Zion National Park, Utah, is well known for the unmatched scenery provided by the sandstone walls and mountains surrounding a narrow seven-mile canyon. For climbers, it is a massive playground offering several lifetimes worth of routes of all difficulties and styles. Due to the immensity of the cliffs here, many of the climbing routes in Zion classify as "Big Wall" routes, meaning they may take more than a day to complete and therefore require a higher commitment level. During the cooler months the enormous sandstone walls sport climbers from around the world, either pushing for summits in a day or stretching their climbing time out and spending as many days as they like secluded in their portaledges high above the valley floor.
Kelsey Gray and I reached Zion a month after setting out on a climbing road trip around the states, in June of 2006. We had visited several of the top destinations in two countries already, and the walls that towered above our shuttle bus as it slowly wound its way into the canyon had us excitedly maneuvering for a better view, twisting our necks uncomfortably to look straight up out the windows. We didn't know just what to climb first, so we headed to the ranger station and investigated the well maintained guidebook for climbing in the park.
Neither Kelsey or I had ever climbed a big wall before. We didn't have gear for staying overnight on the wall, and our technical climbing skill could only be described as moderate, so our options were slimmed down considerably. Eventually we decided we'd try our hand at Touchstone Wall, a nine-pitch Grade III route rated 5.9 A2 that directly ascends the Cerberus Gedarme, a cornerstone feature at the inside of a wide U-shaped bend in the canyon across from the famous Angel's Landing trail. Grade III implies that the route will probably take a full day or more to climb, and the 5.9 rating told us that the difficulty was well within our capabilities if we aid climbed the most technical sections at a simple A2.
We got a late start at 9:30 in the morning after the sun was already high in the sky. The first four pitches were supposed to be aid climbed, according to our topo, and I took the lead and started off. For the first pitch I clipped my etriers - a simple lightweight nylon ladder - to pitons driven into the blank rock and moved from piece to piece, carrying my gear with me and clipping the rope to a piton behind me every so often to protect against falls. It wasn't long before I found myself hanging from the anchor above and belaying Kelsey up. Temperatures began warming into the nineties and we took sips from our water bottles, rationing the precious fluid against the duration of the climb.
The second pitch got interesting quickly. We had read previously that we would find some pitons and a fixed RURP, or "very small piton" placed in a tiny crack at a key move through a roof. I never saw the RURP, so figuring it has been removed or come out on its own, I simply used my patented escape maneuver for tricky climbing situations and stretched my long arms past the blank crack to reach another piton further on. From there the difficulty eased, and using our aid gear exclusively we moved up another three pitches.
The fifth pitch, according to our topo, was where we would switch from aid techniques to free climbing, or using our hands and feet rather than gear placements to ascend the rock. We paused here on a small ledge and shared a single sandwich between us. It was the only food we had brought, figuring we could go hungry for a few hours to save the weight and hassle of carrying more. Thinking we were making good time, I asked Kelsey for a chronometer reading, and we were both somewhat surprised to find out that it was already two o'clock in the afternoon. We had taken much longer on the aid climbing than anticipated, but the free climbing above would pass much more quickly.
Swallowing the last tasty bites of my sandwich half, I then visited my water bottle for a swig, and was faced with more bad news. Of the five liters of water we had brought up the wall with us, we had already consumed all but a few swallows! Even thinking we were rationing it and drinking small swallows with careful restraint, we had guzzled the stuff, and now with five more pitches above us and daytime temperatures reaching for 100, we had no more left for the climbing ahead.
We spent a few minutes pondering our predicament. Hundreds of feet below us on the lone road in the canyon, shuttle buses pulled over to give the other visitors a good view of the two of us perched on our tiny ledge. Arms reached from the narrow windows and waved, and cameras flashed. We waved back, and then, turning our backs to the ground once more, we continued upward.
Starting out the fifth pitch, it took me no time at all to realize that I wasn't up for the job of climbing it. A smooth and rounded crack was my only feature, and though I could lock my fingers nicely in its depths, my toes would just barely penetrate at all and promptly slid back out again in a shower of sand as I weighted them. Within minutes I realized I wouldn't have the strength to finish the route like this, but thoughts of descent at this point were stubbornly blocked from my mind. Having come this far, we certainly couldn't give up without giving it all that we had. Gasping and groping for solid footholds, I finally admitted my failing strength and abandoned the pride of a free ascent in favor of just getting to the top however I could manage.
Choosing two prime sized cams off my rack, I slipped the slings around each of my wrists and plugged them into the crack. My organic muscles relaxed as the metal lobes of my new mechanical hands easily grabbed and held solid, and then leapfrogging the placements and stopping occasionally to place and clip other pieces for protection, I followed the remarkably unchanging crack until I reached the anchor. I grinned widely at this cheated solution to my problems, and then even more widely as Kelsey started up the pitch. Being the leader I had all the gear with me, so Kelsey couldn't resort to the same methods I had, and his fingers and feet are massively larger than my own, presenting him with manifold more problems than myself. I sat chuckling at the belay while Kelsey's voice rose from the cliffside below, questioning the nobility of a climbing partner who would take all the handholds with him and leave none for his second.
The climbing got technically easier on the higher pitches, but our exhaustion grew on a disproportionate scale, making it more and more difficult to maintain upward progress the higher we got. Dehydration symptoms set in after a few hours more, and Kelsey's forearms began cramping as he belayed. Glancing down from most of the way up the seventh pitch, I was greeted by the sight of him stretched out full length on the spacious belay ledge, hands behind his head as he relaxed and watched me climb and let his autolocking belay device do all the work. I didn't blame him any, I had just placed a cam and clipped myself into it to rest mid-pitch.
Eventually we reached the huge shoulder of the ridge at the top of the eighth pitch. Above us was one more pitch of 5.7 climbing, but neither of us was too certain that we could manage it in our current state, with our worn out muscles cramping and weakened by the day's abuse. Looking at each other though, we knew without speaking that we could not climb this route ALMOST to the top, so once more I took off and dragged my way up this last easy obstacle to our success. The sun was dropping low in the sky by this time, and the cooler temps of the evening eased the strain enough for us to somehow pull those final moves and find ourselves at the top of our first big wall route.
We took our exhausted seats on the summit with the glow of the sun showing past the horizon. The glory of the moment was somewhat lost in our extreme fatigue, so without many words we took a single summit photo and set about finding out how to get ourselves down. We had finished the route, it's true, but we were still almost a thousand feet off the ground and we had to safely descend before we could relax our tired bodies. Choosing to face the known factors of descending the route itself to the unknown of the typical separate descent route taken from this wall we packed our gear, and as the daylight faded entirely we followed the dim light of our headlamps out into the empty space.
Rappelling nine hundred feet of empty air should be a gripping experience, but in the pitch black of night it was impossible to get the full effect. Our vision was limited solely to a small circle of the wall in front of us and the dim twinkling of the stars above, and all else was complete blackness, erasing the effect of the dizzying heights we knew were beneath us. This lack of exposure was interesting enough to be noted even through the dimmed perceptions of my tired mind. Soon, however, it became simply monotonous as yard after yard of sandstone passed in front of our eyes, disappearing above even as more appeared below. We soon lost count of the rappels and had only a vague idea how far we had come, and how far we had yet to go.
Even now, with the climbing done with and the whole experience so close to completion, we found our bodies taxed to their limit. Neither of us had had a bite to eat or drop of water since midday, and we couldn't take much more. After each pitch, we stood side by side and pulled the ropes down after us using our combined strengths, timing our heaves on the line exactly so we would waste no effort in trying vainly to pull alone. Kelsey's hand repeatedly cramped into a solid claw, and he beat it against the rock to unlock the screaming muscles and allow him to grab the rope again. Several times we were forced to simply stop for a few moments to recover enough for just a couple more pulls. Somewhere in the darkness high above us, the knot tying our two ropes together occasionally hung up momentarily on some invisible obstruction, jerking our movement to a stop and sending us moaning into heaps of misery on our ledge.
At long last we rappelled past the branches of the friendly tree at the start of the route, indicating the ground was just moments away. Our relief was palpable as we both landed our feet on the boulders at the base of the cliff, and a glance at Kelsey's watch marked the time at 9:00pm, eleven and a half hours after we started our ascent. We moved slowly collecting our gear together before we gathered the last of our strength for one final pull of the ropes. Each of us coiled a line in the darkness, and as we trudged wearily back to the awning where the shuttle would pick us up we showed little of the excited happiness we each felt inside. Our success marked our introduction to the world of big wall climbing, and perhaps it is an indicator of some twisted deformity in the climber psyche that we loved every minute of it, and looked forward to gaining more experience on other walls around the world in the future.
On the shuttle we related the day's experiences to the curious tourists, some of whom had watched us on our ascent many hours earlier. One gentleman secured an eternal place of affection in our hearts by handing us a bottle of water, and the driver of the shuttle made an unscheduled stop at a drinking fountain for our benefit as well. After a bite to eat at our rig, we found our camp for the night and threw out our sleeping bags in the bare dirt under the stars, each of us acknowledging that we had never pushed our limits so far in our lives, and agreeing that the adventure was truly a momentous one for us. We slept well.