The hike back to our first accent could easily be a destination in and of itself. The sandstone monoliths reaching for the sky all around us were glowing brilliant reds, browns, and blacks in the rich morning sunlight. I slowly hiked uphill behind my best friend and climbing partner, Eli Powell, trying to take it all in despite the growing anxiety of our chosen task.
One year prior Eli came to me with an idea of putting up a new route in Zion. We had climbed in this canyon previously and couldn’t pass up the chance to make our mark on the climbing community. Here we were once again; ready to finish what we started. On the previous trip, we had successfully installed 3 bolts and planned on putting in another 10 plus anchors to finish the route.
We had planned this trip in true Nebraska Style. Leave Friday after work, drive for 12 hours, climb, and leave just slightly too late to get back to work on Monday. Arriving at 3am to the park entrance is not ideal, mainly because it’s not open. We settled on a camping spot a quarter mile from the interstate under a Piñon pine where it was quite obvious a cow or two had slept the night before. We didn’t care much. We just needed sleep. Dawn came and it was made clear that we had not picked the best place to bed down for the night. The tree we found was the only one for as far as we could see in both directions down the road. Sleeping bags were packed and we hurriedly drove off before a disgruntled farmer discovered we poached some camping on his land.
These thoughts and many others swirled in my head as we enjoyed the gentle impact of our feet on the sand of the canyon floor. We arrived at our project, untouched since our last visit. Setting this route on lead is going to be intense. Our previous visit had us drilling bolt holes with the added protection of a top rope on the adjacent route (See Climbinghouse post “October Sun – Zion” for more details on the first trip). We chose to forgo this protection and complete the remainder of the route on lead using aid hooks and slung pot holes. We prepared for battle by organizing our gear, distributing the necessary bolt equipment, and most importantly deciding who gets to be first on the wall.
I have done a lot of climbing since I started back in 2002. I have been on scary runouts with a threat of a 30 foot whipper. I have had holds break off in my hand without warning. I have been sketched out 10 feet above my last hastily and ill-placed triple zero C3 cam. None of this could have prepared me for the fear and anxiety of climbing into the unknown, where no one has climbed before, not knowing if you have the skills to climb what is coming of even if it’s possible. Holds creaking and flexing under this unknown force of the climbers weight. Sand covering every hand hold, every foot hold, every nook and cranny of your eyeballs and underpants. All your will power, determination, and mental toughness has to be summoned in order to climb that next 8 feet to where you think you might be able to make a good hook placement and feel stable enough to drill the next hole. Once those 8 feet has been climbed, there is no turning back. The only way out is to take a 16 foot whipper onto a bolt that you just placed.
A hook placement is spotted just out of reach, one more move upward. The first hook is gingerly placed into position and slowly weighted. I am acutely aware of the steel hook grinding and crushing the sandstone as it stubbornly takes my weight. My hands come away from the rock with great hesitation, knowing that they will do more to stop a fall then the hook. I trust it. Nothing. I am suspended 30 feet in the air on a 45 degree wall with my only protection being a single hook. I quickly find another placement, then another, and feel my muscles loosen as the perceived safety melts my fear.
Time to get to work. Ting. Ting. Ting. Turn. Ting. Ting. Ting. Turn. The sound of the hammer imposing its will on the drill bit echoes up and down the canyon. Millimeter by millimeter of sand is removed making the hole deeper and deeper; only four and a half more inches to go. The hooks I am resting on are all but forgotten as all my focus is placed on getting the new bolt in its final resting place. After 30 minutes of pounding the hole is finally ready. I get the bolt into its hole and wrench down until tight. I eagerly clip the draw and then the rope. I yell down to Eli, who has fallen asleep to the hypnotic sounds of my hammer, at the base of the climb with his grigri and my belay secured to his harness. I am lowered to the ground off the new bolt and allow the blood to flow back to my toes. Eli is 30 feet away at the base of the climb and I answer his “How was it?” look with a smirk of extreme happiness and joy. It’s now your turn to place the next bolt!
This is how the rest of the day went. One of us was on lead drilling new bolt holes, scared and tense, while the other was belaying, dozing off, calm and relaxed. We set 6 bolts on the first day and returned the next day to place the last bolt and install the anchors. The fun part has now arrived. While we had technically done all the moves on the route, it was time to send! Eli was first. He crushed the entire route with the prerequisite high pitched grunting and moaning that signaled me of its difficulty.
I roped up and climbed as best I could, however I only got to the third draw before the gas tank was empty. The mental stress and physicality of placing new bolts was finally taking it toll. From here on out it was draw to draw until I met Eli at the top. A 130 foot free rappel got us to the ground where we congratulated ourselves on a job well done, fueled up for the hike out, and happily laid the hammer to rest.
We had planned on the second day to be short, giving us an early departure for the long ride home. As we looked at the clock we decided that it must be lying. It had to be! It read 4:45pm. Did we take into account the time change?! Well so much for an easy day at work! After the hour hike out, dinner, and a dozen driver changes due to sleepiness, we were home; tired, dirty, and most importantly excited at our accomplishments.
Editors note: Special thanks goes out to Ron James Photography for help on editing the pictures.