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Favorite Climbs: Kim Csizmazia and Prodigal Son, Zion National Park


 

by Sean Hudson

December 29, 2001

Kim Csizmazia-Master of All Trades, Jack of None

When Kim Csizmazia won the ice-climbing competition in the 1998 X Games, her friends and family were delighted but not surprised. At the time, she’d been ice climbing for two years-about the time it takes her to master a sport.

Raised in mountain towns-Whistler, British Columbia, then Sun Valley, Idaho-by mountain-loving parents, Csizmazia (pronounced chiz-ma-ZEE-uh) was introduced to outdoor sports at an early age. Her youth was spent following her parents’ ski tracks; she became a nationally ranked Nordic ski racer by age fifteen. Her father, a “training fiend,” and her mother, “a natural athlete,” set the pace while she and her two brothers followed closely.

In 1985, Csizmazia earned a scholarship to the University of Utah, where she joined its NCAA-leading Nordic ski team. She was introduced to rock climbing during college and loved it, but her rigorous ski-training schedule kept her from pursuing it seriously. After graduation, says Csizmazia, “I got full-bore into it.”

By applying her ski-training regimen to climbing, she improved quickly, and was on-sighting 5.12 sport climbs by her second season. Although initially she was uninterested in ice climbing, a 1996 Jeff Lowe slide show changed her mind. Two years later she was the country’s top-ranked female ice climber.

Csizmazia’s technical prowess has taken her all over the world-from Europe to the Canadian Rockies-and attracted lots of attention. But despite all the hoopla, she hasn’t forgotten her roots. “No matter where my technical climbing takes me,” she maintains, “I’m always going to tromp around the mountains and bag peaks and go out for ski tours. That’s a given.”

Prodigal Son

After spending three long weeks in the spring of 1998 working on an ice-climbing film in a desolate, wind-swept corner of Iceland, Kim Csizmazia was glad to be heading home. Spring is Csizmazia’s favorite time of year in Utah, and April 1998 was especially dear. Between the filming gig in March and a trip to Mount McKinley in May, she had less than a month to get her annual desert fix. In search of stark blue skies, cascading waterfalls, and warped sandstone canyons, she packed her van and headed for Zion National Park.

Csizmazia chose Zion because, in addition to its singular beauty, which the Mormon settlers deemed worthy of its Biblical name, it has an abundance of 1-day, moderate wall climbs. She’d done bigger, harder walls before-such as El Capitan’s Zodiac and Salathé Wall-but had never done an aid climb without a partner. Suddenly enamored with the idea of scaling a wall by herself, she saw Zion as the perfect training ground.

Solo aid climbing appealed to Czismazia because, like Nordic ski racing, it involves constant motion for extended periods of time. She knew it also demands considerably more mental and physical endurance than doing a wall with a partner. “When you climb a wall with a partner,” notes Csizmazia, “you do lots of sitting around.” Climbing solo, on the other hand, sounded much more intense. It was just what she was looking for.

Among the various climbing disciplines, solo aid climbing occupies a peculiar niche. Success as an aid soloist has little to do with one’s forearm strength or aerobic fitness. Rather, it depends on technical craftsmanship, mastery of mechanical systems, and ruthless efficiency of movement. Like a dog running ahead of its owner on a trail, the soloist covers three times as much ground as a traditional team of climbers. After leading each pitch, the soloist must remove all of the gear on rappel, then regain the high point by using mechanical ascenders to climb the rope. All told, it’s a tedious endeavor.

Most first-time aid soloists start with a modest goal, like a three-pitch aid climb that can easily be done in a day. But not Kim Czismazia. In typical Csizmazian style, she set out to solo five walls in 5 days-never mind that she had never actually done a single pitch of solo aid climbing. “I’d read about solo aid climbing in a book,” she laughed, “but I hadn’t really done it.” Fortunately, she’s a quick study.

For her first wall, Csizmazia chose Space Shot, an airy but straightforward classic on the Leaning Wall. After she fumbled through the first few pitches, the process began to make sense, and by the fourth pitch it felt like second nature. She easily finished the seven-pitch climb before dark. The next day she found her way to the base of the Touchstone Wall. Unfortunately, there were two parties in front of her. After giving them a 3-hour head start, she fixed a few pitches and called it a day. But with an early start the following morning, she finished the eight-pitch classic with daylight to spare.

Although she had fallen behind her wildly ambitious schedule, Csizmazia was still pleased with her progress. She was getting faster and her confidence was soaring. She also found the solitude surprisingly enjoyable. “It was one of those funny trips where you are laughing with yourself the entire time,” she remembers.

The next climb on Csizmazia’s hit list was Prodigal Son, a stunning line that bisects a broad sweep of sandstone known as Angel’s Landing. Although two pitches longer than the Touchstone Wall, it was still within the realm of a 1-day outing for a fast party. Her friend Doug Heinrich, who had done the route and seen her in action, encouraged her to go for it. His only advice was to bring a good selection of small nuts.

Armed with all of the right hardware, Czismazia got an early start and began ticking off the pitches. Although Prodigal Sun was supposedly easier than the Touchstone Wall, she found it consistently more challenging. The cracks were thinner and the climbing was more intricate. But it didn’t matter. She was totally dialed in, and fully absorbed in the climb. “I was in my own little bubble world,” she remembers.

By midafternoon she was at the base of the eighth pitch, a grand, left-facing arch that leads to easier climbing above. Knowing it was the last full pitch of aid, and anxious to complete the route, she began to get hasty. Emboldened by solid gear placements, she would pay out several arm-lengths of rope at once-a shortcut that saves time but increases the length of a potential fall.

As she hung from a fixed piton near the top of the pitch, Czismazia was confronted by a very thin crack. As she stared at it, she remembered Doug’s advice. “I was thinking, ‘This must be one of those sections where I need to do small nutting,’” recalls Czismazia. Without searching for an alternative placement, she slid a brass nut the size of a pencil eraser into the crack, paid out some rope, and, without even testing the placement, committed her weight to it. The next thing the overconfident neophyte knew, she was skidding down the near-vertical wall in a jingle of hardware. Thanks to the extra slack she had just given herself, what should have been a 10-foot fall had become a 30-foot, knuckle-scraping whipper. Unhurt but surging with adrenalin, Czismazia immediately grabbed the rope and hoisted herself back to the piton that held her weight. When she regained her high point, a perfectly sized slot for a small camming unit suddenly appeared in front of her. Or had it been there all along? “It was a classic case of tunnel vision. I just didn’t see it the first time,” laughs Czismazia. “It’s one of those things that happens in climbing-you just pull a bozo maneuver and have to laugh at yourself.”

Csizmazia placed a bombproof TCU in the now-obvious slot, enabling her to finish the pitch without raising her blood pressure. Another 300 feet of easy free climbing led her to the top of the wall, and the Angel’s Landing Trail.

As she ambled her way back to the car, she basked in the tingling afterglow of her most memorable wall climb to date. The quality of the rock was superb, its position was magnificent, and it had been an incredible learning experience. Only one question remained: Which wall would she climb tomorrow?

Route Description

Area: Zion Canyon
First ascent: Ron Olevsky, September 1981
Difficulty: IV+, 5.8, C2
Time required: 1 full day
Equipment: Complete set of camming units; several sets of wired stoppers with many medium stoppers; 2 ropes, 1 10.5/11 mm, 1 8.5/9 mm, 50-m ropes OK; Lowe balls extremely useful
Season: Spring and fall
Special considerations: Some parties do the route in 2 days (overnight permit required); rope drag can be bad on pitch 8; exit gully above eighth pitch is really loose
Reference: Selected Climbs in the Desert Southwest by Cameron M. Burns
Approach: From the T intersection of Zion Canyon Road-Mount Carmel Highway, drive on Zion Canyon Road about 5.5 miles; Angel’s Landing is on the left. Wade the Virgin River, unless it’s too deep. In that case, head downcanyon to the Zion Lodge area, park, and use the Angel’s Landing Trail bridge to cross. Once across, hike to the first switchback. A small, very rough trail leads down and right, into the underbrush. Follow this trail along the river’s edge for 2.5 miles, to the base of the route.
Descent: From the top of the route, hike north to join the Angel’s Landing Trail. Follow this paved trail down the southwestern side of Angel’s Landing to the Zion Lodge area.

Excerpted from Mark Kroese's Fifty Favorite Climbs The Ultimate North American Tick List, published by The Mountaineers Books. To read about the other 49 Favorite Climbs you can pick up the book at http://mountaineersbooks.org.



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