Zion: Desert Shield, Spaceshot, & Prodigal Sun
A few months Andy and I hatched a plan to climb a wall route in Zion, something I've been eagerly waiting to do all summer. The steep clean cut walls of Zion are always amazing, and there are so many great looking walls to choose from. I suggested that we get up on Desert Shield, a mixed aid and free climb that goes up onto and impressive steep headwall that looks practically blank. It had some 5.11 free climbing down low to psyche Andy up, and two moderately hard C3 aid pitches to satisfy my cravings for big exposure with exciting gear placements up high. The icing on the cake was also the sweet bivy ledge mid-route that allowed us a place to hang out and sleep at the end of the day to rest up and do the upper portion the next day. After all the route is Grade 5(V) and to us that meant it would be more reasonably done in two days.
But not so fast! It's not gonna be that easy... Just weeks before we were set to head up the Shield the government shut down and closed all of the National Parks. Who would have thought! Needless to say there was a lot of disappoint all around. My local crag of Red Rocks was minimally affected by the shutdown, it just made everything more of a walk and more of a pain in the ass. But who wants a police helicopter buzzing around them while they are climbing? Still doable I guess. Zion was a different story, there would be no access permitted to the main canyon and thus putting Desert Shield out of the picture and even out of sight. Bad news for us. So we let the time pass hoping the government might open the doors before our mission was to get started. Weeks passed and our departure date was soon approaching. Out of necessity we formed another plan. I guess the Rainbow Wall is pretty cool, but nothing that similar to the route we were gunnin' for. Seemed like fun still though but it was no Shield. After giving up hope a day before our departure day, Utah Governor Gary Herbet made a deal with the National Park Service to reopen Zion and several other of Utah's parks. Amazing! The psyche was way high again! That night we gathered all our gear and started packing up to head out to Zion the next day.
Our strategy for the climb was to do it over two days, hauling gear, water, and food to the bivy on top of pitch 3. From here we would leave the haul bag behind and continue up the next two pitches. Our high point on day one would be the top of pitch 5 just below the first headwall pitches. We then were going to fix a rope there and rappel back down to the "Jungle Bivy" for the night. Of course, things just couldn't be that easy for us. After getting to the bivy ledge like planned and just before we we were going to head up pitch 4, it started raining. There we were, starring up at the headwall with all our gear in tow, and the weather takes a leak on us when it was forecasted clear. There was really no choice what to do, and we had to head back down in the rain. We got good and wet, but by the time we were back down the rain had more or less stopped. We made the best of it by hanging by the river for while, forming yet again a new plan. Spirits were low, but I was also encouraged by the ordeal. At least our plan was going well before the bad weather, and hauling wasn't actually that bad, dare I say fun? That night we made a fire and dried out our stuff. Still no back up plan.
The next morning I woke up and knew there was no way I could go home after climbing only 3 pitches of Desert Shield. We had to go back up. The next day we waited as long as we could, and headed up the lower pitches late in the day. It seems our plan was back on! Psyche was high as we enjoyed our time on the Jungle Bivy and watched the sun set across Zion. As we settle down for the evening I was especially "in my head" thinking about the upper pitches. How hard is this C3 gonna feel? Am I gonna be scared out of my mind? Am I gonna pee myself shaking in the aiders and have to ask Andy to come rescue me? What if I drop my harness? Is that even possible? Some of these concerns were reasonable, while others a product of excitement and anticipation. The thoughts filled my head and I couldn't really sleep, not to mention its wasn't really even that late and I was laying in the dirt. Then later, as I was laying down in my sleeping bag trying to sleep, it seemed as if somebody had turned on a light. It wasn't Andy's headlamp, but rather the almost full moon rising and coming right across the top of Desert Shield. An amazing sight that I will never forget. Then as I was laying there day dreaming a lizard scuttled across my sleeping bag and went right past my face. I was startled back into reality by the little creature and I laughed to myself. A friendly reminder that this would be a great adventure.
After finally getting some sleep, the morning came. We got up before the sun was up and it was hard not to feel a little tired and cold. I think we finally got climbing at 7am. This was a little later than expected but still would maybe just give us enough time. Because of our one day delay, I now would have to drive straight back to Vegas to be at work by 4pm after climbing the headwall. Not ideal. There was a bit of a time crunch but we went for it. Andy lead the very exposed and exciting bolt ladder/hook pitch and brought us up to the thin crack section that goes up almost the entire headwall. I jugged the line up to him and couldn't have been more exited to finally get my chance to head up! I racked up as many sets of small offset brass nuts as possible, I think we had 4-5 sets all together and a couple sets of tiny cams and a grip of screamers. My adventure was on! I started up the C3 and C2+ pitch, carefully but confidently placing small wire after wire. There were a few tricky placements, but generally speaking I felt the placements were straight forward, although many consecutive tiny placements. Would they all hold a fall? Probably most would… but I didn't have to test it.
I let out a nice loud hoot at the anchors and celebrated a successful pitch up the wall. Andy started jugging and I starred upwards at the next C3 pitch. It looked classic as hell! I wanted to go up it without a doubt. When Andy came up to the anchor we were both super psyched, but our "turn around" time was approaching quickly. We estimated it would take at least an hour to lead and clean the next pitch, and another 2 hours to get down and back to the car. We simply didn't have the luxury of time. I probably should have skipped out of work, but I made the less popular decision of making it to work on time. I drove straight to work and made it there with just enough time to wash my hands before punching in right on time. I was a little disappointed, but I was also very encouraged and excited by what we had done so far. Everything in our control went pretty smoothly, and being high up on the headwall revitalized my soul. Ultimately I was still pretty excited and I knew it was the first of many wall routes I would have the experience of climbing. Now I just have to head back for the other C3 pitch soon! To the summit!
After a few days to reminisce about our incomplete ascent/attempt on Desert Shield, I contemplated what we could have done to make the ascent more successful. Ultimately it came down to one element: Speed. We had the skills, we had the gear, but we didn't have the time. You can never predict the weather, but you can control your climbing pace and strategy. So I hatched a plan with another climbing partner of mine Andy Reger, and we set our sights on two walls in two days. The routes would be Space Shot and Prodigal Sun back to back. This wasn't by any means a huge "link up" or speed mission. But it was a challenge just difficult enough to make us work hard while also having a good chance of success. Not to mention this would be Andy's first wall's in Zion, and only my second true wall with aid climbing. My focus and our strategy was to do these routes efficiently and "hassle free" with no hauling, no going back to the base, and no bivying mid route. Simple.
We got up early, before the sun was out and headed right into Zion in anticipation of catching the very first tram into the park. We quickly ate some cold breakfast in the parking lot and kept our energy moving forward to the next step. We racked up and walked to the tram stop. Going lighter meant we only had one small backpack, which could pretty much only hold water, some food, and two jackets. We wore all the gear and both ropes on ourselves and clinked and clanked our way into our seats. Lots of looks of course. I talked to the driver and they had no problem dropping us off right at the base of the climb, how rad is that! I later found out the rock climbers are the only people that the tram drivers are allowed to drop off or pick up outside of the regular stops. Which explains why we never had any trouble snagging a ride or getting dropped off. Thanks Zion! So we did the short approach hike and got to the base with plenty of time for our mission and we started climbing as soon as possible.
We simul-climbed the first 3 pitches, which go from 5.5 scramble to 5.7 offwidth, pretty manageable. That brought us to the base of the 4th pitch very quickly, and from here the aid climbing would begin as we worked our way up the headwall's right-leaning crack. Andy started us off and got into his aid-climbing groove, which sometimes can take a few placements (or routes) to get dialed in on. He took his time, but moved efficiently. After all, we were both trying not to waste time and energy. We swapped pitches, leading alternating sections and getting higher and higher with every move. We took time to monkey call over at our friends David and Carmen who were across the canyon from us climbing the ultra-classic Moonlight Buttress. It was a damn good time on the wall! The aiding on this climb was considerable easier than on Desert Shield, but the challenge was really efficiency after all. There were a few tricky placements though, and two consecutive pieces were especially hard to place. A few preliminary pieces ripped out while I was bounce testing then, eventually I found just the right trick piece for the spot. Andy also had his fair share of exciting moves, including THE move in which I believe the route gets it's name. THE move is (very) exposed hook move between piton and bolt, its a straight drop back down to the base and when looking down your body gets that adrenalin "Space Shot" direct into the veins. In the end we climbed the route in 8 hours and 20 min. About 6.5 hours short of the speed record, but still not too bad! Great climb.
The second half of our mission was to climb Prodigal Sun the next day. This route has caught my eye since I first visited Zion, and ascends the steep wall below Angles Landing, a very popular and adventurous hike in the park. The route is more sustained, and has only one pitch of free climbing and all the rest C1 or C2 aid. This meant that there would be no free pitches we could easily cruise through, essential meaning more aid = more work. I was psyched on the challenge though, and I was ready to get my aid game more speedy. Andy was also pumped, and it seemed that despite the previous days effort, we were still (if not more) energetic on route. I don't think we had a choice to be tired after having to take off our shoes and role up our pants to cross the Virgin River to get the base of the route. Another element of adventure I suppose!
I thought this route was a ton of fun, and getting to work your way up this massive wall is pretty unique. Both Andy and I were feeling more confident after our success the day before, so we had a lot of fun up there. I linked the first two pitches to get us started and cranked through the easy bolt ladder as fast I could and begun the long string of placements to get me to the second set of anchors. Andy quickly jugged up the line and was ready to lead the next pitch. My rope management could have been better here, but every transition after that was more smooth for the both of us. Just gotta find that groove! We alternated pitches from here to the top and each had some exciting hook moves and tricky C2. Andy also got to experience his first tension traverse on lead (sorry Andy I probably should have given you the heads up on that) and he also got to do a big lower-out when cleaning the last aid pitch. For me the most exciting moves were the hooks and also doing some big top steps between offset nuts. For the first half of the route we were both in concentration mode, but after gaining a great and exposed ledge mid-route and putting on some Talking Heads, we really started to get a little wild up there! Hooting and hollering at each other, often like monkeys, singing along to the music loudly and declaring to the world "How did I get here!?" It was a blast, and for about 5-10 minutes we had attracted a small crowd of onlookers both from the tram stop below and from the people hiking Angels Landing above. After a little bit of ridiculousness we went back into climb mode and continued the push upwards. Our energy was really high and I think we both probably wanted to lead every pitch. We topped out the climb before it was dark out and clocked a time of 10 hours and 40 minutes on route. Sweet!
What a great experience it all was for me. Zion is truly a special area for climbing and I can't say enough about the quality of the routes I have done so far. Its a great place to learn the methods and also a great place to be challenged and also get tons of sand all over your face. I should be heading back to Zion again in a week or two for another two wall weekend with Andy. At the moment I am thinking Touchstone Wall V 5.8 C2 and Disco Inferno V 5.8 C2+ back to back. Slightly harder but still very reasonable. After that I think I will start to hone in on some more difficult routes to spend a little more time on, not to mention finish Desert Shield. A few harder routes that I'm day dreaming about are the Lowe Route V 5.9 C3 on Angles Landing, The Fang Spire IV/V 5.9 C3 and Swoop Gimp Or Be Dust V 5.9 C3. Not to mention hitting up some mostly free routes like Moonlight Buttress V 5.12d C1 and Tricks of the Trade V 5.10 C2. So much to look forward to! If you've made it this far into the post you must really be psyched too! Want to climb? Thanks for reading...