Flashback Series Ep 3: The First Free Ascent of the Lowe Route in Zion, UT

In December 2004, I (Mike) made the First Free Ascent (FFA) of the historic North Face of Angels Landing (aka Lowe Route). This amazing feature (the N Face of Angel’s Landing) was the premier climbing feature in one of America’s most beautiful National Parks, and yet it had never been free climbed. The route went free at 5.13, Grade V. Here is the story I wrote shortly after the ascent. It first appeared in a forum thread on Rockclimbing.com on Zion Climbing History in April 2005. The photos are all courtesy of Mr. Andrew Burr who worked very hard to take these amazing shots!

The dramatic North Face of Angel's Landing

The dramatic North Face of Angel’s Landing

LoweRTopoClick here to view larger topo.

“How is it going up there?” Is the rhetorical question I get from Ben, my skeptical belayer. His precise inflection indicates that he knows the answer. A long pause results as I face facts: This pitch, these 10 measly feet, simply will not go.

“Uh, it’s not looking good. It’s too steep, and the holds are just too far apart.” I’m severely disappointed, but I don’t have time to dwell on it now. We’re about 1000’ off the deck with another 500’ to go to top out on the Lowe Route, on the N Face of Angel’s Landing, and the hour is getting late. We punch it for the top, freeing what we can, and aiding the rest, and top out just as it’s getting dark. On the summit, Ben consoles me:

“You know, Mike, I wasn’t too psyched for more belay duty on this thing anyway…so to be honest, I’m not too disappointed that it won’t go”.

“Thanks…thanks a lot.” It’s just the tact-less type of consolation that I would expect from my longtime friend. Ben and I have known each other since we were about 12 years old. We learned to climb together, so we’re past the point of polite conversation. Nevertheless, his assessment is too frank for me right now, as I try to hang on to a sliver of hope that I will find a way to make it go. My years of reading mountaineering literature have turned me into a hopeless optimist. In all the classic tales, the brave protagonists always find a way to make it go. Of course, the unsuccessful protagonists don’t get their stories published, so we rarely read about failures.

As we scurry down the trail in the dark I propose possible solutions while Ben kindly shoots them down.

121204.02Hauling gear up “Walter’s Wiggles” – the trail to the summit of Angel’s Landing

“The Hubers used a man-powered rappel, how about a man-powered pendulum?”
“Pendulum to where? There’s nowhere to go.”
“OK, how about a shoulder stand?”
“That would be aid climbing, and besides, who are you going to get to dangle 1000’ off the deck off of those crappy holds belayed by those rusty quarter-inchers? You can count me out.” I decided it would be better to keep my ideas to myself.

My goal, or should I say, my pipe-dream is to free the North Face of Angels Landing in Zion, UT. Despite being the most obvious climbing feature in the Canyon, it had so far remained as the exclusive territory of the aid climber. This was my third recon trip, and it was going well until I hit the bolt ladder on pitch 8. A few weeks before I had rapped down to inspect the upper half of the route, and although I knew the bolt ladder would be hard, I thought it would go, at least there were holds. I was wrong. I was certain that I could free everything but the 10 feet of that bolt ladder; I was instantly enlightened about the frustration of big wall free climbing. You can free 1490’, but if you don’t get those last 10’, you have failed.

I first started thinking about this project last spring. I was driving home solo to Utah after a long trip to the Valley which allowed a lot of time for personal reflection. I had a great trip, met some cool people and reunited with old friends. My twin brother, Mark, and I had just made an all free ascent of El Cap and I had managed to avoid falling on any of the pitches. I didn’t think of myself as an elite climber, but after my unexpected success on Freerider, I decided that maybe I do have an aptitude for this type of climbing. For some reason, the further I am from the ground, the more easily the moves seem to come to me…at least that explains my complete ineptitude at bouldering.

Lowe_routelineThe North Face (Lowe) Route on Angel’s Landging

While in the Valley, I was impressed by the amount of energy there is for free climbing. Prior to this trip I had formed the opinion that the Valley scene stifles progress by ostracizing people with a different vision of the future. This latest trip really opened my eyes to the feverish pace of progress in the Valley. There are a lot of very strong climbers, locals and visitors pushing the limits on climbs all over the valley. Nearly every day I could walk through El Cap meadow and hear about people making progress on various projects throughout the park. I wanted to be a part of that. Because I couldn’t bring myself to the Valley every weekend, I decided to try to bring that atmosphere to Zion.

Zion is ripe for a free climbing revolution. Guys like Doug Heinrich have been trying to motivate people towards that end for some time now, but it’s just now starting to catch on. When my brother Mark and I freed Moonlight a few years ago, there wasn’t a lick of chalk on it, now the crux pitch is perma-chalked. Nevertheless, the route still gets more aid traffic than anything.

Immediately upon my return from Yosemite, I started researching possible routes in Zion. I contacted Brian Smoot, whom I had previously sparred with on the internet. I knew he was a long-time Zion climber and he would have some great ideas. He sent me a great list of potential routes, but I was instantly drawn to the Lowe Route on Angel’s Landing, and have been obsessed with the line ever since….

They say “time heals all wounds”…I don’t have much experience with that, but one thing I do know is that time downrates all cruxes. The further you are from your project, the easier you remember those moves being, and it didn’t take long after that initial recon before I had convinced myself the Lowe Route was worth another shot. Convincing a belayer?…now that’s another thing.

Within two weeks I was back in the Park, hoping to give it another try. I had made plans to meet up with Brian Smoot, and hopefully meet the prolific Dave Jones, but it didn’t come to pass. The first day we were there it was raining. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was heavey-handed foreshadowing of things to come. We were unable to get on the wall, but that wasn’t the point, I just needed to have a look. From the covered bus stop at Big Bend, I scoured the face with my high powered spotting scope and identified enough features to motivate me to rap in from the summit a second time.

121404.28Scouring the face for options…this is how I discovered my 3-pitch variation around the bolt ladder.

The rest of the weekend was spent enjoying the solitude of Zion in the rain. At one point we decided it would be fun to try to hike to the south side of the Great White Thrown cross-country from the Mt. Carmel highway. We got cliffed out and didn’t make it to the Thrown, but we did stumble upon a group of desert bighorn sheep that made the weekend worthwhile. Spotting these creatures in the wild is a rare treat because of their keen eye sight. They usually see you well before you see them. In this case, I think they did see us first, but when they continued up the ridge to evade us, they got cliffed out before we did and were forced to face their pursuers.

The next weekend I was back, and forced to sit out yet another day in the rain. Fortunately the excellent sports climbing in nearby St. George had been spared the moisture, and I was able to climb something. That Sunday, my wife, Janelle, and I hiked up Angel’s Landing with several hundred feet of rope. We rapped down about 700 feet to the ledge at the base of the bolt ladder. I had conceived of some other options for climbing the bolted arête, and I wanted to try them with a belayer, if it didn’t work out, I would check out those features I had spotted through my scope. Once again, the arête didn’t work out. It was steeper than I had remembered, and the nearby pinscars were unusable. I gave up on the original route, and decided to focus on those features that dotted the smooth face left of the aid route.

Inspecting a face on rappel for free climbing is a risky proposition. I had done it countless times for the sport routes I had put up, and I knew that there was a very fine line between climbable and impossible. Nevertheless, I thought I saw enough there to warrant putting in the bolts to protect the moves. I put in 9 bolts that day to protect the first pitch of the variation. After two more separate trips spread out over 3 weeks due to the non-stop rain, I finally had all 15 protection bolts in, and 5 belay bolts. The route was finally ready for an attempt….

On the 21st of November, Janelle and I crossed the frigid Virgin River and approached Angel’s Landing. OK, I have to be honest…it wasn’t that frigid. The day before, while killing time in Hurricane (pronounced “herkin” by the local intelligentsia) I stumbled upon some cheap hip waders in the Ace Hardware store. For under $30 you too can cross the Virgin in winter in total comfort! We were at the base of the wall by about 8:00am, and started climbing despite the frigid temps. The predicted high for that day was in the low 50’s – barely warm enough for the hard climbing that lay ahead on this north facing wall. At this hour, however, the mercury was hovering in the low 30’s, and the grass on the approach was still frosty. Fortunately the first four pitches are mellow, and climbing them in this cold weather was manageable.

121404.20Crossing the Virgin River

The first pitch (5.9) climbs a low-angle groove formed by terrible rock and covered in moss…pretty much par for the course in Zion. The protection is seldom and sandy, but I had climbed it twice before and knew what to expect. Pitch two, also 5.9, starts off in an intimidating flaring groove reminiscent of the Poseidon adventure on the Lighthouse tower in Moab. Fortunately, the walls are more featured and the pitch can be climbed with no groveling whatsoever by stemming against the walls of the tight corner. If it is done this way, it is actually quite enjoyable climbing. The next real challenge is pitch 4 which wanders in and out of corners and arêtes to gain the bivy ledge. At one point, a horrible looking off-width is encountered, but it too can be bypassed by face climbing and stemming over it.

Pitch 5, 5.12-

Pitch 5, 5.12-

Once on the bivy ledge, the business begins. Pitch 5 is the first 5.12 pitch, and I had hoped to reach it right about the time the temperature was rising. No dice. When we arrived there at about 10:00, my thermometer showed 40 degrees. We hung out for about 45 minutes and then I started up the steep corner. Pitch 5 is a spectacular pitch. It starts out with delicate stemming up a loose chimney feature. Your left leg is stemming against a huge detached flake, while your right leg and hands are carefully picking their way through an overhanging jungle of loose blocks. Fortunately the climbing in this section is only about 5.10+, but the blocky ledge below you keeps your attention. This section is probably the most dangerous portion of the route to aid, where a serious ledge fall is quite possible

121104.17Hauling gear on Pitch 5

121104.40Pitch 6, fun 5.10 Chimneying

About 30’ up, the rock improves dramatically at a good rest. Just above is the crux move which involves entering a steep, right facing corner. An old knifeblade piton is wedged in the crack at the start of the corner. It sticks out 2 inches, and is bent over 90 degrees such that the eye, which should be level with the horizon, is pointing straight down. I clipped this piece for effect, and backed it up with a tcu lower down. I hadn’t redpointed this pitch before, so I was nervous about it, but on my recon almost two months before, I had worked out the moves. Entering the corner is the crux of the pitch, and it is made possible by some “thank god” edges on the face. I cranked out the bouldery moves, paused to place a tcu in the crack and pressed on to a good rest. The rest of the pitch involves enjoyable stemming and crack climbing up an Indian Creek-esque corner. I arrived at the belay well pumped and happy to make the redpoint. The temperature turned out to not be a factor.

The 5.10c climbing on pitch 6 went by quickly. It climbs an enormous dihedral through the best rock on the route and the climbing is varied enough that you don’t get bored. For free climbers, this pitch ends at the “Flake Belay”. It’s a detached pancake flake, about a foot wide and 10 feet long that hovers about a foot out from the right side of the dihedral. It’s quite a comfortable belay if you straddle the flake, cowboy–style. Above the flake, the crack is very narrow. Still in the aforementioned massive dihedral, now the crack has pinched to about the size of a #0 Tcu, or about 3/8”. There are a few pin scar pods that will accept more of my fingertips, but the laybacking is still very strenuous. This section is only about 35’ long but it packs a punch.

121104.51The first crux…finger-tip liebacking on Pitch 7, 5.12+

121104.68The crux of Pitch 7

I stood high off the flake and placed a ratty old 0 tcu with a period-piece bit of spectra cord tied in for a sling. I had borrowed this piece from my friend Brian Cabe, and was glad to get it off of my rack as soon as possible. I don’t know when he acquired it, but by the looks of the thing, it must have been a prototype at one time. A few stem moves are possible right off the belay which gave me a chance to place another piece before launching into the do-or-fly lieback. About 10’ above the belay is the crux where the crack pinches down and the smearing wall is as unblemished as a Boulder Trustafarian’s # 4 Camalot. I powered through this section and reached a good tips finger lock right at the point where my foot reached a small divot. The hardest moves were done, but the corner stays steep and strenuous, so I took a deep breath and continued on. At this point, the left wall of the dihedral bulges out creating another crux, amazingly, this bulge happens right at the point where the crack widens enough to stuff all of your fingers in and a bomber # 0.5 camalot. Another rest was had above the bulge, then the last hard moves, protected by a # 00 tcu allow access to the sloping ledge that marks the standard end of pitch 6. I made the memorable 5.7 traverse along the ledge out to the left edge of the dihedral at the base of the “triple roofs” pitch. The first hard pitch was in the bag!

121104.78Getting ready for the crux Pitch 8

The next pitch, the standard “pitch 7” (Pitch 8 on my topo), is the physical and psychological crux of the route. The pitch starts under an inverted staircase feature known as the “triple overhangs”. The pitch was originally climbed via a knifeblade crack where the roofs meet the main wall. These scars have since grown to wide pods from the relentless piton-ing and the extremely soft rock. Above the roof, the crack widens to a seam large enough to accept tiny nuts. This pitch, with its marginal protection, is the aid crux of the route.

On my recon, I had toproped this pitch, and done all the moves, but I hadn’t yet attempted to place the gear on the lead which is an entirely different prospect. Two days before, when I rapped in to place the last few bolts, I had scrutinized the crack and worked out an intricate system of protection. This pitch would make or break the climb, and I feared it would make or break me. I started up the overhang, and encountered the first placement, a #00 tcu in a flaring pod of white, sandy rock. Soon after, I reached a thin vertical crack that accepted a small offset nut. From this shoddy protection, I had to power out some desperate moves to reach the first of 3 fixed bugaboo pitons I had placed previously. As I moved above the offset, it popped out, and fell back down the rope. I immediately lost my nerve and down-climbed to the belay. I made a few more half-hearted attempts, but I was completely psyched out. I decided that the first 7 pitches I had climbed would be adequate for today. We would rap down to the ground, spend the night in the comfort of the motel, and come back tomorrow to finish the route.

121104.83Pitch 8, the technical crux of the route…5.13- liebacking in rounded pin scars over a roof. Oh yeah, the gear sucks too!

The slightly overhanging rappels to the bivy ledge atop pitch 4 went smoothly. From here, it is possible to diverge from the route and rappel straight down the face. Dusk was upon as we cast off down the blank face at about 5:00pm. The second rappel off the ledge is a 50m straight shot down a smooth wall. I was rapping on a 100m static line that I had stashed on the bivy ledge for just such an occasion. I had done this rappel before, so I knew when to expect the next anchor, but I hadn’t used this rope. As I approached the end of the rope, I still couldn’t see the anchor. By now, it was completely dark. By the time I realized my rope was short, I was dangling below a roof. The next anchor was 10 feet below on a sloping ledge. Apparently the 50m rap included the stretch from a dynamic rope.

I dangled in space for a while, completely exhausted and at the end of my rope – literally and figuratively. I thought about trying to prusik back up to the anchor 50m above, and thinking of nothing better to do, I started the process. I had done this a few times before to retrieve stuck ropes, so I knew what to do. Take a shoulder sling, wrap it around the rope a few times and try to keep it from sliding down the slippery sheath. Eventually, I was able to get above the overhang which greatly improved my predicament. About that point, I spotted a tiny ledge about 20’ to my right, and just above me, and I made a beeline for that.

Once established on the ledge, I was able to calm down enough to think of a solution. I tried to yell to my wife up above to reposition the rope so that I could rappel down to the belay on a single line, but she couldn’t hear me. I realized I had a 30’ piece of webbing in my pack, and I figured I could use the webbing to extend the rope. I tied the webbing to each end of the 100m rope, then pulled the rope through so that the webbing section would be above me. At this point, Janelle really started freaking out, as she saw our only rope being pulled through the anchor she was hanging at. Fortunately for her, I knew what I was doing. With the extra 30’ in the rope, I was barely able to reach the lower anchor, and proceeded down to the ground without a hitch.

We just about missed dinner in springdale, but fortunately there was a small Chinese restaurant still open. We gorged ourselves on orange chicken and white rice, then settled into the Bumbleberry Motel anticipating the rest of the climb the next day. We woke up early on the 22nd, and found six inches of new snow….

Things were getting desperate. I had family commitments for the Thanksgiving weekend, and I knew that the next opportunity I would have to try the route would be in December. I was losing hope. With each week, the temperatures lowered as the days got shorter. I couldn’t find partners, and at one point I even resorted to posting an ad on the internet. That resulted in one person who was willing to belay me for one day. We rapped in from the top so that I could work on the crux sections, but the temps were in the 40’s so I wasn’t able to even attempt a redpoint. In between every trip, the constant storms would leave moss and sand on all of the holds, and the hard pitches needed to be re-cleaned. I seriously considered abandoning the project, and waiting until spring, but I was moving to Colorado at the end of December, and I didn’t know if my new job would afford me enough time to complete the route. Word of my attempts was starting to spread, and I worried that another climber might be able to sneak and climb the route before me.

Just as I was about to give up, a high pressure system appeared on the forecast. It coincided with finals week for my graduate program at the U of Utah, but I worked it out so that I could finish my work early, then escape to southern Utah. This was it, my last chance to climb the route this year.

Janelle and I started at 8:30am on December 11th, highs were expected to be in the upper 50’s. For this last-ditch effort, I recruited my friend, and renowned photographer Andrew Burr to join us to photograph the attempt. His presence added some much needed levity to the serious mood of the climb, and gave Janelle someone to talk to. I moved quickly up through the first 6 pitches. The hard pitches of my previous attempt went down with ease, and I felt a surge of confidence as I arrived below the crux triple roof pitch.

I wasted no time in getting started on the menacing pitch. I wanted to keep the momentum going and be well committed on the pitch before I had time to think about it. I skipped the poor nut placement that had popped out and rattled my nerves on the previous attempt. I pulled around the first roof and clipped a #1 bugaboo piton placed in a vertical crack. Hopefully it would hold a fall, if needed. The crux soon followed which requires throwing a foot high onto a slopey foot bump in the midst of a powerful lieback, then trusting your weight to the smear and reaching up for a good pinscar. I clipped another pin, this placed horizontally, which inspired more confidence. The next few moves put me out on the face. The last fixed pin was at eye level, but I had to execute another crux move before I could clip it. With only two fingers crammed in a shallow pin scar, a powerful lieback move is required to reach a square-cut edge that marks the end of the crux section.

121104.88Clearing the roof on Pitch 8

I clipped the last pin, then tried to shakeout on the vertical wall. The hardest moves were below, but I still had 50 feet of runout climbing above me. I paused for about five minutes at the awkward stance. The handholds are good enough to allow alternating shakes, but the footholds are not. I decided to move on when my calves began to pump out. The next 30’ entails delicate face climbing on either side of the thin seam. The seam is typically in one hand or another, but I never have the benefit of seeing straight in to place the gear. The serious nature of this pitch could be easily reduced by pre-placing the gear. I’m sure many future suitors will take this option, but for me it was out of the question, as a matter of principle. I gingerly stuff a nut into a flaring pin scar, then give it a gentle tug to test its worth. My only choice is to clip in, keep moving, and don’t fall.

121104.97Climbing the splitter on Pitch 8, protected by small wires…always exciting in Zion’s Navajo Sandstone. I rated this section 5.12- “R”.

About 15 feet above the last pin, the crack narrows down and gear becomes more difficult to place. At the last opportunity, I placed a blind #3 “Peenut.” With the holds above well etched in my mind, I made the decision to trust my strength and balance, rather than these dubious nuts. I commit to climbing the last hard sequences with the protection that is already in place. Near the top of the seam, 15 feet above the peanut, I am poised to make the last move. My right hand is in an incut finger-tip bucket, and my left foot on a low edge. The object of my desire is a handjam a few feet above, and just out of reach. On my previous attempts, I did this move many different ways, and was unsure of how to proceed. I could high-step my right foot on a sandy, fragile flake and execute the move statically…assuming the sandy foothold remained in place. On the other hand, my right hand was solid, and I was going to a good hold, so why not just…dyno!

121104.109More of the Pitch 8 finger crack.

I latched the hand jam, and let out a scream of relief. In the excitement, I struggled to place a cam in the widening crack, but eventually got it in there. I quickly scampered up the remaining 20 or so feet to the ledge, relieved to finally slay this pitch. It was the most challenging lead of my life.

By this time, it was getting late. Per our plan, we rapped to the ground, and left the remainder of the route to the next day. This time the rappelling went smoothly, even with three of us. We reached the ground at 5pm, just enough time to cross the river in the dusk light, and get some grub.

Having crossed the Virgin several times by now, I had developed an effective procedure. Andy, who has a rebellious disposition in the first place, was new to the operation, and didn’t take kindly to me barking out orders. He decided to cross the river his way, which I must admit, was much more entertaining. My procedure consisted of a few simple steps which should be carried out in a certain order, at certain locations on the river. The issue was that we only had one pair of wading boots, and three people. The first person (me) would wade across, carrying his shoes. The wading location was carefully selected on a previous trip to ensure that water didn’t overtake the boots. Once across the river, I would hike down to another carefully selected location to toss the boots (one at a time) back across the river to the next person.

Andy didn’t like any of this. Just as I was starting into the river I heard the sound of a flying shoe. Andy had decided that he didn’t want to carry his shoes, so he took them off and tried to throw them across, right where I was wading. The problem with this, is that the “wading spot” is shallow, and therefore, wide. The shoe missed the bank by about 5 feet, and began to float down the river, at which point, Andy panicked and chucked his other shoe. This shoe did better, still getting wet, but I was able to grab it before it floated down river to the “throwing spot”. By this time, Andy’s first shoe had floated down to the aforementioned “throwing spot”. Now a good “throwing spot” should be narrow, so that your shoes, or boots make it across the river. The problem with narrow, is that it is also deep. So when Andy jumped into the river, right about where the “throwing spot” is, he was up to his chest in the Virgin. At this point, he was already halfway across, so he continued to ford the river at the “throwing spot”. As I said earlier, his way was much more entertaining….

The next day, we all hiked up to the top of Angel’s Landing. The hike was enjoyable because I was sure this was my last day on the route. The remaining hard pitches were mostly bolted, and although I hadn’t redpointed any of them yet, I felt confident that I could do them. We started later than usual because rapping off the 1500’ high summit onto the shady North Face, is quite a bit colder than starting from the ground.

121204.10Pitch 9, the first of 3 short variation pitches to avoid the bolt ladder. This pitch is awesove 5.12 face and slab climbing.

121204.20Climbing really cool features on Pitch 9.

When we reached the ledge, I started up the 9th pitch, which was the first pitch of the bolted variation. I hadn’t redpointed this pitch before either, but I had a chance to climb it bolt-to-bolt the previous week when my friend Josh rapped in with me. It starts off of the left end of the ledge, about 30 feet to the left of the original bolt ladder. The climbing is absolutely amazing, and improbable. Subtle features, which do not at all seem climbable can be linked together with a serpentine series of moves. Right at the beginning, the pitch is most devious, requiring probably more than 30 moves to gain 10 feet, as I climbed back and forth across the bolt line.

The wall eventually rears back to just past vertical, but amazingly the holds improve as well. Above this section, a steep slab with miniscule patina holds allows passage to a small left-facing dihedral, 20 feet to the right. The dihedral contains the crux moves of the pitch. The moves are awkward including a high hand foot match, an arête move or two, and finally a long rock-over to get established in the dihedral. Once in the dihedral, the climbing is straight forward, but sandy, and I was soon perched on a 2’x2’ ledge with a new bolted anchor.

121204.47Slabbing up the top of Pitch 9 – spectacular!!!

121204.62Pertched at the belay below Pitch 10, this is the only photo I have of Andy Burr from this climb.

Pitch 10 is the sports climbing pitch. I had taken to referring to it as the “TA” or “Tom Adams” pitch when I was talking to myself about it. For example, I might say: “Self, what do you think about the TA pitch?” and I would reply: “oh yeah, the TA pitch, that’s pretty sick, Tom would love it, I hope you can do it, self.” I called it the TA pitch for a number of reasons, but mostly because Tom is the best sports climber I know, and he is known for his ability to climb desperately steep routes in places like ‘mercan Fork and Maple.

The TA pitch is unlike anything I have ever seen in Zion, and seems more suited to the steep walls of Red Rocks. From the tiny ledge that forms the belay, the left-facing dihedral continues straight up for about 10’ before rearing back to the left, eventually becoming horizontal about 30’ above the belay. The corner juts out about 2’ feet so that when it becomes horizontal it forms a 2’ roof. The lip of the roof, and the arête formed by the dihedral are studded with incut patina jugs while the main wall of the undercut face is as blank as a Camp 4 denizens’ employment record. This geometry forces the climber onto the overhanging arête for some exciting moves.

This pitch also hadn’t been redpointed, but I had worked out the moves a little bit with Josh. I started up the arête, tried to milk a rest at the second bolt, then clipped the third and committed to the crux. At this point, I was at the roof, and the holds dictated traversing the lip until some holds formed by a vertical crack could be reached. The hardest move requires grabbing a tiny right-hand crimp at just the right angle, placing my right foot high and pressing off in order to reach out to a finger jug at the crack. I made the reach on my first try, and was excited to complete the pitch. I placed my left foot on a block that protrudes out at the lip of the overhang, and pressed my weight onto it. Just as I began the rock-over, I heard a crack, and I was airborne.

121204.77Clearing the steep roof on Pitch 10

During the fall, I didn’t have time to think about my rope sliding across the jagged patina that forms the lip of the overhang, or whether I would be able to get back to the belay. I saw some debris out of the corner of my eye while I made an arcing trajectory under the lip of the roof. When I hit the end of the rope, I pieced together what had happened. That protruding block that my left foot was on had been replaced by a fresh scar, and my optimistic confidence had been replaced by the fear of another wild pendulum-ing fall over the jagged-edged roof. It took me two more tries to redpoint the pitch. Another 13a, I had guessed, but who really knows up here, with nobody to offer a second opinion, and so many other factors to throw you off your game.

Above the lip of the roof, the route follows an intermittent seam that provides just enough clean gear while climbing mostly patina face holds. About 30’ over the roof a small sandy ledge is reached which is about 30’ to the left, and 10’ below the original belay at the end of the original pitch 9, above the large dihedral overhang.

From this stance, we were in no-mans land: A small ledge on a big face, a stone’s throw from the original route, but no obvious means of getting there. This is where the madness of Mike Anderson comes in. This 30’ stretch would make or break the climb, I had known it from the first bolt I placed in this crazy 3 pitch variation. To pioneer crack-less face climbing on the steep walls of Zion is a bit daft in its own right, but to push it for three pitches and hope to regain the original route? Well, that bordered on insanity. The previous two pitches formed a relatively straightforward passage compared to this stretch. The problem is it dead-ends at a stance with seemingly nowhere to go. From this position, it was easy to see why nobody else had made any concerted attempts to free this wall.

But I’m crazy, remember? About 10’ below the stance, a finger tip sized (is that a 0.4 Friend?) horizontal crack shoots out to the right. It reaches for 20’ or so, where it disappears into a series of loose blocks and flakes that are strangely plastered to the wall. Anticipating this escape route, I had placed one bolt along this seam to protect the moves I hoped I could do. When I reached that sandy belay ledge that Sunday afternoon in December I had never even tried this pitch. I thought it would be easier than the previous pitches, so I wasn’t so worried about it, until that day. With the long pitch 9 and 3 tries to redpoint pitch 10 under my belt, I was tired. As Andy said later that day…I had been crimping like a mutha fucka all day long.

121204.126The spectacular Pitch 11, a 5.12 traverse that got me back to the original route.

I left the belay optimistic. If I could send this pitch, I would be done with the hard climbing and the wall would be in the bag. From the belay, I placed a tcu in a flake as far to the right as possible to provide a good toprope for the traversing moves below me. I began by down climbing the last 10’ of pitch 10, to reach the horizontal seam. The seam is decent, providing half-pad crimps on a varying quality of holds. Some are positive some are not. The footholds are virtually non existent. There are a few bumps here and there, but half of them turn out to be just clumps of lichen, and the other half provide only psychological benefit. My first try, I traversed out the seam, practically campussing between moves, not caring to place my feet on the terrible holds. I reached the bolt, about 15’ out, clipped it, and reached over for one of the aforementioned loose blocks when the pump hit me hard and I peeled off, pendulum-ing back onto the bolt.

121204.133Pitch 11 would not go down easy. I took multiple falls and had to dig deep to send.

I worked out some moves and tried again, and again, and again. One other time I made it to the bolt, but the cumulative fatigue of the past few days was piling up, and I couldn’t progress much beyond it. Andy had stopped shooting a while ago as it was getting late and the light had disappeared. I lost track of how many tries I gave that short little section, but eventually I reached a point where I was making less progress with each try and Andy convinced me to pack it in.

121204.134Contemplating my motivations and getting psyched for “one more try”.

I decided to let it go for the night. Andy helped us get back over to the main route and we jugged to the summit, disappointed to have to come back for yet another day.

Monday, December 13th: The third day on the route, and certainly the last. Either I would finish the route today, or give it up. Again we, hiked up Angel’s Landing. This would be the 9th time I had hiked to the summit of Angel’s Landing since I started working on the project in September. By this time I knew there were 29 switchbacks up Walter’s Wiggles and 27 lengths of chain railing on the final stretch above Scout lookout. This would also be my 12th day working on the route, which really under-represents the time I had spent on it. I had come down to Zion on 10 separate weekends, at one point, I came down from Salt Lake 3 weekends in a row and was rained out on every one. I had spent a lot of time in Zion Canyon, and not enough time on the route. This day, the 13th of December, would determine whether or not it had all been worth it.

So far the weather had been amazing. The high pressure system that seemed to be severely lacking in the previous 3 months was hanging around with a vengeance. Andy decided not to come down the fixed ropes with us this time, but to stay on the approach trail and shoot photos from there. He stopped at Scout Lookout, and it was just Janelle and I. We moved quickly down the ropes, hoping to “get it over with”. I was tired from the two long days in a row. My fingers were stiff, and my legs were racked. The steep slab pitches and two treks up the trail had destroyed my calves and jellified my quads. As luck would have it, the last hard pitch didn’t have any footholds, so my tired calves wouldn’t be tested.

We soon gained our perch from the previous night, on top of the new pitch 10, the second of the variation pitches. We were on a small ledge, just a short 40’ pitch away from the original aid route. I desperately wanted to avoid the futile repeated efforts of the night before. My first try would be my best hope for redpointing the pitch. On this, my third day of hard climbing, I knew that each subsequent attempt would be more difficult as fatique set in. I still wasn’t certain how hard this pitch was, as I had never redpointed it, but I felt like it was probably 12c. It was hard to judge from the previous day’s efforts because I was so exhausted. Was I just tired, or was the pitch really hard?

Those thoughts played in my mind as I set off from the belay. I placed the tcu out right under the flake, then began the down climbing…this was my warmup. The moves felt good, and I held deep breaths to relax my mind and body. When I reached the horizontal seam 10’ below the belay, I didn’t hesitate. I set out across the rail deliberately, with urgency, but not panic. This time I placed my feet carefully, but avoided weighting them to the point that they would pop off the shy holds. I could feel the pump building, but as I reached the bolt at 15’ out along the rail I still felt strong. A couple more desperate moves on half-pad crimps, and I reached a loose block with a good incut edge on it.

When I placed the bolt almost a month earlier, I had noticed this block was loose, and marked it with a chalk “X”, that I now ignored. I grabbed the block, and felt it flex, but it held. A couple easier moves and I was perched in an awkward rest, able to alternate handholds to shakeout. I was about 25’ across “no-man’s-land” with 15’ more to go to reach the wide crack of the main aid route, just a few feet over the lip of the large overhanging dihedral. In my intense efforts to free climb the thin horizontal crack, I had been too focused to notice the exposure which now overwhelmed me. I was clinging to a flake that is plastered to a perfectly smooth wall. The smooth wall extends about 15 feet below me, before it falls away into the massive overhang that forms the large cleft in Angel’s Landing.

121304.31Climbing the upper pitches ~ Pitch 12. Andy shot this from the lookout at the top of “Walter’s Wiggles”. The top of the “Large Overhang” is visible near the bottom of the photo.

After a good rest, I continued on. The climbing was much easier, but more delicate, as I navigated through a series of stacked blocks and hollow flakes. A few small tcu’s are available for gear, and at one point I pulled off a brick-sized rock which fell straight down to the ground without touching the wall. Shortly, I gained the main aid line at a hand sized crack, and cruised the 20’ or so, to the belay ledge at the top of the original pitch 9 (my Pitch 11). I let out a modern day yodel (“woohoo!”) and soon heard a response from Andy who had been watching through his telephoto lense from Scout Lookout. Janelle skillfully executed the lower-out from the small ledge, and soon joined me at the original belay.

121304.55Reuniting with Andy near the summit.

I had climbed pitch 10 (my pitch 12) before, way back in October when I first tried the route. I had used a few points of aid that time to speed things up, but wasn’t too worried. The first few moves off the ledge are exciting as a smorgasbord of loose blocks and incipient cracks must be overcome. The best gear is an old bugaboo that sticks out about 2”. I climbed through the blocks carefully, and soon was on better rock about 20’ up. I felt these exciting moves warranted a 5.10+,R rating. The remainder of the pitch is really beautiful. A thin crack that wavers in and out of finger-size splits a smooth wall peppered with incut patina edges. The crux comes at a small roof, just before the anchor. I was surprised by the accumulated fatigue of the last few days, and the 11a pitch felt harder than expected.

121304.46Easier climbing near the top.

The next pitch is an airy 5.8 traverse left, past some fixed mank and a rusty ¼” star-drive bolt from the FA. After 30’ or so, a horizontal crack grows to a sizable ledge that leads into the summit gully. The next two pitches climb un-inspiring rock up the sandy gully where the cruxes seem to be avoiding or surmounting hostile foliage. To make matters worse, Andy had come down the fixed ropes to rejoin us by this time and was nocking down rocks while insisting we slow down so he can snap photos…what are friends for?

121304.68The gorgeous Zion Canyon from near the summit of AL. Little did I know, I would spend a LOT of time here over the next several years!

Before long we were on the summit. For the first time since October, I had topped out before the sun was down, and I was able to soak up some rays for a few minutes before it fell behind the Watchman and the other formations of the East Temple. We had a jovial hike down, the last time I would get to count the chains, and then the switchbacks this year. Arriving at the car earlier than usual, we had our pick of dining establishments, and chose to sample the lifestyle of the “other-half” by treating ourselves to the Zion Lodge Restaurant. This turned out to be a bad idea. They were remodeling the kitchen, and being a weekday during the off-season, they had a buffet going. Cold tuna steak that’s been sitting under a heat lamp for several hours does not make for a good celebratory feast.

121304.79Taking it all in on the summit.

121304.82Celebratign at the Zion Lodge…the first and only time I’ve ever eaten there.

The next day we returned to the Big Bend parking lot, where this journey had started 6 months before when I first scoped the line during a busy Memorial Day weekend in May. We took some documentary photos to help with drawing a topo, and basically stared in awe at the massive wall, genuinely feeling fortunate to live near such a spectacular and fulfilling landscape. Andy headed south, on his way to his next photography job in Hueco Tanks, Texas. I lingered a few more hours, enjoying the freedom of having completed my journey by looking here and there throughout the canyon for that next great challenge. I found myself in the Court of the Patriarchs, in a beautiful meadow that is thankfully off the beaten path. As I gazed up on the three giant walls surrounding me, I couldn’t help but wonder if there wasn’t a free route or two up there…somewhere.



4 thoughts on “Flashback Series Ep 3: The First Free Ascent of the Lowe Route in Zion, UT

  1. Great Read and Pictures. My aspiration is to get stronger and free climb everything that you have freed. Not sure about this one though. That 12- R section sounds intense, I hope the falls were clean! I start shaking on 10R now a days!


  2. Thanks Jack! It is a stunning route. All of the falls I took were clean, but I can’t say that all of them would be…there are some slabs and ledges up there, but luckily I didn’t test them out.


  3. Pingback: Desert Spring: Part 1 – Escalante Canyon, CO | The Rock Climber's Training Manual

  4. Pingback: Desert Spring – Part 2: Zion Canyon | The Rock Climber's Training Manual

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s