Andy Moles reflects on his ascent of Moonlight Buttress in Zion National Park and how the process of giving everything to a climb is often the most rewarding.
For weeks, imagination has clutched at this space. Streams of anticipation, preparation and doubt run tributary to this constriction of the hourglass, where we are met at last with the tangible grain of desert stone; embossed among vast walls, perched in cool sunshine above the shadow and scrub of Zion's canyon floor, where a singular continuous crack splits the grand dihedral of the Moonlight Buttress.
Ferdia raised Moonlight in the light of aspiration first. I dismissed it as out of our league, a route that belonged in the résumés of climbers far more accomplished than us. But the ground on which the seed fell was not as barren as my initial pessimism announced, and the idea germinated. Neither of us had seen a climb we thought was more beautiful. Other ideas began to gather around; Utah's proud towers and immaculate cracks, and Moonlight hung like the celestial orb of its name, at the centre of a mass with the gravity to draw us halfway across the world.
We climbed the lower pitch of the dihedral easily enough. I am buoyed by this, thrilled by the audacity of our being here, and the wink of a possibility that we could do this thing. Above, the geometry of the walls is tweaked, the right leaning beyond vertical, and the crack begins to narrow. The walls are completely blank.
There is only one line to run this rapid. From one moment bobbing in the eddy of the belay to the next, I am committed to the flow and picking up speed as the passage constricts, and the horizon rushes forward. There is no further choice to be made, no decisive move, only an accelerating descent into white and whiter water, cams placed in blind haste diminishing from reassuring inch-pieces to spindly things I'd rather not test, and soon the threshold is crossed, where stopping at all will mean to fall…and I'm falling upwards, skewered by doubt in the security of my last protection as it drops away beneath me, stabbing fingers to catch my weight as it reels backward, racing for a point overhead where the steepness lessens and the crack flares into a pod.
I slap to a hold at the base of the pod, but with failing arms and nothing for the feet, I can't stop, and keep grappling desperately up the sloping edge, feeling the rope snag behind my leg, primed to flip me head-first if I fall, and shudder into a tenuous standing position on the hold. The crack in the back of the pod, beaded with sandy pocks where years of pushed and pulled metalwork have plucked its peas, offers no constrictions secure enough for frantic fingers to lock, so I can barely lean out enough to get an elbow past my hip to pick and place a cam. I try one; too big, another; the placement is gritty and poor. Rasped with panic now, my mind is white noise and the world reduced to this stubborn sandy choke; submission to the air's caress beckons swift release. At last, a small cam shoved into the triggers gives enough assurance that I grab it and clip it, and as I slump onto the rope my throat erupts with the onset of a coughing fit and the taste of blood.
Failure is more draining than success and leaves everything still to do. What had seemed a blossoming chance, that wink of possibility, slides towards the horizon once more, like evening shadows on the desert.
We stare into the desert. Nothing stares back, or nothing we can recognise, no corresponding frequency to receive the open question in our regard of it. Antique jumbles of spires and mesas, tier on chaotic tier buttressed by cracked red cliffs and footed in dry washes and mean scrub and oases of cottonwood, all absorb our gaze without reply.
If Moonlight illuminates our ambitions, the desert itself is the deep space in which it shines. Weeks ago, I lay in the dark in the back of my van, while British raindrops skittered on the roof, re-listening to Chris Schulte's reading of 'The View from Dead Horse Point'; Great reefs of crimson rock, scalloped and capped with foam, stretch across the vast areas of the desert plain like waves frozen in time the instant before breaking… and wanted nothing more than to share that vision. And so as plans took shape, our focus was divided between the precise ambition of the climb and an intent simply to be there.
Through the first month in Utah, we kept in mind our goal and prepared for it. Splitter crack climbing demands competence in specific techniques. We have learned the intricacies of taping our hands, the parts of the fingers that suffer when twisted into cracks of awkward widths, the pain of toes knuckled in too-tight shoes and wedged in too-tight cracks. Indian Creek has been our training ground, and the cracks we shortlisted as suitable proxies for the hard parts of Moonlight have, quite firmly, repelled us. We have improved enough to manage some of them with cams left in place, but leading a dozen in succession seems impossible, and we are overrun by the logic of the numbers. With slow disappointment, we accept that this thing is beyond us.
We peel off towards subsidiary goals. We wander on petrified domes and through arches, walk miles of dry canyon floor, guided by long-absent water meandering a path through stone, anticipating at each turn the pulse-quickening sight of towers, convened like sentinels in immovable witness. As in the company of fantastical beings, we feel struck through by our smallness, our fragility, and our briefness in a landscape that might have looked this way a hundred thousand years ago. Time is present here with a potency not normally felt. The exquisite complexity in the sculpted sediments fractals down to their exposed strata, where grain upon grain they encode the ebb of ancient tides. The desert can be comprehended only in its detail, for we are dealing with the sea…
The desert is shadows and sunlight, the unfiltered taps of light and warmth, cold and dark, wide spaces and the confines of canyons, its life thick-skinned as cactus to retain moisture and a footing in the hard earth. We, coming from a ploughed-over island of greens and greys where clouds turn the days endlessly like film splitting light in a projector, find it inscrutable and strange. We are enthralled by its reticence.
Towers cut a black void against extraordinary sunsets as they paint the walls blood red, and the fire dies into deepening blue, and still nothing moves. What are we waiting for? We need a way in, a key to enter this place. A pale light puts shape back in the void of the cut-out towers, and it cannot yet be seen, but somewhere soon the moon will rise.
The first star is twinkling overhead, directly above the figure crouched in the darkness. I shuffle on my stance, the sloping ledge two-thirds of the way up the buttress, next to which we spent last night suspended on our portaledge, and where we will soon cradle the stove to heat food, try not to drop anything, and settle down for a second night on the wall.
We hoped to climb the route in two days, but brought enough food and water for three. Tomorrow we must reach the top, or give up and go down. We are tired, and at least three hard pitches we don't expect to climb first go still lie above. The climbing is unrelentingly physical, so for each failed attempt on a pitch, we pay dearly from our remnant reserves. It is clear that to be in with a chance of finishing, we need to free this pitch tonight. Ferdia has tried once but needed a rest. She came back to the ledge and allowed her arms to recover for as long as possible, while gloom gathered in the canyon.
I can hardly see her up there as she milks the rest, gathering energy before committing to the hard final moves of the pitch. I worry she won't be able to see her footholds, what little there is of them. A few millimetres' inaccuracy for a toe pressed to a marginal bulge of the crack's edge will be enough to spit her off. The air in the canyon is still.
"OK," comes the voice from the darkness, and I begin to pay out rope, and bend my will to our shared purpose as though the nylon strand connecting us could relay energy to the cause. Time converges on this moment - all the preparation that preceded it, and the outcome that will follow hangs in balance. Come on.
The rope keeps running through my hands, and presently a little whoop! comes down. More stars wink overhead, the embers of possibility rekindled in the night.
The next morning when I teeter out of bed, my sleeping bag liner wafts away into the void. A daredevil mouse has nibbled our bagels, and 5.12 crack climbing still looms above, but tonight we will sleep in the level world. There is nothing to save ourselves for; this is it.
Ferdia leads through the section of purest one-inch splitter, and we feel momentum buoying us like a rising thermal, even as muscles tire and knuckles ache. By the point the crack finally divides to serve the luxury of handholds on the headwall of the penultimate pitch, I am smiling as I climb, and knowing the hardest is below us we can revel in the wild exposure as we pull through the final roof and pad up the finishing slabs.
This happened more than two years ago. When I think of Moonlight Buttress, the memory is luminous. Yet on the summit, I remember wholesome elation smudged by a shadow of doubt, because we did not free the climb.
After my coughing fit in the pod, we were forced to pull on gear to reach the ledge for the night. On the second morning, we abseiled back down, to try again to free the pitch. Again I gunned for the pod, knowing which cam to place this time, and began to move past it. But belief had withered with yesterday's collapse. My feet skidded, twisting the cam in its seat, and in frustrated desperation I clipped a double bolt anchor on the left, marooned in a blank section of wall for the benefit of aid climbers, and took a grim hanging belay on it.
We were ready to let that go - we had as good as freed the pitch, even if we had split it with an arbitrary and artificial belay. The next pitch breaching the overhang between the dihedral and the ledge enters a tightening flared slot, which one back-and-foots up with increasing tenuousness until forced to spin around on off-size finger jams and continue without respite in a steep layback to the ledge. On the first attempt I fell off trying to turn, and we hung uncomfortably in our harnesses at the base of the slot like sorry puppets, the stance here amounting to no more than a sloping foothold. Some place to recover, suspended in the ceiling of this great vault with the dihedral plunging into space below.
On the second attempt I gave everything, and again I fell off. Mustering the energy for a third attempt seemed impossible, so we accepted defeat. I pulled back on mid-pitch where I had fallen and climbed to the bivi ledge.
I wonder now if it matters. Our ascent came up short according to the rules of the game we chose to play, yet we found the energy to give everything to climbing the rest of the route in the best style we could. Effort delivers its own reward, the satisfaction of a challenge close to one's limit settling deeper than a fight too easily won.
We can visit the memories, carved like petroglyphs in the patina of desert varnish, and they are stark and resonant. Perhaps the flaws even make them richer, in due respect to the bittersweet complexity of things and apt to the blemished artefact of the climb itself. Despite being beautiful, perhaps unparalleled, Moonlight Buttress is not the beacon of perfection we held it to be.
The 'theft' of the climb's first free ascent in the early 90s and attendant bolting controversies reputedly set free climbing in Zion back a decade. Through many subsequent ascents, both free and 'clean aid', the route has become easier than it was when Peter Croft and Jonny Woodward first freed it. The placing and removal and weighting of hundreds of cams has eroded the sandstone, widening the cracks. What was once a fingertip layback in the dihedral is now studded with apertures that accept at least a knuckle. The walls are scratched and whitened by the hauling of bags. We did our best, depositing our supplies by abseil rather than hauling, but our ascent still made a contribution to the wear. The route is compromised, and so are we; it is only the easing of difficulty that brought it close to our ability in the first place.
The desert feels timeless and unchanging, but in fact, it is a still-frame capture of change itself. By steady advances of erosion, towers and pinnacles and arches and canyons, the wildest formations of the present, are a pinch of salt dissolved in the river, a cry carried off in the wind, as the blind beauty unfolding from a script held in sediment bows to its final erasure. It is hard to think of these forms as temporary, as sure to collapse as a sandcastle when the tide comes - but they stand in only brief defiance, as we do, aligned to our purpose to stretch our thin limbs against the inevitable.
Moonlight became the name of this pillar in Zion because that was what had showed the way as Jeff Lowe approached the ledge on the first ascent. We never saw the moon during the two nights we spent there, only stars. At least, that is what I remember. I can't be sure, because I am eroding too. But Moonlight is a good name; the pale reflection from a nearby star illuminating an object, captured in the void.