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A Drone in the Desert

[This story originally appeared in Alpinist 85 (Spring 2024), which is available in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Be sure to pick up the hard copies of Alpinist for all the goodness!–Ed.]

A long exposure of the Fisher Towers at night. The red dotted lines are likely from low-orbit satellites. The King Fisher is in the middle background with the fist-shaped summit of the Titan poking up from behind. [Photo] Keith Ladzinski

THREE DECEMBERS AGO, I arrived at the small campground below the Fisher Towers near Moab, Utah, in the waning light of a Friday afternoon. I was weeks away from my thirty-ninth birthday and my heart was failing for the second time.

In 2014, I’d had open-heart surgery to replace a faulty aortic valve that was restricting blood flow and damaging blood cells. After seven years, the transplanted tissue valve was deteriorating, and I had heavy medical decisions to make.

I parked the car, pitched a tent and set off up the red, dusty trail with my first load of gear to rope solo the Northeast Ridge of the King Fisher. I pumped my legs along as fast as I could manage, hoping to return by sunset. Each footstep took me deeper into a place that was neither here nor there.

The Fisher Towers stand as vestiges of a decaying landscape, carved by water and wind from beds of soft sandstone. The guidebook is full of names like the Minotaur, the Oracle and the Dragon’s Tail. Clearly, I’m not the only person who has sensed the strange underlying energy of this scar in the earth. It baffles me that I haven’t been able to trace a whiff of Indigenous history affiliated with this patch of land, as it’s hard to believe the first inhabitants would not have been drawn here as well. There is an otherworldly vibration, a magnetism that hums through my body each time I visit, as if I were treading into the vortex of a portal to other planes.

A quarter mile in, where the main trail passes directly along the base of an undulating cliff, I stopped and placed my hand against the sheer wall of ancient mud. “Hello,” I said softly, reintroducing myself to the rock as though it were a wild creature that could kill me in an instant. Even this delicate touch crumbled layers of sediment, which trickled between my fingers and down the back of my hand. My lungs heaved and my dying heart labored to pump oxygenated blood. Everything dies, I thought. All disintegrates to be re-formed into some other landscape or life-form. Feel this rock; its history is your history. We are tied to this land, this Earth.

That night, back at the campground, it felt colder than the 27°F I’d anticipated. An icy breeze flicked the flames of the stove. Wispy hands of wind grabbed at my bones from the dark reaches of space, where galaxies whirled overhead, mere specks of dim light. Suddenly a string of satellites shot across the heavens. I pegged the train of orbs with a green laser pointer.

“There’s a spotlight pointing to it!” exclaimed a neighboring family of three sitting around a campfire.

Planets. Solar systems. Galaxies. Satellites. Lasers. Towers, I thought, shifting my gaze to the broad, black outline of the King Fisher spackled against the glittered sky. My heart fluttered. Should I follow through with the plan to bivy at the base tomorrow? I pondered, second-guessing. It’s freezing down here. Surely it will be colder up there, among those shadows.

To illustrate satellite traffic that's visible in the night sky near Moab, Utah.
A new moon and a star or planet over Castleton Tower, the Rectory, Nuns and Priest, and the Sister Superior group (far right), on December 3, 2021. [Photo] Derek Franz

After a bitter morning in which the sun never seemed to arrive, I set off with my second and final load, which included a bivy kit (and poop bags, of course). Once again, I stopped along the trail to press my hand upon the castle wall, the gate. Hello …

I felt welcome. I felt good. Also scared. Excited. Here I was, alone in December with a failing vital organ and occasional dizzy spells. I was keenly aware of my mortality. And that’s why I belonged.

Sunrise in the Fisher Towers, December 4, 2021. [Photo] Derek Franz

I scrambled through a twenty-foot cliff band of crumbling blocks and dirt, my sweaty pack pulling at my shoulders. I paused at the top to catch my breath and review the sequence of stemming moves. I may have to down climb this in the dark while tired … In my eager youth I often neglected these moments of reflection, instead running onward to the start of the climb, thinking only of going up.

At last arriving at the base of the route for the second time, I peeled off my shirt and started building a ground anchor. Two hours later, my ropes were fixed on the first 150 feet and I was back at the base with a journal and a flask of whiskey in hand. I watched a black beetle crawl across the blood-red sand: Its shadow isn’t so different from mine, just smaller, with a shorter life span. I looked up at the tower. Am I so different? Silence but for a cackle of birds that took up with the breeze from a notch in the ridge.

After 4 p.m., I slithered into the bivy sack, intent to remain inside it as much as possible to conserve warmth, steeling myself for nearly thirteen hours of shade and darkness. The shadow of the King Fisher crept closer as I cooked dinner with my legs in the sack. But the light and warmth lasted longer than I’d predicted. The basin was in better alignment with the winter sun than the campground, and it was protected from the wind.

That night, the air remained ten degrees warmer than the camp below, though I kept waiting for the freeze. I lay there on my flat patch of dirt and watched the stars come out between the stark silhouettes of the towers.

As luck would have it, there was a meteor shower that went on and on! I couldn’t resist playing with the laser pointer. I grinned to imagine what the thin green wand of light might have looked like to people in the campground. The persistent streaks of fire across the atmosphere made it hard to sleep. I kept waking up, too warm; I’d remove a layer, then slowly drift back to sleep counting more shooting stars.

In the morning I jumared back up to my highpoint below the crux pitch—a place where people have broken bones. Except for a twisted rope that jammed in a crack, all went according to plan. Soon I found myself gripping the strange arête with my left hand and a boxy pin scar with my right as my heart soared, the crux now beneath me.

Two pitches later, I manteled onto the broad, flat caprock and sized up the final moves to the true summit—a car-sized boulder. I slowed down, caught my breath and sequenced the 5.7 moves up the boulder, knowing I would have to down climb them. Just then I heard an odd buzz from the air below.

As I stood atop the boulder and raised my arms in private celebration, a grey drone emerged and zoomed up near my face. Without thinking, I grinned and flipped two middle fingers at the camera. Buzz off!

I felt a little guilty almost as soon as I’d done it. But daylight was burning. I pulled out a small bag of grey ashes and scattered them. Some of the matter piled on the stony summit while the rest drifted into the void. See you, Ben … He’d died of cancer at age forty-six. Accompanying me to high places had been his wish. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust …

Sunset found me shuttling two loads down the steep hardpan from the base of the tower, scurrying up and down like a busy mouse. The contours of the hills and cliff bands grew fuzzy in the fading light as I retraced my steps. Weaving between the drop-offs, I strained to make out the cairn marking the third-class down climb.

It was quite dark, but not dark-dark, when I made it safely to the bottom of the third-class section for good. I breathed a sigh of relief and gratitude, still not ready for my time here to end. I thought of the drone, wondering if I might meet the cameraman on my way out.

Sure enough, I met a young man and woman as I clacked into the parking lot. The guy asked if I’d been climbing on the King Fisher.

“I got some photos of you,” he said, not seeming particularly happy.

“Yeah?” I said, playing dumb, half wishing I hadn’t acted so rudely toward the drone. Had I ruined photos or videos that would’ve made him money? Would he have given me copies? Would I have any rights to the footage I had not consented to?

This is the age we live in. Reflecting now, I see the “spotlight” of my laser pointer in a new light as it beamed into the night, tracing shooting stars and satellites; the kinds of satellites that enable me to perform my job; the kinds of technology that continue to keep me alive. Not so long ago I would’ve been dead from heart failure at thirty-two.

In the morning, I enjoyed one more hike to retrieve the remaining gear. I crossed paths with a father and daughter. The man asked what I’d been doing, enthused, curious, bewildered. The preteen girl cocked her ears.

“I stood on top of that yesterday,” I said, pointing, noticing the child’s eyes flash with interest.

The man huffed. “Is that legal? Is it safe?” “Yes, it’s legal, and no, it’s not entirely safe.” But that first answer might change sooner than we think.

On January 30, extended comment periods ended for policies that are being considered by the National Park Service and US Forest Service. If adopted, the proposed policies will have long-lasting implications for how rock climbing is managed in wilderness and also present cascading and unpredictable implications for all crags in the US. They would classify “fixed anchors”—not just bolts, but any gear left behind to facilitate an ascent or descent—as prohibited “installations.” This is a complete reversal of how climbing has been managed in wilderness since the Wilderness Act was adopted sixty years ago. If these policies come into play, I wonder what the future will hold for climbers like me—people who wish to venture a bit farther off the beaten path, searching for what it means to be alive in the universe, contemplating the essence of dust and space.

Since that forty-eight-hour vision quest in 2021, it’s become slightly easier to lie still on my back in a sterile hospital room, where I can see the meteor shower all over again, and again, and remember what it was like to stand on an island in the sky, looking down on my tiny little life in our vast little world.

The author on top of the King Fisher, December 5, 2021. [Photo] Derek Franz