Category Archives: Utah

Notch

Cliffs from summit


Notch Peak is a landmark on the endless drive east across Greater Nevada on Highway 6 between Ely and Delta. From the west, it is an unremarkable tree-covered uplift, but its east side is a wall of multi-thousand-foot choss cliffs. I had noticed it a few years ago on a previous drive, looking it up on Peakbagger as I sped by at 70 MPH (er… drove by at a sober 65). To save money and sanity, I try to minimize long drives across Nevada, but I do maintain a to-do list of peaks to break them up, and Notch was near the top. This time I finally got it done.

Sign and not-Notch

Not wanting to sleep right off the highway, I drove a mile or so down a dirt road until I could find a wide enough place to park, and set off by bike from there. I initially wasted some time when Maps.me led me on a possibly more direct but far worse road to the trailhead. Belatedly looking at the Peakbagger tracks I had downloaded, I corrected course on another disused road, then took the well-graded dirt north and west toward the trailhead. The road was fine for passenger cars up to a shaded picnic spot, where a much rougher road headed southwest. This road was mostly Subaru-able, but had one steep and rutted climb that had defeated one SUV driver. I found a Bronco and another SUV at the trailhead, where I locked my bike to the sign, changed into hiking clothes, and set out.

Scrambly bit

The relatively popular trail follows a narrow canyon most of the way, and was therefore pleasantly shaded at this time of year. It is mostly an easy and brush-free walk, with a few rock steps and a short section of easy third class. I passed several people in two groups along the way, a remarkable crowd for such a remote peak even on a weekend. I also noticed a large bird flying from tree to tree ahead of me, which turned out to be some sort of owl, about the size of a hawk and too timid for me to get a good photo.

Final east face

The trail eventually climbs out of the wash, heading northwest up a hillside to the ridge east of the summit, from which one has the first clear view of the peak’s striking cliffs. I paused for a minute there, then continued up the rocky east face, following a network of braided trails mixed with easy slabs to the summit cairn, perched on the edge of a north-facing cliff. There was no register, but I found an old straw hat inside a hat-sized rock house. I sat for awhile near the cliff west of the summit, taking in the view of familiar and unfamiliar peaks all around. Swasey sat unimpressively to the north, while ultra-prominence peaks Wheeler, North Schell, and Ibapah were visible to the west and northwest. The next day’s peak, Mount Moriah, rose nearby on the other side of the Tule Valley.

I passed back through the two groups on my way down, stopping to talk to the second, an extended family from Delta out for a weekend hike in their “local” mountains, a mere fifty or so miles’ drive away on the far shore of the dry Sevier Lake. I imagined that these wholesome- and healthy-looking Mormons were descendants of the original settlers of Delta, commanded by Brigham Young to go forth and make that piece of land bear fruit. Today Delta, Hinckley, and Eskdale are hardly bustling cities, but their small communities endure.

Swasey

Approaching upper mountain


When storms make the Rockies unpleasant, there is always a refuge in the Great Basin desert, or “Greater Nevada.” The region, extending beyond Nevada itself to include parts of Utah, Idaho, California, and Arizona, contains few people and many highly-prominent peaks. If these peaks were not mostly piles of rubble covered in woody brush, it would be a peak-bagger’s paradise. I was planning to meet some folks near the Utah-Nevada border, and had a couple of extra days, so I decided to spend them tagging prominence points along Highway 6.

Swasey and commerce

The first was Swasey Peak, about twenty miles of dirt road and three miles of hiking from the highway. In the past I would have happily driven as far as possible, but now I am older, my car less capable, and I would rather spend money on food and improve my fitness than spend it on gas and wear out my car. So I slept near the highway, then rode my bike across the endless basin toward the peak. Along the way I passed one camper, a muddy little pond with a fence through it, a herd of wild horses, and several signs leading me to a “U-dig trilobite quarry.” I have always wanted to find a trilobite, and have seen only one in the wild near Mount Assiniboine, where it would have been both illegal and impractical to take. But the idea of paying some petty, pathetic BLM-land squatter with an excavator to pick through his pile of rocks felt little better than buying one at a rock shop.

Trailhead and Tule Valley from summit

So I rode straight by, grinding up a steep climb to a sloping plateau, then continuing around to the mountain’s west side on rolling terrain. I rode past the parking area a short distance on a faint road, then locked my bike in the shade of a juniper and changed into hiking pants. I found a faint use trail beyond the road, which headed generally up and left toward the peak’s north ridge. The trail was very faint, so I eventually lost it in the typical desert mix of piñons, woody brush, and limestone scree. Giving up, I continued thrashing up and left until the trail appeared again, steeper and more obvious, heading back up and right toward the summit. The trail faded when it reached the ridge, but thankfully the terrain was mostly easy and brush-free the rest of the way to the summit.

Swasey is slightly higher and much less dramatic than its neighbor to the south, Notch Mountain, a landmark along Highway 6 and my next goal. It therefore has a commanding view of the barren Tule Valley on its steep west side, and the sparse trees do little to block the views in other directions. I found an eye bolt in a block of cement, some remnants of a survey station, and the typical Utah summit mailbox, containing an excellent old MacLeod and Lilley register. I lounged around a bit, then tried to retrace my steps on the descent. This worked until I entered the trees, where I once again lost the trail. I tried cutting back and forth a bit, but did not regain it until I was almost back at my bike. From there it was a quick twenty miles, generally downhill, back to the car. Amazingly, there were a few cars parked at the trilobite mine, but I was anxious to get out of this remote corner of the desert. No fossils for me this time…

Kletting, A-1, East Hayden

Kletting and A-1


My need to be online in the evenings prevented me from visiting any of the remote trailheads accessing the 13ers, which lack cell service, but the peaks around Agassiz are well within a day’s radius of Kamas. Ostler and points east seemed too far for easy access, but A-1 and East Hayden had looked interesting on my trip to Hayden with Eric, Sam, and Greg, and it seemed that I could link them in a short, steep cross-country loop. All are above 12,000 feet, and A-1 has over 1000 feet of prominence. Presumably it is not named for the steak sauce, or for a local plumber or towing service wanting to appear first in the yellow pages (kids, ask your parents what those were).

Wyoming from Kletting

I drove over Bald Mountain Pass again, and parked at a random pullout that was roughly closest to the saddle between Hayden and Kletting. The forest is generally open with little deadfall or brush, so I had an easy time descending to the creek/marsh that is the Hayden Fork, which I crossed on a convenient log. Once on the other side, I climbed through steepening woods and eventually semi-open slopes with some scree and brush, but generally good game trails. Once on the ridge, it was a straightforward walk to Kletting, where I tagged the two main talus bumps, unsure which was higher. I admired the distant storms in all directions, not yet threatening me but foretelling wetness in my future.

East Hayden, Agassiz, Hayden

From Kletting, I followed the broad ridge to A-1, staying near the crest to find the most stable rocks. The summit had a register with a few familiar names and mention of an embarrassingly-named “Crusher Loop,” which I was happy to avoid. The storms were getting closer, but my immediate area remained dry and sunny, and I do not melt in water, so I decided to keep going. I had scoped out the ridge’s south side as I made my way over Kletting, and there looked to be an easy path through the cliffs near the last saddle before A-1. I found a fair amount of loose talus and brush, but my route worked well enough, and I was soon in the forests of West Basin.

The gully

I felt a few raindrops here, and the clouds were closing in, but nothing looked too serious, so I decided to continue toward East Hayden, which I guessed would take me a couple of hours. The woods here were much less pleasant than those along the Hayden Fork, with brush, blow-downs, and undulations. Fortunately this seldom-visited basin harbors a healthy population of elk, whose trails I could sometimes follow to ease my passage. I briefly picked up the seldom-used human trail just below Kermsuh Lake, then took off for the chute to its east that seemed the best way to reach East Hayden’s north ridge.

I’m gonna get wet

The talus in this chute was miserably loose, but fortunately this had all been scoured away in a narrow runnel, which I followed up the right branch. My runnel ended as the chute merged into the west face, and I picked my way up and right, staying below the crest and weaving through short cliff-bands with a bit of third class climbing. I reached the ridge perhaps a couple hundred yards from the top, and stayed on it through some possibly-optional fourth class climbing to the summit cairn. I was definitely going to get soaked, and soon, so I wasted little time before reversing my route, lest I also get lightning-ed. The rain began near where I regained the runnel, and intensified as I picked my way down the loose talus to the lake.

Storm passing

I crossed Kermsuh Lake’s outflow on a log bridge, then made my way toward the head of the valley on open slabs and through easy forest. I got a decent soaking but, as expected in the Rockies, the storm soon passed, and I was reasonably dry and happy by the time I reached the Hayden-Kletting saddle. I took a different route down, finding the same easy travel higher up, and some good scree-skiing, but worse woods and bogs lower down. The woods were still wet, and I managed to bash my shin slipping on some deadfall, yielding some blood. I continued the short distance back to the car, bandaged myself up, and returned to Kamas to check the forecast. With increasing chances for storms in the coming days, it was about time to move on.

Notches, Watson, Bald, Reids

Watson and lake


With good weather persisting in the Uintas, I wanted to spend a bit more time getting to know the range. I thanked Eric once again for hosting me, packed up the car, and left Salt Lake clean, well-rested, and relatively early. Still, it was a long drive back up to the mountains, so I chose to tag a few snack-sized peaks near Highway 150 around Bald Mountain Pass. At 10,700 feet, it is ridiculously high for being so far north, and offers such easy access to the nearby 11,000-foot peaks that it almost feels like cheating.

Could be anywhere…

My first goal was Mount Watson, a prominent peak south of the pass near a cluster of about twenty of the Unitas’ many lakes with names such as Cliff, Wall, Hidden, Divide, and Linear. The first four names are obviously descriptive, but Linear is not especially long and straight, so perhaps it is named for some local settler named Hiram Linear, and pronounced “li-NEAR.” It looked like a fisherman’s paradise, a sort of subalpine buffet if you have a rod with which to serve yourself. But I was there for the peaks, content to fish with a can opener, and there was a similar spread of small summits. Watson by itself would be unsatisfying, so I picked out a loop over East and West Notch Mountains to its north, with the option to continue to some unnamed 11ers farther west if I felt the urge.

The Notch

After a brief bout of wrong-trail-itis, I found the Wall Lake trail and headed north, jogging some of the gentler sections on my way to Wall Lake, which appeared to be a natural lake expanded by a small earthen dam. The area is a series of benches separated by steep rock steps, with the trail meandering to switchback through breaks in these walls. I continued to Hope Lake, then left the trail to make my way more or less straight towards East Notch. There were a few stretches of deadfall lower down, but the woods were mostly open and easy. Higher up, I found a break in the short cliff-band at the peak’s base, and mostly avoided the krummholtz higher up. I had been worried that the talus would be terribly unstable, but it was mostly painless going uphill. I was soon on the summit, enjoying views of Bald to the northeast, and the Wasatch far to the west.

West Notch from East

From East Notch, I followed the ridge west to avoid side-hilling, then dropped to the notch itself, descending a short third class cliff-band. I crossed the trail, then side-hilled around to the south to avoid cliffs and a subpeak on the way to West Notch. The talus had been largely tamed by grass and trees here, and I found some surprisingly well-developed game trails, making the climb to the ridge after this peak surprisingly easy. From there it was mostly easy walking, with a bit of scrambling to go around or over a few more minor bumps. Unlike the east peak, which is composed entirely of the typical grayish granite, this one’s summit is a small cap of reddish choss. The views were mostly similar, but I had a better perspective on Watson, convincing me that its northwest ridge was the best line of ascent.

I returned to the first saddle, then dropped steeply through the woods. This was the least pleasant part of my loop, a steep mix of ankle-grabbing woods and hardpack. I tried to link game trails higher up, then found a gully that was, if loose, at least brush-free. Crossing the plateau toward Divide Lakes and the base of the ridge, I found several small cliffs, with occasional cairns at convenient breaks. Once on the ridge, I found bits of use trail in the dirt, and plenty of boulder-hopping. I stayed near the crest, and reached the broad summit without any problems. Glancing through the register, I noticed that someone had described the south side as “very steep.” I descended the southeast ridge, downclimbing a few third-class rock bands, then wrapped around northeast until I intersected the trail near Watson Lake. I hike/jogged back to the car, then headed for the even higher Bald Mountain trailhead just below the pass.

Near summit of Bald

Bald is a popular hike, and I met the expected weekday mix of locals on the trail, from couples to small groups of retirees. It is a rewarding summit, with the precipitous north face dropping away to yet more lakes, and the higher peaks around Agassiz rising beyond. Rather than returning down the trail, I picked my way along the annoyingly loose summit plateau, then descended the ridge toward neighboring Reids. While I found occasional bits of use- or game-trail past the saddle this peak sees only a tiny fraction of its neighbor’s traffic. I mostly followed the ridge, steep and loose to the left and vertical to the right, choosing to attack most of the cliff-bands directly rather than contouring around. This provided some third-class amusement, and one bit that was probably low fifth, on rock that was pleasantly solid and blocky.

Reids from Bald

I did not know enough about the range or the locals to make much sense of the register, but I did enjoy one guy’s anxious outpouring. His “lovely wife” was recently pregnant, and he was grappling with his new responsibilities and impending loss of freedom. He clearly needed to talk things through, but it was curious to me that he chose to do so in a summit register. Some people do write these long confessionals to like-minded strangers, and I sometimes read them, but I prefer to just add my name and a few words about my route and/or the weather. If I want to be long-winded about a summit, I can do that here.

I returned to the saddle with Bald, bypassing the steeper downclimbs, picked my way down to the plateau south of the ridge, then meandered through the woods until I picked up the Notch Mountain trail. This section could have been unpleasantly boggy earlier in the year, but I found it mostly dry and crispy. I probably should have jogged back to the car, but was feeling lazy, so I walked and listened to a podcast about decarbonization. I was surprised and somewhat dismayed by the area of wind and solar necessary to reach net zero, even with nuclear and some carbon sequestration. My half-joking suggestion that we pave Nevada with solar panels and bury nuclear waste beneath them is not too far from the truth. I had hoped to add Murdock Peak to my peak-haul, but I was out of time and energy, so I hopped in the car and burned some hydrocarbons on the way back to town.

Hayden, Agassiz, Spread Eagle

Agassiz and Hayden from Spread Eagle


I had visited the Uintas only twice before, once to slog through a horrible slush-bog on a failed attempt at Kings Peak in late May or early June, and again in mid-September to successfully tag this state highpoint and ultra-prominence peak when it was dry. They contain a fair number of remote high peaks, and are between the Tetons and San Juans, so I am not sure why I have avoided them in the past. In any case, the weather was nice and I was in the area for a presentation about bike-mountaineering in the Andes, so Eric, Sam, and I piled into Eric’s car to drive up to their western end near Bald Mountain Pass. Greg met us at the trailhead, and we were soon headed toward Mount Hayden.

Bald and Reids

The others had all been there at least once, but were gracious enough to repeat the route while showing me around their local peaks. We almost immediately turned off the Highline Trail, a stock trail that mostly stays down in the woods, onto a climbers’ trail heading toward the ridge between Hayden and Agassiz. I was happy to just chat with people I had until recently only “known” online, while they handled the navigation. There are evidently two paths to the ridge, a loose gully and a spur ridge with a small scramble, and we took the latter. It was mostly easy travel through open woods and talus, with a short fourth class step near where the spur joined the main ridge.

Hayden from ridge

The Uintas are composed of something like quartzite, a hard, slick rock that makes for fun, blocky climbing, but also creates permanently unstable talus. The crux of many Uinta routes is getting from the valley trails to the ridges, through forest and tediously loose talus slopes. Once on the ridge, we turned north toward Hayden. The summit is guarded by several small cliff-bands, but cairns and a decent use trail led right of the obstacles, which were overcome via short stretches of third class scrambling. The ridge splits here, with one branch continuing north to Kletting, the other east to East Hayden.

Instead of taking either branch, we returned to the Hayden-Agassiz saddle. Eric was feeling out of sorts, and almost headed back from here, but he eventually succumbed to peer pressure, continuing over the first bump where the ridge turns east. Faced with another climb from this next saddle, he could no longer be persuaded to continue, and headed back to the cars, leaving the three of us to make the final 1000-foot climb to Agassiz. I don’t think any of us was feeling 100% — I may have been feeling the effects of my Covid and flu shots the day before — so we hung out for a long time on Agassiz’s summit, perched on a slab above the precipitous north face. Then Greg turned back, and Sam and I continued along the ridge over more bumps to Spread Eagle. It was better to go over the bumps than side-hill on the unstable talus, and I was dragging on the climbs, pushing to stay on Sam’s heels.

Ostler from Spread Eagle

Our initial plan was to continue to Ostler, then return via the valley to the north and the Hayden-Agassiz saddle, but that seemed like more work than either of us wanted to do. Instead we wasted some more time on the summit, then descended back southwest to the lakes below our ridge. The slope was occasionally scree-skiable, but more often consisted of hard dirt or semi-stable talus, making it somewhat tedious. We stopped to empty our shoes at the base, then took off across easy slabs and meadows, finding occasional cairns as we descended into the woods. There we picked up the so-called Highline Trail as it made its dusty way through the forest.

We jogged a few stretches, but neither of us had much energy to dance through the rocks churned up and exposed by thousands of hooves, so it was a long, slow grind back to the trailhead. While we had surprisingly met no hunters on the trail, there were several cars at the trailhead. A confused hiker standing next to the large trailhead sign asked us where the trail was, then a “helpful” Utah cop drove by and asked us if we were having car trouble. Clearly it was time to move on, so we made the long drive back to the city, where Sam dropped me off at Eric’s house, where I enjoyed another night of civilization. I have always avoided Salt Lake City, but thanks to the loose fellowship of peak-baggers (the Brotherhood of the Register?), I have reason to return.

Grand Gulch

They were a small people


[This is longer than my usual reports because I camped out for a change, and if it feels a bit more polished and researched, that is because my co-conspirator Leonie is a Real Writer, and kindly offered to collaborate. — ed.]

Grand Gulch drains most of the west side of Cedar Mesa, a wooded plateau southeast of Moab about 6500 feet above sea level. Running roughly east to west for 50 miles, from Kane Gulch to the San Juan River, the canyon floor ranges from 5500 to 5100 feet and is often wide, sandy and boulder-strewn. Leonie and I hiked from Bullet Canyon to Collins Spring, a distance of about 30 miles, though her Fitbit reckoned we covered almost double that navigating the twists of the canyon floor and scrambling up cliffs to sit with every ruin and pictograph we could find.

The central part of the gulch features sheer 800-foot cliffs of Cedar Mesa sandstone, the remnants of beach from the Permian era. Fossils from the sea floor during this era, about 250 million years ago, display a diverse and thriving marine system, then a swath of corpses. The planet’s third and most catastrophic mass extinction wiped out over 95% of marine life and 70% of terrestrial life; land-based ecosystems took 30 million years to recover. No one is sure what caused this mass extinction, but global warming and ocean acidification certainly contributed. We are currently in the midst of the planet’s sixth mass extinction, but this time we know exactly whom to blame.

Day 1

Big Pouroff “spring”

I wanted to tell her that her tears were wasted water, but neither of us could stop laughing. Our second “reliable water source” in three days was a seven-foot-deep pool of black sludge, its oily surface occasionally disturbed by bubbles from the chemical reactions in its depths. Once the laughter faded, we agreed that we had enough water to last the rest of the trip. This water could be saved for someone more desperate.

Grand Gulch was not on my agenda when I left California to escape the fires and smoke. I am a mountain person, drawn to open views and sharp, easily-catalogued summits, and the Gulch is a uniformly narrow and shallow canyon in a piñon-and-juniper desert plain. However it was conveniently located, and while my previous visit made planning easy, much of it was still new to me. Leonie and I drove over to Collins Gulch to set up a car shuttle, threw a couple gallons of water and what seemed like a few days’ food in our packs, and returned to Bullet Canyon to begin the hike. Ten minutes in, we reached the first spring, a patch of moss under an overhang with an icicle and a thin trickle of water. This did not bode well for the supposedly reliable water sources farther in, so late in a dry year. We dropped our packs, returned to the car to chug as much as we could, then resumed where we had left off.

This first part was familiar from my previous trip, when Renee and I had used Bullet Canyon to visit the northeast part of Grand Gulch on a long run. It is also popular, as the first ruins are close enough to the trailhead for most people to visit them in a day. But the terrain is largely slickrock and sand, where trails do not form, so I still had to pay attention as we alternately followed the wash and bypassed steeper sections to one side or the other. The ruins are also well-hidden on shelves above the valley floor, so despite my having visited both before, we barely found Jailhose Ruin, and I wasted plenty of time and energy failing to find Perfect Kiva.

Where most people turn right at the Grand Gulch junction, we turned left, heading downstream toward the San Juan River. We were just over seven miles from our other car, but covering that distance would take a good part of three days. A seasonal stream has cut the Gulch into a nearly-flat sandstone plateau, so it meanders constantly, and its sides are mostly sheer. Once you enter, you are committed to following its twists and turns, either through deep sand in the wash, or cactus and tamarisk on either side. I could not decide which was least bad, and every time I changed my mind we were forced to slog up and down high banks of loose dirt. As the sun set in our narrow strip of sky, the cold abruptly set in, and we found a sandstone bench above the brush and pooling frigid air to camp. I always struggle with the cold, short days this time of year, particularly while backpacking, and the canyon only made them colder and shorter. On the bright side, we had barely touched our water, so we could survive the next two days with no springs and only a bit of thirst.

Grand Gulch probably has some of the best stargazing in the country. Though it is not particularly high at only around 5000 feet, the air is dry and unpolluted. The nearest town, Mexican Hat, is over twenty miles away, barely inhabited, and hidden in the San Juan River canyon. We were visiting at a particularly opportune time, near both the new moon and the peak of the Leonid meteor showers. Anticipating this, I had brought my “real” camera to practice my night photography, so I was disappointed and annoyed at myself when I found that the cold had drained the battery. So much for my plan to while away the long hours between when it is too dark to hike and a socially-acceptable bedtime. Fortunately we had shooting stars to watch, and Leonie shares my insomnia and is an endless source of crazy stories, so I did not waste my evening with dark thoughts and depressing political podcasts.

Day 2

Side-stream panel


While our campsite was mostly well-chosen, on a flat, clean sandstone bench above the pool of cold air in the wash, it faced north, so the morning routine of hot breakfast wrapped in down took longer than usual. I would ordinarily chafe at wasting any portion of a short November day, but despite the previous day’s battles with sand and shrubbery, I remained confident that we had only a modest distance to cover in the next two days. We hoped to find water at Green Canyon, but thanks to our decision to tank up at the car, I thought we could finish with only mild dehydration.

Grand Gulch can be frustrating, but is never boring. The best route alternates between the central channel and the banks to either side, with each transition requiring a minor battle with a steep dirt-bank. In the channel, one’s search for pictographs, ruins, and water sources is hampered by the ten-foot-tall banks; on the sides, by the need to dodge cacti wriggle through brush. Thus the mind stays occupied, even while the route is dictated by the canyon walls.

Leonie’s map mentioned a “Totem Pole” ruin in this stretch, but we were focused on making forward progress, and my failure to find the Perfect Kiva the day before had accustomed me to the disappointment of not finding ruins. It therefore cheered me and gave me a bit of confidence to spot, though the head-high brush, a two-story building on a south-facing ledge. We dropped packs, thrashed up brush and dirt, then scrambled some easy slabs to reach the ledge’s accessible east side.

The building was in a strong defensive position, with sheer cliffs above and below and the ledge tapering away to the west. The eastern approach was guarded by a thick wall with a low door and five apparent arrow slits, suggesting frequent vicious and petty wars between the canyon’s settlements. The building itself was solidly-built, with regular layers of larger rocks alternating with mud and smaller stones. While enough of the second story’s floor had collapsed to allow one to look inside, most of the vegas were intact, blackened by smoke. The ceilings were low for us modern tall folk — everything from doors to handprints to corncobs is small — leading me to believe that the Basketweavers were stunted by their sere environment.

As we turned to head back to our packs, I was surprised to see a man making his way up to the eastern side of the ledge. He patiently waited outside the defensive wall until we exited, and I probably would have just said a few words and moved on, but Leonie is more outgoing, and the man proved more talkative than I had expected. Dana had been visiting the Gulch for forty years, and was paradoxically documenting it online while trying to protect it from the rising tourist tide. He also had a long and wide-ranging mountaineering career, but he was reticent like most such people, and we all had miles to cover.

Before parting, Dana gave us a map pointing out some archaeological features that did not appear on ours, and suggested a possible water source up Step Canyon. We quickly found the nearby Quail Panel, small but more colorful than most in the Canyon. I took some photos, learned the Quail Panel Dance, then took off up-canyon in search of the fabled water source. This side-trip turned out to be a discouraging waste of time. Perhaps there is no water, but more likely I am simply bad at finding it. After an hour or so spent looking under overhangs and below discolorations, the best I found was some vile moss-mud hybrid that I could perhaps drink from by pressing my t-shirt against it and wringing a few drops into my mouth.

Leonie ran into Dana while gawking at the panel and waiting for my fruitless water expedition. He told her that the blocky rectangular figures are over 2000 years old, painted by people well-intentioned whites call Basketmaker. The oldest remnants Europeans found in the canyon are intricately woven watertight brackets which date from that era. The stick figures are from a later group often called Pueblo, who lived in the canyon from about 1000 AD to the 12th or 13th or 14th century, depending on whose account you trust. Most of the structures we passed date from this period.

There are five modern native tribes that trace their ancestors to Grand Gulch and Cedar Mesa- the Zuni, Hopi, Navajo and two groups of Ute. When Obama designated Bear’s Ears National Monument in 2016, he created a historic management partnership between federal and tribal agencies. Registers at some of the better known structures and panels offer tips on how to appreciate the sites with respect.

It turns out that hanging out by the panel was a better way to find water. Three NOLS instructors came by, and told us of a “good” pothole farther down-canyon. In typical NOLS fashion, they were on a ridiculously long backpack out-of-season through harsh terrain, descending another gulch to the San Juan, then somehow following that to the mouth of Grand Gulch before exiting via Bullet. Unusually, though, the instructors were keeping some distance from the students, who were supposed to figure things out for themselves. I am not sure how this worked, but imagined it involved spotting scopes and tranquilizer darts. Continuing on our way, we passed a couple groups of the students, instantly recognizable by their haggard young faces and absurdly large packs. As much as I respect NOLS, it is frustrating to watch it corrupt the minds of our youth with its slow-and-heavy style.

The promised oasis turned out to be a pool of stagnant water, roughly three by eight feet and a foot deep, sitting fifty feet above the canyon floor on the south side. Other than a few algae and some floating debris, it looked drinkable, though little like a “water source” to my mountaineer’s eyes, and nothing like a “spring.” We took turns forcing some water through my filter, mostly clogged by Chilean glacial silt, and boiling some for tea, a frustrating process for those used to dipping in alpine streams. However it was worth the effort, as it alleviated the persistent water anxiety and even gave us the option of taking another day. I had packed my food expecting to cover normal summer-length days, but since caloric needs are mostly a function of miles traveled, I could easily last another day.

By the end of two days in the canyon, I was developing a sense for where to find ruins and pictographs. The natives were smart, locating their dwellings and paintings on south- or east-facing ledges with overhangs, which would catch morning and winter sun, and be somewhat shaded in the summer. Thus I correctly predicted that another ledge was likely to contain something, and found some more pictographs not labeled on either map. Their ledge had partly collapsed though, so getting close required a bit of fourth class climbing — a bonus to me. My inner peak-bagger was frustrated by the constrained hike through a canyon, and each ruin was like a summit, this one requiring an interesting scramble.

A hurried search for a campsite before dark left us on a slightly worse ledge, west-facing and sloped toward the wash. Between the slow terrain and my fruitless side-trip for water, we had not covered much ground, but I was getting better at spotting ruins, and learning to lower my expectations about water. I ate my curry-flavored nutrient paste, then settled in for another night of conversation and insomnia beneath innumerable stars.

Day 3


Water anxiety was no longer a problem: thanks to the friendly NOLS instructors, we had found usable water the day before, and knew of a reliable source ahead at the Big Pouroff. Thus we were in no hurry to get started, and felt free to stop and explore at our leisure. This included both normal tourist visits to ruins and pictographs, and sillier delays like chimneying up behind a giant sandstone flake just because it was there. Like Zion and Red Rocks, parts of Grand Gulch can feel like an adult jungle gym for those inclined to scramble.

Dana had marked some pictographs near our camp, but after failing to find them in a few minutes’ search, we headed on down the wash. As we imperceptibly descended toward the San Juan River, and more tributaries fed into the main Gulch. The greater seasonal flow manifested itself indirectly: the channel widened and became less brushy, its deep sand replaced by compacted gravel, cracked mud, and worn sandstone, and occasional wet patches began to appear. Leonie found some water in the form of calf-deep, shoe-sucking mud hidden under leaves, and shortly thereafter found a vile pothole in which to wash it off.

After two days of scrabbling up and down dirt-banks, thrashing through tamarisk, and plodding in sand, easy walking in the broad ravine was its own attraction. Our pace increased so much that we almost missed the “Big Man” panel featured on the tourist signs, had we not met an older couple hiking in to see it from the opposite direction. Rather than backpacking the canyon as we were, they were wisely dayhiking it from its tributaries to the east: Kane, Bullet, Government, and so on. We talked for awhile — as fellow travelers in the Western United States, we had seen many of the same places — then took off through the brush toward the indicated coordinates. I spotted a likely location for pictographs, a north-facing bench under a smooth overhang, and took off to investigate while the others waited.

My thrashy, slabby route was unsurprisingly the wrong way, and I discovered a well-traveled path just below the ledge. I had guessed correctly, finding the two large red figures, with the usual Basketweaver blocky bodies and spindly limbs, along with a few cruder white figures, many handprints, and either some fat abstract rodent or the severed head of a white girl with a ponytail. Leonie and the couple soon joined me, and we alternated posing for photos and signing the summit register (yay, I get points for this!). When the conversation stumbled into politics, I was relieved to learn that they were the kind of Montanans with whom I tend to agree. The northern Rockies states have a conservative and redneck reputation, but especially in Montana, I have found a strong current of wilderness conservation and defense of access to public lands. While the political divisions may be just as bitter as elsewhere, they are drawn on different lines than elsewhere, with hunters more closely allied with hikers and climbers.

We took a side trip near Polly’s Island to visit some handprints Dana had mentioned, but I was starting to succumb to archaeology fatigue. When I spotted a short wall on a ledge farther down-gulch, Leonie was content to hang out in the streambed while I thrashed up to take a closer look. A collapsed canyon wall on the right seemed to offer the most likely access, but while I found trails in the flat below, and an old cut branch higher up, the route did not seem to see much traffic. A final squeeze and exposed step landed me on the ledge. The walls were not much more impressive close up, and there were no pictographs, so I took a few quick photos and almost turned back.

Fortunately I decided to take a peek around the corner to the southwest, and saw that the ledge extended another couple hundred yards, sheltering a few more structures before disappearing into the blank canyon wall. I shouted to my companion that the side-trip was worth the effort, then waited for her to join me before exploring further. Though it was probably the largest settlement we saw, and seems easy to spot from below, the ruin did not appear on the map and lacked the usual BLM “please stay out” signs, and I found no recent footprints in the dirt along the ledge. We passed a well-preserved stick-and-mud wall and two- and three-unit “apartment complexes,” then stopped at the final round structure to absorb our surroundings.

Pictographs are worth recording, but I find it hard to relate to them. The stick figures and handprints show little skill, and the abstract paintings mean nothing unmoored from their culture. Buildings are another matter: the need for shelter is universal, and with limited labor and building materials, the ancient natives constructed structures I would find difficult to recreate myself. Sitting on that ledge, I could imagine the austere and circumscribed lives of an extended family living there, waking each morning to the same restricted view I saw. They would tend and gather their crops below, carefully manage their limited water, and trade or war with similar people a few miles up- or down-canyon.

Back in the present, it was time we looked to our own water, shelter, and forward progress. We dropped packs near the point of the Big Pouroff, a supposedly good water source, and I spent a half-hour following various game- and human-trails around a flat bend, peering under every discolored overhang and behind every cluster of greenish vegetation. I was expecting a mossy little oasis with a dripping seep, but instead found only more desert. Returning to our packs and the watercourse, we worked our way around a dryfall and found… well, the name “Big Pouroff” was accurate. Though dry now, the wide chute had once flowed into the largest pothole we had seen, still brimming with fetid scunge. While I tried to measure its depth without falling in and drowning, Leonie sat down to laugh uncontrollably.

This time we were determined to find a good camp-spot, flat and east-facing. We passed several other potholes, smaller and less vile than the Big Pouroff, but none seemed worth the effort given our adequate water. Toward dusk, I spotted a possible camping area high above the streambed inside a westward bend. Reaching it required some engaging class 4 sandstone slabs, and it was not entirely flat, but we would spend the night well out of the cold pool in the gulch, and feel the first sun after our last night.

Day 4

Summiting the narrows


Our unplanned fourth day was short, and the travel likely to remain easy, so we took our time packing up and scrambling back into the wash. The lower wash remained broad and smooth as expected, while the canyon walls twisted into sharper goosenecks, on their way toward wearing through and forming buttes, like Polly’s Island from the previous day. We passed one more ruin, with an intact kiva, a summit register, and dwellings on an inaccessible-looking shelf above. The information in the register box noted that using technical rock-climbing gear to reach ruins was illegal, which I of course took as a challenge to my scrambling ability. Reaching the shelf was no more than class 3, but the traverse to the buildings, on outward-sloping sandstone with little headroom, was more than I wanted to risk. I suspect that either the ledge has eroded, or the natives reached the dwelling via a ladder or the roofs of buildings below.

It was not even noon when we reached the junction with Collins Gulch, and the route back to Leonie’s car, so we dropped our packs to explore “The Narrows,” a feature labeled on our map. This turned out not to be a slot canyon like the Zion Narrows, but something more unusual, a gooseneck that had “recently” worn through to form an island. The new watercourse led through a gap no more than a dozen feet wide, with two logs jammed ten feet up. Being who I am, my first thought after “that’s cool” was “how do I stand on top of those?” I found two ways: a fourth class traverse from a side-canyon along a ledge on the right, and a more direct fifth class route up the right wall from below, mantling onto the log. Balancing across the lower log was heady but easy, since it was broad and stable. I posed for some photos on the summit block, then downclimbed back to the wash.

After failing to climb to the rim above the constriction, we returned to our packs and picked up the well-used trail up Collins. This was one of the settlers’ original routes into Grand Gulch, probably because it has a permanent spring at the top (though based on our experience, I am skeptical of both its permanence and its springiness). The route therefore follows an old developed trail, with spiked retaining walls in places and one section blasted into the cliff wall near the top. Despite its development and semi-regular use, the trail remains hard to follow in places, as it sensibly follows the wash where possible. This misled us into one dead-end, where we briefly wondered how mules had climbed a fifth-class sandstone step. The answer was that we had passed the point where an obvious trail left the wash.

Back on track, we climbed a ramp carved in the sandstone wall, passed through an old gate, and reemerged on Cedar Mesa, into a suddenly open sky and 360-degree distant horizon. The gulch where we had spent the past three days quickly disappeared in the undulating sandstone and spotted junipers. Unlike my familiar mountains, landmarks visible for tens of miles, Grand Gulch is a surprise, hidden in mere hundreds of yards. It must have been a cruel shock for early explorers, who had easily avoided the high and compact La Sals, Henries, and Abajos, to stumble upon this sprawling impasse. But in our modern world all terrain is known and mapped, all paths graded and paved. In only a couple of hours we had drive back around to Bullet Canyon to retrieve the other car, then down off the Mesa via the improbable Moki Dugway to spend a warmer night among the sandstone monuments to the south.

East Temple, Checkerboard Mesa

East Temple from overlook


East Temple is a large, sheer-sided butte just north of Zion’s east entrance road, on the edge of the main valley. Though it looks inaccessible to scramblers like Yours Truly, bighorn sheep have been climbing it for millenia, via an improbable route that corkscrews around from the southeast corner near the popular valley overlook. Though sheep-friendly, the route is rated 5.7, and the crux is a slab traverse, making it the most difficult and intimidating route I meant to climb on this visit. It was still cold, but I had given it a few days to dry, and had plans elsewhere, so it was now or never.

I once again drove into the park early, both to skip the entry fee and to get one of the few spots near the popular east tunnel overlook. Unfortunately it is a popular place to photograph the sunrise, so it was already a zoo when I arrived around 7:00. I rudely turned around in the road, drove a quarter mile back east to park, then sat in my car for awhile waiting for it to become less frigid. The route seemed short enough that I would not have to worry about running out of daylight, and I was getting tired of cold hands.

Hoodoos along the way

I slogged through tourist hordes on the narrow trail to the overlook, with its carved steps and nice, safe railings, thinking that it might actually be possible to transmit a coronavirus outdoors in such a throng. I stopped at the overlook to look at East Temple for a bit, then left the official trail to climb toward its base, giving the trio of rangers who had arrived a wide berth. Since I wasn’t carrying ropes and such, I looked like what I am — more a homeless guy than a Real Climber — and worried they would yell at me for wandering off-trail. The first part of the route is a rising traverse across the peak’s lower-angle apron toward the north end of its upper white cliffs. I had a route description, but it is not really helpful. There are a couple gullies that can be brushy and annoying, but the goal is to reach a point around 6000 feet on East Temple’s southwest side via a game of “slab chicken,” generally heading up and left while staying on the lower-angle slabs via micro-route-finding. None of it is harder than class 3, but there is no single best path.

The route description finally became useful at the southwest ridge, where the “notch with a tree” proved much more distinctive than I had expected. The view from the notch was disconcerting, though: I saw no feasible line up out of the next gully, and nothing that looked like a friendly side-gully leading on around lower down. There were no cairns or signs of human passage, it was shaded and cold on the west slope, and the thought of turning back entered my mind. Only partly shaking off that weakness, I traversed some snowy ledges into the gully and began descending.

Second gully

A few hundred feet down, the route’s likely continuation became clear: a brushy slot with moderate-angle slabs to its left, leading up and around toward the peak’s west shoulder. A small cairn confirmed my hypothesis, and a return to the sun lightened my mood. I scrambled up the slot a bit, then took to the slabs, where I found some more serious climbing and tricky route-finding. The crux was near the top, where one follows a series of outward-sloping white ledges to get around a headwall. I grabbed at a bush, focused on smooth movement, and tried not to think about how far I would bounce if I fell, or how this would feel on the way down. At the top, I passed an old sling around a tree, then traversed left to easier terrain on the ridge.

Brushy chimney I bypassed

After climbing easier terrain, the described route became obvious: a brush-choked chimney leading to a slung pine tree. The moves became harder as I ascended, and the climbing was unpleasant throughout, stemming and stepping on dirty ledges, and alternately grabbing, pushing through, and stepping on various brush. At the top, I encountered a large step guarded by a downward-growing shrub. I might have been able to climb it by yarding on the bush, but it did not feel solidly attached, and I backed off. The oaks below would have caught my fall, but I did not want to risk it.

A comment on Mountain Project suggested climbing one of the shallow gullies to the left, so I tried each in turn. They looked feasible from below, but I could not find a way up either that felt comfortable. Slab climbing, especially on sandstone, is a mental game, and my confidence and judgment were fading. I tried the first slot for some reason, reaching the same high point and trundling the crux plant, which had only been held in by a thin root. I found the now-shrubless step too difficult, and once again thought of giving up.

What’s over there?

After a snack — sugar makes everything seem better — I decided to check around the corner to the left. I had a good feeling about the terrain there, and I knew that sheep climbed this. Since they cannot stem, there had to be an easier way. My persistence was rewarded, as I found slabs and ledges leading around the difficulty which were mostly class 3-4. Once again, my persistence and alpine tricksiness let me cheat my way around difficulties that others seem to take head-on. But these qualities only took me so far, and once I reached the upper slung tree, I was faced with the inevitable crux: a long, rising slab traverse around to the north side.

Slabbing it up

This traverse used to be an unprotectable friction-fest, following flatter stripes and knobby dikes up and left to the pre-summit plateau, but someone (NPS? climbers?) has installed a lot of hardware. Now there are a dozen giant eye-bolts and three ladder rungs for belays, placed along either the best path or the one that someone with a drill happened to take. This was dicey climbing at the best of times, especially in trail runners, but my head was back in the right place. However, as the route wrapped around the northwest side of the Temple, the rock became wetter, and patches of snow lingered on some ledges. This was not going to be easy.

Time to get sketchy

I started along one stripe, retreated, then tried a slightly different attack, eventually reaching the first bolt. I debated for a minute, then put two fingers through and grabbed it. This was “cheating,” but I justified it to myself on account of the wet rock; if the route were dry, I would have the skill and confidence to climb it in its original condition. I worked my way up and left from there, sometimes staying near the bolted line, sometimes wandering left on ledges, grabbing or stepping on hardware when it helped. As the route wrapped around, the snow, ice, and wet rock became more problematic, and I frequently knocked snow and grit off my soles at the transitions back to dry rock. In such conditions, the tough little desert bushes were more reliable than the rock in which they grew. The final section, climbing a trough to the plateau, would have been an easy romp when dry, but it was sheltered and shaded, making it a snowy, icy sketch-fest.

Summit from above crux

I emerged on the sandy, brushy fore-summit with a shudder of relief, then hiked as quickly as I could around the peak’s north side, mindful of the slow, careful descent to come. The snow was never more than six inches deep, but it hid some treacherous cactus. I made it around to the east side with only one minor spiny incident, wrapping almost to the southeast corner before finding the obvious route to the summit plateau. From there, I trudged back to the highpoint on its west end. I took a few quick photos and had a snack, but could not bring myself to linger while the downclimb remained.

Kinesava and West Temple

Descending the slab crux was as sketchy as I had anticipated, but patience and caution prevailed. From there, the rest was mostly comfortable, though the steps below the first slung tree gave me pause. I descended the slot, reclimbed the main gully, and passed through the notch with the tree. I was either better at, or numb to, sandstone slabs at this point, so the traverse back to the overlook felt much more casual. I pulled up my buff and flowed slowly with the tourist crowds, occasionally passing when the opportunity arose and my patience gave out.

I still had a few hours of daylight, and did not expect to return to Zion for some time, so I stopped on my way out of the park to tag Checkerboard Mesa. Though it is probably more photographed than the East Temple, it is a much easier climb. Unlike neighboring Crazy Quilt, where one climbs straight up the checkered face, the route up Checkerboard thrashes up a gully to its left, then slogs along endless summit plateau before thrashing through oak and pines to the highpoint. I took a few photos, then hurried back to the car before sunset, driving back east past Kanab to find a place to camp with service. It was an anticlimactic end to a satisfying and successful Zion visit. I have badly underrated Zion’s scrambling potential, and want to return to explore it further.

Nippletop, Separation, Lonely, The Triplets, Lost

Nippletop and Triplets from NW


I had one more big thing to do before leaving Zion, but the rock still needed more time to dry, so I decided to tag a few more easy peaks south of the entrance road. Nippletop had aroused my interest from both the Ares (Aires? Ariel?) Buttes and Progeny, so when I learned that it had a class 3 route, it seemed an obvious choice. Separation and Lonely are two minor satellite peaks recommended as side-trips in Joe’s Guide, and the others happened to be nearby, and to turn the day into a nice loop.

Frozen sand is easier

I parked at a pullout near the drainage east of Nippletop, crossed the main wash, then headed south, grateful that the slickrock here was free of snow. The sun was out, but it was a cold morning, and my feet ached despite another late start. From a distance, Nippletop looks a bit like a cupcake, with vertical sandstone sides, a sloping frosting of trees, and a decorative rock blob on top. The key to reaching the frosting is a ridge extending north, with a lower-angle bowl to its east. The bowl is partly shaded by the main peak, so much of the rock was still wet or snow-covered, but it was mostly low-angle, and broken up by solid trees and bushes higher up. As I hiked, I found myself listening to an interview with a guy who had fallen in a crevasse on the Teton Glacier this past summer while descending the Koven route. Everything about his account, from his near-death experience to his description of the climbing process, was strange to me, but I easily pictured one of my favorite routes, which I have done a half-dozen times without incident.

Valley from Nippletop

After climbing the bowl, the route traverses the ridge to the main peak, then climbs a short step to the summit plateau. This is north-facing, and was all covered in snow; I briefly followed some sheep tracks, then put my down jacket back on once I passed into the shade. There was a bit of brushy third class here, but fortunately no treacherous slabs, so I quickly reached the plateau and returned to the warming sun. After a hike and another couple third class moves, I was standing on the tip of the nipple. Familiar peaks surrounded me to the east, north, and west, from Crazy Quilt around to Bridge and G2. East Temple dominated the view to the northwest, its south face drying out nicely.

Lonely from Separation

Returning down the bowl, I headed east a bit to Separation Peak, finding the final slab moves onto its summit surprisingly delicate when covered in ice and snow. It seemed arbitrary to me that, of the various bumps surrounding Nippletop, this and Lonely Peak have received unofficial names, while the one between it and the Triplets has not, but that was reason enough for me to choose which to climb or not. Lonely is another short hike from Separation, an easy peak without a steep summit cap.

Triplets and unnamed bump

I could have returned the way I had come from here, but I noticed that the Triplets and Lost were not far west and looked doable, and I could return via a loop through the next drainage. This seemed more interesting to me, so I headed west for the first and highest Triplet. All three are made of soft white rock with layers rising toward the northeast, so I found myself climbing steep, snowy, but positive terrain, then descending more gradual but still somewhat sketchy outward-sloping slabs. They are probably class 3 by their easiest routes, but felt a bit harder in the snow. I stopped for awhile on the first, where I had cell reception, to make post-Zion plans, then continued over the other two.

I dropped north off the final Triplet, then circled around west through the saddle to reach the base of Lost’s southeast side. The initial slabs climbing out of the scrubby plateau were a bit steep, but it soon mellowed out to an easy walk, leading to a summit with a close-up view of the familiar Roof, Hepworth, and Gifford to the west. The north ridge looked similar to the south slope on the topo, but was slightly trickier thanks to snow and a couple of steep steps — conditions were not ideal. Once on flatter ground, I made my way northeast into the wash, where I found some footprints and eventually a use trail leading back toward the road. It would have been fastest to walk the shoulder, but I had time to spare, and walking along a narrow road next to tourists gawking from their rented RVs and trying to parallel park sounded unpleasant. I chose instead to follow the wash south of the road, which is easy and surprisingly scenic, with bits of slot canyon and little brush. Back at the car, I thought briefly of climbing the snowy, north-facing gully to Checkerboard Mesa, then decided it could wait for a warmer day.

Mountain of the Sun, Progeny

Shadow of Progeny


With the rock wet and/or covered with snow, difficult scrambling was out of the question. Joe from the Climbers’ Ranch had sent me a link to Joe’s (no relation) Guide to Zion, a mix of hikes, scrambles, and technical canyons. I picked out a couple at random that shared a trailhead and looked no harder than class 3, then headed into the park, looking for striking views of snow-covered sandstone. However it remained stubbornly cloudy and unpleasantly cold, so I sat in the car and enjoyed my coffee, in no hurry to start.

Deertrap Mesa from trailhead

I finally got out at Upper Pine Creek, the start of the route to Mountain of the Sun, which would have a good view of the main valley peaks. The sand in the wash was pleasantly firm from its cold soaking, and even a bit too soaked in places, as I had to thrash through the snowy brush to get around some standing water. I could see enough of the surrounding terrain to navigate, but distant features were mostly obscured by clouds, and it continued to snow intermittently. My feet were soaked by the snow on the ground, my hands by that on the rocks and branches, and both were on the edge of unpleasant cold.

Progeny

The climb over the saddle from Pine Creek over to the next creek west would have been little more than a hike when dry, but proved somewhat more thought-provoking in the snow. Slabs in general are treacherous when wet, and Zion’s sandstone ones are worse in several ways. First, the wet stone sheds sand, which lubricates its surface. Second, the black lichen on some slabs turns incredibly slick. Third, edges and protrusions become brittle, making them unreliable. But this is why I had chosen a hiking peak; the snow made it challenging rather than impassable.

North canyon toward MotS

Coming down the other saddle, I heard a sound and turned to see a herd of bighorns. They were timid as usual for the desert variety, with the herd taking off down the wash between the Twin Brothers and East Temple, one standing watch before following the rest. I turned the other way, heading north to a narrow saddle next to the Twin Brothers before descending toward Mountain of the Sun. This unusual feature of drainages flowing north and south from a narrow connecting saddle seems common in Zion; I had noticed a similar saddle in Hepworth Wash, and it seems like many of the valleys south of the east entrance road have such saddles. My guess is that they occur because erosion has taken place more by wind than by flowing water, where one direction or the other would receive more flow and capture the other.

The ramp

Thanks to my excellent route description, I had no trouble finding the ramp leading back to the saddle between Twin Brothers and Mountain of the Sun. True to the description, it was exposed o both sides, sloping down into the main drainage on the east, and a minor one on the west. Here once again I would have had an easy walk in dry conditions, and thought nothing of the exposure. Wet and covered in snow, it required some caution, carefully avoiding the lichen when possible, and kicking my soles clean when transitioning from snow to bare rock.

Deertrap Mesa

The direct traverse over to the saddle was too slick, forcing me to detour well south, then thrash through snowy manzanita, which offered better footing. By this point my hands and feet were unpleasantly cold, and the snow seemed about to turn to drizzle. I did what I normally do when cold and unhappy, eating most of my food, standing around with my hand in my pockets, and contemplating turning around. Fortunately I continued, and found the rest of the route no harder than what I had done so far. The “class 4” crux was fortunately a steep, brushy gully instead of bare slabs, meaning it was little harder to climb in snow.

Valley from summit

From the summit, I had intermittent views down to the Zion Lodge to one side, and the main visitor center and mouth of the valley to the other. Occasionally I could see the Twin Brothers to the south, or the lower portions of the valley’s west side, but they remained mostly hidden. Some careful slabbing got me back to the wash, after which it was just a hike to the car. No more than a quarter mile from the road, I once again met a herd of bighorns, two adults leading about eight juveniles of various ages. Perhaps because they were uphill of me, they were less timid than the others, and we stood around observing each other for awhile. I had planned to combine Mountain of the Sun with Progeny, but reading the description more carefully, I realized that they shared a trailhead rather than an approach. I returned to the car, had some hot chocolate, then set out anew with just my camera in my pocket.

East Rim view

Progeny turned out to be an easy, rewarding, and stimulating afternoon hike. I quickly left the tourists behind, and had no trouble finding the small arch. I mostly ignored the route description, simply taking what looked like the obvious line toward the summit. I was reassured of being on-route by the sight of the “two breasts,” sitting perkily to my left, though any of a number of lines would have worked as well. From the summit, the late November afternoon light gave the East Rim Formations a warm glow, from the Ares (Aires? Ariel?) Buttes, to Crazy Quilt, to… Nippletop, continuing the afternoon’s anatomical theme. It was still cold, but mostly clear and pleasant in the sun with a down parka. I absorbed the scene for awhile, then scampered back to the car to find a place to spend the long, cold night.

Pine Valley Peak, Northgate West

Pne Valley Peak from Northgate


With only half a day before rain and snow would make the sandstone slick and fragile, I headed up Kolob Terrace Road to climb some short domes. I had been this way on my first scrambling trip to Zion, in 2013, to climb the Guardian Angels and Tabernacle Dome. This time I chose Pine Valley Peak, a short yet challenging scramble near the upper Subway trailhead, which I had skipped last time from a lack of confidence and/or motivation. I added Northgate West, an easier and more distant peak, because it had not yet started raining.

Sketching along some slabs

From the trailhead, I bushwhacked down a short basalt slope, crossed another trail from somewhere, and was almost immediately at the base of the climb. I spent awhile looking for the best line, which in retrospect was obvious: follow the big left-trending ramp until it ends, go up a crack, then… do sketchy stuff to get to the top. Mountain Project commenters mention going both left and right from where the crack ends; I chose the delicate traverse right, over to a broad, lower-angle depression leading to the summit plateau.

The crack

The ramp is easy. The crack, while steeper, at least feels secure, offering hand- and foot-jams, and the occasional bush, to help on steeper sections. I looked at various cracks left of the headwall above the main crack, but none looked particularly secure, particularly in the extremely soft white sandstone. The traverse right was airy, but careful route-finding and a good eye for subtle ledges kept it reasonable, and the slope beyond was lower-angle and offered a wandering series of ramps in most places. I watched the gathering clouds as I perused the summit register, then retraced my steps to the lower trail.

I followed this trail for awhile, then took off cross-country toward the Northgate Peaks where it turns to join the upper trail from the parking lot. My line crossed a couple of shallow canyons, made annoying by brush and loose rock; I suspect following the trail would have been faster had I been in a running mood. Northgate West, the higher of the two peaks, was a straightforward class 3 scramble. I eyed South Guardian Angel and the lower east peak from the summit, debating whether to climb the latter. It looked like I had enough time before the rain started, but I was not sufficiently motivated to tag the minor bump, so I returned to the trail and headed for the car. I passed several groups on the way, a mix of those out to look at the view and those headed for the Subway. I doubt the latter would be fun in the cold and rain, but it seemed unlikely there would be enough precipitation for it to flood. The parking lot was nearly full, with one commercial van and a number of “family-sized” SUVs. I drove down to a more solitary pullout, then made lunch as the storm arrived.