After days spent on the route, Jenny Abegg writes about wrangling confidence on "Moonlight Buttress"...
- - -
I perch on the spacious sandstone block, a rainbow of small cams pressed up against my thigh, feet dangling into 500 feet of space below. Across the valley, a vibrant red patch of trees hangs from the canyon wall, in calm defiance of gravity. I follow the vertical sandstone down to its base: the sun shade line hovers over the river, vibrant yellow-leafed cottonwoods lining each side. Faint trails weave up the side of the canyon, through oak and sagebrush, the slope steepening until it meets the sharp contrast of cliff line and open air. There, my gaze lands abruptly on my bare feet. Absentmindedly, I pick at the tape on my fingers and dig in our backpack for more gummies—anything to distract myself from the steep corner above.
My partner Becca begins to flake the rope beside me. The six 5.12 pitches of “Moonlight Buttress” loom above. It’s time.
After meeting at the Women's Climbing Festival in Bishop, Becca and Jenny became quick climbing partners, both with a shared loved of multipitch objectives.
Becca and I had met just six month ago at the Women’s Climbing Festival in Bishop, California. She was hard to miss—a huge smile, deep laugh, and the source of the dozens of handmade pins that were circling around the event, the words Fun-O-Meter at the base of a three-tiered semicircle with a moveable arrow at the center. Fun, Funnest, Funstoppable. On Sunday, in the maze of the Happy boulders, we picked up trash with other Access Fund volunteers. Becca told me how she had just founded Funstoppables, a company that inspires growth and connection through play. We jabbered on, sharing our love for games and fun: stories of city-wide morning dance parties, the game of Assassins that I’d won in college by skipping class for a week, my dreams of being a participant on the The Amazing Race. Still under contract, she couldn’t tell me at the time, but Becca had just finished a season (yet to be aired) on that very show. For obvious reasons, we became fast friends.
We climbed the “Rainbow Wall” in Red Rock that spring. I was tender from a recent break-up, timid and scared. Secretly, I longed for the tight confines of a dark club on the strip rather than exposure on the wall. “I’m really just a 5.11 climber,” I told Becca, afraid of the misconceptions she held about me. “I think I’m sponsored because I appeal to the everyday climber. And I write.” I felt sheepish, like I had to expose myself right away. Untrue as it was, it felt safe to label myself as a casual climber, in order to diminish all expectations; to, in many ways, take myself out of the game. The feeling (the deeply confusing, irrational feeling rooted somewhere in the past) was that I couldn’t take pride in myself—I couldn’t take up space—and still leave room for another. Especially given Becca’s larger than life presence—her “Witness My Fitness” shirt, pair of long braids, and propensity to beatbox her way through difficult moves— I knew my thinking made no sense. In the best of way, she couldn’t care less how much space I took up. But shaking this feeling was easier said than done.
After five days spent working the indivial pitches, Jenny and Becca decide to attempt a base to summit ascent of "Moonlight Buttress" (5.12+).
Now, the rope is flaked and my shoes are on. Becca and I have spent five of the last seven days in Zion National Park on Moonlight, projecting the harder pitches and returning to beers, good food, and warm beds in town each night. We've worn ribbons in our hair, listened to Macklemore at the belay, brought more water than we needed. The weather has been perfect. One day, we started at the top and just top-roped the hard pitches. Today we’re attempting to free the route from base to summit, and at the end, celebrate with our friends Sarah and Madelaine who will be waiting to join us for an all-female wall after party. We exchange hoots and monkey calls, high-fives and delightfully crowded belays. This is supposed to be really, really fun.
My gaze shifts upwards and I start my personal pep talk. Believe in yourself Jenny. You’re strong, you’re safe. You can totally do this. Becca turns the Fun-O-Meter on my chalk bag to its hilt and extends her fist, “You got this. Tap into the treasure trove of self-belief.” I stack our pack on top of the rope, and thankful for the security of the bolt, make the jump off the rocker block. Soon I’m staring down the 5.11- corner. I climb upwards, but my feet are unsure, my fingers bound to slip at any moment. The gear is good...what if that piece blows? It’s 5.11, Jenny, chill out...why does this feel so hard? My head spins, mind whirrs, thoughts echoing can’t, won’t, shouldn’t. Shouldn’t even be here. Becca needs a better partner. The trees loom behind me—in calm defiance of gravity—but here I waver, frantically succumbing to it. My only world is the finger-sized crack in front of me, and the spinning voices of self-doubt inside.
This fog had been hovering over me all week. Words don’t do it justice, and now, two months later, I’m still not sure how to write about it. It's a glaze that turns my voice quiet and makes me question my words. I defer to Becca on what pitches she wants to lead, what gear she wants to bring. My footfalls are softer, I crave quiet but my mind is loud, I go to bed each night dreading the morning. I feel like a diminutive child stuck in my 5’6” frame. I can’t track myself down. And this isn't the onsight climbing that I'm used to, where I can chalk up my timidness to fear of the unknown. No, we’ve sessioned this wall for days now. I know the ins and outs of every pitch. The only variable that remains is me.
I continue, shakily, trying to calm myself at each rest. Breathe, Jenny. Calm down. At one point, I place a cam and grab onto it, heart pounding. A secure finger lock and ledges for my feet suddenly appear. I chastise myself—there goes the send. I never wanted to send this thing anyway, the self-defeating language continues. I’m a prisoner in my mind. I long to feel bigger.
Related: Rannveig Aamodt - Transcend
Becca finger locking and smearing up the tenuous finger crack on "Moonlight Buttress" in Zion National Park.
Becca leads us up the next pitch, a steep 12+ lieback corner, the consensus crux of the route. Below her at the belay, I reposition my left foot onto a lower ledge, hike up my harness, trying to feel comfortable in my hanging perch, but more so in my own skin. Own it Jenny. I think of all the climbing partners that have uttered those words, all the boyfriends that have shared the same sentiment. Take pride in yourself, don’t be afraid to be powerful. In a spurt of self-belief, I square my shoulders back and gaze at my strong, weather-worn hands. I realize I belong here. Emboldened for the moment, I send the pitch on top rope, a stack of cams collecting on the rope before me as I doggedly punch up the strenuous flake.
I arrive to Becca’s spirited cheers, heart racing and mind still dangling at the last belay. Freedom. I realize who I can be when I turn off the chatter. Once settled at the anchor, I look up at the slot above. We decide to split the next two pitches, each taking one to lead. But in the brief moments of rest now, my mind catches up to me, screaming voices of fear and self-doubt. Not for the first time in my partnership with Becca, I hand over my lead to her. I think of all the scenarios in which I would have stepped up to the challenge: a weaker partner, a tired partner, a timid partner. In every scenario, it is the other person that defines my actions. I long for a self that is stable and secure, that knows what I want and am capable of—no matter the company.
After party celebrations on the summit (Right: Becca Droz, Center Right: Jenny Abegg).
That day, I freed the rest of the route. I only led two of the six 5.12 pitches, and on those pitches, I barely hung on, placing my entire rack in 60 foot sections. On the pitches I followed, I flew. Becca skillfully led the “Nutting Pitch” by the glow of her headlamp, and soon we were topping out one of the most beautiful free climbs I’ve ever done, appropriately, by moonlight. On the summit, the four of us—now five with the addition of our friend and photographer Henna—exchanged high fives and glory stories. Becca grabbed me tight in a hug—“Jenny, you sent Moonlight!” I think I groaned in response. It couldn’t have felt further from the truth.
We're going back to Moonlight this April, Becca and I. Already, I’m eager for the soft late afternoon light that descends on the canyon, sore muscles and gobied fingers, dangling my feet off ledges made for lounging with one of my favorite partners. Pushing past self-imposed limits. We have unfinished business, Becca and I. She with the climb, me with myself.
- - -
Photos: © Henna Taylor
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jenny Abegg is a climber, writer, and guide, currently based out of Bend, OR where she heads up the multi-pitch instruction program for She Moves Mountains at Smith Rock. Her stories have appeared in Climbing, Alpinist, and Sidetracked.