Climbing in Zion Made Me Rethink My Relationship to the Sport

This is the tenth year of my blog at Semi-Rad.com, and since I started it, I’ve been fortunate to get to do some pretty wonderful adventures. Throughout this year, I’ll be writing about 12 of my favorite adventures I’ve had since I started writing about the outdoors. This is the fifth in the series. The other pieces can be found here.

The Zion Canyon shuttle-bus driver slowed in the middle of the road on our way back down the canyon, the headlights illuminating three guys in their late twenties or early thirties standing on the side of the road in the dark. The driver opened the door, and they stepped onto the bus, looking dirty in climbing harnesses, helmets, knee pads, and some other gear. My then girlfriend and I, riding the bus back to town after an evening stroll on the Riverside Walk, looked toward the front. 

“What route were you on?” the driver asked the three guys. 

“Spaceshot,” one of the guys said. “We just fixed the first couple pitches, so we can come back and fire it in the morning.” 

It was 2006, my second time ever visiting Zion National Park, and I was aware that people climbed the steep red and black sandstone walls. I had started trying to learn to climb myself, outdoors, in Phoenix, with mixed results: I was terrified of it, didn’t trust my feet, overgripped everything, and enjoyed it maybe 40 percent of the time, maintaining a state of near panic the rest of the time. I understood a little bit about how the rope and climbing gear worked. But on the bus in Zion, I had no idea what these guys were talking about. Or why they were wearing knee pads. And I must have been staring.

“Do you want to ask them for their autograph?” my girlfriend asked me. I laughed. She had less than zero interest in rock climbing, and I was just starting to become very excited about it, the beginning of a fixation that would last almost a decade—and would outlast our relationship. If I looked very interested in what those guys were doing, it’s because I was interested. Clueless, but intrigued, I wondered if I’d ever see Zion Canyon from up on one of those walls someday. I would come back to Zion a half dozen times over the next eight years before it actually happened.

(Photo: Courtesy Matthew Van Biene)

In early 2013, a Prescott College student named Ethan Newman wrote to me, explaining that he had picked up a minor in nonfiction writing in hopes of finishing his degree—a process that had a little hiccup in it, since he’d left Prescott, Arizona, to live in Springdale, Utah, just outside Zion National Park. He wanted to know if I could provide a little insight into the world of outdoor writing. I said sure, I could tell him what I knew, but I wasn’t convinced I knew very much.

We chatted on the phone a few times, emailed back and forth, and eventually I became an official long-distance mentor for Ethan in an independent study he would title “writing for magazines.” He said the college would pay me a small stipend, and I replied, “Maybe instead of payment, you can winch me up Moonlight Buttress sometime this spring.” 

I was living in a van at the time and came through Springdale quite often, having fallen in love with the canyon and also having befriended Scott and Heidi, the owners of Deep Creek Coffee, who didn’t seem to mind when I bought coffee and a breakfast sandwich and then loitered in the coffee shop for another hour or two trying to catch up on email and write stories. Ethan was a Deep Creek regular (and friend of Scott and Heidi), and it wasn’t long before we met in person. He had a big smile, red hair and a beard, was personable (he worked as a canyoneering guide), and was thoughtful in conversation. 

A year and a half later, Ethan had gotten some writing published by a few climbing websites and recorded a Dirtbag Diaries podcast about the time he lived in a cave outside Bishop, California. We pitched a story about Zion climbing to Climbing magazine, with the idea we’d cowrite it—my half from learning to aid-climb from Ethan, and Ethan’s half about teaching me, as well as some of the history of aid climbing in Zion. October 2014 found Ethan teaching me to jug a rope in the garage of the house he rented at the western edge of Springdale. 

The morning of our first climb, we popped off our shoes, rolled up our pant legs, and waded across an icy-cold but only ankle-deep Virgin River toward the shaded west face of Angels Landing and the base of the route, Prodigal Sun. I’d walked across the top of the formation many times before on Zion’s most famous hiking route, hanging onto the chains for support. I had wondered where the climbing routes topped out in relation to the Angels Landing hike, and with some luck, now I’d find out. Our plan was: Ethan would lead the hard pitches, I’d lead as many of the easy ones as possible. 

On my first lead, I tried to remember everything Ethan had said while I fell into the rhythm of the sequence: eyeball the crack above me, look down at the 30 cams and 25 nuts on the gear sling, pick one, place it in the crack. Yank on it a little bit to make sure it’s solid. Clip one of the two daisy chains attached to my harness to the cam, gently weight it, then transfer all my body weight to it. Bounce up and down to make sure it stays in place, but don’t look at it in case it pops out (much better to have it snap into the top of your helmet than into your eye). Bounce, bounce, bounce harder. Clip an etrier—a ladder made of fabric webbing—to the cam, and then step into the first step, then up to the next step, then the next. When the cam you placed is even with your waist, grab the fifi hook attached to your harness, and hook it into the cam so you can lean back and inspect the crack above for your next placement. Repeat process. 

zion-illo-wall_h.jpg(Illustration: Branden Leonard)

If I had told most rock climbers that I was headed to Zion to learn to aid climb, I think most of them would say, “Why?” Aid climbing is slow, a lot of work, and definitely isn’t the sexy rock climbing most people think of (shirtless, balletic, athletic, graceful). Aid climbing is more like shoveling gravel for a whole day, an hour or so at a time, with breaks while your partner is leading. Ethan told me not to bring climbing shoes, because we wouldn’t be doing much free climbing, and not to wear new shoes either, because they’d get destroyed when I jugged up the rope behind him. I explained it to my mom as “the way most people climb El Capitan—you climb pulling on the gear, not on handholds.” 

A few hundred feet up the wall, looking down at the Virgin River and the road snaking along the floor of the canyon, though, I was pretty convinced it was more rewarding than shoveling gravel. When Ethan led pitches, I sat suspended at belays, my harness digging into my legs and hips. I stared at the deep burnt-red sandstone in front of me, looked up to see how much progress Ethan had made, looked over my left shoulder downcanyon, upcanyon the other way, thousand-foot-high walls in every direction, just hanging out with some birds, noting the occasional gentle breeze.

When it was my turn to lead, I tried to be efficient in my movements, placing each cam or nut as high as I could above my head, then climbing my etriers up to it, stepping as high as I could before placing the next piece. When I stood in the etriers and jugged up the ropes following Ethan, the toes of my shoes scraped the wall. At the hanging belays, my weight was split between my harness and my feet splayed out on the wall. Occasionally, I’d pull my feet away and rest with my knees pushing against the wall, just for a few seconds—I could see why the guys doing Spaceshot back in 2006 had worn knee pads. 

Ethan and I switched places a couple times, and the sun made its way across the sky, lighting the canyon walls in deep morning hues, then harsh blown-out midday tones, and finally the soft, warm glow of the golden hour. We had hoped to finish the route before sundown, but it was dark when we entered the last pitch, a low-angle chimney full of sand and loose rock to the top of the formation. We found the now deserted Angels Landing Trail and descended, our headlamps lighting the dark path all the way down to the river. 

2014(Photo: Courtesy Matthew Van Biene)

We wanted to do one more route, with an additional, probably unnecessary objective: spend the night halfway up on a portaledge. In a few years of climbing, I had done almost everything I’d wanted to: sport climbs, trad climbs, alpine rock routes, ice climbing, snow climbs, and a bit of ski mountaineering. But I had never spent the night on a big wall—and from all my times riding the Zion shuttle bus, I had heard more than one bus driver tell passengers, “Some climbers say they sleep better up there than they do at home.” We picked Lunar Ecstasy, an 1,100-foot route on the Moonlight Buttress formation, just to the left of Zion’s most famous climb, for which the buttress is named. 

We packed gear into a couple haul bags, ordered a pizza from the Zion Pizza and Noodle Co., and carefully put it into plastic bags, hoping it would survive the first four or five pitches of climbing mostly intact. 

It was late morning when we finally got to the base of the route, again by crossing the river. Our friend Matt was to join us for the first few pitches to take photos, and then he’d rappel off and come back in the morning to hike to the top, rappel in, and shoot photos of us on the route’s upper pitches. I racked up and led the first two pitches, mostly free-climbing and then some easy aid-climbing to the top of the second pitch. I handed the gear over to Ethan for him to get us to the top of pitch four or five, wherever we’d set up the portaledge for the night. I could rest sort of easy, except I had to lead the final two pitches of the route sometime the next day. And I had found out that the final moves of the route were now missing a bolt, which would make it a little more adventurous for me. 

We stopped after pitch four, setting up the portaledge and eating cold pizza that had retained some of its original shape and most of the original flavor as well. Matt decided he’d go ahead and just stay with us on the portaledge, which was designed to hold two people fairly comfortably and I guess three people less comfortably. We wedged ourselves in head to foot, 500 feet above the canyon floor, and I’ve certainly had better nights of sleep, but I’ve also had worse nights of sleep. 

We woke shortly after the sun popped over the eastern rim of the canyon, ate cold breakfast burritos, chugged cans of coffee, and started packing up. Matt rappelled down so he’d have time to run over to the Angels Landing Trail, hike up, and rappel down again to shoot photos, and Ethan started up the fifth pitch. I settled in for a long day of belaying, watching the buses putter up and down the road below. 

Every once in a while, a bus would slow down in the middle of the road, sometimes even stop, and I was sure the bus driver was pointing out climbers up on the walls above. Probably us, a climber in a blue shirt and an orange helmet and a climber in a red shirt and a white helmet. Crawling up the wall. Probably almost none of the passengers knew what route we were on, maybe none of them knew anything about rock climbing, but in Zion, climbers are part of the wildlife, like the elk and bison of Yellowstone. I thought about that bus ride back in 2006, when I was a passenger who didn’t know what Spaceshot was, or what fixing ropes meant, or why one might wear knee pads up here. I just thought it looked cool. And eight years later, it was cool. It was better than I imagined, sitting at a belay with a few hundred feet of air under me, Ethan methodically snaking his way up a finger-wide crack in a thousand-foot-high wall above me. 

We inched our way up, the first three pitches taking longer than I’d hoped, as I kept checking my watch, doing the math of how many hours and minutes of daylight I’d have to lead the final two pitches to the top. Ideally, I’d have four hours, which would be plenty of time. Sometime in the afternoon, it became clear there was a really good chance I’d be doing at least part of it in the dark. Still, I hung on to some hope. 

I had found my way into rock climbing through sport climbing in 2005, arguably the climbing discipline with the lowest barrier to entry—aside from bouldering, which only requires shoes, chalk, and a crash pad. All I needed was a pair of climbing shoes, a harness, a belay device and a locking carabiner, some quickdraws, and a rope (or a friend who had some quickdraws and a rope). I learned the mechanics of the safety protocols, then rushed into climbing as hard as I could, without bothering to train or get better before I tackled harder routes. Then I met a friend, Lee, who taught me how to place trad gear, and before long, I had cobbled together a set of cams and nuts, and was finding routes that scared the crap out of me, and even made my way to a few dozen technical routes in the mountains in Colorado, Wyoming, and Arizona, and eventually the Alps. I put together a decent-size life list of routes I’d climbed but never got to the point where I was confident and could get through a challenging route without debilitating fear. 

In 2012, while climbing on Utah’s Castleton Tower, a young man fell and decked, landing headfirst right next to me on the belay ledge at the top of the first pitch, immediately twisting into a seizure before losing consciousness. My friend Chris and I spent the next six hours helping facilitate a rescue. The climber, Peter, made a full recovery, but the image and sickening sound of him hitting the ledge stuck with me. I never dealt with it psychologically. I kept climbing, not admitting that the fire in me had dimmed. I couldn’t imagine not climbing. Lee and I wrote a climbing guidebook, covering trad routes up to 5.8-plus in Colorado’s Front Range, and it was fun, but after pulling the crux move while leading the hardest route in the book, I felt relief and exhaustion, not joy. 

So Zion was either going to relight my fire or be my last big rock adventure for a while. I didn’t know which.

Ethan had convinced me to bring a little bluetooth speaker with us, to make the long hours at belays less tedious. The purist in me cringed, not wanting to take music into the cathedral of Zion Canyon. But eventually, I realized no one else above or below us would hear the music, so I played a chunk of the National’s High Violet. 

At the top of pitch six, Matt yelled down from above us, hanging off his rappel rope and shooting photos. The top was only 400 feet away but still several hours. Ethan started up pitch seven, home of a giant flake called the Amoeba that is somehow still attached to the wall but strikes fear in the heart of everyone who climbs past it. Ethan led, having a private, very tense moment as he passed the Amoeba, wondering if he’d be the one to finally dislodge it (and/or the loose blocks of rock resting on top of it) and watch it fly down the wall directly onto me below. Thankfully, it stayed put. Still, when I looked up at the wall above, I found myself ready for it to be over, not jealous that I wasn’t leading the best pitches of the climb. 

At the top of pitch seven, I took the gear from Ethan as the daylight started to wane. I hurried through the next pitch as much as possible, hoping to minimize the amount of climbing I’d have to do by headlamp, knowing it was futile but trying anyway. I started up the final pitch by headlamp, dreading the missing bolt and the idea of trusting my body weight to an inch-long metal hook sitting on a nubbin of sandstone somewhere a hundred feet above me. 

The buses had stopped driving for the day, and our two headlamps were the only visible lights in the canyon, a dark abyss below us. We were completely alone. I worked my way up the wall, up a curving crack and an overhanging arête, leaning backward and clinging to the rock with tired arms. The wall went back to vertical, and the crack petered out. I rounded a corner and couldn’t see Ethan anymore but could hear voices coming from the bluetooth speaker. I was sweating, searching for gear, working through my fear in a little dome of headlamp light, an ant on the side of this huge wall, and Ethan was enjoying a podcast down there. 

Ten feet from the anchor bolts at the top of the route, I found the section where the missing bolt would have vastly improved the safety of the climbing. Alas, it was still gone, just a rounded hole in the sandstone where it used to be. Someone online had said something about “one hook move.” I searched the rock above with my fingers, blindly hoping for a nice lip to hang a hook on. I found something decent, delicately placed the hook over it, clipped an etrier to the hook, and gingerly weighted it. It held. I carefully climbed the steps of the etrier, looking above for another spot for a gear placement. Nothing. I fished through our gear and found the other hook we’d brought, and found another lip, then repeated the process again. I could see the anchor bolts, but it was still at least one more move to them. Another hook placement. 

I felt around again, thinking about how far my last cam was beneath me, what it might feel like if this hook placement popped free and I fell 20 feet into the dark before the rope caught me, how much of a bummer it’d be to have to re-climb this section again, and if the pizza place would still be open by the time we got down, and I found a decent crimp for the last hook. I clipped an etrier to it, stood up on it, reached high with my right hand, clipped a quickdraw to one of the anchor bolts at the top of the route, pinched the rope through it, and topped out. I called down to Ethan, he whooped back, and I started hauling our bags up, awash in relief.

2014(Photo: Courtesy Matthew Van Biene)

We pulled off our harnesses and gear, repacked the bags much less carefully, shouldered them, and started to hike down the paved trail, 1,400 feet to the canyon floor, back at Ethan’s truck in just over an hour.

Somewhere during that long afternoon of belaying Ethan while he led us up the steep pitches of Lunar Ecstasy, the wall towering over my head gave me pause and put me in a spot to think a lot about climbing. I had been fortunate to do a lot of things, and had climbed several hundred pitches all over the West and a few in Europe, and I had still never gotten that comfortable with it. I had been anxious about climbing since the day I started doing it, and over the past year, I’d been having more anxiety than fun. Maybe it was time for a break. I told myself I’d take some time off after our Zion climbs, and I did. More than a year passed before I roped up outside again, and I still haven’t quite gotten back to it with the fire I had in the first years I was climbing. A year and a half later, in the spring of 2016, Ethan followed his first byline in Climbing by writing a profile of Zion in Alpinist, an extensive feature article that went far beyond anything I would have thought possible when a random college student with hardly any experience emailed me out of the blue three years prior. When I got the issue in the mail, I sat down with it and realized I was more proud of Ethan’s story than any magazine piece I had written myself. I still think I got the better end of the mentorship deal, with Ethan enabling my almost decade-long dream of climbing a big wall in Zion—even as white-knuckle as it had been. 

The day after we walked off the top of Lunar Ecstasy and plodded down the trail with our heavy haul bags, I again found myself on the Zion shuttle bus, taking an easy day in the park with Hilary, my girlfriend and future wife. As we pulled up to the Big Bend shuttle stop, I looked through one of the roof vents and spotted a pair of climbers headed up one of the walls. I snapped a quick photo with my phone, because I still thought it looked cool. 

Brendan Leonard’s new book, Bears Don’t Care About Your Problems: More Funny Shit in the Woods from Semi-Rad.com, is out now.

Lead Photo: Courtesy Matthew Van Biene

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