Not really wanting to give up potential sends in the alpine, but also wanting a break from being cold and from long approaches, Sarah convinced me to make the (now-yearly) Spring Break trip to Zion. Last year we’d found the park empty, right before they closed for Covid… this year the throng of tourists provided ample people-watching opportunities, and equal frustrations in getting shuttle permits.
I met up with my buddy Zach; we’d been exchanging back and forth for at least a couple years now, after he approached me in Red Rocks after recognizing me from Bend’s climbing gym. We’d climbed a few times together, but nothing very big, just some local cragging days.
We settled on Space Shot for our first objective, and boarded the shuttle around midday to go fix the first four pitches. The first 5.7 pitch looked disgusting, to I decided to follow the “Unknown” 5.10 variation shown in Supertopo. This turned out gross. The first 40 feet were unprotectable, sandy slab smearing and stemming. Then the heat, choss, and hard lieback moves above kept me feeling uncomfortable and insecure throughout the pitch. I also had barely climbed rocks in the last few months and it still felt weird to hold rocks with bare hands. I also was shirtless, so the sandpaper rock in this widening crack began chewing through my flesh as I cursed, yarded on gear and got to the top.
I finally built a belay atop this crack, incorporating a tree, and after getting Zach up and getting organized, I dashed off through the next two “adventure” (aka shitty) pitches to the base of the headwall.
The temperature finally cooled down as I led my first aid pitch in a little while. A fun, albeit reachy bolt ladder led to a crux of placing brassies tilted 90 degrees to fit better in the sandy and flared crack. It felt good to get back into the rhythm of things.
We left our ropes up and quickly zipped back to the ground.
We had a chill start the following morning, and were atop our fixed lines at 9am. We got a drive-in pass for the pre-shuttle hours, and proceeded to drive in 10 minutes before the shuttles began, and then proceeded to chill at Zach’s van for a good 45 minutes before starting up.
Zach took the first lead. He was on lead for 2.5hrs, at least, on this pitch, falling once when a nut popped on him. Meanwhile, I was getting chilled to the bone from the nonstop wind, shade, and scattered drizzles which threatened heavy rain. It had been so hot the day before that all I’d brought was a puffy. I had plenty of time to feel very stressed, exposed, and alone as I shivered there, trying to think warm thoughts, not to mention pondering the difficulty of retreat once you traverse over the lip of the massive arch formation.
It felt glorious to move again as I jugged the pitch, and then proceeded to lead the next two as quick as possible, freeing and french freeing both. While these pitches had incredible climbing in an incredible position, I had switched on “get it done” mode which made it a little harder to enjoy the climbing and position. I was nervous about rain coming in, having read that the descent could be a flash flood path, and that we couldn’t rap the route easily above this point… The steep bulge pulling onto the route’s final big ledge was epic though!
Once Zach joined me, he walked across the ledge and led the final, extremely exposed bolt ladder pitch. You step off the ledge and onto your aider as the entirety of the arch unfolds beneath you, and in those moments you simply pray that your equipment doesn’t decide to blow. It was particularly heady following this, as I had to weight the rope to jug at the moment I stepped off the ledge. With the rope stretch, I felt like I was sinking into the abyss, and I had to try really hard to not think too much.
Zach had to do a cool, but tough looking hook move to reach a drilled pin. Other than that, and another rattling drilled pin, the last pitch went off without a hitch and we were soon walking back to the raps and the car.
We hadn’t done this route in the best style. I dropped my beloved blue TCU, Zach dropped an alpine draw, mysteriously lost an aider, and left a fixed nut on route. It’s always a bit defeating to have a negative booty tally.
I think the exposure, the menacing weather, the wind, and the cold also all headed Zach out a bit. Myself too, admittedly. I was not itching to get back on a wall as we sat in the warm sunshine at the Springdale park and organized our gear. Our plans to get on something else quickly evaporated, and we parted ways.
However, the next morning, waking up with Sarah to a view of Zion Canyon out of the back of my truck, I felt inspired, confident, and felt there was an opportunity to seize.
I had attempted to aid solo Moonlight Buttress last year, but had gotten snowed off atop the first pitch in the still pitch-black night. Since then I’d grown disenchanted with the idea of aiding Moonlight, entertaining illusions of one day free climbing it.
However, left of Moonlight lies a proud, steep aid line called Lunar Ecstasy. I decided that would be my goal.
With Sarah’s help, we fixed the first three pitches that day. We crossed the river, which adds some flavor to the otherwise basically roadside adventure. Sarah followed my lead on the first pitch, and after a minor breakdown on the exposed traverse to the belay, she joined me on the comfortable ledge. From there, she belayed me as I frenched the second pitch, a really good lieback flake turning into a crack. I rapped down, cleaned this pitch, and self-belayed up the short, flaring corner of the third pitch. We quickly rapped down my two fixed ropes and soaked in the peace of the park’s quiet evening hours.
I was definitely a bit nervous packing my gear that night, and brought a lot of shit.
Laying in bed that night, high as a kite, I had an epiphany for improving my self-belay system. For those unfamiliar, rope soloing on lead involves leading the pitch, then fixing the rope at the upper anchor, rappelling back down the pitch, cleaning gear (leaving some in as directionals as needed), and jugging back up (with a pack with food, water, etc in my case).
I’ve used different systems in the past. One involves simply coiling the rope on the ground/ ledge or in a sling and feeding oneself rope through the Grigri. Another is similar, but the rope is carried in a small backpack, with knots tied at regular intervals. I chose this system, but felt it would be good practice to tie into the opposite end of the rope; that way, if all else fails, the system is closed and death is (likely) avoided. I like to call these precautions “anti-death measures.”
I would tie a little overhand on a bight to my pack shoulder strap above my tie in to keep it close to my chest then out of the way. I’d then coil the rope into my little 15L lead pack, throwing overhand knots in every 10 arm lengths or so. I’d pass the brake strand under the chest buckle on my pack, again to keep things clean and neat. Finally, I’d fix the other end of the rope on an upward-facing anchor, and proceed to feed myself healthy doses of slack every 10-20 feet. An option is to clove hitch your first piece to keep the anchor tentioned upwards in case of a fall, to eliminate extra slack, but ended up not doing this on most pitches. I ended up really liking this system, and minus the potential for somewhat bigger falls than on traditional lead belay, I felt pretty safe.
Anyways, Sarah and I drove into the park in the predawn hours the following morning, and I met a party aiming to free Moonlight Buttress. This got my pysch up! Good for them.
On the approach, I felt a “pop” on my prosthetic and knew immediately that the Boa dial on my socket had broken. This dial tensions the brim of the socket, keeping my bone from bottoming out into the bottom of the socket, as well as improving suction. I decided that it’d be fine for climbing, especially aiding, and that I’d just deal during the painful, but safe, and very crowded, walk-off down Angel’s Landing. It is pretty annoying though, climbing with a prosthesis. Climbing is already an activity where many things can go wrong, and one must constantly be vigilant and aware of these risks and how to mitigate them. Throwing in another piece of equipment that can, and has failed in the past, definitely adds a layer of stress. However, I feel that I’m slowly learning to manage it, know what I can expect and what I can get away with, and take the time, every time, to make sure everything is in order before setting off. But it definitely is always in the back of my head!
With all this swarming through my mind, I jugged my fixed lines with a heavy pack. I got to the top of my lines, took a breather and got racked up there. The first C2 pitch started with some fun free and french free climbing, and then hit the steep headwall with occasionally funky traversing moves but overall pretty good gear. Then came three awesome, steep, headwall splitters. These were all straightforward as well, and took really good gear. I ended up doing a lot of back cleaning and very conscious leaving of gear as pro, as I only had 2-3 each of the crucial cam and nut sizes for most of these pitches.
Along the way, I bootied an alpine draw off a bolt, and three nuts, two of which were super useful, and all were super easy to remove. I still don’t understand how these pieces get left behind… but am also not complaining!
The “Amoeba” was probably the crux of the headwall, but I freed a couple moves to avoid a delicate aid move and was quickly past it. The top of this pitch required a free move where I yarded upwards on a tipped out offset cam and reached for the lip of the ledge.
Pitch 8’s start stumped me for a bit, involving some insecure sandy moves right off the belay, without gear. I ended up stepping in an sling that I left on an anchor bolt, stemmed up, using the bolt as a subsequent foothold, and then made a couple delicate free moves to a reachy cam placement that I then yarded on to get to the crack and back into aid mode.
The final headwall was epic; I took the left variation. I only had two 2’s and three 0.75’s, so I freed and backcleaned a lot of the first part, at one point 30 feet above the ledge without any pro, but always in direct on two solid pieces of gear. Under the watchful eye of hikers on the rim above, I turned the roof corner and was greeted by the exposed, bullet-hard patina final 40 feet of the route, which took great gear all over the place, and would be an epic free pitch.
The top out went without a hitch; I sat, free-hanging in my harness while cleaning the pitch to soak in the exposure and location, my first real break in movement all day.
The crux of the walk down was carrying all my stuff. I had 130 meters of rope and an overflowing backpack to schlep back down Angel’s Landing, weaving through the steady mob of tourists. Thankfully, 45 minutes later, I was at the Grotto shuttle stop and could finally sit back in content satisfaction as the fatigue settled in.
Overall, the day was 11 hours car to car. It took me about 30-40 minutes to jug the first three, 1h30 to lead and clean the four pitches of C2, and an hour per pitch for the final two C1 pitches. I’m guessing the first three pitches could be done in about 3 hours, solo, so climbing this in a day, solo, without fixing seems doable at around 13-14 hours car to car.
I was way overracked. I brought:
-doubles of 00 Metolius to 1 Metolius/ 0.2 BD
-triples of BD 0.3-0.5
-doubles of BD 0.75-2
-full set of offset cams 0.1/0.2 to 0.5/0.75
-lots of nuts. Set of brassies. Set of DMM offsets. And almost a whole set of regulars. Plus some extra offsets.
-a “cheater” rack of hooks, 3 pins, 2 beaks, and hammer. None of these were used.
In retrospect, for the leader confident in backcleaning, I would ditch the cheater gear and hammer, ditch all non-offset nuts, bring a single set of brassies and single set of offsets (doubling up on the DMM 6-8 sizes is nice for pro), and bring the cams listed above. A #3 or #4 is totally unnecessary.
Driving back home the following day, I felt satisfied and stoked. This was my first solo “bigwall,” and went off quite smooth… it’s exciting to think of the possibilities ahead!