Over the course of 3 weeks, I set out to free Moonlight Buttress. Moonlight is a notorious "big wall" climb that goes free at 12+ with ten pitches, six of which are graded 5.12.
photo by Felipe Tapia Nordenflycht
I took a deep breath. The holds I was aiming for really weren't that far away, I told myself. It's just a little jump... off this precarious rock ledge, into space, with no footholds even if I do manage to catch the tiny edge and little pocket with my fingers. What's scary about that??
I launch off the ledge and my hands graze the holds, which stick for a moment before dry firing off, and the momentum of my jump slams my body against the wall. I fall into space as I let out a painful grunt. I think for the hundredth time how hopeless this feels. If I can't even do the first hard move on this pitch... how am I going to do the other five 5.12 pitches on this route? What am I even doing here. Fuck this. I shouldn't be here. I haven't been training for this. Why did we choose this route? This is hopeless.
• • •
The Week Before
Eddie calls me on a bright sunny California day. I have been staying in a small town outside of Yosemite Valley. The weather has mostly been wonderful, with a few big storm systems taking over the valley providing intense bouts of rain and mist and then clearing after a few days.
"So the forecast isn't changing," Eddie says.
I pull the Yosemite Valley NOAA forecast up on my phone, seeing the same icons for rain and maybe snow right smack dab in the middle of our window for our big objective. Eddie is one of my closest friends and climbing partners. While being an avid climber, he is also a teacher, coach, and husband. He juggles all these things with the utmost level of skill and devotion. But this means his time is extremely precious - and it also mean his window for a big wall is not flexible. A big storm right in the middle of our chosen dates means our original objective will not be feasible.
We picked Freerider for a few reasons, but mostly because it is the most "attainable" free route on El Capitan. Both Eddie and I have had a free ascent of El Capitan in our sights for a while. While our climbing goals began to align, we set out achieving smaller goals along the way. We speed climbed the Naked Edge. We climbed The Nose-in-a-Day. We climbed Astrodog. Eddie trained offwidth, I trained enduro cracks. We tried to get as much mileage on granite as possible.
Now here we were, with a bad forecast and a tough call.
"I guess it's time to consider plan B."
"The weather looks good there..."
"Moonlight Buttress here we come."
Silence on the phone for a few seconds.
"...but are we sure?"
I sighed. Neither of us wanted to admit defeat. But going up on Freerider when it was going to pour rain for two or three of our six days just did not make sense.
"Yeah. We're sure."
We switched gears and started gathering all the beta we could from friends and the internet. This was going to be a rude awakening after not climbing splitter sandstone for half a year.
We drive into Zion National Park, and acquaint ourselves with the parking and access situation. Shuttles run between certain hours through the park, and personal cars are not allowed in during that time. This means if you are a climber - you either need a permit to drive in before operating hours, or you abide by the shuttle times. If you miss the last shuttle, you're out of luck and in for a very long walk back to the car in the dark.
The first day we scope out the logistics, approach, and first half of the climb. We get off the shuttle as tourists ogle our ropes and Felipe's haulbag, and spot the stream crossing. Felipe is a talented photographer on assignment to capture photos of the adventure, and he provides a wonderful element of extra stoke and optimism.
We cross the creek and rack up at the base of the climb. The first few pitches feel so foreign, I don't know what my shoes will stick to or what types of smears are good on the sandy sandstone. I over-grip everything. We both scrape by onsighting the 11c traverse, but not without some wicked flashpump. Soon we are staring down the first 5.12 off the infamous "rocker blocker," a big block that precariously rocks back and forth. But don't worry - it has been chained to the wall. That thing isn't going anywhere.
This pitch is graded 12b, with the initial few moves alone being the crux. For most people it is a jump to the first holds, followed by a bouldery mantle. Eddie, however, can reach the holds. So he pulls on and tries the mantle, falling once, but finding himself successful soon after. He makes short work of the rest of the pitch. Then I am staring down the holds that are out of reach.
The jump really isn't that far, but for someone who despises bouldering and climbs as statically as possible at all times, it is downright horrifying. Unfortunately this day I also happened to be PMSing pretty hard, which makes it feel 1000x more difficult to execute powerful moves. It takes me full minutes of sweating and psyching myself up to even try to jump off.
I try once, fail, try again, fail, and on the third jump I finally catch the holds. After the mantle my thoughts get pretty dark. That felt impossibly absurd. My finger skin is red and angry from being scraped off each time I fell. I am so scared for the pitches ahead. I struggle through the layback and together Eddie and I face the enduro crux corner.
We flail. The corner is strangely short and long at the same time, and the gear is weird, and the rock is podded out from cams breaking away bit by bit. There are so many ticks along the pitch, it might as well be painted white. This does not bode well. We only make it to the midway anchor on the crux pitch. We have run out of time, and we bail so we can catch the shuttle. I haven't felt this defeated in a long time. My mood is uncharacteristically negative the rest of the evening. I almost feel hysterical, there's absolutely NO chance of sending the rest of the route if we have to climb hard after sending that pitch. This is a joke.
• • •
A Week of Work
The following day, we hike to the tope and rappel in to check out the upper pitches. I am really nervous. Luckily I have less hormonal mood swings afflicting me as we minitrax the pitches. I start to actually get a little psyched - the upper pitches are so rad! We work our way through the variety of styles - chimney, kneebridge, layback, ringlock, fingerlock, techy corners and thoughtful face climbing. I don't send anything, but it doesn't bother me as much as yesterday.
Even though I am pulling on gear by the top, my stoke is rising. Does it feel possible? Hell no. But will it be fun to try the whole thing ground up? HELL yes.
We are worked. We hike down with Felipe and look forward to a day of rest.
We spend our rest day going to cafes, getting ice cream, goofing off, and catching up on work. I do my due diligence and roll out my muscles, massage my hands, and eat lots of protein and veggies. I am ready to face Moonlight ground up armed with muscle memory and a renewed sense of energy. James Lucas arrives, he is also shooting us on this project for Patagonia. Now we have a full crew!
• • •
In the morning, I grab a couple muffins to stash for when we return to James' van later that night, and hit the road with coffee and tea in hand. As long as we make it through the gate by 6:45am, we won't interfere with any of the shuttle buses. Felipe shoots us from the ground today, and James heads to the top to drop in.
The beginning goes smoothly. We float to the rocker blocker in just over two hours and spend over an hour and a half waiting for the sun to hide so we can start the crux pitches.
As we make our way up, the moves feel more doable. The techniques feel more familiar, and the rock feels more forgiving. I don't know if that is because my knuckles are swollen or because I added another wrap of tape, but we top out around 6PM and the vibe is certainly on a positive note. I have only sent some of the 5.12 pitches on toprope at this point, which weighs on me. I think about this as we trod down the long hike back to the car from Angel's Landing.
When we get back to the van, exhausted and dirty, one of the muffins has been eaten... this wouldn't usually be a big deal, but if you've ever spent a big day climbing and then get back to the car expecting a special treat of food to be there, you can understand the disappointment of finding it gone. James tells us we can't just leave muffins in the car and not expect him to not eat one. Damnit. I give Eddie the last muffin and eat an apple during the long drive home. It is not nearly as satisfying.
We spend another day resting. Felipe takes off, which is a bummer as I felt like he had become a core part of this whole adventure. I get to sleep in, take a zoom meeting, go grocery shopping, try not to be too nervous. Tomorrow, we try again.
• • •
Today we notice a car parked in the lot for Moonlight with us... uh oh. Another party. To my surprise, as we walk closer, one of them says "Oh, hey Kate!"
It's Eric Lynch and Jesse McGahey! I can't help but break out into a big smile and appreciate how small the climbing world is. Eric is someone I crossed paths with several times during my last few months in Yosemite, and Jesse is well known to most climbers familiar with the Valley scene, as he is the Climbing Program Manager.
We follow them up the pitches and watch Eric lead with an amazing amount of control and ease. The only fall he takes on the whole route (every pitch of which he leads) is the mantle off the rocker blocker. It is quite impressive.
Today, I lead the rocker blocker pitch. After a few failed attempts at the jump, I actually surprise myself and catch the edges, following it with a clean execution of the mantle. Soon I am clipping the anchors and I gleefully acknowledge my first 5.12 send of this whole route! I feel like at least if nothing else, I can say I sent ONE of the hard pitches on the route. And the dyno, to boot.
Eddie leads the crux, and while he makes progress on it, he finds himself in a strange swinging barn door that strains his shoulder as he catches the layback again. It looks wild and I remain tense as I watch him climb through the strenuous moves, barely holding on.
I ride the high from sending pitch 5 and head up pitch 7 with energy. I feel more solid today, but as I get higher the pump starts to set in. I am almost nearing the end when I go to clip a piece and the rope comes short. I yell Eddie's name as he struggles to get the slack out and I am cruxing out. My heart rate skyrockets as I think about my runout to the piece below me. The short rope is enough to pump me out of the final layback section on the pitch, and I fall.
I yell FUCK and hit the wall. I can't help but feel like I was on my way to sending my next 5.12 pitch if I hadn't been short-roped. Eddie apologizes, and I am silent. I tell myself, this is just a rock climb, and it obviously wasn't intentional. We weren't sending either way, so it didn't really matter that much. I was probably 50/50 on sending even without the short-rope. I take a deep breath and keep climbing. By the time I hit the belay ledge, I am over it.
I lead the next pitch and take a mega whipper. I laugh out loud as I jug back up, and remember just how fun it is to rock climb. I feel weightless. It feels good to trust my gear, and it feels good to whip. I realize how much anxiety I had pent up. I let go of the expectations, and as we trax on James' line to the top, I think how lucky I am to be out here climbing in such a gorgeous place. Rock climbing is the shit.
When we get back to the van that night, I pull out a bag that I packed that morning. It has several scones, muffins, and other treats from a cafe. I tell James he has his pick of the goods, and Eddie gets his banana nut muffin, and I get my treat too. I make sure no one goes muffin-less from now on.
• • •
Up until this point, we weren't sure if we would have another attempt at the route because Anna, Eddie's wife, is coming to meet us. They were thinking about climbing something else, as it might not be that fun to have Anna trudge up Moonlight with us.
When Anna finally arrives, it is wonderful to have another lady in the house. Anna is sweet and she has an innate ability to calm and comfort. The following day, Eddie and Anna go do a fun 5.10 adventure route, and I go to trax the top pitches with James. My mythos have busted a hole in the toe, so I try the Ocun pearls today, my other go-to shoe. I immediately realize they will not work. I get to the top rather deflated, knowing I will have to resort to my backup eco mythos - which are not as good a fit, and not as flexible or malleable as the leather mythos I have come to love and trust so much.
The following day, I meet Eddie and Anna at a crag, and run up a couple of easy pitches testing out the eco mythos. Eddie tells me we are on for one final attempt of Moonlight. We are psyched. Anna will climb with James ahead of us. Game on.
• • •
The Final Day
We are jittery as we pack up the car and head into the park. Another party that we happened to run into at the crag yesterday is right behind us.
I almost fling myself off the 11c traverse move because I am climbing a little more dynamically than usual. I laugh it off nervously. Before I know it, we are taping up at the rocker blocker. I know Eddie's getting serious when he takes off his shirt, which he almost never does. He executes the mantle flawlessly and finishes up the first hard pitch.
My turn. Dyno time.
The awkward awareness of being watched by the party behind me makes me jump more quickly than usual. But I find the moves in my muscle memory, and I nail the dyno first try! Surprised, I complete the crux mantle, and meet Eddie at the anchor. One pitch down, five to go.
Eddie stares down the enduro corner. We are both nervous. Having to repeat any of these pitches will screw you over, it will sap your energy for the rest of the climb. Both of us silently pray this goes down first try.
Eddie knows all the beta. Climb up, place a couple pieces, downclimb to the rest, and then fire. The pods make the gear finicky, but he places confidently, and as he gets more pumped toward the cruxy pod section, he is trying HARD. But he hits the pod, and suddenly he is past the hard part. He doesn't even bother to clip the intermediate anchor bolts this time, sticking to the crack as he finishes the crux pitch clean for the first time.
Now the pressure is on...
I follow the same way Eddie leads. Climb up, take out a couple pieces, and go back to the rest. Tactics. I fire the corner, and for the first time cleanly get through the pitch too. I am SO RELIEVED.
(Homies behind us, sending the rocker blocker pitch)
The party behind us in on our tails. It makes us nervous and jittery because the belays here are not comfortable more multiple people. Due to the pressure of not wanting to be in their way, I start leading the next pitch within a few minutes.
Ultimately, that is my downfall. Perhaps if I had just waited an extra five or ten minutes, the next pitch would have gone, and this saga wouldn't have a part 2. But here we are.
I fall near the top. All my doubts come crashing in. I lower. We pull the rope. Again, with nerves about the party behind us waiting, I launch into another burn too fast.
I fall again. Fuck.
I try hard not to cry. The pitch is so long, there is no way I will go on to send the other four 5.12s if I keep trying this, I tell myself. I just don't have that much energy. (Over the next week, I will look back on this and be SO disappointed I didn't try one more time, and SO angry at myself for doubting my own endurance.)
Eddie sends following pitch 7. Now we are in a strange limbo - Eddie is sending, and I am not. It is an unspoken weight.
The rest of the climb somehow comes together. Slowly the thought of literally only falling once on this entire route starts to take up a special residence in my brain, where it will dominate my thoughts for the next week.
As Eddie tops out, and I holler and whoop for him, I can't help but feel inadequate. I just couldn't quite pull it off. I try not to let it get me down. I am so incredibly psyched for Eddie. We all hike down together in the dark, and James tells me one-hanging Moonlight "is pretty good!" I'll make sure to mention that in my MP tick. Ha.
• • •
The next day we boulder at Moe's before Eddie and Anna fly out, and it feels good to goof off on funny invert offwidths right off the ground. It's over, and Eddie sent and I didn't, and that's the end of it. We're going home to Colorado. I just have to accept it for what it is. Sometimes that is just the way it goes.
JUST KIDDING. I am way too goal oriented (some might call it "obsessive") to let this go. As we munch In-n-Out burger after our Moe's sesh, I half joke in a group chat with my other two Colorado partners with whom I plan on going to Indian Creek for Thanksgiving:
"What if we just came back to Zion next weekend and then headed to the creek from there......"
Eric calls me within a minute of reading the message. We discuss what it would take to make it happen. I finally hit the road headed for home. As the Utah sun sets in my rearview mirror and I cross the border into Colorado, I can't help but feel giddy. I get another chance.
• • •
The entire week that I am home, I live the reality that would be my life if I had just accepted the one-hang. I have to tell everyone, all my friends, coworkers, acquaintances, and random instagram inquiries. "Eddie sent! I didn't send one of the pitches... but sent everything else!" Some of you know and empathize with how much it sucks to say this.
(A nice meme made by one of my friends.)
Later that week, Eddie lends me his totems and wishes me luck. I pack my bags and Eric and I hit the road.
• • •
It's sort of surreal to be back on the route after a week at home. The moves still feel the same, but the weather is much colder. It also doesn't take much more than common sense to know that climbing a huge route with a bunch of 5.12 the day after driving 10 hours is kinda dumb, but we didn't have much of a choice.
Eric makes the enduro corner look chill, but struggles in the crack pod. I can't for the life of me send the crux corner on toprope. I think to myself, at least I can still try to send pitch 7, then I will have done all the pitches clean in some way, shape or form... at some point in time.
And then... I SEND PITCH 7!!!! Okay, so I am not "sending" the entire route but I have officially done every move on this climb. Armed with the contentment from finally achieving this mini-goal, we fire to the top.
Oops, I one hung Moonlight Buttress AGAIN.
This if my life now. I feel a lot more humorous about it this time around. We crack jokes on the long walk back to the car. It is an extra two miles of road when you don't have two cars to park at both the approach and the descent lots. I already have a bunch of messages asking how it went, if we sent, and was driving all the way back to Zion worth it?!?!? Ugh. We discuss making Wednesday a last go-best go attempt, but we won't tell anyone about it. Too much pressure.
• • •
Wednesday we are primed and prepared after two full rest days. The energy is good. The temps are cold.
We both send the rocker blocker pitch without a hitch. Then Eric breezes through the crux corner. He gets to the anchor, and I start to prep to climb because he is literally standing on a ledge. Suddenly I hear a noise and the next second I am catching his mega whip. In some sort of cruel joke, he has managed to literally fall off the belay ledge. Both of us agree to count this as a send, with an asterisk... He was on the friggin ledge. I am shaking my head just thinking about it.
I tackle the corner with the weight of the world on me. I layback up to get the gear out, downclimb, rest, and fire. I get my hands to the slot and I just think, I CANNOT fuck this up. Get a foot in, anything, just DONT. LET. GO. I wiggle my foot in the slot for any type of heel toe cam, heel hook, toe hook, literally anything to help get me intot he slot. It works!!! Holy shit, I am past the crux corner. I don't even know what weird voodoo leg thing I did to get into the pod, but it worked. If I can just send pitch 7... I know the rest of the climb will go, even if I am tired.
Eric and I chill for 20 minutes at the hanging belay. I start pitch 7. It feels better than it ever has, even though it is numbingly cold. And then five feet from the finishing jugs, my foot slips. NOOOOOOOOO!!!
I lower and I know this is all I've got, right now, this is IT. I can do this. I have DONE this. I force myself to rest another 15 minutes - we set a timer just like James told me to. I won't make the same mistake I made with Eddie: wait at least 10 minutes if not 15-20. Eric points out the new hole in my shoe, which is probably why I slipped. Doesn't matter. I am on fire.
I won't forget the feeling of sending pitch 7 on this day. As I repeat each move on this burn, for the hundredth time, I breath into every position a little more smoothly. I trust the "locks" just a hint more.
The pump builds and I start to feel the strain. The strain of so many attempts, so much pressure, so much hope, so much doubt. I breathe. I trust.
Then I somehow rip open a hole in my finger. The bleeding is more than just a cut or scrape. Blood starts to seep into the tape on my fingers, and the ringlocks become a tad slippery.... oh no. I am not letting this happen. I need to keep the tape dry. Move for move, I start licking the blood off my finger.
Do a move.
Lick off the blood.
Do another move.
It is working! I can make it if I just keep licking the blood off between every move. I feel totally animalistic at this point but who cares??
I grab the jug with so much pump in my arms. I pull onto the ledge, and relief floods my body. The blood flows freely from my finger now as I laugh and lean my head against the wall. There's blood all over my hands and the rope and my face, but I don't care. My heart sings. The hard part is over. It's over.
• • •
The stoke is so high, nothing could pull me off the rest of the climb. I run it out more than usual and at points I honestly don't know how I am staying on the rock. It just flows.
I can't explain the excitement and accomplishment that consumes me at the last anchor, knowing it's over. I laugh hysterically while belaying Eric up, cry a few tears, I sing, I dance, I talk to the little moths fluttering around my headlamp. Eric appears and we flop onto the summit with incredibly huge smiles and laughs.
The saga is over for me. For Eric, it was merely a "soft second go." It's all relative right?
The best part of the day was yet to come. After our long dark walk down the road last time, I managed to convince Eric that we should buy electric scooters so we wouldn't have to walk that last two miles in the dark. I will tell you, nothing felt more incredibly righteous than raging on scooters back to our car down the empty canyon road, blasting Queen's "We Are The Champions" and laughing at the absurdity and glee of our current state. That is a moment I will NEVER forget.
• • •
I texted Eddie and James from the last anchor, "Guess where I am?" with a picture. It is so nice to surprise them with a send announcement rather than disappoint their inquiries with another failure.
I am so utterly relieved. I realize this is the feeling people talk about when sending big projects, or not sending them. And I realize I am in for a lifetime of these cycles. The thought makes me nervous and excited. If we didn't have big goals for ourselves, what would our life really be?
I forget about it for the time being and wholeheartedly throw my energy into enjoying the present during the next few days in the Creek. This is what life is all about. I am in the right place and the right time, with the right people.
Life is good.