Derek’s first year of college finished with a brutal 9-hour final sequence on Thursday. He did three 2.5-hour finals starting at 1:30 p.m. and finishing up at 10 p.m. Friday he moved out of his dorm. His first year had gone extremely well. He entered school not even sure he wanted to be in the Engineering school and finished with straight A’s for both semesters and extremely excited about everything to do with Electrical Engineering. He was in the robotics club and the drone club. He took a “Pathways to Space” class. He was heavily involved in the activities of this Global Engineering dorm. He played intramural flag football, volleyball, and ultimate. He entered an “Amazing Race” on campus and got third out of 40+ teams. He loved it.
After getting his stuff moved home on Friday, we left at 5 p.m. that day for the 10-hour drive to Zion. This was reminiscent of last year, when the day after graduation we boarded a plan to Seattle to climb Mt. Rainier - his first and last glacier experience before heading to Denali two weeks later. Not a lot of dead time there, but it was already about two weeks later than the ideal Zion time. I feared it would a bit hot, but we had to work around the school schedule.
It was just a four-day trip. Our primary goal was to get up a wall and I was hoping it would be the Touchstone Wall, which is the easiest wall in Zion and the first one I did. I remember it as being really fun and not too stressful and wanted to repeat it with Derek. What else we’d get done, we didn’t know.
|Our route goes up near the right edge of this pillar|
We drove until 11 p.m. and threw down our bags at a rest stop. The first time Derek had experienced this was on our first road trip, the one to Joshua Tree and he just couldn’t believe that I’d just pull over, throw down a bag and go to sleep. He took to it pretty quickly though. And he thought it was so cool. I love that enthusiasm over something so simple. He’s really low maintenance, too. He doesn’t mind sleeping about anywhere. Sheri, on the other hand, is not big on sleeping outside the car and I generally have to make her a nest inside, but not Derek.
|Derek leading the first pitch|
We arrived to find the biggest crowds I’ve ever seen in Zion. We were a bit later in the year than I usually come, but could just two weeks explain these masses? We found a parking space outside the park as the entire parking capacity of the park was full. We waited in a short line to just walk into the park and then saw the massive line to get on the shuttle buses that would take us into Zion Canyon. This time of year you can’t drive into the Canyon proper unless you have a special pass. I went straight to the backcountry desk and to see if we could get one of those special passes for the next morning, so that we could start the climb earlier.
|Derek at the first belay with the crux second pitch looming above|
Pass in hand, I joined Derek, who was waiting in the shuttle bus line. We waited at least 30 minutes to board the bus, laden with our aid gear. We got off at the Big Bend stop, the second-to-last stop in the Canyon and headed for the base of Touchstone Wall. We spotted a party at the top of the third pitch and exchanged waves. Other than those two, we had the route to ourselves. Clean living, peeps, clean living.
|Me leading the second pitch|
Derek made steady progress up the 14 “desert bolts” leading to the crack line that we’d then follow clear to the summit. Desert bolts are angle pitons driven into a drilled hole. Derek forgot to clip the rope to a couple of the draws he placed on the pins, but other than that he did fine. Once he got to the crack his pace slowed a little as he now had to select the right piece from his rack to place in the crack.
|Derek took this shot while he was cleaning the second pitch.|
Above the roof I found the placements very flaring and had difficulty get anything to stick. The terrain over the roof is still slightly overhanging and I went up and down in my aiders a number of times, which is a big no-no, but I kept having to go back to my rack to search for an alternate piece, something that I could place securely. I’d stand up and reach to try this fissure and that hole with no luck. I finally got an offset cam that seemed reasonably solid and I weighted it gingerly. Falls while aid climbing are quite disturbing because, even though they tend to be short on C1/C2 terrain, they are violent since you’re caught by your static daisy that’s clipped to the previous piece. Nothing pulled and I didn’t fall, much to my relief. These difficulties slowed my pace for a bit, but I eventually got back up to my usual slow pace after the placements became easy again.
The upper part of the pitch went smoothly, but I didn’t set any speed records. My aid skills, rudimentary at best, were certainly a bit rusty. Derek called out that I nearly at the halfway mark just as I arrived at the belay. I fixed the rope and soon Derek was jugging. I just hung out, literally, hanging from my harness and standing in my aiders, as there was no hint of a ledge here.
I studied the crack above, which goes free at 11a/b and it did look pretty reasonable. It might be fun to come back and work on freeing this pitch, but it has a very involved, gear-intensive approach. I noticed that the lead line was slack and wondered if Derek was having trouble getting on his jugs to clean the pitch. I glanced down just in time to see Derek execute a perfect lower-out. The rope was slack momentarily while he clipped into the fixed piece to jump both jugs around it and set up his loop of rope to lower himself out. Nice. He’s really learning these skills quickly.
|Derek leading the third pitch|
Back on the ground we were feeling pretty good about ourselves. The crux pitch (the second pitch) was already behind us and we had just one more aid pitch before we’d start free climbing. It was 5 p.m. We headed to the shuttle stop where we answered lots of questions about climbing from fellow Zion enthusiasts.
|Derek cleaning the fifth pitch|
|Cleaning pitch 5.|
I jugged up first. Seventy meters into the sky, to the top of pitch two. Derek came up next and was soon leading the third pitch, our last aid pitch. This pitch goes free at 5.11, but we weren’t here for that. Derek needed the aid practice for El Cap. The climbing looked great, though, and possible for us, maybe. I’ll probably be back to climb this route again and maybe concentrate on freeing it, save for the first two pitches.
Derek worked his way smoothly up the pitch to the next hanging belay, eighty feet up. It was really his first time leading a long aid pitch while placing all his own gear. He did a fantastic job, though the mental stress wore him down a bit, as it does me as well. Originally we had planned for him to go another 50 feet or so but he was ready for a break.
|Leading the 5.9+ seventh pitch|
Once on the ledge I switched to my climbing shoes while Derek jugged up. The next pitch was the free climbing crux, for us anyway, at 10c. It went pretty smooth to begin with, but I pulled on four pieces in the crux section. The climbing seemed harder to me. The crack is just so thin and sandy and there were marginal, slope-y, sandy footholds, but mostly I didn't want to take a fall way up there. More reason to return, as I’ve left lots of room to improve the style. Derek jugged this pitch, after seeing me struggle.
The next pitch is rated 5.9. It looked pretty hard and sustained. It was Derek's lead but I didn't think I'd have him do it, as he'd never even led a 5.9 trad pitch before and six pitches up a big wall in Zion isn't the place to learn. But he wanted it! I set him up with a pared down rack, but with ample gear. I didn't want him carrying a bunch of extra weight. He fired it! He put in tons of gear and it was all solid, but some of it was quite pumpy to even remove! Following I was duly impressed and found the pitch quite hard. On the sustained hand crack section, I found it too awkward to jam and liebacked it - something I probably wouldn't have done on lead. I was so impressed with Derek on this climb. He was solid.
I led the next pitch which our topo called 10b, but it seemed easier than Derek's pitch. It had a some wide climbing on it, but I felt solid liebacking it and I'd have guessed the pitch was more like 5.9 at most. At the top of the pitch is a very brief tight slot. The topo we had bemoaned about how unpleasant this was. I thought it was so easy that, once above it, I yelled down to Derek, that things were going well, but that I still hadn't dealt with the squeeze chimney. After a bit more easy climbing, I realized that the pitch was over. I came back down to just above the squeeze and belayed there so that I could haul up the pack and the extra gear. I carried all that stuff when following Derek's pitch and it was a chore that I wanted Derek to avoid.
|This is the eighth pitch. I'm up there somewhere.|
|Following the second to last pitch.|
We were back at the pavement at 3 p.m., making for a casual 9-hour roundtrip. We did 11 pitches, most under 100 feet long, except the first two which were 120 feet. There were no ledges until the top of the fourth pitch but then we had ledges for every belay. This is such a great route and I hope to climb it again.
|Derek following the last pitch.|
Walking up, I spotted Brad the ranger. I told Derek about how he had gushed over my book and how he asked if I was the Bill Wright and that I must have made quite an impression on the guy. So, when I said, “Hey, Brad, remember me?” and he immediately responded, “No,” my ego took a hit. With some prompting he did recall me and he then determined that our route on the GWT was open, since it wasn’t near the really steep northwest face. Topo in hand, we were excited for a really cool, long, difficult, but not stressful day. We’d do the long hike into the climb, ascend the Throne, and then descend Hidden Canyon for a really cool loop. We went to sleep that night with visions of gray sandstone dancing in our heads.
We overslept. Massively. Embarrassingly. The night before I downloaded the topo maps on my phone but forgot that my energy-sucking GPS app was still on. I fell asleep and the phone subsequently died. I usually wake up multiple times during the night but that night I slept straight through to 6:40 a.m. perhaps the latest I’ve slept in five years. We could no longer use our early access permit to drive to the trailhead. We’d have to wait for the shuttle bus. We’d have to hike entirely in the heat. Derek wasn’t motivated to race out the door and I didn’t push it. Our day changed in that instant.
|On top of the Touchstone Wall|
We rode the shuttle to the Weeping Rock stop and then hiked back along the road looking for a good place to cross the 43-degree Virgin River. Derek was going to cross in his bare feet, but I convinced him to wear his shoes. He removed his socks, but I kept my on. I had brought a spare pair to use once across. I’d done this a number of times before and knew it was key to find a couple of walking sticks to aid the crossing. Falling down in the river would be cold and dangerous.
The crossing went quite smooth. The water didn’t feel that cold. I used no profanity. At its deepest point the river barely went above my knees. I had hiked up my shorts pants legs to high that I looked like Joe Climber modeling the French Wedge, Le Crevasse edition. Now I’m no Joe Climber, but I do think I pulled it off, looking quite sexy with my alabaster legs reflecting the morning sunlight and flat out intimidating the Virgin River.
|Joe Climber in the French Wedge fords the Virgin River|
|Following the first pitch of the Organasm.|
|Nearing the top of the pitch.|
|Dr. Hemlock nearing the top of the Cave Pitch.|
The greatest short hike I’ve ever done is Angel’s Landing. It’s spectacular. It’s so great that I do it at least once every time I visit Zion. I just can’t resist. It’s a great activity to do on my last day in Zion, as I always drive all the way home that same day. Given this is a 10-hour drive, I like to be driving by noon and Angel’s Landing, at 5 miles and 1600 vertical feet, fits easily. Too easily, with a partner like Derek.
|On top of Angels Landing|
|The first fifth class crux on Lady Mountain|
We drove to Canyon Junction, at the mouth of Zion Canyon and parked. We caught the first shuttle coming by at 6:08 a.m. and rode it to the Grotto stop. Most of the people on the bus were headed for Angels Landing as well, but not at our pace. A couple of guys seem to try and keep up for awhile. I spotted one of them running at one point, but once the trail got really steep we gapped them good.
|The views are pretty nice on this scramble.|
|Derek's first trip up Lady Mountain at 11 years old.|
|Derek in nearly the same position eight years late.|
Derek had been up this route once before. I took Sheri and him up it when he was eleven years old. He didn’t remember much of it. We used a rope for that ascent, but now we were just in our scramblers. It did not disappoint. The views on this route are probably the best in the park as they are continuous. Every step of the way is jaw-droppingly spectacular.
|On the summit of Lady Mountain.|
We lingered on top, despite the long drive ahead of us. Zion has such a hold on me. I could have spent the rest of the day just sitting on top. I love hiking here. Climbing here. Scrambling here. Canyoneering here. Being here. And now Derek does too.