Trip Report: Screaming Sky Crack on Zoroaster Temple in the Grand Canyon
As I stood below the final dramatic pitch on Zoroaster Temple, I felt completely and utterly isolated. There was nothing except me, the tower, and a thin line of rope connecting me to my climbing partner. Mary, my partner, was ahead of me, her bright yellow leggings standing in sharp contrast against the burnt orange rock and pale blue sky. She moved slowly, but methodically, as I fed slack out into the system. She was leading up the third pitch of the climb, a low angle–but runnout–5.6 pitch that traversed into our final pitch of climbing for the day: The Screaming Sky Crack.
I was struck with an absurd sense of vertigo as I stared out at the Grand Canyon below me. Every ridgeline, every dip into another secret valley, every towering buttress, was and still is utterly inhospitable to human life. I was on a ledge, on the side of an improbable tower of rock, with nothing but air and the occasional raven for company. The expanse, the endlessness of that hostility, staggered me. I tried to look up at Mary, but the silent press of emptiness kept drawing my eyes to the crumbling peaks and valleys below.
I grew up near the sea, so I know what infinity looks like. The ocean is empty in the way the sky is empty, the nothingness is absolute yet abstract, a solid blue wall of finality. But here, here the endlessness has form. The shape of my own inability to survive without my partner and our meager supply of water is clear and present in every single cliffside of the canyon surrounding us.
Having just traversed over nearly 20 miles of this environment, I knew just how treacherous it could be.
We began at 8 am the day before. The long hike down from the South Kaibab trailhead had felt easy, we’d brought enough water and filled up at the convenience store and campground at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, Phantom Ranch. The folks there were excited to hear that the two of us were going to summit Zoroaster Temple, and the shop owner fussed enthusiastically around us, telling everyone what we planned to do. We’d begun the hike out of the canyon floor and up to our basecamp feeling refreshed and excited about the coming day.
The next morning came bright and cold. I opened my eyes to the piercing sound of my alarm and rolled out of bed, stiff from the hike that led us here. I wedged my protesting feet into their approach shoes and forced a dehydrated breakfast and instant coffee down my throat. The hike to Zoroaster was steep and dangerous. Loose rock sitting on top of ball bearing sized pebbles at a 45 degree angle was what most of the approach was made of. There were large bands of solid sandstone, but they don’t last, and exist only as markers for the next cliff band we must traverse and then ascend.
There were old fixed lines which we gingerly tested and climbed through, there were few cairns and faint climbers trails, and winds that were forecasted to be around 35mph.
When we finally arrive at the base of the climb my feet feel ruined. I cannot imagine putting them inside a pair of climbing shoes, and yet somehow I manage.
I know how to do this, I know how to suffer and still enjoy the view.
Mary takes the first pitch, an offwidth roof that turns a corner and stays wide for a surprisingly long time. She wishes we had more than two number 4’s. When I follow the pitch I see a perfect number 3 camelot slid back into the crack and I panic momentarily when I think it is ours. Rock protection comes in various sizes, from less than a centimeter in width to over 12 inches. The number 3 I’m staring at in the back of this crack is about 3 and a half inches wide and has slid much too far back for me to grab.
“Don’t worry!” Mary shouts down to me, “That was there before! It’s not ours!”
I can barely hear her over the wind, but I leave the piece, only slightly regretting not having more time to try and fish it out.
Pitch two is a traverse to the right and then a finger crack which turns into a long section of low angle 3’s, finishing on a beautiful and juggy 4’s and 5’s roof. The pitch gets 5.9 and I am smiling the entire time. (Even though I also wish we’d brought more than two 4’s)
As I bring Mary up to my ledge in the middle of the sky, I stare at my surroundings. The wind is unrelenting, and I feel my cheeks and my lips chapping from its bite. The sun has not begun to set, but it is low in the sky. The shadows of the cliff bands around me stand out starkly, deep and black and only add to the foreboding of the scene.
Mary comes up to me and we both stare down the final, unbelievable pitch of climbing.
The Screaming Sky Crack looks every bit as its name implies. The crumbling, soft sandstone that we have become accustomed to is gone, and in its place is a hard layer of dark patinaed wingate sandstone. The wingate is a dark orange and is much harder than the soft sandstone we’ve been climbing on. The steep face of this final pitch cuts the summit formation clean in half, the jagged black line outlined by bright white streaks of some kind of white calcite I’ve never seen before. The red sandstone is streaked with arching white lines that look as if lightning is actively striking the belay. It is a beautiful thing. It is every bit the treasure we have been searching for, and it is my turn to lead.
I rack up and begin the familiar motion of putting hands to stone. I am nervous, but I feel alive. My hands work in concert with my body in a fluid motion, and even after two full days of hiking, I barely feel any pain.
I pass through the initial pod and place a piece of gear that will be my last before the dynamic crux move. If I were taller it would simply be a matter of setting an awkward finger jam and reaching up to a good hold, but I am not taller, and I must work my feet up onto bad face chips and throw for the jug. I am not a dynamic climber, I am not even very good at finger cracks, yet here I am, at the top of a route I have been waiting for years to try, after two full days of miserable steep hiking with a heavy bag, not enough water, and a bad night’s sleep.
I take a breath before I commit to the move, and I look out at the inhospitable, yet breathtakingly beautiful view around me.
This may be the most beautiful place I’ve ever been.
The sun is setting now, yellow beams of light paint long streaks through the sky, and the shadows are beginning to soften. I see pink and orange and pale blue in the sky, and I look down to see Mary, one of my closest friends, urging me on.
All of a sudden it does not matter if I send. There is a moment of utter silence as the wind dies down, and I breathe in the sunset and the endless canyons below.
In the quiet, it makes no difference if I grab the final hold or if I fall to this place. This tower and this crack will still be here long after my bones are dust in this endless wind, it will still be inhospitable and achingly beautiful, and it means nothing whether or not I make it cleanly to the top.
I look back up, into the crack, and I feel lighter. I have let something go that was weighing me down, and now it is time to climb.
I reach my hands up into the awkward finger pod and pull down sharply, my knuckles catching against a constriction in the rock. I move my feet to the bad chips on the face and extend my other hand to the shallow hand pod, it does not feel secure. I look up and see the final jug ahead of me and I know what I have to do.
You got this.
I do not feel the pain of my feet, I do not feel the dryness of my throat, I do not even feel the weariness that has been building over the last 48 hours, I only feel the tips of my fingers and the angle of my hips as I wind up and throw for the jug.
It happens in slow motion. I pull hard on my hand and press with my feet, I open my mouth, and I scream at the sky.
I am floating for an instant. And then I feel my fingers close over the most secure and in cut jug I have ever felt in my life. My body knows I have made it before my mind does and I feel a giddiness bubbling up inside of me. It escapes through my mouth and I laugh as I pull the final moves over the edge.
I do not remember the rest of the climb, I only remember the feeling of release as I reached the top. The wind is blowing my hair around my face, and my eyes are streaming as I set up the anchor and begin to bring Mary up to the final belay.
It is windy, the sun is setting, I feel no pain, and I am on top of Zoroaster Temple.
If someone were to ask me if 38 miles and 20,000 feet of elevation gain and loss over the course of three days was worth one single pitch of climbing, I can now confidently say yes.
Cover photo credit: Tony Archie Kim
About the Gear Tester
Kaya Lindsay is the social media coordinator for Yosemite Facelift. She is also a writer and photographer with a passion for rock climbing and the outdoors. In 2016 she converted a Sprinter Van into a tiny home and has been traveling around the US & Canada to pursue her passion for rock climbing ever since. You will most likely find her in a parking lot or coffee shop, camera in hand, planning her next adventure. Connect with her on Instagram @OneChickTravels