Freeing Zion's Thunderbird Wall
A big payoff for a long apprenticeship in sandstone climbing.
What could cause overworked grown men to piss away their valuable time bickering like old married couples? Why, the Internet, of course! Throw in some winter weather and a handful of climbers who are, shall we say, “past their prime” and you have a recipe for an honest-to goodness e-mageddon. In January 2005 the conditions were in good nick for just such a furor when a well-meaning bystander posed an innocent question about the climbing history of Zion National Park. Just like that, the gates of e-halla opened, unleashing the wrath of decades-old drama, the likes of which no high school reunion could match. As more and more Zion legends caught wind of the pissing contest, the melee intensified, leaving no survivors. Good times!
Though the public airing of these personal soap operas was quite entertaining in its own right, I was looking for information about actual climbs. Amid one such engagement, prolific Zion climbing pioneer Dave Jones offered up a simple folk ditty about his one-time mentor. “The Ballad of Timber Top Mesa” recounts the saga of Ron Olevsky’s struggle to climb one of the region’s biggest walls:
Dangle once had a rack on Timber Top,
New as it could be.
Knifeblades, baby angles to part the sandstone rock
The route t’would not be free!
Timber Top will always be,
Home sweet home to me.
Good ol’ Timber Top,
And Dangle’s rack fallin’ free…
And Dangle’s rack fallin’ free….
Details were sketchy in the ensuing carnage, and since I have little reason to believe any of the various contradictory reports, I will refrain from elaborating. Suffice to say, I was intrigued and started to do more research on Timber Top Mesa’s Thunderbird Wall.
About a year later, I’m revisiting these thoughts while asking myself the age-old climber’s question: “Why didn’t I just stay home and watch reruns of the ‘A-Team’?” Three thousand feet above the creek bottom, I can easily see over all the nearby towers and mesas. I’m clinging to some sort of amorphous blob of biomass that is drooling down the wall. Evidently vines and roots connect us to the rock, but I can’t identify them.
“Dirt!” I yell to Eric Draper, as I dig out a tiny ledge for a foothold. If I can get a few feet higher, I’ll be able to place a cam and re-place my underpants. After several days on this wall I have sand in every crevice; my hair is a rat’s nest of dirt and moss. Grabbing a fistful of venous dirt, I weight the new foothold, press down, and stretch out for an undercling…got it! Moments later, I lasso a stout pine and yell, “Off belay!” I’m now one pitch from the third ascent of the Thunderbird Wall. Though we had started the climb eight days earlier, this was only our fourth day on the route. Mixed in there somewhere was a 1,300-mile round trip between Zion and my Colorado Springs home, five days of work, family, and some training—welcome to my life.
I had hopes that this route would become the new high point in my efforts to solidify hard free climbing in Zion. After liberating a handful of routes—some popular classics, some obscure adventure routes—I wanted to build on those experiences.
At nearly 2,000 feet, the north face of Timber Top Mesa is among the highest sandstone walls in the world. Its sole route, the Thunderbird Wall, was finally climbed by Ron Olevsky and Earl Redfern in 1986 after five attempts and the aforementioned lost rack. Astonishingly, the undisputed founder of modern Zion climbing, Jeff Lowe, had attempted the wall as far back as 1971. At the time, such classic routes as Spaceshot, Touchstone, and Desert Shield were still unclimbed. Lowe is a different cat, though. He wanted big adventure, and he knew Zion was the place to find it.
Even today, climbing on Timber Top Mesa is a solitary affair; in 1971 it must have felt like the dark side of the moon. Nevertheless, Lowe and Cactus Bryan had made a bold alpine-style attempt on the wall. “We had a full range of nuts, and that’s what we brought,” Lowe told me recently. “I was way into clean climbing, and I was almost to the point of completely swearing off aid climbing.” Despite their meager gear, they made it an impressive 1,500 feet up the wall. At that point they encountered dense vegetation on lower-angled rock and called it quits. It never occurred to Lowe and Bryan that later climbers would decide the summit is superfluous. When I brought this to his attention, he just laughed. “Yeah, I could’ve claimed something I guess, but who cares? It was just a good adventure with Cactus, who was a great partner.”
Thirty-five years later, my friends and I have come to the same wall, looking for the same things: adventure and friendship.
I had mostly just sport climbed with Chris Alstrin when he told me about his plan for an adventure climbing film and invited me to participate on a route in Zion. When you set out to free a route, whether it’s a boulder problem or a big wall, you usually hedge your bets by selecting a route that is, as far as you know, close to going free. The Thunderbird Wall was a mystery. I did have a topo, but we might have been better off without it. It said one pitch was 5.10 and the rest were hard aid. I would never attempt a route like that in the absence of peer pressure, but, if the “naked quarter mile” incident during one of my college track meets was any indication, I don’t handle peer pressure very well.
My trusty partner Rob Pizem was psyched to share the climbing duties with me, and I invited Zion local Eric Draper to help carry gear…er, shoot photos. Our team was in place. From scoping the wall, we reasoned that a conspicuous roof on the fifth pitch (marked A3+ on our topo) would make or break the climb. When we finally got onto the wall in May, we freed what we could and aided the rest, gunning for that roof just to try to figure out whether this whole production would be in vain.
The team eventually overcame my utter incompetence at aid climbing, and on day two we were over the roof, ready to try some free climbing on a toprope. We envisioned a two-pitch variation at the start, and Rob gave it a try. The key to the variation would be switching between two cracks. The rock was a strange gray color, formed by white rock spackled with black lichen. Rob reached to his right to the second crack, a chimney that made jamming out of the question. Instead, he side-pulled the edge of the chimney in an iron-cross position, and, with no footholds available, cut his feet and kicked them over to the opposing wall in unison as my jaw dropped.
“Your eyes got about this big!” Rob hollered, motioning the size of a softball.
“That was crazy!” I replied. “It looks cool, but, man, I never would have thought of that!” Higher, I tried some moves on the roof, and, after watching me climb, Rob was convinced the route would go. I don’t recall anyone asking my opinion, but someone made the decision that we would forge ahead. On May 29, our fifth day of working on the wall, Chris and I unceremoniously topped out for the third ascent while Rob and Eric were hard at work below, preparing our route for free climbing with a few bolts and some cleaning. All that remained now was to climb it in style.
In 2004 I threw my hat into the Zion free-climbing ring. I was looking for something big, and Angels Landing was the obvious objective. The steep, dramatic north face lacked a single free line. The Lowe Route served up all I could handle, with persistent physical climbing and some very intimidating pitches, including a crux 5.13a R pitch with serious consequences. I gained a lot from that experience, learning to appreciate challenging routes like this and why they should be preserved. Honestly, I was tempted to cut corners. I considered preplacing gear, or even bolting the crack, but I’m glad I didn’t. Leading that pitch required everything I had, physically and mentally, and I’ll always have that experience to draw from, in climbing or otherwise.
I do have regrets about that climb, though, as I freed the route over three days, using fixed ropes. I wanted to climb it in a day, but life’s circumstances forced me to finish the project in December or abandon it. With the short days, a one-day ascent was impossible. That regret has since committed me to attempting one-day ascents.
A few months later my brother Mark and I made the first free ascent of the ultraclassic Spaceshot. Climbing ground-up in a pseudo yo-yo style, we didn’t practice a pitch until those preceding it had been freed. I don’t know if this is better style, but it certainly made the process more exciting. Every attempt brought new pitches to try, rather than rehearsing moves ad nauseam. This was risky because we might be stymied high on the wall but wouldn’t realize it until we were already heavily invested. But the approach was great fun, and I applied it to several of the other free climbs I opened.
The Dunn Route on Angels Landing and Freeloader on Isaac tempered my nerves by exposing the darker side of Zion climbing with their wide cracks and loose rock. They also provided the perfect venue for Rob and I to work through the awkward challenges of a budding friendship. We earned each other’s trust while forging a strong partnership.
Through these experiences I learned what it takes to pioneer hard free climbs in this big sandbox, and I also developed my framework for how they should be done. I experimented with the tricks of the trade and evaluated their legitimacy.
Two days after our aid ascent of Thunderbird, Chris and I were back at it, barreling across the Utah desert in Chris’ Saab toward Zion. Chris’ A/C didn’t work, but unfortunately his cockpit thermometer did, so we were constantly reminded of how hot we were. The leather seats were a nice touch—they created a nice little microclimate between my legs, something along the lines of deli meat that has been in the fridge a few months too long. We tried our best to “think cold” as we put the miles behind us.
The next morning we awoke as early as we could after the 10-hour drive and hit the all-too-familiar Lee Pass Trail into Zion’s backcountry. I was an emotional wreck. We were on our way to try our first ground-up free attempt on Thunderbird, and to make matters worse we had a deadline. Chris, our aspiring filmmaker, was leaving for Peru in two days. We had to send the wall in 24 hours to earn immortality in the form of civilization’s most highly revered memorial, the climbing video. I forced my mind to think of anything besides the Thunderbird Wall: circus midgets, having breakfast with leprechauns, and they’re eating scrambled eggs, which come from birds, thunderbirds—damn it! I reviewed all the reasons we might fail: I hadn’t tried all the pitches; I wasn’t sure I could do all the crux moves; the route needed more cleaning; it was too hot; there were too many mosquitoes. Fortunately, this wasn’t my first bout with preclimb anxiety; it happens every time. Things usually work out fine, so I went through the motions as I always do.
Rob started the wall at about 10 that morning with a brilliant lead of the intimidating first pitch. Pitch two would be the first crux, and besides rappelling by it I hadn’t learned much about the moves. Rob took a short fall at the start, but then quickly fired it on lead. He put me on belay and began his patented spray-down: “There’s a foothold on the face for your right foot, left hand match in the pod, now bump your right hand up the crack, stem to the left, you got it, dude!” he shouted. At the top of the left crack I milked a hand jam while contemplating the footloose traverse to the right. This is where Rob had done his double-foot dyno into the next crack. I hate dynos, so I did my best to make the move statically. I reached right and found the best sidepull on the edge of the crack. With my arms in an iron cross pose, I cut my feet from the left crack and let them drag across the wall. I hooked my right heel around the edge of the crack, and stabbed at a dish on the face with my left foot. This allowed me to kick my right foot to a hold and rock over it to reach Rob’s belay.
I believe Zion sandstone is the ultimate free climbing medium, and my previous climbs had opened my mind to its possibilities. Any climber who has visited Indian Creek has experienced the stunning cracks common to the Utah desert. Throw in some finely sculpted finger buckets, and you start to get the idea. Because they are so steep and monolithic, I’m always surprised when the walls in Zion yield a free climb. The key passages are often subtle and convoluted, but much of the joy of the process is piecing these puzzles together.
Pitch five, Thunderbird’s crux, would be a case in point. “I’ll probably just go up to work out the moves, then we can pull the rope and I’ll try for the send,” I told Rob. It had been nearly two weeks since I tried these moves on toprope, and I wasn’t optimistic. The aid route climbed a knifeblade-size crack in the back of a left-facing dihedral. About 30 feet up, a large roof jutted out, capping the dihedral. The aid route would be impossible to free climb, but I had learned on Angels Landing and on Touchstone Wall that the patina on Zion’s lower-angled faces often forms tiny face holds. Sure enough, I had pieced together an unlikely sequence on the less-than-vertical arête forming the right side of the dihedral.
“OK, I got you good,” Rob said. I stood high off the belay flake and reached out the right side of the dihedral to grab a two-inch-thick flake plastered to the wall. Its jagged shape made for easy free climbing, but its hollow ring was unnerving. I climbed lightly. About 10 feet up, I moved left, back into the dihedral. With my heart beating in my throat, I dug deep to bust out two brutally powerful lieback moves off two-finger piton scars. This bought me enough altitude to reach a good foothold that would allow me to oh-so-tenuously reach right to a good pinch on the arête. I exhaled slowly, pressed off the left wall, and slid my open palm across the pink sandy face. An eternity passed and then my fingers curled around the corner. I latched the pinch and breathed. A few more balancey moves got me around the corner and onto a slab. Switching modes from power to technique, I forced slow, steady breaths to compose myself for the steep slab finish. Beyond my wildest expectations, I held it together for 15 feet to pay dirt. “Woo-hoo!” I yelled.
We had eight hours of daylight and nearly a dozen pitches remaining, so we sprinted toward the top. On the 5.12 eighth pitch, Rob led bravely above a couple of spooky knifeblades I had fixed earlier. As I followed the pitch I realized it was a critical passage for the free ascent. A knifeblade crack splitting a blank wall slowly widened to good hands. A flake provided a few key handholds, which disappeared just as the crack widened to fingers. With no other features within a hundred feet of this crack, the free route would have been impossible if the seam didn’t open up soon enough or the flake vanished.
The next pitch had its own spice. About 50 feet to the right across a slab was a wide crack system, a fast lane to the summit if we could get to it. We could see a reasonable traverse across a steeply sloping ledge that would take us there, but the ledge was about eight feet below the last handhold we could reach. For once, gravity was in our favor: All Rob had to do was let go. He stuck the downward slab-dyno and persisted past thin, funky gear as the 5.12 “fast lane” took its time widening to protectable dimensions.
Every pitch had its own style and character. I got my own 5.12R spice on the 12th pitch, with tricky gear in a flared crack high on an exposed slab, as the waning sun splashed golden light over the upper reaches of Timber Top Mesa. After finishing the 14th pitch, we rappelled to a good ledge for the night, then started again early the next morning. For the final pitch I belayed off a stout ponderosa pine 50 feet below the rim. This last stretch featured numerous grumpy bushes woven into the heavily fractured Carmel Formation sandstone. Equalized gear and slow, steady breathing encouraged me up the 5.11 moves onto the summit, which we reached at 8:30 a.m. for the sub-24-hour ascent.
A few years earlier, lightning had sparked a forest fire that engulfed the summit, and the scattered remains of a once-great forest greeted me. Out of this wreckage, lush fields of scrub oak and wildflowers had taken over. The harmony of this contrast impressed me. I have frequently noted that the desert oasis of Zion is itself a contrast—a constant reminder of my own life. My professional life versus recreation, my family versus my friends, and my two-year quest for free climbing in a land of aid routes. Like this fragile desert ecosystem, I’m hopeful that all these elements will continue to prosper in balance.
Area: Kolob Canyons, Zion National Park, Utah
Ascent: First free ascent of the Thunderbird Wall with variations (16 pitches, VI 5.13- R) on the north face of Timber Top Mesa, Michael Anderson and Rob Pizem, May 31-June 1, 2006. Both climbers led or followed every pitch free. Previously, in late May, Anderson, Pizem, Chris Alstrin, and Eric Draper climbed the route to prepare it for free climbing, making the third ascent of the Thunderbird Wall in the process. They added six protection bolts to variations of the original route and fixed three pitons on the original aid line.
A Note About the Author:
Michael Anderson is a captain in the U.S. Air Force, currently stationed in Colorado Springs. He is 30 years old and has been climbing half his life. Though his experience spans the spectrum from sport climbing to big mountains, he is currently smitten with free climbing on big walls. Since December 2004, he has made the first free ascents of 10 big routes—mostly Grade V and VI—in Zion National Park.