Monday, March 24, 2008

Climbing Zion: Moonlight Buttress and Lunar Ecstasy

Before we had even left Minnesota Tyler and I had the intention of completing a big wall route. My naivety passed the adventure as just another thing I would jump into, and my conception of the adventure at hand was widened on our first day in Zion. We stood peering up at the towering Moonlight Buttress through binoculars and marveling at it's sheer faces as it rose up 1300 ft from the Virgin River like nature's skyscraper. Our entire trip was structured around getting us prepared to take on this adventure.

Moonlight Buttress
(a climber is imperceptibly small under giant overhang, click picture)

Moonlight Buttress is a rock face, however there is more than one route to ascend it. We decided to tackle the most difficult route on the feature "Lunar Ecstasy". A decision made more or less by elimination of the other routes for various strategic reasons.

The day before starting "Lunar Ecstasy" we carefully packed our haul-bag. When night fell we went out to fix a rope to the first pitch, so that the next morning we could quickly ascend the rope and bypass climbing the first pitch. I decided I was up to the task. So under luminescence of a headlamp I ascended up the ledgy base of Moonlight Buttress in what I believed was the correct route (5.8) through the black of night. I trad climbed what proved to be a somewhat challenging and sand ridden route. Having heard Tyler while belaying yell "only 20 ft left", I was aware I was nearly at the end of the 210 ft rope as I reached the anchors at the top of the pitch. We pulled our 100+ lb haul-bag up to the anchor, left it for the morning, and rappelled down. After fording the river we arrived at our lodgings late and fell asleep.

Tyler on the 2nd Pitch

We awoke to the morning light and flew out of bed having slept through our alarms. We rushed out to the Buttress to find a party ahead of us starting a different route that shared the same first two pitches as ours. However it was clear in the daylight that the night previous I had climbed off route through what was actually a 5.9 section! We managed to ascend our rope and get back on route and then waited in line for the party ahead to veer off onto their respective route after pitch 2. Pitch 2 was fairly easy for Tyler as he aided through it quickly being that it was rated 5.10 C1. Having split from the party ahead of us I took on the short pitch 3.
Myself trad climbing the 3rd Pitch

It was a 5.7 open book crack that narrowed to C1 aid climbing. I free climbed up the 5.7 portion and began to aid climb what seemed a short and tedious seam and finally stepped awkwardly out onto a spacious ledge just at the base of the sheer and varnished head-wall.

As the sun was high in the sky Tyler fired up the 4th pitch which slowly went ascended while traversing to a small ledge. It proved a long and difficult pitch require very small and tedious gear placements some off which failed a weighted test and popping from the sandstone. At last he reached "Farewell Ledge" which would be our home for the night as the sun was setting.

Tyler hauling the haul-bag atop "Farewell Ledge"

Farewell Ledge was a small ledge only 3 ft wide by 8 ft long protected by 4 bolts for anchoring. Having hauled the haul-bag up, we hung up our gear, and set up our portaledge for the night. The after eating dinner we settled into our sleeping bags on the portaledge...

Unpacking the haulbag on "Farewell Ledge"

... while harnessed and tied to the anchor with 700 ft of thin air on all sides. As the full moon light up Zion canyon and the stars shown brightly above me I fell asleep from sheer exhaustion.

The view off the edge of the portaledge...lot's of thin air.

We awoke the next morning and decided I should lead the next pitch (pitch 5). I was a bit nervous being that it was a C2 aid pitch (a more difficult rating) and was exposed and long. As I mounted the pitch I could see it was going to be tricky. Before long I was stepping up on manky tricams in piton pockets that ominously grinded as I weighed them and kept my stress high.

Tyler comfortably belaying me up pitch 5 from the portaledge...and saluting his Grandma

However as I got past the first and more difficult section the seam opened up to an easier 1/4" wide crack that took gear like a charm. I finished the pitch having aided C2 on only my third aid lead of my career. From a hanging belay, I watched as Tyler mounted the next pitch which ascended a splitter crack (consistent width) further up the head-wall. The pitch went timely despite it's length as it took to leap-frogging small cams very well.

Tyler again to the lead ascending the 7th pitch as the route began to clear the sheer face of the head wall slope less toward overhanging. Meanwhile, I made sure to turn on our very portable speaker system and rock out to "Floggin Molly" taking the edge off both of our moods. The sun was quickly falling in the sky and we were feeling more and more haggard. Tyler finished up the very difficult 7th pitch and hauled up the haul bag while I cleaned the gear. By the time I was ready to hit up the next pitch it was completely dark and the full moon had not yet risen. By the light of my headlamp I first pull out over the 1000 foot abyss below me and pull some difficult and nervous free climbing moves before firing up some tricky aid before topping out on a large ledge that would be our place of rest for the night.

The view of Angels Landing from our second night on the portaledge

We set up our portaledge above the large sloping ledge below and ate dinner with our spirit uplifted knowing tomorrow we would have only one pitch before reaching the top of the route. I fell quickly comfortably asleep.

The next morning, having the luxury of time, we decided we would get up and start climbing till the sun hit the wall around 10 am. When it did things heated up as I climbed the last pitch and 9th pitch C2+. It proved tricky since I did not wear my climbing shoes and had to switch between free and aid climbing. At one point I watched the piece I was standing on shift dangerously as I placed another one higher. I frantically clipped the higher piece weighting it before the previous one failed and sent me falling. Meanwhile tourists had discovered us from the hiking trail the ran along the top of the climb, and loudly marvelling they upped the stress level slightly. After several moves of manky tricams and a last piece place in a sand filled crevice, I stepped over the edge and mounted the summit of our climb with a whoop of triumph!

I hauled up and haul bag and watched as Tyler appeared over the edge with a grin. As we packed up the gear we heard "Lunar Ecstasy, 2008" and looked over to see our friend Scott coming down the trail. The three of us hiked 4 miles down the popular ascent/descent trail that also lead to Angels Landing. As we walked the gear rang on our belts like sleigh bells as the multitudes of tourist stared, commented, and enjoyed our spectacle. It was a surreal walk down into the canyon as we were treated like super hero's by passers after having spent three days in complete isolation. I smiled ear to ear the whole way down as the sun shined brightly on the desert and canyon slopes.

Elation at having topped out finishing the route

The next day we were on a plane home arriving in snow filled Minnesota. Completing "Lunar Ecstasy" was a major accomplishment for the two of us. One that very few can claim in a lifetime. As I attempted to re assimilate to my normal lifestyle I found myself speechless as to describe my adventures. It was a great trip to Zion that broke boundaries for Tyler and I, and formed memories of a lifetime.

Climbing Zion: Learning To Aid Climb

The second pitch of "Organasm" with the roof looming ahead

The next morning we awoke and slowly arose from our slumber as Zion canyon slowly warmed in the morning sunlight. Our plan for the day was to tackle "Organasm" a 5.8 C2 aid/ free route. The route was going to be our warm up and practice sessions in aid climbing that were to prepare us for our big wall multi-day climbing adventure.

The Zion canyon walls soar up 2000 ft as we drive in and park the car near the approach. The approach was cold proposition because we had to ford the 40 degree waters of the Virgin River to reach the opposing canyon wall while carrying our gear-laden packs. Emerging from the waters with numb feet we hiked up the hill reaching the route.
This is "Th Organ" and our route "Organasm" ascended up the right middle column of rock

It started with a 5.8 double crack system to a large ledge with some loose slabs. It then proceeded up a tricky open book crack (crack between two faces coming together at less than a 45 degree angle) that was unrated...but we personally rated at 5.10. It then continued the next pitch up the crack up an overhanging slope that split through a 8 foot 5.11c/d roof 150 off the deck. The route then continued with the crack up the face and topping out 300-400ft up.

The first order of business was for me to figure out how to aid climb. Aid climbing (to those who don't know) is basically climbing on place a piece in the rock.... clip a webbing ladder to it....step up and place another piece higher and repeat. It is a technique used for climbing routes you wouldn't ordinarily be able to climb with your hands (free climb), unless you were a climbing God (5.13d..etc). So I understood the concept but hadn't done a bit of it. I aided up the 5.8 and 5.10 sections just for practice. My first impression was that I that aid climbing takes time....forever in fact, considering you are only able to move up little more than a half body length per piece.
Myself moving up the steps of my aid ladder

Tyler and Scott ascended the rope to my position and we set off to take on the next pitch. Tyler styled the roof naturally...made the whole thing look easy. Scott went next and cleaned the gear up to Tyler's position, while I in the back ascend the rope in thin air. The next pitch Scott took on while we hung of the anchor. It was dark by the time we reached the top, our head lamps shined through the night and our rappel to the ground. When we went to pull the rope from the ground it managed to get stuck on the route and forced us to leave it and come back the next morning to re-climb the route and free the rope.

So the next morning Scott quickly free climbed the first pitch. I then aid through the giant roof to the second anchor and freed the stuck rope from the night previous. Aiding through a roof requires some trust in your gear. You are hanging 150 ft off the ground hanging off mechanical advantaged gear stuck in the rock... you have to trust your gear and you have to place it well!!!

Dangling 150 ft up on the lip of the roof on "Organasm"

Upon getting to the top, Scott and Tyler had a plan in free climb the first pitches including the daunting roof. So I belayed from the anchors above while Scott free climbed up to the roof, risking a big swing into open air. Meanwhile Tyler snapped video on rappel while Scott powered through the 5.11c/d roof triumphantly, with tourist below snapping pictures.( seethe video below!)

Tyler then made his attempt and was out on the lip of the roof, fell, got back on the rock and finished it. Knowing my ability level was not interested in attempt on my part. It was a long day for us all and we went home excited as children at our adventure.

Studying up for our next adventure...

The next day Tyler and I packed our gear and made preparations for the climax of the trip...a 3 day, 2 night ascent of Moonlight Buttress via the route "Lunar Ecstasy". In the meantime, we made this day a rest day and hiked up the "Narrows" of Zion canyon. Putting on wetsuits we hiked up wading in the river as Zion Canyon narrowed to 3-4 arm spans wide and the walls rose up 1500 ft from the river.

Light piercing the shadows of "The Narrows"

It was surreal and so pristine.... I walked awe-struck to the extent of silence...lost for words as we forded the river and passed through the piercing sunlight and shadows of the towering the walls.

More canyoneering in the Narrows

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Climbing Zion: The Arrival

Leading a beautiful crack

After sleeping 4 hours and finishing a medical school exam, I found myself boarding a plane for Las Vegas Nevada 6 hours later with my friend Tyler Overby. As the plane left the ground, it was clear we were not the norm of folk whose intention was to enjoy the manufactured spectacle that is extravagance of Vegas. We were in route to Zion National Park in southern Utah to climb the largest vertical sandstone faces in the world. It wasn't long before we were discovered, peppered with questions about our upcoming adventure, and offered a celebratory beer.

After touching down in Vegas we were aware that there were still obstacles to overcome before reaching our destination. We arrive at 9:30 pm and the shuttle to St. George Utah did not run again until 8 the next morning. We hunkered down in a quiet corner of the airport for the long night. After discovering no food establishments in the airport were open, we asked the airport information were the nearest exit was....and were informed that you couldn't just walk out of the airport...there are no side-walks, and in other words the Vegas hotel shuttles and cabs needed our money! Feeling the cold hand of oppression, I was determined to break out of the Vegas airport on foot. My first objective was to get the lay of the land. I headed to the top level of the parking garage and seeing the expanse, I picked my escape route. Soon I was out amongst the vacant rental parking lots and quickly jumped a fence to the busy streets with a clever smirk. I walked 3 miles to the strip, picked up some food, walked back, and fell asleep on the airport concrete next to our bags.

I awoke disoriented. Regaining my senses, I followed Tyler to the shuttle and 2 hours later was on a side walk feasting on a Dairy Queen blizzard in the sunlight of St. George Utah. Sam, a friend of a friend, arrived in a red pickup truck taking us to Zion.

After checking in at our lodgings and visiting local park ranger and friend Scott Rysdahl we warmed up with some bouldering to finish off the day.

Tyler Overby doing some sick move on an unrated boulder

The next morning looked cold and ominous as snow and sleet fell from the sky. In avoidance we didn't leave the house until noon. We then left toured local coffee and climbing shops in the nearby town of Springdale just outside the park until our caffienation wore off and darkness fell on the Zion Canyon.

The next morning we drove back St. George to hit up some of the local crags. We started our day with a 5.9+ trad line in the city limits of town. It was a thin corner crack, starting hand size narrowing to finger crack and open back up again. Sam was first to hit up a lead, followed by Scott, then Tyler. I having already top roped the line red-pointed the the route last. We then hit up an adjacent 5.10a crack. Scott quickly styled the route, followed by Sam, then Tyler. I feeling more confidant gave it it go. Half way up after some tricky moves my forearms were burning...I plugged in another piece and lower down then climbed back up and move by move finished my first 5.10a trad line.

Myself leading a 5.10a crack

We grabbed lunch at Del Taco and then ended the day at the Chuckwalla wall, which was comparable than an glorified and crowded outdoor climbing gym... in other words an extremely popular outdoor sport crag. Feeling tired I top-roped a 5.10a and a 5.10c route. We then dropped off Sam to his shuttle to the airport for his flight home and drove back to Zion with the sun dropping behind the red sandstone horizon. It was a day that left me with a face marked with the expression of contented exhaustion as I fell asleep in bed of the pickup as it drove on.

Onlooking as Sam leads

Monday, March 10, 2008


Myself and car load and friends traveled to Houghton in the heart of Michigan's upper peninsula. Our objects were two-fold: to cross country ski the "Great Bear Chase" ski marathon and to telemark ski powder at Mt. Bohemia. After spending the night at some friends' lodgings in Houghton we woke up early making sure to arrive at the hills opening. I threw on my borrowed telemark gear and was riding up the chair lift before long.

It must be said that Mt. Bohemia (or as I like to shorten it to..."Boheme") is not your typical midwest downhill run. It's gets an average of 250 inches of powder a year, is completely ungroomed, and drops 900 vertical feet. This being recognized, our first run was not surprisingly down a steeply moguled cut run. From there on out we took to the woods to find the untouched virgin, shin deep powder. It was really my first real taste of addiction that is powder skiing. The highlight was skiing down a untouched steep stream-bed that had giant snow bridges crossing it and floating over mounds of snow covering giant logs and quietly cruizing and carving tele-turns as if floating a fluffy cloud in the sky. When the stream would open ahead you would leap and sail over it. You would dodge through the tight trees picking your hole through the maze branches stumps, and logs. I found it very comparable to surfing waves, it's almost a feeling you're going after... that undescribable floating and carving that sends you so silently and gently down a slope and yet with so much controlled speed. Anyhow we skied powder 7 hours until sheer exhaustion compelled us to stop for the day.

We then woke up earlier to arrive at the Bear Chase ski marathon. In the interest of my upcoming climbing trip and my aggravated shoulder and sciatic nerve I opted out of racing for the weekend. I had a good time casually skiing around and cheering on my friends Andre Watt and Nikolai Anikin as they placed 1st and 2nd respectively in the race. It was awesome weekend with some great adventure and new experiences for myself...