As the jet lag finally fades, the memory of perhaps the best long route I've ever done intensifies: Moonlight Buttress in Zion National Park, Utah.
After a week or so over Easter getting into shape on the epic splitters of the world's pre-eminent crack climbing area, Indian Creek (near Moab in south east Utah), Matty Rawlinson and I gunned our silver Mustang west on Interstate 7 and hit the 15 south for Zion, in search of what was allegedly the best multipitch route on North American sandstone.
After an enforced (and probably fortuitous) extra rest day due to a traffic jam of several aid climbing teams on the lower pitches, we made another crossing of the freezing waters of the Virgin River just after sunrise the following day, with the awesome monolith of Moonlight Buttress towering above us.
Matty Rawlinson making a dawn crossing of the icy Virgin River en route to Moonlight Buttress
The first three pitches of 5.10 and 5.11 climbing passed by quickly, and the sun hit us just as we finished the third pitch. From the second belay to the last, the climbing is incredibly sustained - every pitch is 5.12 or 12+ (E5 or E6 in British grades) for seven pitches. Nervously, I set off up the first hard pitch, and after a tussle with the boulder-problem start I began to marvel at one of the best dihedrals I have ever climbed. The route continues on up the gigantic open-book corner for another forty metres of hard 5.12 climbing, until the notorious 'flare' pitch is reached, guarding entry to the magnificent headwall. When we arrived here, we both thought of Alex Honnald's outrageous free solo of the route in 2008, and just how 'out there' it must have felt for him. What an amazing achievement.
Matty Rawlinson seconding pitch 6 (5.12d) of Moonlight Buttress
It was only 2pm by the time we reached the ledge at the end of the flare - we were doing well, both free climbing every pitch leading and seconding. But the effort of the climbing was beginning to show, and we shared an energy bar and the last of our Gatorade before I set off up the stupendous 'London Wall pitch' - number 7 - which fires up a pin-scarred locker finger crack for eighty feet. I looked back down the line of the rope as I reached the belay: it fell almost perfectly straight down to Matty on the ledge, winding through a series of colourful purple Camalots and yellow Aliens. That must be simply one of the best crack pitches anywhere, I thought, as I clipped the chains.
Dave Pickford adrift in the sea of vertical sandstone on the Moonlight headwall, leading the last hard pitch (5.12a)
The two remaining hard pitches after this went by in a kind of dream, and I reached the belay at the end of pitch ten with cramping elbows from dehydration. My body was tired, but my mind had been blown into orbit by the astounding day's rock climbing we'd just had. Moonlight Buttress simply must be done by anyone capable of free climbing it: it is a climb in a million.