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Shuntavi Butte

Shuntavi Butte

William March

The TRIP BEGAN uneventfully until we collided with a large skunk while travelling west on Highway I-70 from Denver. The cloying stench accompanied us all the way to Zion National Park. Our plan was to climb the north face of Shuntavi Butte at Kolob Canyon in the northern section of the park. There were three of us, all aging residues of a climbing era before 5.12: Bill Forrest, myself and Brian Serff. Brian was a support member who was along to photograph and assist in carrying the gear. It was with considerable relief some 24 hours later that we left the car and carried our enormous packs loaded with climbing gear, food and water towards our final destination. Shuntavi Butte is an impressive 1000-foot pinnacle of Navajo sandstone which stands like an impassive sentinel at the end of the west ridge of Timber Top Mesa. It was while climbing the Great Rib of Kolob on the same mesa that Bill Forrest and I had noticed a formidably steep crack splitting the north face of Shuntavi Butte. We then planned our return for October when the daytime temperatures were cooler and more suited to climbing.

We camped at the very foot of the crack, tired out by an approach march defended by prickly desert scrub, steep rock steps and soft sand. Fortunately there were no skunks and the air was breathable. It was not a comfortable night; Bill and Brian were recovering from a severe bout of influenza and I was struggling with a heavy cold. The morning dawned clear and bright with the crack looking more intimidating in the daylight than it had in the gloom of the previous evening. After a handful of aspirin and a cup of tea I felt almost ready for the first lead. A 5.9 boulder move brought me to a tight chimney which eventually opened out to provide some really wild stemming in an open grove capped by an overhang. Climbing in Zion almost inevitably follows crack and chimney lines because of the soft and brittle nature of the rock. I reluctantly went onto aid and surmounted the overhang only to run out of piton placements and of steam on the blank wall above. Since it was a full run-out, with little compunction I drilled two bolt holes and hammered in two angle pegs.* Bill followed swiftly, cleaning the pitch and leading through to gain a ledge some 40 feet above. The next lead was good free climbing up a steep crack which led into a continuation of the chimney. A hundred-fifty feet brought me to the bottom of a huge flared horizontal bomb-bay chimney sweeping out to cleave through the immense overhanging walls of the pinnacle. I was glad it was not my lead. The only way Bill could protect himself was to place large-sized Friends, spring loaded cams, high up on the narrowing crack of the chimney. Forty feet out the rope caught and twisted into the spring loaded cam, where it jammed! Bill had no alternative but to untie and continue unprotected on the haul line until he could place a bolt and descend to free the rope. Since there was no ledge at the end of this lead, we braced ourselves across an abyss while we placed two rappel bolts in the chimney wall. The rappel rope only just made contact with the lower chimney and it was a free rappel all the way. We left fixed ropes as we descended—one day’s climbing, four leads, 300 vertical feet —this route was not going to be easy!

The following day our planned push to the summit was slowed by awkward, sustained, off-width, 5.9 crack climbing with spectacular exposure. It finally ground to a halt on a band of extremely friable rock, a not uncommon occurrence in Zion, and once more we fixed ropes and retreated. That night the wind blew continuously and I slept fitfully as I imagined the delicate nylon fibres chafing against the coarse, rough sandstone. As I jümared up in the gray dawn I dismissed the relative impossibility of a worn rope breaking and concentrated on the immediate problem of avoiding skinned knuckles. We reached our high point and Bill took over the lead.

I looked up—Bill was stemming widely on huge eroded cups of soft sandstone. I sensed his body tense as he strove to distribute his weight evenly on the fragile, cookie-like holds. He slipped momentarily as a huge block broke off and plummetted towards me. I strained against my belay, trapped in the narrow confines of the chimney—at the last moment it crashed against the chimney wall and disintegrated, showering me with dust and stones. “Are you okay?” Bill shouted from above, his voice edged with concern. “Okay, mate,” I replied spitting out grit and dust. In a short time I was alongside Bill and tackling the ten-foot roof capping the exit chimney. Two moves of aid brought me to the lip of the roof suspended somewhat precariously from a vertically driven peg in the crumbly sandstone. A wide stem across to the far wall of the chimney enabled me to transfer from the ponderous aid to the fluid motion of free climbing. Easy scrambling led to the summit and we basked in the morning sun, grinning at each other like Cheshire cats.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Zion National Park, Utah.

First Ascent: Shuntavi Butte, North Face, October 20 to 24, 1980 (William Forrest, William March). NCCS V, F9, A2.

* Climbing in Zion is serious due to the nature of the rock and special bolting equipment is required to provide secure anchors. A rock drill ?? is used to make a hole into which ½? angle pitons are pounded.