Climbing in Zion is gear-intensive and specific; for most free climbs in Zion, the guidebook recommends a double rack from .5″ to 3″. There are many ways of approaching the protection dilemma, but there is a delicate balance between having enough gear, having the right gear, and not bringing so much equipment that it holds you back.
Aspiring Zion big wall climbers should pay special attention to the small gear. Climbing above thin pro can be nerve racking, and feeling secure can be a tremendous mental challenge. The sandstone in Zion is typically quite good, but when you are climbing on small gear (1″ or smaller), it typically means the climbing is difficult, and you need to trust the gear to hold a fall. When you know and trust your gear, you gain significant confidence that helps you climb better.
Passive Protection (i.e. nuts)
The DMM alloy offset nuts are, hands down, the most useful passive equipment for Zion climbing, especially in the big wall and aid categories. These nuts are light, inexpensive, and fit pin scars and flaring seams where no other nut or cam will. The larger DMM brass offset nuts (sizes 4, 5, & 6) are also very useful for free climbing and aid climbing. The only downside is they are easier than cams to drop and to get stuck while climbing; on the other hand, they are cheap, so it all works out.
Small Camming Units
There are so many options for cams and I do not hold loyalties to any specific brand. The Black Diamond C3 and C4, Metolius TCU and Master Cam, and CCH Alien are my top choices.
Black Diamond: The C4 is the backbone of my free climbing rack. They have wider cam lobes than Metolius and Alien cams in the smaller sizes, which means more surface area/friction. They can, however, be problematic in shallow, tapering, or irregular cracks, and they weigh more than the other options. For finger cracks, if I think I am going to fall on a small cam, I want it to be a C4. I have taken whippers on the blue .3 size, and these pieces are solid and confidence-inspiring. In the smaller sizes (0, 00, and 000), the C3 really shines. They are great for aiding thin seams; in fact, some folks successfully aid on these with only two lobes in contact with the rock, but I cannot personally vouch for that. I place small C3s occasionally on free climbs doubled up and equalized where there is no other option. They have a higher strength rating than Metolius cams, but I have never fallen on them. I like the design, but they are not very flexible, and sizes 1 and 2 do not seem to fit as well as the Metolius TCU equivalent.
Metolius: Light, practical, and relatively inexpensive, the TCU is absolutely the most valuable cam for aiding; bring them on every big wall route. I recommend sizes 1-4, as they fit in pin scars and pods everywhere in Zion. The small offset TCUs are fantastic for thin aid climbing as well. The biggest drawback of these pieces is their lack of flexibility. In meandering cracks or climbs with multiple cracks, they can walk and become a lot less secure; if in doubt, put a sling on that cam. I also get a lot of use out of the Metolius Master cam. The black #5 Master Cam is perfect for that terrible size between fingers and hands where other cams would be insecure. For Master Cams #2 and below (yellow, blue, purple, and grey), I feel the lobes are too narrow, providing less surface area than other cams in this size range. The smaller Master Cams can also be awkward because the width of the trigger can cause problems when placed deep in a crack.
CCH: Aliens have a cult following for their strength, narrow head, and softer aluminum that bites into rock. When racking up, I always bring my Aliens. They fit quite well in pin scars and shallow placements and are very flexible (which reduces walking). Unfortunately, Aliens have two significant drawbacks: 1) they are no longer produced, and 2) there have been problems in the past with quality control. If you do happen to have a set, however, you will find many chances to use them and, assuming they were not made during the recall period, they are bomber.
The climbing in Zion is beautiful and adventurous. Don’t forget to wear a helmet, bring comfy shoes, and have fun.