No Sleep Till....South Rim: Zoroaster Temple

No Sleep Till....South Rim: Zoroaster Temple

The normal approach to climbing is to maximize your chances of success. But Peter Croft talks about going for it--and being willing to fail big--rather than surely succeeding: “It's kind of a lost, or it's kind of an ignored idea, magnificent failure rather than a kind of mediocre success.”

To stack the deck in your favor by camping at the base of the climb and following standard wisdom will most likely to result in a send. But using what we know to be the easiest way to ascend, we turn the game on its head: stack the deck against you as much as you think you can. Make sure there’s reasonable chance of failure. Give the peak a chance to humble you. Then if and when you do succeed, it’s something even more special...

A few months ago while sharing a beer, Ben brought up Zoroaster Temple in the Grand Canyon, which he had glimpsed on a trip with his brother in 2005.  The most beautiful peak in the country, a perfect sandstone pyramid rising above thousands of feet of symmetric red cliff bands. The peak is remote and in the very center of the Canyon, not on one of the rims. He claimed that if the Grand Canyon is America's cathedral, Zoroaster Temple's summit is the Holy of Holies. So beautiful, but so far away and obscure that it is rarely climbed.

A supreme effort befitted this supremely beautiful peak, and a chance of failure was necessary to do it justice. He wanted to send it in a single push, on what is generally done as a 3 or 4 day climb. 30 miles of hiking and low 5th scrambling with 10,000 feet of elevation gain and an equal amount of elevation loss with a 6 pitch 5.9 climb in the middle.

Zoro had been #1 on Ben’s goal list for six years now, but he couldn’t find any takers for a partner. Hikers don't have the expertise for roped climbing and climbers aren't too keen on the huge approach. And of those that might be able to handle both, no one seemed to be stoked on the single push idea. Since I had been training for the Pullharder Marathon, Ben claimed I had the right amount of send potential inside of me...

So on Friday Oct 28, 2011 we left work early and headed for the desert. After 4 hours of sleep we started down the South Kaibab trail at 3:30AM, dropping down to Phantom Ranch. We then made our way up the trail and then cross-country through the cliff bands to the base of the route, pushing hard and efficiently the whole time. We started climbing at 10:30AM and with some creative linking and simulclimbing we managed to do the whole thing in 3 long pitches. Soft sandstone, hardly bomber, but beautiful.

At the top of Zoroaster is a lone tree providing shade with 360 degree views of both rims of the Grand Canyon. I spun around in circles with indescribable grandeur all around. Epic was thereby defined.

Other than the jaw-dropping views and the usual level of suffering, the main thing that sticks in my head is the ascent back to the South Rim. Normally when returning back to the car after a long C2C push in the Sierra mountains you just stumble down the trail hoping not to sprain an ankle. In this case, effort is required until the end--the return back to the car from Phantom Ranch was 5000’ of gain over 7 miles on a good trail. This meant that I could safely push my body as hard as I could in an effort to make it the whole way up to the rim without stopping. Every 500 ft or so of gain I would reach back with my hiking pole in search of the fraternal "high five" from Ben's pole which was pushing me to go faster. I left everything out there on the trail and was probably just 10% short of collapsing for much of the ascent.


The day was big, the climb remote enough that failure would have been inevitable if we didn’t push hard the whole way. For Ben it was an emotional finish, a six-year dream of a gorgeous summit fulfilled in a perfect style. For me, only through total exhaustion was I able to absorb all of what the Grand Canyon had to offer me on that day. Punishment is glory.

We took a photo of ourselves every hour in order to track our haggardness through the long day. Unfortunately, we were too psyched throughout the day for the photos to accurately convey our state:

Zoroaster Temple, NE Arête, 17h 21 min Car-to-Car

Ben Horne and Shay Har-Noy, Oct 29, 2011

NB the Croft quote in the intro can be found here.