Thursday, April 29, 2010

"Two for the Price of One", continued

I'm back in the Springdale Public Library, enjoying free wifi and comfy chairs. The weather has taken a turn today, with high winds, colder temps, and chance of rain. Seems like a good day for some rest and internetting. Without further ado, here's the conclusion of the trip report that I started yesterday evening. If you haven't read that yet, scroll down and read it first.

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When I want to accomplish something big, I find that it's helpful to talk enough about it beforehand that I feel obligated to see it through. In this case, the strategy involved spraying to my climbing friends Josh and Megan, the morning bus driver, some climbers that were also on the bus, and random hikers atop Angel's Landing. Spraying that, not only would I solo my first bigwall, Prodigal Sun, but that I would finish, run down, and solo another bigwall: Lunar Ecstasy.

I had talked so much about it that it seemed totally reasonable when, at 3pm Saturday afternoon, still soaked in sweat from the run down the trail, I again crossed the thigh-deep Virgin River and started the hike up to Moonlight Buttress. Located conveniently just up the canyon from Angel's Landing, Moonlight Buttress is a gorgeous clean pillar of rock, maybe 1000' tall. Besides its namesake route, the buttress is also home to the spectacular "Lunar Ecstasy". With one Zion aid wall under my belt, this seemed like the next step up. Slightly longer, a bit harder, and much more sustained, "Lunar X" seemed like a fun challenge.

I arrive at the base. Earlier that morning, I had shared the shuttle bus with a party of two intent on climbing Moonlight Buttress, and I could see them about halfway up the route. I let out a loud "Yee-haw" as I approached, and they waved down at me. When out soloing, its always a big boost to get energy from other climbers. The first pitch of Lunar X, shared with Moonlight Buttress, is easy scrambling (5.8), so I opt to leave my pack and all of the gear on the ground, trail the rope, and haul everything up to a big ledge 180' up the route. This goes quickly, and now I'm at the base of a 5.10 pitch, also shared with Moonlight. By now, I'm a bit more comfortable free climbing with my soloing system, and this pitch goes with only a bit of pulling on gear. As I did on Prodigal Sun, I take advantage of my 70m rope to link through the next two short pitches.

This easy climbing at the bottom of the route has gone so quickly that I get some confidence going, maybe I'll catch the 10pm bus. One added challenge of trying big link-ups in Zion is that no cars are allowed in the canyon. The only way to and from the routes is via shuttle bus, and the last bus leaves at 10pm. The only alternative: a 5 mile hike back down-canyon to our campground. I hope I can make the last bus.

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Despite moving quickly on the easy terrain down low, I know that my pace is about to drop dramatically. As I said earlier, Lunar X is only a bit harder than Prodigal, but much more sustained. In aid climbing ratings, Prodigal is C2, and Lunar X is C2+, the "C" standing for "Clean", which mean that the route does not require a hammer and pitons, only hand placed "clean" and removable gear. Whereas Prodigal had maybe 50' of C2 climbing spread over its 800', Lunar X has four consecutive pitches, all following one thin crack system, all clocking it at sustained C2. Standing now at the base of this crack, the beautiful evening light has given the "Great White Throne" a ethereal glow across the canyon.

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As I have all day, I settle into the rhythm of climbing: lead, rappel and clean, jug. Rope work becomes second nature, as I easily stack my lead line so that it will feed out effortlessly. The aid here is interesting and engaging. Though the route now goes clean, many previous ascents had hammered pitons into the thin crack, leaving rounded, flared "Pin Scars" spaced evenly up the crack. Coming from a free climbing background, I have to get used to placing "body-weight" gear. When free climbing, all protection must be able to hold potentially large falls, which can generate thousands of pounds of force. In aid climbing, you're using the gear directly to climb the rock, and so some pieces must only be strong enough to support a few hundred pounds, just enough to inch your way up the rock. In the flaring pin scars on Lunar X, I would often place cams that would be laughable on a free climb, the lobes nearly umbrella-ed, barely touching the rock. Yet somehow, they always held.

Darkness falls. But not quite. I have picked this day for my big adventure because I knew that the moon, in its waxing gibbous phase, would be just rising over the canyon walls as the sun sets. The Moonlight Buttress, of course, gets full and glorious moonlight for the first half of the night, and it's almost bright enough to climb by. I break out my headlamp regardless, and I'm not afraid to turn it on full power, as I have a spare set of batteries in the pack. I let out a loud wolf-howl at the moon, and I get a response from the party bivying on Moonlight Buttress, just around the corner. With my world shrunk down to the size of my headlamp beam, the exposure doesn't even phase me as I navigate the routes C2+ crux, 800' up an overhanging wall. Of course, progress has slowed considerably, both from the dark and my exhaustion. Of course, I'd abandoned all hope of catching the 10pm shuttle.

At this point I've been going continuously for more than 15 hours, and I force myself to triple-check everything. Finally, I arrive at the base of the last pitch, an outrageous overhanging arete, split by a serpentine crack. The aid is straightforward, but strenuous on this steep headwall. I'm elated to be so close to the end, but the route has one last surprise for me. Literally 10' from the top of the wall, the crack that I've been climbing dies out. With one last thin placement, I'm able to reach a lone aid bolt, 8' from the top. Now I'm stumped, though, as I don't see anything but a steep, blank wall above. There are a few sandy edges, so I break out my hook. As you'll remember, I was wishing I'd had my hook on Prodigal Sun, but had stupidly left it in my pack at the base of the pitch. I had remembered to bring it on every lead since then, but hadn't had to use it. Having never placed a hook before, I high-stepped off the bolt, found the biggest edge, placed the hook behind it, and gingerly started to weight it. To my relief, it didn't even shift as I stood on it. Gaining confidence, I stepped up in my aiders and began to reach for the top of the wall. PING! I was shooting backwards through dark and empty space. The rope caught me gently, and I hung, spinning, about 30' below the aid-bolt. That was a fun way to find out that my soloing system works! After jugging back up to my high point, I see that my hook had broken off the entire edge, not a very surprising outcome on this soft rock. In the scar left by my hook I spot a little V-notch that might take a stopper. Again, I high-step off the bolt, place the stopper, and start to weight it. PING! Again the rock blows out, but this time the fall is much shorter, as the previous fall had pulled most of the slack out of my rope.

Now I'm getting frustrated, though. Literally 8' from the top of the wall, I'm almost done. But if I can't find a placement that will hold, I might as well be stranded on the moon, I'd have no way of getting off. When I was stymied on Prodigal, I was able to free climb past the difficulties, but it seems much harder here. The wall is steep, and the hold have proved fragile. Still, I've got nothing to lose, so I tighten up my shoes, dump some excess gear, and start up. I'm able to stand up on the bolt and feel around for more holds. I reach up to what looks like an edge, but when I grab it, my fingers slide all the way in. It's actually a crack! The shadow cast by the headlamp had obscured it from below, but there's actually a thin horizontal crack here, and I quickly feel around with my fingers to determine the size. I reach down to my harness for a cam, slide it in the crack, and quickly weight it. It holds! One quick top-step and I'm mantling up on the the top of the route. With a howl of elation, I race up to a sturdy tree and tie off my rope. One last round of rappelling, cleaning, and jugging, and I'm officially done with Lunar Ecstasy! It's 1am.

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Two hours later, and my entire lower body is one pulsing lump of pain. Hiking down from the route, my body had three primeval priorities: Water, Food, and Sleep. The first, water, was sated at the trailhead bathroom. With a five mile hike between me and the next two needs, I settle in for the mindless slog back to camp. I'm sure the canyon was bathed in ghostly beauty, with the moon lighting up the massive walls, and no cars or lights to spoil the stillness. I'm sure it was, but I was in no state to appreciate it. Reaching the campground, I momentarily get lost in the endless loops of RVs and tents, and finally find our site. I wake up Josh my banging around with pans on the stove, I'm intent on an egg and sausage burrito. He gladly notes that I'm alive before going back to sleep. Food: my second need is fulfilled. Now sleep, and my Zion adventure is over for today. Maybe tomorrow will be a rest day.

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