A cold wind cut me to the bone as I sat next to Rob waiting for the shuttle to pick us up and take us into Zion National Park where we would try climbing Moonlight Buttress for a second time after having to bail due to weather a week before. “This is the desert” I thought. “It’s not supposed to be this cold”.
I had already sent Stef a “hail-Mary” text asking her to run me out another Icebreaker shirt and I knew that carrying more clothing than that would be counterproductive so I gritted my teeth and knew that I would just have to be uncomfortably cold until the sun came up at which point I would make the transition into the realm of uncomfortably hot.
When the shuttle arrived we stepped on with only the barest of essentials. We had packed light for a one day ascent. I was a bit bummed to not be able to “camp” out on the wall, but saving the trouble of carrying 100 lb. of extra food, water, sleeping gear and the like was more than enough of a trade off to make me feel OK about the whole situation. We were riding the first shuttle of the morning and we had it all to ourselves. Rob promptly fell asleep, using the rope as a makeshift pillow and as much as I tried to follow suit, I found myself dreading all of the unknown and the what-if’s that the day held.
Packing light is nice in that you have less gear to haul but it means that you have less room for error and that you had better keep moving and not screw anything up along the way. While the unknown loomed in my imagination the thought of having to cross the Virgin River invaded the loop of horrific hypothetical scenarios that played in my head. I knew what that would be like–COLD! First thing in the morning and fresh with snowmelt-runoff from the previous weeks inclemency to add a bit of discomfort to the already appalling water temperatures. I could almost feel the icy water as I sat there trying to sleep on the shuttle…
Oddly enough, I didnt worry too much about my sugar or insulin. I had expected my insulin sensitivity to be high, so I began cutting back my dosage the night before in anticipation of a grueling day on the wall. In general, I would rather be a little high than low when I am climbing so I put that in the back of my mind, ate my normal breakfast of fresh strawberries, yogurt and a handfull of granola and went about my business. I felt great as I stepped off the shuttle and Rob greeted the day by shouting at some wild turkeys and heckling another party of climbers on an adjacent wall from us. “This is going to be a good day” I told myself, only half convinced.
Our crossing of the Virgin River was about what I had anticipated: it was so cold that it hurt. I had the choice to take a longer, diagonal path upstream and across following shallower currents or just wade in deep and go straight across. I chose the former, and upon reaching the other side, a great deal of salty language ensued as I attempted to dry off and clamber up the adjacent bank to begin the approach to the base of the cliff.
The first pitch of the climb went quickly since we had left a rope fixed there from the week before. Soon we were 160 feet up and at the first belay ledge. Rob generously allowed me the first two pitches to get going, so I racked up and away I went. A small roof gave way to my feeble attempts and I soon was at the second ledge, which was very spacious and allowed me some room to place the camera in a small recess and get some pictures as I began to shed layers in the morning sun.
Rob, leading up pitch 4 as I belayed and fretted about my sugar.
Rob finished his pitches and turned me loose. I felt good and I was stacked with Clif Bar Shot-Bloks just in case…I was still cramping badly but I drank as much as I could and cast off onto the final 200 feet of the climb, knowing that I absolutely had to reach the top since bailing was out of the question and there was about 1 hour of light left. I was moving slower than slow. I looked back down to Rob at the belay repeatedly and it felt like I hadn’t moved at all. I called down to him that he might have to lower me down to the belay and we could switch.
“There is no way I am gonna be able to finish these pitches before dark man”
Unfazed, he called back up, “I don’t give a f*ck man, this canyon is BEAUTIFUL in the dark! I don’t care if we are out here till midnight! Just make sure you’re feeling good and take your time. There’s no place I need to be right now—” this train of thought was interrupted by a stream of epithets directed at a group of swifts that began dive bombing Rob at the belay.
I felt good that Rob was feeling good about my chances of finishing everything off. I also felt myself reaching the end of my rope, figuratively speaking. I had been working hard all day to keep my shit together and I needed to tighten up my wig because I was feeling desperate to be done–and that is never good and I recognized that as the first stages of something going way wrong.
I ate a bit of Clif Bar and took a Shot Blok. Suddenly I realized that I had been going low and that was messing with my head. Almost immediately I felt the strength and clarity returning. I called down to Rob that I was going to wrap things up here and that I would see him at the top. It was like a switch flipped and I started to hit my rhythm and soon I was within 20 feet of the top–and nightfall was less than 10 minutes away…
And this is where the “scary” climbing finally arrived for me after 1180 feet of feeling solid on the rock. Rob had described the top-out as “heads-up” 5.8–which, roughly translated, means, not super strenuous but scary enough to make you loose your bowels and if you fall…well…just don’t fall here. Without going into the myriad reasons why this would have been a really bad spot to fall, I can tell you that I was climbing over a ledge and it was almost dark. The rock before me was smooth, sandy and loose. It did not have definitive edges to hold onto–just rounded blobs that inspired less than no confidence.
I down-climbed to the ledge to look at the moves again, hoping that in the fading light, a bit of panicked dithering would do the trick and a ladder of in-cut holds would magically appear. Instead, it got darker and my situation became more grim. I cursed Rob’s sick sense of humor. I climbed as high as I could again, to within a few feet of the final set of anchors. The pinkie of my right hand detected a small weakness in the rock and I frantically brushed the sand out of a tiny crack and blindly stuffed a green Alien cam into the fissure. It gave me enough purchase to make a long and tenuous move to clip the chains and slump down in my harness as darkness fell over the canyon.
The headlamps were in the haulbags which were down with Rob at the belay. I methodically set up the anchor and haul system to finish the pitch and our climb. I was ready to be on flat ground for a minute. This is where things went mildly south. The haul bag got stuck 3 times and freeing it from the snags after a full day of climbing and dangling, was harrowing. It felt like the canyon didnt want us to escape–it was as though it had allowed us to get right to the brink of the top only to reach out and snag our bag and tangle our ropes.
After a lot more oaths and sweating and a few bashed knuckles, we topped out and began our 3 mile hike downhill where we rendezvoused with Stefanie who drove into the canyon to get us and at 12:05 AM we had finished. 11 hours, high blood sugar, low blood sugar, stuck ropes, stuck haul bags and icy waters not withstanding, the determination to finish and the brotherhood of the rope won the day–and the night.