Intro to Aid Climbing- Zion Style

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This year, Touchstone Climbing Gyms partnered with the American Alpine Club for the Live Your Dream Grant, which funds unforgettable experiences that give ordinary climbers the skills and confidence to realize their climbing ambitions and allow them to dream even bigger next time. This spring, two Touchstone Climbing staff members, Maura La Riviere and Stephanie Jim, received the grant for their trip to Zion National Park, where they explored the big walls. Here is Maura’s trip report from the amazing experience! 

Intro to Aid Climbing, Zion Style


ML-11Trip Dates: 21 March 2013 – 2 April 2013

It all started, as so many epic adventures do, with a casual Friday night conversation. My friend Steph mentioned that she wanted to learn about aid climbing. I was already pondering a trip to Zion, and told her that I was looking for a partner. To top it all off, I had seen an advertisement for the Live Your Dream grants, so we decided to apply for some funding for our trip. Once we received word that our application was chosen, we started with some evening and weekend training trips, and before we knew it we were packing our bags to head to Utah.

We decided to fly from San Francisco to Las Vegas, and then drive a rental car the rest of the way to Zion. This cut about 8-1/2 hours off the trip each way, but did somewhat restrict the amount of equipment we could bring along. [ML-01.jpg] We arrived in Zion on May 21 under the impression that the canyon road would be open to cars through Saturday the 30th. The schedule had shifted, however, so our day of arrival was the last day the road was open. From then on our daily start and stop times would be dictated by the shuttle schedule. A bicycle will be the very first thing that I pack for my next trip to Zion.

We took advantage of our driving privileges that first afternoon and headed up canyon to see some sights. The drive also allowed us to check out the number of parties on the moderate aid routes we were considering. In the original application, we wanted to climb Prodigal Sun (V 5.9 C2) but it is one of the many routes closed for peregrine falcon nesting in the spring. Moonlight Buttress (V 5.9 C1) was also in the running, but we saw at least 5 parties on it that afternoon. As an inexperienced team, we did not want to cause any traffic jams on such a popular line. Additionally, we decided to find a line that had a rappel-the-route descent instead of a more committing top out and hike down. Crack in the Cosmic Egg (V 5.8 C2+) seemed to fit the bill. With that settled, we headed back to the Watchman Campground to set up our basecamp for the next ten days. 

We caught the first shuttle the next morning and rode it to the Zion Lodge shuttle stop. The Emerald Pools trailhead is the jumping off point for approaching Crack in the Cosmic Egg. Past the main horse trail, the hike took much longer than expected due to the maze of false trails and the generally loose nature of the hillside We agreed to head down before dark that day in order to find and cairn the “best” path for our return. But once we arrived at the base and racked up all the hillside trouble was forgotten, and it was time for the magic to happen. We fixed ropes up to the top of the 2nd pitch, and then rapped down to start our trail maintenance project.  

The next morning we returned and jugged to our high point.


We had left 190’ of line fixed on somewhat overhanging terrain, which made this the longest and toughest pitch that Steph had ever jugged. She had her systems pretty figured out, and in no time we were back on the wall, and starting up another pitch of beautiful thin steep nuts. 

Pitches 3 and 4 were pretty straightforward. Pitch 5 had a small pendulum around a corner, which gave Steph her first chance to do a cleaning lower-out. Once again, she rocked it. Our practice sessions were paying off. The sun was starting to go down, so we fixed lines for our return and headed to the shuttle stop.

The next day was a semi-rest day. Steph spent the morning in the Springdale Library doing some projects for grad school, while I hiked Angel’s Landing to get a bird’s eye view of our next objective, Disco Inferno (V 5.9 C2+). [ML-10.jpg] The approach looked steep, though shorter than the one for Cosmic Egg, and the wall itself looked amazing. In fact, from that high vantage point, the entire canyon looks pretty amazing. That afternoon we bushwhacked the Disco Inferno approach, without packs, to reset the cairns and to get a look at the route from below.

One look was all it took for me to want to get on that headwall. But first, we had another route to finish up.

The following day we had another not-so-crack-of-dawn start to catch the first shuttle at 7am. One more hike up the approach trail, followed by five pitches of jugging put us at the start of the 6th pitch where Steph racked up for her first lead of the trip. She had a strong start but got a bit rattled when a chunk of sandstone broke off in her hands, resulting in an unexpected fall. After a few more attempts at passing that section she lowered back to the belay and we switched leads. Pitch 6 starts with a weird mantle move, moves through some super fun crack / face climbing, and ends up in a weird little belay pod.  Next we took the 5.9 face variation to Pitch 7 which was mostly straightforward, except for a few attention grabbing moves pulling around the arête into a very loose and flexing flake system. By the time Steph joined me at the anchor it was almost our turnaround time for making it back to the shuttle stop by last bus. We were still two pitches shy of the top, but did not have enough rope to fix to the ground for another push. So we gathered our gear, set the rappels, and bid adieu to Crack in the Cosmic Egg.
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We felt that a full rest day was deserved to regroup before starting Disco Inferno, so Steph had another homework session while I got to explore some more of the canyon floor trails. Steph was feeling a little overwhelmed by the physicality of wall climbing, and frustrated by her falls on Cosmic Egg. In order to let some of that pressure dissipate we decided to spend our next climbing day rebuilding her lead confidence before jumping on the next route. The bolt ladder start to Touchstone Wall seemed like a decent place to begin so we shuttled up canyon and approached the wall. Unsurprisingly, there was a party already there working on the route so we shifted our focus to the splitter cracks further left along the wall. Steph racked up again, and in no time was building an anchor at the first belay for Cherry’s Crack with a big smile on her face.

We spent that afternoon just hanging out in the sun, enjoying the beauty of this desert crag that is so different than our local granite cliffs. Then back to camp to have another hobo-gourmet dinner and to pack up for the start of Disco Inferno.

We really started to hit our groove on Disco Inferno. (A kind shuttle driver dropped us off at Menu Falls, which saved us half a mile of carrying our heavy bags along the canyon road.) Much of the early terrain fell within my free leading comfort zone, which kept us moving up at a more respectable pace than on Cosmic Egg. The Birth Canal chimney on Pitch 3 was a really secure size for me, and despite the lack of protection it was one of the most fun chimneys I have led in a long time. I fixed the line for Steph to jug up, hoping that she would not be too frustrated with this notoriously sucky task by the time she reached the belay. But a little while later she popped up from the canal all smiles. It turns out that jugging chimneys is her new favorite thing. I lucked out with her as a partner for sure!


We pushed up one more pitch that day, and left ropes fixed from the top of 4 back down to the ground. Pitch 5 had been causing me some concern due to the topo notation about “messed up bat hooks.” From the top of Pitch 4 I could clearly see that all the messed up holes had been filled in with bolts. This was something of a relief as it would make the pitch go by a lot faster, and would keep me a bit safer as well. As we were fixing lines and heading down, Steph and I agreed that I would put up pitches 5 and 6 the next morning and then she would take us up the remaining C1-ish pitches to the top (or to the turnaround time).



Bright and early we came back again. This route is much slabbier than Cosmic Egg, so jugging back to the high point was a lot less physical. Pitch 5 flew by, though the C2+ nuts section is getting quite flared and definitely kept my attention. The rock quality deteriorated quite a bit on Pitch 6, and I took my first fall of the trip when a hook I was using to pass the first roof blew.

Actually, the hook stayed in the hueco pod where I had placed it, and the whole pod shape simply pulled out of the surrounding rock. That was not the failure mode I had expected. I finagled a few nuts in to get up to the straightforward vertical C2 crack and started to think to myself “Rad, this route is in the bag!” Then I pulled over the smaller second roof and saw a couple bees crawling around in a spot where I really wanted to place a #2 cam. I called down to Steph to express my surprise, and she replied that a whole swarm of bees was gathering above my head. I looked up and saw the anchor bolts maybe thirty feet away; I also saw that every inch of crack separating me from them was just crawling with hundreds and hundreds of bees. I don’t know whether I am allergic to bee stings; five hundred and fifty feet off the ground did not seem like the place to find out. So back down I went, down aiding through the chossy roof band, back to Steph waiting patiently at the belay.

I was pretty disappointed at being robbed of the summit, and at the unfairness of not being able to get to the pitches we had intended for Steph. But Steph, being the perpetually buoyant spirit that she is, took it all in stride. We snapped a few photographs, then started the rappels.


On the way down, we cut away a lot of the sun-bleached tat that was on the anchors, and replaced it with new 7mm accessory cord.

As we packed up the next day Steph and I talked a lot about the experiences that we had shared over the course of the trip. Though we did not achieve either summit we had set out for, we both felt that the trip was still a success. Steph had learned a lot, both about the technical aspects of big wall climbing and about her ability to manage and overcome the physical strain of wall climbing. And I got to spend an awesome week in a beautiful place, while passing on some of the wall climbing tips and techniques that my own patient early partners had taught to me. We pushed ourselves and each other, shared many laughs, and in the end came home better friends for having shared the adventure.

Have you got a trip report of your own to share? Your story must be TOLD! Email us all the juciey detials at [email protected]