Expert Journal: Climbing the Mexican Hat

Rock Climbing History on the Mexican Hat

Mexican Hat, one of Utah’s strangest rock formations, balances a flattened pancake disk atop a 300-foot-high talus cone. It’s really not a hat at all, but a sombrero with a wide brim jutting above a narrow head. The rock, a famed landmark along US 163, rises east of the highway above the west bank of the San Juan River.

Mexican Hat is a caprock of Cedar Mesa sandstone atop a pedestal and talus cone of the Halgaito Formation, a bed of red shale and siltstone. Both formations, part of the Cutler Group, date from the Permian Period, over 250 million years ago. The shales were deposited by sluggish streams that wandered across a moist vegetated lowland along the coastline of a shallow sea. Early ancestors of the dinosaurs populated the ancient landscape, leaving fossilized skeletons and bones as record of their passage. Erosion dissected the shale, leaving this spectacular remnant of erosion-resistant sandstone.

Because of its location next to a major highway, Mexican Hat practically begged to be climbed. Its first recorded ascent was in May 1962 by Royal Robbins and Jack Turner, although a pole on top indicated that locals had somehow attained the summit previously. Those locals were river runner Norman Nevills and Fred Yazzie, a local Navajo, who used a ladder. Robbins aid-climbed out the wild roof via an A4 crack on the river side of the Hat. The Robbins–Turner Route is now rated A2. The Bandito Route was climbed by Stan Mish and Dan Langmade in 1981. This pair placed five bolts and a fixed piton to surmount the roof.

The Hat is famed for all kinds of crazy climber antics. Over a dozen folks have stood on the summit at one time; and it once appeared, along with a bunch of naked climbers, in a fake ad for “clear lycra” in a spoof section of an old Rock and Ice magazine. Todd Gordon probably best describes the Mexican Hat syndrome in Climbing magazine: “A pancake, can’t think of any other way to describe it; a pancake stacked on the apex of a talus cone . . . on the summit, a Coke bottle; inside is a Bill Forrest business card and picture from a biker magazine of a buxom topless female on a black Harley.”

Mexican Hat, about 100 miles south of Moab, offers a novel route and quick summit for expert desert rock climbers. The standard Bandito Route is a bolted, clip-up aid climb. Some bolts may be missing on the route. Bring a stick-clip to bypass those sections.