Sometime in the prior months, I had realized that I had a 3 day weekend in October free from work; free time in prime climbing season for Southern Utah. I have always wanted to do a big wall, and after contemplating a few classic lines, I recruited Austin to climb the most famous route in Zion National Park, Moonlight Buttress. Known to most climbers as an illustrious, but overly popular, 1,200 foot tall, grade-V, nine pitch C1+ aid climb or a challenging 5.12+ free climb, we decided to combine Austin's strength in free climbing with my eagerness for monotonous aid climbing to conquer this objective. The plan was to drive from Salt Lake City to Zion National Park Friday morning after working all night Thursday and climb Moonlight Buttress in one and a half days. He would lead climb the free pitches (Pitch #1 and 2), and follow me leading the rest on aid as practice for an all free attempt. I knew this would be a long drive and exhausting climb even if I was rested, but after a night of work I was sure it would be extra taxing. Fortunately, little kept me awake the night before our trip beside excitement about my first big wall.
With my truck already packed, I left work and picked up Austin at 07:30, stopped at a local coffee shop, and we were on the highway by 8:00 AM. I was able to drive all but the last 45 minutes before the excitement wore and I began to tire. Fortunately from the passenger seat I was awoken by massive sandstone cliffs towering above in all directions as we neared our destination.
We arrived in Zion right on time. After checking into our campsite we geared up to climb and fix the first few pitches of Moonlight Buttress.
Because of the mandatory shuttle service in Zion, we loaded onto the tourist bus and slowly crawled our way to the destination as a recorded tour guide narrated the drive. Every time I wear climbing gear in public I get the same comments from non-climbers and this bus ride was no different. It can pretty much be summed up by this video...
We exited the bus at the Big Bend stop, and stared in awe at the wall ahead of us. Austin has been to Zion many times, but for me it was all new. The approach trail to the base of the wall was not bad and even included a barefoot crossing of the cool Virgin River. Thirty minutes from stepping off the bus and we were standing below 1,200 feet of vertical sandstone. The climb awaited.
(photo from http://chossclimbers.com)
As we geared up for the base of the climb, we could count at least three parties ahead of us, all of which we would encounter one way or another on our ascent. The furthest party was bivied above the "awkward chimney" of pitch #5 on a nice ledge, the second party was a female solo climber working her way up pitch #3 to the Rocker Block (our destination for this day), and the last party was atop pitch #1 and moving very slow. So slow in fact, that they ended up rappelling back down. It turns out they were bailing because the leader had taken a ledge fall and injured his ankle on the standard 5.7 line of pitch #1 after getting off route; He claimed it was not a serious injury, and none of us had seen the fall, but it was bad enough to call off their attempt before it slowed them down to a standstill.
Austin led pitch #1 by doing the 200 foot 5.10 variation, as the retreating party rappelled down the wall next to him. The shaken climber knocked a rock off the wall about the size of a grapefruit and it screamed right past Austin's helmet. Fortunately no damage, but it was enough to wake us both up as it whizzed by us both and crashed into the ground below.
Austin led pitch #2 as well; 100 feet of 5.10+ climbing. Both pitches #1 and 2 were rather forgettable climbing.
Pitch three is a 100 foot traversing bolt/drilled angle ladder and where I began leading the aid climbing. The reach from one bolt to the next is not very long, but midway across the traverse you have to step out of the aiders and do a one legged squat press onto a small ledge that feels very thin and airy with the weight of aid gear on and lacking true climbing shoes. We made good time and arrived at the Rocker Block on top of pitch #3 with plenty of time to organize gear for the next day. The Rocker Block gets its name from the fact that as you move around on top of a few thousand pound slab of sandstone, it will actually rock back and forth. Playing seesaw on the other side of the Rocker Block with me was a woman doing her first aid-solo ascent of a big wall, as well as setting up a portaledge for her first time. After half an hour of organization, Austin and I hung our 2 ropes off the anchors and rappelled the 400 feet down to the ground. We stashed the last of our gear and ran all the way back to the shuttle bus in fear of missing the last bus back to our camp site. We enjoyed some Mexican food in town and went to bed early to rest for the next day.
We set the alarm early, really early, and even though I slept great that night in the back of my pickup, I still felt tired when the alarm went off. We had an access permit which allowed us to park my truck at Big Bend for the day. This was in case we moved too slow or got caught behind a slow party and missed the shuttle buses, we wouldn't have to hike all of the way back to the park entrance. As we got out of the truck at Big Bend, we could see two lights up on the wall as the solo climber and the group above her were eating breakfast by headlamp on their portaledges. We hurried up the approach trail, guided by one dim headlamp, and shaved 10 minutes off the hike by not having 50 pounds of climbing gear on our back as we did the day before. Neither of us had jugged up fixed lines previously, but soon found that nothing wakes you up quite like 400 pull-ups at 6am.
Actually I lied, nothing wakes you up like a golden shower from someone urinating on you from 300 feet directly above your head... And this is how we encountered the third climbing party on the wall. Fortunately I was able to flatten against the wall and avoid any of the yellow rain. Austin however... not so lucky. When people ask how climbers go to the bathroom on big walls, this is not how you are supposed to answer. Pee off route, hold it, anything but free flow it on the heads of climbers below you. Enough on this topic. Back to climbing.
The first pitch off the Rocker Block, Pitch #4, is a perfect corner aptly named "The Grand Dihedral." Free climbed at 5.10, I took the slow but easy way out and aid climbed it at C1. I tried to move quickly, but having yet to perfect my system, I'm sure I was moving even slower than it already felt. The sun was rising, and although the solo climber graciously let us pass as she hauled her gear to the next anchor, the sun climbed the wall even quicker and passed us all. This meant direct sunlight at our backs until it would drop behind the other canyon rim high above.
As I climbed this pitch, I began thinking of the information I had gleamed from a couple of guidebooks and trip reports online. All of the information I could find on this climb recommended bringing way more gear than we actually had, and after leaving the first few pieces of gear I placed directly off the Rocker Block behind for protection rather than progression, I began aggressively back cleaning everything besides hand placed nuts for protection for fear of running out of gear at the end of a pitch. This led to widely spaced gear as seen when comparing this photo I found online for pitch 4 (top) to what we left behind on pitch 5 (bottom). The gear I left in place was bomber and I felt confident with what dwindled far below me.
Atop pitch #4 was a hanging belay; uncomfortable for a free climbing harness (sorry Austin), but the views made it tolerable.
Pitch #5 (C1+) is 150 feet that continues up the beautiful dihedral for another 50 feet before entering the "Awkward Chimney" section. Awkward doesn't even begin to describe how bad it is if you enter this feature as low as I did. It took me a good half hour to get all the way into the grove chimney proper whereas when Austin free climbed it, he cruised through this in about 60 seconds. Austin passed his time at the hanging belay by laughing at me grunt and flail my way up millimeters at a time into the chimney. The guidebooks recommend a #4 cam to get you through this section. The books lie. A #5 would have shaved 10 minutes off my floundering as I tried desperately to pull on a piece of gear that was beyond its usable range. In this picture my head is in the chimney region, but my body is stuck below.
The next rope length combined Pitch #6 & 7 for 200 feet of a continuous half inch splitter cracks. I managed to comfortably climb this section without leaving a single cam, only hand placed nuts. I also freed two stuck offset nuts, presumably from the party ahead of us. Free Booty!
Above this was a small ledge that some guide books say is large enough for one person to bivy. True, but not comfortably and only if you can sleep on a 8 inch ledge. I hauled gear and watched as Austin cruised yet another pitch of very difficult free climbing. Another view down towards Big Bend shuttle stop showed my truck was being swallowed by the shade that meant evening was nearing.
Austin worked his way up pitch 6 and 7 working hard moves, taking a few breaks, and constantly being reminded that Honnold was able to free solo this climb back in 2008 despite 4 of the last 5 pitches being freed at 5.12a or harder. Wow.
Pitch #8 is known as the Nutting Pitch. Offset passive gear excelled here, but cleaning those can be a bit time consuming so again I back cleaned when possible. I continued up the 100 feet of C1 nut placements, and combined it with another 100 feet of broken roofs and cracks of Pitch #9 while Austin patiently waited again while I slowly aid climbed.
He must have known by this point that the light was fading and chance of catching the shuttle dwindling, but there was nothing he could do from the belay station but wait for me to call "off belay."
The rope drag was too much for me to finish the last 30 foot slab climbing section to reach the canyon rim, so I built an anchor and called off belay. Austin cruised up more difficult climbing and joined me in no time. As he led the last 30 foot runout slab section, the sun set and I met him on top of our climb with headlamp ready to light the way home. We hurried down the 2.5 mile trail to the valley floor in complete solitude, a trail that is normally littered with hundreds of tourists hiking to Angles Landing. Unfortunately we were to slow, and too late to catch the shuttle bus back to my truck at Big Bend, so we had to add two more mile onto our trip before we would be back at the truck. A crystal clear night with stars above lit the way back to the truck in the otherwise pitch black darkness. It was a long day, but we successfully finished our first big wall, even if it was slow.
The next day we had high hopes of climbing another climb, 8 pitches of 5-point-too-difficult-for-how-tired-we-were, so instead we decided to do a couple classic shorter climbs, including Ashtar Command, a 2 pitch, 250 foot 5.9, as well as The Headache, a 3 pitch, 380 foot 5.10b crack. Both were excellent routes and an amazing way to finish a great weekend.
I slept most of the drive as Austin guided us back to Salt Lake. We both made it home in time to get back to work and responsibilities.
Now what next...