THE GUARDIAN ANGELS: TWO BREATHTAKING ZION PEAKS
I’ve climbed just seven major Zion peaks that require class 4 scrambling*, along with a few semi-technical canyons and some nasty unnamed peaks. Yet that sampling was enough to convince me that scrambling in Zion is a different animal. The cross-bedded Navajo Sandstone looks so similar to the familiar Aztec sandstone of Red Rock (near Las Vegas) that one is tempted to assume the climbing is very similar.
Yet it takes just one look at the end-on view of North Guardian Angel, to make one realize that something is amiss. The rock is brittle and less competent than the Red Rock equivalent, and has eroded quickly into deep canyons and steep isolated peaks. Mountains that seem otherwise accessible are girt with cliff walls hundreds of feet high. A seemingly sure ridge route suddenly ends at a 100’-deep gash. The rock breaks off easily, especially after a rain, and is often coated with “sugar” – loose sand that has abraded free. The sandstone characteristics turn what might be easy class 3 in Red Rock, into tough class 4 in Zion. And everywhere are the ramps, initially inviting, which then cascade off into steep cliffs with terrible exposure. More than in Red Rock Nevada, rockfall is a concern; most seriously, the rock one stands on may break off and slide to oblivion.
Peak-bagging trips in Zion are often constrained by weather and daylight. Most of the peaks are less than 8000’ in elevation, and the dead of summer is just brutally hot. Some involve canyon crossings, with the attendant dangers from flash-floods that trouble much of the summer. A bit of snow can make the peaks extremely dangerous, especially on the steep north sides; after El Niño winters, snow may block access till late May. In 2010, snow blocked safe access to most peaks by mid-November. Some trips are exhausting, and require up to 17 hours; that’s a tough requirement in the shorter days of spring and fall, when the temperatures are the most accommodating.
Have I scared you away? If not, read on! This article is meant to give a flavor for future LVMC trips to Zion; in particular, a trip scheduled for April 2011. We focus on the Guardian Angels, two Zion Peaks that have become iconic for the west side of the park. These two summits are also on the Desert Peaks Section (DPS) list, and are regarded as some of the most difficult for DPS list-chasers. The peaks are discussed as trip reports, with retrospectives that will (I hope) make future climbs safer. Both peaks are approached from the Wildcat trailhead off the Kolob Terrace Road, at about 6900’ elevation. This road cuts north from route 9, in the west end of the town of Virgin, and provides wonderful views.
From here on, I’ll mainly use the abbreviations NGA for North Guardian Angel, and SGA for South Guardian Angel. “Left” and “Right” will be designated as L and R, and the compass directions north, east, south and west as N, E, S and W, respectively.
North Guardian Angel (NGA), 7395 feet
As one drives up the Kolob Terrace Road, NGA looks technical; to one familiar with Zion sandstone, it looks positively frightening. Yet the northeast ridge provides a fairly short access with a crux consisting of class 4 ramp (or class 5 crack), and two additional short class 4 sections, with some heart-quickening exposure. The round-trip distance for NGA is 6.5 miles, and the accumulated elevation gain is only 1200’. This peak can be climbed as a day trip, after driving from Vegas, if the weather cooperates.
I climbed NGA on October 17, 2010, with my good friend CP, who had been up the peak three times before and who has written a book on climbing in Zion. Actually, we planned to climb NGA the day before (Oct. 16).; the plan was to climb some hoodoos just S of the peak, then go up the class 5 S ridge.
As we traveled north from the hoodoos, we hit one of those Zion surprises—a deep gash crossing what we had thought was a continuous ridge. After some messy downclimbing and funky handlines, we decided a day’s wait would be smart, unless we wanted to finish the climb in the dark. So the next day we got to Wildcat shortly after sunrise. CP, ever energetic, wanted to bag a small peak along the way. The plan was to meet him on the NE shoulder of NGA. He took off, literally jogging, and I sauntered on at an easier 2.5 mph pace.
The first two miles of the route is over well-marked trails. This is the same system of trails that goes to Russell Canyon, to start the Subway canyoneering route; but the trip to NGA takes the fork S (R) onto the Northgate Trail. The official trail ends abruptly at a dramatic overlook, with a sweeping view to the S.
This is the first view of NGA (after leaving the trailhead) and catches the mountain in profile, so the true sharpness of the ridge isn’t obvious, but this is a good place to assess the climb. One ascends the shoulder of the NE ridge roughly as shown; the route looks dramatic, as if one is expected to climb a wall, but is mainly class 2 till right below the crux. From the viewpoint, a fainter herd path drops off L (E). The trail turns S at a gully, and from there, the herd path gradually fades as one travels south through the pines, mahogany and manzanita.
After crossing relatively flat ground, the “wall” is right in your face. When seen close-up, the “wall” appears rather tame. In this view up, the crux looks deceptively easy.
I climbed up the class 2 ramps, and got to the shoulder, then waited about 20 minutes till CP popped over the edge. He was anxious to see how I would pick a route on the crux, so he intentionally lagged as I picked my way up the ramps. The next picture shows the crux from above; it looks rather mellow, but bear in mind that the ledges are horizontal, so the sandstone is actually at about 50 degrees average.
The tree on the R is often used as a rap anchor or belay point. There are actually two routes up the crux; one can take the series of ramps (as CP is doing in the photo), or one can take low class 5 crack (hidden by the tree). Rock climbers often prefer the crack, since the exposure on the ramps can be unnerving, and the tree provides a good belay spot.
After the crux, one crosses to the left (SE) side of the ridge, and contours to the next tough spot; a class 3+ climb up a 5’ wall, assisted by a tree. Now one picks a way diagonally through class 3 terrain to an easy but exposed 4 class move -- a “reach-around” on an awkward corner. The latter has a very good finger crack for the move, but sticky rubber shoes help with confidence. From there the chossy summit ridge beckons, and the views are superb.
The route down is a bit creepier, but there are ample trees for anchors, and many people rap the iffier sections. We used no ropes; I was buoyed by CP’s confidence (this was his 4th trip), but we soon found that other people had different perceptions.
As we came off the lowest class 4 crux, we noticed a fellow with an immense coil of rope, seemingly stuck at the bottom of the crux. We showed him the best way to mount the ramp system; he looked at us rather doubtfully, then explained that he used to be a regular technical climber, but hadn’t climbed for 25 years. He was a nice fellow, and CP (being an even nicer fellow) instantly volunteered to show him the way up NGA. I declined the chance to climb NGA twice in a day, and opted to head back to the cars quickly, tell CP’s waiting girlfriend about the delay, and drive home.
As it turned out, NGA was not a good place for the fellow to reacquaint with rock scrambling, and the experience underlined how much slower a trip becomes when one must set up ropes. CP set up four belays, before the fellow started a 5-minute rockslide that ended his summit bid. CP held this 200+ lb. fellow on belay for 5 minutes; the guest was shaken but unharmed, but decided not to try for the summit. They rapped back down to the shoulder, and all went home.
South Guardian Angel (SGA), 7140 feet
Historically, this hike has been viewed as incredibly hard, requiring a perfect confluence of good conditions. There is no easy way to get to the mountain without first descending into some deep dark canyon, which (of course) must be re-ascended on the way back. The original DPS route required at least two days, plus a Zion Subway permit; the latter is difficult to get, and if the weather doesn’t cooperate on your chosen day; well, sorry Charlie. Even though the peak is less than 200’ higher than the trailhead, the end of the day may find you have an accumulated elevation gain over 4000’ – and not on easy terrain.
However, CP published a book on Zion summit routes, and the book outlined a way to get to SGA without descending the length of the Subway – thus no permit would be required. Still, CP advised 12-16 hours. Another friend, Mike C, had meticulous GPS logs for part of the route, and noted that they had completed the route in about 10.5 hours. However, Mike was in great shape at the time.
I had discussed this alternate route with Ed F and Luba in October 2010, and they seemed intrigued; suddenly the trip became an exciting possibility. The trouble was time; it was now late October, and there were only 11 hours between sunrise and sunset. Because of brain damage, I can’t balance well in the dark, so we would have to keep an even and determined pace, starting before dawn if we could. We would camp overnight close to the trailhead, rather than start driving from Vegas at some ungodly hour on the day of the hike. So on October 26th, we drove up from Vegas and headed up to the Kolob Terrace Road, to a BLM “dispersed” camp site at ~6000’ elevation.
The next morn would have a waning gibbous moon that would be almost full, and would still be out and overhead before dawn – perfect for an early start. The night was chilly, but we managed to get packed up in the wee hours of October 27 and hit the Wildcat Trail before sunrise. The sandy ground - wetted by rains the week before - was frozen, so walking was easy. Soon a large herd of elk (perhaps 40) ran across the trail. As always, Luba was amused by my clothes (shorts) while she and Ed were bundled up in parkas. We hit the NGA overlook at first light, descended across the scrub N of NGA, turned E, and prepared to descend into terra incognita.
The goal now was to find the correct rock rib for a descent into West Canyon. This is the same canyon that contains the famous “Subway;” we were aiming to hit the canyon at a break in the 100’ cliffs, at the exact point where the route to SGA climbs up the other side. We found cairns on the route, which we were able to follow till we were about 300’ vertical above the river. When the cairns ended, we cut right, and descended a slippery chute to a bench. (It turns out that we could have descended left, but that sure wasn’t obvious at the time.) From the bench, we examined one very creepy possibility, before heading N (L) and finding a cairn. It still wasn’t a “gimme;” we ended up cutting R into an even dirtier gully, “swung from trees” (to quote Gerry Roach), and magically ended up at the river, just above the Subway.
We took a break at the river, cached some water, and noticed it was quite dark. The camera flash went off when taking pictures. The sky above was bright, but walls were high and shut out light.
Soon we started the ascent up the east side of the river. The DPS vaguely reported a “class 4” section ahead. The old DPS reports are famous for sandbagging; we fortunately didn’t know the short section had recently been dubbed class 5.4.
I tried going up the R side of this section, and found my pack catching on the rock, so I threw my pack down to Luba and Ed – forgetting that my webbing went with the pack.
I went to the L side and climbed an incredibly slimy, mud-covered nasty pitch… and found I had no webbing to place as a handline, or to haul packs! Next followed a comedic 20 minutes, as Luba tried to throw me enough webbing to haul packs and secure a handline. Finally I looped my webbing belt around a bush, and was able to lean out and catch the webbing on my foot! Once we had a handline and could haul packs, Luba and Ed followed up this slimy, nasty section, and we headed up the relatively easy class 3, to a use trail that brought us once more into the sun, on the E lip of the canyon. I was grateful that Ed had convinced me to bring rope, because I was pretty sure we were not going to downclimb the DPS “class 4” section unprotected.
(I later found that we could have avoided the 5.4 and gone up a class 3+ - class 4 section indicated in this report.)
Now at the E lip of the canyon, we entered a different world. We walked up stream drainages, and crossed fantastic sandstone landscapes.
Now it was mainly a delightful class 2 slog up the ridgeline. We crossed over a thin but very deep crevice, and hit the “class 3-4” section below the summit. As we were all used to skuzzy traverses at Red Rock, this section didn’t present much of a challenge; yet the Sierra Club suggests protecting it with a handline (I can’t imagine how, unless one has about 300’ of rope).
The top was delightful, almost surreal. We had taken just four hours to reach the summit! The register was wet, so we wrote our names on the back of one of my phony business cards.
(Two weeks later, a friend, who had long sought SGA, found the phony business card and sent me an e-mail requesting this service for her business!)
We were giddy and a bit overconfident on the way down, speculating we might get to Vegas in time for the October LVMC meeting. But we were slowing down. We rapped down the slimy class 5.4, and began an arduous ascent back up the dirty gullies on the W side of the river. At one point Ed pronounced, “this is dreadful.”
We got back to the car, 9.5 hours after we left, with 1.5 hours of daylight remaining. Theoretically we could make it back in time for the LVMC meeting, but we opted instead for a civilized dinner at McD’s; a discussion of Joel’s former love for McNuggets; Rackmaninoff; and the speed limit on I-15. I slept well that night.
*Perhaps that seems like a lot, but CP has climbed about 130 peaks in Zion.
MT. TIPTON & GRAND WASH CLIFFS HIGHPOINT (Ynnek Peak)
I have driven by this notable peak outside Dolan Springs, AZ almost 500 times on the way to the Grand Canyon West Rim as a tour guide for Pink Jeep Tours. Recently, I decided I really need to say I've hiked to the top of that peak. Therefore, I organized a multi-day trip to climb this peak along with other peaks I found interesting that I've passed by often.
Peppe Sotomayor, Ed Forkos, Luba Leef, and Tom Gallia joined me for this trip. We all left Las Vegas in three different vehicles about 06:00 arriving at Hwy 93 and Pierce Ferry Rd about 07:30. The trip is faster now that the Hoover Dam Bypass and road expansion construction past the Dam is complete, saving about 20 minutes each way. From that point we drove further up Pierce Ferry Rd. turning right on 5th St. For reference, there is a large Joshua Tree just after the road. We traveled on the dirt road for 4.4 miles before turning left onto another dirt road for 0.3 miles reaching a BLM gate. A worn sign tells you to travel no more than 1.2 miles beyond the gate. There is a chain with a clip holding the gate closed. Simply close it after the last vehicle. Along the way to the trailhead we noticed a very nice open spot on the left to use as our campsite. It is actually a parking lot since there is a trail marker with a register to the right. We continued until a metal gate prevented any vehicle from proceeding further.
We started the hike at 08:26 traveling up this old 4x4 dirt road for about 1 mile. At that point we all debated as to which route to follow. Harlan (from a past trip) had indicated we should follow a wash a little further up the road and to our left when looking at the peak. Instead, we proceeded to push through the brush for ¾ of a mile paralleling the wash until finally dropping into the wash. On the way back, we went through the wash which was much nicer and prettier. Therefore, for future trips make sure you follow the wash.
A very important tip to consider on this trip is to wear long pants and a long shirt. Otherwise, you have to be very masochistic since this is a very brushy route. We continued up the wash to the low point of the ridgeline leading to the peak. There was a little climbing to reach that point. The wind was picking up in advance of the major cold front rolling into the region soon. The weather was mostly overcast making the trip cooler, so layers were also important for this trip. We then went up the ridgeline which required some climbing, mostly class 2 with minor class 3. The south wind was making the climb more difficult. Therefore, we dropped down to the right for a less precarious route. We couldn't go down to the left of the ridgeline because there were cliffs, although, we found the right side was very brushy. We should have continued along the ridgeline; on the way back we went down the ridgeline the entire way. An advantage to our route was finding a very horny young tarantula at 6,400 feet looking for a mate late in the season. We also came across very large old manzanitas with half their trunks smooth red and the other half devoid of red - interesting sight at this elevation.
After the ridgeline we all of a sudden came upon an unexpected Ponderosa forest. However, it makes sense as this is their proper elevation. Soon we saw the peak and then summitted. Peppe pushed ahead of us and came down quickly saying he couldn't find a registry. He was thus going to climb another minor peak as a bonus. The rest of us went to the peak reaching it at 12:04. We found and signed into the registry. The last entry was in March - definitely a not so well-visited peak. The views weren't good due to the overcast skies, and it was windy and cold. We stayed on the peak for 16 minutes and then descended quickly. There was still time for me to make my customary call to my parents whenever I have cell reception on a peak. I'll have to come back again on a clear day for a better view, although I was able to make out the northern portion of the Grand Canyon West Rim.
On the way down I was quite hungry, but no one else was. We stopped, away from the wind, for me to have my typical "complex sandwich." The descent on the ridgeline was also very windy. We had to be careful on the rocks. After the ridgeline, we traveled down the wash which was a better choice instead of the open desert. We finished the hike at 15:46. The trip took us 7h 20m for 7.8 miles with about 3,500 elevation gain. We drove back to the campsite settling in for the night. The night skies were disappointing since it was still overcast. I was really interested in seeing the stars, but instead enjoyed a very bright and prominent moon. Instead, I (sarcastically) enjoyed the Dolan Springs skyline with the Las Vegas glow in the distance. The main glow was about the size of your hand with your arm extended out while the secondary glow took up a larger part of the sky.
The winds were strong and got stronger throughout the night. They were probably about tropical storm force sustained during the evening. Peppe and I slept in tents, while the others slept in their cars. It was interesting setting up our tents with the wind. Peppe and I didn't sleep well at all that night. Thankfully the wind was coming from the south so it was warm. Otherwise, a northern flow would have made this trip brutal. The rain flap on my tent (even though I staked it down) was flapping against my tent the entire night. Peppe spent the entire night with an ab workout since his tent opening was facing south lifting his tent and legs constantly. He was fighting all night to keep his tent down. By sunrise his tent ripped open. He was struggling to get out, and I couldn't help because I was taking pictures of his tent. :) We had breakfast and then drove into Dolan Springs.
Grand Wash Cliffs Highpoint (i.e., Ynnek Peak)
We continued to our next peak which was the Grand Wash Cliffs highpoint. We drove up Pierce Ferry Rd turning right onto a paved road at mile marker 42 called Diamond Bar Rd. The first 5 miles of the 14 mile road leading to the Grand Canyon West Rim on the Hualapai Reservation (home of the Skywalk) was paved the Summer of 2009. At mile marker 8, we parked on the north side off the dirt road to start our hike. I picked the spot because it was past a sign indicating private land for the Diamond Bar Ranch everyone passes through on the way to the West Rim.
We started traveling through the open desert with lots of Joshua Trees (I mean lots-the region has the most I've ever seen in the Mohave Desert) at 08:56 heading towards a wash. The route is easy since all you had to do was follow the wash until it ends. There were only two walled obstacles. The first one is noted by a large pinnacle 1.6 miles into the hike. The wall is not climbable without very good skill and perhaps rope. Therefore, we simply went around it. The wind really picked up at this point; Peppe even commented that it almost blew him away. Along the route before that first wall, Peppe found a very interesting petrified bighorn sheep horn. We admired it and left it on a rock as a cairn for future trips. As a matter of fact, we were surprised to find several cairns on the route.
The second walled obstacle was reached about 0.6 miles later. This one though is climbable as a minor class 3. About 0.2 miles later, we reached the end of the wash where it forks. It doesn't matter which one you take. We went up the left one and came down the right one. The next part is the only tough section due it's steepness, about 30% in 1/3 mile for 600 feet elevation gain. We reached the left side of the cliff only to realize when we got closer that we could have taken a slightly shorter route up one of the cracks in the cliff.
Upon reaching the highpoint at 11:11, we looked around for a registry, but couldn't find one. We thought it odd to have found a number of cairns along the way, but no registry on the peak. Therefore, we placed our own registry at this highpoint. Someone had the idea of naming it after my son, Kenny, with his name backwards. Therefore, this highpoint is now officially called Ynnek Peak. It is located at N35 54.701 W113 58.733 at 6,024 feet.
We didn't spend much time on the peak, only 22 minutes, because it was cold with a wind due to the approaching strong cold front. On the way down again I was the only one hungry so we stopped for me to eat another of my "complex sandwiches" while the others snacked. Peppe took off as usual and met us at the cars. We finished the hike at 13:37. The trip took us 4h 41m for 5.9 miles with about 1,800 elevation gain.
Afterwards, I had an interest in visiting the Diamond Bar Ranch since I've passed by it so often. It was nice to know what's there. We paid $15 for their so-called Buffalo Burger. It was good, but not great. We talked with the employees and found out we were actually trespassing during our hike since that area was still their property. They said they were fine with day hikers enjoying the area, just not hunters. I had intended on camping around mile marker 9 at the Joshua Tree turnout figuring that was BLM land. It turns out that was still the rancher's land and they would have not been happy with us camping unless we obtained prior permission from the owner.
We watched a western style gunfight and then decided to call the trip short due to the approaching storm. We weren't very interested in camping with near freezing temperatures and strong winds with either snow or rain resulting in muddy conditions and then probably aborting the climb to the other peaks the next day due to bad conditions. It turns out we made the right call, since there was a significant amount of snow on the Music Mountains the next day. In any case, it was good to bag a couple peaks in the area. I'll have to come back some other day with better conditions and bag additional peaks.
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