Text and pictures © 2003-2021 Guillaume Dargaud
Last updated on 2019/06/11
"If I fall now, it's not gonna be an angel's landing..."
Left: Spearhead on the right and other Zion summits.
Right: Coiling the rope on top of the 2nd (or 3rd if you include the ramp) pitch of Iron Messiah.
A bit of highway after Vegas we are in Utah, home of the best looking rock in the US and the hardest to find booze in the US. A rest day in St George climbing 5.11 sport routes and almost as much time spent looking for a beer and we arrive in Zion. Beautiful, like Yosemite valley with the sandstone from Red Rocks. Okay, between Spaceshot, Moonlight Buttress and Prodigal Sun, which one is available ? We drive around in the evening and there are parties fixing all three of those classic walls. Well, let's get up early in the morning, maybe they'll be still asleep and we can pass them... Fat chance: at 6am it's still pitch dark and we see headlamps on the start of all 3 routes. Time for plan B: open the guidebook and look for something else: The Iron Messaiah, 10 pitches going all free on Spearhead.
Left: 5.10 crux of the Spearhead, just before betting in the dihedral/chimney.
Right: Jenny in the chimney of Iron Messiah.
The approach is pretty quick but, when we look at the '3rd class ramp' before the route itself, we decide to rope up and put the climbing shoes on. Good call, their 3rd class is pretty hard, but fortunately it'll be the only sandbag pitch on the route. The first 'real' pitch of the route is pretty stiff: a vertical wall up small crimpers that I link to the next pitch with some rope drag. That's the crux of the route: a couple of 5.10 moves ten meters above a ledge without any pro in. The rock is good but the holds are tiny, at least until I reach the dihedral/chimney that will continue almost up to the summit. I link the next two pitches, and again the two above, making for some fast progress, but the wind is getting stronger and stronger. On the belay at the end of the chimney, all my gear floats up, including my heaviest cams, and I have to keep my eyes closed due to all the dust floating around. The wind is so violent that it throws several large rocks off the summit ledge. We skip the last two short pitches and start rapping down, afraid of losing the rope inside the chimney. I rappel with the rope neatly coiled on a leg, but the wind keeps picking it up and I have to fight to keep the coils near me. It's harder to go down than up...
Left: Looking to pull out of the overhanging chimney (much easier than it looks).
Right: Trying to rappel with the rope flying up in a windstorm.
In the evening it starts raining pretty hard and it's all windy and cloudy the next day. We drive around, look at routes, take some pictures, read the guidebook in all directions and end up on sport routes at St George again, on the same spot than where I soloed some 5.10s back in december. And I also took the time to go get a haircut. When the barber saw the enormous mess of knotted hair he didn't even ask what style I might want: he got the electric shaver out and zeroed me !
The whole mess of tangled hair came out in one piece after he shaved all around and he'd never seen such a mess, like a long dead beaver; Jenny was laughing out loud looking at the show and taking pictures. In other words, now I freeze my ears off.
Left: Rappelling off Iron Messiah.
Right: Major mass on tangled hair. Even the barber was taking pictures !
Left: Jenny on a single pitch. Zion, Utah, 2003.
Right: Spaceshot, Zion. We couldn't find a spot in the line to climb it but we could look at it.
Left: Naturally carved rock.
Right: Wave rock formations. No, I don't have any better comment to give !
Left: Angels Landing (right) and the Great White Throne (left) backlit. The North-East buttress follows the left edge visible on the picture.
The afternoon we first drove into Zion, the sky suddenly turned all hazy. Much worse than in Yosemite, and also with a strong smell of cinder. I started bitching for the missed pictures, but after a stop at an Internet Cafe and reading a message from some friends living in San Diego, I could figure out there were people much worse off: the smoke came all the way from the California fires which were burning less than a mile from their home ! Apparently they'd been through the worst part already, with 400 houses turned to ashes in their immediate neighborhood. For us the smoke left quickly enough, carried away by strong winds that unfortunately also brought rain clouds. After that first long route on Spearhead we spent several days climbing short pitches between rain drops, trying to get started on one of the 3 classic aid lines in Zion, but incredibly all 3 were always taken. To give you an idea, we even saw parties starting the first pitches of Prodigal Sun in the rain... And when you know what the water does to the sandstone...
Right: The North-East buttress of Angels Landing.
After a few days of such single pitch fidgeting, we started getting bored enough to go try the 5.11R route on the North-East buttress of Angels Landing. We wanted to do a route there, if only for the scenery and the easy descent, and also Jenny kept saying things about "raising the stakes". We've been climbing 5.10 for years. Sometimes barely, whimpering pathetically when the lack of training was showing too much; sometimes safely like on the 5.10R of Rock Warrior a few days before. But this was a new one: 8 pitches, with two 5.9R and a 5.11 that promised no easy way out. Well, it's not quite true that we don't climb 5.11: we've done plenty sport climbing, and a few in Yosemite where the pro is plentiful and the rock won't betray you if you whip down. With the binoculars I saw some belays, so it should be possible to retreat if the going got too tough (just to make me feel better).
Left: Jenny at the end of the steep 2nd pitch.
So here we go, on a cold windy morning, right after a rainy night, trying to find the zeroth pitch leading to the base of the ridge. The guidebook says something about a "large 5.9 crack" but there are so many possibilities... The leftmost crack has a bolt and doesn't look very steep, even if it's not a 'large crack'. The start is a bouldering move, followed by a traverse before I get to a shiny bolt... that moves way too much in its sandy hole. The section above is a groove of face moves with no pro but it goes (carefully and slowly). On the ridge I get 10 seconds of sun before it hides behind the Great White Throne. A bit of cactus avoidance and we are at the base of the route itself. A 5.10 layback after a section of nice hand jams, which first moves layback a loose sandy block and stays quite sustained after that. I place a few cams blindly that Jenny will have trouble removing.
Right: Jenny at the end of the second 5.9R pitch, serious runout.
Now start the two long pitches of 5.9R. R like Runout. Major runout on sandy sandstone that still feels humid to the touch. Hmmm... The move off the belay is really shitty, on crumbly stacked flakes but there's an old rusty bolt right before the offwidth section. I leave the #4.5 Camalot near the end of the offwidth before heading up a discontinued section. At first there's enough pro, but it gets smaller and farther out the higher I go. From 20 meters below I see a drilled angle on the slab and aim for it. A few TCUs and Aliens in pockets will do for the 2nd half of the pitch, but on those sandy slopers I start to feel the heat.
Left: Starting the crux pitch in the left dihedral, before moving into the right one and traversing left again.
The next pitch looks worse, much worse. All sideways waves on the rock, covered with a lot of moss. The guidebook says to go next to the arête, so I abandon the idea of going towards a steep bushy crack on the left. The climbing near the arête is nerve wracking. I'm so far above my last piece, a small TCU in a horizontal sandy placement, that I slow down a lot. I have my left hand behind the arête for balance and I often step on moss as it provides a more positive holds than the rock itself ! When I look on my right there's a loooong way down to go. If I pitch now it's not going to be an angel landing far below, with the rope getting cut on the edge and all that. I'm fairly drained when I get to the end of the 60m rope and belay on a bush.
Right: Jenny on the traverse around the arete at the end of the crux pitch.
A short pitch of chimney where Jenny's backpack gets stuck and we are at the base of the crux. From the guidebook it seems that it should be the right facing dihedral above the belay, but the bolt is on the left facing one further right. I start straight up, placing a few good pieces on one rope, then traverse 10 meters to the right to a crack leading to the dihedral. I have a few good pieces in when I reach a hidden piton sticking out of rotten rock, but just a hard move above and I reach the bolt. And it's a good one. The next move is awkward but not too hard and it continues up an enjoyable steep widening crack. And then the final 15 meter traverse to the left would have turned into a rope drag nightmare if it wasn't for the double rope. I take pics of Jenny as she traverses around the arête. All in all very enjoyable and much more relaxed than the two previous 5.9 pitches.
Left: Jenny on the summit of Angels Landing.
The next two pitches should be easy: 5.8 and 5.6, right ? But it starts really steep and goes into a somewhat sandy chimney. Stem or jam ? Whatever. On the last pitch I probably go offroute a bit and end up doing a long 5.9 sequence very far above my last piece, but I'm near the end of the rope with way too much rope drag to add a piece. Now should be just 3rd class to the summit, I start ahead dragging the rope behind me while Jenny follows in the middle of those spiny bushes. I stop at a shoulder right below the summit to let her catch up.
As I start the last 15 meters, she's just letting the rope come, without even a shoulder belay. I go straight up what looked like interesting rock from below. She goes: "shouldn't it be on the left ?" But by then I have my hands right on the summit, with two tourists looking at me. Poof! the crimper in my left hand blows up into sand and I'm airborne for 2 meters before landing on a narrow ledge where I grab a shrub before I can tip over backwards for an extra 10 meters into the trees below. Close call. I follow Jenny's suggestion and one minute later I stand on the summit where the two tourists are still gaping at me, speechless. All day we wished for the sun, sometimes seeing it between the clouds for a few seconds, but now here it is, shinning on us for... one minute before it disappear behind the cliff to the west !
Right: Descent trail of Angels Landing, beautiful hike.
Left: A high mesa in the storm clouds while crossing Utah.
Right: Jenny walking by an empty horizon with crawny trees clinging to the dry Bryce Canyon rock.
A few more days spent waiting in line to get on Spaceshot or one of the other routes and we finally give up. I've never liked aid for the sake of aid, but maybe it was the line in The Matrix: "Zion is going to be destroyed in 12 hours". I don't know but after the movie we hit to road for a bit of remote climbing in Capitol Reef before reaching Indian Creek and more towers. Again.
Left: A little bit of climbing at Capitol Reef. More potential.
Right: Jenny on rappel at Capitol Reef.