Zion is a magical and adventurous climbing area. For the first time in years, there was a fairly up-to-date guidebook and I was excited to try routes that I had heard so much about. I’m a huge fan of long crack routes and Shune’s Buttress and Monkeyfinger sounded like just my style. The big unknown in Zion is the rock quality. The sandstone ranges from bullet hard to hilarious sugar stone that falls apart instantly. I’m most comfortable in Yosemite and the previous week and a half in Indian Creek and Red Rocks wouldn’t prepare me for some of the “sand” stone I encountered.
Steve and I had gotten a pretty good partnership worked out in Red Rocks and he was psyched to keep trying hard routes. First up was Shune’s Buttress, a shady 800+ foot long route that follows cracks of all sizes. You end up bringing a huge rack, not my favorite, and a big contrast to the ten cams used on Drifting. As I set off up the very crux first pitch, I somehow seemed rusty at crack climbing, and the first pitch of Shune’s throws in a bit of everything. I thought it was a full value 5.11 pitch and I was psyched to send and get into the next section of the route.
A handful of 5.10 pitches, with a highlight of a crazy squeeze chimney took us up to the next 5.11- pitch, a short crimpy traverse. In an effort to keep things moving I linked the traverse with the previous pitch and was psyched to find the climbing much easier than on pitch one. One big downside of the route so far had been the belay locations and the quality of the fixed gear. I’m a fan of clean bolted anchors and despite the classic climbing, I was saddened that the route was in such disrepair with lots of old slings and a few spinner bolts. Everything was safe enough, but there was part of me that wanted to make it all better.
By now we had made it to the base of the 5th pitch, which is the best pitch of the route and would be five stars just about anywhere. A short down climb and some face climbing puts you at the base of a killer fingers to thin hands crack. This is another full value 5.11 pitch since you climb an off-fingers crack over a roof. After enjoying 40 feet of finger-locks, it was go time and I barely made it over the roof. A couple of face holds made this section much more pleasant. After the roof, the angle backs off and you get to climb an amazing thin hands to hands crack for nearly 100 more feet! It felt like I was back at Indian Creek, but with 500 feet of air below my feet!
Steve cruised this pitch and swung through to lead us to the top. We managed a no falls day and took time on the way down to cut off a bunch of old webbing to help pretty up the anchors. You can read more on our cleanup here. The next day I was curious about doing Locksmith Dihedral, but the long hike and our late start pushed it to another trip. It didn’t really matter since the next day we were going to climb Monkeyfinger!!
While I aspire to try long hard routes it seems like it had been a while since I’d gotten on a 5.12 multipitch. Perhaps this is just my selective memory, or unwillingness to consider “short” routes like Hotline and Lost in the Sun. Regardless, it was time to give a hard effort and Monkeyfinger would be a great challenge.
The theme for Monkeyfinger seemed to be second chances. After cruising up the first two pitches I started up the Black Corner, which gets graded somewhere between 5.11c and 5.12b depending on your finger size. I got flash pumped right away as my nerves caused my feet to slide all over the place. One move short of a rest, I pumped out, came off, and decided to get lowered back to the belay. To save time I top-roped the first section again, with the 3-4 cams left in, and tried to finish leading the pitch. I made it to the rest, much more confident than before and realized I had yet to do the crux. A tricky section of stemming and palming got me to the end of the pitch. Awesome! One 5.12 down, Yo-Yo style.
Steve had a similar performance, falling midway up the pitch, before figuring out the finale and making it up to the belay. I kept in the lead and climbed easily up to the 5.11 roof on the next pitch. I got in a bunch of gear but couldn’t figure out the seemingly footless sequence. I finally committed, but to the wrong sequence and came off. Not again!! Down I lowered to try the pitch again, Yo-Yo style. This time I figured out some tricky stemming to make use of the small calcite edges and I was through the crux, but the pitch was far from over and I had to earn it as the route had just come into the sun. Steve couldn’t be bothered to do the roof, and pulled through, but sent the remaining 5.11- climbing to the crappy hanging belay. Rather than swap leads I took the lead for the next pitch, psyched to get to a better stance.
The fifth pitch was mostly thin hands and very enjoyable but all of my thoughts were on the Monkeyfinger crack. This was supposed to be a step up from the Black Corner and is avoided by most parties in favor of a 5.10+ off-width. I wanted the full value experience and 5.12 fingers is often my bread and butter.
From the belay you do a hard traverse to the start of the Monkeyfinger crack, which turned out to be the crux for me. A combination of crumbling footholds, swinging falls and insecure jamming stumped me for over an hour. Repeatedly I went up and ended up falling and hanging on my first two cams, unsure of how I was supposed to get past the initial boulder problem. The biggest issues that I was unwilling to climb far above my gear and couldn’t figure out how to place anything more. Finally I placed a third piece and lowered back to the belay. This was to be my final effort and I made it through the crux up to the good part of the crack. After a long section of splitter yellow aliens the crack started growing in size, as did my pump.
At the final rest, I took stock of the final 15 feet of the pitch. The angle seemed to kick back a little and all the useful face feet disappeared. I struggled up the .75 camalot crack until I reached the point of no return. My body was shaking as I tried to tried to sort out my options. In a moment of desperation I karate chopped into a hand jam at full extension, practically a dyno. As my hand slid into the constriction I could feel the grains of sand sliding as I hoped for purchase. Everything held and I quickly kept going, putting my foot into the sandy pod. With the pump clock still rising, I slotted a final piece of gear and grunted my way up the remaining finger stacks. The ledge came none too soon and I had pulled off another 5.12 pitch!
At this point I was relieved for the shade of the “Monkey House”, a huge sandy ledge magically cut into the face. I realized that my style so far had not been great but in one way or another I was sending. I had neither onsighted nor redpointed the entirety of either 5.12 pitch, but I had climbed both of them without weighting the rope and doing many hard moves first try.
Leaving the Monkey House seemed to put us in the adventure section of the route. The quality of the rock and fixed gear greatly diminished and the excitement factor went way up. Steve lead a steep and sandy hand crack, that was almost fun, and then I tackled a very height dependent slab. My friend Josh, at 6′, had laughed at the 5.11- grade, while his 5’2″ partner had been stumped by the move (despite 5.13 climbing ability). At 5’8″ I somehow managed to stick to the rock and pulled off a full value 5.11 move. The only thing that really concerned me was falling on the old bolts and fixed gear. From the stance below the crux I actually lassoed the next drilled angle so that I would have something to backup the lousy looking 1/4″ bolt.
The final pitch was a nightmare with kitty litter rock and sand on every hold. In some ways it was so improbable that it was fun, but stemming and chimneying past old hardware, that might not have held, was the worst part of the day. Some people might just skip this pitch, but summits matter and I was happy to finish the mentally challenging pitch.
We had two ropes, but you can also rappel the route with one 70m rope. The hot day had taken its toll and the next day was spent sleeping in and going cragging.
On my final day in Zion, Steve generously drove a car shuttle so I could run the East Rim Trail, a great point to point adventure. It was supposed to rain so I was being chased by cold weather, which was humorous compared to the 75+ degree heat of the previous days. This is a great run and I highly recommend it. The hills in the first half of the route are pretty mellow and the views as you drop into Zion are astounding. I was also curious to do the run as prep for Lizzy’s attempt at the Zion Traverse the following month. Here is the GPS track from my run:
It was really fun to get to spend many days in Zion both hanging out in the canyon and climbing on the bright sandstone walls. On a future trip it would be nice to get used to the rock and put some time into freeing Moonlight Buttress. It seems there are many cool sounding routes, that are off the beaten path in Zion. With seemingly few climbers its hard to know which routes to get on outside of the “classics”. It is hard to complain when there are too many to choose from!