Pop! “Falling!” I sat on the ground after lowering thinking, “Really? Really? Did that just happen? OK, calm the storm. Moonlight Buttress is about two weeks away, it might heal…” I had just tweaked something pretty bad in the left side of my calf heading up into my knee, while heel hooking. I sat there on the floor at the Mesa Rim climbing gym telling myself it would be OK.
I’m no longer in my 20s, and I’m far less indestructible. I had a stream of minor injuries from running, yoga, climbing, and more. Luckily, none of them were major, and I’d managed to push through and keep training. This calf injury was definitely a concern, though…
It didn’t help that a month and a half before Moonlight Buttress was planned, I headed out to try Equinox for my worst performance yet. I wasn’t able to pull the crux move at all! My endurance was through the roof, but it doesn’t matter how long you can hold on if you can’t pull the moves. I realized it was time for a period of bouldering, campusing, and finger boarding. The steps for improvement:
1. Identify weakness
2. Crush it
Within a month, my bouldering had jumped two grades, and by traversing as a warmup, I’d kept my hard fought endurance. Now, however, my calf was tweaked enough I couldn’t use my left leg much, and I was limping. It’s not exactly the kind of situation you want to be in when attempting to free a big wall. However, if I’ve learned anything over the years, it’s not to give up, and that P = G.
I started thinking to myself, “OK this is the situation that I’m in. Given the situation, what can I do right now to maximize my chances on Moonlight Buttress?” I found a gym worker and had an ice pack taped to my calf almost immediately, and I popped 600mg of “Vitamin I.” I tested it a little, limped around some, and started to figure out what I COULD do as opposed to what I couldn’t. Toeing in and heel hooking were solidly out, which meant any steep climbing was out of the question… or was it? I needed power and strength anyways, so I started campusing the steepest wall at the gym on lead. That would help with the lockoffs on ring locks required to set gear at multiple cruxes. I also led some overhung routes with essentially one leg, and got on some vertical to see how the calf would do: better than hoped!
Over the next two weeks, I trained in the ways that I could, while letting the leg heal. I was still limping at least a little every day preceeding Moonlight Buttress, but I’d tested my leg crack climbing and liebacking, and provided I could make the hike in, I would be fine for the climbing. I’d put in too much work, and even if it did flare up on the climb, I planned to push through the pain and drag my ass down the Angel’s Landing trail afterward when we were done. I was 100% committed to this thing.
I had asked around among my regular partners, but all were busy or unavailable. Instead, I ended up climbing with Eliot. He’s a local climber I’ve known for years, but rarely had the pleasure of roping up with. His experience on long hard routes was limited, but he was cranking out finger cracks in J-Tree, and at Mt. Woodson, and he had the most important characteristic any partner can have: a good attitude. I can’t stress that enough, if you want to pull harder, stack the odds in your favor and climb with someone who will help you stay psyched mentally because if you lose that, you will fail.
Eliot and I cruised out there Thursday morning, hit the backcountry desk, and secured a permit for Friday to drive in before the shuttles started. I’d been monitoring the flow rates of the Virgin Riverand they were above 1000 cfs, which meant crossing the river was not an option. We’d have to make the hike around from The Grotto where the Angel’s Landing trail starts and contour near the river to the base of the route.
That night we joined our friends Phillip and Nic in one of the campgrounds. They’d been climbing for a few days already, and had a photographer with them. When we met, he asked if he could photograph us on Moonlight Buttress. Since I typically only get butt shots, I enthusiastically accepted! We planned to meet on the upper pitches around 3pm, and he’d hike in and rappel from the top.
Elliot and I were up before the sun, brewed some coffee and pounded some breakfast. We hopped in the car and I started blasting my favorite song to listen to before attempting to free a bigwall: Odub’s version of “Stronger”. The psyche built as we cruised into the deserted National Park. I’ve got to say that I really appreciate how climber friendly Zion is, and it’s quite the experience to have such a place as Zion’s main canyon completely to yourself, even if it’s only for an hour or two.
We hit the trail and easily found our way toward Moonlight Buttress. The approach was probably an hour or less, and it was quite beautiful. We were hiking down near the river, often in grassy fields and it was quite casual. I only mis-stepped once, tweaking my calf, but it was relatively minor and the pain faded quickly. There was almost no elevation gain/loss until we got to Moonlight Buttress and had the final hill to gain. When we reached the base of the alternate 10a start, I started racking. We opened some hand warmers, threw them in our chalk bags, and flaked the ropes. Luckily, there was no one on route, unlike last year. We had the whole route to ourselves!
I started soloing up the first pitch while Eliot disassembled the haulbag’s suspension system, and finished most of the pitch before I finally threw a cam in and asked to be put on belay. Eliot was ready by then, and I finished the pitch and hauled the bag. I’ve probably mentioned this before, but my philosophy is that climbing is a team effort. I don’t really believe in having a follower jug, and I’d rather they have as much fun as possible. I’d prefer to burn some energy bringing a tagline and hauling, than forcing my partner to climb with a pack on the hard pitches.
Eliot took the next two pitches, a nice 5.10 crack and the spectacularly exposed 5.11 traverse. I took the next 5.10 lead, since I remembered it being a little runout, and I didn’t know how happy that would make Eliot since we hadn’t climbed together much before this outing. We ate and drank a little next to the rocker block, and I prepared for the next 6 back to back 5.12 pitches.
First up, 5.12b boulder problem into easy to mid 5.11 liebacking. The pitch fell quickly and easily since I knew the trick: Run it out, while liebacking quickly, til there is a nice stance. Eliot peeled off on the boulder problem, since he had trouble reaching the starting holds, but got it quickly thereafter and was soon liebacking. He was still calibrating to the style and the rock, and I believe a foot slip in a bad body position spit him off again. After that, he made quick work of the pitch and joined me at the hanging belay.
Next up was the “crux” of the route. It’s the 12d very gently overhung lieback corner into a weird offwidth pod-thing and various face, jamming, and liebacking above. Again, the trick is to run it out instead of stopping to set gear. I onsighted this pitch previously, but it was a brutal battle and I knew it would be hard, but doable, this time as well. I warned Eliot he might have to dodge me on my way down if I blew it, and then headed off.
At a stance, I set two good pieces and looked above. Omega Pacific had contacted me late last year to review their Link Cams, and I specifically brought the 0.5 Link Cam for this crux. I remembered last year casting off into the disgustingly sustained liebacking and trying to set a piece mid lieback and grabbing the wrong cam. I almost whipped into Roberto’s lap. This year, armed with the cam with the largest expansion range on the market, I was prepared! I started up the lieback, got a marginal finger jam, and slammed in the Link Cam and fired for the next stance high above. It worked like a charm!
I got Eliot on belay and watched as he climbed the pitch below from my perfect vantage point. I peppered him with both encouragement and beta when I thought he was committing to the wrong move. He fought and fought and managed to flash the pitch in one of the best efforts of the day!
Next up: the nightmare pitch. It’s a flared, overhung chimney, with a 1″ crack in the back that’s too wide for good finger jams, and too narrow to fit a hand jam. The crux (for me) is transitioning from chimney-scuzzing to lieback-jamming. I racked up and cast off up the pitch remembering almost puking on Roberto the year before. I knew this would be a true battle. The jams were as miserable as I remembered, but I fought, thrashed, and committed. In the end, I whipped off swinging into the chimney below. The fall was fine, and even amusing when I realized that my foot was stuck in the back of the chimney. As opposed to almost puking like last year, this time my whole body was shaking from exertion – a definite improvement! After a minute, I extracted my foot, and went back up to play with the technique and sequence needed to unlock the pitch.
I lowered, and pulled the rope ready for another go. I had better technique this time, and I came damn close with a better sequence, but the pitch was still out of my league. I fell again, rested a little, and then cast off up the liebacking above. I was destroyed, but I managed to get the rest of the physically demanding pitch clean. Again, the 0.5 Link Cam saved my ass when I was pumped and liebacking and needed to slam something in quickly. I was beginning to be a real fan! On the ledge above, I hauled the bag and brought Eliot up. He managed to also put the pitch together with only one fall. I found this quite impressive considering it was his first time on it and the weird technique required, !
We ate some food and rested on the ledge. We were done with half of the hard pitches, and the last three were much easier, relative to the three below. After our rest, I racked up again and enjoyed the perfect 12a splitter fingers to the next belay ledge. After years of practicing on Woodson finger cracks, Eliot floated the pitch as well.
The dreaded 5.12 ring locks loomed above. It’s only 30-40′, but damn is it hard. Dead vertical, no feet anywhere, and setting gear is a nightmare. I stepped off the ledge and started proceeding methodically. If I had a single marginal jam, I would be off. I maximized the pin scars for feet, and worked up the crack trying to balance safety and not wasting energy setting gear. I read it right, and barely red pointed this pitch, which had given me so much trouble the year before. I was STOKED!
By this point, we were finally up to where Ryan could shoot some photos: Photos © Ryan Day Thompson, 2011 | RyanDayThompson.com
Eliot walked the pitch behind me, and I racked up for the final pitch to the top. Since I had already fallen, I planned on just taking the whole rack and punching for the summit by linking the last two pitches. I cast off on the lower angle climbing above trying to get us out of there quickly, since it was starting to get cold. I finished the 5.12a pitch without too much trouble, but during it I had my 2nd cramp of the day and exhaustion started to set in.
The last 5.10 pitch is no “gimmie” pitch, and it turned into a slow battle. The rock quality deteriorates, the gear is farther between, and the moves sometimes aren’t obvious. As I moved up cautiously, I reached a section where I had to smear my foot on one of those terribly sandy sections of white sandstone reach up for a perfect hand jam. As I cranked off a tiny crimp with my right hand, my feet blew just as my left hand settled in the crack. I ended up laughing, dangling off my single handjam having averted a potentially monster fall! I continued up the discontinuous crack carefully to the top and finally clipped the final anchor. I hauled the bag, and brought Eliot up who climbed yet another 5.12 pitch flawlessly.
Once on top, we snapped the mandatory pullharder pose picture, and packed up for the hike down. All in all, it was a relatively uneventful day, but it was a great one nonetheless. We spent the day on one of the best free routes in the world. I didn’t send, but I had greatly improved and climbed the route with a single fall. I consider any improvement a huge success, especially since I was dealing with a lingering injury from two weeks previously. Eliot had his first taste of bigwall free climbing, and had performed spectacularly with only 3 hangs on the entire route. Ryan had the opportunity to snap some great photos of a famous and spectacular route. On top of it all, we managed to make it down to grab dinner and beers in town while it was still daylight, before crashing out for the night with huge grins and great memories.
I woke up at 3am and experienced foreshadowing of what was to come the next day. My fingers were throbbing with so much pain that I couldn’t fall back to sleep. I dug around until I found some Vitamin I, poured an unknown quantity into my palm, and downed it with some water I luckily found in the tent. When we woke the next morning, we hurt everywhere. We quickly, and unanimously, canceled any plan to climb for the day, realizing that we needed the rest. Since there was rain predicted Sunday, we ended up packing the car and heading home early after another excellent trip to Zion….
Thanks Eliot and Ryan!