Indian Creek is the first thing most climbers think these days when they hear “Moab,” but the Southwest desert holds much more adventure than just the splitter cracks in the creek-and Eric Bjornstad made it his life’s work to find and document as much of it as he could.
If climbers know Bjornstad’s name, it’s likely from his series of four Desert Rock guidebooks to the area-the first one publishing in 1988 after Bjornstad put what he estimated as 10,000 hours into it (and many people thought that was an understatement). Three more volumes followed, spanning the desert from Zion National Park to Colorado National Monument, the entire project a natural extension of Bjornstad’s own adventures in canyon country in the 1960s and ’70s.
Reginald Munger Sullivan “Eric” Bjornstad was born in Phoenix, grew up in California, and lived in Berkeley in the 1950s, partying with Jack Kerouac and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, among others, and got into spelunking a little bit. Everything he read about climbing at the time suggested the Northwest was the place to be, so in 1959 he moved to Seattle and that year went on his first official rock climb on The Tooth at Snoqualmie Pass. Soon enough, he met local climber Don Claunch and from that point on climbing became a central focus of his life. In 1960, he found out a guy named Ed Cooper was looking for someone to drive with to the Bugaboos and the two headed up and made the first ascent of the north face of Howser Peak.
Bjornstad climbed with Claunch and Cooper throughout the Cascades and fixated on meeting a local legend named Fred Beckey. After an introduction, the two soon became climbing partners in the Northwest and Alaska, ticking off first ascents and often ticking each other off. Bjornstad told Outside Magazine in 2010, “He was impossible-impossible-to get along with. I had many fallings-out with Fred, and I was his best friend. If anyone would ask about what gear he was sorting out on the ground before some climb, he’d insult them. He’s gone 180 degrees, though-he’s now very easy and friendly.”
He and Beckey soon turned their attention to the desert, but their first trip together was a bit of a disaster. Cam Burns wrote in Bjornstad’s obituary for the American Alpine Club:
“Eric’s first trip to the desert Southwest was, not surprisingly, with Beckey. Their goal was the South Buttress (now often called the Beckey Buttress) on Shiprock in 1965. Eric brought along his very tattooed girlfriend, Christa, which didn’t sit well with Beckey, and after 1,000 feet of progress Eric and Christa left. As Eric and Christa hitchhiked back to Seattle, Beckey followed them in his pink Thunderbird, taunting them every few hours but not offering them a ride; the taunting lasted to Oregon. Eric later called the event comical, and Beckey recruited Alex Bertulis, then Harvey Carter, to complete the route.”
The men remained friends, and Bjornstad once said that he did 90 percent of his climbs with Fred Beckey.
From 1970 through 1975, Bjornstad went on a tear of climbing the Southwest’s spooky desert towers, including Eagle Rock Spire in Monument Valley, Chinle Spire in the Navajo Nation, and the first climb established in Valley of the Gods, on North Tower. In 1975, Bjornstad was hired as a rigger for the Clint Eastwood movie The Eiger Sanction, which allowed him legally to climb the Totem Pole in Monument Valley, by that time off-limits to climbers. He rigged the route for the scene, and when a stuntman couldn’t climb fast enough, Bjornstad stepped in, wearing George Kennedy’s shirt for the moves.
For more than a decade he traveled to Moab to climb and finally moved there permanently in 1985. In 1986, after two and a half decades of climbing, he fell and hit a ledge, damaging his sciatic nerve. That year would be the last of his notable first ascents in the desert, but his role had started to shift: Climbers visiting Moab to climb would seek him out for in-person route beta, and he’d started to work on his masterpiece: The first Desert Rock guidebook, a massive effort for which he collected hundreds of photos, wrote thousands of letters to first ascensionists, and convinced a dozen climber friends to write sections of the book. It became a classic and good-condition copies of the original 1988 printing now fetch up to $150. The following volumes, Desert Rock II, III, and IV, covering a staggering amount of climbing on the Colorado Plateau, were published over the next decade and a half, and a fifth volume was planned, but canceled by the publisher.
In 2005, Bjornstad wrote, “This passion to climb has lasted for myriad reasons: the justification to travel to new places; the ability to step into another world with complex problems and close friends; the opportunity to think up names for my first ascents; the guidebook writing that has introduced me to all the famous climbers I’d read about; the romance of climbing tales, nomenclature, paraphernalia and spectacular photos; the sense of living close to the edge where I feel most alive; the foreboding the night before a difficult, unknown ascent; the rush of flying onto a glacier in a ski-equipped plane; the feeling of working out dancelike movements on routes where others have failed or died; the exhaustion at the day’s end; the climbing horror stories that even Halloween tales could not match; and the lifelong memories of adventures. Without this passion, how impoverished my life would have been!”
Bjornstad passed away at the Canyonlands Care Center in December. He was 80.
Photo by Cam Burns