Going to Zion and trying to do Moonlight Buttress was one of my big goals for 2009. Two previous attempts had not even left San Diego and I was happy to finally be on the road to Zion for Memorial day. Despite a Thursday night arrival in Zion we were unable to get a campsite and stayed the night in a hotel in the near by Springdale. We stayed at the Terrace Brook Lodge which should be avoided. Our bathroom was low quality, the walls were so thin we could hear our neighbor snoring and the price was quite high. However we needed a place to stay after arriving after midnight.
A wet but happy Luke and Lizzy on the hike up the West Rim Trail to Angel’s Landing.
The next morning we got up at 7:30 and were able to snag a site in the south campground. The sites are all quite close to each other but we at least had a place to stay the next four nights. We repacked our bags and made our way to the shuttle with topo in hand. I had been to Zion 12 years prior but had no memory of the area. I asked the bus driver, who was very nice, to drop us off at Moonlight Buttress if possible.
Just about to start up Walters Wiggles on the way to Angel’s Landing.
Unknown to us the trail to cross the river is a mere 400 yards past the typical shuttle stop at Big Bend. Since the park was not too busy on Friday morning we got door to door service and were on our way to Sheer Lunacy. It was quite lucky that we got dropped off at the perfect place since we saved time not having to figure out where the trail started. After a bit of exploring we changed into sandals and waded across the COLD Virgin River. We each used a trekking pole and the clear water made it’s way up barely past my knees.
The chain has easily worn grooves in the soft sandstone.
Lizzy and I were quite nervous to be doing such a challenging route as our intro to Zion climbing. I had faith in our ability and since Sheer Lunacy is often climbed as moderate clean aid route, I knew we could get to the top one way our another. Our confidence had been further shaken on the bus ride up when we heard there was a 50% chance of thunderstorms for the day. Used to the California bubble, Lizzy and I had not taken the time to check the forecast. We felt the occasional rain drop as we crossed the stream but I was optimist and happy that it was not too hot out.
Luke enjoying a cool weather hike.
The plan was for Lizzy to lead the first four pitches and then I would lead five of the six remaining pitches for a total of ten. Pitches One, Four, Seven and Eight were less than 5.10 with Pitches Two and Three checking in at 5.10c, Pitches Six and Ten at 5.11a. The two hard pitches Five and Nine at 12b and 12c respectively could be the show stoppers but still seemed within reach. I knew that I would be still be fairly fresh for the first crux pitch and decided to put all my energy into an onsight attempt at that pitch.
Lizzy makes use of the chain as she nears the “scariest” part of the trail. There is a 800 foot drop on one side and a 1200 foot drop on the other.
A nervous Lizzy racked up and cruised the first pitch a slabby and sandy 5.8 corner which traversed to jugs and finished nice hand crack. Lizzy brought me up using the bolted belay on the far left size of the large ledge and then got back on the sharp end for the tricky 2nd pitch. After traversing way right across the ledge Lizzy worked her way up to a tricky finger crack. After a bit of gear fiddling Lizzy made her way through the dicy crux protected by an iffy cam. Soon after I lost view of Lizzy as she moved around the corner and up a discontinuous crack. A few minutes later Lizzy came back into view after taking a sizable fall. I barely felt a tug since the rope had gotten stuck in the roof below the finger crack.
Looking down at the big bend around the Organ Pipes
A bit of encouragement and emotion later Lizzy sorted out her rope drag by slinging a few more pieces and finished the lead to the next ledge. At this point you have to split left from Moonlight Buttress and go up a chimney/corner to go towards Lunar X and Sheer Lunacy. I encouraged Lizzy to keep leading as planned despite falling and she made it half way up the next pitch before it really started raining. Rather than finish the pitch Lizzy lowered off and I took the sharp end. I was able to climb to her high point and then take out the gear while down climbing. It was still warm and wasn’t raining too hard but the soft sandstone becomes much more friable when wet so we had to bail.
Luke smiles in the face of fear😉 on the 3 foot wide trail.
Once back on the ground we took the shuttle back to camp and relaxed in the tent while the rain came and went. I was anxious to accomplish something that day so we hiked up Angle’s Landing and stashed a pack, an extra set of approach shoes for Lizzy and a half liter of water. I guess the cold cloudy weather made us think that .5 liters of water would be helpful. As we later found out it would have been much nicer to have at least two liters. This is a newbie mistake that we can easily learn from.
At the end of Angel’s Landing with the Great White Throne in the background.
During the night it rained a bit more and we decided it would be best to take a day trip to the nearby Bryce Canyon. It was less than 2 hours away as we drove through the rain and it was cool to go back, I had also visited Bryce 12 years prior, and see the wild HooDoos. I had though that the spires were all sandstone and was surprised to learn that they were limestone. I did not believe it until i was able to get up close and touch the rock.
From atop Angel’s Landing. Moonlight buttress can be seen just left of Lizzy’s shoulder.
We made it back to Zion and tired ourselves out with a more hiking visiting the Hanging Gardens. While Lizzy took a nap I explored a few of the road side boulders and ran into a guy I think who’s name was Agnasio from Vegas. We devised a cool low traverse on one boulder that I was able to send before moving on and finding a harder steeper line further up a wash. After thrashing for a while I thought it would be best to save my energy and skin for the next day of climbing.
The streaked wall is just left of center and is home to Rodeo Queen.
Saturday night was rain free so we decided to go for it again and try to climb Sheer Lunacy. Initially the plan was to bring 3+ liters total. A mini .5 L nalgene for the leader and almost 3 liters in a camelbak minus what we drank on the approach. The first day it was ~65 and cloudy and it seemed like we had too much water. On Sunday, the day of our climb, it was ~75 and sunny but we decided to ditch the mini nalgene and some of the water in the camelbak. To make matters worse the camelbak got a very small hole and was leaking when it was not held up right.I found this out at the 1st belay but was anxious to get going and did not want to spend an hour or more to go back to camp and replace the bladder.
A wet Luke and Lizzy at Bryce Canyon.
Lizzy did the first pitch easily and this time we moved the belay to the far right side so I could help keep the rope out of the crack. Despite the new belay stance and a good effort by Lizzy to sling her gear I still had to actively move and flick the rope around to keep it out of the crack. With the confidence of the previous attempt Lizzy was able to send the pitch and our day was going well. Lizzy started up the next pitch and quickly regained her highpoint below the crux. Using some tricky beta Lizzy was able to stem and chimney through the first crux to gain the midway ledge. Unfortunately after a few more moves the holds thinned out and Lizzy took a few falls before figuring out that she had to chimney left side in.
Lizzy checks out the forest of Hoodoo’s
We opted to haul the pack at this point so I could follow more quickly but the bag got a bit stuck at the top. As well my shoes, which were immediately inside the bag without any padding, wore a couple of holes in our haul pack. This is something that had happened when Lizzy and I hauled her pack on Epinephrine and I should have known better. The next pitch was a long horizontal traverse that we accidentally split into two pitches due to some confusion. The 2nd part of this pitch ended at a single bolt under a roof that made up the start of the 5th pitch.
It was much colder in Bryce than Zion and it makes sense due to the high altitude.
I took over leading and got psyched up for the first crux pitch. I hesitated a bunch trying to work my way up the first roof which shot 45 degrees to the left with a thin finger crack underneath. I committed to the lay back and climbed above the lip and into the corner above. I could now see the rest of the pitch and line was beautiful as the corner got steeper as in went higher. I paced my self and placed as many nuts as possible in addition to a good helping of small cams. The climbing was a combination of thin laybacking and crimping with the occasional stem rest.
A pretty natural arch that looked to be ready to fall over at any moment.
The crack pinched down I slotted a few cams and gunned it for the next pod barely making it to the hand jam where I would spend the next many minutes. After stemming and shaking out I climbed up and placed a purple tcu and purple C3 before what seemed to be the crux. At the hand jam I was able to find a fairly good stem rest and the pitch was now going in to the shade. My fingers slid into the small sandstone pods and I put forth 100% effort reaching between locks and crimps in the thin crack. All of a sudden the crack opened up and I knew I had to place another piece, a yellow mastercam. The wall had started getting steeper and I barely got the cam clipped before I had to keep moving. A small ledge was in my sight and again I pushed hard, climbing instinctively eventually grabbing the lip of the ledge and manteling up for some much need rest.
As we walked down on the Queen’s Garden Trail the storm cleared up and the sun came out.
I let out a yell of joy since I had barely made it and almost felt like puking. The anchor was no where in sight and my rack was getting depleted as I slowly worked my way through the remaining 15 meters to the top careful not to blow it. As I neared the end I recognized the crack from a photo that had prompted this ascent. As I clipped into the drilled angles I was filled with excitement, one crux pitch down! Lizzy followed skillfully and only had to hang on the rope twice to remove a tight cam and a stuck cam.
Down inside the Hoodoo Forest.
Pitch six was my favorite of the entire route and it climbed amazingly well. A discontinuous crack connected various face features and required good sequencing and balance. In addition to the fun climbing the gear showed up just where it was needed with many small nuts, cam pods and an amazing purple C3 slot. This onsight was so fun and brought us to the Shroud of Elvis. Aside from the awkward first two moves I really enjoyed pulling on the huge jugs. Before traversing left around another corner to the belay I hauled the bag off a fixed pin, using our 5mm tag line and a DMM revolver, to make it easier for Lizzy. Once I made it to the belay I was concerned with the rope drag around the corner and made a mini anchor right near the fixed pin so I could offer Lizzy a better belay. This may have wasted some time but it made belaying much easier and we were getting tired and were not in a rush.
The limestone formed into many different crazy shapes.
We definitely didn’t have enough water and Lizzy was experiencing cramps and feeling dehydrated. I was in the zone and decided to keep leading and linked the next two pitches as described in the topo to bring us to Torquerville Tower. This long pitch was forgettable and the rock quality was not the best. It was fairly easy and I was happy to have our #4 camalot for the off-width after the “hidden” crack.
This sign shares our experience of Utah wildlife.
I had been feeling tired but upon seeing the final crux pitch I started getting fired up. A short nap was in order to give me as much strength as possible and I would need it. The exposure as you step across from the lower belay is instantaneous and the moves are quite hard. I got a blue master cam in the first pod and was able to reach up to the next crack but my feet were useless and I didn’t commit and took on my gear. After playing around for a bit I realized this crux was not to be done today and I aided through the next moves to gain a larger crack. A mix of face climbing moves protected by gear lead to a bolt and a horizontal traverse left. I rested on the bolt and after placing a green alien traversed left back to the main corner. (Next time I would skip the green alien placement to make it easier for the follower) Two small nuts got me back on my feet and a few hard crimping moves later I clipped a bolt and hung again. A few more cams another hard crimping section and a bit of bird crap got me to a final awkward move that allowed passage to the “anchor”.
A typical drilled angle anchor on Sheer Lunacy.
Most of the anchors looked like the photo above but on this ledge there was a single drilled angle. I didn’t have enough gear to keep going so I placed what I had left and brought Lizzy up. It was a good decision to belay here since the next moves were quite difficult and it took a bit of up and down climbing and screaming before I got established in the Indian Creek esque “sharper” crack. A bunch of fun jamming lead to a drilled angle (DA) anchor that was on my topo. I skipped this since I wanted to go all the way to the top. I passed one more double DA anchor and got into an overhanging flared chimney with a splitter finger crack on one side. The crack was thin and I was throwing my feet into the chimney to make progress. After getting in a cam I almost pumped out trying to figure out where to put my feet. The right wall of the chimney had come to and edge and I had to layback up the crack using this feature.
I reached another DA and was happy not to have fallen on the strenuous crack. The rock quality was really starting to deteriorate and the white sand that I was climbing seemed to rub off with minimal effort. Using marginal gear I face climbed on large slopers barely keeping the pump at bay as I manteled up towards the tree that guarded the anchors. The cracks were too flaring for gear but I though the tree would catch me as I committed to the final moves to the anchor. I made it and was surprised to see an eight foot long chain sitting on the ledge. The tree was quite rotten and someone had left this chain behind to prevent the tree from being pulled off the wall. The chain would have likely provided a nice piece of mind for the final moves so I let it down over the edge.
The hanging gardens seen from the East Rim Trail.
Lizzy followed and we flopped onto the summit tired and dehydrated after the long day of hard climbing. We were both anxious to get our stashed water since I had finished off our camelbak before climbing the last pitch. We laughed at the mere .5 liters we had but knew the hike was all down hill to the shuttle. The decent, which we had done a previous day for Angel’s Landing, was not too bad and we made it half way down before it got too dark. We continued headlamp free until I rolled my left ankle on a hidden rock. After switching to our E-Lite and BD Ion we made it back to the shuttle stop and by then my ankle seemed fine.
Looking down into Echo Canyon on the East Rim Trail.
I had been dreaming about cold Gatorade for a while now and after re hydrating we headed into Springdale for dinner a bit after 10 pm. We were happy to find that Amigos, a local Mexican restaurant, was open until 2am and Lizzy got her salt fix with tortilla chips. One super burrito later we made it back to camp and passed out after one of our hardest climbing days ever.
Lizzy takes a break on our last day of hiking.
The next morning after sleeping in I was interested in trying out the first few pitches of Moonlight Buttress to be better acquainted for a future attempt. I also thought it could be fun to hike up the Narrows to see a slot canyon. We decided to rest first and decide later and hiked up the east rim trail towards Echo Canyon, seen above. It was a pretty hike and the slot canyon was cool even though the trail went beside it instead of through it. After burgers at the Zion Lodge for lunch we decided to wade up the Narrows. After going back to camp and changing into quick dry clothing we went up to the end of the shuttle loop and started up the river walk.
A very spiny caterpillar on the Riverside Walk.
The best thing to do is to hike the Narrows from top to bottom, taking one or two days to cover the 16 miles IN the virgin river. We had neither the time nor the permit and decided to go up as far as we could before turning around. Hopefully we could see some cool canyons and enjoy our last day in Zion.
What a crazy little bug! (Lizzy was not a fan)
Zion is quite green and full of creatures both large and small. I was excited by this caterpillar and we also had seen deer and wild turkeys on previous days. We knew how cold the Virgin River since we had crossed it before so we brought long sleeve shirts to try to stay warm. This helped for a while since you legs would go a bit numb in the water but we were not exactly comfortable.
Lizzy wading up river on our attempt to walk up the Narrows.
We saw some people canyoneering (rapping down a waterfall) and some other hikers wearing dry suits. A dry suit seems like a good way to stay warm since the constant exposure to 55 degree water really drains your heat. I am usually warm all the time and despite eating ClifShots and some other food I got quite cold which usually means Lizzy is way way cold.
Getting colder as we made our way up the Virgin River
The canyon never got really small though we did have to go through water above our waist at one point. We easily could have gone in deeper water but we were luckily shown the best way by some hikers ahead of us. After too much cold we turned around and made really fast time back, clearly motivated by warm dry clothes and a hot dinner at camp.
Lizzy is not so excited to be hiking in the frigid water.
Our trip was definitely a success and showed me how possible it is to free the Zion big walls. I would like to go back to redpoint the 2nd crux pitch on Sheer Lunacy in addition to trying other routes such as SpaceShot and Moonlight Buttress. It would be been worth the effort to haul more water to help Lizzy and I avoid cramps and make the experience more enjoyable. I was able to climb beyond my previous limits and was happy to climb 9 out of the 10 of the pitches without falling. Hopefully this will be a good first step towards bigger and harder climbs in Yosemite.