The Headache, Zion National Park, Utah

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Kate Rutherford gets a pleasantly tight hand jam on the second pitch.
Kate Rutherford gets a pleasantly tight hand jam on the second pitch.

Zion National Park’s misnamed splitter

Zion National Park is best known for its sandstone big walls and long, committing free routes, such as Moonlight Buttress and Monkey Finger. But Zion also hosts many less intimidating free climbs that don’t require overnighting on a portaledge or freaking out on loose runouts. In 1975, Brian Smith and Dana Geary discovered and climbed the near-perfect three-pitch hand crack that became The Headache (II 5.10)—a climb that seems poorly named considering the excellent reviews it gets from the majority of climbers.

The Tunnel Wall area is a great place to beat the southwestern Utah heat, with shade all morning. From the visitor center, drive six miles in the direction of Mt. Carmel Tunnel. The Headache is the obvious winding crack directly to the left of the arête on the first buttress east of the tunnel entrance. Park by the last switchback; walk up the road past the ranger kiosk to the tunnel; and continue eastward down the trail to the left, contouring the obvious buttress to reach the base of a chalked-up, straight-in hand crack.

Jasmin Caton of Canada enjoys the crux third pitch.
Jasmin Caton of Canada enjoys the crux third pitch.

The first 50 feet of crack climbing might feel harder than 5.10- for people with thin hands, but the quality of climbing on this Indian Creek–style splitter largely makes up for the grunting. The crack leads to a mellow overhang you can overcome using features on the right-hand wall. Belay directly below the second-pitch roof. Climb a right-facing corner using face features to ease your ride up to the roof. Pull the roof by a splitter crack on the right and enjoy another 40 feet of perfect 5.10 hands to the second anchor. Ahead lies the last—and longest—pitch of The Headache. Regain the crack and follow it to a tree growing out of a crack to the left. Using small holds on the face, traverse to the left crack and follow it to the top. This crack eats hand-size cams, so make strategic use of your gear! Toward the end of the pitch, the crack angles sharply left, and the last few moves to the anchor have been said to be the crux of the route. Once at the anchor, look down at the crowd of people who will surely have pulled over on the side of the road to take your picture. Your high fi e will resonate within the walls of the magical red sandstone amphitheater surrounding you.


Guidebook:Zion Climbing: Free and Clean, by Bryan Bird (Supertopo, 2009)

Equipment Shops: (Springdale, Utah) Zion Rock and Mountain Guides, (435) 772-3303,; Zion Outdoor, (435) 772-0630,

Rack: Set of medium-size nuts, double set of cams 0.5” to 3.5”, with extra 2” to 3”, single 4” cam, runners (don’t forget to extend your gear on the second-pitch roof to avoid rope drag), 2 ropes

Descent: Two double-rope rappels to climber’s left of The Headache will take you right back to your packs. New rap anchors were installed in 2009 by Mikey Schaefer, Evan Stevens, Jasmin Caton, and Kate Rutherford.

Restrictions: Loose rock might fall from above, so watch where you park and stay out of the rangers’ way. The Tunnel Wall area is often subject to raptor closures from March through July. Check with park rangers for more information.

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