The First Ascent of Abraham

by John Middendorf

The current craze of sport climbing has definite advantages for the so- called "traditional" climber, namely, lessened competition for adventuresome unclimbed rock. Zion canyon is an example, with its abundant unclimbed natural lines up huge steep rock walls. An area where the modern use of camming units, nuts, pitons and a few bolts can take a team 2000 feet up a virgin, mostly overhanging, clean and committing big-wall, complete with intense logistical aspects and much fear. But one has to pause in order to ask, "What's the point?". I can understand the appeal of crags, where the approaches are short, the commitment low, and eventual success virtually guaranteed with time. Pushing a new wall route in Zion is the exact opposite. Abraham, in Zion's magnificent Court of the Patriarchs canyon, is a huge mountain of sandstone with a completely sheer south face. Across the valley from Abraham lies the Sentinel, its north face resembling a cloaked specter, dark and foreboding, in the repose of a fearsome guard of its characteristically cleaner looking neighbor, Abraham. The south face of Abraham first caught my eye after a summer thunderstorm, the wall shining with brilliant colors in the afternoon sun. It seemed on fire, charged with an unknown abundant energy source, and almost blinding in its radiant beauty. It drew me towards it, and I became instantly obsessed with the idea of climbing it. It reminded me of the intensity of emotion I felt upon seeing El Capitan in Yosemite for the first time, driving into Yosemite Valley on a full moon night many years before. The chance to establish a route up this magnificent unclimbed wall inspired me and drove my life for the succeeding weeks.

After calling up my solid partner of many fine adventures past, Walt Shipley, we confirmed plans to meet in Zion. Walt and I have pulled off some good ascents together: a new route on Half Dome (the Kali-Yuga), the first winter ascent of Zenyatta Mendatta on El Cap, acid solos of various Yosemite 5.10's and 5.11's, and assorted classic desert spires (Moses, Zeus, and the Titan). I had the suspicion that even as a strong team, this route on Abraham was going to push our limits of ability. Zion's intimidation factor aside, the wall was bigger and steeper than anything else in Zion, where the rule of thumb is to expect each 1000 feet of sandstone to seem like 2000 feet of granite.

Walt and I met in Springdale at the Rock house, the traditional staging ground, and after a few beers, went to scope the route. The mood was somewhat tense, as it often is before embarking on a major vertical journey. "You gotta want those big jobs" is the mantra for the small circle of serious wall climbers in Yosemite. The pointlessness of committing to an extended trip to the vertical seems to encourage drinking in the nearest bar and/or venturing on shorter climbs instead of following the transitory and sourceless inspiration to climb a big route.

With binoculars, we sat in the meadow below the route and viewed possible lines. We saw evidence of previous attempts up several crack systems near the base. One set of rappel anchors two pitches up the center of the face led to nowhere, obviously the result of an optimistic attempt to find some feature unseen from the ground. The main wall was entirely blank, completely devoid of any features. The huge buttress on its right flank looked promising, with its obvious crack systems up either side. The left side of the buttress looked broken and serious, one 300 foot section looking like vertical caving up a giant chimney filled with house-size loose blocks. We spotted a overhanging and beautiful thin crack system splitting the center of the buttress. Investigating more closely, it appeared to blank out 3/4 of the way up. We hiked around to get a closer look and noticed rappel slings from high up on the right side of the buttress. Knowing Abraham to be unclimbed by any route, we were nearly dismayed that someone had even gotten close, wanting the complete prize for ourselves. The right side looked all right, very long, not too steep and broken by a series of ledges and corners. The scale is immense, and seemingly small features looked like several pitches on closer examination. But then we saw it, the missing link for the awesome center route, a right facing corner system, invisible from our previous viewing angle, that connected the lower crack system to the top. From no single vantage point can both crack systems be viewed clearly, but from different spots, the route became clear and continuous, albeit unrelentingly thin and technical. Committing, we fixed a pitch in a light Zion rainstorm, sheltered from the overhanging wall above.

We planned for four days, somehow not believing the wall was as big as it seemed. We brought a small bolt kit, limiting ourselves to 40 bolts to lighten our load and to increase our sense of commitment. We carried two haulbags which consisted of bivouac gear, portaledges, food and water for 4 days, and the usual big-wall monster load of hardware. Getting to the base of most Zion routes consists of bushwhacking up vertical gulleys, and this route was no exception.

Our first day on the route went well. Four pitches up the route we were faced with our first major logistical problem. We had to cross over a huge corner/gulley system in order to gain the base of the crack which split the center of the overhanging wall above. Walt led across a bold unprotected 5.10+ section which led to the base of the crack which would take us 1500 feet to the summit. But instead of hauling this section, which would have surely resulted in major snagging of the haulbag in the broken gulley below, we left our bags perched on a ledge, and hauled after finishing the next pitch.

The next day I led a 5.9+ offwidth for breakfast, unprotected and pumper in the hot Zion sun. The wall changed to overhanging, and already retreat was looking like a challenging potential in itself. We came to the realization that we had underestimated the length and seriousness of the wall, but continued on as all good climbers do in the face of uncertainty. The next 1000 feet looked like steep knifeblading up thin cracks. One soon learns, especially after cleaning a Zion sandstone aid pitch, that what would be an A1 placement in granite becomes instant A3; that is, even ringer pitons are removed with merely a few hits from the hammer. Yet we relished in the climbing, nailing our coveted knifeblades and birdbeaks repeatedly as we ascended.

Day three seemed like day 4, or was it still day 2? Time became surrealistic as we ascended. On pitch 9, after leading a thin expanding knifeblade pillar, I placed the first bolts of the route, for a belay. Even though the previous five belays were in overhanging sandstone thin cracks, it was a point of pride between Walt and myself not to place any extraneous bolts, though we sacrificed both comfort and peace of mind because of this. Though the climbing had been consistently A3 or A3+ knifeblading (Zion sandstone ratings), we had been blessed to find belays in A1 or A2 sections at intervals concurrent with our ropelength. It became a test of the mind to ignore the fact that any shockload on the belays (from a fall) would have likely ripped out the natural belays.

Three quarters of the way up, we traversed right into the right facing corner system, and Walt led a fabulous 5.10 hand crack, a nice reprieve from the endless knifeblading. We were not long for the summit, which loomed 500 feet above us. Our provisions were definitely getting low. We recounted the days, and discovered that we would possibly top out on day 4, but that our water would never last that long. It was May in Zion, and the temperatures exceeded 100 degrees. We had planned four days, Yosemite rations; that is, 1/2 gallon per person per day. But in the Utah desert heat, we needed more, though we were rationing and were severely dehydrated as it was.

Late on the fourth day, we reached the top of the buttress, and drank the last of our water. We had only started out that day with 1/2 gallon for the two of us, making our consumption for the day about a pint each. Not too good for the extremely hot conditions. Dehydration was starting to take its toll, our bodies stiff and sore from lack of water.

The next morning, we tossed one of the haulbags, sure it would be lost forever in the steep brushy gulleys below. It disappeared out of sight, hit the wall below, and rocketed out toward the base, landing smack on top of a boulder at the base. It was a shot in a thousand. Before the morning heat arrived, we made a dash for the summit, soloing 5.6 sandy slabs. The summit view was excellent, and we peered down the overhanging South Face, wishing we had the gear and the experience to base jump it for a quick descent.

Instead, we made our way down, clumsily due to the heat and the acute dehydration effects we were now experiencing. Which way down? After collecting our gear at the top of the buttress, we started what was to be 14 long and tiresome rappels down the East flank of Abraham. We were in danger of running out of bolts, and sometimes only placed one bolt for an anchor in the soft and sandy rock. At one point the ropes got stuck. In our delirium of dehydration, we sat motionless on a small ledge for a while, wanting to sleep and be done with it. Then Walt, unanchored, got up suddenly and maniacally started jumping on the rope. Without warning, the anchor pulled and Walt careened backward, almost falling off the ledge backward with the ropes. Unable to help, I had the grim vision of being stranded on this small ledge, unseen from anyone on the ground, Walt's broken body lying in the hanging valley below, and waiting to die of thirst (which wouldn't have taken more that 24 hours). Walt did a couple off balanced hops on his leg on the edge of the cliff and somehow miraculously regained his stance. Wordlessly, we resumed our descent, realizing that we had been given a second chance from a higher power.

After an eternity, we made it to the hanging valley, only to be tempted by stagnant, undrinkable pools of stinky water. Three more rappels from the hanging valley took us to a bonafide natural spring, and we gorged ourselves on the best water in Zion until we couldn't move. We named the route The Radiator, VI, 5.10+, A4, a name and grade which summarized a truly grand and extreme adventure.