Moonlight Buttress

Moonlight Buttress – Zion National Park, UT

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Moonlight Buttress is probably the most famous big wall route in the world outside of Yosemite Valley.  When I was just beginning as a climber I remember seeing it in a climbing video, Sharma was going to learn trad and what better way than by firing up one of the hardest free routes in the world.  To say I dreamed of climbing the route puts me in good company with every other climber in the world.  It’s a gorgeous red sandstone splitter running for 800′ slightly overhung then dead vertical for pitch after pitch, nestled in the middle of one of the most beautiful national parks in the nation, Zion.

A spring break trip to Yosemite was destroyed last minute by weather.  Plan B, to avoid the clouds and snow, shifted us South to Zion.  We started with some of the classics as a team of three.  Phil Wortmann, local North American alpine climbing legend, joined us to keep 6-month pregnant Ilana in check (not belaying, on top rope, fed, and hydrated).

The great thing about Phil joining us, besides him being funny, is he knows how to climb harder and aid harder than my limit of C0.  This worked out great for me, as Phil aided through the 5.13 pitches of first Touchstone and then Spaceshot and I got to free climb these pitches on top rope.  As I pondered cryptic blatancy sequences on sandy crimps and sandier smears I really began to appreciate the vision and cleaning it took the Anderson brothers to make these variations go free.  

Several pitches of sandy 5.12 and two of Zion’s biggest classics behind us, Ilana returned home to Colorado leaving us with one day before an impending Spring blizzard.  We decided it was time to go for Moonlight Buttress.  The river was really high so we spent the evening searching for a crossing to get us to the base.  Two groups were still on the wall at 9PM, one with a haul bag at about mid height and a second group at about ¾ who definitely needed to clear the summit.  We were a bit worried about having to pass the haul bag group with rain and snow expected at 3PM the next day.

We bivied in the truck.  Nervous about whether we could pull this off.  The first team returned to the car around 0130 and then the haul bag team next at 0500.  Alarms fired at 0540 and it was time to go.

The river crossing we scouted the previous night had been at mid-thigh.  We had assumed the water level would fall in the night but it had unfortunately risen a few more inches.  Pants off toes in 26F is really brisk.  Partway across I was now on tippy toes with the water getting dangerously close  to inseam level.  Tippy toeing got me across and the nice trail from the rock up to the base of the route returned feeling to my legs and toes depositing us a the base of Moonlight Buttress.  I racked off and fired up.

Early morning river crossing

Location: Zion National Park, UT

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‘Moonlight Buttress’ (5.12+, 10 pitches, 1200′)

Topo and detailed route description available in guidebook, Zion Climbing: Free and Clean, by Brian Bird.

Pitch 1  Which seemed somewhat of a rude awakening at its purported 5.10- flared bulge.  

Cruising up the opening pitch

Pitch 2  Seemed similarly stout at 5.10.  Gunning the lip for a fixed nut I had the pleasure of it coming out in my hands when I gave it a test pull with the lower roof actually proving   

Pitch 3  Phil took swinging gracefully up the bolt ladder to the top of the rocker blocker and the start of the real route.  We both marveled at the beefy chains anchoring the rocker block in place but only briefly.  Phil then headed up linking the two 5.12d pitches.  As I rocked to stay warm I thought I was moving excessively and then to my surprise I realized the entire block I was on top of was rocking too.  Rocker Blocker, got it.  I decided to check my shaking and became far more appreciative of the chains holding my belay stance on the wall.  The sun hit me right as Phil topped out the linkup of the two 5.12d pitches and it was my turn.

Nearing the top of the pitch 3 traverse to the rocker blocker

Pitch 4  The opening boulder move looks straightforward and easy but proved far harder than it looked.  What I had thought of as jugs being more big fat slopers with marginal feet.  The boulder problem behind the corner went smoothly with good locks and hidden feet all the way up to the stance that makes the first free anchor.  Phil had kindly linked the two crux pitches so I transferred from the stance back to the steepening crack.  

Pitch 5  Continues up the corner as it arches back.  The wall becomes devoid of feet and the fingers tighter.  It’s an endurance lay back in an obtuse corner capped by a cryptic hand jam pod mantle and finally the next free stance.  Phil passed the sharp end, the next 4 pitches were mine.

Pitch 5

Pitch 6  The first “easy” 5.12 pitch is a brutal technique test of endless off fingers beginning in a slot and eventually switching to a direct in crack.  Pulling the finishing roof onto the nice ledge my fingers had transformed into battered sausages.  This pitch is best trained for by taking a hammer to your fingers nightly for a month.

Pitch 6

Pitch 7  Rises above, a perfect splitter firing up the buttress.  It starts off well with small feet easing upward progress.  The crux strikes suddenly, with a 20 foot stretch of finger campus lock offs where you keep hoping for a foot but none appear.  Finally the angle rolls back and the climbing eases as you move up to a nice bolted stance.

Pitch 7

Pitch 8  Was the crux for me.  The fingers get wide and its hard right off the belay.  The crux is an immediate section of overhung fingers with poor foot jams in the crack.  After hanging on my knuckles for hundreds of feet this pitch almost had me in tears when a food would slip and all my weight was transferred onto my exhausted jams.  

Pitch 9  This is the pitch in all the photos.  Some technical face climbing begins the pitch before leading into splintering cracks that prove far more difficult to protect than to climb.  When the cracks pinch back down one last stretch of splitter fingers with sloppy feet protect attempt to spit you off before the anchor.

Pitch 9

Pitch 10  You made it.  The overhung hand crack looks hard for 5.10 and it is.  The climbing feels easy relative to what is now behind you. Hand jams, sandy jugs, and weird pods get you past and all of a sudden you are on top.  Just like that the route ends.  Looking down the route of the dreams drops away beneath you.

The Top!

Phil and I are psyched.  It’s just after 1pm and the skies look like they are about to open up.  We pack up and start the gentle hike down to Angle’s landing.  I even make the detour out to the summit of Angle’s Landing, not to be outdone by my 6-month pregnant wife whom hiked it the day prior.  Now if I say I went to Zion for vacation, I can answer the question – yes, I climbed Angle’s Landing and leave the conversation at that.


Gear breakdown on the hard pitches

  • Pitch 4: Mix of gear, dump a 2/3 early, then 0.5 down to yellow alien, maybe a green right at the end
  • Pitch 5: the crux is blue and green aliens with maybe the odd pod for a yellow, the pod fits a 2/3 and then above the crack have a 0.75 and a 1
  • Pitch 6: Every 0.5 you can muster and you probably still have to walk them, eventually grey and yellow aliens and maybe 1 green
  • Pitch 7: mostly green and yellow aliens, odd spot for a blue or grey
  • Pitch 8: grey and yellow aliens, odd 0.5 in the hard stuff, tapers down above the immediate difficulties to the smaller sizes
  • Pitch 9: varied, definitely want all the green aliens, can place a 2 low on pitch a 1 in the splitting cracks and a 0.5 before the final hard stretch that is green aliens

Photo Album (pitch-by-pitch beta sponge bath)


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Eric has written 18 articles for Thrillseekers Anonymous.

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