In 1776, the Franciscan friars Dominguez and Escalante obtained funding from the Spanish Crown to seek out a new northern route from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to the new colony of Monterey, California. However, once they were in the wilderness of the Colorado Plateau, they focused more on converting Indians and seeking out new mission possibilities, rather than finding a quick route across the Great Basin. This had actually been their main objective all along. Kind of like when a climber gets invited to come give a historical lecture in Zion National Park, when his main objective is climbing Moonlight Buttress.
Yup, I went there in my talk, and the climbers in the audience laughed, all knowing full well that 24 hours earlier this bespectacled nerd spouting off historical facts and theories had been groveling up 1000 feet of sandstone finger cracks. And while I want to emphasize that I would have made the trip to talk about my book Wrecks of Human Ambition even if climbing had not been on the table, I’m not going to lie– the prospect of getting a paid trip to the red rock country to do my two favorite things, climb and talk about history, was a dream come true. Thanks Zion Canyon Field Institute!
Moonlight Buttress (10-ish pitches, 5.12ish) has hovered in my consciousness since shortly after I first started climbing in the late 1990s. I first heard about it when one of our Utah State University climbing community members aid soloed it over spring break. We all thought it was a big deal that he was “soloing a 5.13 big wall!” (I didn’t know the difference between aid and free climbing at the time). A few years later, a friend of mine, also aiding it, nearly died. She rapped off the end of her rope while bailing off of the fifth pitch, and was only saved when a tangle of slings self-arrested her mid-fall (yeah, it’s complicated).
As my years as a climber progressed, several of my friends and partners from Indian Creek began getting on the route as a sort of final exam in the crack techniques that the Creek fostered. I wanted to get on it, but found great reasons to put it off. My multi-pitch resume was pretty thin. I wasn’t a solid 12+/13- crack climber. Then I moved to the humid East, first to Texas, then Ohio, then West Virginia, and desert crack climbing faded back into distant memory, even as I matured and improved as an overall climber.
Then, this past winter, I got back to the Southwest, mostly for long, moderate routes in Red Rocks. It was nice to be back in the desert. Although I love my current home at the New River Gorge, and stand by my hyperbolic statements about its Nuttal Sandstone being the best medium for rock climbing ever, the desert southwest will always be my first love, and true home.
It was during this time that I also finally made the acquaintance of Dan “Climbing Trash” Snyder, whom I’ve known through various rock climbing websites for damn near a decade. We’ve got a few commonalities in our backgrounds– we’re both cultural “Jack Mormons,” we both have chosen to live in small town hubs of outdoor recreation, and we’ve both spent way too much time dragging tourists through canyons, over trails, and down rivers as backcountry guides. In addition to letting me crash at his house in Virgin, UT (where gun ownership is legally mandated), Dan also hooked me up with some folks he knew who worked for the Zion Canyon Field Institute. It turns out that they were psyched on having me come out in April and give a talk on the history of humans doing stupid stuff in the desert. And of course, the first thing that came to mind was, “Whoa, I’ve GOT to climb Moonlight Buttress!”.
Fast forward to the week of April 22 (Earth Day!). I flew into Salt Lake City, rented a small compact car, and made the obligatory 12 hour visit to family in northern Utah before driving south on I-15. I’m accustomed to being a dirtbag, driving across the country and spending months living out of my truck, so this new method of travel with flights, car rentals, motels, and travel receipts felt strange. I hadn’t even packed a sleeping bag!
It was also strange to come back to an area where I’d spent so much time as a child. My grandfather, the late, brilliant landscape artist Harrison Groutage, was the first person to instill a love of the desert into me. He’d built and lived in a beautiful vacation home just south of Zion through the 80s and 90s, painting countless views of the West Temple, Kolob Terrace, and Smithsonian Butte from his north-facing studio window. Although I’d never climbed in Zion when I’d spend time at his house, it nonetheless felt like I was coming home.
Anyway, enough of this sentimental reflection. I rolled into Virgin around dark on Monday night. Climb Tuesday, book lecture on Wednesday, maybe climb again Thursday. I knocked back a few Knob Creek-Dr. Pepper cocktails with Dan (the guy loves his sugar), and discussed the upcoming climb for the next day.
I had not had luck finding a partner whom I was confident getting on such a big, hard climb with. Ideally, a perfect partner would have been someone who could swing leads, and was solid on the grinding, sometimes painful nature of long, desert cracks. But although I sent out a wide-ranging message to my “dream list” of partners who I knew might be in the area around then, nothing came through.
Finally, less than a week before my trip, Dan simply offered to jug the route. This offer blew my mind. Contrary to what a lot of people assume, jugging is hard work, in some ways just as exhausting as free climbing. Dan had been either guiding or working as a brickmason for several weeks with no days off, and I wondered if he knew what he was getting into with this offer to jug and carry the pack on a “rest day.” However, he’s tough, has been climbing for decades, and most importantly stays positive even in exhausting situations. I’ve bailed off of big walls before because partners became negative and complaining, but I knew that Dan would not do this.
Still, this offer of jugging brought its own challenges. I’d be leading every pitch, and the impetus to get up the route rested solely on me. This would be a change from all other long, hard routes that I’d done, such as Red Rocks’ Rainbow Wall or Potrero Chico’s Sendero Luminoso, in which I was climbing with partners who were much better than I was. The pressure was on!
Although I’d been training hard in the months leading up to this climb, and was in very good shape as far as endurance goes, there were plenty of things I could have done better in preparation for Moonlight. I could have scheduled a longer trip to brush up on my neglected desert crack technique. I could have climbed more pitches of trad back at the New River Gorge (I think I led one pitch of 5.11 gear that entire spring).
Shoulda, woulda, coulda. I didn’t know what my exact goal for Moonlight was. I knew that I wanted to give it a very good attempt at onsighting (actually, more like flashing, since I’ve watched so many videos and talked to so many people about it), but was pretty sure that I would get bouted. I thought that maybe, if I didn’t completely get my ass handed to me and did it with just a couple mistakes, I might try to get back on the route on Thursday.
Anyway, we got up at 5:30am the next morning; I had no appetite, but put away two cups of black coffee and two peanut butter/banana burritos. We packed food, water, and cigarettes for Dan. One 70 meter rope, one gri gri, ascenders, and a shit ton of cams, none larger than a red camalot. I was particularly wary about the half dozen purple camalots we had, since that is by far my weakest size of crack (a couple millimeters bigger than a fingerlock). We drove through Zion Canyon as the sun rose, feeling extra special with the VIP pass that we’d gotten from a ranger, which allowed us to drive into the shuttle bus-only section of the canyon. The approach was chill; easy river crossing, easy scramble to the base of the route.
On the first four pitches, which are basically the approach to the six-pitch 5.12 splitter and corner finger cracks, I got off route a couple times, but felt great. At the base of the 5.12 section, a ledge 350 feet up called the “rocker block” we converged with two other parties: a pair of free climbers, and a very fast-moving aid climber who also had his own jug/support sherpa. Both groups were very chill; we sat on the ledge, bantered about mutual acquaintances and beta, and watched as another group made its way up from the base of the route.
Gazing up the imposing corner, I could make out fixed anchors, plenty of tickmarks, and even some chalk scrawlings on the wall that said “B” and “Y”– I realized later that some goober was reminding himself where to put blue and yellow cams. Oh well, this was not a wilderness route, it was not even an adventure route; it was just hundreds of feet of glorious finger crack.
The corner pitches– the first (pitch 5 of the entire route) is a hard v5-ish boulder problem to a 5.11 fingercrack, and the second (pitch 6) is a wild layback/stemming affair– went smoothly. The 5.12+ “crux” layback sixth pitch has probably gotten a bit wider over the years, because I got tips jams the whole way.
Pitch 7 was the one which I had heard the most about being awkwardly hard, and it definitely took a lot out of me: a physical squeeze chimney up to a point where you reach WAY back into a corner for a flared ringlock, and then have to make a 180 degree rotation from facing left to facing right. I must have accidently read this the right way, because I managed to get the rotation, and even flexed my fat hips to get a no-hands position in the hardest part! Unfortunately, in the enduro off-fingers layback above, the pump finally caught up with me, and I took a little fall. Booo! We made it up to a really nice ledge at the base of pitch 8 (a beautiful 12a finger splitter, best climbing on the route), where we ate, drank, and lounged around, waiting for the aid party to get further ahead of us.
I fell once more that day, on pitch 9, which I thought was the hardest of the route, with 30 feet of off-fingers splitter. After this point, the route turned into really cool, but kind of scary face and pinscar climbing. Pitch 10, a 12a called the “Nutter” pitch, was a struggle; I was digging pretty deep into the reserves, and there was one moment where I stopped, 15 feet above a tiny tcu in soft rock, and thought, “holy shit, if this was a single pitch route at the NRG, it would be the day’s highpoint if I onsighted it! I’d go home and start drinking!” But in the context of this huge route, it was just another challenge that I had to bang out almost mindlessly.
One more pitch of 5.10+ handcrack over a little roof, then some juggy slabbaineering and we were at the top. Even with the other parties on the wall and the leisurely pace, we managed to do the route in about nine hours. After a quick jaunt down the West Rim trail and a few conversations with tourists, we were drinking margaritas in Springdale. Damn good day.
I was pretty happy with how we did on Moonlight Buttress. No epics, no all-out ass kickings, just good, tired fun. Who knows, maybe if I had been swinging leads, instead of leading every pitch, I would have had a better shot of onsighting it, but I was psyched to have done the thing in good time, with just a couple falls. Unfortunately, however, my body was so wrecked, and my fingers so sore from the endless fingerlocks that I knew there was no way I could go back on Thursday to redpoint the pitches I had fallen on. We went cragging, and I barely made it up a single-pitch 5.11. Three weeks later, and my fingers STILL hurt.
In terms of the training I did, I was happy with my approach, and the constant mileage of steep sport and gym routes was key to building my endurance. But again, who knows, maybe if I had been able to go cragging for a couple days in Zion or Indian Creek, again I maybe, just maybe would have had a shot at actually onsighting the route. But I can’t be disappointed at all; this was a fairly “off-the-couch” desert climbing experience for me (in terms of the rock type, not fitness).
Three days later, I was back at the New River Gorge, climbing single pitch, bombproof sandstone in 80% humidity. The contrast could not be greater. My fitness, which I had been training by periodization to peak for Zion, predictably plateaued out by late April as well. Now, as the Appalachian Spring is gradually giving way to summer, my body and fingers have still not yet fully recovered from Zion, and I can tell that I desperately need a break from climbing for a month or so. Fortunately, whitewater season is just around the corner.
Without a doubt, this was one of the best climbing trips I’ve had, despite its brevity. Although I did not send (hopefully I’ll get to return to finish the route off), I identified a “dream route” that I’ve wanted to do for over a decade, trained specifically for it, and gave it a great go. The fact that I was able to incorporate this into my literary and intellectual life only added more to the experience. Climbing, history, and landscape have always been intertwined for me, whether in humid Appalachia or the arid Southwest.