Greg had been sitting in a hanging belay about 600 feet up for nearly three hours. As I reached him, I realized that he was pretty worked. His eyes were bloodshot, he was severely dehydrated, hungry and exhausted. Eric was about 25 feet above us plugging away on the next pitch. Evening was drawing near and we had no idea how much longer it would take to get to a good spot to set up camp. We all kept looking at each other trying to see who was going to throw in the towel first.
The truth is that we had no idea what we were doing. None of us had ever climbed big wall before. Most of us have done longer routes than Moonlight, but none of us had ever really aid climbed anything very long, used hauling systems or portaledges. (aid climbing is when you use climbing equipment to make upward progress instead of using only the rock, your hands and feet) We had read a lot online, gone out to practice aiding, and even had set up the portaledge multiple times in Eric's garage. In the end, Zion National Park's famed Moonlight Buttress proved to be more of a challenge than we had anticipated.
Eric and I had been planning the trip for a long time. I thought it would be a good idea to bring Greg along so he, being a much stronger climber than Eric and I, could free a few of the pitches. Eventually the weekend of the trip came and we found ourselves driving south.
We woke up in the dirt outside the park, finished getting all of our gear together and hurried our way toward the shuttle. Our feet went numb after crossing the river, but eventually we were on stone. All was going fine until we went to pull up our haul bag. It snagged pretty hard and we couldn't bring it up. This is where the real junk show began. After solving that issue, me made upward progress quickly but our hauling system was pretty inefficient. The other issue that we hand't really thought out was how our food and water was constantly in motion. We each had our job and things were working, but by the end of our 12+hour day of climbing, we had only drank a little over a liter between the three of us and hadn't had anything to eat.
So, while all of us were looking around to see who was going to throw in the towel first, I snapped the picture below of Greg. The light was fading fast at this point and all of us kept saying things like "I am fine to keep going or to just head back down" or "I think we accomplished what we came here for, now we know how to do it better next time". We were all searching for an excuse to quit. I wish I could say that we persevered, but in the end rappelling down a couple pitches to set up the portaledge and eat won out. We were so under prepared mentally for what we were doing that it was an easy decision.
After setting up the portaledge and eating and drinking as much as we could, we hit that point in the day where everything was funny. We laughed at our mistakes. We laughed at each other and ourselves. We all said that we would probably never big wall climb again as we got ready for bed. The three of us squished onto the two man portaledge and tried to get some sleep. It was almost impossible. I think I had a two hour stretch of uninterrupted sleep at one point, but it wasn't something I minded.
Every time I woke, I looked up the massive sandstone wall overhead and followed it to the faint stars overhead. I turned my head and looked down into the airy expanse beneath. All of our surroundings were painted silver by the full moon which steadily chugged its way across the sky. This was a view no camera could ever capture or do justice. The air was still but the soft sound of the Virgin River broke the silence. Out of eight billion people in the world, we were the only three to witness that night. The memory of it hasn't faded, but reminiscing doesn't do the moment justice either.
It took until after the drive home for me to start thinking my next big wall trip. I still haven't been able to make it happen, but I know I can do it better. Moonlight Buttress crushed us. We failed to complete our objective, but of all the climbing trips I have been on this one stands out. We didn't really know what we were doing but we went for it anyway. We didn't wait for people to show us how, we just figured it out as we went. These types of experience always prove to be my favorite.