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Thunderbird Wall

Rob Pizem on Pitch 2 (5.11) of the Thunderbird Wall (VI 5.13a R, 2,000′) during the June 1 first free ascent, Zion National Park, Utah. Pizem and partner Mike Anderson managed the route all free in a sub-twenty-four-hour push; it was their fourth major Zion free route together, and Anderson’s sixth overall.
[Photo] Eric Draper

Like many Zion adventures, this one began in the Visitor Center, via the notorious climbers’ notebooks. As I browsed the pages, one topo, a sketch of a mysterious route I had only heard rumors of, caught my eye: the 2,000-foot Thunderbird Wall. Intrigued, I grabbed the topo and motored up to the Kolob Canyons. The view was tantalizing: much of the wall was obscured from any one point, but as I changed perspectives along the road, I could piece the fragments together into something that appeared low-angle and well featured. Maybe it would go free?

I returned a couple months later with Rob Pizem. We first got up the wall by any means necessary, just to see if it would go; when we topped out on May 29, we’d made the third ascent.

On June 1 we returned for the free attempt. After a two-hour approach, Rob led the first couple of pitches, including the first crux, a gymnastic 5.12 pitch requiring an improbable horizontal dyno between crack systems. I got the crux fifth pitch, a spectacular arete variation we concocted to avoid a knifeblade crack through a roof. From a scrunched position, liebacking in the corner, I strained to place my right foot onto a good hold, so I could reach out to the arete, pinch it in my right hand and make a delicate move, matching hands and reaching around to establish myself on the face. To my amazement, I sent this sequence on the first try. Rob followed on his second try, and we pushed for the top.

At dark we rappelled to a good ledge for the night, having climbed continuously through the fourteenth pitch. We awoke early to free the final two pitches. The original topo had a simple note for Pitch 15: “bushy, A3.” It was a tad understated. The 5.11 climbing weaved through a vertical forest; near the end of the pitch, I scaled a fifteen-foot patchwork of soil and tree roots to belay at a full-fledged pine tree plastered to the wall. After another “bushy” lead, we topped out by 8:30 a.m., securing the sub-twenty-four-hour ascent of the free Thunderbird Wall (VI 5.13a R, 2,000′).

–Michael Anderson, Colorado Springs, Colorado