Known to many locally as the physical therapist at Grand Canyon’s health clinic, Tom Martin has a reputation for being the adventurous type.
Aaron Tomasi tries to get a close look at Grand Canyon’s Clay Tank Castle one day before Tom Martin’s ascent. (Photo by Tom Martin)
A river runner who sticks up for the rights of public boaters, Martin accomplished a unique and rare feat a few weeks ago out of the water. Based on available information, Martin appears to have become the first person to climb Clay Tank Castle. The feat may represent the last first ascent of any butte in Arizona, or even the lower 48 states, with more than 1,000 feet of shoulder.
"It really didn’t hit me until I got home," Martin said of the accomplishment. "I probably climbed the highest shoulder in the lower 48. But it’s sad too, if there are no more ascents this size."
Martin made the ascent with Aaron Tomasi, an accomplished climber, on May 18. However, Martin made the last of the climb to the top on his own with Tomasi remaining below.
Planning: Doing fly-by
Martin heard about the butte northwest of Clay Tank Canyon in February 2002 from his brother, Andy. An experienced high-point climber, Andy Martin compiled a list of prominent buttes in the Grand Canyon. The shoulder height of 1,710 feet ranked only behind Vishnu Temple’s 1,813 feet. And there were no records of anyone ever making the ascent.
This past December, Tom Martin flew with Jason Wesley, former doctor at Grand Canyon, and Angie Cochran past the south and west faces of the Clay Tank Castle, located in the general area of Spencer Canyon.
In a conversation with accomplished Grand Canyon hiker Bob Packard, his brother had been told the south face was very technical. But from the fly-by, Martin wondered if the north fin would work for a climb. He took some photos to be studied later.
"The pictures showed an intermediate bench in the lower third of the redwall with a break-up from below to the bench, and a traverse across most of the northwest wall of redwall over the north ridge," Martin said. "The photos of the south face showed some big wall climbing would be needed, too big for me."
However, his climbing partner, Tomasi, could probably handle the south face.
"He could do this. Aaron had roped me up anther Grand Canyon butte, Dox Castle," Martin said. "Aaron is a very level headed and good climber."
The trip was arranged between the pair with Tomasi providing rope and gear and Martin the boat. Arrangements were made for the shuttle of their vehicle from Diamond Creek to South Cove and necessary permits were obtained from Grand Canyon National Park and the Hualapai tribe.
The pair rented a 20 horsepower, four-stroke motor for the boat to get them the 45 miles from Separation Canyon to South Cove.
May 17: The trip begins
Martin and Tomasi began their trek to Clay Tank Castle on May 17, overloading a pickup and driving from Flagstaff to Diamond Creek. A stop had to be made at Peach Springs to pay for permits and to pick up the shuttle driver.
"We and a couple hundred ladybugs were on the water by 11:30 a.m.," Martin said. "Why didn’t we hike in from the rim at the head of Clay Tank Canyon? Why didn’t we motor up from Lake Mead? Why didn’t we do this attempt in January instead of 100-degree May is what we should have been asking ourselves."
The pair caught their first glimpse of the north fin a little before 4 p.m., as they passed the mouth of Clay Tank Canyon at about river mile 249.
"From this point, we could see what looked like a chute on the east side of the top redwall buttress," Martin said. "All we had to do was get there, which from the river to summit, was only 3,430 feet up and a mile away."
Nearly three more miles down the river, Martin and Tomasi arrived at a small beach on the left side, where the drainage on the west side of the castle reaches the river. From there, they hiked south up the creek’s right side of the dry drainage to the Tonto Trail, passing a burro heading downward on the way.
‘We looked hard at the north wall, the approach through five distinct bands of cliffs, from muav at the bottom, then through the unconsolidated dolomites, the Temple Butte, and finally to the redwall itself, 450 feet of fine wall," Martin said.
Getting out his photos taken from the air, the pair was convinced that they could get to the fin along the redwall bench.
"Of note from this view was a crack in the fin showing daylight," Martin said. "How wide was that crack? Why hadn’t I listened to my sweetie and gotten those eyes checked? Too late now."
From there, they hiked on south into the a drainage where there were three or four burros.
"What we saw of the south wall was enough for us to attempt the north fin," Martin said. "As the sun set, the shadow line began to climb up the west face, so we followed it up through the Muav, where we found a walk-up chute leading all the way through the Muav. I pushed on directly above this chute up a nose through the next two bands."
Martin said it was hot, but they were encouraged by the sight of a route to the traverse 100 feet up into the redwall bench above the fourth cliff of Temple Butte. They headed back to the boat and reached it just before dark.