Zion's Big Three Free
Sending Moonlight, Spaceshot, and Touchstone
Zion Big Three Free
Climbers in Zion National Park flock to three specific trade routes, adding up to the majority of route traffic in the park. Moonlight Buttress, Spaceshot, and Touchstone are mini big walls nearing 1000’. Each is often aided as a first foray into the big wall world, with Moonlight slowly converting into a popular free route. The other two also go free, though are repeated much less often. Below are mini reports for my free ascents of the Big Three trade routes.
Moonlight Buttress 5.12c, 1000’ - 2017:
Climbing Moonlight was a huge step in my hard multipitch climbing arc. I first attempted the route a year prior in 2016 with my Salt Lake friend also named Brent. Other Brent, or “OIder Brent”, had a huge base of years in multipitch climbing. I was a novice from the midwest flatlands with low confidence, not yet considering attempting the famous Zion route. Having climbed together much in LCC, older Brent thought we’d have a good chance of free climbing on the whole line in reasonable style.
This first attempt was eye opening in believing in my abilities! While neither of us sent, I had only fallen a few times on the crux pitch, and once each on two other hard pitches. I knew I could free the route with another attempt or two, realizing for the first time that I could be up on the big stone, climbing with my hands and feet like the climbers I’ve looked up to.
In 2017 I went back with a strong Minnesota sport climber friend, Craig. In a hilarious foot race against two other groups, we got off the shuttle bus and ran to the base of the route to be the first party for the day. We planned to swap leads as he certainly had the guns to be free climbing on the route. Though, the intensity of placing gear midlayback quickly got to Craig, and I took over rope gunning the majority of the route. We topped out early in the evening. I had sent THE Moonlight Buttress in a day with no falls! I was immediately thinking towards other free walls through Zion and Yosemite.
Older Brent on Moonlight's crux pitch
Spaceshot 5.13a, 900’ - 2018:
My Moonlight ascent is a standard story in modern climbing. With C1 protection and no route finding required (just follow the single crack!) the route feels like sky cragging a handful of creek pitches. Spaceshot is of a different nature - the 13a crux having wandery bolts with a spicy outro, a few scary sections higher up in the 5.11 and 5.12 grades, and still a hard finger crack than the difficulties of Moonlight’s crux.
This line also took two ground up attempts through 2017 and 2018. Both times I climbed with Paul Robertson of Salt Lake going wall style over three days. 2017 turned into a recon mission, climbing each pitch while doing all the moves without redpointing. In 2018, we knew what was coming and were both a bit stronger, both redpointing the wall with just a couple falls. Our good friend Andy Earl tagged along capturing hero shots of a wildly steep free wall!
Paul sending the 13a crux
Andy Earl Photo
Free climbing beta for prospective parties: If you use shoulder length slings on the crux pitch bolts, one rope is okay with a small amount of rope drag on the 11+ R finish. The finger crack (just after the face climbing crux pitch) can be taken past the hanging anchor and crack switch to a ledge above the OW pod. This makes it a proper stance-to-stance 35m free climbing pitch. Lowering back down to the hanging belay to yo-yo the next pitch, resuming free climbing at the no hands stance, was our tactic so you aren't doing the unprotected traverse immediately off a gear belay.
The 12+ finger crack of Spaceshot
Andy Earl Photo
Touchstone 5.13b, 800’ - 2020
Paul and I once again teamed up in early 2020 to free the last of the Zion Big Three trade routes. Touchstone was much more challenging than the previous two, involving a 5.13a sporty pitch, a 5.13b boulder pitch, quite scary 5.12 climbing, and a 5.12+ splitter (alone being harder than Moonlight’s crux). I believe this route had only seen 5 or so free ascents previous to ours.
Our tactics were once again to go ground up, but without multiday gear this time. The hardest pitches are at the bottom, so we got to work in a sport cragging manner. By late morning we each had sent the 13a intro in a few tries. Pitch two involves a cryptic V8 with oddly placed bolts obscuring the beta. We both tried many times over a few hours, unsure which path to even take. I finally solved the puzzle, climbing straight up from the belay before traversing hard right past the line of bolts to send the boulder and free the pitch. Paul tried my method and pulled it off as well. We were sending! But it was already early afternoon with most of a wall above us.
I set off on the next pitch a scary 5.12- roof through the C2 aid crux of the route. I knew we didn’t have time to project anything, so it was time to dig deep and send onsight. I fully redlined through the roof, committing to tiny crimps and an awkward mantle well above gear that probably wouldn’t hold. Making the most of hanging aid belays, I made it to a stance out left above the roof to conclude my pitch, and then french free up 15 feet to a stance-less belay anchor. Paul followed the roof with less stress on top rope but handed his next 12+ splitter lead over to me. To resume the stance-to-stance climbing, I lowered to the stance just above the roof, and then led up past Paul without stopping at his anchor or another stance-less anchor a ways above, linking a 40m pitch of all fingerlocks. These are the games we play when trying to free climb old aid routes. It does not make sense to clip a hanging anchor and rest in the middle of difficult climbing if we are trying to cumulatively free climb a wall. We live and die by the stance up there!
Paul following the 12+ finger crack of Touchstone
I barely eked out this lead. More than once I went to get gear off my harness but could not hold tension with the opposite arm, having to forego the placement and charge on to a better position. Paul followed clean with a similar max effort right as darkness fell. We were halfway up the wall with only 10+ and under climbing to go. The deep fatigue made every single pitch difficult. We topped out in full darkness, epicing on the canyoneering descent with dead headlamps to arrive at the car around midnight. The relief multiplied our satisfaction of pulling off a single day ground up ascent!
Touchstone is a classic aid wall, but does not present the most inspiring free climbing. Certainly the least classic of the Big Three. This is compounded by awkward belay locations. The free variations are poorly engineered and could use some love. If anyone is keen, my notes are below for how the bolt placements could be improved.
Ideas for improving Touchstone as a free route
-Move first bolt of pitch two ~6 feet left
-Add free belay before P2 merges with aid route
-Add free belay on left on ledge just above the P3 roof