How two Climbers from Nebraska Managed to Climb a Desert Big Wall:
In September, 2002 We headed to Zion National Park to Climb our first Big Wall, Prodigal Sun (V 5.8 C2).
We'd had this trip in our minds for a couple years. It took us that long to learn how to aid climb.
It all started at Blue Mounds when Will first introduced us to aid climbing. Angie, Alison, and I all took our turns aiding up Obvious Crack (normally just a 5.7). What was obvious was that we were going to need a lot of practice. We were very slow and very tangled up.
Despite the difficulties encountered during our first attempt at aid climbing, we were hooked (I don't like much of anything that comes easy). We decided shortly there after that we wanted to do a big wall, if for no other reason than to round out our climbing skills.
So, we started buying gear. Lots of gear. We already had a decent trad rack, but we ended up with an enormous rack--3 sets of stoppers, peanuts, 2 sets of offset nuts, 2 sets of cams, 2 sets of aliens, big bros, tricams, and hexes. You name it, we bought it.
We practiced a lot at Blue Mounds. The cracks there are generally discontinuous, so we learned how to hook. Hooking on Sioux Quartzite is SKETCHY!!! With time we got faster moving up in our aiders and got tangled up less of the time. We jugged, we cleaned, we pendulummed, we hauled. We tried to learn all the skills we would need to use on a real wall.
By March, 2002, we had gotten as good as we were going to get on the walls of Blue Mounds so we took our show on the road and headed to Moab with a bunch of our friends. We aided up some steep cracks and played around on Zenyatta Entrada in Arches National Park. We found out we were capable of climbing C2, but we were still slow. It took us six hours to climb and descend 3 pitches on Zenyatta Entrada.
Finally in mid September we were on our way to Zion. We stopped in Moab on the way to have another go at Zenyatta Entrada. We did considerably better than we had 6 months earlier.
That evening we stopped by Pagan Mountaineering to rendezvous with some gear we had ordered from Pika (long story!). The guy at Pagan (I can't remember his name) is great. We talked with him for some time about aid climbing. He taught Angie how to use a gri-gri for lowering out and unweighting pieces. This came in very handy in Zion!
It's about a 6 hour drive from Moab to Zion. There's about a 140 mile stretch in there with absolutely no services. Our car battery died on us but we were able to make it to Green River and found a garage that could help us out. Melon Days was going on in Green River. We've always wondered since then if they crown a Miss Melon?
Somewhere in the San Rafael Swell we stopped at a roadside pullout to take in the view. We stepped to the edge of the canyon to take in the view and suddenly we were suddenly overtaken by ground squirrels. They came from everywhere! We were wearing sandals and they kept trying to bite our toes!!!
We made it to Zion about mid-day. We were both anxious to see Angel's Landing and scope out our route, Prodigal Sun. We got our camping situation squared away and hopped on the shuttle to head up the canyon. We got off at Big Bend, right across the river from Angel's Landing. I think the minute we saw Angel's Landing adrenaline started running through our veins.
In the previous months we'd poured over photos of the rock and the route, but this did little to prepare us for seeing it with our own eyes. I now understand Chuck Pratt's impression of Zion when he first saw it in 1966: "...the monstrous walls of Zion Canyon, more intimidating than those of Yosemite, have subjugated us into tourists."
Although neither of us said anything, I think we both started doubting ourselves. We'd climbed many rocks taller than this before, but something about this one was different. Maybe it was the sheer steepness? Maybe it was the fact that we'd be spending a night or two somewhere up there with no portaledge? Maybe it was the fact that we could possibly be in over our heads? Maybe it was the fact that we couldn't even agree where the route started?
Of course all of these doubts went unsaid. We got back on the shuttle and headed straight back to the visitor center to get our backcountry permits. If we didn't act quickly, we just might talk ourselves out of doing it. Plus, there was only one party on the route at the time and no one lined up at the bottom. It's always nice when you can miss the crowds!
It was now evening and we had to pack for our first real wall climb. We'd really hoped to do a dry run back at home, but we just never had the time. So now it was crunch time. Literally. Crunch everything into our haul bags. We had a big bag and a small bag. They both ended up crammed full, extremely heavy, with ropes lashed to the top because they ran out of room.
Next morning we humped our loads through the dark to the bus stop. My God were those bags heavy! I don't even want to know how many pounds they were. When the shuttle finally came, it was all I could do to get the thing up into the bus. Of course everyone (all the regular tourists) was curious about our objective--and everyone wanted to know how much my huge haul bag weighed. We got off at Big Bend again just as it was getting light out.
Now, I was psyched to climb! The bus pulled away and we were alone. There was nobody else on the route. The only thing between us and getting on that big hunk of rock was the icy-cold, foot numbing Virgin River. We carefully waded across and followed a wickedly steep trail to the base of the route.
The first three pitches went well. The Climb starts of with steep bolt ladder that leads to a long C1 crack. We linked the first two pitches easily with a 60m rope.
Things got interesting when I reached the third belay. This anchor was set on a ledge where we had planned on spending the night. (This was the only ledge of any size on the entire route.) I remember laughing when I first laid my eyes on it! I swear I had read somewhere that this was a "comfortable ledge"! I called down to Angela on the radio, "I hope you can sleep sitting up." I tried to make light of the situation but I couldn't see how the hell we were going to lay down on this small, lumpy, and mostly downward sloping ledge.
When Angela reached me at the ledge she had a slight breakdown. She was really quite upset. I could sense the fear and anxiety in her, and this surprised me. In all the climbing we'd done, I'd never seen her in this state. I was perplexed and didn't know what to do.
We were definitely at a point where a decision had to be made. It was only 12:30. We had plenty of time to continue climbing and fix ropes on a couple of pitches before calling it a day. We had to commit to spending the night on this crappy little ledge, or else we might as well rig our ropes and head on down.
I recommended that we pause for a while and break out some lunch.
While we ate, I figured out what was bothering Angela. Her real fear was fear of failure. When she saw that ledge she knew instantly that she wasn't going to get much sleep--if any. Without some decent rest she didn't think she could make it through the next day of climbing. I have to admit she had a good point. This type of climbing is not only physically tiring, but it drains you mentally even more. There are so many things going on (some within your control and some beyond) and so many things to worry about that it is sometimes hard to keep your mind relaxed.
Finally, with a good pep talk, I managed to convince her that she had it in her even if she didn't think she did. She'd never let us down before and I didn't figure she'd start here. This is part of what makes us a good team. Her hesitation and my overconfidence balance each other out quite nicely.
With all of that behind us we started heading upward again. The plan was to fix ropes on pitches four and five and then rappel back to our lovely little ledge for some dinner and rest. Both of these pitches were long. It took about five hours to fix and rappel them.
On the fourth pitch I got a little overconfident (imagine that) and started testing my placements with less vigor. For the most part the climbing was on bomber offset nuts. I had two sets of these but could have used another, so I occasionally back cleaned a piece so I could use it again up higher. As luck would have it one of my "bomber" nuts blew on me just as I was getting into the top step of my aiders. And, as luck would have it, I had back cleaned the piece below me. And, as luck would have it, the piece below that one was just a wee little number four peanut. As I slid down the rock face, I considered how much faith I had in that peanut to stop my fall. I concluded that it too would certainly pop out of the crack and add another ten feet to my fall. I fell for what seemed like much too long of a time. I remember hearing lots of gear clattering. Was it that peanut pulling out of the rock? Or maybe just all of the gear on my rack? Fortunately it was just the sound of all my protection snapping to attention as the rope came taut. With all the rope stretch, I'd fallen 20 or 25 feet. I assessed my situation. Adrenaline was pumping through my veins, but everything seemed to be intact. I did manage to tweak my ankle on a knob as I slid down the face, but it didn't seem too bad. I looked up to see what finally stopped my fall. To my amazement that little peanut did the job!! Gotta love your peanuts!
Pitch four ends at a very awkward hanging belay. There is only one sloping, rounded knob at your feet to take the weight off your hips. Since we had left the haul bag at our bivy ledge I had nothing to do while waiting for Angela to follow the pitch. I just hung there shifting my weight back and forth and took in the incredible views of the canyon.
Pitch five started with a small tension traverse across a series of cracks called "The Wrinkles". Other than that the fifth pitch is not too memorable. It followed a thin, easy crack to a blank face and then five or six bolts to the next belay.
The real fun of this pitch was cleaning it. As soon as I had reached the fifth belay and secured myself, Angela started descending from the fourth belay back to our bivy ledge. That way she could start organizing all of our gear in preparation for our uncomfortable bivy. In the meantime, I fixed our lead rope at the fifth belay and began rappelling as well. The difficulty lay in the fact that the fifth pitch follows a crescent shape as it ascends. This made rappelling and retrieving my previously placed gear a real challenge. Finally I succeeded, leaving a few pieces behind to direct the rope. These we could reclaim when we passed this way in the morning.
When I joined Angela back at the top of pitch three, it was just getting dark. While I had toiled cleaning the last pitch of the day, she had done an excellent job in preparing the bivy site--anchors had been constructed and all of our gear was quite orderly. We found it quite comfortable to sit shoulder to shoulder with our backs against the wall. To finally relieve the endless pressure on our hips and our many tired muscles was spectacular!
After a not very appetizing dinner, we sat and talked and took in the canyon and our precarious perch from which we viewed it. The moon was full. It was the autumnal equinox. From our vantage point, lashed to the side of Angel's Landing, we couldn't actually see the moon, but we watched it's light shift and play across the canyon as the night progressed. What a sight!!!
We noticed headlamps flashing about on two or three other walls of the canyon and took comfort in the fact that we were not alone in our strange desire to explore the vertical walls of this canyon. While still we may be somewhat crazy, at least we're not the only ones.
Eventually we dug out our sleeping bags and tried to get some rest. I moved down to the lower portion of the ledge which sloped frighteningly toward the canyon floor. Here I spent the night rolling back and forth in search of comfort which cunningly eluded me. Being tied in tightly prevented my rolling off the ledge, but it also prevented me from getting completely into my bag. This resulted in being very cold by the middle of the night. Even if I'd found comfort, I would have been too cold to get much sleep.
Angela took the upper ledge. Though it was flatter than mine, it was narrow, and she couldn't seem to work out how to actually lay down. She spent the whole night sitting up. Every time she neared sleep her head would bob and jar her awake.
By 4 a.m. I was quite cold and getting less and less imaginary sleep. I inquired to see if Angela was asleep. She was not. I suggested that I was tired of pretending to sleep and she agreed, so we set about preparing for our second day on the climb.
By first light we had had breakfast, packed up our bivy sight and began ascending our fixed ropes. With just two fixed pitches and three pitches left to climb, we were confident we would finish today. We dumped what we deemed as excess water in order to lighten our load.
Since both our ropes were fixed to the wall, we had to haul our bags as we ascended the ropes. This was a rude awakening for our tired bodies on this second day. Our haul bags yet again earned their names ("The Bitch" and "Little Bastard") as they dangled below us and tugged at our harnesses. It felt as though earth's gravity had somehow increased overnight.
As I reached the steepest section of the fifth pitch, I suddenly gained an appreciation for the psychological effects of jugging up a 10 mm strand of nylon attached to a couple of bolts somewhere overhead. For some reason I couldn't get those two bolts and horror stories of ropes sawing over edges out of my mind. I had become accustomed to the dangers of leading, but having all that gear between you and your belayer can be quite reassuring. Here, it was just me and the rope and those two bolts. Nothing like putting all your eggs in one basket!! I realized that these thoughts might have been going through Angela's mind for the entire climb as I did all the leading and she followed every pitch on jugs. Angela seemed quite amused when I related this to her as we rejoined at the fifth belay.
Pitches six, seven, and eight all seemed very similar. For the most part they followed cracks in left facing dihedrals with the occasional bolt thrown in where the rock wouldn't accept traditional gear. Seven and eight were remarkably similar in that they both followed a sort of crescent shape as they went upward.
By late in the afternoon I was nearing the end of the eighth pitch. According to our sources, this was to be the end of the technical climbing. Above this all that remained was a third class gully that headed up to the right and joined the trail to the top of Angel's Landing.
Pitch eight proved to be one of the more difficult on the climb as the last half of it traversed considerably to the left. I was both physically and mentally exhausted. I had gotten within a couple of moves of pulling up onto the final ledge and I was stumped. The crack just didn't have much to offer and I needed to get one more piece in in order to be able to reach far out to the left to clip the last few bolts. Best I could do was a small swedge which I could only get halfway into the crack. Falling at this point would have resulted in swinging into the rock at my right. Finally I managed to finagle a hook placement which I equalized with the swedge. I eased my weight onto the pieces and they held! I quickly moved onto the bolt I had been eyeing and victory was mine. One more move and the technical climbing would be over!
Or so I thought. As I moved up on the last aid-bolt of the climb, I was greeted by a large sloping ledge completely covered in sand, loose rocks, and boulders. The bad part was that there was no option but to go right up over this loose stuff, and the pitch had zigged and zagged so much that I had serious rope drag issues. My stress level was getting higher and higher. My worst fear was unleashing a barrage of rocks onto Angela down below me. (She'd already taken a small hit to the head earlier.) Fortunately as I had traversed considerably on this pitch, she was no longer directly beneath me! No matter how I tried I couldn't help knocking a couple of rocks loose. I tried tiptoeing around most of the loose stuff by staying near the outer edge of the ledge where there was some solid rock under about two inches of sand. Friction climbing at it's best--rope drag and sandy rock!! Gotta love this stuff!
I eventually made it past the loose stuff and found the last anchor bolt. What a relief! First thing I did was to ditch the rack from my shoulders. Ahhhhh!!
The final third class gully was still eluding us. There was a little bit more "real" climbing to do before it was all over. This involved mostly unprotected, extremely exposed, but not to difficult face climbing. At last we were in third class terrain! I made it to a large pine tree next to the trail and set up a fixed line so we could shuttle our bags up this last section.
We had finished our first big wall in just two days, but little light remained. We were both exhausted. Actually exhausted is an understatement, but I'm unaware of a more fitting term.
The end of our climb joined the Angel's Landing trail a couple hundred feet below the summit. After having worked my butt off for two long days, I figured we might as well see what's on top. I used my charm and convinced Angela to go up with me. She really would have been satisfied to just start heading down the trail.
We reached the top just in time to watch the last rays of sunshine spill into the mouth of Zion Canyon. What a view! We were both elated. We don't necessarily climb for the views, but this was the icing on the cake. We snapped a few pictures, drank what little water remained, and headed back down. We still had to squeeze all our gear in the haul bags and lug them down the trail.
Fortunately, only the upper part of Angel's Landing Trail is rugged. Our weakened bodies wobbled all over the place under the weight of our gear. I was glad we'd had the foresight to pack a pair of trekking poles. My pole saved me many times from falling over. Suddenly the trail turned to asphalt! What a gift! We started cruising--it was all downhill from here. We made it to the bottom just in time to catch the last shuttle out of the canyon.
We were hoping we'd be the only ones on the bus because we stank so bad! We hadn't showered since we left home five days ago. Unfortunately for them, a few more people did get on at the other stops. We politely apologized, and they politely sat as far away as they could get.
When we got back to camp we expected to crash hard, but our minds were buzzing with all that we'd been through in the last two days. We were glowing! We couldn't stop talking. We'd been climbing together for two days, but for the most part we had only seen each other as we exchanged gear at the belays. Now that we were together and could relax, there was so much to talk about. It was unbelievably rewarding to pull something off that we had trained for and planned for over two years.
Since we couldn't sleep, we walked to the campground store and each bought a pint of Ben and Jerry's. Ahh, that sure hit the spot!