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BUTTERMILKS & ZION - Go big or go home

  • Carlo Traversi in “Center Direct” (V10)



Go big or go home

Highballing and trad climbing on America's finest rock

Four friends and too little time.

There are probably a thousand reasons to visit the States for a climbing trip but “two weeks - two areas” sounded like the perfectly obvious master plan for us. However, making the right choice was a much harder task. Buttermilks and Zion? Are you kidding me? What do highball-bouldering and crack climbing have in common? The answer: Nothing.

No country for old men

Each journey has to begin somewhere and our starting point was Las Vegas. Driving through the desert we experienced a contrast that couldn’t be harsher: A Joshua Tree every once in a while but besides that nothing but stone, sand and vast emptiness. And occasional townships similar to those that Europeans know from films like “No Country for Old Men” or “The Hitcher”. We were glad to pass them by despite endless hours on the interstate before reaching Owens Valley, North America´s lowest lying valley and home to the Buttermilks.

Go big or go home.

“Man, they are gigantic”. “Huuuuge”. “No chance I´ll ever make it up there”.

Due to the sheer size of some of the boulders in the Buttermilks the border between bouldering and free-soloing gets blurred constantly. This vagueness has been dubbed “highballing”. Highballs are boulders that measure up to 15 meters in height. In other words they are f***in huge.

Good guys, good guides.

One thing´s for sure: we couldn’t have found better locals to guide us than the two boulder-greats Kevin Jorgenson and Carlo Traversi. They have both climbed all over the world and had a good feel for what was best for us.

Wake up sunshine

The next morning we were warming up at the “Sunshine Boulder” with temperatures around zero. Together with Kevin and Carlo we climbed “Good Morning, Sunshine”. This felt really great and the feeling in the numb fingers came back slowly. Right after that Maria and Raphi headed to the “Ironman Area” while Alex and Tilo worked on “Saigon” (V6) and were already eyeing up the next project, Saigon´s big brother: “Saigon direct” (V9). Kevin was a few metres away trying to solve a problem he described as: “From a good hold you go to a bad one, then proceed to one that’s worse which is followed by a move to one hold even worse than that.”

Rest days are best days

Meeting up for a beer with Wills Young and his wife Lisa Rands; these two are a textbook example of a power couple. Wills is the author of the Buttermilks guidebook and knows the area like his living-room and Lisa is one of the strongest boulderers ever to lay hands on Bishop's highball granite.

Last minute victory.

The last day arrived and was spent sieging the Grandpa Peabody Boulder. Hours passed and evening came. Alex knew it was now or never. He took a deep breath, pulled on and executed one move after the other with utmost precision. Then came the crux. Every finger was where it had to be. Three moves further a bloodcurdling cry split the silence. Oh my god, is he falling? Alex? No, this was an outburst of joy. He did it! It´s all over! And now off to Zion.

3 days left on the clock.

The Buttermilks had disappeared out of sight a long time ago and for hours on end we´ve been rolling towards Zion National Park in southwestern Utah. When we spotted the shiny-red walls of Najavo sandstone our attention quickly detached from the golden Buttermilks granite and shifted towards the new object of desire.

Starting from close to zero.

Motivation is one thing, the right strategy another: Tilo and Alex opted for some warming-up instead of getting straight on to the “Moonlight Buttress”. They met up with two locals Andy Reather and Kyle Vassilopoulos for some help with the “fine-tuning”, an important factor since Zion is one of America´s trad-climbing hotspots which means that all the protection has to be placed on lead.

Abrupt awakening.

Early the next morning the boys shouldered their packs. Before they could jam their hands in the cracks, Tilo and Alex had to deal with a bridgeless crossing of the Virgin River. The water was freezing cold but the shock rendered them wide-awake within a second.

Three easy pitches later they were in the thick of it: the flawless crack systems that come afterwards were even more of a wake-up call.

“Damn it, it´s way harder than I thought”. On top of that there was a chimney waiting in the next pitch and if there was anything that could irritate European trad-climbing newbies more than an evil crack it's an evil chimney.

Alex and Tilo had to accept that free-climbing Moonlight Buttress was a task that was a little bit out of their league. At least for now. They will be back that´s for sure.