I furrow my brows in expected dismay toward myself while looking up at my climbing partner analyzing my gear placements in a tight, dihedral formation that hangs 30 feet up and right. We’re at the Straight Shooter wall in Red Rock Canyon, Las Vegas.
“What….what did I do.” I say in a question disguised more as a statement.
“Three bomber pieces within a range of one foot. Ah! And I see you’ve done it at the top as well. And….. you didn’t even clip this piece….. into the rope.” he amusingly replies holding up the much-adored TCU in such a way that reminded me of a doctor holding up and admiring a needle before a shot in the ass.
“Retard!” I exclaim over his newfound position as the climbing police. “I was nervous dude, so I put in more gear…first time I’ve ever been chastised for that.”
“I noticed you were giving the cams a yank and you don’t need to do that to test them. You can tell a solid cam placement by sight and ensuring that the lobes are even….notice their positioning. To test nuts out, I sometimes yank on them but you don’t need to do that with cams. All your pieces were bomber….and this one…. could have held a truck.” he states waving another piece at me.
Well, that was comforting. It was a good set-up in the back of my mind as I thought of how I really might have done a confident job at more aiding if Moonlight Buttress hadn’t been hosting so many other parties in their own ascents.
Fall arrives in the southwest; congestion on climbing routes follow.
Two days prior of Red Rock, in Springdale, Utah, we awoke at a side-road motel to a blaring FM station. Clock-radio speakers made in Taiwan emit the best form of noise for wake-up duty. A bit late for a long stretch of climbing (as is our style), my climbing partner, Ryan, sauntered to the motel’s kitchenette/reception area for a quick, healthy bite of powdered donuts and bagels and I decided to pack everything up and quickly stow it in the car. We soon took off and entered into ZNP on my other climbing partner’s park pass (Thanks Dan!).
Getting off at the Big Bend stop, we began to walk along the asphalted canyon road until we got about even with our goal. Looking up at the glow of tawny-washed rock, I likened it to wrinkled and worn protruding pieces of the Earth’s exposed skin; it greeted me with a familiar warmth. I wanted to touch it in an attempt absorb the million-year old stories it held….explore it with a closeness I felt as a near relative to my home crag of Red Rock Canyon. Fiery sandstone columns and sheer sheets of rock bearing vertical stripes stood tall surrounding me and I felt an embracing awe rather than an intimidating withdraw. The drama rose higher with gigantic archways here and there, formed from sandstone too restless to stay within the confines of its mother material; their morphed lives from falling massive chunks to the sized-down pieces crunching under our feet. Still, Zion is unique from Red Rock and not only because of the geological genetics of the Navajo sandstone versus the Aztec sandstone, respectively. The way Zion was touched by human design and how its original and true architect, the Virgin River, flowed with such indomitable fecundity that it created life in its path, make this bucolic wonder especially unique.
We head off the black road and hike down on a steep, short trail to enter the river’s habitat. I stripped my feet of its warm knits to immediately feel the chilled canyon air, instantly missing the protection but looking up, to remember why I subject myself to such things. Entering the river, she consumes my feet with the feeling of freezing, liquid ice. Frigid…as a virgin should be. Ryan follows. After a few steps, I forget that I even own feet; the feeling of their attachment is absent….only my movement across to the other side is proof of their presence. Warmth arrives like requested company as we hike up a quick and fairly easy approach toward the start. I insist to Ryan that I carry the haul bag on all our outings to help “train me”…and well, what a great surprise: he let me! With a 45-50lb fixture on my back, I felt amped! I knew it would subject my body to heightened blood circulation and warm me up.
Arriving at the base, there was a party at the fourth pitch moving up in constipated flux. We had seen them as we began hiking and there had been little movement since. At that pace, they must have fixed their lines and just arrived where they had left off…or began at 4AM. This may be cause for slight concern but at least no other parties were there.
We got “dressed” and Ryan set off on freeing the first pitch, a 5.10 variation that was more direct than the 5.8 start.
Watching him climb is a part of the pleasure – as pleasurable as it has been for all my climbing partners that have inspired me since I found this passion. He is gracefully strong. You’d think with his six-foot-something stature and broad body that he’d have problems but his body and process of negotiating every move have been molded from years of experience. Even through the awkward dihedral section of the first pitch, wearing a gear vest fully flocked with cams, draws and nuts all hitting him in their frenzied, excited movements, he made it look so easy. I followed up shortly after on this 130′ pitch of introduction. Easy scrambling at first until the dihedral; then the challenge and fun begin.
Ryan freed/french-aided the 2nd pitch of 5.10….leaving me aiders along the roof area that was harder than the first pitch. Still…….awesomely fun and doable.
At the start of the third pitch, I eagerly jumped at the chance of my first aid lead. Ryan took out a few pieces of foreign metal and said, “This is to create the pulley system for the haul bag….”.
First time I’d ever seen such a thing although of course, knew of its existence.
“Okay.” I acknowledged.
He showed me how to create the system using these pieces and then decided to forgo me toying around with it like a Transformer once I got to the anchors. He’d leave it built and clipped to my gear loop. I remember how dude! He passed off the gear vest like a relay and lastly, a quick three-minute tuition on the etriers (I already had had a very brief taste of this before) then I was to be released into the wild on my own. I was so excited, I could feel myself pulling away from him even while he was talking… like a puppy incessantly pulling on its leash with uncontrollable temptation of the aromatic, green grass just inches away from its wet nose. Releasing myself from the anchors, I found an instant rhythm in the step, step, clip, step, relax, release, arrange, step, step and so on. I loved it. And love it. Ryan was impressed. I could tell. I think it’s funny that I can read when he’s both impressed and impatient.
“Great job.” he approved as I moved through the early part of the section with much apace. It was so natural! Until…..I hit something unexpected. A very, narrow ledge and no bolt disturbed my path. Huh? A free section. I look up fifteen feet to my right remembering an elementary school song about “spaghetti arms”. Well, my arms definitely can’t reach that far. Obviously, I’m freeing this and I love freeclimbing first but it caught me off guard as I’m cautious about what I lead on. I turn to peer at Ryan as if he had answers. And now I look at the guy who is standing with him that just arrived from below. Great. I observe and test my options once again scanning quickly with my eyes, feeling with hands and feet. The wall is completely sheer except for a ledge that is less than a foot wide. I figure I have to place my left foot on the highest rung of the aider, try to find something for my right hand to leverage myself with to step up and over right onto the narrow ledge, then make a balancey stand from a low squat. I try over and over to find something and make faux attempts, sanding the rock with my searching hand. I love relying on crimps and tiny textures but the wall is featureless and rounded on the ledge’s edge as well. I voice my fear of a swinging fall to Ryan. He’s become the “impatient Ryan” at this point and his disinterested words of help are only, “It’s C1.”. I almost worry about his impatience (which is due to him believing that I can do this easily) more than the fall, although I’m not standing there in arrest but continuously feeling it out and negotiating my actions with the physical demands required. I manage to get my right foot on the ledge in a stable position and place all my weight on it. I place my right hand outstretched up flat against the wall and feel my butt, thighs and back all working to keep balanced. Shit! My left daisy is still taken in tight. I’m frozen in this position. Panic was playing on the fringe of my thoughts as my right thigh started to burn but I would make it flee by focusing purely at the task at hand. I, very slowly, circle my right arm from up and around down, suck in my breath and that Saviour hand would travel tightly between the smooth wall and my body so I could use both hands to extend my daisy on the left aider. It was almost like an eight-second yoga position as I was clumsily troubling with trying to lengthen the webbing. I think the frustration helped. I became so determined, there was no time to think of anything else. I love knowing there is a consciousness to readjust fears aside with focus.
I slowly went from squat to stand; cautiously padded right, step-by-step to the bolt above my head. Yes.
Pitch 3, I will never forget thee….
I ultimately finished up with freeclimbing the last part of the pitch a bit fearfully and thought, ‘Man, if this was close to the ground, it would be like kindergarten climbing. What’s wrong with me?’ I got through it to greet the infamous “Rocker Block” where I set up the anchors, fixed Ryan’s rope, then proceeded to haul up the pig with grunts and squats.
Ryan came over in no time but by then, the guys that had started freeclimbing the route below us were almost at us and then there was the same slow party above us and an additional person on top of them who had rapped down. We looked at each other, did a bit of quick, crag conferring and called it a day because we weren’t going to bivy for this send. The freeclimbers arrived and mentioned (referring to the party above us), “This isn’t the route to be practicing on. They can go home and do that at their local crag….” and that statement would ring in my ears when I was excitedly anticipating aiding through another section. I hoped I wouldn’t hold anyone back from their bucket list of sends.
We fixed the haul line to the Rocker Block anchors, rapped, then fixed our lead line at anchors 190′ above the ground, stashed our gear at the base and went back to our friendly, familiar trail with freezing feet and thoughts of warm food. After the river pass and up to the road, I offered Ry a piggyback due to his injured knee. Toward the waiting shuttle and by coincidence, folks saw me just as I turned a bend carrying this 200+ lb man on my back in place of my pack (I had actually only taken about 15 steps) and a crowd asked, “OH my! How far did you carry him?”. I told them, “Down from that mountain!”. :)
It felt great being naked of gear after a day’s work and we both mentioned the abnormality of daylight after a climb. Even on multi-pitch climbs in Red Rock or elsewhere, I’m used to the 8 or 9 PM arrival home.
The best part was, our plan couldn’t have been more perfect. The next day was warmer and we didn’t feel the push of time.
Never have I known this noun, that in my past life, was a container that holds milk, beer or any other liquids, to be a verb; a verb of such intense action.
As we arrived back on the doorstep of Moonlight’s Buttress entrance, Ryan gave me a short lesson on ascendors.
“Ah…I see.” I said, as I set myself up for the ceaseless jugging-induced craze I would soon be cycloned in. Are there any arm stores in Utah I can go to after because I will need new ones.
“Huh.” he answers, as he is assigning his own gear to its rightful places on his space.
“We’re jugging up to the Rocker Block?” I point.
“Yeah.” He stated impatiently with not a glance, continuously busying himself, as it was possibly the stupidest question yet and as if he would reply, “No Christine – we’ll just jug up a hundred feet and ride up on a rental Big Horn.” He was now awaiting for me to begin and execute the moves efficiently.
I look up and don’t see the top of MLB which was most likely laughing at me. I look up and see the infinite sky.
“Cool!”. I say, excited to learn something new and challenge my body, pushing all hesitation aside. I begin in hopes to imitate his moves exactly. But the result is not a “jug”….I do something I could christen as a “lug” and I’m thinking, “fug” (cleaner version of a word). I’d never created this move which was basically a motion as if I’m walking up air, without the wings, of course.
Oh my god, Ryan is annoyed. And that’s the part we laughed about at dinner last night because I later ask, “Did you feel a bit impatient with me on the climb?”
“Yeah.” he admits. ” At one point, I was thinking, ‘What am I doing here? On Moonlight Buttress. With someone who has never aid climbed. Never jugged in her life. This is not the time nor the place for this.’ (this from a man who has climbed The Nose of El Cap three times (once under 24 hours) and other Yosemite routes up to A3 and countless Zion routes…and many of them solo. You may never even hear it from his mouth voluntarily as his humbleness exceeds any desire for accolades which has been most impressive. He’s already pretty quiet but it astounds that you have to really inquire to learn what he’s done. With his background, having a partner that is starting from scratch might be the scariest thing on any climb for him. He also told me the funniest story about attempting to train his dad for The Nose; practicing in Zion and ultimately frustration ensued and he burst out at him that, “WE are NOT READY for this!! There is NO WAY POSSIBLE this can happen!!”.) We all end up laughing until tears at dinner over a bottle of Malbec and consumable pieces of heaven from Nora’s Wine Bar.
I was going to learn how to jug and I quickly picked it up – and knew that I would. I became more capable and proficient with every pitch when I thought the opposite would be achieved after peering at the long way yet to be conquered. This will all culminate into molding me into a more knowledgeable and well-rounded climber and here I was on one of America’s “darling”, classic routes with an obscenely beautiful view, perfect weather, a capable and experienced partner who gave me this opportunity to learn and ALL this as my first aid route. How LUCKY was I?!!!
After the Rocker Block, my art of the jug was close to getting me smug. It was tortuously fun….something I felt no fear in doing even with the amount of exposure; something that I considered the true reward. Beautiful. I kept lightly hydrated (last thing I wanted to do was feel a push on my bladder as I’m surrounded by climbing parties) and snacked on mixed nuts and chocolate. Eating for the energy certainly helped.
Ryan is a lightning aid-climber and I declined the opportunity he gave me to aid the last pitch due to knowing that the freeclimbing team was right below us after jugging up their lines to finish today too (along with other parties). I felt I could have my chance at practice on other routes and this was not the time to hold back climbers who had worked so hard to free .12 and were thirsty to get this route ticked.
Ryan started officially back on the route at the 5th pitch (missing the stellar 4rth pitch crux; but he’d done it before). We used the freeclimbers’ fixed line from the day before and Ry linked both the 5th and 6th pitch. He linked the 7th and 8th as well. From there, it was the finish to the top.
Coming up over the lip of that last piece of Navajo sandstone in exhausted wonderment, I would ascend Moonlight Buttress. I felt elated but the realization of the last two days didn’t quite hit me so quickly as I just wanted to take in and admire the view of the Great White Throne, Angel’s landing and their surrounding cohorts. In hindsight, it was not only the physical experience: the climbing, jugging, the views but the human interaction and the lessons learned that played such memorable moments. From the lowest point, to the highest, it’s all the goings-on, learning and actions in-between that make the whole journey worthwhile. Jumaring was fun, however, if one is always the “second” on aid climbs, I honestly feel they miss out on a lot. You almost don’t touch the rock – and that’s one of the best parts. It was great to get this first-hand perspective though…..I really would like to lead some aid climbs in the near future. Lately, I’m feeling good about my placements being much more timely and solid than in the past.
I learned more about myself through my climbing partner and friend and maybe he learned more about himself in this process as well. Facing my fears was enlightening too as I feel most of the time, they aren’t logical fears. I tear it down piece by piece to examine what is real and what the outcome will be from this or that action? If I fall, I will still be breathing, attached to a rope. Administering pure focus on my situation actually makes potentially fearful events more safe. The more exposure I have to this, the better I become at dealing and controlling these so-called scary events.
If I was just flown to the top of any mountain and dropped off, it would NEVER be as impacting to my life. But this will. :)
Here are some more images from the incredible time: