Is that Navajo or Wingate sandstone up there? The question is often synonymous for climbers with this one: do I want to climb that or not? The short answer to this conundrum is always YES! Through a time-proven process of hardening your ass up and gaining experience with both varieties of rock, climbers have been able to open the most compelling free lines in the desert on both types of sandstone. This Wiki from CAMP is an overview of the basic differences between Wingate and Navajo sandstone. Thanks to Rob Pizem for authoring it. Rob is a CAMP athlete well known for his huge first free ascents throughout the West. He is also a high school science teacher and majored in geological engineering at the Colorado School of Mines.
- Pucker Factor: On a scale from 1-10, Navajo ranges from 6-10. In short, all Navajo climbing is scary compared with granite or better consolidated types of sandstone like Wingate. Why? The rock is soft meaning protection is less secure even in the most bomber placements. Particularly, when wet, climbers should take extra care in protecting Navajo formations. Active pro is the best since it can expand into soft rock and soak up gaps caused by crumbling rock. Tower climbers will inevitably encounter Navajo since it often tends to form on the tops of towers. This is why it is uncommon to top out a desert tower on a splitter and why so many towers finish with a rounded pinnacle first climbed via bolt ladders. It is also why we finish towers disproportionately dirty compared with the opening splitter pitches.
- Color: Navajo is typically characterized by lighter hues like yellow, white, soft red and tan.
- Formation: Navajo is younger than Wingate by approximately 20 million years. Since it is younger, it also resides on top of the Wingate layers. Wingate cliffs topped by trees and plateaus are evidence that the Navajo layer was so weak that wind and other forces demolished it to the valley floors. The same stresses that form the bomber splitters in Wingate can have a devastating effect on the softer Navajo sandstone. So rather than getting a perfect splitter, the result can often be total annihilation. Navajo is also where climbers will encounter those unique round iron-covered balls called Moqui Marbles, or Death Marbles. Geologists call them concretions.
- Quality: A weaker lithification process (the process that turns sand into rock) results in rock that is typically much softer than Wingate. Weather and the elements also have a more severe impact on the overall shape of Navajo resulting in more rounded (as well as dirty!) structures and holds.
- Location: Navajo formations are found in these parks: Zion, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Arches and the Colorado National Monument.
- Age: 200 million years old +/-
- Anchors: Glue and long bolts become more mandatory, the softer the rock gets. Formations in the Colorado National Monument have actually been known to be hand-formed with fists and finger tips, to give you an idea. Use as much active pro as possible so if and when the rock deteriorates, the pro can suck up some of the space and still hold. Belay out of the way of falling rock.
- Parting Thoughts: Navajo formations can be as tall at 1500 ft in places. Combine that with the Wingate and you can have walls up to 3000 ft tall! So, while the pucker factor might be higher, it is important to note that the best desert adventure routes (and the biggest) are likely to be a combination of the two. My best recommendation is to harden up to the various challenges that Navajo can present. The reward is mega-routes that put Indian Creek to shame!
- Pucker Factor: On a scale from 1-10, Wingate ranges from 1-10 (majority = 1-5). Why such a big range? While the rock is harder than Navajo thereby making the cracks truly secure and ripe for climbing, the harder rock is also prone to massive cleaving which means huge fissures that create loose blocks and flakes that can be as common as the splitters we aspire to climb. Evidence of this can be found in the talus fields forming the approaches to Wingate formations and in huge flexing pancakes and suspended truck-sized chock stones hanging on many classic desert climbs. A clean Indian Creek splitter ripping through varnished Wingate gets a pucker factor of 1 as long as it is wide enough to accept cams. An adventurous tower like Vision Quest at The Bridger Jacks gets a higher pucker factor due to shifting chock stones or enormous flakes that could be trundled with little more than body prying.
- Color: Wingate usually ranges from red to orange in color, sometimes brown with varnish. Desert varnish is the smooth dark coating on desert sandstone and is composed of fine-grained clay minerals, black manganese oxide and red iron oxide.
- Formation: Wingate weathers into steep, vertical walls with cracks extending from the bottom to the top of the cliff.
- Quality: The best desert towers and cliffs are Wingate sandstone. Wingate is significantly more compact than Navajo.
- Location: Wingate Sandstone is what most people think of when they think desert splitters and Indian Creek.
- Age: Wingate sandstone is actually the result of weathering on ancient sand dune deposits dating back 200 million years.
- Anchors: Glue and long bolts are still recommended, but Wingate is much more likely to hold all pro over Navajo.
- Parting Thoughts: The difference between a whipper on Navajo and a whipper on Wingate is like night and day. I like to train, hone my skills and get mileage on Wingate. At places like Indian Creek it is like sport climbing on cams. Safe, fun and a good environment for pushing the limits. Then again, my backyard is the Colorado National Monument and I made my home-away-from-home in Zion for so many years. Navajo is the only reason we have the huge, radical walls and gnarly towers that put the spice into desert climbing … god bless it!
– By Rob Pizem
Now … watch this VIDEO of Mike Brumbaugh demonstrating the variability of desert sandstone with an awesome trundle!