After a short week in the big city, I drove west to Zion, one of my favorite national parks. I don’t know what it is about Zion that’s so captivating to me—the list seems to have no end. Perhaps it’s the feeling of being on another planet (which you kind of are), or the long wall routes of endless sandstone that tower over you, both terrifying and inviting. Perhaps it’s the local vibe buzzing around, from the Springdale Candy Company owners (a lovely couple from the midwest) to the adorable tchotchke shops with trinkets for all. Either way, Zion is made of some kind of magic.
The sheer volume of climbable terrain is enough to keep you occupied for several lifetimes. I’ve visited a handful of times now but had never done any big multi-pitch climbing with another female partner. That was kind of a wild realization for me, atop Shune’s Buttress (5.11+), a classic six pitch climb located at Red Arch Mountain.
Sarah Malone and I have rallied to climb Road Warrior (a 5.10+, five-pitch alpine climb on Mt. Evans in Colorado) as well as Crack of Fear (a notorious Lumpy Ridge 5.10d offwidth that is every bit as mean as it sounds) in the past. We’ve even practiced a ton of aid climbing together. When I first moved to Colorado, I sat across from Sarah at a girls’ night out and shared drinks and relationship blunders. I was leaving for Africa shortly, but we said we’d climb Crack of Fear together when I got back.
When I returned stateside, we set a date and climbed. It was as easy as it sounds—no back and forth or fear of the other person bailing. It was refreshing to have met a climbing partner who knew how to make a plan and get after—I felt lucky.
Anyway, on top of being a reliable and skilled climbing partner, Sarah quickly became a great friend of mine. So it surprised me a little when I realized that all of my bigger multi-pitch climbing partners in the past several years had been male, and that it took so long for Sarah to be the first woman I’d done big with.
We jived well and knew each other’s systems. Our first day, we climbed Shune’s Buttress, which I’d been drooling over for several years now. We made it to the top in early afternoon light, enjoying a summit sandwich and delighting over every pitch. I took the first mondo pitch as well as the 5.10++ (as Mountain Project calls it) offwidth. With several wide pitches under our belts, Sarah and I both agreed that the offwidth felt much easier than anything we’ve done together (and let’s face it—nothing will ever feel as bad as Crack of Fear.)
The following day, we got a late start and hiked up to the Confluence around 3 p.m. We were after Smash Mouth (5.11), 400 feet of beautiful fingers and hands, which was located much farther than anticipated. Slogging in the tropical-like sun that afternoon wore us both out, but Sarah styled the first two pitches and I linked three and four.
And finally, we attempted The Silverback (5.12+), if not for the name then for the sweet Silverback pitch that required a number 4, 5, AND 6 (be still, my heart!) Well, it’s safe to say that we will never climb the Munge Tower again (described as a “sandbox down low”) and Sarah has potentially been traumatized by all squeeze chimneys forever. Exhausted from insecure winging and groveling, I took the 5.7 section and then we flipped the rope in order for me to do The Flare.
It’s no surprise that we were moving a little slow but we still had a little bit of try-hard left in our gas tank. Eighty plus feet of fucking hard, varied, and very technical climbing was ahead of me. I had several “Shit, I really just want to take on this piece of gear RIGHT NOW” moments but instead, told myself, “Just one more move, see what happens.”
After the wider bolted section (which I was able to place some gear inside of), I looked upward at more bolts that always seemed to be several inches too high. “Watch me!” I called down to Sarah often, carefully calculating my next move, each one becoming more technical than the last. Finally, after stuffing my tiny fingers into a crack that would only take a blue Alien, I problem solved the last piece of the puzzle to gain an okay-ish jug. I thought, “An even better one above it!” and went to grab with my other hand. Sand flew into my eyes as I desperately tried to keep myself on the wall. Eventually, I had reached the anchor, threw the rope into the chains, and breathed a sigh of relief.
After belaying Sarah up, I congratulated her. I then said, “Can I tell you how I’m feeling because you’re my friend and my partner?” She nodded and I said, “I’m fucking wiped man. We can do the next pitch if you want to lead it, but I don’t know how I’m feeling about two stacked 12s above us. Offwidth and killer fingers? I’m dying. I’m dead. I died.” We retreated to the ground for ice cream and dirty chai and nobody regretted that decision.
At Meme’s, the barista chuckled that I was still wearing my tape gloves. Sarah had taken hers off in the car. Barista guy offered me a knife to cut mine as we glanced at a menu, explaining that if I cut them, I would be able to save them for later (well, duh). We sat and ordered beverages and I unwrapped the tape and rubbed my raw wrists.
Barista guy asked us if we’d just gotten down from The Headache. Sarah later informed me that while The Headache wasn’t necessarily a “newb” route, it was something that a lot of new-ish to moderate climbers get on when visiting Zion.
Not having heard of the route, I immediately shook my head.
“No, we just tried Silverback! What a route. The climbing on that first 5.11 pitch is unreal!” and we snowballed into more climbing conversation:
“What else did you guys climb? Have you done Monkey Finger? Moonlight Buttress is great this time of year. Do you only climb on gear? Spain has amazing sport climbing.”
Driving home to Cedar City, Sarah asked if I’d noticed the way his tone had changed back at the coffeehouse. I hadn’t; I was too excited to talk more climbing spray.
But as Sarah continued to explain to me, it slowly dawned on me that it was indeed a classic “dude response”. She recalled climbing at Lumpy with a friend who also happened to be male. Her partner was pretty new to trad climbing and so Sarah led everything that day. Eventually, they came across another party, both male, who asked them about their climbs. They presented every question to Sarah’s partner, who deflected to Sarah because she was the one who was leading that day.
The assumption that day was that Sarah was just the girl and her partner, being male, had obviously led all of the pitches. That assumption was wrong. The assumption that in a climbing duo comprised of both male and female partners, the girl is “just the girlfriend” and out for a fun day of toproping and not carrying the team is wrong and happens frequently.
After realizing that these speculations are pretty prevalent, it made me cherish my Zion trip with Sarah all the more. Both of us carried our own weight. There was no guy putting up the rope for us. We scouted and researched the climbs we felt would push our limits, and we got up the damn thing because we are motivated. AND we’re girls.
But who knows, maybe one day I’ll go and try The Headache. Maybe I’ll even lead all of the pitches.