Climbing at Smith Rock: Zebra-Zion

May 23, 2010.

Click here to see someone else’s photo of the route. Note the climber to the right of the big tree for scale.

It’s been a great climbing season already, and I was feeling pumped to keep pushing my limits and trying new things. With a superstar climbing partner this weekend, I tackled the fantastic Zebra-Zion (5.10a) route on a huge rock face at Smith. The book calls it a 4 pitch climb but my partner suggested doing it in two with the 70 meter rope. He led off on the first half of the climb. We began to the right of the two popular “bucket” climbs and followed a bolted line that angled up and to the right, terminating at a crack. The starting moves off the ground were burly, in true Smith Rock style. Fun sporty moves took me dancing across the huecos and knobs all the way to the crack. This offered up a host of its own challenges, including some good to not-so-good jams and some occasional feet on the face. I was relieved to reach the belay station, but the relief was short-lived; I had to get going and lead the rest of the climb.

I took all the gear we had, inhaled slowly and deeply, then exhaled completely before starting to lead. I immediately had to take a wide, exposed step right to get to the next crack and, therefore, the next gear placement. There was a huge vertical drop below my feet that scrambled my brains until I could get a piece in. Thankfully, the crack took a nice big Camalot right away. Soon, the climb left the crack and I was directed to the exposed, unprotected face on my right. This presented a huge mental obstacle to overcome. I methodically followed the old chalk marks on the wall to stay on route and did my best not to look down. The traverse ends at a nice, low fifth class ramp that I was overjoyed to reach. I scampered up the ramp, finally placing gear somewhere near the top of it in a good section of crack. The term “run out” was at the forefront of my mind…

The ramp led to some more vertical rock and then to a bolted anchor. This would normally be the third belay station. I happily clipped one of the bolts and kept going. Here, I contemplated the rest of the climb. I still had a long way to go and my rack had gotten smaller. Yikes.

From the anchor, I continued to my left on a scary hand traverse and mantle up to the base of a leaning flake. I placed a piece as soon as possible after the traverse. There were bomber holds and feet along the flake, but it was vertical and I was tired. It was a difficult lead because the fatigue was making me nervous. I looked back at the consequences of a fall and got really freaked out. I decided, however, that climbing slowly increased my risk of falling. The only way safely to the top was to keep moving and to look only ahead, not behind. I placed gear where I found the best resting stances and powered through the hard moves in between them.

The last mantle up to a ledge felt incredible. The vertical moves were over, and I felt much more secure. My only problem was the rope attached to me. Since I’d linked pitches three and four, I had accumulated tremendous rope drag as the rope ran back and forth across the face. It felt like there was an elephant attached to the other end of the rope. I scrambled up the last bit to the anchor and was happy to clip in there.

This was the hardest climb I’d ever done. And it was awesome. There is no feeling in the world that compares to the accomplishment felt after battling steep physical and mental challenges all in one big push. There would be more climbing today, amazing climbing at that, but I could have gone home after this and been completely content.

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