't going to be trivial. The line Noah took traversed as it ascended through the bulging roof, and the pieces are not all lined nicely in a row and in line with the rope. Not to mention all those pitons are going to take a heck of a lot of hammering to get out.
Following is a brainless endeavor until I reach the ledge and look up at the mess of pitons I'm supposed to remove. It seems hopeless. Figuring out how to clean them and in which order is a fun puzzle. I short clip myself to a piece to clean its neighbor, rinse and repeat. After a lot of hammering and blood loss, miraculously only one piton remains below the roof. Note to self: wear gloves next time.
Now what? The final piton is hanging way under the bulging roof and the rope I am on is holding me away from it. Suspended in free space, if I stretch to my limit I can't even touch the draw. Even if I could, then what? I call up to Noah that there's one left and no way to clean it. He suggests maybe we can get it on rappel. I know the situation won't be any better on rappel. "The only thing I can possibly think of is to maybe build up some momentum and try to swing over and grab the draw. Then I could clip myself to it and hammer the piton until it rips out. But then I'd go for a big ride." Noah: "Yeah, try that."
I flail around and manage to get a little tic toc motion going. A lucky Hail Mary and the draw is in my hand! I quickly clip in, begin hammering the piton, and am swinging through the air before I even realize that sucker has popped. "Ahhhh... I hate you Noah", I scream as I pendulum away from the tower! But I really mean the opposite. This rocks :)
The remainder of the pitch is straightforward to follow and soon I join Noah on a small ledge with a decent anchor just a few feet below the top. Sissy me clips in long and cautiously scrambles up to the small and airy summit, taking a seat as soon as possible, while Noah casually waltzes there untethered and stands admiring the awesomeness surrounding us.
The Kingfisher and Ancient Art are in close proximately and Rocky Top provides new and interesting perspectives on both. We watch a pair of climbers take turns climbing Ancient Art's summit pitch while kicking back and popping some Mini Reese's Peanut Butter Cups.
An uneventful, single rope rappel gets us back to the base of the tower proper but the problematic cliff band below must still be negotiated.
Instead of trying to rappel the mud pitch we climbed on the ascent, we sneak around to the west side of the tower where we had spied some fixed hardware on our initial investigation from below. From there a single rope rappel from a somewhat confidence inspiring single bolt lands us below the technical difficulties.
Much to my relief, the dirt ridge feels much tamer on the descent, quite casual actually. Soon we are on a footpath leading back to the parking lot.
After some cold refreshment and reflection in the parking lot, Noah and I part ways. I wear a shit eating grin for the entire drive out to the Swell and am still smiling as I fall asleep all by my lonesome in the middle of nowhere.
Noah and I obviously did not find the bolt ladder mentioned in the beta and therefore we assume that we did not climb the route known as Tuktoolong. Rumor has it that Eric Kohl and Beth Shilliday put up a harder route on Rocky Top, probably on the "other side". This must be what we climbed. Reading the route description in Bjornstad's Desert Rock III after the fact, a sliver of doubt remains in my mind though. Minus the bolt ladder, it seems eerily familiar and I am fairly confident we were on the NE side of the tower...
"Tuktoolong climbs an obvious dirty crack system on the northeast side of the tower beginning up 5.7 rock protected with cams and pitons. Continue to an offwidth crack between blocks, C1 (#3 & #4 Camalots). Short but solid mud aid leads to a bolt ladder out a roof. More aid, than a bolt and a mantle lead to a ledge below the summit where a belay is made from a slung block. From the anchor, it is 6 feet to the top."