March 14, 6 AM, Canyon Overlook Trailhead
Jared Campbell and I are in Zion National Park. It’s a cool starry morning, and we immediately are enjoying scrambling up the white and red sandstone in the total darkness, our headlamps illuminating tiny circles in the smooth rock. Hey wait, it isn’t supposed to be dark … we timed our 6 AM departure based on when “Civil Twilight” was supposed to start. Hmm… we keep climbing up the bare rock … then both realize that it’s not going to get light for another hour because I forgot to adjust for Daylight Savings Time. There are a few more things we should not have forgotten as it turns out…
Our plan is to do a huge linkup of some of the biggest summits in the Park: East Temple, Spry, Twin Brother, Mountain of the Sun, Deertrap, and Great White Throne, finishing with a descent of Hidden Canyon. We had done all these before, just not in sequence, so we were fairly confident. An attribute that probably did not work in our favor.
ET is the first summit, and is a really, really big rock. Only one route, the “Casual Route”, has ever been done to the top. If someone were to ask me to solo it, I would scoff at the ridiculousness of the suggestion and immediately say no … except I actually had soloed it twice before … so even though it’s likely Jared and I are still the only two people to have done that, I still should be able to do it, eh? I’m not that old, am I? Well, I hoped not.
To answer that question very definitively, a quarter of the way up we dropped our packs, which contained the ropes, harnesses, food and water, and set off for the top carrying nothing but a Cliff Bar stuffed in my spandex shorts. As Catwoman once said, “It’s the so-called normal guys who always let you down. Sickos never scare me. At least they’re committed.”
We didn’t get good photographs of the crux high up on the NW face, because, well, we were concentrating on other things. Me, not plunging 1,500′ to my death; Jared, helping me not do that. I was way slower than on previous outings. The last time we did this, we did the whole thing in 1:48 TH-TH; this time it took 1:45 just to get to the top. Back then it seemed my feet stuck like glue to everything, and I speed scrambled up and then back down with hardly a hesitation. This time a particular memory is forever etched in my mind, that of standing on a tiny 8″ long dead bush protruding out of an incipient groove in the otherwise featureless sandstone … 1,500′ of verticality cooling my heels … delicately maintaining balance as I crouch down matching hand to foot … releasing both feet and doing a down-mantle with this dead bush as my only handhold … reaching a foothold further down then looking up at that dead bush not sure if I should feel gratitude or dread.
We scrambled on down, as the sun came up. I kept wondering about this dramatic reduction in my speed and security compared with 8 years ago. Was I really that good back then, or was I just crazy? Or maybe there is no difference?
We next had to descend the upper part of Spry Canyon in order to reach Mount Spry and Twin Brother. We dropped one rope at the upper end to save weight, planning to pick it up after we circled back near here, as we only needed one rope for the rap into Spry. This turned out to be not true. When we got there the one rope obviously didn’t reach, ending just above a very dark, deep, cold pool of water, but Jared rapped down anyway, and as usual, had no trouble downclimbing the last 100′, pronouncing it easy. As you might guess this wasn’t exactly true either, but I rapped down, we pulled the rope, and I followed Jared down this fascinating hand traverse, using only a crack that was flowing with ice water. Normally this crack would have been worth avoiding, but since it was directly above the big black pool of ice water, cold hands were indeed way easier than cold entire body.
Mt Spry is an easy scramble, but offering amazing views of ET, which we had just climbed, and TB, which we were about to. Both faces looked absurdly intimidating. Once again I wouldn’t think I would be able to climb it, if it wasn’t for the fact that I had done it before.
The South Face of Twin Brother is actually quite moderate and very good – sort of an endless Stairmaster workout but with colossal views – and soon we were at the top. I had planned on giving Jared a huge Russian novel so he’d have something to do while he waited for me, but I neglected to do so; fortunately he was tapering for Barkley in just two weeks, so taking long naps while I flailed my way upward worked well for him.
The North Ridge of TB is another matter. This and Deertrap are the only summits of this linkup we actually traverse; all the others we go up and back down the same way. That is because many Zion summits are incredibly steep and difficult, and there is only one route. Like ET, the North Ridge of TB is solid 5.6, and a bit steeper and chossier. One has to acknowledge that holds on this stuff can simply disintegrate, which would not result in a good outcome. Jared went first, and helped guide me on the descent. He is capable of doing this alone, while I no longer am – it was and is important for me to clearly state that I couldn’t do this without him. Honesty is key in a partnership. I think when I honestly acknowledge my diminishing capabilities, to myself and my partner, then I can relax and really enjoy and appreciate the journey. If someone is trying to live up to an expectation, then they get aggravated, down on themselves, and not only does this not improve performance, but that as well becomes an emotional burden for the stronger partner.
An additional perspective was added when Jared spotted four Bighorn Sheep on the South Face of Mountain of the Sun directly across from us. We sat down and watched. They made us look like complete doofus. They jumped and bounded down a face that has never been climbed. A newborn, who appeared to be about a foot high, got separated from his mother and started “baa’ing” for help. We wanted to continue spectating, but since it was us who probably spooked them in the first place, we left promptly so they could figure it out in peace.
I ruminated that Zion must be the ultimate Valhalla for Desert Bighorns. It’s topography is completely flipped – this is a canyon, not a mountain landscape, so the lower you go, the steeper the cliffs get, while the summits are completely flat. The summits are actually just isolated remnants of a flat plateau. Which is great for the Sheep – they climb up these steep cliffs, which their predators cannot follow, and which provides them with easy visibility of predators, then once on top they hang out and graze undisturbed.
Soon we were also on the summit of MOS, but by an easier route than the inimitable Sheep. This is by far the easiest summit. But still worthwhile; we could look almost directly down to Zion Park Lodge, about 2,500′ below us, yet inaccessible … unless you’re good at basejumping.
Only two summits to go, and we felt fine. I was moving slower than I used to, but we had plenty of food, water, energy, and daylight. But it suddenly dawned on us, the one thing we did not have was Quickdraws, which are required for the last summit. Huh? How did we not think of that? We just totally forgot to bring them … the thought somehow never entered our minds to bring protection for the 7-pitch, 5.8 route on Great White Throne. How odd. We had ropes to rap off it but no gear to climb up it.
Not much to do about that now. So we continued our convoluted route, tagging all the summits, lastly ascending the South Ridge of Deertrap. This is one of the best routes – not too hard, not too easy, not too chossy, just right. We were both using prototypes of the new Fastpack 20, and were just loving it. It easily carried all the gear we needed, with zero bounce, great comfort, and easy access to water and food while on the move. At least I remembered to bring a great pack.
After Deertrap we continued past the turnoff to GWT without saying a word. It was 4:10pm at that point, so we had plenty of time to get up it. But we were having an excellent day anyway, so no need to fret. Plus this meant we would descend Hidden Canyon during daylight instead of darkness, and probably be able hitchhike the 8 miles back to town from the trailhead instead of hiking it out on the road, as we would have getting down at night. A hot shower and cold beer awaited us on this fine evening.
Hidden Canyon was fun – we downclimbed most difficulties only rapping three times – the top part was filled with ice, but by the time we got close to the trailhead the going was easy and we saw people hiking up – the first people we’d seen all day. As we hoped one of them might give us a ride back to town, we made a point of being nice to everyone, instead of yelling, “Out of my way, I’m on Strava!” like I normally do.
6:51 PM – Weeping Wall Trailhead
An excellent day, in a place that continues to amaze me, with one of the best partners, friends, and people I have ever imagined, Jared Campbell.
I hope we get back this spring and knock this route off. I’m considering asking Jared if we can rap the two sticky sections instead of downclimbing them. I’ll let you know what he says.
Jared’s Photo Album: