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.

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