Spectacular wall, and we finally got one really big, significant route in on our Spring Break. Spec-freaking-tacular.

Trip Report:

We arrived in Zion on Thursday afternoon, fairly early since we were just coming from Vegas. We stopped at the visitor center as usual to get info and inquire about permits, and discovered that they have changed their policy so that if you want a parking permit, you can't get a bivy permit, and vice versa, and you can only get a parking permit for a single day. This makes good sense to me from a climber's perspective, because it basically means that if you're going to spend multiple days on a climb, you can just start slightly later and take their shuttles, and if you want to do a climb in a single day, then you can get a parking permit and start as early as you want. This worked perfectly for us, because we planned to do the route in a day, and even though we wanted to fix some pitches on the first day, we knew we'd have time to do that and still take the shuttles. I would highly recommend this for anyone who wants to do a relatively short wall like Spaceshot or Prodigal Sun, provided you don't climb slow as molasses. Just get a parking permit, fix pitches if necessary, and get a super early start. This is what we did for both Prodigal and Spaceshot.

While getting our parking permit, we inquired about how many other parking and bivy permits they had given out, and it was grim news. It sounded like there could be several parties on our route. After stopping at the visitor center and getting our parking permit and reserving a campsite, we gathered a fairly small rack, our lead line and haul line, and some of our aid gear, and set off to catch a shuttle. It's always fun to see the looks some tourists give you when they see the mountains of climbing gear on your back. This was the first time I'd taken a shuttle at Zion, and it was kinda fun to hear some of the history and stories the driver told, as well as the names of a lot of the formations. We got off at Big Bend, and as we hiked down the road toward our climb, we gazed up at the wall through binoculars to count the parties already on it. We could see one party about half way up, with a portaledge, and another party working on what seemed to be pitch four. It didn't look good, especially when we realized that there were three people in the upper group, possibly a soloist and a regular twosome. We started up the first pitch anyway, thinking that maybe we could pass some people if we needed to. Aaron led the first pitch, which was fairly easy. I led the second pitch, which had some slightly tricky bits, and was of course fairly sandy, as the lower parts of Zion walls often are. For the third pitch, there are apparently several options of varying levels of difficulty, and Aaron picked one that looked fairly straightforward, but he ended up wandering left and right a bit trying to find the easiest path. I followed the pitch, which ended on top of a large block at the base of what was clearly the real beginning of the route.

When I arrived, Aaron was already talking to the party that was there, and he gave me the good news. They were bailing. The bad news was the reason they were bailing: apparently the party that we had seen above them was in fact a party of three, and they were moving like molasses. This was apparently their second full day on the wall, and we could tell they wouldn't finish before nightfall. The couple we were now talking to, a very nice guy and girl, had also started the previous day, but somewhat later. They had spent the previous night right here at the top of pitch three, but because of the slowness of the other group, they had only barely made it to the top of four today, as we had witnessed from the ground. They were in surprisingly good spirits for a party that was bailing; Aaron and I would have been quite grumpy, especially if the reason were a slow crowd ahead of us.

Gear for Spaceshot
Gear for Spaceshot
Our gear, all spread out the night before the climb
While the other couple finished packing up, we started setting up our first fixed line, and I decided to rap off first. Because of the wandering nature of the previous pitch, I wasn't exactly sure which side of the block to rappel from, so I followed my instinct and went to the left (climber's left.) The other couple agreed that this seemed right. I descended through a notch and spotted the previous ledge and the anchors right below me. The rest of the rappels were straightforward, and we made it down with just two ropes as expected (we tied off the rope at each anchor, and for the last anchor we used a set of chains that was slightly off-route, at the top of a big pillar.) Of course this required passing a knot in the middle of the second rap. Aaron and I each managed this smoothly enough, but we both remarked later that it probably was not quite “textbook”. From the ground, we looked back up to see where the other party on the route was, and we were pleased to see that they had made it to Earth Orbit Ledge, at the top of pitch 7. They had only one short, easy pitch to go, so we knew they wouldn't be in our way. We hiked back to Big Bend with a spring in our step and in good spirits. Finally things were really looking up, and we knew we would make it to the top of this wall the next day. We went back to camp and prepared some pasta, made phone calls, and went to sleep nice and early.

The next morning we awoke just after 4:00 am, packed up quickly, and drove off to Big Bend, utilizing our parking permit for the day. Just as we had planned, we reached the base of the route by 5:00, and we started jugging our fixed lines as soon as possible. Our goal was to both be at the top of our lines by 6:00. I went first, and carried the rack and my small pack. The jugging went smoothly for me, but Aaron had a much harder time, as he was carrying the mini-pig, our haul bag for this trip, on his back. Jugging with a fairly heavy pack on is no fun. Nevertheless, we were both standing on top of the pillar at the base of pitch four by 6:00, and I was prepared to start leading. I clipped the first few bolts up to a small shelf, and though I probably could have reached the next bolt if I had really tried, or could have mantled onto the shelf to clip it, I decided to do a short hook move just for the heck of it. There's nothing like standing on a hook at six in the morning to get your day started off right. At the end of the bolt/piton ladder, I started camming and nutting my way slowly up the thin crack toward the first anchor. There were a few tricky spots here, but nothing too bad. I had heard that the crux of the route (where someone had destroyed the good placements with hammering) was right at the end of the bolt/piton ladder, but this was not the case. This section was slightly tricky, but the real crux came later, after another couple of fixed pins. As Aaron cleaned the pitch, I hauled the mini-pig hand over hand, which was pleasantly simple compared to the hauling we had done on Moonlight Buttress in December.

Me leading pitch 5
Pitch 5
Me leading the beginning of pitch 5 (before the going gets tough)
I led the fifth pitch, which started out pretty simple, but eventually got trickier. At one point I reached a very shiny new-looking #3 Trango Ballnut, fairly mangled and thoroughly stuck in a thin part of an otherwise flaring crack. I spent some time looking for a decent placement just above or below it, but couldn't find much, so I clipped it, thoroughly tested it, and cruised on by. Based on its apparent newness, I wondered if it had belonged to the party above us, whom we had watched arrive at Earth Orbit Ledge the previous evening. Shortly after that, I came to a few fixed pins that took me almost perfectly horizontally to the right. There was also a huge hole here that was helpful as a hand-hold. To get off the last of these pitons, I would now have to move into a new thin crack system to my right. This turned out to be the crux. I leaned out as far as I could to look for gear placements, and it was slim pickins. I could see some vague possibilities higher up, but I couldn't reach them leaning out the way that I was, even though I was standing in the top rings of my Ruskies. I did notice a good section of crack much lower down, however, so I stepped down a few rings, leaned out, and placed a small cam — my beloved gray alien — at about the same height as the piton I was on. I moved onto the alien and worked my way up into the top rings. I still couldn't find any halfway decent gear placements in the bashed out remains of the shallow, flared crack, but after searching for a bit, I spotted a narrow flare up above me. It was just out of reach, but if I was lucky, it might just take an offset nut or a hybrid alien. Remaining calm, with complete confidence in my Ruskies, I moved my right knee-hook up to the carabiner clipped to the loop of the gray alien, and stood up, gaining an extra six or eight inches. I knew that if I needed to, I could gain even a few more inches by stepping up into the loop of the alien itself. I could now reach the flare I had seen before, and I pulled piece after piece off my rack, trying to find something that would fit. I tried both hybrid aliens (the blue-green and green-yellow), but they were a bit small and the crack really flared too much for them. I tried several offset nuts in various spots, thinking at first that a small one might work, but finding no luck. It just seemed like nothing would stick in that crappy flare. I think I must have stood on that one foot, with my left foot flagged slightly to the left for balance, for five minutes straight. It was probably more like two minutes, actually, but it felt longer. In any event, I was quite proud of my Russian Aiders; try getting that high in regular aiders on terrain that steep, and standing there for that long! Finally, I tried the last offset nut that I had, the biggest HB aluminum offset. I hadn't tried it earlier, thinking it was too big. Somehow, it was a perfect fit, and it just bit down and held. It still looked tenuous, so I tugged on it pretty good and bounce tested it a few times before stepping onto it. When I finally did, I moved up carefully and quickly, placed my next piece quickly, and got off the nut as soon as I could. As it turned out, my caution was unnecessary, as Aaron later said that the nut was pretty hard to remove.

The next several moves were much easier, but not completely trivial. I used a hybrid alien a few times, and maybe an offset nut or two. When I arrived at the anchor, I noticed another set of bolts about fifty feet above me. I checked the topo to see that the next pitch had an optional belay in the middle, and called down to Aaron, to see if I had enough rope to make it. I wasn't particularly tired yet, and I was so thoroughly enjoying leading that I really didn't want the pitch to end. Breezing through the crux with the help of my Russian Aiders had inspired tremendous confidence as well, which just added to my enjoyment of the route. Aaron said I probably had fifty feet of rope left, so I decided to go for it. The climbing was easy and quick, and I made it with just a few feet of rope left. I again hauled the mini-pig as Aaron cleaned the pitch. It took him a little while, since he spent a little time getting out the stuck ballnut, and the big offset at the crux was stuck pretty good. We both looked over the thoroughly mangled ballnut and agreed that it could never possibly be used again. But it would make for a nice piece of booty, especially considering how shiny and new it looked.

Pitches 6 and 7
Aaron leading pitch 6
Aaron started up the next pitch, hoping that he would be able to link the rest of pitch six, which I had started, with pitch seven, taking him all the way to Earth Orbit Ledge in one long pitch. The entire pitch was a beautiful splitter hand crack that started out at about 0.75 Camalots and widened gradually to #2's, and apparently was often free climbed at about 5.10. But since this would be Aaron's first time ever trying out his new Russian Aiders, he just aided the whole thing, crack-jugging on hand-sized cams and leaving an occasional piece for pro. After just a few moves on his new Russian Aiders, Aaron decided that they were amazing and declared that I had been cheating all along. I agreed. He made fairly quick work of the pitch and did manage to reach Earth Orbit Ledge, although in order to set a good anchor he had to move to the right end of the ledge, and that used up all the remaining slack in the rope. Furthermore, this final traverse added to the rightward slant of the crack throughout the whole pitch to put Aaron quite a distance away from straight above me. When I released the mini-pig from the anchor, that sucker flew like a cannonball in a huge arc, out to the right, out over the gigantic arch to the right of the route, now disappearing out of sight around it... more than five seconds later, it finally reappeared swinging back toward me. What a sight.

Flying Pig
When pigs fly
Our orange mini-pig taking a pendulum that would make the King Swing look small
I cleaned the pitch, which may have been harder than leading it, because the crack slanted to the right a fair amount, and Aaron had crack-jugged, leaving only occasional pieces of gear for pro. Hence, I was constantly hanging to the right of the crack, and with each piece I cleaned, I would have to pull myself over to the crack, hold myself in place with hand or foot jams, and then take a big swing back out onto the blank face as soon as I had removed the piece. This really made it seem like it would have been easier to just free the pitch. The second piece up was my red #13 stopper, one of my personal favorite nuts to place. It was placed transversely, utilizing its widest profile and its slight taper in that direction, and making it a perfect fit in the thin hand crack. When I got to it, it was stuck pretty bad, even though Aaron had only placed it for my sake, so that I wouldn't swing so far after cleaning the second piece. In retrospect, this really wasn't necessary, but it sounded like a good idea at the time. I still don't know how it got stuck so bad, considering that it was never weighted directly, but rather pulled sideways by the rope. It must have gotten torqued really badly when I was jugging up to it. I pulled on it for a little while before deciding that more serious action was necessary. I couldn't get enough leverage on it while holding myself in place with one hand and with the rope still clipped through it. I needed to place something above or below it for me to stand on, so that I could be directly in line with it and could get both of my hands free. Since this was only the second piece I cleaned, I only had one other piece on me, and that was a 0.75 Camalot. Fortunately it fit, though it was quite a bit more tipped-out than I would normally like. I reminded myself that it only had to hold a little more than body-weight, clipped an aider to it, and stood. And thank God it was a cam, so that no matter how much force I put on it now, it would come out easily when I was done cleaning the nut. I stood there for several minutes working on that damn nut, but made no progress at all. It simply wouldn't budge. When I tried hooking my nut tool under it in various ways and pulling up with both arms at once, using all the force I could muster as I had learned to do on Prodigal Sun, I nearly pulled a bicep. I'm glad that it didn't occur to me at that moment, as a friend later half-jokingly suggested, to simply pour some water on the rock. It probably would have worked, and in my frustration I might just have done it, but due to the potential damage it could do to the rock, it wouldn't have been ethical, especially to such a beautiful splitter hand crack. Finally, in despair, I decided I would have to move on. This would be the first time that I had ever left a piece behind on a climb. I unclipped the piece from the rope, removed its quickdraw, jammed the crack and stepped off my aider, and removed the Camalot. I said a last goodbye to my lovely red stopper, and let go of the crack. I watched the wire of my stopper slide swiftly away from me as I pendulumed once again out onto the blank face to the right of the crack. I resumed my jugging and cleaning, thoroughly sore and tired from the wasted effort to save my stopper.

When I reached the ledge, I found out that I had arrived just too late to miss some friends of ours... the party of three that we had seen the previous day! I couldn't believe that we had caught up to them, considering that they had spent the night here on this ledge, and had only one short easy pitch to go to reach the summit. We had caught sight of them a few times in the last few hours, as their leader climbed the bolt ladder on the last pitch and then hauled their bags. Apparently when Aaron reached Earth Orbit Ledge, both of the followers were still there. We had just climbed four pitches in less time than it took them to climb one! Of course, when Aaron arrived, one of them was just getting ready to start jugging, and in the time that it took me to clean my pitch, with the badly stuck nut, they both followed the last pitch and reached the summit. While I was jugging, Aaron talked to them a little. Just as we had thought, it was their third day on the wall, and they had one guy who was doing all the leading; the other two were just jugging and cleaning. Aaron asked about the sliding nut that we had found, and it turned out that it was theirs. Their leader had taken a (supposedly pretty big) fall the previous day, and that was the piece that caught him, which explained why it was so mangled and so stuck. Aaron offered to give it back to them, and they were grateful, but when he told them how damaged it was, they decided not to bother waiting around for it (we had put it in the mini-pig, if I remember correctly.) They also informed Aaron that there was a bolt missing on the last pitch, explaining why their leader took so long to get up it. After they left the ledge, I saw them a few times on their descent, but we never actually caught up to them again.

Of course, at this point we were in no major hurry. When I arrived at Earth Orbit Ledge, it was still quite early in the afternoon. We hadn't even eaten our lunches yet, and we had no fear now of getting stuck up there after dark. I was pretty exhausted after cleaning the previous pitch, but I had plenty of time to rest while belaying Aaron on his final lead. The pitch started out with a seriously exposed third-class traverse across the right side of the ledge to a sort of pedestal, under a small roof, which hung directly over the giant arch that we had been to the left of all day. The exposure from that little perch was some of the most incredible exposure I've seen. The route then took a bolt and piton ladder straight up from there to some easy free climbing. It turned out that the other party was right about the missing pin; Aaron found that the second or third pin on the ladder was gone. He contemplated for a moment, then decided to get out the cheater stick, a cheap tent pole that we had bought just for this kind of situation. Still exhausted and slightly frustrated that I had to actually do some work already, I retrieved the stick from the mini-pig, zipped it up to Aaron on the haul line, and he set to work duct-taping a carabiner to it with the gate taped open. It took a few minutes, but once he had things set up, he was able to clip the next piton, with the rope already in the quickdraw, without much difficulty. He then pulled himself up with the rope, which may not have been the most efficient way to do things, but it worked. After that, the rest of the pitch was pretty straightforward. As I was cleaning the pitch, I noticed a feature Me jugging the final pitch
Jugging the final pitch
(probably the original bolt hole) that I think Aaron could have used to do a hook move, rather than getting out the cheater stick. On the one hand, I thought it was too bad we had to cheat. But on the other hand, it was something that we had planned to be prepared for but had never actually done and never really thought through in detail, so it was probably a good learning experience. Furthermore, since this was Aaron's first time using the Russian Aiders, he may not have been too comfortable with the idea of doing a hook move (even though the Ruskies actually make hooking much easier, in my opinion). But the reason we had brought the cheater stick in the first place was for exactly this sort of situation: we knew there were a few bolt ladders on the route, and if one of those bolts happened to be missing, a cheater stick might be the only option for further progress. If this happened on one of the last pitches, just as it did in this case, then bailing could be a serious pain in the ass, or even impossible, not to mention that it would be awful to have our whole ascent blocked by that one missing bolt, a factor that was essentially beyond our control. In other words, if we hadn't had the cheater stick, and a hook move or some other variation didn't work either, then we would have been screwed.

After I cleaned the last pitch (slowly, as I was still exhausted from cleaning the previous pitch) we did a short fourth-class traverse to the right to gain the summit. I actually “led” this, as Aaron wasn't sure how close we were or if it might turn out to be difficult. I gave him a butt-belay as he followed it, carrying the mini-pig on his back. Once at the summit, we collapsed, drank some water, took several pictures, then began to organize our Summit self-portrait
Summit self-portrait
gear for the descent. We still hadn't eaten our actual lunch, which consisted of bagel sandwiches (with cheese and pepperoni, as usual) and some fruit, so we left this stuff out when we re-packed the gear and the mini-pig. We also noticed that we had more than enough water left, so rather than dumping it, we left a two-liter bottle at the top of the route in case the next party to pass through there was dying of thirst. We tried to mark it with the date, but I'm not sure how successful that was. (Note to self: bring a pen or a sharpie on next wall.) Since it was quite warm and sunny on the summit and we wanted to make sure we knew where our descent route was, we put off lunch for a little longer and started hiking. We hiked down the initial easy part of the descent to the top of a big slab and a large tree that would anchor our first rappel. We ate lunch there, enjoying the cooler temperatures and the little shade that the tree provided. After a restful lunch (I took my time eating, since we were in no major hurry at this point) we started rigging our first rappel, using both Aaron's lead rope and my static haul line. My brand new haul line, seeing its first use on this trip, was still shiny white and hardly had any signs of wear from the easy hauling on this climb. Within an hour, it would be nearly black. The first rappel took us over the big slab below the tree, and due to the unusually high levels of rain that the whole western U.S. had been getting this winter, there were several trickles of dirty water running down the slab. I tried to keep the ropes out of the water, but with the low-angled nature of the slab, it was futile. The ropes got filthy. Aaron's wasn't too bad, or at least the dirt didn't show as much. But my rope literally went from white to black in minutes. I carefully washed it and dried it when I got home, bringing it to a nice gray used-but-not-too-filthy look.

Spaceshot from the descent
As seen from the descent. The route is just to the left of the giant arch.
The whole descent was fairly uneventful, and mostly pleasant. Three rappels, with only a small amount of scrambling between the first and second, took us all the way to the base of the wall. The views were excellent, as we were now on the right side of the giant arch next to Spaceshot. We could see the whole arch, and we could clearly see the route right next to it, especially the beautiful splitter crack of the upper pitches. At one point Aaron also spotted a lovely, thin, wisping cascade off in the distance, up the canyon from where we were. After rappelling, I was a bit surprised to find myself in a pretty wooded area near a boardwalk (or some sort of wooden platform). From there, a short hike, mostly easy but a bit wet in a few spots, brought us to the main road. As soon as I crossed the road, two cyclists rode past me, stopped, and asked how the climb was. At first I figured they were just tourists being friendly, but when I looked I realized it was the couple we had met on the rock the previous evening. Aaron showed up behind me, and we chatted with them for a minute before they headed off. I didn't want to make them feel bad, but I couldn't help but expound a little on how beautiful and awesome the route was. A moment after they left, a shuttle bus came up behind us and stopped. The doors opened and the driver offered us a lift. We only had about a hundred yards to go to get to Aaron's truck, and we were so dirty and gear-laden that I was afraid we'd scare the tourists who were already on the bus, but we decided to go ahead and take it. I'm sure the driver thought we were going all the way back to camp or the visitor center, but still, I thought it was awfully nice of him to stop and pick us up in the middle of the road, rather than letting us hike to Big Bend and get picked up by the next shuttle there. In fact, I must say I was very impressed on both days by the friendliness of the shuttle drivers and the rangers. This seemed like a stark contrast to Yosemite. Even the tourists seemed more pleasant here, giving us inquisitive and almost fascinated looks and chatting with us a little, instead of incredulous stares and whispers and asking somewhat inane questions.

Back at the car
Back at the car
When we reached Big Bend and the truck, the sun still hadn't set, though it was no longer visible from the valley floor. We drove out of Zion and started heading home, figuring that we would at least make it to Vegas for dinner, maybe another buffet. We hadn't decided where we would spend the night, but it had been a long week, and I knew Aaron was anxious to get back to his wife. I also liked the sound of a nice soft bed, and I knew if we hurried we could easily make it home by 1 or 2 AM. We decided to look for a really cheap buffet in Vegas, and then head home. We ended up wasting an hour looking, and when we finally found one it was the worst buffet imaginable. Oh well, I guess we'll know for next time. But we drove home anyway, with the help of a few RockStar energy drinks. The drive home seemed to go by fairly quickly, but it must have been pretty long. By the time I got home, it felt like another day; I couldn't really believe that it was just that morning that I had been up before dawn climbing! In about twenty-two hours, we had climbed a big-wall and driven seven hours home, with a big dinner in the middle. It was a great way to end my spring break. Needless to say, I slept well that night.