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True Believers

The Road to a Freer, Friendlier and still adventurous Zion

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It’s an acquired taste.

This is what people say when something, like a mouthful of raw fish, basically sucks. Climbers often use the trope to describe climbing in the desert, a realm of crumbling holds and loose rock, where one gets sand in every orifice.

Zion, the isolated big-wall destination in the desert southwest of Utah, may be an acquired taste, but it certainly doesn’t suck. Zion’s winding gold canyons and endless potential for adventure shine through, even if you have sand in your eyes.

By one definition, Zion is an exclusive heaven for “true believers.” Among climbers, the true believers are those who have realized, over the last 40 years, that these blank sandstone walls hold great free-climbing potential.

Because of Zion’s reputation for fearsome climbing, the believers are few and far between. Rarely does a long route lack a serious offwidth or runout chimney. Recent exploration, and in some instances bolting, have opened a new universe. This forgotten national park, once perceived as predominantly an aid-climbing destination, is maturing into a free-climbing wonderland.

In the 1850s, Mormon settlers chased off the native Paiutes from their beloved “Mukuntuweap,” their name for Zion. The pioneers laid claim to the Paiutes’ water sources, and began to create a settlement in the Virgin River basin below the beautiful tiger-striped big walls. Consumed by the toil of farming in the harsh desert, they had little time for climbing cliffs. Any forays—such as W.R. Crawford, O.D. Gifford and David Flannigan’s 1895 mountaineering-style adventure up the peak between The Watchman and Bridge Mountain—into the vertical world were merely to scout options for building roads and tunnels through the hills.

In 1909, President William Taft, through proclamation, created the Mukuntuweap National Monument. Eight years later, the local pioneers asked for the name to be changed to Zion, and the following year, Congress created Zion National Park, which today includes Kolob Canyon in its total 147,000 acres of land.

In 1927, William H. Evans, a gung-ho character with a reputation for risk taking, kicked off technical rock climbing in Zion when he heard that no human had stood atop the Great White Throne. Evans set off with nothing but a canteen and 15 feet of rope. Upon reaching the summit hours later, he built a bonfire to prove to the settlers below that he had made it. Next morning, he fell on the descent. It took several days of searching to find Evans, skull-cracked, bruised and delirious from shock. He was carried out, and scolded by his rescuers for his irresponsibility.

Prior to 1967, the Park Service banned climbers from attempting any of Zion’s longest, steepest faces. That year, Fred Beckey, Pat Callis and Galen Rowell hatched plans to attempt the Northwest Face of the Great White Throne. Beckey sent the Park Service a letter with his team’s credentials, and promised that a rescue crew would be on call during the climb. Their successful ascent put Zion on the climber’s map.

In the early 1970s, Jeff Lowe, the prolific innovator and free-climbing visionary, swooped in and picked Zion’s biggest and sweetest plums and cherries, which included the Moonlight Buttress (V 5.8 A1). Lowe and Steve Petro, a hulking crack climber, freed the majority of the Moonlight Buttress’ difficulties on the first five pitches, but a sequence through the third-pitch bolt ladder ultimately stumped them.

Twenty essentially dormant years later, in 1992, Peter Croft and Jonny Woodward drilled a new 5.11 variation to the right of the third pitch, and easily snatched up the first free ascent of one of the most classic 5.12d’s in the country.

In the last 15 years, big-wall free climbing has also picked up speed in Zion. The trend began in the 1980s, when Drew Bedford and Pokey Amory freed Monkey Finger (IV 5.12). In 2000, Doug Heinrich and Brad Barlage unlocked Sheer Lunacy (IV 5.12 or 5.13). Most of the trade routes have now become free climbs, largely due to the addition of bolts on variations to bypass otherwise unclimbable features. Brian McCray, Mike Anderson, Rob Pizem and Mark Anderson, among others, have raised the bar.

In the early 1990s, a small but stout crew of local talents such as Brad Quinn and Daren Cope moved in to the Rock House and began establishing smaller, but nevertheless interesting, bolted lines.

Standing on the main road of Springdale, in the northern end of town, the Rock House is patently obvious with its unique twisted stone columns, made of the same red rock that comprises the canyon walls. The house was built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the group responsible for constructing most of the trails, bridges and other stone structures found in Zion. Outside the Rock House, a large cottonwood holds a huge lofted tree house with running water. This was the haunt for the local climbing scene: Mugs Stump, Conrad Anker, Doug Byerly and John Middendorf, to name a few, all stayed here.

Tom Green, who lived with the many energetic climbers in the Rock House during its heyday, summarized that era by saying, “There was never a dull moment.”

Conrad Anker remembers the main attraction of the crew’s parties as the bike toss, where climbers would throw an old Schwinn Varsity frame, discus-style, as far as they could across the front lawn.

With the exception of Middendorf, most of these guys never stayed in Zion very long, but they did leave the locals many excellent free climbs, such as Drew Bedford and Conrad Anker’s Electrica (5.11+), at the Cerberus Gendarme crag, located near the base of Touchstone Wall. Despite its bolts, Electrica is a heady lead with difficult mantels that continue to challenge even very strong climbers.

Anker spent every spring from 1988 to ’91 at the Rock House, working construction and climbing in Zion until it was too hot, at which point he’d be off to Alaska. He and Dave Jones did the first free ascent of the 1,500-foot climb The Vigil (5.11) on the Watchman. They were nearly arrested for shooting bottle rockets off one of the route’s ledges to entertain their friends watching from the Bit and Spur Saloon. The rangers also happened to see the show, and Jones and Anker had to spend a day picking up trash.

“In the years I lived there, I scoured cliff bases for free climbs,” says Anker. “I found a few gems and a few rotten ones.” One route, with Jonny Woodward, was Broken Arrow, a route that started on Flip of the Coin, left of Touchstone Wall. “We shuffled a jumbo cam because we only had one up a wide crack, and pulled on it, leaving one section of A0. I never made it back to free the route. Jonny thought the rock was schwag and now he’s into catching feral cats.”

During that era Brad Quinn, a renowned stonemason, and Leif Bjornson, a local from nearby Hurricane (hurra-kin), established Facetastic (5.11-) in ground-up on-lead style. This tough and seldom-repeated bolted slab is located between the two major arches just up-canyon from Weeping Rock.

John Tainio, an out-of-towner who has spent much time in Zion, established one of the canyon’s most classic moderates with Ashtar Command (5.9). This popular climb begins on a Jim Beyer route on the Ataxia Tower, a formation near the west entrance to the Mount Carmel tunnel. Above the first pitch of Beyer’s route, Tainio traversed right and drilled 15 bolts by hand up a beautiful slab covered with ripples and edges.

In the mid to late 1990s, Joe French, Eric Draper, Brody Greer and I independently moved to Zion. At first, the four of us had little climbing experience, and we focused on repeating the big-wall aid routes that made Zion famous.

Zion may not seem ideal for learning to lead, but in retrospect, I think working through the terror of being on soft, sandy, loose rock, while we were still naïve enough not to realize how dangerous it was, ended up being an advantage.

Joe and Eric found jobs at the Zion Lodge, cleaning rooms, waiting tables, scrubbing toilets—whatever it took to make a living and climb in Zion. Eric knew by the time he graduated from high school in Salt Lake City that he wanted to move to Zion. When we met in 1997 he had an unforgettable bleached-blond Afro, and a fluffy white Samoyed named Beau to accompany him on his adventures in his brown Datsun pickup.

Later that year, I met Joe French. I don’t think I had turned 20 yet, and Eric was barely old enough to drink. Eric and I made plans to do John Middendorf and Kyle Copeland’s route Fang Spire (IV 5.9 C3) on the East Temple. According to the rack beta we had received, we needed a hook, and Eric knew Joe had one. When we knocked on the door of his Zion Lodge dorm room, a guy with big hair and a 5 o’clock shadow, wearing nothing but his skivvies, answered and promptly asked us if we wanted to see some “crazy shit.”

Joe presented us with a magazine clipping showing a picture of a woman who had discovered some interesting uses for mousetraps and the human form. The image was just a crack in the doorway to the mind of Mr. French. A year later, Joe, Eric and I teamed up and established a route called Plan B (5.12), located across the river from the Zion Lodge and down canyon by 1/4 mile or so, directly across the river from the Practice Cliffs, the place where I had learned to place cams.

We formed a bond on Plan B, and from then on, our three-man team climbed and partied together. We moved into a dilapidated trailer at the end of Winder Lane in Springdale and dubbed it “The House of Rock” in homage to the prior generation of local climbers in the Rock House.

The House of Rock was the biggest piece-of-shit doublewide you could imagine. Over time the floor caved in around the front of the refrigerator. The trailer belched incredible and frequent gasses from somewhere unseen, a phenomenon that we dubbed the “house fart,” the silent but deadly kind. But from our front porch, we spent many peaceful hours gazing at the Watchman and Johnson Mountain, the beautiful peaks on the east side of the Virgin River, never minding the interruption of our trailer’s noxious gasses.

During those years, Eric, Joe and I—along with Brody Greer, who joined our gang after his stint at Dixie College, in nearby St. George—felt like we had Zion to ourselves. Of course others contributed to the climbing scene, or lack thereof, by making their seasonal pilgrimages to the Promised Land. We were just the “locals,” the ones who stayed and made a living in Springdale, an oasis in the Mormon stronghold of Utah, and climbed in the park year round.

The House of Rock days ended sometime around 2003 for Eric and me. We moved out, but our psych to climb in Zion remained. Eric pursued his career as a climbing photographer and I chased Charlie, the woman who would later become my wife. Joe remained a little longer, installing a square of plywood over the sagging kitchen floor.

Our transition from simply repeating Zion’s big-wall trade routes to developing our own free climbs occurred when we developed Cragmont, an area near the Mount Carmel tunnel with two dozen routes in the 5.10 to 5.12 range. Though our focus on the tallest walls had begun to wane as we discovered the beauty of moving lighter and faster, our aid-climbing skills were invaluable to establishing these free climbs.

Anyone who has ever put up a new route can attest to the amount of work, and sometimes danger, involved. In 2003, at the end of the last pitch of a new 300-foot route at Cragmont, I dislodged a hundred-pound rock that fell into my lap and pinned me in an awkward stemming position. I yelled down to Joe, who was belaying, “Hide! Run! Shit!” The block fell and crashed into the ground, fortunately without anyone being injured. We named this beautiful dark-colored corner Lap Dance (5.11-).

East of the Zion Lodge on the Carbuncle Buttress is Zion’s first all-bolted multi-pitch adventure, Made To Be Broken (5.10+). Joe spent a month of hard work establishing this five-pitch line ground up and on lead, drilling each bolt by hand from a stance or hook.

“I don’t know if I ever questioned whether or not it would go,” Joe said. “I just started the route, got inspired and it went.”

Some of the edges he hung from are frighteningly thin, but now make for extremely fun crimping on this brilliant patina-covered moderate adventure. The route opened our eyes, and we began to see new features in all of the cliffs.

West of the Zion Tunnel is the Kung Fu Theater, an awesome new crag with a couple of dozen routes that follow striking features. Eric, Joe and “Jersey” Dave Littman put up the area’s first climb, Kung Fu Fighter (5.10+), in 2004. Brody and Eric then established Kung Pow Kitty (5.11). The Kitty, as it’s now endearingly called, follows enticing patina edges on a beautiful black face with bolts spaced just far enough to keep your heart thumping and retain that good old Zion flavor. Enter the Dragon (5.11) is a two-pitch arete of beautiful burgundy stone, and Dark Tower (5.10+) connects thin crack systems with excellent bolted face climbing.

This is just a sample of the great new free climbs established in Zion in the last decade. Zion may be an acquired taste and not something for everyone, but for the true believers who enjoy the lip-smacking sensation of a mouthful of sand, these walls hold a lifetime of adventure.

Bryan Bird has been climbing in Zion for 13 years. He lives in Virgin, Utah, with his wife Charlie and dog, Cowboy. His new guidebook, Zion Climbing: Free and Clean, is available from