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The north face of the Watchman with Silmaril (V 5.12R, 10 pitches) marked. Mike Anderson has freed three new routes, 5.12- and harder, in Zion since mid-February. Silmaril and The Locksmith Dihedral, Anderson freed onsight. [Photo] Mike Anderson

After a disappointing fall plagued with injury and bad weather, I was eager to start the year off right, so I scoured my notes, looking for big walls to free climb in Zion canyon. Though I try to onsight every route, I’ve come up short there before; to onsight in Zion seems always to require cleaner rock, a new variation, or a better climber.

The Apex Wall with Hello Mary Lou (V 5.13-, 12 pitches). Anderson and Eric Coleman climbed the route on March 16, their second attempt after being forced back by darkness a month earlier. [Photo] Mike Anderson

Coincidentally I selected a handful of routes established by Dave Jones, a prolific climber with over twenty big first ascents in the canyon. In February, I decided to forego the various furniture and used car sales that typically honor our founding fathers on President’s Day Weekend. Instead I journeyed to Zion with an absurd plan to try three routes in three days. The Locksmith Dihedral (IV 5.12-, 8 pitches), established in 2005 by Jones, Brian Smoot and Chris Rowins, promised to be a good warmup, and I would be accompanied by the forty-seven year old Smoot, who had been asking me to try The Locksmith with him for over a year. I also invited a Zion novice, Colby Wayment, to join us. The climb went smoothly, with mostly moderate climbing in a brilliantly featured dihedral. I took no falls–finally I had done a first free ascent on-sight in Zion.

The next day I awoke early, swapped out partners and headed up to the Apex Wall, which is the South Face of the formation that holds the Streaked Wall. Climbing with Eric Coleman, our goal for the day was Hello Mary Lou (V 5.13-, 12 pitches), first climbed by Jones and Bob Yoho in 1987, and highly recommended by Jones. The first pitch is among the most beautiful cracks I’ve ever seen: splitter finger tips, gradually widening to perfect fingers. I burned valuable time on the first pitch, and we were benighted about halfway up the wall. With winter conditions and no bivy gear, our only option was to descend through an exhausting night.

Mike Anderson leading through a three-pitch variation to Silmaril (V 5.12R, 10 pitches). [Photo] Brian Smoot

On March 16, Eric and I returned. The climb proceeded better this time, and we freed the route in a continuous push. The climbing was mixed with some great cracks on great rock, and some not so great–standard fare for a Jones route.

A week later I was back at it and met Brian Smoot for Silmaril (V 5.12 R) on March 24. This ten-pitch climb was one of the first routes on the Watchman. Jones climbed it first in 1983 with Gary Gray, and the ascent was featured in an ’84 expose that irked some of the canyon’s earliest locals by introducing the world to Zion rock climbing.

I struggled to leave the ground that morning, but after a few hard moves, I unlocked the boulder problem that guarded the free route. A three pitch variation ensued around the thin nailing on the original second pitch. Soon we were back on-route, cruising up clean cracks in big dihedrals and generally enjoying a fine day at the crags. I had done another free route on-sight… I guess two out of three ain’t bad.

Editor’s Note: Click here to watch Mike Anderson and Rob Pizem climb the first free ascent of Zion’s Thunderbird Wall (VI 5.13a R, 2000′). This video clip is available only on Alpinist TV.