[This On Belay story first appeared in Alpinist 60 , which is now available on newsstands and in our online store.–Ed.]
“RO–!” MY BREATH SWALLOWS back the warning. The reddish block–a relic of long-vanished sea beds–just misses Blake McCord’s head and hits his black camera bag instead. We have been scrambling through a narrow slot filled with loose scree. Jagged chips of calcified limestone and pastel mudstones spill over chaotic stacks of pizza-box-sized rocks. Our partner Zach Harrison flips the tattered cord over a rounded sandstone lip to avoid another tottering block, and then he slides the rope down an eighteen-foot vertical slab to haul our bags over the ruddy sandstone. His pack swells with the Canyon essentials: water dromedaries slosh around atop the eighty-pound pack filled with a rope, wide cams and a flask of tequila. When he pulls his pack up, it snags behind a flake the size of a whale fin. Zach growls with frustration as the pack sinks deeper into the void. His legs sprawled over the chimney, he tugs with full force. The pack pops loose, and a hunk of rock hurtles past Blake. We hear the block tumble below until it explodes into a spray of brown dust.
It’s April 2015. A cool breeze pours down from the edge of the Grand Canyon, stirring the warm air deep inside. Here, the gravity of the earth seems to bend the landscape, from the high plains of the rim to the river far below. Seemingly infinite towers of stone crumble away into mounds of choss. Zach, Blake and I have been hiking and scrambling for ten hours–more than 10,000 feet of elevation loss and gain over fifteen miles–on the approach to Zoroaster Temple. Tomorrow, we’ll attempt the first free ascent of the Southeast Face.
We hike for another hour to our water cache. That previous winter, Zach had spent an entire day by himself melting snow, several miles down the trail in the canyon, in anticipation of returning to climb Zoroaster. He’d stashed two gallons of snowmelt in the shade behind a boulder problem. “All right, let’s make our packs heavier,” he says with a smirk.
Around us, shadows appear to swallow the endless hillsides, erratic shapes of crumbling rock and sand. In Grand Canyon: Time Below the Rim, Craig Childs describes how the shaded, glossy walls create a “dungeon darkness,” where “sharp-angled patterns of erosion…shift in colors from olive to brown to a reddish black verging on burnt blood.” The canyon walls begin to disappear in the blur of the sinking horizon. If we allow our concentration to waiver, it seems, the abyss will drown us.
South Rim, South Kaibab Trailhead
You cannot see the Grand Canyon in one view, as if it were a changeless spectacle from which a curtain might be lifted, but to see it you have to toil…through its labyrinths. –John Wesley Powell
FROM THE SOUTH RIM parking lot, the Zoroaster tower seems to float high above the inner gorge. All around me, evidence of the Earth’s past emerges in heaps of pulverized stone and crumbling pyramids that eventually trundle into the Colorado River, thousands of feet below.
The Grand Canyon splits the Colorado Plateau like a slow, zippering tear. Sedimentary escarpments rise in kaleidoscopic layers from the northeastern mouth of the canyon in the Arizona desert. Sculpted by water and by wind, ancient pink and beige Aeolian landscapes stretch for hundreds of miles to the south. On the rim, the canyon glimmers with ponderosa forests: a vibrant green pulse in an otherwise arid desert. At the bottom of the canyon, the river exposes older and older rock; swirls of glittering schist and bands of Zoroaster granite sparkle among the pink and black metamorphic rock. Here, the Colorado River branches into arroyos and canyon tributaries. As Childs writes, “The name Grand Canyon implies that the abyss consists of only one canyon, a giant crack in the landscape.” In fact, “counting branch by branch, the canyons eventually number in the thousands.” Rose- and rust-colored bands, magenta pinnacles and sage-green slopes cover the buttes and mesas, as well as what I have come to call “sancta-summits”: vertical sanctuaries, full of secrets and free of crowds.
In the desert quiet, our quest begins to feel fraught with meaning, something perhaps beyond each of our grasp. Zach, at least, is here for closure. This is his third trip to the Southeast Face of Zoroaster, almost three years after he and Mathieu Brown established the route ground up, with a few points of aid, in the spring of 2012. Zach made his second trip exactly a year later, in 2013 (that one week in April, he tells me, is like a magical weather window: “It’s always good.”) On that attempt, the big roof went clean, but not the fourth pitch. Between attempts on the Southeast Face, Zach did laps on the aptly named Screaming Sky Crack on the north face. He cannot seem to stay away.
Zach and I met in 2010. But long before then, I had known of him by reputation: he wasn’t afraid of bad rock or wide cracks, and he pursued both in forgotten areas of the desert Southwest. Meanwhile, Zach had heard from climbers around Flagstaff that I was making first ascents of difficult, obscure cracks. Zach eventually tracked me down at the gym where I worked. He introduced himself, and we’ve been climbing partners ever since.
In 2014, after his first two failed attempts to free the route on Zoroaster Temple, Zach gave me a color printout of the topo. It was the first illustration of a new route that he’d ever shared with me. Initially, I thought it was a little goofy: the topo didn’t look like the sketches my other friends drew on the backs of receipts or wrinkled napkins. Instead, Zach had edited a full-color photograph with his computer–a carefully drawn black line indicated the line of ascent. A string of question marks, appearing oddly formal in Times New Roman font, followed the suggested grade on each pitch. I taped Zach’s topo to my refrigerator, where I saw it every morning at breakfast, and every night before bed. Slowly his obsession became mine. In the meantime, I’d introduced Zach to another of my climbing partners, Blake McCord, a 5.14 sport climber with a developing interest in adventure photography. The three of us began climbing together, though Blake admitted that he enjoyed capturing images of tumbling desert blocks more than he liked climbing them. Nonetheless, when Zach and I shared our plan to attempt a free ascent of the route on Zoroaster, Blake was eager to join.
Now, amid the cryptic features of the buttes and ridges on the canyon walls, I search the void for a connection to the temporal and spatial scope that defines this place. When I was a kid, my dad would pack his bag and disappear for days at a time into the great gorge. He always returned with tales of loose rocks and winding paths that seemed to float above deathly drops; of icy steps, hidden from the scorching sun; and of fierce storms that washed away the trails. Down is only half the battle, he warned. As my friends and I head down the South Kaibab Trail, boulders the size of camper vans seem to vanish beneath the vast canyon walls. I stare at my red, dusty feet, and I forget about ever getting out of the canyon.
Phantom Ranch Boat Beach, the bottom of the Grand Canyon
SEVEN MILES and four hours from the South Kaibab trailhead, I cross a footbridge over the slowly churning Colorado River and plop down on the damp cinnamon sands of Phantom Ranch Boat Beach. The cold water relieves the burning sensation in my feet. Light shimmers off the river and dances on a curtain of schist above.
White lines stream in chaotic patterns through the black sheets of schist and up the towering pink walls of Zoroaster granite. Zach begins to muse aloud about future projects, perhaps hidden somewhere in the inner corridor. “Yeah,” Blake grins. “So much undiscovered choss.” Blake and Zach head off to fill our dromedaries, down a path that leads through tamarisk toward the only drinkable source of water: a blue spigot. A cloud of dust glides over the river where the North and South Rim Kaibab trails converge, and a soft quiet lingers around the Canyon walls.
Thousands of years of human history flow through this land. Dine horsemen galloped along the rim. The Hopi call this ancestral canyon the Ongtupka. The canyon holds the location of the Sipapuni: the birth site of the fourth world–the glittering world–after the third was destroyed in a flood. “This place is sacred from one end of the sky to the other,” Dine archeologist Jason Nez notes in interview footage for the film Breaking Sacred Ground: the Confluence. “That is why we take care of it. What makes it sacred is everything you see around it; right now there is just rocks, clouds and wind. There is no noise now…. There is nothing but us.”
Eleven distinct tribes can trace their ancestors to the Grand Canyon, and their members continue to maintain cultural ties to the area today: the San Juan Southern Paiute Tribe, Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah, Yavapai-Apache Nation, Las Vegas Paiute Tribe, Hualapai Tribe, Moapa Band of Paiutes, Hopi Tribe, Pueblo of Zuni, Kaibab Band of Paiute Indians, Navajo Nation, and Havasupai Tribe. After a long struggle against the National Park Service in the twentieth century, the Havasupai continue to occupy their ancestral lands in Havasu (Cataract) Canyon.
In the stillness, it is hard to imagine the industrial transformations of the land that are already taking place; yet they are there in the ripples of sediment on the canyon floor.
Upriver, the cement megalith of the Glen Canyon Dam tempers the river’s natural rhythm. Just beyond the park boundary, uranium mines leave toxic trails in the soil and water. For years, the Orphan Mine on the South Rim leaked radioactive material into the canyon. One of those elements, Uranium-238, has a half-life of about 4.5 billion years–twice the age of the canyon’s most ancient layers. Signs at Horn Creek warn hikers to avoid drinking the water unless death by thirst is imminent. Four mines are still active around the canyon rim. Meanwhile, a proposal to construct a large tourist tramway on the Bodaway-Gap Chapter of the Navajo Nation lands–at the confluence of the Colorado and the Little Colorado rivers–has been withdrawn from the Navajo Nation Council legislature. I watch the dancing river shimmer in the sunlight. Flashes of light slip through the surface, and tiny ripples cast their shadows about. Water reminds me that the Canyon is changing and fragile still.
Clear Creek Trail, Sumner Wash Exit
THE SCREE FIELD BAKES in the sun. A thousand feet uphill, a small boulder offers the only shade for the next few hours. Zach charges ahead of me on the forty-degree slope. His footsteps send little streams of pebbles and sand down behind him. Blake follows, eager to reach the shade. I give up any hope of trying to keep pace with Zach and Blake as they march up the slope; their every step sloughs down more dirt and rock. I feel exhausted and dull under my heavy pack. After an hour of slogging, I question if any climb is worth this much effort. With every step I make uphill, I slide a few inches back. God, this is so dumb. But I continue to move toward the promise of temporary relief.
I catch up to Zach and Blake, both crouched under the boulder in a sliver of shade, still a few hundred feet below the notch. ” at was a lot faster and easier today than ten years ago,” Zach says. Blake agrees. “Yeah, that didn’t feel too bad,” he says. I can’t tell if they’re serious.
Hours of hiking continue to slip away with the sun. At the Redwall Limestone Notch, the loose talus steepens into abrupt steps along eroding edges of rock. A fall here would send me tumbling into the deep trench of the inner gorge. Blake and I follow Zach as he zigs and zags his way up the notch. With the heavy water bags sloshing around atop my pack, I think through each and every step.
Red and blue blades of sharp limestone continue to appear between grey globs of chert. The textured rock seems to grab at my skin and the rubber of my shoes. Zach tries to pick out the easiest paths through the scrubby creosote on the crumbling hillside. We settle on what I’ve come to call an “earthscalator”–a steep, narrow corridor of loose talus. Careful not to skewer myself on a prickly pear, I climb out of the gully to a flat perch, and I sit back into the hillside, trying to catch my breath. This is honestly sketchy, I think.
The long, maze-like approaches to climbs are part of what has guarded these summits for so long. Grand Canyon archaeologist Ellen Brennan notes that early Indigenous inhabitants perched tree trunks against the cliffs in order to climb up and down: “No doubt plenty of free climbing took place in the ancient days, [but] it isn’t a subject anyone has studied to any extent. We only know that the early peoples of the canyon were not restricted by the vertical challenges the canyon poses and that they got to many remote places. Exactly how they did that, we can’t say with any detail.” When European-American settlers climbed to the tops of some buttes in the late nineteenth century, they were surprised to find pottery shards and arrowheads at the summit.
By the mid-twentieth century, several parties had attempted to climb Zoroaster. All were forced to turn back when they ran out of water on the long, arduous approach. But over the course of two days in 1958, two teenagers, Dave Ganci and Rick Tidrick, managed to find their way to the base of the climb. In the 100-degree heat, they quickly drained their water supply, and they had to fill their canteens from shallow pools teeming with insects. On the third morning, they cached some gear at a crack next to a rattlesnake and set out for the unclimbed summit. On the second pitch, Ganci led out over a steep slab with no protection other than a small cactus that he encircled with the rope. Ganci and Tidrick climbed eleven pitches over a meandering path of stone, foliage and dirt to establish the original route on Zoroaster: the Northeast Ridge. In a 1959 Summit article, Ganci recounted, “the actual technical difficulties of the temple itself were few,” compared to the dehydration they faced.
Twenty years later, Ganci returned to Zoroaster with George Bain and John Annerino to climb a new route on the southwest face. Annerino was still recovering from a climbing accident in which he’d nearly lost a foot. They began at dawn, but ran out of water by noon. Then a light snow began to fall. In Running Wild, Annerino recounted the final pitches: “Fatigue is wrapping its deadly arms around me, and it feels as if I’m about to be yanked into the abyss. I want desperately to sleep. Cold is slashing at me like a hundred painful cuts from a razor. I don’t want to be alone, but I feel as if I’m on the edge of the earth and about to tumble off into an endless free fall.” He topped out on the appropriately named Midnight Crack under a shroud of darkness, a flashlight pursed between his lips.
Since then, generations of climbers have explored the surroundings, often in unpublicized and unobtrusive ways. Many stories of first ascents are kept quiet, leaving the illusion of the unknown for others to encounter. Some tales appear almost forgotten, as if lost through the effects of fatigue and hallucinogenic drugs. Histories and rumors emerge and fade, vivid and elusive as the light that refracts and bounds away in the dusky Canyon. I imagine the stories drifting with the chords of warm wind that crescendo into desert monsoons and then silence. Even the untold accounts add layers of mystery to allure the next visitors.
The Saddle, Zoroaster Southeast Face
AFTER 1,000 FEET OF elevation loss and gain, we’ve made it to the saddle between the Brahma and Zoroaster Temples at 6,400 feet. The red mounds remind me of a Martian landscape. We set up to bivy between juniper trees under the night sky. The next morning, a simmering glow stirs the air around my tired body. I feel decently rested, but my calves are sore. “It’s going to be three, four hours before the route goes in the shade,” Zach says. His voice quivers with impatience, but he concedes. “It would be dumb to go over there now.” Blake agrees as he shields his eyes to scan the brightening horizon. A field of green lichen speckles the pale stone arete of Zoroaster Temple, plainly visible for the first time since we started our trek. We are close enough to make out distinct features on the rocky spire: the original route, following a line of cracks and trees up the wall. Higher up, the perfectly parallel Screaming Sky Crack, first climbed by Carl Tobin and Bill Hatcher in 1989, splits the calcite-frosted headwall of the spire. On the other side of the cliff, hidden from view, our route bakes in the morning sun. I reach back into my pack and pull out a greasy sack: two slices remain of the large pizzas we brought with us on the hike. I set the plastic bag down in the sand to reheat under the sun’s warm rays. Breakfast.
Around 11:00 a.m., we make our way over loose rubble toward the Southeast Face. As I drop my pack at the base of the climb, Zach steps back to review his path skyward, tracing the first pitch up the wall to a scruffy ledge. “It’s all shade up there now. Let’s go!” he says, and he flicks the sand off his shoes. I flake the rope while Blake stakes out a spot to capture the first photo of the climb.
On my belay, Zach steps up on a teetering boulder. Just as quick, he jumps up to the first ledge. His feet cut loose and his body swings as he fights to latch onto the edge. Zach continues to lurch up over small, flat terraces. There’s no spot to place reliable protection for the first twenty feet. One slip and a ground fall will be imminent. “Shoulda carried some crashpads,” I say, and I smirk. Finally, Zach pulls himself over a sandy ledge and out of sight.
As I follow, my shoes begin to slide on the sandy surface with each placement of my feet, but I never completely slip. When I flop onto the first belay ledge, I see that above us, the ramp of thin cracks that we’ve been following transforms into an overhanging corner, hundreds of feet tall. I belay Blake up next. Within the first twenty feet, Blake knocks one of the pizza-box-sized blocks off from the wall. Seventy-five pounds of rock crash down to the bottom of the route, within a few feet of where I had flaked the rope. “God, this rock is shit!” Blake says, but he still manages to laugh.
Zach runs out the next pitch for almost thirty feet through a sandy chimney. As I watch him rest his knees on the wall, I silently wish that he’d place a bolt. But that’s not his style. When it’s my turn to climb, I have to motivate myself upward: Go! You know what to do. Move! My heavy breathing resonates up the tight, dark hallway. I thrust my arms out and press my back into the wall, where the gear on my harness makes small grooves in the coarse stone. Loose flakes of Coconino sandstone hiss down the corridor below me.
On the chimney pitch, Blake displays more of his sport-climbing background. “Why can’t I move upward?” he calls. I can tell he’s only slightly kidding. Zach and I heckle him: “Dude, all you gotta do is get your giant back on the wall! Stuff your giant forearms in there!”
“How do I get my legs up?” he shouts. “Get your giant leg stuck!” I call.
“Dude, my feet are sliding again!” he yells, even though he continues to make progress. Zach and I laugh.
Below the third pitch, the one that still hasn’t gone without aid, I sit down next to Zach on a sandy ledge. For a moment there is only silence, no conversation, only the sound of wind sweeping over the cliffs below. In my thoughts I re-confront the challenge, the magic of an unknown outcome. I remind myself of our intention to engage this fluctuating process of stress and focus, fear and determination.
“You got this,” I say. I pass the silty rack into Zach’s hands. I see a pinning determination in his eyes.
Zach leaves the belay. He struggles through a leaning, silted dihedral. The tricky angles tilt just beyond perfectly vertical and bend into an obscure dimension. Once again, he disappears over a ledge, and I watch for slack in the rope.
“Yeeeah!” Zach’s shout echoes off the surrounding canyon walls. I can almost feel the excitement and relief hum through the tether.
As I climb over the scrubbed footholds, I begin to find a sense of balance. Below me, a shield of bleached white sandstone, glazed over in orange streaks, points down into the infinity of space below. The loose texture under my fingertips starts to feel familiar; the cool frosted calcite grabs at my skin. I taste the same grit on my teeth and gums. After two more pitches, Zach, Blake and I sit on the broad, flat summit. The soft sands spin around the yucca and sage nearby. Once again, we can look down to the river corridor thousands of feet below. A fiery, searing light splits the full distance of the canyon. Shadows textured with dust grow out from the jagged, rubbled contours below.
I want to write a poem, but only manage a few words:
Portal to the sky
We find the worn summit register and an old bottle of whisky beneath a stack of rocks. I sift through its pencil scribbles to find Zach’s first entry: Zach Harrison, Joe Trudeau. Sept 2004.
“How many miles did you walk?” Blake snaps a photo of Zach as he sips from the bottle. “Over 150?” Zach hesitates in reply. I continue to flip through the pages to find his name again: Zach H., Mathieu B, Eric Frye 2012. Screaming Sky Crack. And again. Zach Harrison, Mathieu Brown 4.2012 FA South- east Face–5.11 R C1…(5.11+??) I laugh again at the optimism of the scribbled question marks. I hand the notebook over to Zach. “You just can’t stay away, can you?” Zach looks up, disheveled hair barely covering his smirk. You’ll be back also. He scrawls another entry in the book: “It’s done.”
A purple-orange sheen of light takes over the summit as we rappel down the route. Hours pass by again in the flickering talus. The night sky seems to tear at the edges of the canyon walls. Above us the temple appears grey in the darkness. I already feel the need to return. As we round a corner, I look back for one last glimpse to find that Zoroaster is gone from view. The seemingly infinite dimension of the canyon seems to have erased our stumbling steps and chalked-up holds. All around me, centuries of human experience and restless adventure seem to fill the shadows, histories that seem as tangible as the thousands of feet of layered rock. Invisible now, particles of sand flow from the cliffs, and radiation sifts through the washes, reminding me of forces of natural and unnatural change. From the abysses, I feel something rise that I recognize, finally, as love–of this fragile land, and of all who have passed through it. The fine and distant rim looms over me. Below, the muffled roar of the Colorado River surges within the silent canyon walls.
–Jeff Snyder, Flagstaff, Arizona
[This On Belay story first appeared in Alpinist 60 , which is now available on newsstands and in our online store.–Ed.]