Moon Travel on Ecstasy -- a vertical tale
Intro: Planning my first big wall started early in the year. Having struck out on finding a partner with agreeable times and personality, I settled on going solo. Honestly there are few I trust my rope to and want to share a ledge with, and prospects of doubling down on my accomplishment sealed the deal. In the months leading up, consumed by a work-travel schedule that gave little personal space, the impending solitude and slow pace grew to be what I most looked forward to. Even if I came across a partner, I was committed to a solo endeavor.
I was already devoting time to physical training for alpine goals (stair-sprints are great for travelers), so other than being fit I didn’t do anything special. However, learning and practicing wall systems was instrumental. Aiding fundamentals were already solid, so I focused on self belay and jug efficiency. At the crag I’d work out solo systems next to free climbing friends, and I'd ask the last person up to fix a line so I could jug it. As most proclaim, mileage is key and by the time the wall came it was second nature. Next I honed anchors and hauling systems, which included a lot of reading and practice runs with a haul bag of rocks. Last was wall livin’, such as setting up a portaledge in free hang, constructing a poop tube, and putting a tie line on everything. I spent one night in the ledge at the top of a single pitch but never did the intended trial run on a short overnight multipitch.
Drive Day: The scope of preparation required was beyond what I anticipated, and I found myself on the morning of departure only half packed. Fortunately, I had the foresight to schedule time for absorbing these delays, which proved to be an important factor in the trip’s outcome. With all bags packed for going straight to the wall, I left Fort Collins at 2pm, mentally battled through Denver slow downs, and hit the mountains. Dispatching the high passes, I raced along the Colorado River and out across the desert, making Richfield before midnight. Stopping in an empty parking lot, I crawled into the makeshift bed, thankful for the last minute addition to my CRV.
Day 1: The end of Daylight Savings gifted an extra hour of sleep, making it a bit easier to wake at 6am. It was a frosty 16 degrees and I took advantage of starting the car from under warm blankets. The thought of being so cold on the wall was frightening and the first occurrence of what the hell am I doing out here passed through my head. Once the car warmed I motored on, pulling into Zion shortly after 9am. A quick visit to the wilderness desk yielded a permit and the ranger's question, "You're going to spend 6 nights up there?!" I replied, "Well I hope not, but flying solo so we'll see..." I ate and drank as much as I could stomach and dropped bags closer to the buses. I was five items deep, total weight kept unknown for morale: XL haul bag with water, food, and camping gear, medium backpack with climbing gear, grocery bag with 150m of rope, a portaledge, and poop tube.
Per an MP suggestion, I asked the bus driver if he’ll drop me at the Moonlight Buttress trail, figuring drivers would know where it is and alleviate the burden of trail finding. About a quarter mile past Big Bend the bus stopped and an intercom voice asked, "Is this where you want off?". Every head simultaneously turned my direction. Figuring we’d gone too far and not wanting to add any distance to my hike, or duration to the group stare down, I told him I’ll catch it on the way back. He was very nice and had me sit by him to call out exactly where to stop. A scoping mission would have been wise, but I didn't want to give a day to it nor sort out camping in the park -- I should have jumped off where he had first offered.
Regardless, the trail is obvious and I began pack muling. The pig alone was all I could bear, just barely managing to deadlift it from the ground. The second load wasn’t any better with a backpack on plus the ledge and tube in one arm and ropes in the other. Being nearly high noon under such heavy loads and unrelenting desert sun, the task felt tailored to drudges of a torturous labor camp. Splitting both weight and distance in half, it took 4 loads before I joined all my kit next to the river. I sat exhausted in the shade of my towering haul bag, slowly sipped on water while again contemplating what the hell am I doing out here.
Wisely, I took a light load for my first go across the waterway, which was easy right until the last 10 feet. I ferried everything in 4 loads, nearly taking a spill with the pig. The uphill began immediately and was grueling. I broke it into 3 loads -- backpack with ledge and tube first. As I neared the wall’s base I saw climbers on the first pitch. Arriving as their leader just finished, I briefly met Megan, half of a British team going for Moonlight proper on aid. I emptied my pack and returned for the next load. I stuffed it full of metal bacon bits fresh from the pig, trusted to save human lives, and then left it in the sand to slog the now-slightly-less-fat pig up the hillside. For the third time I thought what the hell am I doing out here.
By the second trip down I was completely exhausted and disgustingly sweaty, without even starting the climb. Considering the team ahead was just starting to haul, I took a quick dip in the icy Virgin River. This was an excellent choice, morally and physically, despite the lateness in the day. One last test of will power saw me to the start with all my gear and the Brits finishing their haul and clean. I racked casually but was sure to maintain a steady pace, and launched the 5.8 start. It was easy low angle french freeing with no ladders and fluid movement. The very last step across was unprotected and a bit spicy in approach shoes considering the potential swing and compounded nerves from Megan watching just a few feet away.
I clipped into shared bolts, quickly pulled ropes and rapped. With the anchor occupied, I took my time to set things up, which was appreciated being my first time with the whole kit and trying a far-end haul setup. I put myself on solo TR and french freed through cleaning. I returned to a cleared anchor and began hauling. Despite ample practice, the 2:1 took a bit to get aligned and adjusted for an efficient stroke. No sooner than finding the first smooth cycle, my biggest fear came crashing into reality -- the damn pig snagged! My heart dropped and I dreaded the idea of rapping and jugging the whole pitch again.
To my great relief and fortune, just before admitting defeat I heard a jangle from above. The British team had ended their push and was fixing back down. I met Alex and he graciously offered to free my bag, saving me the trip at a critical time in the first day’s final hours. For that, any waiting I did on their behalf was well worth it and I am grateful to have shared the start with them.
As the last rays of light slipped away up the wall and into the dusky sky, I finished hauling by moonlight because I lacked foresight to take headlamps out of the pig -- apropos for my first night on Moonlight Buttress. With a large flat ledge at my disposal, it was easy and quick to get camp up and dinner made, but still 10pm came before chores were complete and I was ready for bed.
Day 2: I slept great! Figuring no one would be coming up until after the first bus, I intended to sleep in. Little did I know the park issues drive-in permits for single day attempts and shortly after 6am, with the first rays of light stirring my slumber, I heard climbers not far below. I jumped out of my cocoon to find a free climbing party halfway up the 5.10 start and moving quick. I scrambled to take care of business before hosting unexpected company. They seemed equally surprised to find me there, but in anticipation of the British team’s return my anchor was tidy and they simply clipped to the master point, moving through while I packed up. Hot on their heels was a Czech team, also going for a single day free attempt.
I anticipated the shared start between Lunar X and Moonlight proper to be a cluster, so my goal had been completing pitch 3 on the first day to be past the junction. In reality that was far too lofty. On paper and by most standards the approach is easy, however, the combined detractors of moving weight alone through blazing heat was more than I calculated for. I had no choice but to accept simply getting off the ground to camp legally. And despite being woken at dawn, I was not getting out of the gates quickly. Single day attempts obviously take priority, so I was stuck at the top of pitch 1 forced to enjoy a very leisurely breakfast.
With all my tasks complete and the British team back on scene, I was anxious to get moving. After the Czech follower started up, I took the opportunity to make progress and jugged the fixed British line, skipping my lead of pitch 2. Doing so avoided some spice, as the initial moves to pro are right above a ledge way off at an angle from the anchor. With my rope anchored at pitch 2, I rapped my own fixed line as Alex, and then Megan, jugged past. I took my time to rack up and think through rope logistics -- bags get hauled straight up from P1 to P3, skipping P2 and creating a triangle in my continuous loop. I returned to pitch 2 anchors before Megan was off and waited to move through so ropes wouldn’t cross. This was the hardest wait but their friendly conversation more than made up for it and soon after I would cherish these last moments of human contact before going into deep space.
Pitch 3 was awkward and thin, but with a strategic mix of knee bars and aiders it was fairly graceful and made quick by solid placements. Flipping the haul line around required a few steps back down from the anchors, but otherwise the setup was easy and directly above the pig. A quick rap, some easy far end hauling up a couple steps, and off I jugged on the tail of my lead line. I came back on Alex one last time as Megan was starting to haul. We parted ways in good style, each jugging away around opposite sides of the buttress’ arete.
It was well into the day by the time I finished my second haul. I took an extended lunch to soak it in and briefly rest while my solar overlord delivered an intense sermon. I was now truly alone, completely separated from other parties on the namesake route and free to move at my own speed. I took my time racking up and arranging ropes, but soon enough jumped onto pitch 4. It seems many free parties split this pitch in two as it involves a traverse and potential rope drag, but with a self belay it’s of no concern. The first section was easy and I clipped a lone bolt before flipping ropes around. Here the real aid climbing started with a near vertical wall and small splitter crack; it was easy C1 but brought the excitement of getting after what I came to do.
I moved smooth and continuous, leaving enough gear to feel well protected and bouncing along the rest to keep a full range at my disposal. My pace was steady and fun, but about halfway through I noticed drag on the lead line. Looking down at my bright green rope spooling out of the grocery-style rope bags the issue wasn’t clear, but I knew it was a sure sign of trouble. Upwards progress only brought more tension from below. I resigned to push on towards the inevitable impasse, a heartbreaker jam just 40 feet shy of anchors. With no other option, I built an anchor and reluctantly rapped. The problem was immediately obvious -- a loop of lead line slack got free from the bag and wrapped tight around the pig. Lesson learned. Since my bags were already in the shade, I decided to call it a day and utilize the large ledge for camp two.
Day 3: Having bed down early, I set an early alarm in hopes of beating the sun to my high point. Polar opposite from the daytime’s sweltering heat, the frigid morning caused haste for exiting my warm swaddle of sleeping and bivy bags. A true battle of willpower saw me moving, but slow as thick molasses. After a hot bowl of oatmeal and a shiverfest while changing into clothes fit for desert heat, I packed and racked only to be found by the sun part way into jugging. Being completely free hanging and toting along the rack, it was a brutal slog that had me switching from two aider jugging to froggy style midway. It worked me over and I cursed yesterday’s stuck rope.
I reached my highpoint, set a belay, and took off for the last 20 feet of crack leading to the bolted Halfmoon Traverse ledge system. I danced across the ledgy steps, quickly set anchor, and rapped the haul line. I freed the pig, cleaned anchor, and took off jugging. In little time I was back to the top of pitch 4, hauling with no hitches. As I recollected from the morning sprint and recalled the route’s sequence, the weight of my next task set in. I was at a pivotal moment, one that could define success or failure. Pitch 5 starts the real business, kicking off with a well spaced bolt ladder into a defyingly thin and flared crack which shoots straight as an arrow to the very top. A fierce intimidation strikes at the heart while the scar’s aesthetic beauty steals the breath, inducing immediate lust and desire to ascend it.
After a hasty lunch, I jumped on eager to test my mettle against the Old A4 pitch and my first taste of C2. A few top steps and one clip that tested my reach saw me through the bolts with relative ease. The crack was a different story. Offset nuts were king in this shallow, flared, and (fortunate for climber, unfortunate for rock) podded affair. Everything held body weight but I’d hesitate to whip on some, later validated by no-effort cleaning. The frequent solid offset or totem kept nerves and risk low. The technical crux came midway with a precarious top step on a small nut to reach a slightly bent fixed beak. Relying on this type of small fixed gear was a big first and I gingerly weighted it with great trepidation. Surprisingly it seemed very solid, but I quickly moved past to more friendly gear.
Having cleared the first big hurdle and still feeling good, I decided to short fix what I could on the following pitch, in part for the novelty of executing something I’ve only referenced in theory. I had a good portion of rack and the Leapfrogging Aliens looked to be awesome C1. I set off with the intention of only going part way but the foolery of that morning’s jug back to the highpoint kept me from stopping. The pitch was stellar, better than any description claimed. I nearly bound up the thing, bouncing blue totems and grinning ear to ear. Eventually I had to leave one to feel protected and switched to an orange tcu, which worked about as well but required extra strategery. Eventually it was the coveted pink tricam that saved the day. With the knot joining lead line to haul line rapidly approaching, I went for gold hoping the anchors were closer.
After an estimated 5 hours on the sharp end and with just a meter of rope to spare, I found myself at the day’s third set of anchors! I knew this marathon push was likely a tipping point for success. Overjoyed I rapped my full haul line back to the narrow ledge atop pitch 4. Even though Farewell Ledge is not much wider than a park bench, it was a huge help in getting things arranged and assembled. It turned out to be the perfect stepping stone in learning how to deal with freehang camping -- going from a massive ledge the night before, to this shelf narrower than my single portaledge, and then into true nothingness. Contemplating what lay ahead and settling into the bags, I found the water supply’s halfway mark. With ropes to the top of pitch 6 and bags 2 pitches below, I was straddling the middle of this 9 pitch climb. I was on track but with little room for error.
Day 4: Again to no avail, I woke with the goal of jugging before the sun came. Even with a dim and frigid alpine start, there was too much to accomplish with maintaining the diligence to not drop anything. This morning’s jug line, pinned to the wall by the gear to be cleaned, was in every way better than the previous day’s and I was happy despite the harsh spike in temperature. I made quick progress and was soon hauling at my first anchor without a ledge to work on. It took a few repetitions to optimize lengths and rhythm in my ladders. Once dialed it wasn’t unlike the lower hauls, but gave an extra thrill of feeling like a true big waller. To an outsider, it probably just looked like I was savagely humping the wall, thrusting hips as high as possible to maximize each stroke. In retrospect I should have skipped pitch 5 anchors and hauled straight through pitch 6, but fear of something going awry and having to descend that much further kept me conservative.
In true big wall fashion I opted to flag the ledge, which is even more reason to have skipped that intermediate stop. Docking bags with the ledge was a battle but good exercise in anchor management. Before long I reset and was off cleaning and hauling pitch 6. The preassembled ledge made for a quick set up and much appreciated space to hang out after back to back hauls. The position was outstanding with part of the ledge hanging past the arete, jutting into free space. It was nothing but air all around, which also made for no place to escape the merciless sun. I tied a bandana across the ledge straps to make a sliver of shade for my face while lunching. With water conservation on the mind I wasn’t eager to push hard in the midday heat, but knowing progress had to be made I soon headed off into the Amoeba pitch.
I found passing the mysteriously attached block to be rather easy, albeit terribly unnerving, and the succeeding bathook to be the most bomber I’ve ever experienced. The loose C2+, as described in the topo, was dispatched easily with offset nuts and only one iffy podded tricam. It didn’t feel any harder than the Old A4, but maybe I was conditioned by this point or perhaps found my calling with funky sandstone pods. Either way, I was anchored and rapping back to my airy ledge in no time.
This was my favorite abseil: a touch free hanging and sweeping across an expansive rock shield. I soaked in position and accomplishment; that perspective of my portaledge, hanging in the heart of Zion Canyon, will long be imprinted upon my memory. It looked like a space capsule, hanging out of place, half into nothingness beyond the arete, midway on a sheer wall, hundreds of feet above the river. Surreal.
Day 5: With the saga’s end within sight, I performed the established morning waltz while the sun crept down the buttress. As the rim moved closer the distance was made ever shorter. Despite increasing elevation the nights and mornings were becoming warmer. I relished in the perfect weather window, taking off on a leisurely jug and clean followed by an uneventful haul. To my relief, the pig did not tango with the amoeba and I was ready for pitch 8.
The opening sequence turned out to be the hardest move of the whole thing for me. It is described as “carefully free climb (5.8) up sandy rock steps to crack. Possible to place small horizontal gear”. I’m sure for a party of two these free moves would be no problem, but for me it was the surprise mental crux. My qualm was the chance of a swinging fall with anchors straight out left and little gear in between. It was more like one big step, not steps, and a very high step at that. I found a really solid .5 about a foot right and no higher than the bolts, which gave only a moment of comfort. I continued tip-toeing out in approach shoes onto the slopey dish below the chest-high shelf. I found an ok horizontal blue Totem, but question if the rock was strong enough given how shallow the otherwise decent looking placement was.
I fumbled around trying to master the puzzle of mounting this thing with a 10 foot arcing consequence looming. I tried moving further right and up but a sandy edge broke in hand. Gently placing it back but knowing gravity will soon claim it, I retreated to the anchor. The moves are probably not that hard, but on day 5 I had no interest in gambling on a potential injury. With seemingly little other option, I hooked ladders to my placed cams. If I knew the Totem was bomber, I would have just climbed that. Rather, I started up the .5 ladder and used the pig, anchor sling, and then bolt to counterbalance from, managing to just gingerly weight the Totem for a brief moment. Terrified, I nearly ran to the crack, cramming gear and zipping my way through mellow climbing to the next anchor.
The rap, jug, clean, and haul were mellow, but in the midst of jugging I was startled by a voice from above. A tourist had poked his head over the rim’s edge, jolting me away from solitude and isolation. It had been 3 days since I heard any voice other than my own, and I honestly overlooked the inevitable return to society and interpersonal encounters. He was just as shocked to see a human hanging in space by just a rope. We had a brief exchange of standard tourist questions, before I set back to hauling. Things were routine and pitch 8 ends on a huge ledge, effectively ending my “hang time” and granting the luxury of working on a large flat surface.
Day 6: The day of reckoning came with great welcome and a relaxing morning, sleeping for as long as I pleased. I took my time with morning chores to frequently gaze out over the valley, revelling in my position and near completion. Surprisingly I still felt good -- physically, mentally, and emotionally -- but things were worn down to baseline operating levels. As the taste of victory crept in, threads began to unravel. It started with tearing my food sack wide open, luckily while working above the ledge so nothing was lost. Then a nightmare occured: as I was stuffing a rather full wag bag into my too narrow DIY poop tube, it ripped! By the grace of thou defecation gods, it was just a small tear and folding the bag differently contained the fear mongering breach. It slipped into the tube without mess and I thanked the stars it wouldn’t be opened again on the wall.
As the day progressed, motor skills deteriorated at a rapid rate. It felt like I could do no right and was snowballing into an avalanche of frustration. Ropes and anchor were a tangled nest, and the rack was a jumbled wreckage of wires and slings. It seemed an eternity to sort myself and get started on the final pitch. I bivied towards the right with extra bolts under the standard finish, however, I wanted to climb the leftward Jerrett Finish variation based on high reviews. From my anchor I scrambled easy 3rd class with huge exposure over to a pair of anchors that mark the start. The shade was refreshing and I took my time setting up the anchor for solo lead and clearing my head.
Things turned right again once on the sharp end and I enjoyed a stellar final pitch, perhaps the most enjoyable. After some funky stemming and large cams to get started, it turned into a laser cut zigzagging, and at times, slightly overhanging C1 joy crack. It cut sharply from the left headwall across to the southeast face and then returned to the left, kicking back as it crossed the arete a second time. Endless baggy finger sizes cruised towards the top, and the exposure was brilliant! Nine pitches off the ground I dangled and danced seemingly suspended in mid-air, loving every moment of movement and position. The end of the pitch eased off both in steepness and bomber placements. A few tricky wires lead to a savior bolt and subsequent last bolt ladder leading to the top!
I was overjoyed as I approached the final anchors and allowed the weight of my accomplishment to settle in. A pair of tourists walked up to the nearby rim and I startled them by asking if they would take my photo to document the moment. They were shocked by my position and couldn’t believe I was ending 6 days on the wall. I set up anchor and topped out to fix a line to the large tree. I descended back to my bags and began wrestling them around the corner. Short hauling at the bag, although arduous, made it manageable with minimal snags.
The gears of a well oiled machine were beginning to grind and fuel was running low. The cloud 9 bliss was giving way to the daunting walk down which loomed heavily ahead. I slowly jugged and cleaned, ringing every ounce of joy from these last moments on route. Hauling went rather quick thanks to nearly empty water jugs. Then my nuclear meltdown took place. While I appreciated my fixed line to the tree as support for topping out, I managed to create the worst clusterfuck I’ve ever had the disprivilege to work through. I ended up fixing both lead and haul lines, and due to the solo lead setup neither rope was fixed at its end. So both lines ran back and forth between tree and anchor. If everything stayed straight it might have been fine, but in a day 6 failure I twisted lines into a complete mess, inducing a soul crushing stress and overwhelming frustration that nearly broke my spirit. All I wanted was to have my bags on top, to wipe my hands clean of the wall, and start a long journey home.
After attending, ring leading, and at last resolving my own full featured big-top-circus-spectacular, I was sitting in the shade of the tree with all my belongings scattered around. I took my harness off for the first time in nearly a week, exhaled a deep sigh of relief, and collapsed onto the sandstone. I had tapped out my reserves and wasn’t sure how to get everything back to the car. The idea of doing two loads seemed appealing to my shoulders for obvious reasons, but the thought of hiking back up stamped out any serious consideration. I was determined to get everything down in one go, mostly because I feared it would be the last effort I could put forth.
Again I moved leisurely, taking my time to bask in the glory of completion and take in all the scenery possible. During this a climber topped out from working the namesake route on solo TR. His company was appreciated as a mellow reintroduction to socializing and reality. He could relate to and appreciate what I did without bombarding simple (to climbers, downright silly) questions and glaring stares. It helped turn my desperation and despair into a sense of accomplishment and motivation to walk out. While chatting with him I began to pack, condensing everything possible. I managed to get it all into the pig minus ropes, ledge, poop tube, and a few empty water jugs. I worked out strapping the ledge and tube to the sides of my pig and put ropes and jugs into the grocery bag to be carried in arm.
To my amazement this worked, albeit was downright grueling. Compounding with the uneven rocky sand trail was the blasted midday sun, and I was down to only a liter of water. I could only manage a few hundred feet before needing a break. This continued down to Angel's Landing turn off, with the paved trail slightly increasing intervals. Switchbacks actually provided steller resting spots with optimal seat height and support to relieve my back of its heavy burden. At a switchback below Walter’s Wiggles, while prolonging one of the many rests, two amazing individuals approached. I was about to ask if they could give a little push to get me going, but without hesitation they asked if they could carry any gear to lighten my load.
These two saviors not only took ropes and empty jugs, they gave me a liter of cold water and paced with me the entire way down. It turns out, one of them was from the same town and we all shared a profession as audio engineers. The engaging conversation and friendly company, not to mention lighter load and cold water, whisked me down the trail back to real life. I am forever grateful to Billy and Travis for their selfless assistance and pleasant company as I walked through the archway dividing one from mythical wall dweller to just a smelly guy with an enormous backpack. Near the bottom of the trail, as we passed by another group in opposite directions, we overheard someone say “I wonder how that guy drew the short straw for carrying gear.” We all laughed, and without looking back I jumped on a shuttle to return home.
Afterword: Recounting these memories in the midst of a pandemic paints the experience with an extra shade of surreal. Considering nearly all of climbing is shut down and most of the world has been ordered to stay home, the line between fiction and reality feels razor thin. My emotional toil is still fresh as the morning catch, but the actions feel a world away, or at the very least a lifetime past. Viewed through the optimist’s lens, I have these circumstances to thank for finding time to write this and hopefully share the feeling of adventure with others currently trapped indoors.
I acknowledge it may also have an (un)fortunate effect of stirring up a lust to go climb. I urge you all, please do not let that desire overrule your social responsibility to stay home. We are the carriers of a virus that is already overwhelming hospitals, and while climbers may not be at high risk, we must make the sacrifices necessary to slow the infection rate, or flatten the curve, for the sake of public health. I personally believe solo adventuring in the backcountry, or with a member from your household, is perfectly fine, but not if 10 other people have the same idea in the same place. The truth is that few spots are unknown and few climbers venture far from the pavement.
We’re living in a crisis that is a bomb shy of war-time. Personal desires for recreation have to be set aside for the greater good. Sure, everyone needs some fresh air, exercise, and fun for both physical and mental health, but we must double down on doing so responsibly. Our grandparents were drafted to put lives on hold and fight with guns, we’re being asked to stay home. This is modern warfare, up against an invisible enemy that we ourselves are responsible for spreading, and we must rise to the call.
Stay home, stay healthy, & cheers!