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A Zion Story (complete)


by Tom Stybr

February 18, 2004

Reprinted by permission of the author.
A Zion Story, Part 1
June 11-12, 2003

The MD-80 yawed, bounced, straightened and hit hard with a shimmy thrown in. Is that any kind of Sin City welcome? I suppose for my first visit, it was fitting. The Strip had come into view on approach and I felt no desire to go any closer than absolutely necessary. Not my kind of scene.

I was prepared for several scenes as a matter of fact. I didn’t know what my awaiting partner would be up for after his dehydrating trials soloing Spaceshot. Shady single-pitch bolt lines at the Second Pullout at Red Rocks? Moderate multi-pitch in First or Pine Creek Canyons? Or would he be back in the saddle again. At baggage claim he was behind the carousel and hence away from most of the crowd. I kept my eye open for the oversized duffel that put golf bags to shame and greeted Paul gladly. After the usual small talk, I opined our options and asked his thoughts. “Zion,” he said with certainty. “He’s Ba-ack,” I thought.

I slung the duffel off the carousel and onto my shoulders while trying not to clobber anyone. Double ledge, draws and other essentials, clothes for a week and a half added up to a hefty load. Certainly a haul-bag wouldn’t be too much worse. I would find out soon enough. We negotiated mid-week, mid-afternoon traffic, scored some Wendy’s and lit out of Vegas within an hour of touch down.

We toured the twisted ramparts of both the Great Basin and the Great Southwestern River to St. George, Utah for last minute supplies – more two-liter bottles (Sam’s Cola pours to the ground as well as anything else), some fruit and bagels for the near term, and a tank of gas for the Jeep. On to Springdale, I marveled at the topography. The dry air had been immediately noticed but the stately sandstone formations revealed themselves slowly at first then with striking suddenness around each turn as we neared the park entrance. It was evening when we arrived at the Visitor’s Center parking lot and strolled to the shuttle bus stop.

Heading up the canyon, my eyes endlessly greeted new sights. What had been striking was now stunning, awesome, superlatives yet to be invented… Zion was a magical place, I decided, most certainly as dusk fell. Rounding The Organ I saw it. Moonlight Buttress. My first big wall to be had been in my dreams for months and now I was staring at it. Not some photo in a guidebook, not some topo that was wallpaper on my PC at work. I was actually gazing upon the big stone itself. From the Temple of Sinawava, we walked along the Virgin River back toward the wall but couldn’t see much detail in the fading twilight. Another bus caught us at the Big Bend stop and shuttled us back to the Visitor’s Center.

We snacked the rest of the evening away at a crowded campground in Springdale as I reconciled with the gear I’d sent with Paul the week before while watching stars set behind the opposing ridge. Early the next morning we geared up for a tourist day with a handcrack rack and a rope. At the Temple of Sinawava stop again, we hopped a fence towards Turista, a 5.9+ hands to fingers to offwidth in a left facing corner which, given its alias, Tourist Crack, fittingly faced the bus stop plaza. Paul more than generously gave me the lead. We don’t get to practice our hand-crack-in-a-corner skills too much so I was deliberate and awkward at first. I eventually ran into the crux thin hands section and blew the onsight by trying to jam the crack. I flamed quickly and slid back to my last piece and yelled take.

I proceeded to lieback the crack with good results but made a tactical error of trying to get back into the crack as soon as it went wide. I lost my left foot and off I went, the #2 Camalot prior to the thin stuff as my savior. I wonder if a touron caught that on his HandyCam. Waiting to get my right foot into the cleft before driving home an arm bar proved workable and one last fist jam put me over the edge to the anchors. It was a bit of a scrounge but I kept my pride through the wide…

The rest of the day, we joined said tourons by wading up the river to The Narrows. From Big Bend we scouted our approach up the road and down to the river then scoped our route with binoculars. We easily spotted all of the anchors – each at least three bolts, two with chains. By then, the heat of the day was setting in and we retired to Weeping Wall where centuries old water emerged from the very rock and drizzled through hanging gardens of fern and moss and lime deposits (what was the term I’d seen at the kiosk for that process?) The grotto and marsh must have been a favorite place of the Anasazi millennia ago. It’s one of mine now.

A Zion Story, Part 2
June 12-15, 2003

“Think that’s enough water?”

“I don’t know, monkey, I’d hate to run short. Better pack a couple more bottles.”

And that’s how we ended up with twelve two-liter bottles of water in the haul bag. Fifty pounds of water! Perhaps the late afternoon sun beating down on our campsite had something to do with it. Oh well, it’s done and we’re not repacking it now. Around the water we wrapped a ridge rest for protection. Throw in sleeping bags, jackets, food, and miscellaneous other stuff (including my sister-in-law’s fourth published mstery, ‘Murder of a Snake in the Grass’ – good stuff, go get it) and there was a load to be reckoned with. Paul put the rack and the ropes in his crag pack for the hike to the base then offered to buy dinner.

At the Pizza and Noodle, we dined on BBQ chicken pizza and I imbibed the Slickrock Pale and Polygamy Porter. I garnered a pint glass with the latter’s design for my collection. After lingering long enough for the sun to drop below the ridgeline, we made for the campground and a shower. We fell asleep to ‘The Hunt for Red October’ on my PowerBook and dreamt the dreams of the condemned.

4:30 was greeted expectantly. Within fifteen minutes we had packed up the tent and added to the haul bag. After milling around for another ten or so, we were off to the Visitor’s Center and the shuttle bus stop. Rock star parking was abundant at this hour. The wind was brisk and chill – enough so that I was grateful for the down jacket I had on. Waiting for the bus, the other park goers did not engage us. I wore a sleepy edginess of anticipation as though waiting for the first mortar of battle to fall. I think it had more to do with not wanting to fall off the bus wearing the pig. The pig was mine since I wanted the full treatment of a bigwall. No sloughing the load.

A fun bunch was seated near us on the bus. They were headed to Observation Point and were gracious enough not to rub in the fact we were nuts for hanging on a thread for a couple of days. We wished each other well as they debussed at the Weeping Wall stop then the bus driver asked if we were headed for Prodigal Sun. We said Moonlight Buttress was our target and would let him know where to stop along the road. I think he knew anyway. I balanced each footfall down the steps and without falling on my face was on the road. The anticipation was morphing into a determination of a checklist to be completed: find the crossing, cross the river, hump to the base and ready for blast-off.

We ended up crossing the river too far upstream and missed the start of the trail. What looked like the beaten path dead-ended in needle-and-thread grass with spear points for seeds. Just a little traipsing through the thick stands to the trail proper sent the little daggers into our shoes and socks (and my jockstrap! Yeow!) Once below the intial ledges, we spent many minutes picking them out of our shoes. The socks were too far gone and went into the day pack and the bottom of the haul bag. At long last we were ready and Paul was geared up for the first pitch. He would free most of it, aiding a short section, to the first belay.

With the lead line fixed and ready to haul, I guided the pig up the ledges, freeing it from the many hang-ups until I could no longer stay with it. With such a heavy load and the friction of the obstacles, the haul was a b---- and I had to lend my weight to the awkward rigging to finally wrestle the pig over the lip. What a time-waster that was.

I found early on that I wasn’t able to look forward while busy so the next lead wrested my attention like a flashbulb. My first aid lead traversed a ledge to a tall block then under a roof. One piece put me on top of the block and another sucked me into the roof itself. I foolishly bounced hard on the Lowe Ball at the turn of the roof and Paul was not able to clean it. He expected that. I had been able to practice the aid routine at the Kansas Cliff Club (hooking half-inch bolt holes with Talons protected by glue-ins) so was not caught unaware with the lack of speed as deliberate as I was. I found myself bouncing on obviously bomber cams and nuts and chided myself to pick up the speed.

With exhilaration, my first ever aid lead was over and I rigged the lead and haul lines. The haul was still a pain, both scooting the pig across the initial ledge and dragging it up the slabby face. I needed Paul’s help to wrest it again to the belay. I jumped up and down like my four-year-old daughter awaiting an ice cream. “I just finished an aid lead. I just finished an aid lead.” Paul just shook his head and laughed. For his lead I had a cushy seat in the shade while he traversed to the bolt ladder. We had gone from jackets to short sleeves in a matter of minutes when the sun hit us but it hadn’t started to get hot yet. Still the shade was the place to be.

While Paul clipped bolts from the second steps, I could think about my surroundings, where my family was (Kate was at Gramma’s house in Illinois, having been there a week already, and my wife and Emily would fly there tomorrow), and of course what the ropegun was doing. Quickly enough he was at the next belay and I had had enough time to top off a Nalgene for him and my two-liter Camelbak. Hydration was more than a necessity, it was a strategy. Temperatures would reach near 100 and dew points in the teens and twenties meant humidity in the single digits. I lowered out the bag using an ATC then jugged up in time to help him with the last nasty flop over the lip. I met the Rocker Block as though it was a friend’s friend I had heard so much about.

Paul had shade while I entered the zone of pitch four – the business. Our rack had only a double set of Aliens, green through red, with singles of blue and orange along with the small to medium Friends, Camalots, and double set of Stoppers. I’d grown to love Aliens anyway but soon learned that they were to be cherished as compatriots in a long struggle. Yellow, of course, but soon enough I had green and red too on each of my daisy biners – a Zion Swiss Army biner if you will. The air stopped moving and though it was now late enough for total shade, I was sweating big time. Without the Camelbak to provide a ready sip, I’d have been a shriveled shell of a climber quickly. Still just learning to trust my placements without too much testing, I was pretty slow. I even stopped to back clean about 40 feet. All in all, three hours twenty minutes found me at the hanging belay atop the pitch with congratulations from below.

Again rigged for jug and haul, the bag was much more manageable hanging freely below me. Somehow the haul line popped out of the Wall Hauler but I was able to re-rig without trouble while counter-weighting the load. The jug was cake as well and we three, two monkeys and a pig, shared three bolts five or six hundred feet off the deck. Some arrangement time later, we unleashed the double Skylounge to its full glory and resigned ourselves to our perch. It was too late to put pitch five in the bag and we decided not to fix it either. The scratches and cigarette burns (!) on the wall against which we rested bore proof this bivy had seen plenty of action. Arrange this, clip that, don’t unclip the other, hand that bottle of water here, did’ja find my food?, if we mooned the shuttle bus would they know it? We settled in for the evening eating and drinking as much as possible. I hoped I wouldn’t have to pee in the middle of the night.

We flicked a butt-ugly bug off a ledge strap – perhaps it was one of those Mormon crickets that plagued the mid-mountain west. I read enough for Paul to snap my picture so I could send it to my bro and his wife. It turned out great with Angel’s Landing and the Great White Throne in the background. As darkness started to wrap its tendrils around us, a streaking ember flashed green and gold over the opposing rim as if the meteor were in the canyon itself. I was very pleased to have seen it as Paul did not. Drifting off, still tied to the lead line and both daisies (I could adjust any given daisy and still be tied in at least twice at all times), the occasional bus was the only sound. A spotlight roused us. The very full and very bright moon had risen casting milky light and deep shadows throughout Zion Canyon. Sleep was restful if fitful and morning light woke us instead of us awaiting it.

Munch, munch, arrange, pack, try to pee off the end of the ledge without wetting myself, it was after seven before Paul was ready to take on the chimney pitch. Riding out the cold wind, not until the sun finally hit me did I doff my down jacket and lather up with generous sunscreen. I was perched on a homemade belay seat of one-inch tubular webbing supporting a honeycomb/laminate plank upholstered with foam and duct tape. It was far more comfortable and practical than sticking to the ledge as I could reach everything and adjust my position without upsetting the apple cart. I could stand on the ledge occasionally to stretch since I figured this would be a long lead. With Paul up into the chimney now, I was seemingly alone.

The multi-hued dots on Angel’s Landing, likely a half-mile away, were moving so I wasn’t alone – sort of. Warm but comfortable I passed the next couple of hours conserving my energy. Faintly, I heard Paul shout but couldn’t make it out. I didn’t reply. Three quick tugs confirmed he was off belay. After tugging back, I stowed my food in the pig, wrapped up the seat, folded the ledge, and broke down the main anchor leaving me daisy-clipped to two bolts, the pig on the third bolt nearest the crack. I waited only a few minutes before barely hearing the lead line was fixed and he was ready to haul. “Haul away!” The line grew taut, the haul bag inched up enough for me to unclip it from the anchor, and I shouted again, “Pig’s free!”

After letting the bag get out of my way, I clipped my ascenders to the lead line and jugged to clean. The V-slotted chimney was awkward on second and must have been a royal pain on lead. After the chimney the route sorts itself out into a splitter again though the bulge of the next belay station is one final obstacle to work the ascenders over. It was a roomy ledge that Paul had to himself but I’m glad we bivied where we did; the ledge smelled. Not a feedlot kind of smell but it was quite noticeable. So the joke that ran through my mind in the hour and twenty minutes it took me to put pitch six under my feet was, “When do you know you’re a big wall climber? When you expect the belays to smell like piss.” Ha, ha, very funny. I crack myself up. Seriously, pitch six was a plug and go fest, comfortably in the shade, and I needed no more reassurances that solid Alien and Stopper placements needed little to no testing. I was also aware we needed to make a little time to ensure we topped out by dark. Still, I’m sure by most standards, I was no speed demon.

The next belay was noteworthy in that an eight-inch wide, ledge-long block was perched atop the actual ledge. It would teeter just so but was not a threat to cut loose. Clipped in twice and tied in once again, the haul was a breeze. I hadn’t refilled my Camelbak at the last belay and was nearly out so a refill was welcome as Paul finished jugging the route. I deployed the belay seat again and was quite comfortable. No time to waste, Paul re-racked the trove of gear I hadn’t used on the last pitch and found himself tediously on the funky start of pitch seven. It seemed every bit C2 from my vantage but what did I know. He was b---- about it and for him to complain means it was hard. I gave him the ‘no whining’ spiel then shut up to let his fear become focus. He worked it out in time but he definitely had the harder leads to this point.

Paul safely away, I began to dream about the contents of my food bag. I knew a can of ravioli dwelled in the depths of the pig and couldn’t wait to pop it open. Left with yet another PowerBar and PowerGel, I put down two liters of water and refilled my Camelbak again. Shadows had reached the Temple of Sinawava bus plaza and many folks were at the eastern edge of the parking area though I couldn’t tell if they were watching us or just hanging out by the river. Watching us couldn’t have been much more exciting that watching paint dry. Paul’s lead had been lengthy so after the post-lead routine, I didn’t waste any time getting up there.

Pitch eight was straightforward again but soon entered a wide slot and cove. The funkness near the top had begun and I found myself surprised to be near the top so quickly. My feet slipped once from the tripodal stance while I was clipped into a piece at my waist and Paul thought I’d taken a short fall from all the clattering of the rack. My big toes were numb from two days of pressure on them and I didn’t feel my feet scraping off. Widening my stance solved that. I tried on several occasions to take the load onto all of my toes as though tiptoeing the wall but always reverted to the inside tips of the biggies taking the brunt.

At last I was into the finishing slab but wasn’t sure where to start traversing to the right and almost climbed too high. After downclimbing a few feet and cleaning a large Camalot, I struck, free-climbing, along a diminishing ledge then up a featured slab. A horizontal cam placement was right where you really want it but to move above it and right there wasn’t a very good handhold. The piece was solid so I clipped an aider into it and reached high for the next decent handhold. Trusting my approach shoes to the small features of stone, I freed the remaining moves, turned a corner and surprised myself again as I turned to face a tree. A big, healthy tree. “I’m on top. Holy $#!t!”

The cliff edge was grooved with the passage of many ropes and it took me a few minutes to figure out where I needed the lead line to run. A length of static rope had been equalized from the tree near the edge and another farther back with two screw links at the attach point. I pulled up the lead line to tie a bow-line on a bight around the nearer tree for a backup and yelled lead line fixed. For the haul, I rigged waist high on that tree directly over the edge. I thought about extending over the edge but figured I’d be hanging in space with no good way to bring the pig over the lip. I chose a groove and started to haul laboriously until the bag started up the slab, the can of ravioli still in the back of my mind.

I needed Paul to help free the bag from a couple of edges, then guide it over to the exit corner and then it was done. In quickly fading twilight, we stood atop Moonlight Buttress. Paul had the foresight to dig out his headlamp at the belay and by the time we had stashed everything, including us, safely away from the precipice, it was full on dark. We just looked at each other while attending to the flotsam around us, a knowing satisfaction creeping in to both of us. I scouted the way towards the trail then we decided to leave our gear where it was and attend to it in the morning, not comfortable to hump all of it along sloping cliff tops and shear drops in pitch black.

We gathered only sleep gear, food, and water to a sandy clearing next to the descent trail and had our dinner. Let me tell you, it was the best damn can of cold ravioli I’ve ever had in my entire life period! Mixed fruit in cherry jello was the piece de resistance. We slept until the moon made its appearance though I think Paul slept through tonight’s spotlight session judging by the snoring. Millions of tiny tidbits raced through my mind and I found myself unable to sleep for very long when a scuffling attracted my gaze several feet away. In the dim light of the transiting moon, I could just make out a fox-sized creature sauntering by us which I surmised instantly was a ring-tailed cat. Minutes later, the rattling of food bags and garbage sack from high in a neighboring tree roused me fully.

I pitched rock after sandy rock at the tree and heard him drop so I laid down again. He was not to be put off. Soon I found myself rockless and listened helplessly to the sound of a food bag hitting the ground. It started rattling down the trail and I was up like a shot clapping my hands and yelling. I ran down the trail about twenty yards to just catch up to the little bugger before it disappeared over the edge of a ravine with MY food and the garbage bag. He shot me an ‘aw shucks’ look, his eyes gleaming in halogen light, and went over the edge without his ill-gotten booty. I laughed at myself standing there in my underwear. It was 4:00 AM and I was fully awake.

Light hadn’t entered the sky yet but going back to sleep was not on my agenda. Paul was just stirring when I returned to our site and asked what was going on, disbelieving that all that went on just feet beyond his head and he was aware of none of it. After breakfast and packing our campsite we went back to the top-out point and arranged our gear to be carried out. We found we had four full bottles of water remaining so poured three out and left a full one next to the tree. Finished packing and ready for the trail, a couple of descending mountain bikers, brakes screeching, racing past and a young couple hiking up in the mean-time, I claimed the haul bag for the hike down the Angel’s Landing trail to The Grotto bus stop. Within several minutes, I felt crippled under its weight, surely at least half of mine. At Walter’s Wiggles, I over-cautiously steadied myself with every footfall so as not to topple.

We passed only an ascending group of three women with sizeable daypacks until, after seeing the day’s first bus on the road below, one’s and two’s powered up the trail by us. As paved trails go, this one had mucho character and I’d like to go back to hike it at my leisure. The Grotto was reached none too soon and we waited twenty minutes or so for the next bus. Paul took it up canyon to the river crossing to retrieve the sandals we stashed after we had crossed two days ago while I dozed next to the barrel-sized pig using it for a windbreak. Not a single touron deigned to engage me in conversation. I again felt like a sideshow freak as I had so often when the buses would stop on the road below during our climb. The bus returned in twenty minutes with Paul on board and I tottered tiredly onboard.

After discussing our shallow knowledge of Kansas fishing grounds with the driver, he deposited us at the Visitor’s Center, where after a good growler I felt much refreshed. We had a lengthy breakfast at the Pioneer Lodge, scored early check-in there and were showered and flat on our backs by ten. Ahhhhhh. Let the memories of discomfort, hard work and fear begin to fade away.

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Live To Climb