Big Wall Boot Camp

 “Remember how we saw the 9th pitch pendulum on the topo and said we’d figure it out when we got there?”

“Yeah,” Tim muttered at my asinine question.

“Well, we’re there. And I have no idea how to do it, especially using these jumars and this hook thing.”

“To start, the hook has absolutely nothing to do with this.”

“It might as well,” I sighed, glancing at 900 feet of air below my stanceless belay.


Aside from actual phone conversations in lieu of texting, there aren’t many environments that feel more unnatural to the modern human body than summertime in the desert—brow sweat burning eyes, water bottles shrinking every time you think about them, and the thrust of jet engine air sweeping your body as you emerge from air conditioning.

After backpacking through Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in a drought-fraught June 2012 and hiking in Arches National Park the following July, climbing a notoriously steep 1,000-foot sandstone wall with 100% Utah sun exposure in mid-August seemed like the mistake to make.

My friend Tim was craving an escape from the Salt Lake City heat and decided that his best bet was to be found in the desert. Two days later, I—and my zero aid climbing experience—was sweating beside him at the base of the tallest vertical wall on which I’d ever needed to find a route. To my mountaineering eyes, none existed. Prodigal Sun, on the North Face of Zion National Park’s Angel’s Landing, has earned a modest grade and corresponding reputation during its hundreds, if not thousands, of ascents in the past 30 years. FA’ed in ’81 by a solo climber dubbed “Piton Ron” Olevsky, e-comments on the route range from “A glorified bolt ladder” to “The 7th pitch hook is solid but somewhat reachy.”

Not much summer big wall climbing is done in Zion due to a common and reasonable fear of lung-collapsing temperatures, but we found the five hours of sun exposure surprisingly tolerable. What was difficult to manage, though, was our remarkably extensive experience, at a collective two walls. Those are two walls, both climbed by Tim. I spend more time with an ice axe in hand than with 65 cams thrown over my shoulder, and the only thing I try to haul is ass, up and down mountains with skis on my feet. When I rock climb, I use climbing shoes. In Zion, I wore old approach shoes, the toes of which would be summarily destroyed by toe drag during endless jugging.

For a barely-disputed 1000’ 5.7 C2, I spent a lot of time holding back my inner nine-year-old girl as I followed the three pitches that Tim put up on the first day. We returned early the next day to jumar the lines we’d left dangling overnight, this time with all the gear we’d stashed at the base. Having practiced for this nine-pitch climb exactly once, on a 40’ 5.10 crack in Little Cottonwood Canyon (yes, Bongeater), the mechanical ascenders still felt like two left feet at a middle school dance.

Below, pitches disappeared slower than our waning water supply. Gear fell to the ground as discussions took place about not only how to properly execute a tension traverse, but what the heck a tension traverse is. Streams of tourists were deposited at the sightseeing pull-off, but only twice did they return my friendly, lazy-belay waves: once from atop the Angel’s Landing trail and once from the ground, across the Virgin River 600 feet below.

“No way!” Tim hollered from 75 feet above me. “They waved back? Who!? Where!?” His response pleased me, assuring me that it truly was exciting, and not a measly distraction during my day of belay boredom.

While I suppose that I know, in theory, how to aid climb, that terrain wasn’t exactly conducive to my first attempt. Luckily Tim is my best friend, because I had absolutely no remorse reminding him that he had to lead every pitch. Tim found it ironic that I was putting all of my faith in him and his two walls of experience, because we both knew that he really didn’t have any proficiency. But we’ve been climbing together for years and feel great on most walls.

The pitches run together in my mind. Sure, I had to swing on Pitch X and that offset cam on Pitch Y was a joke of a placement, but they were all pretty much the same. Belay, turn the iPod off, jug, clean, jug, turn the iPod on, change the song, talk to the GoPro, belay.

“So, the topo says that this pitch has a tension traverse and a hook move. I have no idea what either of those are, but we borrowed a hook and the other one is your problem—I think—so I’ll see you in like seven hours at the next belay,” Tim yelled from six bolts up the Pitch Z bolt ladder.

“Deal. If I shortrope you, I’m not shortroping you. I’m sleeping.”

The last aid pitch’s pendulum was a quandary for us. I rigged some elaborate mechanism to lower myself away from the fixed piece, moving down and over to the next piece. With no idea about the “right” way, the improvised method was safe and effective, and I arrived at the first real ledge on the entire climb. It was 1000’ feet from the ground.

“You wanna lead your first pitch? Eh? Yeah? Do ya?” Tim joked, in reference to the final 5.6 chimney freeclimb. Energetic after 13 hours of pull-ups, I was finally on lead, on a 5.6, with a big wall rack. About 20 feet up, freaked out, stuck and exhausted, I looked down to see Tim cracking up, taking a picture with his iPhone and no-handing the belay.

“I’m seriously cruxing right now,” I moaned at him, hoping he’d change his shutter hand to a brake hand.

The pitch became more miserable. I retreated twice, first to try a different route and second to ditch the gear. Nearly an hour after leaving the ledge, I finished scrambling up the loosest rock/dirt/sand gulley I’d ever climbed and built an anchor on the cemented post that held the hand-line for Angel’s Landing trail hikers. Completely out of earshot, I rigged the haul line, put Tim on belay, and tried to simultaneously haul, belay and warn Tim about the loose rock above him. If he somehow managed to get the haul bag through that chimney and above him, it would certainly knock enough loose rock down to ruin our day. Some of the rocks, loose enough for a large spider to dislodge, would kill him. It would be way harder to belay Dead Tim.


Alas, he survived. As I hauled the bag, he’d mantled over it to progress in the chimney. It was the most effective form of upward movement. He climbed by headlamp, because I had sucked up the last rays of light while crying halfway up a 5.6.

I’d originally wanted to hike to the end of the Angel’s Landing trail for sunset, a perfect ending to a pristine day of climbing. Instead, we packed sandy, knotted ropes atop haul bags by the dismal light of dying headlamps.

Jogging around a corner near the canyon floor at 10pm that night, Tim and I hit a section of trail that faced the road, still far away. Our headlamps shined directly at an oncoming shuttle bus, 300 yards in the distance. It stopped.

“Is he waiting for us?” Tim gasped between steps.

“No way. No chance he sees our pitiful headlamps. We’ll catch the next bus,” I said as it pulled away, disappearing from sight.

Walking and talking as we came around the final bend, we saw the same bus, idling. The door was open.

“No way.” We started jogging.

Lights bordering the door welcomed us like the Pearly Gates. The Walmart-greeter-of-a-driver smiled: “I’m the last shuttle tonight, and figured y’all didn’t want to wait until tomorrow.” Uh, yeah. “If you’d have come around that corner two seconds earlier of later, your headlamps wouldn’t have shined at me. I reckon y’all woulda had to sleep out here.”

Sleep with nothing but tank tops, shorts, one bottle of water, and a shared down jacket. That, and a collective four walls of experience. DCIM100GOPRO

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