All photos: Ben Ditto

Notes From a Big Wall Climber

Utah Ambassadors
by Katie Lambert Feb 12, 2014

The 1200′ sandstone formation known the climbing world over as Moonlight Buttress stood proud in the sun’s radiant light. Four different parties were cast about the wall; it looked like a game of connect the dots. Which rope connected which person to what and where. Spring Break was in full effect, and it seemed like the university kids were chomping at the bit for this route. Some seemed to be going at it full wall style with multiple bivys, others were in day aid parties, and some even seemed to be trying out the free climbing. For many this wall is people’s first — for me it wouldn’t be a first, but it would be a sort of milestone in my climbing career.

Every big wall free climber I know has either ticked this iconic line, or it’s on their list. It had been entered into my queue some years back when Kate Rutherford and Madaleine Sorkin made the first all-female free ascent. At the time my wall experience was limited. I had not long moved from the South to California and was still cutting my teeth on the granite in Yosemite. I’d previously really only been a sport climbing and bouldering aficionado.

Moonlight Buttress

As the years progressed, so too did my climbing experiences and my knowledge of how to manage these bigger stones. I made mistakes, I achieved goals, and I found myself with a fortunate quiver of climbing partners. Each partnership had taught me something different, and it became more and more evident to me that climbing partnerships took on a deeper meaning than someone willing to belay you. They were relationships; I relied on my partners to be on time, to be positive, to be supportive, to be patient, to be willing to let me make mistakes and figure them out, to belay just so, and on and on. And I felt I was expected to do the same. A lot of talk had been had with different people about possibly teaming up for this wall, but in the end my real dream was to do it with another female, all free.

As a single woman it has never been terribly hard finding a partner, but the majority of them have been males, and since these partnerships start to take on the characteristics of a relationship, this has always come with its struggles. One or the other usually starts to develop emotional feelings, and these are either addressed and reciprocated or it turns really ugly. Imagine your climbing partner crush belaying you on your project after you’ve just told them how you feel and they stare back blankly at you saying, “Oh, I thought we were just climbing together,” — there goes the send and your self-esteem.

At some point one or the other can become jealous if they go off climbing with someone else — questions about what the partnership really is come into play, and it’s at this point that things either continue along or break off. Once the partnership has subsided, it’s time to move on and find a new partner. Usually this is a fun and trying time — you try a little of this and you try a little of that, but eventually what you decide on is a steady partner who’s willing to be there for those alpine starts and late-night descents.

I’ve been fortunate in my years in Yosemite to climb with local legends like Surfer Bob, Big Fall James, Jake from the Gate, little Sue McDevitt, and Jobee Whitford. I became partners with Ron Kauk, one of the most influential people of my life. I even met my husband, Ben Ditto, climbing Yosemite’s walls in 2009. We form a great partnership and relationship. We’re compatible in our climbing and hold similar aspirations, from sport climbing in Europe to free climbing big walls.

In the last years, some of what we’ve had the opportunity to do together was free climb several walls in a day, including: Lotus Flower Tower – VI 5.10d, Cirque of the Unclimbables; Original Route/Women at Work – VI 5.12R, Mt.Proboscis; Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome – VI 5.12b, Yosemite Valley; Romantic Warrior – V 5.12b, The Needles; and the West Face of Leaning Tower – V 5.13, Yosemite Valley. But through all these times I still longed for a partnership of a different kind. I longed for my female counterpart — the other chick who could crush the cracks, climb the steeps, and dominate the boulders, someone who knows how to build anchors, haul a bag, and generally speaking, hold their own. I craved the experience of facing challenges with someone of similar build so that we could learn from each other. I had become friends with Kate Rutherford, and I admired the partnership she had with Madaleine — I wondered where my equivalent lay.

All my searching and waiting led me to Sandra early in 2012 — she was strong, she was well-rounded in many aspects of climbing, she was petite, and all in all seemed solid in character. We met at the boulders, and I think it was love at first sight. Through the last year we became more acquainted with one another — we developed a repertoire, we helped push one another and supported each other on numerous projects and ambitions, and soon we established a tick list together. Moonlight Buttress was pushed to the top of this list. It seemed like all my dreams of finding a compatible and capable female partner were coming true. Very often she and I would blow off our significant others in order to climb together. Our partnership walks the line of a relationship, and in the winter of this year when Ben and I were leaving for three months to climb in Europe, I was nearly heartbroken to have to leave her behind. We kept in touch weekly about our climbing experiences, our latest sends, our struggles, and the upcoming training we would be doing when I returned home — we kept the Moonlight vision alive.

Collage of climbing photos

Finally, in mid-March we found ourselves racking up in Zion National Park. Our first climb of the trip together was Shunes Buttress – IV 5.11c. It went great; we climbed well together. We kept it slow and steady as we dialed in our systems and belays and got the feel of how we would be moving together in the sandstone wonderland. Some days later, we were crossing the icy waters of the Virgin River and making our way to the base of Moonlight. There were a few parties at the base and on the intro pitches; a few different times in the day we found ourselves waiting on them. As the time ticked on, we maintained a positive outlook — we were giving our best onsight attempt, and we were doing it together. Unfortunately, as the pitches kept coming so did the waiting, and by the time we were standing underneath pitch 8 we realized we would be doing a bit more waiting and not topping out in the light — I wasn’t very interested in sorting out the last hard pitches via headlamp in the dark, and so we made the decision to rap the route. It was okay, as both of us had fallen on some of the climbing below.

As we descended down to the sandy, vegetated slope via headlamp, we came up with a plan to return in two days and try again. But early on the morning Sandra and I were due to go back, she got word that her mother was really ill and was urged to go be with her. We both knew previously that this could be a factor in our plans, and we had been playing it fast and light. But that morning, as she stood in the door of my van, tears in her eyes, I knew she was not only sad about her poor mother but also about our unfulfilled dream. Life is present. and with that comes responsibility — she needed to leave and I understood completely. I was so sorry to hear the news and very sorry to lose her as a partner.

Man sitting in small ledge

Plan rewrite started for me. Mason Earl, a fellow First Ascent athlete, was coming into Zion in a few days to meet up with us for some work for Eddie Bauer. He had climbed the route the previous year, but I wondered if he would be interested in doing it again with me — he said he would be down. I waited for him to arrive and off we went.

Moonlight is such an iconic route in equal parts climbing quality and scenic beauty. Ben really wanted to shoot us on the route, and Eddie Bauer had expressed to us that they really wanted portaledge shots — so we took this idea into consideration when we made a plan for our climb. We decided we’d do the wall with a bivy, which would allow us to start late in the day and have us climbing the crux dihedral in the shade. We started late on Sunday and blasted through to pitch 7, the infamous slot pitch. On my attempt with Sandra, I had fallen here a couple of times — this time I climbed it efficiently and effectively. I belayed Mason up and the photographers met us there. We set up the ledge, cooked dinner, enjoyed the sunset, and got some great shots.

We slept on the wall that night with the canyon to ourselves. It was stunning. I thought about Sandra several times. I was enjoying the experience of being on the wall with Mason, but at times I could tell he was a bit bored. He was there for support and I appreciated it greatly, but it was the same old thing. I was once again climbing with a stronger male partner who could jam his .5 fingers snuggly into the 1-inch cracks — we could hardly relate at times.

katie lambert leads pitch 5 of moonlight buttress.  the first f the sustained dihedral pitches leading off the "rocker blocker"  of moonlight buttress, zion national park

Katie on Moonlight Buttress

mason and katie prepare to bivy on the pitch 8 ledge high up on moonlight buttress.

The next morning, Ben wanted to get shots of me on pitch 8 in the first light. It was cold, but I racked up and set off anyway. I was freezing and moved slowly. Looking down at the belay, I could tell Mason was freezing, too. I made it about halfway up when I was totally numbed out in both hands and feet and slipped out. I lowered down, cleaned the gear, and rested a minute. I tried to thaw out and tried again, but it was a similar experience. I got too cold, and it was a brutal warmup. I thought to myself that we should have just kept climbing the day before — that it would have been easier then — but so it was and here we were.

I slipped out again — this time flash pumped. I continued up to the belay and asked Mason if I could try again, and he didn’t mind. So I lowered down, cleaned the gear, and rested for about 10 minutes. The gauzy haze of clouds was parting and it was warming up. After some food and water I set off again. This time I made it no falls. The rest of the route went smoothly enough and we were topping out by midday. I had become one of the women on a short list who have free climbed this route. I was grateful to Mason for playing along, but I was saddened a little not to be high-fiving with Sandra.

Person sitting on tiny ledge

Moonlight Buttress

The route had been a challenge for me. It’s not the hardest or longest thing I’ve ever climbed, but it offers up three pitches in a row of one of the single hardest sized cracks for me. Being 5’0″ and with small hands, the 1-inch cracks never truly provide me with any solid jams — it’s neither fingers nor hands, and there’s no real finesse to climbing that size.

I was psyched to climb through those pitches, and I think I even learned some slight nuances in technique thanks to Mason. It was a great accomplishment and I’m thankful to have experienced some time there with Sandra. In the end I know it was a stepping stone on our journey together as partners, and while we didn’t get the chance to complete this one together, I know where to find a solid female to hold the rope for me and do her fair share of getting us up the wall.

* This post was originally published at Thoughts and Things from a Bird’s View and is reprinted here with permission. All photos courtesy of Ben Ditto.

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