The sun was minutes away from ducking behind the West Rim of Zion Canyon on a February Saturday afternoon as I stretched high in my aiders to plug a .5 Camalot in a splitter sandstone finger crack that shot 200 feet up above my head on Touchstone Wall. I looked down at the other set of aiders clipped to my harness, flying sideways in the breeze, a couple hundred feet of air between me and the Scenic Drive road below, and I thought, How come nobody ever told me about aid climbing?
I was slow—almost two hours to lead each of my first two aid pitches ever. I had worn the wrong shoes, so each step in the aiders painfully smashed the bones in my feet. I made a few stupid moves, like stepping into one aider and crushing my fingers under the carabiner connecting it to a piece (twice). We weren’t going to top out, or even try, but I was getting my first bit of a big wall education, finally.
Nine years before, I sat in a seat next to my then-girlfriend on the Zion shuttle bus as it wound down the canyon from the last stop. We’d gotten on after our post-dinner stroll on the Zion Riverwalk, a flat sidewalk that follows the Virgin River as the canyon walls close in leading to The Narrows. I had climbed about a dozen sport pitches my entire career, which was about three months old, and climbing was so scary for me (terrible footwork) that I thought I’d never get into it.
As my girlfriend and I chatted, the bus driver slowed and stopped for three guys walking along the road in the dark; they were all wearing helmets, harnesses, and approach shoes. I didn’t know anything about climbing, but I knew they were climbers. I had no idea why a couple of them were wearing kneepads. The bus driver asked them which climb they were on, and they said Spaceshot. Then they said something about fixing the first few pitches and coming back in the morning, and I had no idea what that meant.
I must have stopped talking to eavesdrop, and my girlfriend later busted my balls about having a crush on the guys on the bus. I laughed, but I was still curious.
I became a sport climber. We got married in Zion, and then I learned how to place gear and started doing multi-pitch climbs. We got divorced later, and I kept passing through Zion, just to walk around, maybe do some bouldering. I looked up at those walls and saw climbers on them and wondered what it was like up there, thinking maybe I’d get up on one someday—but loving the park’s skyscraper sandstone peaks from the bottom so much that I didn’t feel like I absolutely had to.
I managed to make it through eight and a half years as a climber without ever jugging a fixed line, let alone learning to top-step in aiders. A couple friends badmouthed aid climbing, talking about how slow it was, how much work it was.
In my many visits to Springdale and Deep Creek Coffee, I befriended Ethan, a local guide a decade younger than me, who offered to take me up a wall “someday.” Finally I said yes, that would be awesome, let’s do it. I would love to lead just one pitch if at all possible. I bought brand-new aiders, and Ethan taught me the basic sequence of aiding on the first two bolts of Touchstone Wall. And then he was patient for the next five hours while I struggled upward at a glacial pace, sorting out my aiders and the rope, back-cleaning, trying to learn something that was not-at-all free climbing. Cars full of park visitors whizzed by below, and I could hear when the occasional one slowed to a stop to look up at the climber on the wall. Maybe I looked calm and in control from down there, I thought, as I not-at-all-calmly strained and shook to step up again, and talked myself (out loud) into standing on an offset nut I was only kind of sure was any good.
It was heavy and slow and a lot of work, but I finally got a taste of what those guys on the shuttle bus were doing back in 2005, maybe even making it into a photo by someone who would eventually get on one of those big red walls, too. I’m glad I held on to that memory and curiosity so long—and had someone to help open the door to all those climbs with C’s in the grade.
Brendan Leonard is a contributing editor for Climbing. His first book, The New American Road Trip Mixtape, is available at semi-rad.com.