Friday, March 9, 2012

Winter Solo of Moonlight Buttress...IN A DAY!!!

Less than a year ago I climbed my first big wall in Zion National Park. Moonlight Buttress is one of the easiest walls in the country but at the time was by far the most mentally and physically taxing thing I had ever done. As my partner, Cheyne, and I were standing on the summit, he compares Moonlight to his recent winter ascent of Zenyatta Mondatta. "A day of climbing on ZM is probably the same a soloing Moonlight in a day." Soloing (aka. rope soloing) is a type of climbing most commonly practiced on big walls. Your still using a rope but you don't have a partner with you so you have to do all of the work involved. You could say that it's twice the amount of work but because you don't get any rests or anyone to help keep morale up end probably ends up being more. Not being able to process anything more stressful that what we just finished my immediate thought was "I could never do that." We talk as we pack up the gear and get headed down Angel's landing trail towards the car. "No way" I said after some thought while hiking. He revised and said it would be just harder than doing it in a day. Either way, unbeknownst to me, the seed was planted.

Fast forward to the Fall. I had finished my first solo in the valley, I was looking to move onto doing a solo in a push. Initially I thought this would be West Face of Leaning Tower but I partnered up with a potential NIAD partner from the bay area instead to see how we climbed together. I wasn't too worried about not having done WFLT since I had been planning on heading Zion after Yosemite anyways. Plus, the comment Cheyne made and the certain doubt was still looming in the back of my head. It was just something I couldn't ignore for whatever reason. Just as strongly as I had doubted my ability on the summit, I had been beginning to doubt if I had made the right judgment up there. What I had settled on was that there was really no way of knowing whether or not I could until I was standing alone on the summit or spending a frigid night high on the route. I just had to do it.

I set a date of completion, one I had been roughly set on for a while, March 16th, 2012. Getting it done within a year of my first wall was a way for myself to see my progression or lack of. I began to plan. Studying the topo, my notes, pitch lengths, etc. I sort of shifted my attention to cardio and overall fitness rather than climbing strength but I knew it didn't matter to much. Without my head in the right place it wouldn't matter how good of shape I was in. The single most important realization I've had in the past year of climbing is if you're psyched, you're going to do it.

I was seriously scared for a good week before Zion. My mind would switch to all of the uncertainties I had about the route anytime I was able to daydream. What if I get stuck? What is weather going to be like? What does a 25 F low feel like with out a sleeping bag? What if I need to bail? Am I fit enough or will I wear out and sleep on the bivy ledge? I had planned on climbing the route without a tagline as it would just slow me down. This meant that I would have no way off the route except the top.

I got to Zion late Thursday and by Friday afternoon I had hike all my gear to the base. Only thing left to do was hike out stealthily that night to bivy at the base. I ended up sleeping outside the park because Carlos, a partner on the trip with me, wouldn't have anyway to get in without paying. We ended our afternoon with some bouldering which was a great way to get used to climbing on the grainy sandstone again.
Afternoon Shade on Moonlight Buttress

4:00 a.m. I'm wide awake the second the alarm goes off. Never before has an alpine start been easy but this was different. Silence ensued as we packed up and drove towards the park. "Today is going to hurt." I told Carlos. Nothing more was said as we drove to the parking lot. The temps were in the mid thirties as I made the approach across the Virgin River which was certainly not as warm this time of day. I blasted music to keep my mind occupied. By 6:30 I had begun climbing.

The first pitch threw a little challenge my way as there was no good anchor at the base. I ended up soloing around 30 ft. to where I could plug to cams. Pulled up my kit, clipped it to the anchor and continued up the poorly protected slab in the dark. This pitch went really well as I was a little hesitant of the insecure feel while rope soloing in shoes fit like bedroom slippers. I make quick time of the pitch and rap and clean with out a hitch. Into good anchors for the rest of the route I start to free/french free the next pitch. Coming around the roof on P2 is the aid crux of the route. This was the only piece that I gave a wholehearted bounce test to on the whole route. Yellow/Orange offset master was soo nice to have there.

By the time I get to the top of the pitch it had become light out and temps are not bad now since I've been moving for a bit. At the top of the pitch I see a giant kit of gear, a portaledge, two ropes fixed on the next pitch and three New Mexicans huddled back in an alcove. They had apparently been yelling to see if I had wanted coffee but with a mean banjo being blasted into my ears from Mumford and Sons I had no clue. I take them up on coffee since I wasn't going to have to lead the next pitch. I had no choice. It was a pin ladder with a bunch of fixed lines and draws left in place. Luckily it won't detract much since it's by far the easiest pitch of the whole route. They make me coffee and take the only pics on the route.

Sorry no camera this time. It's not so much a weight thing as it is a time issue when soloing. Bottom line: if you're not doing something you're wasting time. Down time doesn't exist when you're by yourself.

Rapping to Clean Pith 2

I ended up really enjoying that fact. It was almost easier to always be doing something. I usually psych myself out when I'm not. I kindly took them up on the coffee offer and chatted with them for probably 30-45 minutes. I tried to not give myself a time advantage since I wasn't leading pitch 3. I was afraid it was already around 9 when they told me it was only 7:40!! 2 pitches down and in only 1:10. WHOOOO! I moved up to the rocker block after coffee, had a bagel and started leading again.

About to Jug. Everything I have with me is on my back in this picture.

To the Rocker Block!

No pitch defines Moonlight like the dihedral on pitch 4. It's a 180' pitch that takes yellow master cams for days. Perfect gear the whole pitch. I back cleaned aggressively on this pitch since I only had 3 finger size cams with me. I felt totally safe as there are areas to leave other sizes as pro. I really gained a rhythm here. Place, clip, step, step, step, place clip, step, step, step... Felt good to have everything be basically thoughtless.

The climbing changes character at the rocker block. The rock gets to be a much better quality, the route steepens and the cracks become SPLITTER!!


Pitch 5 has a really nasty flared chimney on it. Getting into the damn thing is tough and awkward. It was great the feel all the air under my feet though. Once I was that the sideways aiding tickery I had to figure out a way to how to clip the bolt. This is where my favorite trickery occurred. I didn't want to lug big bros or a heavy #6 for one 5.8 move so I went with the I'll figure it out. tried to top step in my aiders but I was still a good 8-10 inches from the bolt. I moved back down to my piece, take off the rack and camel back and clip into a piece of gear. Now working my way back up, I stand on the rack and back pack and STRRRRREEETCH to clip the bolt. Nailed it and had a little laugh at the lengths I would go to avoid a little bit of awkward chimney. The aiding continues to be a little strenuous in a corner but you end on a perfect ledge to sit and say "Thank God"

This pitch was the only one on the route I wasn't really enjoying myself. My music had died and the climbing was a big grovel. *Should have thrown a chimney climber on my rack* Ironically this is where I had a major mental block last year when cleaning. I didn't exactly enjoy the pitch but it was way smoother than last time. Felt great to jug the pitch again except this time with confidence and rhythm.

I link the head wall into 2 long pitches. I took 3 purple 0.5 C4s and #3 Metolius Master Cams. Every placement was bomber!!! I placed one after another until I realized I had back cleaned for 50 ft off the anchor. This route really is that good. Since I was linking pitches I really had to run things out. The head wall pitches are basically those size cams for the whole pitch. Last year I placed nothing but #3 Masters for the whole length of pitch 6! I had 6 pieces in this size but it was run out for linking pitches. I'd advise taking more if not very comfortable with the whole process.

As I racked up the for the final pitch I was in the dark again. I was a little nervous since this pitch wanders a bit more and has small stopper placements. The second move off the belay was a bit tricky. Sort of a blind small cam but it was plenty good. As I moved to what I thought to be the crux I was welcomed with tons of BOMBER stoppers. Felt good to finally have pro under me.

 I moved steadily towards the summit at a slower speed. I had really began to slow at this point. I was no longer high stepping and was really affected by fatigue. I had 12 hours to lead the pitch so I knew I would make it so I just focused on not blowing it this late in the game. The final pitch as per the topo really wore me down. I kept looking up knowing I was close only to pull bulge after bulge to another section of wall. All I wanted to see was the  the last section of slab. The 5.7 R slab proved to be easy, even in the dark. It's really just one move and there actually is a #1 and #2 bd to be had. Finally I plop onto the summit. I take a bit of a beak and celebrate. Finish whats in my camel back and get down to rap. I hit my one hitch on the route. My rope gets wedged into a rack when I'm 10 ft. from being completely done. Being so tired I felt a natural emotional reaction about to come out. I forced myself to look at the chains laugh and say "Could be worse" crisis avoided. A jug to the top and pull the unstuck rope up behind me.

I did it!! I didn't feel like stopping I was in such a mental flow that I felt and actually had the thought of going to tag on Touchstone. "How much longer until 24 hrs?" My phone says 10:30. 16 hrs. Temp is 31 F. I tell myself that I'll have to do a link up next time. (As I write this I realize that another seed has already been planted. Haha). Mentally I was fried from being so focused for so long. I had a thousand yard stare going as I tried to focus on simple tasks like getting some food into my system. As I eat I realize how cold it is as I start to shiver in an insulated jacket. Settling into my sleeping bag I realize I'm  exhausted.

I can't believe that a route this good exists. It's so uniform for such a long time. The position nothing short of amazing. I can't wait to go and free this thing.

Overall, soloing really is a lot of work. I moved twice as fast as the average team with 1/2 the amount of people. I figure I did at least 4 times the amount of work as last time. It really took a toll on my body. My fingers were beyond swollen and my feet the next day look like duck feet they were so big. In the end though, it doesn't matter how much torture you put yourself through it's simply incredible to have been there.

As for strategy:
Did the route in 6 pitches with a 70 linking 2/3, 6/7 and 8/9.
You can rap the whole route with a 70 M rope. **I have not done this. I have only been told. I know that you can make it from the top of the dihedral to the ground and from the summit to the bivy. I have been told that you can make it from the bivy to the base of the chimney. I believe the final rap will require to fix your rope. Either have one stashed or come back with another to retrieve your line**

My Rack:

2    #1 Metolius Master Cams
2    #2 Met. Masters
1   0.4 Black Diamond C4s
3    #3 Met. Masters
3   0.5 Black Diamond C4s
2 0.75 BD C4s
2    #1 BD C4s
2    #2 BD C4s
Offset Mast Cams 0/1 to 3/4
DMM Alloy Offsets
BD Wires 4-11
~18 Draws half trad/alpine (could have taken less)
8 or 9 lockers (could have taken less)
1 Double length (didn't use)
Gri Gri 2, Jugs, Aiders, Etc.
70 M 9.8 mm Metolius Rope

5 L Water
3 Cliff Bars
10 packs of homemade Energy Gel
Sendwich (Peanut Butter & Nutella Bagel)
Pair of gloves
Small Camelback and Bullet Pack
Metolius Big Wall Stuff Sack L (Great Rope Bag)
*Notice no chapstick... Big mistake*


  1. Great report! How did you rap and clean the traversing pitches (1-3) on a single line? Did you rap and unclip, reclip gear as you went down? Did you lower out or take a swing from bottom of traversing pitches? Wondering whether I should bother taking two ropes to do this, when one 70m sounds waaaaay faster.