Saturday, April 9, 2011

Moonlight Buttress

6:00 a.m. St. Patrick's Day 2011. The alarm goes off. "Dude, it's way too early." Blake yells from a patch of dirt outside our tent "Go back to bed." We decide to reset the alarm for 7 o'clock. We drift back to sleep to the sound of  a surprisingly high amount of traffic driving past where we had set up camp. We had arrived in Rockville, UT, a small town just a few miles from the entrance of Zion National Park, half past midnight the night before. Our plan was to camp on BLM land down the road, however the gate was locked. We ended up on a dirt road just off the main highway next to a fence that had a large no trespassing sign. Well, it was late and we're getting up early we reasoned. Although decently hidden from the main road, we were still no more than 100 feet from it. Our plans to leave early were only delayed by an hour. We made breakfast and were on our way into the park. After dropping Blake off at a local motel Cheyne and I found ourselves at the backcountry office ten minutes before they open. Anxious as could be, Cheyne and I could do nothing to pass the time other than watch funny canyoneering videos about "Zien".

At the front desk Cheyne and I inquire about our one night bivy permit for the climb. The ranger told us that there would be a 40% chance of rain. Cheyne and I were expecting 60% chance of rain and had talked about this for ten minutes while watching the canyoneering videos. The conversation was completely inconclusive though. We simply replied "Okay". He clarifies by saying "This means that 40% of the zoned forecasted area will receive a measurable amount of rain." Cheyne and I look at each other some what surprised since this was a 20% drop from what the forecast had read for the past 3 days. We thought well that's less than half which means odds are on our side. We obtained the permit and drove out to Big Bend.

We already had the rack put together and the haul bag packed so there was very little delay at the car. We started off on the hike to the wall. At this point, the only thing that stood in front of us and Moonlight Buttress was just the Virgin River. The flow rate of the river was 240 cubic feet per Second which is not easy with a haul bag since the bottom was full of slimy rocks which made for unsure footing the whole way. As we are crossing Cheyne decides to throw his shoes. First shoe with both of his socks goes flying but comes up short. I find myself standing in the middle of the river laughing as I watch Cheyne run down the river bank to catch up with his shoe. I eventually see Cheyne on the other side of the river with one shoe in hand. Only problem is that the entire rack, both ropes, and the portaledge were still on the side we started on. At this point, I'm on the opposite side with the haul bag trying to warm my feet up from the 40 degree water. Cheyne gets halfway across the river to a small island and says "Shit! I'm pretty sure I left the camera." He certainly did. I decide to cross the river to go get it since Cheyne was on his third crossing. After getting both of ourselves and all the gear to the other side of the river I look at Cheyne and say "I don't care if I get so scared I shit myself going up this climb, I'm not crossing that river again"
"Hahaha. Dude I forgot something in the car."
"You're kidding. What?
"Well you forgot it too."
"What is it?"
"The poop tube"
"It's alright we will just hold it for a few days"
"Well we have the toilet paper right?"
"Haha. Nope. It's in the poop tube."

Cheyne Crossing for the 3rd Time

Off we went. We hadn't even started and things were already looking bad. We had a 40% chance of rain, I was soaked up to my waist, Cheyne up to his chest, we had no poop tube, and Cheyne's shoes and socks were soaked. What else could go wrong? Well, it turns out that both of us had forgotten about the topos in our pockets so turns out those were wet also and we lost one somehow. To be honest the list of obstacles could have been as long as the Bible. It didn't matter. We were PSYCHED!!! We finally started climbing around 9:30 or 10 that morning. I decided to take the first 2 pitches. I had made an attempt at the same climb back in November but due to planning we didn't stand a chance. We had gotten only the 1st pitch done which seemed very sandy and runout. However this time I cruised it as fast as I could and it felt great. It always is rewarding to have a pitch feel casual after having it feel difficult the time before.

Leading the 1st Pitch

Anyway, despite what most people say, hauling was not too bad on this pitch. I start on the second pitch rated C1+. After a few placements I decide to place a black alien. This particular size is not ideal for such a soft type of stone since it is only fractions of an inch wide. I yell "Watch me!" to Cheyne as I bounce test the piece. Cheyne asked what I placed and I inform him with a grin. "Dude! I never place that. Ever." I eye the piece and reply laughing "It's on two lobes. Should be fun." To be honest I only placed it because I knew Cheyne hadn't. I commit to the piece and shortly after it pops. The piece below it held. I was psyched. I took a fall it was no big deal. I knew after that it would be easier having experiencing an aid fall. Hauling on this pitch was relatively a pain (make sure your haul line is far from the crack) but still not too bad.

Top of Pitch 2

Cheyne on Pitch 3 with Spaceshot in the Background

My turn leading for the day is done. Cheyne takes over on the Piton/Bolt ladder on pitch 3. Within no time he is at the top of the pitch. I come up after him and am greeted by the rocker block. This is a wild belay stance which has a 27" TV size block that is attached to the wall by chains. The thing moves too. It's wild but definitely a infamous part of the route. To give you a visual, here is someone's picture of the Rocker Block. The rocker block is the more or less a changing point in the type of rock we are climbing. The rock becomes a little less sandy and a bit harder for the rest of the route. Cheyne does a great job leading the classic dihedral pitch. As I am watching Cheyne climb it starts to rain. Luckily our location at this point remains relatively sheltered but I still get wet while I'm belaying Cheyne. Thank god this was his pitch. It seemed like it should have taken a while to lead but Cheyne can just run up his aiders. Definitely pretty inspiring to see how fast he can move. Before long I'm out of the rain and at the top of the next pitch. This is the final pitch of the day before we get to where we planned to bivy for the night. This is also where I really began to hit my low for the whole climb.

Looking Down the Dihedral

Cheyne About the Enter the Chimney on Pitch 5

As I wait at the hanging belay on top of pitch 4 I begin to lose steam. The whole day I had felt anxious, excited and really scared all at once. As time went by at the belay I begin to lose that anxious and excited feeling leaving my mind full of fear. I tried to focus on the beautiful views from the belay or the fact that what we were doing was probably the most badass thing I'd ever done. Despite all this I still declined. My attempts to excite myself were interrupted by a falling object out of the corner of my eye. I hang there and watch as my chalk bag fell for several seconds from Cheyne's waist without touching rock. I then realized we were getting high. I could tell my body temperature had dropped from the rain by the shivering at the belay. I had also forgotten to eat and drink for the greater part of the day since I was so focused on the climbing. This didn't take a physical toll but my mental strength deteriorated quickly.

The Great White Throne and Angel's Landing from the top of Pitch 4

As I jugged the final pitch for the night I moved at a snail's pace. I was paranoid that I had set up some part of my system wrong. I kept checking every 15 ft. Then I would look up and think "I hope there are no sharp edges to cut the rope up there" and "I hope the rope is fixed properly". I couldn't help but think of how long it took for the chalk bag to hit the ground. My instincts were saying "Get out of here!" but, I kept climbing, optimistic that the morning would be a fresh start. 

St. Patricks Day Guinness on the Portaledge

Cheyne and I woke up sometime around 8:30 which is pretty late for a big wall but we only had 4 pitches to go so time wasn't of the utmost concern. We had bagels and tea while getting psyched and listening to the iPod. I had felt so much better than the night before and was glad that I had remained optimistic. Cheyne had told me several before we started climbing that the most important thing about wall climbing is wanting to be up there. If you are doing it for any other reason you'll want to quit. Looking back at it, the end of day 1 was proof that I really wanted to be up there. I wouldn't have been optimistic if I hadn't and I probably would have talked to Cheyne about bailing. Either way, waking up on the portaledge was the best choice. For whatever reason the exposure seemed to loosen its grip on me when I woke up there. I can't explain why, it just felt normal the second morning.

I decided to get myself into the lead mode first thing in the morning. For me leading is often times is easier than following. I am able to control my mind much better simply because I have to. Granted, it is much more difficult to start leading but I am able to ignore all other fears such as exposure. Leading first thing in the morning really seems to set the tone for the day. The first few moves were scary but as we approached the summit I began to get more and more psyched.

Leading Pitch 7

The head wall on Moonlight didn't disappoint. It is splitter pretty much the entire way and beautifully positioned. I back cleaned 0.5 Black Diamond and #3 Metolius for an entire pitch. I lead pitches 6 and 7. Cheyne took over on pitch 8 and linked 8 and 9 into one seriously rope-stretcher pitch. I was hanging at the belay afraid that he was going to get short-roped by the haul line. There was definitely less than 10 feet left in both lines. The last 20 minutes of that belay definitely seemed closer to an hour.

Jugging the Final Pitch
We estimated our summit to be sometime between 4:00 and 5:00 pm the second day. The route took us 31 hours to complete. Summiting primarily felt great. After all, we made it. There was also a bit of disappointment too though. The whole experience of climbing my first big wall was over. I had a brief moment to realize how much I enjoyed road to get to the summit. Learning all the skills necessary and the uncertainty of whether or not I could make it all come together were suddenly a thing of the past. I thought that climbing a wall was all about summiting. I realized I couldn't have been further from the truth. Standing on the summit seemed as though it accounted for 1% of the joy. The training, planning and climbing is what it's all about. I had just wished the wall would keep going. 

We packed up all the gear and started running down the trail. Yes, running. It was funny to run with a haul bag passed tourists who looked like they were about dead from exhaustion. We just wanted to get back to the car for a celebratory beer and to get our rack together for Touchstone in a push. After all it was the next morning...

Summit of Moonlight

I'd like to say thanks to anyone and everyone who helped us out along the way. Steele Cortes, Colin Simon, Adrienne Jones, Nick Montelli, and Shawn Mitchell for lending us gear. My parents, friends and family for the encouragement and support through this whole thing. Most of all I'd like to thank my partner, Cheyne Lempe. Even after climbing with him before the trip and then for several days straight on the trip I was still blown away by how strong and fast of a climber he is. He stays psyched and funny up there. Kid crushes and made for a good wall partner. Here is a link to his blog: No Way Down. Definitely worth checking out.

Here are the rest of the photos of Moonight Buttress:

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