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Moonlight Buttress, Zion National Park, Utah
November 5-8, 2017
On Sunday morning, Reese and I flew to Las Vegas to drive to Zion National Park to climb Moonlight Buttress. Moonlight is nearly twice as tall as Terminal Tower and just as steep. We had scheduled two climbing days (Monday and Tuesday) with a flight home on Wednesday morning to get back to Cleveland.
Our goal was to get to know this classic, hard, desert climb. We didn’t expect to flash it but we have climbed many desert 5.12s and 5.13s so a continuous tall stack of them was totally cool. The weather was great.
Sunday afternoon we went to the Wilderness Ranger to get a special permit to park near the base of the climb, only to learn that not only could we not get a parking permit for Monday, but we could not climb Moonlight at all that day. The park service had a “higher purpose” for that area.
Moonlight Buttress tops out on Angels Landing, the most popular Zion tourist hike because of its 1,200-foot knife-edge exposure and awesome view up and down the canyon. So many visitors tackle the footpath that the portapotties located at the top need to be cleaned out twice a year. To do that, a helicopter pooper scooper removes 6 months of poo and yes, Monday was one of those days. In the event of a helicopter error, the National Park Service wanted to be sure we weren’t inundated by a shower of yuck. So, no climbing on Monday.
The plan to climb 6 pitches on Monday and 5 pitches on Tuesday was gone. We were now limited to do all 12 Moonlight pitches in one day. On Tuesday, we got up at 4 a.m. and we parked and taped around 5 a.m. to be at the base of the climb by 6 a.m. Most of this climb is finger cracks ⅝-1 inch wide. This means climbing with your fingers and just the tips of your toes—not much purchase even for one or two moves. The one section of bombay flaring off-width/chimney feels like a nice break from the approximately 1,000 finger locks and toe smears. The route would involve 6 pitches of 5.12 and 5 other easier ones. This was a lot for one day, but we were focused and committed to keep going up. Don’t stop. With such limited time, we had to go, go, go.
Making things more difficult
We moved right along until the top of the 6th pitch. At this point, we were past the hardest pitch but as I was passing our one shared puffy to Reese, he pulled it across his shoulders and inadvertently knocked his glasses back across his head, past the puffy, and falling 800 feet to the rocks below. Reese is now nearly blind and he can only see 6 feet in any direction. Unnerving for sure, but we were still so focused on reaching the top that retreat was not even discussed.
After doing pitches 7, then 8, then 9, we were on a long one-foot-wide ledge in total darkness with a starry night above. Now both pairs of eyes were in trouble. This was Reese’s pitch but in the dark, he really would be blind. It’s a long pitch with crack, then face climbing with discontinuous protection.
We had three choices:
1. Just climb it.
2. Sit there and freeze until dawn.
3. Rap off.
With 9 pitches 1,100 feet below us in the full dark, all 3 were bad choices, but there was no choice marked “None of the above.” We were committed, focused, and still set on go, go, go, right?
Hell no. That’s stupid. If one of us fell or got lost in the dark we would be in an even worse situation. I wouldn’t climb it. Commitment has to be armed with a big red “OFF” switch to keep it from transforming into obsession. A circuit breaker that says, “Stop, stupid.” So, then what was it going to be between the 2 least bad choices? Sit it out with one puffy or rappel into the dark for 1,100 feet? I was shivering already. We decided to rappel.
I’ve had close personal friends who died rappelling. They all came to me on that ledge, visiting, warning me to be hyper-vigilant for Reese and I to be safe. Rappelling is unforgiving of mistakes: people rap off the ends of the ropes. They lean back onto bad anchors. They slip and fall off if they’re not clipped in. They get their ropes caught in cracks. Gravity does its thing instantly, a harsh impersonal judge. And in the cold and dark, the risk is multiplied many times over.
We had one reverso and one grigri so Reese used the reverso and I gathered the seven biners to build an old school biner-brake rappel system. We tied knots in the ends and kept the right and left sides of the rope separated as we pulled off 9 rappels in the dark without getting the rope caught. Flawless and lucky.
Finally back on the ground
Once we reached the bottom, we organized, found the trail in the dark, crossed the knee deep, super cold Virgin River, and arrived back at the car at midnight. Next, we needed to drive until 2 a.m. to sleep in a truck stop close enough to Las Vegas to catch the morning plane.
Behind the wheel of our rental, my feet began to ache and my inner thighs cramped. Then, my lower back took a turn in this orchestra of pain, and finally my upper back and my traps. My eyeballs felt like they had sand in them. It was a lot of soreness enveloped in an overwhelming sinking exhaustion. I guess the adrenaline had worn off.
Finally at 2:00am, we were asleep in our carseats, tucked into a line of semis. A 22-hour day. An awesome day. I personally don’t do epics; it’s not in my nature. I’m controlled and thoughtful—but this was truly epic and so cool. We did a great job and we will be back to do even better. We have a top pitch to finish on our next trip and then several more trips to practice Moonlight until we can do a clean, free ascent. Finally, we can come back just because it is so beautiful.
At the end of the day, the most important part about climbing is staying safe. After that, it’s all about having fun and seeing how I can grow into a better, stronger, and most importantly, smarter climber. So next time we’ll add to the gear list, “Backup pair of glasses.”
Flash: to climb from the bottom to the top on first try with no falls.
Pitches: A segment of a long climb up to one full rope length. A multi-pitch climb is more than one rope length.
Puffy: A warm coat with down or fiber insulation.
Rap: Short for rappel.
Reverso: A belay device.
Grigri: A belay device that automatically locks.
Biner: Short for carabiner.
Bombay: A flairing roof crack with few or no holds & big enough for your whole body. The image is of a climber falling out like a bomb from the underside of a plane.
Offwidth: A crack too small for your whole body but too big for just a hand or fist jamb.
Chimney: A crack large enough to fit your whole body.
A rough comparison of Cleveland’s Terminal Tower (709 ft.) to the face of Moonlight Buttress (1,000 ft.).