Sunlight Buttress gains its notoriety from the “Fifty Favorite Climbs in North America” book put out by Mark Kroese in 2001. This list is not to be confused with Roper and Steck’s much more popular “Fifty Classic Climbs of North America”. Kroese’s book, published over 20 years later than Roper and Steck’s, was first and foremost focused on the profiles of 50 elite climbers. The book goes on to give credence to the featured climber’s favorite climbs. Sunlight Buttress was Charlie Fowler’s contribution. Fowler perished in remote southwest China in 2006. Charlie was noted for first ascents of several great desert routes including Pale Fire, IV, 5.12 and The Promised Land, V, 5.10+, A3+ on Moses; In Search of Suds, III, 5.10+ on Washer Woman and this route: Sunlight Buttress, IV, 5.11b in Kolob Canyon, Zion National Park. Fowler, along with Olevsky and company, established Sunlight Buttress in 1995.
There is a debate whether Charlie was serious in labeling Sunlight Buttress his best ever first ascent for Kroese’s book. I have seen it quoted in a summit log that perhaps he is laughing at those of us foolish enough to repeat the route. I tend to agree. Although the setting in Kolob Canon is second to none for a big climb, the route itself left something to be desired. There is little reason to tape up for this 1300’ of mostly chossy and sustained face climbing. Most of us in the desert seek out cracks for a reason, the rock is soft. Although the climbing is steady and sustained, the features (outside of the third pitch stem corner) lack much interest in the way of featured climbing. We chose to climb Sunlight Buttress in mid January, and no doubt probably should have known better. The moist winter conditions lend even more to the choss factor.
There are many points of fixed pro, both new and old, on Sunlight Buttress. The rap/belay stations in January 2011 were in great shape. You can reduce this original nine pitch climb to six pitches total with a 70m lead rope. Keep in mind if you do such, most all the pitches will be a full 200’ in length, and quite sustained, with at least one pitch even longer. Take plenty of micro pro, you will place it. The first two pitches do not see the sunlight in January until about 10:00am. They are by far the cleanest pitches of the route and are good to combine together whether using a 60m or 70m rope. Start out in the left of twin cracks and move to the right one at the tree. Then follow up a neat bolted (3) arête and pass the first belay. When you reach the chossy chimney/corner above, move out left onto a bolted face and follow a seam back right to a semi hanging belay. The third pitch is the second most difficult pitch of the route. Stemming up the blank thin corner placing micro pro is the crux (5.11) of this pitch. This third pitch continues at a fairly sustained clip to another semi-hanging belay. The fourth and fifth pitches are best to combine to reach a comfortable belay ledge, but you need a 70m lead line to combine them without simul climbing. The fourth pitch is a 5.10+ sandy bolted slab. The fifth pitch has a few interesting moves including a small off-width/chimney section but is much easier than the fourth pitch. The sixth pitch is the crux of the route (5.11). Off the belay ledge is an ankle buster move at the grade, but the move can be stick clipped (via Charlie's suggestion on his topo). Then the route trends right via hard moves on soft rock before angling back left to the hanging belay. If you combine these pitches, you make for another comfortable belay ledge. The last two pitches ease up in angle and grade. Rap the route.
There are two Kolob sections in Zion National Park; Kolob Canyons located near Cedar City and the Kolob Terrace Road near Virgin. It is easy to get confused on these two areas as their access is quite far apart from each other. For the Cedar City option and where most of the established climbing is located, take exit 40 off of I-15. They require you to pull into the ranger station to show your park pass although this station is normally closed during midweek in the winter. Then drive up the red road for approximately 3.2 miles to a parking lot on the right. Cross the road and find the trail that heads up the south fork of Taylor Creek which is straight off the bend in the road. Sunlight Buttress and Wind, Sand and Stars are on the left at the mouth of the canyon. Rooster’s Pinnacle is on the right side. Huecos Rancheros, Namaste along with many other sport routes are about a mile or so up canyon via a very pleasant trail. Stay on the main trail until you are well past Sunlight Buttress on your left. In the winter, thin frozen waterfalls will inhibit much of a direct approach. Circumvent this steeper terrain to the right and cut back left via a slabby 4th class approach to the base of the buttress. The second belay station can easily be seen from below (2011).
Route Description1300’+/-, 9 Pitches, 5.11
1st/2nd Pitches- 200’- 5.10/ Start up the left of twin cracks and move back right at the tree/shrub. Continue up to the bolted (3) arête on the left and climb it up and past the first belay station. Continue up into the base of the chossy corner/chimney and traverse out left onto the face and follow several bolts up a seam and eventually place a hand jam or two as you move back right to the semi-hanging belay below the thin and blank stem corner.
3rd Pitch- 200’- 5.11/ This is the second most difficult pitch of the route. Getting up the blank thin corner takes a bit of finesse until you can reach some positive edges up and right. Peanuts and/or slider nuts would be good micro gear. The hard moves start fairly immediate off the belay with one bolt in between. Getting your left toes out over the arête of the corner as soon as you can gives you extra leverage to reach the positive edges up and right. The pitch stays fairly sustained in the 5.10 range after the short corner. This pitch is long and cannot be combined.
4th/5th Pitches- 225’- 5.10+/ Follow the fixed pro up and right over slabby, steep and somewhat sandy ground. Cross back left over a tree and/or bush up to a rest below an off-width/chimney corner. Surmount the corner and angle back right up a thin crack to a large comfortable belay ledge. This entire section is quite sustained.
6th/7th Pitches- 200’- 5.11/ If you are not tired yet, you will be. Make a potential ankle busting move (or stick clip as Charlie suggests on his original topo) off the deck. Follow the fixed pro up very tricky ground; intricate moves on soft sloping knobs with a few downward facing edges or delicate side pulls. Pass the hanging belay and continue up a chossy crack that varies from hand to fingers to face features.
8th /9th Pitches- 400’- 5.10/ The last two pitches ease up quite a bit, 5.8-5.10. Many parties don’t do the last pitch due to choss. Another ankle buster off the deck to start the eighth pitch and then traverse right and up 5.9 ground to yet another ledge. Traverse right through a pin to reach a significant left facing chossy corner which represents the last pitch to broken ground.
Rap the route with no less than double 60’s, combining 6th-7th; 4th-5th and 2nd-1st. Make sure to run your knot over the larger ledges which have quite a bit of debris on them. When descending on the approach during the winter, remember any ice cloaked slab you noticed coming up. I tried to descend earlier than I ascended and had to rap from a tree to get over the ice laden slab.
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