Zion Rock Climbing Into the Modern Era

Aid climbing: pulling oneself up via devices attached to fixed or placed protection to make upward progress, generally reserved for pitches where free climbing is difficult to impossible–Ed.

When most people think of climbing in Zion National Park, their minds drift to thoughts of soft, crumbly rock or being scared to death on steep, exposed crack systems on one of the many big walls found around the park. Zion has long held a reputation for being a fearful place to learn how to aid climb, yet many people ignore that reputation and continue to flock to the beautiful red walls for a little bit of good old fashioned fear. Modern day aid climbing ideals now look at the classic roadside walls of the main canyon such as Desert Shield and Moonlight Buttress as “sport walls”. This term, sport walls, comes from a new view on the old game of aid climbing, where a climb that is 1000’ tall can be considered non-committing because of its proximity to your car and relative ease of retreat. People who are new to aid climbing see the pursuit as an up-only endeavor, where retreat seems terrifying and unthinkable at times. In actuality the vast majority of the roadside walls found near Angels Landing can be descended remarkably fast. Modern standards have brought forth a new acceptance of increasingly bomber and safe anchors. Organizations such as the American Climb Safe Association (ASCA) have taken on the task of retro-bolting old routes in order to bring them into the modern era. Most people see this as a blessing and welcome it with open arms; however there remains another group on the opposite side of this double-edge sword who will criticize this practice as “dumbing down” the adventure, and in turn attracting more people to already crowded climbs.

EricDraperonCherryCrack copyConsidering the experience level of the folks who are attempting the easier routes, safer anchors are a positive development. Approximately 90% of the big wall traffic occurs on just a handful of routes. This fact is a two fold phenomenon; one, these five routes are excellent and have seen so many ascents that they are cleaner than some of the other routes found elsewhere in the park and two, these “trade routes” are considered easy or moderate even though they still present a formidable challenge for many teams who attempt them. The mentality that the trade routes are “easy” can have an effect where climbers tend to underestimate the risk of the adventure that they are embarking on. Because of Zion’s location in the desert, on the edge of the Colorado Plateau, climbers rarely perceive it as “alpine”. However, Zion is a serious arena to play in due to its technically demanding and fragile nature.

Big wall aid climbs are the most heavily recognized aspect in all of Zion’s climbing history. A new wave of how to perceive, and free climb the cliffs began in the early 1980’s. This charge was lead predominantly by Dave Jones, who pioneered several difficult test pieces in the aid realm early on. He realized all too quickly that there just wasn’t much interest in the hard aid climbs that he had been pouring so much effort into. This realization prompted a shift of focus towards what Ron Olevsky, author of many of Zion’s most popular modern day routes, such as, Prodigal Sun and Space Shot, had already begun. A clean climbing ethic of leaving fixed anchors in place instead of allowing for further destruction by the hammering of pitons by subsequent ascents. Ron was mostly concerned with sustainability of aid placements but nonetheless fostered the free and clean motto. These two gentlemen, among others, were like kids in a candy store, plucking the ripest plums that nobody else had bothered to snatch up before them. Some of the early and impressive free and clean routes include; Lovelace on the East Temple, Equinox on the Leaning Wall, Touchstone near Big Bend, and Shunes Buttress on Red Arch Mountain. All of these climbs would later see free ascents in the coming years. During this time, Zion had very little rock climber traffic. Some of the early pioneers found it difficult to find partners to climb with. This fact is proven by the many recorded solo ascents and constantly changing names that accompanied a select and motivated few.

In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, Zion experienced a renaissance of action during which a couple of born-and-raised local boys were introduced to climbing. Brad Quinn and Darren Cope, both native of the area, would be the first team to successfully climb the east face of the West Temple in October of 1990. They called their route “Gettin’ Western”, a local term the boys used to describe anything that was a little wild and crazy. Gettin’ Western was an impressive achievement that has seen only a handful of repeat ascents. The second team to attempt Gettin’ Western, Doug Hall and Doug Byerly, would be the first team to free-climb this monstrous adventure, using no aid and no pitons. Throughout the history of climbing in Zion there has never been a large contingency of locals, instead, just a handful of folks willing to stay and eke out a living in the small towns of Rockville and Springdale. Locals of this era lived in an old pioneer home near the R.V. Park known as “The Rock House”. The Rock House was the epicenter of climbing action and would become infamous to those in the know. Most of the talented climbers who would pass through town during this generation would spend time there. Several notable faces like John Middendorf, originator of the climbing gear company A5; Mugs Stump, one the finest mountaineers and adventurers this country has produced; Doug Byerly of Colorado; and Conrad Anker, to name just a few, would put their mark on Zion history all the while enjoying good times at The Rock House. As these locals began to succumb to the pressures of “growing up” they in-turn shifted their focus from good times at The Rock House and on the cliffs, to making a living in the canyon instead. A lull in local climbing action ensued.

When I met Eric Draper and Joe French in 1998, we had very little experience on the big cliffs but this fact had no bearing on what was to take place in the years to come. As a new climber, the thought of ascending large cliffs was an almost unthinkable proposition. With all the effort and terror involved with just short climbs, I was ecstatic to make it up even the easiest of cracks. The three of us moved into a dilapidated trailer we dubbed “The House of Rock”. We were the new locals carrying the torch and we wanted to emulate our predecessors in The Rock House. Just like most things, progression increases and speeds up over time. By the middle of the first decade of the 21st century, the House of Rock days had passed, but our crew had picked up other members, such as Brody Greer and Nate Brown, along with momentum in the free climbing arena. We had mostly passed through the phase of wanting to climb the steep and thin, and shifted to free and clean, just as the climbers before us had. The development of cragging routes ramped up considerably with the discovery of places like Cragmont and The Kung Fu Theatre along the tunnel wall. As we repeated the classics of our predecessors and began to explore further along the walls of the canyon, our eyes started to gain clarity for seeing the natural free lines and linking features to create long free climbs like The Big Lebowski on the West Temple, The Mean High Tide at Big Bend, Plan B on Mt. Moroni, Mojo Risin on Johnson Mountain, and Tatoween on Mt. Kinesava to name but a few.

kinesava-cowboy-albertnewman onGone are the days where climbing in Zion requires sketchy aid climbing with pitons, stoppers, and cams alike on super steep and thin routes. Beautiful aid climbs haven’t gone anywhere, there are more of those adventures than ever before, but they’re just a slice of a large pie. Free and clean climbing is alive and well today like never before. People like Alex Honnold, Mike and Mark Anderson, Doug Heinrich, Brad Barladge, Rob Pizem, Brian McCray, and Peter Croft, along with countless others have pushed free climbing standards on the walls of Zion, and elsewhere, into seemingly unfathomable realms. The allure of the haul bag and portaledge are at a low point in their cycle of attraction. While aid climbing still holds its allure for many, free climbing large cliffs poses a more formidable challenge. Once the apprenticeship of early aid climbing is accomplished, many realize that aid climbing becomes a nearly guaranteed means of ascent given that you bring enough food, water, and gear, and allow yourself enough time to ascend the wall. Much of the developed climbing in Zion still remains unknown to the vast majority of climbers visiting the park, even though the information has been available at the park’s visitor center for decades.

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