Saturday, June 17, 2017

Touchstone Wall in Zion: Derek's First Big Wall

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
Derek took the helm on the drive Friday night, as he often does on our road trips. We have a few of these behind us now. We did our Joshua Tree trip two years ago. That year we also a week-long road trip to Yosemite and a week-long trip on the G3 Summit Tour (Gannett, Grand Teton, Granite). That year we also did a trip to the Grand Canyon to climb Isis Temple. Our last road trip, with just the two of us, was when we drove out to Canyonlands National Park to bike the White Rim Trail with my brother’s company. On each of these trips Derek has taken on more and more of the driving while I read and work on trip reports. I still always take the morning shift because, while Derek can arise extremely early when he needs to, prefers to sleep longer in the mornings.

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
I was at the wheel the next morning before 6 a.m., anxious to get to Zion and see the climbing situation. Touchstone, being on of the most popular routes, could have a queue. I didn’t want Derek to be rushed while leading, but I also didn’t want to be held up by a slower party. Basically, I wanted the route to ourselves. Of course, when you try to climb the easiest and a most popular route, that rarely happens.

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
Ranger Brad was at the desk and immediately agreed to the pass. He was a climber himself. He asked for my name to fill out the pass and when I gave it he said, “Are you the Bill Wright?” I knew the right answer was “Yes” despite feeling a bit funny about it. “The” Bill Wright? I thought. You mean the one who knows and is friends with some world-class athletes like Hans, Anton, Joe, Stefan, Buzz, Peter, Dave, Homie, etc.? That’s really my biggest claim to fame: knowing true badasses. But, alas, I knew he was referring to either my Speed Climbing book (written with and only published  because of Hans Florine) or Satan’s Minions, where I’m primarily a race director. So, I said, “Yes.” He was quite taken with the book and said that he’s been applying the efficiency techniques not just in climbing but in life and in his woodworking business. Cool.

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
It wasn’t long before Derek was geared and launching up the first pitch of his first big wall. Big wall? you say? Sure. That’s what they call them. So, ten pitches constitutes a big wall? Maybe. It has to taken a certain amount of time. For who? Hans and Alex? No, for average doofuses like us. Just go with it. Big walls!

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.
He got to belay, clipped himself in, equalized an anchor sling, pulled up the extra rope and anchored it. Then he called down “Fixed!” I slapped on my jugs and cleaned the pitch. I transitioned quickly to the lead. A bit too quickly, as I failed to organize the gear. My hubris would soon be corrected. I stepped high in my aiders and zipped through the first couple of placements on the slightly-less-than-vertical wall, determined to show Derek how fast I was. I hit the 3-foot roof a short ways above the first belay and traversed about ten feet to the left. There was a small sling fixed to the piton at the start of the traverse and I realized that Derek would have to lower out to follow this pitch. I thought it was quite fortunate that I had just taught Derek how to do this two days ago at the Amphitheater back in Boulder. At the lip of the roof, I paused to review the procedure with Derek. In the Amphitheater Derek had to untie from the end of the rope so that he could pull the rope through the fixed piece. Here I explained to him how he could use a loop of rope and avoid untying. We talked it through carefully to make sure he understood.

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.
Rapping off
I was hoping to fix the first two pitches, but we were a bit concerned if our single 70-meter rope was long enough. The topo called both the first two pitches 120-feet long, which would be a problem for a 230-foot (70 meter) rope. Plus, how accurate were those pitches lengths? Pretty accurate it would turn out. Derek took out exactly half our rope on the first pitch. He was concerned what we’d do it the rope didn’t reach and let me know it. I wasn’t that worried about it. I figured the 10 feet of traversing at the roof would get us down. Hence, I continued past the intermediate anchor 60-feet up the pitch.
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
Derek then did a nice job jugging the now free-hanging rope up to the lip of the roof and over it. Once above that obstacle, he moved smoothly up the belay. We clipped in and both untied from the rope in order to get on rappel With a single line dropping clear we wouldn’t be able to do our simul-rappel. I went first to make sure the rope reached the ground. It did. I had Derek fix the rope to the intermediate belay so that we’d both be able to jug the line at the same time (once I was above that point) the next morning and he did this expertly.

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
I tried to make sleeping arrangements way too late for this trip and all the camping options were full. I ended up booking a motel in Hurricane, 30 minutes away. This worked out just fine, as the motel was quite nice and very affordable. We didn’t mind the drive in the morning and Derek made good use of it both ways to get some additional sleep.

Cleaning pitch 5.
The alarm went off at 4:40 a.m. and we were driving just before 5 a.m. We pulled into our parking spot at 5:40. It was still dark and it was a bit cold. We both lamented our lack of gloves. We’re so much further west in the Mountain Time Zone at Zion that the mornings are considerably darker. We took our time gearing up at the car and left it right at 6 a.m.

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
 I jugged up to him and then led the next fifty feet (5.10) in my approach shoes. I had lazily avoided putting on my free climbing shoes, as the plan was for me to just jug up to the ledge, where I’d switch. But with our slight change of plans, I had to lead early. I could have switched here, but didn’t want to bother with it at a hanging stance and I thought the climbing above looked manageable enough, if I french-freed it, which I did. It went fine. I'm good at cheating.

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.

Leading the 5.9+ seventh pitch
I led the next pitch as well since it was 4.5" wide for forty feet and we had sort of a sparse rack in the wide stuff. We carried only one each of #3, #3.5, #4, and#4.5 Camalots. I was fine on this pitch but had to run some sections out a bit.

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.

Leading the 5.9+ seventh pitch
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.
Derek then led the easy scramble up to the top of the shoulder. Here we could have easily unroped and set up a tent. There was a giant pine tree here. But we still had two short pitches to go. The first is a bolted 5.7/9 (depends on your topo) that Derek led easily. Following this with the pack I thought it felt like 5.8. The final pitch is a mostly unprotected (I got in one piece after the crux mantle) 5.7 friction climb, which was only about 60 feet long.
Following the second to last pitch.
We nailed the descent and had no trouble, getting down with our single 70-meter rope (the only rope we brought - hauling was done by dropping an end of the rope on the few times we hauled). We simul-rappelled everything per the youzh.

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.
Driving out of the Canyon we discussed what we should do the next day. Should we climb another wall? Like Spaceshot? Or maybe do a shorter aid climb like the Organasm (four pitches)? Then I decided that maybe that was enough of standing in slings and wondered if the South Face route on the Great White Throne was open. We stopped on the way out and went back to the backcountry desk to ask.

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
I went to the complimentary breakfast at the motel and read my book. We didn’t leave the motel until nearly 9 a.m. We decided to head to the Organasm and do some more aid practice. Derek would get a chance to lead the huge roof. The guidebook recommended 4-5 #2 Camalots, though, and we only had three…

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
We hiked around the Organ to the north side and found a faint trail leading up to the base of the Organasm. The first pitch, rated 5.8, looked intimidating and it ended in a hanging belay. Boo! We were thinking of Derek leading the roof, so I led the first pitch and found the climbing up the V-flare burly. I had to use the knee-brace flare technique where you paste your outside knee against the wall in front of you and tuck your foot up underneath your butt to hold yourself into the flare. It worked but it was physical and with bare knees there is an abrasion penalty involved. Following, Derek fought for all he was worth and arrived at the belay more worked than he is climbing 5.11 in the gym. This little 5.8 pitch stole our mojo and we decided to toprope it a bit and learn some new techniques. We rapped off and I took another lap on it to demonstrate more clearly the technique needed to climb such a flare. Then Derek went up it and climbed it with about half the calories he expended on his first trip. I went up a third time but by now my knee was getting pretty raw. We decided that was enough and headed for the Cave Route on the other side of the river.

Following the first pitch of the Organasm.
After another wading episode we arrived at the base of the route. This climb is prominently used the desert climbing sequence of the Eiger Sanction. The climb itself is very clean and requires a variety of techniques. It is highly recommended. We wanted to climb the second pitch as well, but tremendous wind and rain drove inside the cave at the top of the pitch and we hiked out the other side and back to the base.

Nearing the top of the pitch.
 We headed back to our motel for more food and rest after only two pitches of climbing. Alex Honnold, we are not.

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
One of my favorite adventures in Zion is the hike/scramble up Lady Mountain. It’s 2500 vertical feet of very improbable-looking terrain. Viewed from  the Zion Lodge it looks like only a serious rock climb could gain the summit. The north face of Lady Mountain is the tallest, sheerest wall in all of Zion, but this scrambling route weaves its way up the east escarpment, deftly avoiding the precipitous cliffs that litter the route. It’s an extraordinary job of route finding. This route is actually considerably more fun and interesting than Angel’s Landing, but isn’t a hike for most people, as there are two short 5th class sections, more of boulder problems, one with non-trivial exposure, and loads class III scrambling. I’ve done this route at least four times now and never seen another person on it. How could that be? Because it isn’t publicized anywhere, though the backcountry office does have a description of the route and that’s where I first learned about it. The route, apparently, used to be a maintained trail by the park, as there are red and yellow arrows painted on the rock marking the route and there are iron rings that presumably were used to fixed chain handrails like on Angels Landing. Alas, this route was a bit too crazy for the park to have average hikers. It would be very difficult to rescue an injured hiker from just about anywhere on this route. So, the cables were taken down and all mentions of the route eradicated from the park literature.
The first fifth class crux on Lady Mountain
So, we did Lady Mountain instead of Angels Landing, right? Well, when I mentioned the options to Derek and also mentioned my best times for both them, he responded, “Let’s do both.” So we did.

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.
We weren’t running, just hiking with a purpose. We went up in a respectable 40:36, spent five minutes on top taking some photos and enjoying the view and then started down, trotting where appropriate. We got the usual mix of comments from others ascending. Mostly impressed and one disdainful: “Done already?!” “When did you wake up?” “Did you enjoy the view?” We were ever positive in our replies.
Derek's first trip up Lady Mountain at 11 years old.
We were back down 1h15m after heading up and walked the road (there were no shuttles coming by anyway) down to the Lodge and that start of the Emerald Pools trail. Once across the bridge this trail splits and goes right and left. The left path is the shortest way to the Lady Mountain route and we found it closed do to landslides. I hesitated for a bit. I knew we could go the other way and still get to the start but I remembered it as being a lot longer. I decided to ignore the closure and just stepped over the barrier. My thinking was we were going “off trail” anyway and just starting our off-trail hiking a bit earlier.
Derek in nearly the same position eight years late.
Indeed the trail was in a sad state, but only one section was completely fallen away. There was a small footpath the weaved up the steep, eroded slope, though, and we followed that to the trail above. We found the climber’s trail leading up to the first cliff band where we found our first carved steps and yellow arrows.

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 hiked and scrambled up the long, steep route, passing the two, short, fifth-class sections. Higher up there is a bit of grungy hiking, but not much. We passed through a short tunnel just before reaching the saddle between Lady Mountain and Jacob. We traversed north and up the final, short cliff band to the summit plateau. A couple of minutes of sandy hiking led to to the summit dial at the end of the precipice.

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.


Unknown said...

Awesome write-up Bill! Looks like quite the trip with some reasonable aid options/descriptions. Kudos to Derek on the leads. First 5.9 trad with that kind of air.
By the way, we completely avoided the shuttle for south face of GWT by starting up the south buttress of Deertrap. It made for a very reasonable start and added in some scrambling.
-Ryan Marsters

Gayla Wright said...

Loved reading this write-up. Derek has come a long way since he was eleven. He is doing great and proved it on El Cap. Weather looks perfect as the photos are incredible!!! Love you, Ñaña