The original desert climbers were the Anasazi, who, in a tradition followed to this day by some leading desert climbers, left little record of their ascents. The first modern desert climber was John Otto. His amazing 1911 ascent of the 400-foot-tall monolith Independence Monument set a precedent for boldness and innovation.
In the 1930s the climbing world became obsessed by 1,800-foot Shiprock. Colorado climber Robert Ormes made several brave attempts, but it was the "rock engineers" from California (David Brower, Raffi Bedayn, Bestor Robinson and John Dyer) who climbed this "Last Great Problem" in 1939.
Raffi Bedayn: Shiprock
Spider Rock. In 1956 came the next big breakthrough. Mark Powell, Jerry Gallwas and Don Wilson, three of the top Yosemite climbers of the day, ascended 800-foot Spider Rock in Canyon de Chelly, a climb dispatched in magnificent style.
Don Wilson: The First Ascent of Spider Rock
Emboldened by success on Spider Rock, a year later the same threesome, plus Bill Feuerer, tackled the "thinnest spire in the desert"--the Totem Pole. They battled ferocious winds, frighteningly steep rock, cracks too wide for their pitons, and competition from Colorado climbers for the first ascent of this coveted summit.
Mark Powell: The Totem Pole
The Three Best Towers. With Spider Rock, Cleopatra's Needle and the Totem Pole climbed, what next? In the late 1950s and into the 1960s, California climbers came to the desert and mostly repeated the same three towers.
Steve Roper: Cleopatra’s Second Ascent
Chuck Pratt: The View from Deadhorse Point