Words by LYA Editor, Images by Ben Ditto
The recap: In the big wall free climbing world, the aesthetic sandstone crack system on Moonlight Buttress stands as an iconic line on nearly every climber’s life list. But for Eddie Bauer free climber Katie Lambert, one milestone on that multi-pitch testpiece elevated its significance to something greater and much more personal than just a single potential tick on the resume. It was Kate Rutherford and Madaleine Sorkin’s first all-female free ascent of Moonlight Buttress in 2006 that opened her eyes to the possibility that two women of equally high caliber could be good climbing partners.
Lambert had never climbed in Zion National Park, but arrived this past spring to tackle Moonlight Buttress. Climbing with her husband Ben Ditto, she warmed up on Bits and Pieces, then teamed up with Sandra Horna for an ascent of Shunes Buttress IV 5.11c. The pair made a first attempt on Moonlight, but a crowd-ed wall forced them to turn back after the 7th pitch and a family emergency sent Horna home earlier than planned. Lambert then linked up with Eddie Bauer teammate Mason Earle, and while the story played out differently than she originally envisioned, the climb was a success.
“Moonlight Buttress is one of the best big wall free climbs in the country,” Earle summarizes. “It goes at a grade of 12+ which is pretty difficult, but what makes Moonlight so beautiful is that it ascends this 1,000-foot rock pillar, and the climb follows one singular vertical crack from the bottom to the top and every pitch is super-sustained and you get your money’s worth.”
Starting in the afternoon, the pair crossed the frigid Virgin River and began trading leads with pitches that started with sandy ramp climbing, then quickly steepened to pumpy, fingertip laybacks on pitch 2, a pitch 3 traverse on beautifully solid sandstone edges, and an Indian Creek-style finger crack with minimal footholds. “You get to the top of pitch four and you are situated at the base of this 200-foot-long corner that’s just split by this incredible finger crack,” Earle says. “And that is where the business begins. From there to the top, every move of the route is full on.”
The pair crimped through the infamous Rocker-Blocker pitch, worked up a beautiful splitter dihedral to a slot pitch with a succession of .5 moves before they bivied on the wall overnight on a cold, clear night. They re-started at first light the next day, free climbing pitch 8 in cold conditions before successfully ticking off the nutting pitch and the final face-climbing before topping out on the route, a personal first for Lambert and a successful conclusion to her first climbing trip to Zion.
“It was my first time topping it out and it was a great sense of accomplishment to free climb this notorious wall,” Lambert says. “It wasn’t just free climbing that wall, but it was climbing the size .5 crack, which is a really hard size for me. And just having to figure out how I could efficiently climb those pitches without wasting my skin too much or wasting too much energy, so being able to climb those was really awesome for me to see that I could do it.”
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