Lost And Found In The Desert

What can I say, this was one hell of a birthday. Most people in their early twenties like to spend their birthdays ten beers in, locked in the bathroom for most of the night. Here I am hundreds of feet up a seldom visited sandstone wall, both hands and feet pulling and pushing on questionable holds, more than thirty feet above my last piece of protection.

What am I doing up here?

That was the one question that kept cycling through my mind as I moved further and further from safety and into the realm of the unknown . . . Welcome to Zion.

For the last few months I had been living in Durango, CO working odd jobs and climbing whenever I had any free time. About a year ago was my 21st birthday and I had planned a big trip to Indian Creek. Unfortunately we got rained out and cancelled it, so this year I really wanted to do something epic. Once again I looked to the desert.

This year, being much closer than when I was living in Boulder, I’d already made a handful of trips to the Creek so I was hungry for something a bit more adventurous. A couple weeks prior to my birthday weekend I went on a trip to Utah with some friends to climb some towers. I’d been talking about what to do for my birthday and somehow Zion had come up. I had wanted to go to Zion ever since I saw a movie called the Continuum Project that featured climbing in Zion in a section of the video. I finally felt ready for my first trip to this legendary land of thousand foot sandstone walls. We all talked it over and decided it was the perfect time to make the trip.

 After navigating through loose rock, questionable hold after questionable hold, I was only finding rough signs of a previous ascent. 

The afternoon of November 2nd finally came and it was down to Gary, Lucas and I. By around 4:30 that day we were packed and on our way. After a short detour towards Gallup, New Mexico and six or so hours of driving we found ourselves within the confines of Zion National Park, searching for a campsite at one in the morning. When we finally parked I quickly dragged my sleeping bag and pad out from the back of the car and settled down on the sandy ground for a few hours of sleep before our early first day.

After Gary let us sleep in an extra hour we packed up the campsite and drove to the base of the climb. It took a little while to sort through the gear, look over the topos and tape up, but soon enough we were on the trail and on our way. After a short hike we were near the base of the climb and it was time to find a way through the brush and scree to the start of our climb. Our goal for the day was a ten pitch climb called Iron Messiah on a formation called the Spearhead. Our topos were less than perfect but after a while we thought we were on the right track.

I got us to the base of an easyish looking chimney and determined that we’d be ok without roping up for a little while, though I’m not sure everyone shared my sentiments. At this point I still had no real idea of where we were in relation to the route but once we got to the top of the chimney I found a tree with a sling around it. According to the topos there was only one established route on the cliff so I figured we must be on route. Four pitches later I wasn’t so convinced. After navigating through loose rock, questionable hold after questionable hold, I was only finding rough signs of a previous ascent. There were also several occasions where I encountered fairly exposed and difficult climbing which wouldn’t have been as much of an issue if I had had the opportunity to place more than five pieces of protection over the course of four pitches.

We all took turns consulting the map and determined that the true route was a considerable bit to the left of our current location. Unfortunately getting over there would require a good amount of unprotected climbing up a steep slab that wouldn’t necessarily connect us with the established crack system.

At this point we had three options that I could see: 1) continue up towards a thin looking crack high on the face that didn’t seem to be entirely continuous, 2) make a sketchy traverse up the slab to the real route, or 3) rap down. Since it was already 3pm we decided it was best to cut our losses and rap down to the base while we had the chance.

As is usually the case our descent was anything but straightforward. Ropes were tangled, rap stations were hard to find and we thrashed our way through more bushes than I can count. After four or five rappels we were finally back in the horizontal world. We had left our shoes and extra gear at the top of the first chimney and someone had to go back for it. I volunteered since earlier I had had no hesitation in soloing up it. I thrashed my way to the top and through the bushes clipped all of our shoes and gear on my harness and set up a rappel from the sling on the tree. Half an hour later we were back in the parking lot enjoying beer and cheezits.

The next morning we were once again sorting through the gear in the back of the car but this time without the extra hour of sleep. Today’s objective included at least an hour and a half hike-in and six pitches of offwidths and squeeze chimneys. Johnson mountain is a formation just south of Zion National Park above the small town of Springdale, Utah. Our climb was called Settler’s Line and had been put up the previous winter by some local hardmen. It had a long, bolt-protected squeeze chimney section that Lucas was interested in leading. Gary would lead the hand-crack sections and I was stuck with the offwidths (but I wasn’t complaining). The trail in wasn’t exactly clear but all we had to do was find the path of least resistance to the southeast face of Johnson Mountain.

The hike was pretty rough, winding through gullies and ridgetops, but it was doable. Once we were at the base of the cliffs the search was on. Since this was a very new climb it wasn’t in the guidebook (which didn’t matter since none of us had the guidebook) and there weren’t any pictures posted from the route. We had a rough description to go on but eventually we found it. It really was a beautiful line and the summit was rumoured to be no bigger than your standard living room. While Gary racked the gear for the first pitch I got the ropes ready and soon he was coasted up the first pitch. By the time he yelled “off-belay” Lucas and I were ready to follow the pitch. The upper parts were tough and Gary had made an impressive lead.

Once we were all at the belay station I took all of the big gear and started up the first offwidth pitch. This was the hardest offwidth I had ever done and it wasn’t pretty. Right off the deck I had to tackle a short roof section and then traverse five feet over to another crack system that got wider and wider. I squirmed and torqued my body up the pitch until I finally clipped into the slings at the top of the pitch. Originally I had planned to link pitches two and three but the hundred or so feet of wide climbing had drained most of my energy and I desperately needed a breather. So I belayed up Lucas and Gary, hoping I would be ready to battle again after they reached the ledge.

After some grunting and groaning we were all once again together at the belay. After convincing myself to get moving again I took the sharp end of the rope and started up the next fat crack. I was no more than ten feet up when out of the blue I started to feel excruciating pain in my right knee. I tried to shake it off and start again but every time I torqued my knee in the crack (a movement that would be essential to tackle this monster) the pain only worsened. We talked it over and since Gary and Lucas didn’t feel comfortable leading the pitch (it was the crux of the climb) it was time to bail. Again. This time the rappel was very smooth and we had no stuck or tangled ropes.

The hike out was even longer than the way in and my newly acquired gimp knee was not helping. Gully after gully, ridge after ridge and still no sign of the town. Eventually we ran out of water and the sun continued to beat down on us. Everyone had their own idea of what was the most efficient way to get down and back to the car and in the end we kind of followed a hybrid version of it all.

Finally we found the road out and began to feel that familiar sensation of relief. Our adventure was coming to an end, but not without a quick stop for burgers and a pitcher of beer. Soon after we were on our way home, driving through the cool night air of the desert. We had certainly failed in completing any of the routes we had planned to climb but it was anything but a failure. We had explored a new land, full of potential for future trips, challenged our mental and emotional powers of judgments, and hell, we were still alive right? We would be back without a doubt. Besides our unfinished business with the climbs we had attempted, there were miles of cliff bands beckoning and calling for new adventures. Zion may have spanked us, but we were anything but discouraged.