Mark Powell, who first climbed the Totem Pole back in 1956, described it as a "fearsome red shaft." Millions saw Clint Eastwood and George Kennedy "scale" the Pole in the Eiger Sanction, and millions more have seen it in many picture books and advertisements on the desert southwest. Bottom line is that it is probably the tallest, skinniest spire in the world. Looking up at it from the base will make you dizzy, and for a sandstone addict, it's the Mt. Everest...the El Cap of desert spires.
To say we were psyched for the climb is an understatement; we were definitely pumped up and had our climb planned to the smallest detail. The fact that the Pole is "sacred" to the Navajo and therefore off limits to climbers didn't hold any weight with us; for whenever $$$ was offered to the tribe for some commercial venture on the Pole, the spire instantly became "unsacred" and a sellable quantity. Remember Eiger Sanction? The IBM commercial with the secretary at the desk on top of the Pole? Hell, McGuiver even landed a hang-glider on the summit. Sacred...yeah, right.
Our plan was to have Jim as designated driver, for his leg was in a cast from a nasty fall, so he wouldn't be joining us to climb anyways. Jim would drop our gear and us at the Pole parking area in the late afternoon, when no one was around, and we would sprint across the sand dunes to the base and fix a pitch. The next day we would get an alpine start, summit, and rap down all before 11:00 AM when the tribal loop starts to see traffic.
All went as planned except when we arrived at the base and started racking for the climb, Dave didn't have his etriers. Seems he'd used them as a leash to tie up his dog, and spaced them out completely for the climb. Oh well, we can share aiders, I suppose.
The first pitch started out with fairly straightforward aid climbing on small friends in a very overhanging dihedral. The next section was the dreaded wide section, and I had done my homework and was equipped with over-sized friends, which I stacked with small pieces of cut 2 by 4s of wood. First a big friend and one piece of wood...stand up on it easy...then a big friend and two pieces of wood; Damn, it's working! Soon we were up pitch one, and we rapped to the ground to bivy.
That night the wind picked up and blew so hard that our chances of climbing the next day seemed shattered. Wild and powerful gusts were actually pealing our sleeping bags out from under us, and sand flew like spindrift snow in violent churning blasts. Everything we owned had to be tied down like cargo on a ship in an angry sea, and the constant flapping of every fabric of our bivy gear lent to little sleep for our worried minds.
At 4:30 AM, the wind was sub-gale force, so we decided to go for the gold. Jumaring in the dark, we were ready for pitch two at first light. Dave leap-frogged 2 ½ friends for miles up a super-crack like hand slammer. It was amazing to see him work his way up this beautiful crack, three friends always close together inching up the crack, leaving many feet below him completely unprotected.
I led the last pitch up a very long bolt ladder. Two of the bolts were missing, so I tipped out pitons in the holes and held my breath. The position of the bolt ladder was so exposed and the sandstone rock soft enough that I felt that if one bolt failed, or one of the tipped pins ripped, the whole ladder would zipper and I'd surely die of fright. I was nervous and jittery and felt as if I was amped like a man who had consumed 50 cups of strong coffee.
Once on the summit, which is festooned with bolts from various escapades, we lay flat so as not to be seen and enjoyed our euphoric feelings of being on top of the Pole.
When it came time to descent, Dave could tell by just looking at my panicked face that he would have to go first. I'll admit that I actually begged him to go first and fortunately he took pity on me and my sincere terror. Dave must free rappel most of the pitch off the summit, then pull himself to the hanging belay by our fixed line. When Dave starts to rappel, the wind begins to blow him away from the spire, and at one point he was probably 40 feet away from the rock, like a kite on a string. Even with Dave controlling the rappel for me and pulling me into the stance, I don't believe I've ever been more horrified in all my life.
We had taken a bit longer than anticipated on the climb, and car loads of gawking tourists and Navajo guided tour buses were already cruising the loop, but we were oblivious to it all. We had just climbed The Pole. We knew it would be good, and we weren't disappointed. Dashing across the dunes, there was Jim in our get-away car.