"Hey Berg, I've got this big wall I really want to do in Zion." I would do just about anything to get away from law school in Chicago so I asked him which climb he had his mind on and to that he replied, "Moonlight Buttress."
I had looked up at the climb during a prior trip to Zion National Park but had no recollection of the grade so I googled it while we were on the phone and the conversation ensued:
"Uhhhh, It's a 5.12d. Are you crazy?" Now, I'm a decent climber but any twelve I ever had the chance to get on was characterized by pain and stinging smacks to my ego so I was skeptical to say the least.
Ryan, who wasn't about to let me off the hook that easily, quickly retorted, "Sack up, Bergner. It's only a 5.9 on aid and I'll do all the hard pitches and you can just ascend them." Every time Ryan wants me to do something outside my comfort zone, he refers to my imaginary balls. I guess I should take it as a dirtbag climber compliment but I wasn't yet convinced.
"Dude, I don't know how to ascend. Are you sure that's a good idea? It sounds kinda sketchy. " I was nervous just thinking about it. The only other big wall I had ever done was Iron Messiah and at barely 1000 feet, it was questionable whether that was even a big wall although that didn't stop us from breaking in the portaledge on it.
Ryan pulled out the wild card and shamelessly begged, "Come on, Steph, you know how fun it is gonna be and you're the only person I want to go with and who will do it with me. Come on, you know I'll get us up it. THINK OF THE ADVENTURE WE'LL HAVE! IT WILL BE SO AWESOME!!"
Being that I'm susceptible to climbing pressure and ego stroking, I caved in and replied with a disclaimer: "Fine, but you HAVE to teach me how to ascend on Wall Street before we head down there." What was I supposed to do? I was the ONLY person who would go. I was the ONLY person he wanted to go with. How could I let my rope gun extraordinaire/ego fluffing partner down? I was the ONLY one, the ONLY chance for the realization of another climbing dream.
By the time we arrived to the base of the climb, we we both totally pumped to send the route so we geared up and made the first necessary choice of the day: Wade across the Virgin River or go back to the bridge and hike a couple miles with a massive load of gear?
Should you someday choose to wade the Virgin River in mid-March, you will surely know how painfully long the seemingly narrow river really is... I had to take my first rest of the day to let my feet thaw so that walking would once again be possible.
The views in Zion National Park are amazing and everywhere we looked were the beautiful sandstone cliffs that make the Utah desert so unique.
The morning sun on the first pitch warmed my soul as only the desert sun can do. Anyone who has climbed in the desert knows of the sun's dual nature and the idea that the sun who gives energy and life can also taketh away. Thankfully, this was one of the good days!
After a little lunch and a quick lesson, I did my first aid pitch: the bolt ladder on pitch 3. After some sketchy moments getting used to high stepping in the etriers, I began to appreciate the meditative component of my aid sequences and got my grove on up the very vertical face.
As the light of the day began to fade, Ryan made his way up pitch four which turned out to be a very long belay. I sat on the rocker block and lightly contemplated my upcoming need to ascend. Rocker block rocks in an unnerving way that highlights the ephemeral nature of sandstone. This may have been the first moment of the day where I began to question my logic in attempting this climb.
Remember way back to the beginning of this TR when I told Ryan that I required an ascending lesson on Wall Street before I would agree to climb Moonlight Buttress? Well, that never happened. I attempted to teach myself to ascend in theory from a big wall technique manual that I read in the car on the way down from Moab coupled with a lesson from Ryan before he started pitch four. IN THEORY, I thought I could handle it. Ascending? NO PROBLEM! That was an unfounded delusion of grandeur.
The sun was abruptly departing and the air started to feel chilly as I finally got to set up my jumars and begin the ascent. I did everything just the way I was told and attempted to step up. Nothing. I wasn't going anywhere. I was just awkwardly imbalanced and well, pissed. I couldn't figure it out! Eh, maybe I needed to step harder, slide more, slide less? What the hell was I doing wrong? I tried and I tried to no avail and sneaky little tears started to form in the corners of my eyes. My blood pressure was rising, heart pounding. I tried to talk myself out of a panic attack and contemplated my situation. There was only one thing to do...
"RYAN," I screamed, "put me on toprope!" By this time, It was almost dark so I donned my headlamp and began climbing pitch four. TAKE!!! TAKE!!! It was all I could say after the 11 aspect of the climb was through and the 12c began. TAKE!! TAKE!! I swear I screamed take more times than the compilation of all my climbing. It seemed like an eternity before I finally arrived at the hanging belay.
We were both so tired. As soon as I ratcheted myself in, Ryan started pulling the clothing and shoes he had stuffed into the top of the portaledge bag and throwing them into my arms to hold. "Help me get this set up, Berg." I attempted to hang the coat and in my haste, Ryan's Chaco went plummeting into the dark abyss below. Much to my dismay, the tears I had talked myself out of for the last two hundred feet began to flow like the Virgin River and I had a complete meltdown. My body was exhausted and we were six hundred feet off the deck with only air beneath our feet. What was wrong with me? What was I trying to prove? Normal people don't climb vertical rock walls with a hundred pounds of gear and attempt to sleep! How would we ever get up? How would we ever get down?
After two and a half years of dating me, Ryan knew better than to give me any sh#t at that particular moment in time. He got the portaledge set up like a champ and said the sweetest two words I ever heard him say, "SIT DOWN." After about ten minutes, the floodgates had closed and my rational mind began to resume partial functioning. We were too tired to bust out the stove but we ate something or other and tried to sleep. Spending a night on the portaledge wasn't the best night of sleep I ever got but by the next morning, I had worked through my psychosis and was ready to get after it once again.
Friends had joked before the trip about the romantic setting of the portaledge and that perhaps we would rekindle our old romance. The next morning, the call of duty required Ryan to take a dump in a wag bag about three feet away from me. I retched at the foul stench of his ass and slid as far as I could to the other end of our camp. I wasn't really feeling it, if you know what I mean. Fortunately, my body had gone into armageddon mode so I didn't require a wag bag of my own. Thus, it was time to begin the push for the top!
I wanted the classic portaledge shot, I needed it, and here it is...
The next challenge was one I much feared as that my technical skills are at times, suspect. Portaledge deconstruction was no walk in the park but after a couple of dirty kicks, I nailed it. I'll take portaledge disassembly over ascending any day. Each pitch seemed to be more awesome than the next and because of my weak ascending skills, I had the rare pleasure of climbing hundreds of feet of marvelous splitter cracks on top-rope.
Ryan was so jealous he could barely stand it but he still took the opportunity to pose with me for a candid photo shoot.
The pictures don't do justice to the scenery and fail to capture the vast landscape but we kept taking them until the darkness spread out over the canyon.
Once again I donned my headlamp and struggled up the last awesome pitch of Moonlight Buttress. I sighed with relief as I pulled myself back on to solid ground once again. Ryan and I collapsed in the sandy trail above the 1200 foot route and had a moment, or perhaps it was an hour, to contemplate the stars above and to rejoice in the feeling of an unscathed accomplishment, our greatest conquest to date. The hike to the car was rough and the groaning was rampant all the way to the bottom but Ryan never once complained about his missing shoe despite the large blister that was forming with each step he took.
Moonlight Buttress was an epic and unforgettable climb that I feel extremely lucky to have experienced. I couldn't, wouldn't have done it had it not been for Ryan and his crazy peer pressure. As the days grow warmer and law school comes to a close, I've started to feel my big wall dreams welling up inside me once again and I wonder if there might be a little Epinephrine in my future?