I just made my first trip to Zion, and with the exception of just two pitches out of 3o-something, what amazing an amazing place. It took me a little while to get used to falling onto small cams in the desert rock, and I might not be there yet, but it seems they do actually work.
Jimmy and I went to down for 5 days total. We had the intention of doing some bigger days to prepare for our trip to Patagonia which is just around the corner, and a few cragging days to maintain strength.
The first big climb Jimmy and I aimed to do was Tatooine on Mt. Kinawasa. Its 15-pitch 5.11 which remains fairly sustained from bottom to top. Due to the steep and straight up nature of the route, many of the pitches can be linked, to make it an 8 or 9 pitch day instead. We planned to climb Cowboy Ridge in the evening on the same day.
Our planned itinerary was to do the two hour hike in the evening of day 1 (we did Shune’s buttress the day before and needed a little rest), sleep at the base of Tatooine, wake up, coffee, climb, descend to our gear, then cross the drainage, climb to the top of of Cowboy Ridge, and sleep at the the summit for a second bivvy before returning to the car.
Needless to say, this itinerary was a bit ambitious. It was even more ambitions given that we brought enough water for about a night and a day total. Oops!
The approach on mountain project is pretty clear and easy to follow. We started at the Chinle trailhead, which we maintained for an hour before it meets up with the Huber wash. We stayed in the wash for a bit longer than I expected, probably 30-45 minutes. There is a random cairn on the left, about 5-10 minutes before you actually exit the wash to head up the hill to the right. Don’t let it confuse you. Once exiting the wash, many small cairns map out an easy to follow trail to the base of the wall. Once you reach the base of the wall, head left along the wall until you spot the bivvy cave and first pitch, which are both easy to spot. See photos…
What we brought:
-For bivvying, we brought pads, bags, a large tarp, some Alpine Start coffee for the morning.
-7 L total water for the outing, and only 1 on the climb….
-A can of sardines and a near-ready to eat black bean spaghetti meal from Grocery Outlet each for dinner, and a few bars
For the climb:
-70m 8.8 and a 70m half-rope to manage the longer rappels on the descent
-Doubles to #3, a single 4
-5 draws and 6 or so slings
-3 bars each on route (we were starving)
Needless to say, we were a little short on food and water for the climb, and we definitely felt it. Our shortage of water was due to both lack of proper planning and large cups of morning coffee. I think Jimmy and I also underestimated the route a little. The pitches were fairly sustained, and although they could be linked, we later remembered this doesn’t actually make the climb any shorter.
We started the route at around 830am, once the sun had come up, and the air had warmed just a bit. The route starts with back to back 5.11 pitches which easily link with the double rack. The first was an amazing stem box to chimney moves, while the second provided a moderate finger-crack and some bouldery face moves. Quite the warm up.
Above this was a beautiful 5.11 hands pitch linked into more of the same at 5.10. The bottom half of this set of pitches is extremely strenuous, and the whole thing feels airy just a 150 ft or so off the ground.
From here, the climb follows some broken terrain and ugly chimney/corner systems to the base of the Desert Tower, another fantastic set of sustained pitches. As part of our strategy, I led for 3 hours, which put us on top off pitch 6, which was the first pitch on the tower. It holds some fun moderate climbing up to “The Ghost” flake, named either for its shape, or its less than inviting, very hollow sound, and extremely precarious position right in the middle of the corner. While the belay directly above this thing is purely hanging and uncomfortable, it would be quite strenuous to climb this and the next pitch together. If you would like to try, save those red and green Camalots.
Jimmy took over at this point. He did a fantastic job of blasting up the next three half hours through more sustained 5.10 and 5.11 climbing. The book pitches he lead (P7-p11, linked in a somewhat laissez-faire manner) began with some more thin hands above the Ghost Flake, followed by a technical move that puts you into the bottom of an amazing 5.8 stem corner. From the top of this pitch (7) to the top of 11, there are a few bolts, a few sections of rock that leave a bit of an impression on the leader, but its mostly stemming, jamming, and patina face climbing on the vertical face of the tower. Jimmy and I seemed to both agree that the 5.11 pitches at the start of the route provide more difficulties, with the exception of P11.
At the top of pitch 11, I took back over for the rest of the route. I think Jimmy and I both were feeling pretty blasted at this point by the lack Of water. I began to feel that sinking motivation which hits when nutrition is neglected. We ended up simuling the last three pitches, and in this case using the woRd simuling is a bit of an exaggeration. As I began to cold get and worried about the dimming daylight, I told Jimmy to start climbing when the rope ran out. Little did I know that P15 is tucked back around a corner, where there is very little possibility of managing the drag in any manner. Before entered the chimney I pulled up 80ft of rope and stacked it on the ledge in front of me, then took off on the last pitch. I was pretty excited to get us to the top, and after throwing in a few pieces to keep me on the mountain, was quite taken a back by the rock quality during the last 40 ft. IT had the consistency of sand castles on the beach and was so soft that 1 inch grooves could be seen everywhere from other parties pull their ropes. Without any gear but a glued pin 20ft below me, I put my faith in a few “ring-locks” behind what seemed to be small stalagmites and gained the summit.
While Jimmy and I typically like to take a moment to enjoy each summit, this night was not one of those moments. He offered me one his three layers upon reaching the top, after which we gave a good laugh at the state of the fixed lines for rappeling. See photo.
Like others before us, we did single rope raps to the top of pitch 5.11, then added the 70m half-rope into the system to make double rope rappels the rest of the way down. Tired, with only 1 headlamp, we prayed that each pull came cleanly down the face, and thus avoided the myriad of patena and constrictions that could have imposed a much more complicated situation on us. Fortunately, our ropes pulled freely until we rappelled from the top of pitch 5. Here I had to climb up the route on the half rope to free the joining overhand which had gotten stuck in the chimney. Still good luck – no cut ropes!
To rappel from the top of pitch 4, we did two rappels, using the bolted stations on the route. Be aware on the second to last rappel of all of the death blocks in the corner you will descend down before swinging left to the anchor. Jimmy ripped quite a big one. Also take your time finding this last rappel, it would be easy to miss.
-Lack of food and water on the route really killed us on this time. I think both Jimmy and I really underestimated how sustained each pitch would be on the route, and looked at the “linked” number of pitches instead of topo pitches.
-Overall, a double rack was perfect for linking, which can be done in a myriad of different ways (see mountain project).
-The perfect bivvy spot at the base of the route seems well-worth hiking in overnight gear, and much better than the option of hauling gear to the top of pitch 5. It is a overhanging cave with soft sand under your sleeping pad, where the cave frames the starry sky in a fairly unique way. Do it!
Cherry Crack, Dire Wolf, Fails of Power, Smashmouth, The Headache, and Ashtar Command in a Day
Looking for another big day, but feeling a bit of lack of power and and also a lack of interest in some of the longer options, Jimmy and I decided to do some cragging in the morning, before linking up Smashmouth (4 pitches, 5.11-), The Headache (3 pitches, 5.10), and Astafar Command (5.9) in the afternoon. The latter routes are all accessed from the same car turn off near the tunnel, which made it easy to revisit the car between routes as necessary for a bit more food and to change out any gear.
While cragging in the morning, I found Dire Wolf to be an excellent 5.12- for my current climbing level, given that the crux only lasts ten feet and the rest of the route is mellow 5.10 climbing. The only issue with Dire Wolf was that I would need to conquer my fear of falling on .1 size cams in the Zion rock. I ended up pulling the crux on two different attempts, but not without testing out the placements via some moderate whippers. My beta for the next person would be to bring a two purple Metolius or Red X4 sized pieces to slam in above the pod above the crux (back up if you feel the need with a .75 in the pod). You can place a Blue Metolius a bit higher, but it will close up tips/pinky locks that some might consider necessary holds.
While it doesn’t seem completely necessary to blog about a single pitch of climbing at a random crag at Zion, I’ll take a moment to call out the necessity of tying in at your limit down low where you can work moves again and again. This process allows you to build strength and headspace. I have found it extremely important for building confidence to tackling slightly easier grades high on the wall. I specifically wanted to continue to build and maintain strength before Chalten in a few weeks.
In the afternoon, Jimmy led all of Smashmouth. It provides a few pitches of awesome steep finger locks, and some delicate moves on patina protected by bolts. The climb can be found about 20-25 minutes from the car (farther than we expected) after traversing the wall to the right. When the wrap turns back south, the climb can be spotted from the zig zag cracks of P2/P3/P4. The crux of the route seems to be the last move getting to the anchor on the last pitch, after clipping the bolt.
Rack for Smashmouth: Extras in .4 and .5 would allow you to link the third and forth pitches, though it might be easier to link two and three, as they require gear that is farther off in size.
The Headache and Ashtar Command
I had the opportunity to lead both the Headache and Ashtar command as our last routes of the day. In order to work on our climbing speed a little bit, and because long pitches are so fun, we did both routes in one pitch. On The Headache, this meant a bit of simuling after I reached the top of pitch 2. Here I used a Micro-Traxion on the bolted belay.
Rack for the Headache: Double rack, plus extras from .75 to #2. As the route is relatively straight up and down, many cam placements can be found in-line that avoid the need for runners or quickdraws. I brought 10 total. Two raps with double ropes.
While The Headache was an amazing experience, my favorite route of the whole trip was Ashtar command. I started up the route in the dark, climbing by headlamp only. While the first pitch is easy 5.8 climbing, the second provides bolted climbing on more patina edges. There was something about that second pitch, done by headlamp, where nothing else existed in the world. Just the few feet above me, illuminated by my spotlight. Once I reached the top, euphoria set in as a gentle breeze disturbed the still air, and the lights of the cars zoomed up the switchbacks well below. The stillness after a non-stop week in Zion was amazing.
Rack for Ashtar command: Singles for the first pitch, then 10-12 slings/draws. I skipped a bolt or two, and did not clip the anchors at the top of pitch 1 before traversing. This helped with rope drag. The route can be rappelled with 70m doubles.