For Josh’s birthday weekend (which conveniently falls over Memorial Day), he chose to spend two days climbing a 1000 foot sandstone wall known as Moonlight Buttress in Zion National Park. Along the way we camped out on a portaledge.
Why did we do this? Well, the short answer is that it’s just a really cool thing to do. You may wonder if it took us two days to climb because it was extra tall? Well, no, we’ve climbed just as tall routes in one day. So, was the route just so hard that it took us a lot longer? Well, kind of.
Normally, when Josh and I climb we stay on the rock by using only our own hands and feet (a rope and harness provide safety in the event our own strength doesn’t keep us on the rock). This type of climbing is called free climbing. But back in early days of the sport, climbers, without today’s modern gear, had to wear big clunky hiking boots, which limited their free climb ability. So they developed other techniques, which when utilized are called aid climbing. These techniques, while refined, continue to be used today to complete routes that are too difficult or too tall to ascend freely.
Now, there is a wide range of free climbing difficulty. You may have seen a video of a guy named Alex Honnold climbing Moonlight Buttress without even a rope. So why does it take us two days to get up a route that takes Alex two hours? Well, that’s because in all sports you have your professional sponsored climbers and then you have the rest of us. Josh and I are of pretty average ability free climbers.
The Moonlight Buttress route can be climbed without using aid. But aid lets average climbers like us ascend a route we wouldn’t normally be able to. That said, there are actually plenty of available routes that we can free climb that we would stay busy without aid climbing.
So, another reason routes like Moonlight Buttress are aid climbed because they are good places for climbers to hone their aid climbing skills before attempting longer, more difficult routes. El Capitan, the prominent granite tower in Yosemite, is one of the best examples. At 3000 feet tall with some very difficult free climbing sections, only two people have ever ascended the entire formation without using some form of aid climbing. El Capitan is such a big undertaking that before attempting it, it’s important for aid climbers to practice their techniques on shorter routes, like Moonlight Buttress. This is why the term “big wall” is used to describe these types of routes.
When Josh and I complete a route in one day, we carry a small day pack with water, snacks and first aid items. Spending the night requires more food and gear than we can carry on our backs. So that requires the additional task of “hauling” gear up the wall, slowing the ascent further, requiring specialize technical skills creating more physical work.
So… getting back to why we’re doing this. For one, the learning involved is kind of a natural progression for someone like Josh who climbs for fun but also has a job requiring extensive rope skills. However, a lot of what makes free climbing fun, the physical movement and technique, is lost in aid climbing. Aid climbing is also very physical, but it’s the more tedious and laborious type. Which is what Josh wants to get away from when he climbs for fun, and why he’s drawn to free climbing.
Our friend Ryan however, who we climbed Moonlight Buttress with, is a true wall climber. He gets super psyched about the whole process; including the added challenges of problem solving, organization and logistics that go into a multi-day ascent.
There are two things that motivate both of them to put in the extra work. One is the summit. The harder one works at anything in life, the more they enjoy the reward, and that’s definitely true in climbing. Josh has two previous unsuccessful attempts at summiting a wall climb and was ready to put those behind him.
Aminda can’t really answer this question very well. Yet. I was blessed that Josh and Ryan basically let me tag along on this trip. While I had done some basic aid skills practice in preparation to ascend as a second, my limited experience kept me from contributing much to the demanding work of leading and hauling that is required. I had more time during the day to chill out and mindlessly watch the constant circuit of Park shuttle busses below and the endless line of hikers on Angel’s Landing hikers, which we could see down canyon.
I was excited to experience the other perk of aid climbing — the vertical camping. A good comparison is backpacking. Sure, you may be physically capable of hiking 10 miles in a day, but it’s whole different experience to split that up and spend a night in solitude. (and like in backpacking, we follow basic Leave No Trace principles)
So, after a tiring first day, we arrive at our camp “site” (called a bivouac, or bivy for short) at about 8pm, as the sun was getting low. The last of the Angel’s Landing hikers, are heading off the summit. We spend about an hour setting up the ledges and organizing our gear. (What we don’t do at any point, day or night, is take off our harnesses. At all times we are safely connected to the wall.)
Finally, after a long day of standing in our nylon ladders, we collapse into the comfort of the ledge, eat some dinner and enjoy the experience. Zion Canyon, normally full of thousands of people, gets quiet and still. As the sun goes down the sharp edges of the surrounding towers fade into the graying sky, which fills with stars, the magnitude of which lull you to sleep. Waking up, the world is bright and you fully realize that you just spent the night suspended in space, hundreds of feet off the ground. That’s pretty surreal.