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It was a long drive, to say the least. Courtney thought it a bit nuts, but didn't say anything until later. His own drive from Las Vegas would be less than three hours. I left San Jose around 4p, struggling through rush hour traffic getting out of town on southbound US101. I refueled in the Central Valley, Las Vegas and again in St. George, driving almost continuously through the late afternoon and all of the night. The giant thermometer in Baker was broken and the Starbucks has been closed - the two best things about Baker (I'm still not convinced the Mad Greek is worthy of its hype). The stars above the Mojave desert were bright and surreal on a moonless night as I streaked across the landscape. I listened to various radio programs from NPR to preachers to conspiracy radio to oldies on "The Drive." Las Vegas was a blur of colored lights and annoying, flashing billboards that told of the riches to be had in Sin City and the wonders of having an inflatable constriction band surgically installed around your stomach. I drove over three state border crossings on my way to southern Utah where Zion is located. I arrived around 4:30a, the only car in the dirt lot off Kolob Rd. I wasted no time in crawling in the back for some welcome sleep. I had managed several hours of nap time in the afternoon, but this additional hour and a half would make a world of difference.
I woke up around 6a when the first of three cars arrived over the next twenty minutes. I figured Courtney would come over to wake me up if it was him, so I went back to sleep without checking. I got up after the third car pulled in next to me, thinking one of them must be him. I was dressed in only a minute and found Courtney outside talking to another hiker. I assumed he had invited others to join us, but in fact it was just coincidental that the other two cars had come around the same time. After a very short introduction, we shouldered our packs and headed out.
It is most unusual when I don't either lead a hike or know where I'm going in case we get separated. I had perused the route options over the past few days, but did not pay sufficient attention to them to navigate easily on my own. I was trusting to the skills of the guide book author and was not disappointed. Courtney in fact has climbed both of the peaks multiple times, I came to find out, and was intimate with the tricky canyons and side canyons and gullies from countless excursions into the Zion backcountry. It was evident from the very start that I was in good hands.
We followed a route that leads down into Russell Gulch and eventually down to the Left Fork (referring to the North Creek tributary that flows through the Great West Canyon, home of the famous Subway). Sunrise came to the higher summits as we made our way down the Gulch, with fleeting views of both South and North Guardian Angels. A rap sling was found around a tree just before the last short drop to Left Fork, but Courtney simply scoffed at it as he led us down an alternate class 3 route.
In the canyon there was water flowing, though not all that much at this time of year and not looking very inviting. Luckily we each carried nearly a gallon of water or Gatorade and would have plenty of fluids without having to search for some on the way. We paused here briefly to allow Courtney to empty his shoes of sand - his low tops would collect far more sand and debris than my high-topped boots over the course of the day.
After returning his feet to the protection of his shoes, Courtney led us out of the canyon's south side by climbing through a narrow cleft in the rock that was barely wide enough to get our bodies past. We spent the next two hours wandering the maze of canyons to find our way to the base of South Guardian Angel. The time went by pleasantly as we found no lack of things to talk about. We had several climbing partners in common and being consummate peakbaggers had much the same type of goals as well. We touched on politics, ecology, SummitPost and a host of other topics, perhaps missing only a discussion of recent anthropogenic global warming trends. The scenery around us was outstanding of course, and I drank it all in as a newborn does its mother's milk. Courtney had seen these peaks, mesas, and canyons hundreds of times and was as familiar to them as I was to the Sierra, so I understood why his sense of awe was not as heightened as mine and why he didn't even bother to bring a camera along. We talked about the park's history, the indifference shown by some of the rangers, the geology and many other aspects of Zion. I would have liked to take in many more hours of his knowledge and experience, but there just aren't that many hours in a day - luckily I have his guidebook to fill in many of the blanks.
It was 9:15a when we started up the terraced slickrock to the base of South Guardian Angel's NE Ridge. Slickrock I came to find out is another word for sandstone. Not just garden variety sandstone, but layered sandstone with any given layer being anywhere from a quarter inch to several inches. These can be piled, layer upon layer for thousands of feet. Most of Zion's grandeur and much of Utah's Canyonlands are composed almost entirely of sandstone, laid down over eons in what was believed to be Earth's greatest sand dunes, hardened and compacted by great pressure over many additional eons. The hardness of the rock varies considerably, even over short distances. Some can be nearly as hard as granite while other sections are little more than compact sand that fall apart as one steps on them. Water softens the rock and makes it considerably more dangerous and climbers are urged to avoid climbing until the rock has had a chance to dry. The various hues of red, orange and white owe their coloration to the presence or absence of iron oxides. One has to take time to gain a "feel" for the rock and what angles can be safely climbed with the friction available on one's shoes. Today's objectives were good beginner test pieces, difficulties in the YDS class 3-4 range. The South Guardian Angel's NE Ridge starts off with a low-angled pitch, gradually increasing as one climbs higher. For the most part I simply followed Courtney's footsteps, but eventually branched out on my own in slightly different variations as I gained confidence in my footing. From the base of the mountain, it took less than twenty minutes to reach the summit.
It was just past 9:30a when we landed on top. A register found there dated back only half a year, with no solid container to hold it, just a plastic bag tucked under a rock. The views were expansive and spectacular, as one might expect. Colorful sandstone canyons and eroded towers could be seen in all directions. North Guardian Angel dominates the view to the north across the chasm of the Left Fork. To the south and southeast were the large features that tower over Zion Canyon, the main attractions of the park. Signal Mountain could be seen many miles to the west. Courtney apologized ahead of time for a sin he was about to commit - making a cell phone call from the backcountry summit. A fan of the Grateful Dead since a teenager, he wanted to buy tickets for their San Francisco venue (the band is now called "Furthur", named after Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters' famous bus from the 1960s) which went on sale at 10a PDT. Courtney thought I might be offended by the cell phone usage, but that was hardly the case. In fact we both made calls to our significant others while we were waiting an additional 15 minutes for the 10a release.
Business concluded, we headed down the same route, back to a drainage NE of Guardian Angel Pass where Courtney had cached a half gallon of water on our way up. After retrieving the water we headed north, dropping down into The Subway via a steep class 3 route. A use trail was evident as we followed the popular DPS route that approaches South Guardian from The Subway. Voices could be heard deep in the canyon while we were still several hundred feet above the floor of the canyon. It sounded like a large party, a myriad of voices constantly bouncing up the canyon walls from below. This was of no surprise as The Subway is one of the most popular adventure routes in the park, requiring advance permits for a limited number of slots (about 50 per day). It was 11a when we reached the Left Fork. A party of 8-9 were working along a rope that had been strung about 20 feet above the south side of the creek. The group was attempting to get around a small waterfall that they did not want to rappel into. In mid-October, the waters were icily cold and without a wetsuit they were finding The Subway could be mightly uncomfortable. Another pair of adventurers came down the canyon while we were watching the first party for a few minutes. One of the two was wearing heavy jeans that were soaked through. He put on a brave face, though, declaring it "wasn't too bad." It certainly looked cold.
After a few minutes we started up the north side of the canyon, following another steep gully up through the cliff walls. Our route went under a canopy of trees in brilliant fall colors. The ground we tread was thick with mulch and dirt that made for decent footing. Once a few hundred feet above the canyon we paused to let Courtney empty his shoes again. There was a fine view looking down to the Subway below, the voices starting to trail off into the lower canyon. As we continued upwards, I was startled by a sharp yell from Courtney who had nearly stepped on a rattlesnake coiled neatly in the pocket of a rock. It had given no audible warning and was only just seen as Courtney was about to step on it. As I took a picture and we examined it closer, it just sat there coiled, making no sound. Though it was blocking the main route, we eventually found a way around it and let it be, happy to avoid an unpleasant encounter.
Climbing higher, we approached North Guardian Angel from the southeast, passing by its colorful sandstone slopes on that side, seeking out the NE Ridge by which the peak is most easily climbed. It was nearly 12:15p when we took a short break on the shoulder of the NE Ridge, giving Courtney yet another opportunity to empty his shoes of sand. The remaining climb was accomplished in about 25 minutes. A tougher scramble than its southern neighbor, North Guardian's NE Ridge features a short but steep section that can be aided by a convenient pine tree and another bit requiring a fingertip traverse. It was 12:40p when we reached the summit. The views found there extended across the Kolob Plateau to the north, but otherwise were not as spectacular as those found on South Guardian.
Retracing our route back down the NE Ridge, we continued north to pick up a use trail leading through the pass between Northgate Peaks where the terminus of the maintained trail is found. I considered briefly suggesting we climb Northgate Peaks while we were passing by, but I had no doubt Courtney had been up both of these minor features countless times and would probably have little interest. As they are a short distance from the trailhead, I could always come back another time. We returned to the trailhead at 2p, making the RT time for both summits at something under 8hrs - not bad considering I thought it might take more then 12-15hrs initially.
Courtney was eager to head home to his girlfriend and dinner plans. I had nowhere in particular to go, so I figured I might try my luck at a few summits solo with the remainder of the afternoon. Courtney had mentioned nearby Pocket Mesa as an easy bonus, one mile RT with only a few hundred feet of gain. Simple, right? Not so, I came to find. I found a place to park along the road easily enough and had the summit dialed in with my GPS. Courtney had mentioned a "short bushwhack" which was quite true, but of a rather nasty variety. Leaving the road I initially encountered little resistence, but once atop a knoll I found myself clawing my way through thick stands of stuff way over my head, dry and dusty and just downright mean. I found some clear sailing after this, crossing an equestrian trail that seemed to come from nowhere, and then through a hundred yards of manzanita to the summit. True to its name the summit is flatish and indistinct and nearly devoid of views thanks to dense growth about the summit area. And though it took but 25 minutes to reach the summit, it had seemed like an hour and Zion was no longer feeling like paradise. Yuck.
I tried to follow the equestrian trail on the way back, thinking it ought to intersect the road or something to get me back more easily. But where it veered off away from the road I found myself once again in thick brush over my head trying to get back to the road. More Yuck. As I got back in the car and started down the road, I noticed that there is thick brush in many areas on both sides of the road. This park was not like Yosemite and much of the High Sierra where cross-country travel was fun and easy. No, this was more like the Southern Sierra that is similarly covered in manzanita and other heavy brush.
It was just past 3p at this point so I figured I'd give things another try. I drove back to the Wildcat TH and headed off to Pine Valley Peak no more than a quarter mile away. I had first read Courtney's route description in his book and tossed it into my pack in case I should need to refer to it. Not much brush on this approach and things were looking up. The route I chose, the easiest described, is rated 5.5 which would normally have me a bit worried going solo. But on one of the earlier peaks Courtney had pointed out a 5.6 crack variation that I easily soloed and thought to be more like class 3-4. So I had it in the back of my mind that the ratings in Zion might be a bit soft and hoped I would find Pine Valley Peak similarly easy to scramble. Once again, not so. The ratings given for this one seemed fairly accurate. I was able to make it up the first class 5.5 slabby section, though I admit it was a bit dicey and I was going slowly and methodically. The second 5.5 section looked more difficult to me and I balked, though 3/4 of the way up the side of the peak. It involved an exposed corner that didn't look at all safe followed by more difficulties that I couldn't see an obvious way through above that. A partner and rope would offer at least psychological help. I turned around.
Returning once again to the car, I was decidedly not liking the soloing aspects of Zion. Though we had reached our main objectives, the two DPS peaks that I had come for, I was in a bit of funk as the afternoon wore on. I wasn't in the mood for bushwhacking and dicey scrambles on suspect sandstone. I began to think maybe I would drive out to Navajo Mtn afterall to finish off the DPS list - at least that one I knew was an easy hike. Problem was I didn't have a road atlas with me and I hadn't studied the driving route ahead of time very well. My GPS had major roads on it, but it did not do well to distinguish the correct roads once inside the Navajo Reservation. I figured I might have to drive back to St.George to get a map, a longish drive in the wrong direction. I stopped at a gas station market at La Verkin but could not find a road map of any kind. I headed north out of La Verkin hoping Cedar City in that direction might be closer than St. George (it isn't). By the time I got to I-15 at Anderson Junction, I didn't have any firm plan in place - where I'd go or even where I'd sleep that night - and felt adrift. In a bit of a funk, I pulled out my GPS and looked up Signal Mtn, the highpoint of Washington County. I traced the trails shown near the summit down the east side of the peak to the Oak Glen Campground, and then traced the roads back to I-15. I was only 4 miles from the exit, it turned out. I suddenly had a plan I liked. What I didn't know was that there was seven miles of dirt road driving, but most of this was in fairly good shape and navigable by any vehicle. It was around 7p when I came up against a locked gate before reaching the campground. The CG itself was closed, but I was only a mile away. I found a relatively flat place to park the car and crawled in the back for sleep. I didn't really need dinner as much as sleep and it took only a short time to drift off...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: South Guardian Angel - North Guardian Angel
This page last updated: Tue Apr 23 12:37:03 2019
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