Alex Honnold - Soloing the Monkey Finger

Monday, April 30, 2012

Monkey Finger!

By Alex Honnold





Monkey Finger is a 9 pitch 12b crack system in Zion National Park, or at least that's how the topo describes it. It feels a bit easier and a lot shorter, but it's an awesome route regardless. Super nice climbing up a nice clean part of the wall.

I'd thought about onsight soloing it for a long time, basically since 2008 when I soloed Moonlight Buttress. It seemed to represent an ideal challenge - a secure style of climbing, difficult but not really cutting edge, and a manageable size - something I could get my head around. In fact, I drove to Zion earlier in February with the intention of finally doing it, but poor weather conditions and wet rock convinced me to instead climb Shune's Buttress (a good adventure in it's own right, which can be read about on the Clif Blog).

Towards the end of February I returned to Zion, this time hoping to finally do Monkey Finger and maybe a bigger link up. But I lacked the real fire to onsight solo the route; I just didn't really want that level of engagement. Thankfully, Tommy Caldwell and his wife Becca were also planning on climbing in Zion for a few days and he was willing to take a lap up the route with me in the morning before going climbing with Becca in the afternoon. I adjusted my ambitions to simply climbing the route with Tommy and seeing how it felt, then maybe repeating it later if I was properly motivated. Honestly, I was more excited at the prospect of roping up with Tommy than I was at the prospect of scrambling a multipitch 5.12. He's always been a big inspiration but I'd never climbed with him before.

There was still a lot of snow in Zion, the remnants of a big storm the previous week [which I experienced in my Shune's ascent]. It was extremely cold in the early morning and it dampened my enthusiasm for any bigger Zion plans. I could see wet streaks running down the different walls of the canyon - not exactly ideal conditions for free climbing walls. But we were psyched, and made the 5 minute approach with enthusiasm.

We raced up the route in 3 long pitches and then simul rapped back down. It was extremely cold at first, my fingers and toes went numb on the first long link, but we warmed up as we moved. The climbing was fun - very pleasant Indian Creek style cracks, but with better feet and more features. It was a bit sandy, but not too bad by Zion standards. Overall, I think we both just enjoyed romping up a new route.

We were down before noon and parted ways, Tommy to climb with Becca and me decide if I felt like climbing it again by myself or if I would rather just go for a hike before going back to Vegas. Part of me really wanted to do something that I would be proud of, but part of me felt like conditions were bad and that it didn't really matter all that much anyhow. Ultimately I decided to move my car to the Weeping Rock trailhead [which is where the walk off descent from Monkey Finger would leave me], though I almost just ran up Angel's Landing instead - possibly one of the coolest trails in the country.

I hitched a ride with some Japanese tourists back to the base of the route, which had by then come into the sun. Tempted by the promise of sun, Becca had decided she wanted to climb Monkey Finger too, so Tommy was also getting ready for his second lap of the day. I didn't dally, I just tightened up my blown out TC Pros [which I had used on Shune's, including an epic snowy descent, and were starting to look a bit worse for the wear] and started climbing. I underestimated the heat of the sun and had to stop on a small pedestal at the base of the third pitch to take off my long johns and shirt. I think it was the first time I've taken my pants off while soloing.

The climbing went smoothly, almost mundanely. I hesitated a bit at the base of the Monkey Finger pitch, a glorious 5.12b splitter that breaks out of the main corner system. I considered going around it, because there's a 10b wide crack continuing up the corner that offers a much more secure alternative, but finally decided that I wouldn't feel good about myself soloing the route if I avoided the namesake pitch.
Otherwise, the climbing was almost boring, and has subsequently made me reflect on my motivations and wonder why I felt so compelled to do it when it wasn't even that much of a growth experience for me.

I saw a big horn wandering up on top of the route, which was exciting for me. And as it turns out, extremely helpful, because I wound up following a set of big horn prints through fresh powder for the entire treacherous hike up to the mesa rim. It was presumably the same animal, though I couldn't be sure. But there was only a single set of tracks through an otherwise virgin mountainside of fresh snow. It made me think about Native Americans and spirit guides and things like that - it really did feel like the sheep had guided me to safety.

Once on top of the mesa it was fairly simple to pick up the Observation Point trail and jog back down to where I had stashed my car. I was down by early afternoon and made myself a much needed late lunch.

Monkey Finger was probably my most anticlimactic "big wall" free solo. I really wanted it to be badass - for it to be something to feel proud of - but it just wasn't. It was fun, it was good climbing, it's a great route. But it just didn't feel rad to me, which makes me worry that I'm getting a bit jaded. Still a good experience to be sure, and the hike off was lonely and beautiful, but just not quite the intensity that I was maybe hoping for.

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