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August 2017

Sandstone Towers, Cracks and Splitters - One Climbers' Annual Migration to Zion

Utah, in the climbing world, is almost synonymous with sandstone cracks. A dry, desert landscape, perfect splitters, five-star classic towers, choss-pile towers, and everything sandstone-related in between. In this post I will give you a broad overview of the amazing climbing on offer in Utah, how to prepare, and the gear to make it all happen.

Because of the climate, Spring and Fall are best times for desert climbing, so in May I joined the southbound migration from the Canadian Rockies towards the splitter sandstone world capitol, Indian Creek. Prior to arriving in ‘The Creek’, however, I met some friends in a more adventurous, wild corner of Utah: Zion National Park.

[caption id="attachment_1018" align="aligncenter" width="1920"] Michael climbing Fat Hedral in Zion Canyon.[/caption]

It had rained the day before I arrived, and since sandstone needs at least 24 hours to dry out after significant rain (to avoid damaging the soft rock, not to mention the danger of climbing on gear in such rock conditions) we headed to one of several limestone sport climbing crags within an hour’s drive of the Park. ‘Sunset Alley’ was the perfect spot to get back into the mental climbing zone after a few days of driving… and flake out my new Black Diamond 9.6 (70m) rope for the first time (it handles super smoothly!).

[caption id="attachment_1021" align="aligncenter" width="1920"] Ascending fixed ropes on Tucupit occidentalis.[/caption]

Zion boasts a plethora of sandstone big walls, climbed and unclimbed, as well as classic day adventures in what has got to be one of the most beautiful Parks in the United States. Despite the a undone of world-class climbing I have only ever seen a couple of other climbers there. This might be due to the committing, adventurous nature of most routes: with often variable rock quality, technical crack climbing skill requirements, sometimes tricky gear, and route finding challenges, Zion is no place for beginners. If you haven’t crack climbed before, or if you haven’t done much on sandstone, I recommend spending some time dialling your skills somewhere with lower commitment such as Indian Creek first in order to make the most of your visit to Zion.

A day cragging in Zion Canyon was a great warm up to the mission ahead of me for the next few days in Zion’s less busy Kolob Canyon. My friend Brandon Gottung has established several long climbs in Kolob (totalling 60+ new pitches!) and we were teaming up to establish a pitch that would hopefully link the top of Tucupit nova into the last three pitches of Tucupit occidentalis in order for it to top out the buttress (Tucupit Point).

On day one we hiked three ropes, two and a half racks, and the bolt kit to the base of Tucupit occidentalis. We swung leads on the first four long pitches then branched left to reach the top of a prominent tower — the current top of Tucupit nova. The climbing was spectacular: some offwidth, perfect hand cracks, an exposed roof traverse, and some wicked face climbing for good measure. On sandstone pitches like these you often get long sections of sustained climbing at a constant size, and having a Black Diamond Ultralight C4 Camalot (or two) means the decision to bring an extra double is easy. The plan was to climb one pitch higher in order to access the prospective new pitch from above, but Brandon decided the first ascent looked doable on lead, so from here we fixed lines to the ground.

[caption id="attachment_1023" align="aligncenter" width="1920"] Petrouchka on Fails of Power, Zion Canyon. Photo: Kris Mutafov[/caption]

Day two we hiked in again, with bivvy gear which we stashed at the base of the route. We jugged up the fixed lines to the big ledge and I got settled in for some first ascent belay action (read: trying not to fall asleep and thankful for my Grigri!). My Arc’Teryx Acrux SL GTX shoes did a fine job keeping my feet comfortable while still agile enough for easy climbing while ascending the fixed ropes, and all this after they had kept my feet dry through the stream, and got me up the technical approach slabs. After Brandon placed three pins and hand drilled three bolts above his head on a steep sidewall, climbed the rest of the pitch and fixed an anchor we took turns working the moves on top rope. In the end neither of us could free climb the pitch but we climbed the remaining two pitches of Tucupit occidentalis anyway.

Even though we were not going to be able to free climb the whole route with the new pitch as planned, we still took a rest day and hiked back in to bivvy at the climb for an early start of Tucupit nova (good thing too, it hailed just after we got down!). Sleeping up at the buttress is such an amazing experience, being immersed in the geological wonder of Kolob Canyon (make sure you get a bivvy permit from the Visitor Centre). As for the climb — if you like offwidths, roof chimneys, huecos and all around stellar climbing at a more challenging grade (crux 5.11c), this route is for you.

[caption id="attachment_1028" align="aligncenter" width="1080"] High up on Tucupit occidentalis.[/caption]

The next stop on this trip was the famed crack climbing mecca, Indian Creek. Whether you have never climbed parallel cracks and you would like a crash course, or if you are a crack aficionado and you’re looking for the next good test piece, either way you will get a lot out of a stop at the Creek. It’s a great place to hang out with friends and just climb pitch after pitch of excellent rock, all in the comfort of a 10 minute walk to the car. Make sure you have good stiff shoes that will protect your toes: my La Sportiva TC Pros are my go-to pair for any crack climbing (and they protect your ankles too). It is also advisable to learn how to place good traditional protection prior to your visit.

[caption id="attachment_1026" align="aligncenter" width="1080"] Jon loving the exposure on Lightning Bolt Cracks, North Six Shooter tower.[/caption]

A few days of good-quality cragging had worked up my appetite for another adventure, so on my last day at the Creek, I teamed up with a new friend, Jon, to climb the classic Lightning Bolt Cracks on North Six Shooter tower. The approach consisted of some technical 4WD driving (in a 2WD van) followed by an hour and a half of pleasant scrambling up the talus cone to the base of the tower. In keeping with my previous Utah climbing adventures, Lightning Bolt Cracks was super fun and included a bit of everything — fingers to tight hands to fists, offwidths, squeeze chimneys, roofs and even face. It’s important to protect your skin with so much offwidth and chimney climbing, and my Patagonia Venga pants excelled at keeping me in one piece. Standing on top of this perfect tower in such a wild location was the perfect end to my Spring sandstone trip!

Petrouchka's Trip Gear List

Arc’Teryx AR385a Harness

Arc’Teryx C80 Chalk Bag

Petzl Grigri

Black Diamond ATC Guide

Black Diamond RockLock Screwgate Carabiner

Black Diamond Positron Screwgate Carabiner

Black Diamond 9.6 rope (70m)

La Sportiva TC Pro

La Sportiva Women’s Miura

Outdoor Research Splitter Gloves

Black Diamond Women’s Vector helmet

Patagonia Venga Pants

Arc’Teryx Phase SL Camisole

Prana long sleeved shirt

Rab soft shell jacket

Patagonia Nano Puff Vest

Osprey Mutant 28 pack

About the author: Petrouchka Steiner-Grierson is a climber, skier, traveler and adventurer. You can follow more of her adventures on her site: She Climbs Vegan