So all is well here in the land of sandstone bigwalls. I have much to report from the past few days of action! Unfortunately, this will be a words-only post, since I don't have my camera with me. I think I'll take a full rest day tomorrow and hit up the Springdale library, looks for a picture and video post soon!
6:45am, last Saturday morning. The first shuttle bus of the morning is departing the Zion Visitor Center, and I'm on it. With a giant breakfast in my belly and a huge pack on my back, I ride up to stop number 6, Big Bend. The towers high above me are just coming into the sun, but the canyon floors is still dark and chilly, making it all the more unpleasant to take off my shoes, roll up my pants, and wade across the thigh-deep Virgin River. My first objective: the North wall of Angel's Landing, the route: Prodigal Sun.
I'm hanging out here in Zion National Park with my friends Josh and Megan. It's great to be here with two cool people, but the downside is that 3 is generally a crowd for rock climbing. Since we were coming off a weather imposed rest day, I knew that I'd be full of energy, and climbing as a party of three would make me impatient. So I made the totally rational decision to go aid soloing. Never mind that I've never really rope-soloed, or even finished a route in Zion (as you remember, we got snowed off our first route attempt two days earlier.) Further, just soloing one wall didn't seem like enough climbing, so I made sure to pack topos for two routes.
Back to Prodigal Sun, I've finished the easy hike up to the base, and now the wall is bathed in brilliant morning light. The first pitch is a bolt ladder, a perfect easy pitch for figuring out my soloing system. For those who might not be familiar, aid-soloing isn't as crazy as it sounds. You still use a rope and all the normal safety gear that you would climbing with a party of two, but you have to do the jobs of both team members. So, you have to lead a pitch, belaying yourself on a gri-gri (an autolocking belay device). Upon reaching the end of the pitch, instead of sitting back, relaxing, and waiting for you partner to follow the pitch, you have to fix the rope, rappel down the pitch, clean all of the gear that you placed on lead, take down you first anchor, and then jug (ascend the rope) back up to the top of the pitch. So basically, you have to do every pitch three times: up, down, and up again.
The first pitch of Prodigal goes well, I've quickly figured out my soloing system and the climbing becomes rhythmic. One advantage with soloing is that there is no rope-drag, so it is possible to lead pitches to the very end of the rope. In my case, this was 70 meters, and this allowed me to link the first three pitches of the route. The next three also linked into 70m, so by the time I had finished my second pitch, I was atop the guidebooks pitch six. I was enjoying cruising up the easy bolt ladders, interspersed with thin cracks and a few tricky aid moves.
The first exciting moment of the day happened on the guidebook's "third" pitch (near the end of my first pitch). A missing drilled piton had left a 10' stretch of mostly blank rock. I could see the hole that the pin had left, and could tell that most people simply hooked the small hole and reached up to the next piton. I of course had brought a hook, and had of course left it in my pack at the bottom of the pitch. I looked around for alternatives; there seemed to be some features to the left, but I didn't see any obvious gear placements. I lowered off the piton I was on, swung to the left, and grabbed some holds. Free climbing is difficult while rope-soloing, and I was just wearing approach shoes, so it seemed doubtful this would work. But I started up on the delicate sandstone holds, passing the empty piton hold, reaching down to let more slack through my gri-gri, reaching back for my non-existent chalk bag, and finally stretching back to the right to clip the hard-earned piton. Exciting. I would remember to bring the hook with me on the remaining leads, but that doesn't mean that the excitement was over.
Nearing the top of Prodigal, the wall is now thankfully in the shade. The day was beautiful and clear, and the sun was baking the other side of the canyon. I had to force myself to interrupt my now familiar soloing routine to sit back and enjoy the view of the river far below, and the vast sweeps of sandstone lining the canyon. It was all over quickly, as I pulled up on the last bolt and into the low-angle chimney system that provided access to the top of the wall. After one last rappel, clean, and jugging session. I unroped, packed up my gear, and scrambled up the chimney. Being a gorgeous Saturday, the Angel's Landing trail was packed with hikers, and I asked some for the time. "2:30". Sweet, plenty of time! I quickly ran off down the trail, passing hikers as all of my climbing gear jingled and jangled, and I sweated in the full midday sun. Half hour later, I reach the trailhead, and grab some water, and catch the up canyon bus. My day is far from over...