Sunday, March 18, 2012

Weekend in Zion!

David Piribauer on the first pitch of Cherry Crack.

Last weekend I had the pleasure of taking a weekend road trip from Las Vegas to Zion National Park in South-Western Utah.  The idea of a day trip to either Indian Creek, Zion, Bishop, Joshua Tree or Cochise Stronghold has come up several times while talking with my main climbing friends, but it seemed difficult to get everyone's schedule alined for the journey.  Luckily for me Andy and Jason had pulled together some last minute plans to head to Zion for the weekend and invited me to join, but only told me the night before they were setting off to leave.  Although a little last minute even by my standards, I weighed out my options and decided I had nothing to lose and packed my bags quick.  When we left the house early the next morning I was left with an odd feeling of change and that traveling anticipation.  I realized this trip was my first major(ish) trip since moving out West in the first place, and packing up a car load of climbing crap and hitting the road again made me realize how important climbing really is in my life, and that it has entirely become my driving force.  I got slightly emotional on the inside but gradually switched to day-dreaming about perfect splitter cracks and the wonderful hand and foot pain that was soon to come.  Our arrival in Zion was quiet liberating, and for the next three days I knew all my worries would be gone as I did my best to climb even just a tiny portion of the massive walls. 

Jason Molina on the first pitch of Cherry Crack 5.9

We left early on Friday morning in hopes of getting to Zion with enough time to get a few single pitch crack climbs in.   We had our sights on climbing at the Cerberus Gendarme area for the day, which is home to a handful of excellent looking splitter cracks ranging from 5.9 - 5.12.  When we got there we were very impressed with the access to the climbing areas.  With the trams (buses) still being out of service for the season, we were able to drive our car straight to the Big Bend parking area, which left us with only a five minute approach to the base of our climbs!  This short of an approach in Red Rocks in entirely uncommon, and we're used to an approach from 45 minutes to 2+ hours to get to most of the climbs we're interested in doing.  We enjoyed the short hike with out heavy packs and joked that the same time required to drive to Zion from our house is the same approach time to the base of the Buffalo Wall in Red Rocks.  So after our lovely little hike we started racking up to get on the first pitch of Cherry Crack for a warm up, which goes at around 5.9.  After that we checked out Scarlet Begonias, which was quiet an exciting climb and gave us all a run for our money, but could not hold us down.  The mostly lay-backing moves were pumpy, but occasional straight in jams and a few good foot holds provided us with a rest here and there.  The most memorable moment of the day was when Andy pulled through a hard section and in a seemingly secure position he proclaimed "Man, that was burl-dog!" but, only a half second after the confident words came from his mouth, both his feet slipped and he came plummeting back down being caught by the rope not far from where he started.  We all busted out laughing with the timing of the fall, and the term "Burl-dog" was born, although we're not quite sure what it even means. Needless to say the climb was a blast and it helped us get into a good Zion groove, which meant our pysch was at an all time high! I'm pretty sure if we didn't have to figure the logistics of our free camping pursuit that night we probably would have stayed out there well into the dark to climb with headlamps until we couldn't climb any longer.  Luckily we had two more days to crank down, so we called it a day and headed out of the park for the night. 

Our wonderful parking spot at the Big Bend pull off.
Touchstone Wall can be seen on the right side of the buttress.

Andy Hansen on Scarlet Begonias 5.11a

Andy finishing the roof traverse.

That night we parked Jason's V-Dub van by a wandering river off the beaten track on some BLM land and relaxed with a couple cold PBR's.  We cooked some delicious burritos and reminisced about the day of climbing. The sounds of a tricking river mingled nicely with the chords we strummed on the mini acoustic guitar I bought from a thrift store not too long before the trip.  Andy strummed songs about crack climbing, I took some photos and recorded the scene, and Jason applied Climb On Salve to his perma-thrashed hands. Life was good for these three burl-dog's, and we made the most of the evening telling stories and building excitement for more splitter cracks the next day.  Between songs we paged through Fred Becky's 100 Favorite North American Rock Climbs, an excellent publication that features some of the most impressive climbs around.  The Touchstone Wall in Zion, which is a classic big wall climb at the Cerberus Gendarme and only about 100' from where we were climbing all weekend is also featured in the book.   Fred Becky filled our heads with a plethora of climbs to dream about, and we soon decided it was time to get some rest. That night I had the luxury of sleeping in a hammock slung between two trees outside while Andy slept on a mat nearby and Jason got the van.  Although we slept alright, Andy and I frequently woke up freezing our asses off while we secretly cursed Jason who was probably sleeping soundly in the warm VW.  But, unluckily for Jason we all slept in the van the next day, packed in like sardines. Ironically we took the sardines (and cooler) out of the van to make room for the three of us. 

An evening of psych-building, beers, and Jason's V-Dub.

Above is a short video I compiled from the little bits of video I recorded.

My morning warm up is actually easier than it looks. 

In the morning we were all very psyched to get out and do some climbing.  It took us an hour or two just to thaw out in Jason's van while we made and ate breakfast.  But soon after we were back out in T-shirts and eager to climb anything we could find.  I took a short walk down the river and found a tunnel/bridge to do a quick lap on which made for a good photo opportunity. We all felt we had some unfinished business at the Cerberus Gendarme, so our mission was to go back and get on a few more excellent looking slitter cracks.  We all warmed up on a climb called Squeeze Play, a varied and surprisingly challenging climb for the grade.  It started in a 25' splitter hand crack, and then transitioned from fingers to offwidth and even had a little stemming. The varied nature of the climb made for a good warm up, but the spiciest part of the climb was protected by a little #00 Purple C3 Camalot, something that could make or break your headspace for the day.  We all pulled the crux no problem and nobody took the zinger, so we shortly moved on to the next climb. 

Jason Molina jams the splitter start on Squeeze Play 5.10

Cruising the lower corner on Fails Of Power 5.11+

Feeling pretty confident in my crack climbing skills that day, I decided to take things up a notch and attempt Fails of Power 5.11c.  This climb can be divided into two pitches, one being about 5.10 and the other 5.11c. The climb can also be done in one long super pitch for full value, and that was my personal goal.  So I started up and wasn't initially worried about the lower 5.10 section, as it seemed to mostly perfect hand jams and a little lay-backing most of the way.  Although the section wasn't extremely technically challenging for me, it certainly was pumpy, and I could feel my muscles fatiguing as I progressed.  I reached the first pitch anchors but completely ignored them and kept going without even clipping a single bolt.  I wanted my headspace to be dialed in with only traditional gear placements and jams on my mind, a felt clipping any part of the anchor would give me a sense of an easy way out, which was something I wasn't interested in. So I climbed past the anchor where the crack started to get more narrow and tighter, slowly my hands could no longer fit inside.  Continuing to move upwards I began the more difficult process of climbing the wide finger crack and started using a technique called a "ring lock".  A ring lock is essentially stacking fingers of one hand together to match the width of the crack so that you can jam them in and pull on them for upwards progress. At this size the thumb plays a crucial role, because it's jammed like a keystone between the pointer and middle finger which are in contact with the inside of the crack. If done correctly this technique is quite awesome, if done incorrectly it will feel impossible. This was my first serious encounter with ring locks, and it was a pretty full-value experience. They are really hard to describe and a little tricky to figure out initially, but if the stars are aligned in your favor, you will find yourself magically succeeding. 

When I learned to love ring locks.
Fails Of Power 5.11+

I found myself doing ring lock after ring lock, each one mysteriously being good enough to progress me a little further.  My fatigue was starting to become impossible to ignore. The tired grunts and burl-dog sounding screams seemed to be the only sounds I could make.  I was too tired to place any gear, so I just focused and kept climbing in hopes of a rest.  The crack cut left for a short distance, creating a small horizontal crack that I hoped would be good enough for me to hold while I got my feet up.  Once holding the small horizontal I carefully transferred my left hip in towards the wall, and started trying to work my feet up into a layback position.  As I worked my feet upwards I could feel myself hanging on my tired arms more and more.  Before I could yell "burl-dog" I was spit out of the crack sideways and sent plummeting back towards the earth.  The rope caught me after a fall of only about 20' or so, and for the first time in about ten minutes I was able to relax my arms... but at this point it didn't matter, I wanted the ascent!  After a short hanging rest I pulled back up on the rope and finished the crack, which only got harder and eventually got so tight that I couldn't even fit my fatty hot dog fingers into it near the top.  This climb was an excellent challenge for me and it was an great learning and life experience all around.  With a little more experience I believe I'll be able to climb, if not onsight, this difficult of a crack.  But in the time being I'm going to go ahead and say this climb felt a little sandbagged to me. I feel an honest rating for an attempt from the ground up would be 5.11+.

Andy Hansen entering the crux section on his attempt of
Dire Wolf 5.12-

After out attempts on Fails of Power, Andy expressed interested in getting on the finger tips crack/corner called Dire Wolf.  I was psyched for him to get on it, and I didn't want to miss an opportunity to photograph him on it.  So we decided I would attempt it first so I could eventually hang a line to shoot photos of him from.  For this reason it is always usually harder to photograph tradition climbs, especially if they are of significant difficulty because somebody (usually me) has to get to the top first to hang a rope.  Unlike what it usually looks like, the photographer isn't just magically floating there, and usually it is a long process to get into position and to be ready to shoot such a climb.  So I started up the climb and attempted my second 5.12- trad route with a "ground up" ethic. (Not rehearsing the moves before attempting the climb on lead.)  To make a long story short, I finished the climb... but not without falling.  In the crux I fell onto a #00 C3 Camalot, which after holding me briefly ripped suddenly from the crack and sent me down another ten feet, where my next piece, a .75 Camalot, succeeded in catching me still safely above the ground.  A little spoked by not deterred, I finished the climb.  Unfortunately after watching the crux piece rip out, Andy wasn't super psyched to give it a ground up attempt.  So I lowered, cleaned the gear, and moved on...

Burl-dog Andy working out the moves. See many holds?
Dire Wolf 5.12-

The next day, after dreaming of bomber C3 placements all night long, Andy wanted to give Dire Wolf a ground up attempt. I was stoked for him to give it a shot, and was excited to watch him work his magic on the finger tips crack.  I still went up the climb first to hang a line, but this time I Aided the pitch.  It worked out nice because I was too tired to free it, and I wanted to practice my aid climbing in Zion.  So after about 40 minutes I was at the top, and ready to photograph Andy on his attempt.   He cruised the beginning, but soon found himself in the crux.  He made sure to look for a slightly more bomber piece than the #00 I ripped yesterday, and he found a much better #0 C3 just below where I placed the smaller size the day before.   He worked out the moves like a champ, but ended up falling getting the high hand-foot match in the same spot I did.  When Andy fell the C3 held, and he easily got back into place to figure out the crux.  He figured it out and successfully pulled all the moves on the route.  A strong effort by a true burl-dog.  One of these days we'll both go back for the send. 

Jason and his sweet orange peel.

Although it wasn't out original plan, we spent all three days climbing at the Cerberus Gendarme.  Our need to climb splitters was only slightly satisfied, and if we had the time I'm sure we could have climbed another day or two without ever leaving that area.  But the more time we spent in Zion, the more our eyes gleaned at the huge walls around us.  We spotted lines such as The Big Lebowski, Prodigal Son, Moonlight Buttress, The Touchstone Wall and a handful of other Zion test pieces.  At this point our minds were sufficiently blown, and the only thing we could thing of (besides splitters) was serious wall climbing.  This weekend only helped climbing's grip on our lives, and now The Touchstone Wall is offically on our list of to-do climbs.  

Andy ponders what it takes to be a wall climber. 

I have truly been inspired by my three days in Zion, and I don't think I will ever look at my life in the climbing world quite the same.  I finally feel that I am at a level where I can complete climbs I've dreamed about my whole life, and that feeling is quite powerful and almost impossible to ignore.  I now feel I wake up with a new mindset and a new energy that is focused on a goal that is larger than life, but yet somehow within my reach.  The difficulty comes in describing the goal, as it never ends after a climb is complete, but rather the goal is something searched for within ones self... within ones own spirit. Perhaps climbing has become the very powerful lens in which I view, understand, and experience myself in a world that I can't yet entirely wrap my mind around.  Climbing is the most potent dose of life I have ever experienced, and at times everything else feels like a falsified non-reality.  In the end I'm still left confused at how to interpret the overwhelming feelings to push my abilities and inner self in the climbing world, so I can only think of two words that might simply describe my current pursuits... VISON QUEST!

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