Example Of "How Not To Do It" Leads to Rescue At Zion National Park

Moonlight Buttress in Zion National Park. Photo by John Ross

Zion National Park offers some popular locations for climbers, but a recent ill-advised attempt to scale a route known as the Moonlight Buttress offers some good reminders...and an example of "how not to do it."

One climbing website describes Moonlight Buttress as one of the premier sandstone big walls in the world. The route covers about 1,000 vertical feet, including about 600 feet of continuous vertical faces and overhanging cracks. It's a magnet for climbers, but like all such sites, a successful trip requires a healthy dose of both know-how and information.

Shortly before 1 a.m. on July 1, park authorities received a call for help on Moonlight Buttress. The caller, who had run over two miles to the nearest phone, reported that his climbing partner had fallen approximately 40 feet and sustained serious injuries off the first pitch of the route.

The man returned to the area with two rangers, but due to the combination of darkness and steep terrain he was unable to find his injured friend. Members of the search and rescue team gearing up along the roadside could see a faint headlight glow about a quarter mile down the canyon from the base of the Moonlight Buttress, and shifted their response to that location.

If you're not familiar with the area, one rock face can look very much like any other, and it turns out that during their approach to the cliff in fading light, the climbers mistook the Minotaur Tower for Moonlight Buttress. They then attempted to climb, in the dark, a crack system not associated with any standard climbing routes.

Subsequent investigation revealed that the two climbers were inexperienced, had never visited Zion before, and had never practiced the climbing techniques typically utilized on this route.

In perhaps the only piece of good news from the incident, rescuers determined that the climber’s injuries were not immediately life-threatening, so technical rigging operations were suspended until daylight.

A 300-foot steep-angle lowering and wheeled litter evacuation brought the victim to the roadside around 9 a.m. According to a park spokesperson, the climber survived the night with multiple injuries and was transported to Dixie Regional Medical Center via the park’s ambulance.

If you're a climber or hiker interested in a visit to Zion, the park's Backcountry Planner includes some excellent general information to help avoid a similar "how not to do it" experience.