November 19-20, 2016
A couple years ago Aaron and I had a hairbrained idea that we’d do some aid climbing Zion. The problem was neither of us knew how to aid climb much so that trip was a bit of a bust. I’ve still wanted to do some aid climbing on a big-wall down there but hadn’t had anyone who knew the game to go along with. A couple weeks back I went with Matt Berry to do Desert Shield (5.11a C3). He’s been ticking off the classics down there slowly and upping the aid difficulty and this would be his first C3.
The route begins with some mandatory free climbing for three pitches that bring you to a possible bivy ledge. The ledge has a small grill installed into the rock with an ice screw. It isn’t often that you get to sleep on a ledge and grill steaks so we opted to go heavy and do that. The alternative would be to fix ropes the first day, stay in town, then come back the next day to finish it off.
I did the first three pitches, poorly. P1 is moderate and didn’t have much difficulty, just a bit of wandering climbing. The second pitch is the 5.11a one. It is a great 170 ft pitch of climbing with face, slab, and crack. My head wasn’t screwed on properly and I ended up making it a marathon of a hangdog. Pulling, tensioning in, french freeing, basically all sorts of shenanigans to just get up it. This was unfortunate because it was a great bit of climbing that I can do, I just wasn’t able to at the time.
Being the leader I hauled and belayed Matt up. We dropped our stuff off at the bivy ledge and then Matt go to the aid climbing for P4. While not necessary to do for this pitch, he wanted to get into the groove and prepare for the harder pitches. He missed the anchor for P4 and went to P5, with heinous rope drag of course. So bad that he had to rap down the rope he fixed just to clean the gear.
With the work done for the day we settled into our bivy to drink beers and sip whiskey. The ledge is large enough for two plus, and is protected from the outside by the pinnacle of rock that forms the ledge. This allows going unroped to be a safe option since you’d have to fall up a three foot barrier in order to fall off the ledge. Nevertheless we opted to rope in for sleeping as there was some slopiness to the ground towards squeeze chimneys on either side. The night was pleasant without any wind or precip.
The next day we jugged up the fixed ropes to get to the real aid climbing. P6 starts off to the left of the massive slightly overhanging shield of rock. This pitch is a bolt ladder going from easier ground out onto the overhanging rock and in full exposure to the rest Zion. Matt lead the pitch quickly and even made a couple hook moves as necessary to reach the bolts. For me following this pitch was a little heady since you’re going from a nice ledge into hanging terrain and traversing slightly right to boot.
Once getting out onto the main face the full value of exposure is obvious. We were 180′ or so above our bivy ledge which was 350′ or 400′ off the valley floor–with nothing but air between my legs it was exhilarating.
Matt chugged on the next pitch which was one of the C3 pitches consisting of small brass offsets for progression and protection. This route hasn’t been freed as far as I know and I don’t see how it ever could be. There’s no features to the face and the crack is only a couple quarters wide in many areas. Matt had no noticeable difficulties to me on the pitch. He wasn’t fast, but methodical and tested every piece before moving to it.
The eighth pitch is much like the first but a little less consistent in the crack. By this time in the day we had some other climbers sharing my hanging belay and the clouds started getting dark. We could feel some rain and the other party decided to bail given the rain and the additional wait it would take to get to the top with us in front of them for the last pitch. Part way up P8 Matt noticed it was raining a little and we decided it would be prudent to bail. He was at a bolt (a shitty one), and we were running a little late on time anyway. He fixed a couple extra small pieces and lowered back to the belay where we started to rap down to our bivy to collect the rest of our stuff. The raps down to the bivy were two double rope raps and because the wall was slightly overhanging created about +20′ of space between you and the rock as you went down, exciting!
We packed up and were bummed that we didn’t finish the route entirely, but I think it was the right call to bail. Matt was at a good spot to do it and wet sandstone is fragile and is dangerous to climb on. Perhaps I’ll go back to finish it but at least I’d like to go back to do the second pitch clean.