The summer in Las Vegas can be a little tricky for adventure climbing. The temperatures at times soar in the 110 degree range and just going for a walk sometimes can be face melting. I usually take a trip in early June to beat the heat and the last two years I have gone to Yosemite Valley to explore the tall granite walls there. After this most recent trip, having successfully climbed Zodiac (see my last post) I was pretty psyched up to keep on big-walling on the regular. The only problem was now my trip was over and the next months seemed filled with work and sweating on my bicycle commute for entertainment. At first the heat was too much, but I soon got over complaining and embraced the heat for what it was. After all it wasn't going to change for a while. Friends came and left on their summer vacations and I stuck around and spent my time flipping through climbing guide books like they held the answers to all of life's unanswered questions.
The Yosemite Bigwalls book and Zion: Free and Clean were on the top of the reading list. Of course Red Rock: A Climber's Guide was also in the rotation. But eventually reading and day dreaming was not enough, I needed to actually climb something more than a pitch long. Mid July I went out with a friend to Black Velvet Canyon and climbed The Gobbler, Yellow Brick Road, and Triassic Sands all fun 5.10 moderate multipitches. We sweat our asses off on the hike in and out, but throughout the day it was nothing but smiles, laughter, and good climbing with absolute solitude. A well needed adventure into the canyons I moved here for. I think we both realized despite the "free sauna" effect it was actually a pretty awesome time to be out there with such silence and isolation. Of course this solitude wasn't as welcoming when I got our rope stuck five pitches off the ground, but hey, we managed to get creative and get it unstuck, otherwise we'd probably still be up there waiting for a little less solitude.
As it gets later in the summer and temps gradually become more reasonable my day dreaming has an opportunity to turn into reality. So just a few days ago I decided I'd "start off the season" right with a solo big wall adventure. What a better way to get the psyche going than to put in a bunch of work for one great adventure! So it was decided, I would give Lunar Ecstasy in Zion a go. It's primarily an aid route, although Nik Berry did free climb it and I think it was somewhere in the 5.13(?) range. Way to go dude! My plan was to only free climb the easier sections and aid all the rest, which was most of the route. The route gets the difficulty of C2 and there were really only a few "tricky" sections. It tops out after about 1,200 feet in length and is broken down into 9 pitches. I had debated in my head about trying to push the route in a big day effort but after seeing a photo of the sweet ledge above Pitch 4 I thought it would be more fun to do it over two days time. I found myself starring at the photo and getting unusually excited about the little ledge. The positioning at the bottom of the clean headwall and brilliant looking exposure just called out to me. The next question was "Do you think I could sleep on that?"
Farewell Ledge on top of Pitch 4. The ledge that inspired a solo.
Reference Photo: Nick Storm
I figured it would be conceivable that one person could lay down on it, but certainly no more. It also looked kind of downward slopping so that was another point of concern. Still I debated about the idea and let it brew in my head. I asked some friends what they thought and most laughed, but not too long before saying that they thought I should go for it. Either they were sand bagging me or they just wanted to hear the absurd story of me trying to sleep on some tiny slopping ledge 600' off the ground. Either way seemed good enough to me. My plan was to pack pretty minimally and skimp on as many of the niceties as I could. Doing it solo means I have to carry all that stuff everywhere so I wanted to keep it pretty minimal so it was less fuss and hauling would be easier. As the trip got closer I started to piece together the rack for the climb, borrowing a few stray pieces from friends. Once I laid out the rack, rope, and all climbing gear I realized there was nothing minimal about aid soloing. Even if I didn't bring a sleeping bag it barely made a dent in the pile of crap I would have to lug around. Oh well, I guess I'll just use a bigger haul bag!
After getting everything into the haul bag the night before it was starting to look like it was actually going to happen. That night I met with another wall climber friend who was about to head to Yosemite the next morning. It seemed like a proper send off to meet and talk walls over good food before we both headed out on our own adventures. I left at 7:30am from Las Vegas and did the quick drive to Zion. I probably should have left earlier but I needed some good rest before hand. On the drive I also forgot there was an hour time change so I actually lost an hour on the way too. I was already perfectly behind schedule. When I got to the park is was busy as hell because it was Labor Day and there were no parking spots at the visitor center where I had to stop and get my bivy permit. What a genius plan I had hatched! Show up mid-day on a busy holiday and start soloing a wall with the idea of climbing 4 pitches before dark just to sleep on a little ledge. Genius!
At the Visiter Center I inadvertently parked my van in the "RV Only" parking lot when I ran in to get my overnight bivy permit. Once I talked to the ranger there they told me I couldn't park there and to try to get a spot in the main parking lot because that's what I was approved for with the permit. Good to know. I went back to my car and there was already a blaze orange parking violation on the drivers side window from the park service. A great souvenir. I got in my car and started scouting the busy lot for any one who was going to be leaving their spot. After about 15 minutes of waiting I finally found a couple who was leaving and I put the flashers on and waited for their spot to be free. During this time I started finalizing the packing on the haulbag, and included my last decisions for what food to bring. They drove out and I pulled into the spot. I got my last things together, changed shoes and was almost ready to go! I picked up the haul bag a few inches and dropped it once or twice on the ground to help settle the contents down to make more room to close it, a pretty standard procedure. Moments later I noticed I was standing in a puddle and there was water pouring out of the haulbag. NOOOO! I thought loudly to myself and frantically starting throwing the contents of the bag onto the pavement as fast as I could. Quickly I discovered that BOTH my gallon jugs had exploded in the bag, and most of my water had leaked out! This was the first big blow to my psyche, and for a good couple moments I had some serious doubts if I was actually gonna do this. My time window was dwindling fast, and now my water supplies were significantly diminished. Not good. I scrounged around my van for some reserve gatorades and any extra empty water bottles to fill and bring along. I filled them up and now it seemed reasonable for me to continue. "This may just be enough" I thought to myself, and threw the heavy pack over my shoulders and got in line for the bus into the canyon.
I got on the bus near last and stood up by the driver like I usually do. The Zion bus drivers are awesome because as a climber you can ask them to drop you off directly in front of your climb. Some pretty sweet service! This time my bus driver was John and he was both curious and excited to chat about the adventure I was partaking on. He asked me all sorts of questions about climbing, life, relationships and the whole story of living a climbing life. He also contributed some good facts about the park that were new to me. He also told me about an area where there was recent rock fall but also explained it shouldn't effect where I would be climbing. At this point we were starting to be pretty chatty and other people started to jump in on the conversation with their own questions about what exactly it was that I was doing. One person asked what I did for water and I told them "I like to bring as much as possible, but funny you asked because most of my water just exploded in the parking lot!" I laughed more than they did. The ride continued and a few people got on and off throughout. The couple who asked me about water stood up to get off the bus and when they walked by said they'd like to make "a donation", and gave me a small water bottle full of the good filtered stuff. "Thank you, this will be great!" I said and gave them a thankful and cheerful wave as they walked away. The bus continued and John asked me to point out where I would be climbing. I pointed up to the Moonlight Buttress and indicated the face I would be on and that the route was called Lunar Ecstasy. Soon enough we were right in front of the climb and it was my time to get out and start hiking. John stopped the bus and made a pseudo announcement "Here you go folks, one of the main Zion attractions!" and unexpectedly people on the bus started clapping in support as I grabbed my stuff and got ready for my quest. "Wow! What a send off." I thought to myself. "...but I haven't even done anything?" As John pulled the bus away he asked one more question out the window. "Hey Matt, what will you be wearing tomorrow on the wall?" I smiled to myself and replied "I'll probably be wearing this same thing!" Knowing very well that I didn't bring a change of clothes. John said "Alright, I'll look for you!" as he pulled away. I turned around to face the wall and took my first steps towards a great unknown and true adventure.
I quickly got to the Virgin River that runs through the park and right in front of the wall. You have to cross the river to get to the base of the climb and it's always kind of a fun experience because there is always the slight possibility that you will foolishly slip and douse all your climbing gear. My stuff was half wet from the exploded gallon jugs so it didn't really matter if I biffed it this time around. The water was actually refreshing and felt nice (instead of freezing) and it wasn't flowing as high or fast as some previous crossings. I put my shoes back on and started the small slog up the sandy hill to the base of the buttress. For some reason the start of the route didn't look as familiar as I remembered from a previous ascent of Moonlight Buttress and I kind of struggled to find exactly where to get set up. I thought I spotted the first pitch but it looked more bushy than I remembered, which is a good indicator that I wasn't looking at the right pitch. In this process I also struggled to get the haul line configured through all the bushes and cactus. You leave your bag about 60' to the right of where you start climbing so that when you finish the pitch you can haul straight up. I had to drag the haul line through 60' of desert bush nightmare to have it with me to start the climb. It got stuck on everything and I walked into a cactus and now had little needles all in my elbow and left pointer finger that I never could get all out. Classic desert shenanigans.
I set my ground anchor and decided it was time to get this show on the road. I started up what I thought was a 5.10 variation pitch that went straight up. It was really sandy and a bit loose like a lot of Zion first pitches and for some reason I thought it was the way. I climbed about 15' and then half squeezed into the narrow chimney and looked up. It now looked a lot harder than it did on the ground and I observed that I wasn't even close to having the gear to protect the gash. I reevaluated and down climbed the sandy rock until I was back on the terraced base. I stepped back and had a good hard look at the start of the route and referenced the topo again to get this sorted out. I discovered I was too far to the left and I needed to scramble up and right to gain the actual first pitch. "Brilliant" I thought to myself in relief that I didn't continue climbing that other junk. This probably would't have happened with a friend because there would have been another voice of reason and another set of eyes to spot the correct pitch but oh well! I reconfigured the ropes and set another anchor to actually start the first pitch and took a deep breath to put the little difficulties behind me. It was probably nearing 2pm at this point but I didn't look because I didn't want to confirm I was falling behind.
I began the pitch, which is a sandy 5.7 corner than doesn't take a lot of gear and because of this is a little sparsely protected at points. I knew this part would not be the highlight of the day and if I biffed it at some point in the first 50' I'd probably end up back on the ground in another cactus. At least it was only 5.7 and despite getting lost finding it I had actually climbed this pitch before without trouble. It was just the mental crux of leaving the ground. I started climbing and got my first piece in a ways up, which I tensioned the rope up with to keep my lead line and anchor correctly oriented. I climbed above the piece and hesitated when I confirmed the next gear was another 10'-15' feet further up. I down climbed and had a thought and hesitated. I climbed back up to the same spot and felt the same hesitation again, severely doubting myself and not wanting to slide back down this slab. I hit a real mental roadblock. I went the full way back down to the base and questioned everything I was doing and why the hell I was doing it. I knew I was behind schedule. I knew my plan was kind of already dumb anyway. I knew I didn't want to ground fall off a 5.7. I knew I didn't have enough water. I knew the "sweet ledge bro" was still way up there and I knew I wasn't even remotely close to being successful yet. I also knew nobody was here to help me out and nobody cared if I did it or not. I almost quit. I quickly tried to shift my thoughts from the sudden negativity that overwhelmed me to more encouraging and positive thoughts from somewhere, anywhere I could find. I thought about my friends that I got to see before I left. More specifically their encouragement and belief in what I was doing and how they had encouraged me to really pursue it. If they believed in me I needed to at least believe in myself from time to time. I got my head back together and more accurately reevaluated the pitch. I relaxed. This would be the first of many unseen mental or psychical challenges and if I couldn't handle this I was hopeless. I started climbing and blocked out all the noisy doubt. The pitch wasn't hard at all but I still had to do it. Once I completed the pitch I was relieved because I had finally done the first small step in doing this thing and I was desperate for some momentum. I got right to work, rapped back down, cleaning the pitch. Jugged back to the anchor and then hauled the bag. I was happy and in my comfortable zone finally. My hesitation was gone for now and I calmly and enthusiastically continued further up the route. After all, I had 3 more pitches to climb that day and shadows on the walls were growing.
The next two pitches went pretty fast despite some minor confusion finishing the second pitch. I guess its always an adventure and when you're alone there isn't another person to help guide you and confirm what you're doing is right or wrong. I always looked at the topo before each pitch but had it "memorized" enough that I didn't actually look at it and just climbed what looked like the natural way. Soon enough I had just one more pitch to climb to gain the ledge. Pitch 4 was the base of the sheer headwall and the climbing was finally starting to look fun and more difficultly cool. I started up at a relaxed and confident pace and just took it all in. I was surprised I was so close and it wasn't dark yet. I kept plugging away and awaited the right leaning bolt ladder near the top that would bring me to the ledge. I guess I was climbing slower than I realized and soon enough it was getting hard to see in the dimming light. I was probably about 3/4 of the way up the pitch when I realized I couldn't really see what I was doing anymore. I didn't allow myself to stop and think about it. I had a headlamp but of course it was in the haul bag way at the bottom of the pitch and I wasn't going down for it because it would kill whatever momentum I had. I dreamt of reaching the bolts coming up that would take me to the ledge.
It was now too dark to see what the next placements would be. I was climbing more or less blind, seeing only vaguely what the features were. I felt around the crack for pods, constrictions, splitter sections, anything I could fish a piece of gear into. I got to one spot that was really tricky, mainly because I didn't seem to have any gear that would fit. It was a real head scratcher for a moment and I mentally used whatever I had left to not let this be the next roadblock. I felt around the blown-out pod again trying to feel any sort of variance that would allow me to place gear in it. I thought "Hey this is probably where people said tricams were critical. Hmmm, well good thing I left those in the haulbag too!" I swam around in my chest harness looking for anything offset that would fit the pod. I had just one offset cam left, and it just so happened to be the smallest one. I finagled a way for it to fit in the hole, which was significantly bigger than the cam itself. I bounce tested it and it didn't rip out but I couldn't tell why. So I hung off it and hoped for the best. I gently moved up high and with a big reach was finally able to clip a bolt. Sweet! I back-cleaned the cam in case I would need it again and moved on. It was kind of a trip because I never saw how the cam was placed, let alone how it didn't rip out in such a misshaped pod. I climbed the remaining 15' and with great joy finally stepped onto Farewell Ledge. I fixed the rope, rappelled back down to the last anchor and cleaned the gear. I ascended back up the rope to the ledge and then hauled the bag up to the ledge. Finally I was at a stopping point and was able to relax for a while. I drank some water, took my shoes off and took in the dark mysterious view.
The ledge was the best thing that happened all day. I reached my goal and it seemed maybe my plan wasn't as dumb as it occasionally seemed. The ledge certainly was narrow and down slopping but I didn't care, I was just happy to be there. I watched the last of the buses drive through the canyon and had my last moments with distant human interaction for the night. I've shared walls with climbers in Zion before, but it seemed that nobody else was climbing in the canyon this day, and nobody else was bivying. I was truly alone out there. I guess it was early in the season and a lot of people still thought it was too hot to be there. I had the whole canyon to myself and it was almost overwhelmingly cool. I felt lucky to be there and to be so engaged and present in an awesome place within my mind and nature combined. It truly was an experience that few people get to have, especially when you add on the solo aspect and act of being alone. It was euphoric and I kept reminding myself to do my best to take it all in and appreciate all the small parts. I thought about my friends and family and tried to conceive a way to share this experience with them when I was done. But I struggled and knew whatever words or photos I shared wouldn't ever come close to representing what it meant for me to sit up on that ledge.
"I've worn yamakas bigger than this bivy ledge." - Micah Dash
Morning came and I woke up at 7am. I slept what seemed like a a few hours at a time and then would reposition slightly and fall back asleep. Pretty comfy and the small hammock I brought and put my ass in kept me from sliding around too much. The ledge by my head was barely shoulder width so it was a pretty close distance to the edge. I woke up on my side once in the night and opened my eyes directly to seeing the abyss below. That was pretty cool thing to open your eyes to. The temperature was pretty nice but it did get a little cold through the night and there was a slight breeze. I was glad I brought the sleeping bag after all, even if it didn't close because the zipper was broken. Morning duties were done and soon enough I was ready to start getting the gear organized to prepare to keep climbing. I had the idea to do an "epic time-lapse video" in my mind and rigged up a little action camera from a small tripod above me looking down onto the ledge and ground below. I thought it'd be a pretty cool video of me getting all the stuff ready. Well, either way that idea failed quick because after I rigged it up the camera wouldn't turn on. Dead batteries huh, well I guess it won't be such an "epic video" after all. Why did I bring this thing?
The next 3 pitches all went up the shear and beautiful headwall of the route. They were the most difficult pitches of the route but I wasn't really worried about them being too hard, mostly I knew they'd be the best pitches and I was looking forward to that. They went at C2 but some people argued C2+. I figured it would go fine, I just had to do it and hopefully it wouldn't take me forever. Ultimately I didn't think anything was harder than C2, it was just Zion C2, which is sandy and has lots of weird pods you place smallish brass nuts in. Logistically I was more concerned with managing the two ropes and haulbag, all with the absence of a natural ledge to set them on. The belays now transitioned into fully hanging stances, and as a soloist this is more tricky because I need to neatly organize both ropes so they will feed easily as I progress, and obviously they cannot get twisted, stuck, knotted, fall off, etc. This would cause much difficulty. To my surprise and joy I was able to run a pretty tight ship and I didn't have any major issues with the rope or haulbag. It seemed maybe I actually knew what I was doing? These pitches were the most fun because they were the most challenging and the terrain was so vertical, thin, and engaging. It was still a lot of work but finally the reward was a little more evident. I eventually ripped a piece out bounce testing on Pitch 7, but as you can tell most of the gear was solid enough to climb without major complications.
When I finished these couple hard pitches and just finished ascending back up to my high point I heard a voice yell to me "Good job! You did it!" I looked around a little perplexed and found two individuals looking down and across at me from the West Rim Trail. I didn't know what to say really so I just dumbfoundedly said "Thanks... but I'm not done yet!" Their celebration gave me a sense of accomplishment which I found distracting and didn't want to feel yet. I wasn't done, so I didn't want to fool myself into thinking I could relax. I started climbing again and had two more pitches to do. I got perplexed again by some sandy unprotected free climbing that was just kinda odd but just kept plugging away one step at a time. I took the original last pitch because I thought it would be more full value and it was slightly harder. It was kind of a nightmare and the rock quality was really sugary and bad at times, the placements were weird everywhere, and there were numerous ledges to fall onto. I puked my pants. Well not really but I wanted to. It was kind of a "questing" pitch to say the least. Next time I'd do the "Jarrett" finishing pitch and save some stress.
When I topped out after the lead I was pretty relieved to be done climbing. I still had to drop back in and rappel to clean my gear, anchor, and then ascend back up to haul the bag. But, more or less, I was feel kinda done with my climbing goal. I did the last remaining work and once again stood back at the summit. I threw all the gear off me in a big pile and felt the weight of the challenge lift off my shoulders. I sat down and starred out at Angels Land wall and beyond. Such a beautiful place. I drank the last remaining water I had saved for this very moment and tired to think about everything that had just happened. This anticlimactic moment at the summit never seems to change and the accomplishment isn't at first very noticeable. I lulled for about 2 minutes like this and then started to repack all the stuff into the haulbag. It was a little lighter with no water, but it still felt like a chore to pick it up and hike it out... but it always is. I made quick time on the descent trail and spent the whole time on the way down thinking about how much water I would drink when I got to the Grotto.
I filled up 3 large Nalgenes up with cold refreshing water and sat down on the bench and waited for the bus. It was now dark. When the bus arrived I got on with a few other people and then threw my stuff down on the seat next to me. The bus pulled away and the cool breeze from the open windows cooled my sweaty, dirty, sandy self down from the hike. I closed my eyes and took in the relaxation and almost found a quick meditative like state. I knew next step I'd be back at the van, which was kind of like the "home" feeling when you feel like you actually did it and you can finally relax fully. Soon enough I was there and I stumbled off the bus and towards the van. I slowly loaded up the van with my gear and had a little snack and a canned double-shot expresso drink that I had brought along. I changed into a clean shirt and underwear and took my shoes and socks off. I didn't have other pants or shorts to put on so I drove home to Las Vegas in my underwear. When I got home I cracked a cold beer and took a shower. That night my friend Andy would be home from his summer excursions and we'd have a lot to catch up on still this evening. We stayed up a while and watched an awesome moonrise while we chatted about numerous adventures and misadventures from the last few months. I now got to share my solo ascent with someone, and perhaps here is when I finally got to feel that "Lunar Ecstasy"... Now what next?