Our first big wall attempt...
Ian and I had been talking about heading down to Zion for a while, and the time finally arose to test out the van and our aid climbing skills this week as we both got some time off of work. As we drove down South on Wednesday afternoon we filled the van with a nervous energy, both of us excited to be leaving the duties that live in Salt Lake City, Rigby sitting in the seats between us. We were, of course, also filled with the promise of summiting Angels Landing, which definitely added to the anticipation. Our plan was to get down there Wednesday evening, set up a fixed line on the first 3 pitches of Prodigal Sun on Thursday, then finish the climb on Friday. We would spend the rest of our time there basking in the glory of those first few days.
Wednesday night was spent in the parking lot of a Hampton Inn, glorious, I know. As the temperature dropped and I tried to sleep, ignoring the humming glow of the hotel's lights, I felt Ian tossing and turning next to me, I knew he was restless and how badly he wanted morning to come. When it finally did it seemed like we had an eternity of things to do before we were actually ready to begin our approach to the climb (breakfast, packing, I took Rigby for a run so he could sleep soundly in the van for a few hours). Eventually, loaded down with gear, Ian and I stepped out of the van and gazed upon the looming red rock before us. In order to get to the climb we had to cross the Virgin River and trek up the side of a mountain, which was covered in 8 inches of untouched snow. Keep in mind, it's just a few days before the new year, and the December cold was more bitter than I could have imagined. After taking off our shoes and wading through a 15 foot long stretch of ice water I said goodbye to any feeling in my feet for the rest of the day.
It took us nearly an hour to get to the base of Prodigal Sun, we had to scavenge our way through thick, snow covered bushes, and the trail was no where to be found. You could say that this merely added another layer to our adventure, but it began to make me nervous. This wall that we were about to be on is hugely popular, and the lack of footprints meant that no one had even approached it since the snow fell. Was the river crossing just too unappealing? Or was there a deeper reason?
An important note about climbing in Zion, or anywhere that has sandstone, is that it becomes incredibly unstable when wet. A large fear in places like this is that someone will be climbing a classic route too soon after a storm, and will break off holds for it, or their gear will blow. In our case, it hadn't stormed for more than a week, but there was still plenty of snow on the ground, which meant plenty of snow up above us as well. The last thing Ian and I wanted to do was be the idiots that destroyed this route.
It was nearing noon by the time Ian finally got on the wall, he was intending to link the first two pitches, then have me jumar up after him, and I'd finish us off for the day with the third pitch. As I sat belaying, my bones started to ache from the cold, there was also ice falling down upon us from above, several times handfuls of ice fell straight on top of me, shattering upon my helmet. At one point I actually climbed into our haul bag to attempt to warm up as Ian ascended above the bolt ladder and hurried to reach the anchors. Keep in mind that Ian and I had only ever done this outside, for real, one other time. Now, Ian has gained the knowledge required to aid climb well, but efficiency only comes with time, and I was realizing, as I sat there, waiting for him to call "Off Belay" down to me, that we were wildly lacking in the area of speed. Once I was finally able to take Ian out of my Gri Gri and set up my ascenders, this fact only became more obvious to me. Like I said, I had jumared before, but very minimally, and I had never even attempted anything vaguely technical. Of course, all of this means that when I tried to ascend the traversing, overhanging bolt ladder, I failed. My daisy chains weren't set up to the right length, and for the life of me I couldn't get them to feel correct. Getting an inch off the ground took so much energy that I felt absolutely exhausted after a foot. I knew what I was doing was wrong, but my brain felt frozen from the cold, and I couldn't solve my issue. I actually got so frustrated that Ian set up our second rope and rappelled back down to me to see what was up. He patiently talked me through my aggravating ascent, and he jumared up the second rope at the same pace as I was moving up mine. By the time I finally got to the anchors, it was too late in the afternoon to keep going. Frustrated, and disappointed, we made the call to quit Prodigal Sun. I felt so awful, it was my incompetence to blame, and Ian had been so kind and patient with me, I wish that I had been able to climb better, if only so that he felt accomplished.
In the end, wrought with dismay, feeling thwarted by this rock, we trekked back through the snow. The worst part of our defeat is that, at the end of it, we had to take off our shoes and wade through the ice water yet again. As we got back to the van there was a crowd of tourists in the parking lot, all of who gathered around us in amazement, asking questions about how we climb up these walls. Not wanting to explain the ordeal we had just been through, Ian and I explained some type of climbing, which didn't resemble our afternoon in the slightest. A memorable woman asked in astonishment if we would be sleeping on the wall. "No, we will not be spending the night up there." Ian and I responded, wondering if she could sense our sadness and fatigue. "Good!" she responded, "Not even love can keep you warm up there!"
I suppose we were far too optimistic going into this, looking back it seems obvious that we should have known that being good climbers doesn't mean we can scamper up any aid route. This showed us how much more practice we need in this specific realm, it showed us that knowledge can only get you so far, and that maybe weather should be taken into account before making sweeping goals. I am happy we went, I am happy we tried, most of all I am happy we came down safely and with an understanding of what we need to do in the future. We also had almost a week ahead of us in Southern Utah that we could do anything with. That night we went to a store and bought some delicious beer, we had a long conversation with the only woman working there about her various hiking endeavors around the park as she gave us free brownies to munch on. Then, we went to a playground with Rigby, we were so fatigued we couldn't even do the monkey bars. That night we upgraded our van spot to a fancier hotel, and as we sipped our beer and the smell of cooking onions filled our small home I felt a satisfaction that had been escaping me all day. Yes, we drove down South to make a few ticks on our list of climbs, but I don't think that was really the point of our trip. Instead, we learned a lot about what needs to be done, and as we prepared the van for bed that night I noticed how seamless the small tasks like that were becoming, and I realized that this trip was also just a glimpse into the future for us, which looks quite bright. I know there will be an abundance of failures to come, but as we progress those will start to be overshadowed by our vast successes.