What This Trip Report Is and Isn't
What follows is less a step-by-step account of a climb and more a testament to a great day and a nod to the person who planned and pioneered it.
Also, the first ascent involved was not of some insanity-inducing big wall; instead, it was the first known ascent of an obscure peak in Zion's backcountry, along with what likely were the second known ascents of two other peaks. It is a story about adventure and exploring. Although Class 5 climbing was involved in reaching the peaks, the theme is the journey, not the grade; the climbs from this day will not make the lists of America's greatest rock exploits, but they should fire the passions of those who love to find their own way.
Furthermore, route beta in this trip report is intentionally vague. There are no maps or coordinates. The unofficial names of the peaks are not given; instead, the peaks are referred to as Peaks A, B, and C. Even the elevation information is being withheld; providing it would make it pretty easy to identify the peaks. And there is other giveaway information being left out.
The person who discovered and led the route, SP member cp0915, wants it that way. I was along only at his invitation and would never have climbed these peaks otherwise, so I owe him that deference.
Why be such a curmudgeon about it?
Our route took us through parts of Zion that were about as pristine as pristine can be. That's why.
Hard-core Zion enthusiasts will probably be able to figure out the peaks in question. That's fine. And they will figure out the way as well. Also fine. However, none from the group want to see use trails begin scarring pristine backcountry, so hence the vagueness.
And who were those group members?
CP and I were there, obviously. The others were Dominic Meiser and Sarah Thompson, a married couple who owe some major homage to the mountain gods for bringing them together; it must be awesome when your favorite climbing partner is also your spouse and best friend.
For a few years, CP and I had tossed around the idea of getting together for a climb. Once, in 2008, I literally drove right past him and some partners in Zion without knowing it; I had been in a rush to get through the Zion-Mt. Carmel tunnel before some plodding RV coming from the other direction caused the rangers to shut down two-way traffic, so only my wife noticed the group of climbers in the parking area outside the eastern end of the tunnel. It wasn't until several days later that I learned CP had been in that group.
So this time, CP and I had kept in touch about things, and it turned out that he would be in Zion at the same time I would. He invited me to join him on two outings: a half-day climb of Aires Butte and a full-day climb of Peaks A, B, and C. The latter, he told me, involved two peaks that had likely only been climbed once and one that had likely not been climbed at all, and they were in a part of the park that few see or know. Because I was with my wife and couldn't be abandoning her every day to go on climbs*, I made myself choose one. Although the half-day climb appealed because Aires Butte is a beautiful peak and it would free me to do something in the afternoon, the idea of the unknown just held too much allure, so I committed to ABC. CP told me some others would join us, but he didn't say who or how many.
Meetings and Greetings in the Dark
Meeting time was 6 A.M., and the place was the Zion Visitor Center. For me, this was a great start to things with CP. Anyone who has hiked or climbed with me knows that I love an early start, preferably about an hour before dawn, and that I am liable to think starting anytime after dawn is too late.
My wife and I were staying at the Cliffrose Lodge & Gardens, a very short distance from the visitor center, so I just walked over to spare my wife the unpleasantness of being dragged from bed to drive me over. This turned out to be a good plan because as I fumbled in the room in the dark to find and leave her the keys to the 4-Runner, I realized I had left them in the ignition the afternoon before. The engine was off, but I had left the battery on, and the car was dead**. Good thing my wife was planning to use the shuttle that day to get around...
At check-in the previous day, the clerk had told us it was a short walk to the visitor center, and he was right. Leaving at 5:45, I got there at 5:50. It was still totally dark in the canyon, not a trace of dawn yet, and the only other people there were a couple wearing headlamps and apparently getting their packs ready. Trying not to be too conspicuous, I walked somewhat close to them and aimed my own headlamp at their SUV briefly. Colorado plates. CP would have Nevada plates. Time to wait.
Then another guy appeared on the scene, also wearing a headlamp. He walked by me, said good morning, and then walked over to chat with the couple. Once again, I did a little snooping, and this time the SUV had Nevada plates. Walking over to the group, I apologized for butting in and asked if any of them were Courtney Purcell or associated with him. The guy who'd just walked by confessed to being CP, introductions were made, and we were soon ready to go.
Two others were supposed to climb with us that day, but they were tired from the previous day and had decided to sleep in. Fortunately, one of them, Ed, did have the courtesy to show up and tell us, and he also agreed to drop us off at the trailhead. Our day was not to begin and end at the same point, and CP's girlfriend DB was going to pick us up at the end.
By 6:15, Ed had dropped CP, Dominic, Sarah, and me off at the trailhead in a residential area of Springdale, and we were off.
Journey to the Peaks
As daylight neared, I got confirmation that I had not signed on with some impostor; CP had the same wool cap and stubble that I'd seen in more than one picture.
We followed a steep game trail until it ended, and from there we scrambled Class 3/4 terrain to a high notch. Right about the time we reached the notch, the sun rose, creating some spectacular lighting on the nearby peaks and walls. A good start to what would be a great day.
This was also where I learned two more things about CP: he moves fast and he doesn't like to stop. No complaint this is; another thing that anyone who has hiked or climbed with me knows is that I like to move fast. It was good to meet up with someone else like that. And actually, there were four of us. We were a well-matched group, I thought, with no weak links (until the rappelling later, and we'll get to that). Once in a while, Dominic, Sarah, or I would fall a little behind-- sometimes to take pictures, sometimes to negotiate difficult terrain more tentatively, sometimes to water the desert (me-- that's why I fell behind a little between Peaks A and B), sometimes to stretch cramping muscles (me again-- that's why I fell so far behind on the way to Peak C, guys; I had muscles in both thighs cramping up and had to stop a few times to get them loose again)-- but we always caught up. We had no choice; CP would have left us roaming the uncharted backcountry of Zion otherwise!
From the notch, we descended, sometimes with some tricky scrambling, to a wash that at first was a bit brushy and then opened up into a pleasant, sandy walk. Before stepping off the pouroff that would have given us the quickest route possible to the valley below, we diverted and headed up a bit before we dropped into what for my money was the scenic highlight of the trip.
We were in a hanging valley of sorts, though we didn't know that until we were higher up a little bit later, and it was wide (relative to the setting), sandy, and pristine. Beautiful walls and peaks surrounded us, and several sandstone hoodoos dotted the terrain. Like any other climber, I have a long list of little-seen places that have moved me to awe. This valley is one of them.
Above the head of the valley, CP allowed us all a break, and it was with an inward grin that I noticed some of us going for the chocolate bars. So I am not the only "dedicated" climber who likes to go armed with chocolate. Yeah, I had some energy bars, too, and a nutritious coffee cake, but the first thing I wanted was that milk chocolate. So it wouldn't melt, of course.
When CP announced that we might want to put on our helmets, it was a sign that the rest was coming to an end. Hearing that, Sarah apparently sniffed out the route. During the rest, she had made her own private visit with the desert and had obviously seen something Dominic and I hadn't.
The exact words escape me, but they went something like this: "Are we going down that slot?"
"Yup," answered a stoic CP. Again, exact wording eludes me now, but it was pretty much like that.
For the next stage of our trip, we would be descending a long, steep, and narrow slot that from the top and all the way down threatens a technical surprise but ultimately goes non-technical. CP briefly explained that when he and a partner had climbed Peaks A and B the previous November, they had found this slot, decided to try it, and were elated to discover that it went.
I would estimate the vertical drop to be around 200' in no more than about a tenth of a mile. In places, the slot was so narrow that we had to shed packs and pass them down. Regarding technical difficulty, I'd put the slot in the Class 4-5.2 range.
While descending the slot with my pack still on, my GPS device was pulled loose. Luckily, Sarah, who was above me, saw it go and told me; it was the first of two times this day that she spotted and saved my GPS device. Thank you, thank you, Sarah; it was a gift from my wife, and you saved me not only some money but also some stern words.
After the slot, we had to work our way down into another wash. In retrospect, it might have been better to stay high and work around the head of the wash; it looked doable if a little long, and we had to climb back up from the wash, anyway.
It doesn't matter now. The path of least resistance led us to a fairly short but very narrow chimney (shed the pack and turn sideways, and if you ain't lean, you might become the new chockstone) that we had to downclimb.
Then it was back up, with spectacular views and a herd of bighorn sheep to compensate, until we were at the base of the summit block of Peak A.
The summit block of Peak A is about 15-20' of climbing in the 5.2 range. CP and his November 2010 partner were the first known climbers of it. Dominic, Sarah, and I became the next three. What the exact order was isn't really important. The scramble up was pretty easy, and the climb down a little tricky, but there were no real problems or worries.
On to Peak B. Peak B is the more aesthetic of the two, although it is an easier climb, and it is reached by a pleasant ridge traverse yielding spectacular views of some of Zion's greatest peaks. The summit does not disappoint. CP and his partner were the likely first ascentionists the previous fall, and the other three of us made for unique visitors three through five. Again, the order is not that important.
Peak B is clearly visible from certain locations in Zion Canyon. I have an awesome picture of the peak from that perspective, and it is killing me not to post it here, but I've refrained for reasons explained way back.
Atop Peaks A and B, CP did leave small cairns his first time up, but he did not leave a register on either.
Peak C, and the descent, remained.
First Ascent of...
Okay, I will actually share the name for Peak C, but not the coordinates or the elevation. The name is a pet name based on an anecdote a friend shared with CP, and the name has no geographical relation to the surroundings. CP calls the peak "Whale Peak."
So to be clear: you will not find a Whale Peak, Whale Canyon, Whale Creek or whatever on any map of the vicinity. If you know Zion well and are good with a map, you will figure out the general course of the day from the pictures here and the sparse route details provided. Otherwise, it's probably best to stay away; this area would be a really bad place to be injured, lost, or unprepared.
From Peak B, we descended the ridge north and then worked our way into a canyon via some Class 4-easy 5 stuff in one spot. This canyon separates Whale Peak from the ridge complex housing Peaks A and B. From the head of the canyon, we would scramble up to gain the gentle ridge leading to the summit of Whale Peak.
In my opinion, far too little credit goes to the person who found and followed a complicated route to a summit even though the route was within the abilities of a skilled Class 4/5 scrambler. Even if the route ended up being only Class 2, how many people, even among climbers, like to head into the unknown with no beta at all except a map and try to find a way up a peak? Not as many as you might like to think.
That spirit is in my blood strongly and deeply, so my hat's off to CP for figuring this thing out. Nothing gives me more pleasure than finding my own way to a summit about which I have absolutely no beta, so I think what CP did was pretty damn cool.
And now I think the order does matter for the record: CP, Dominic or Sarah (not sure-- remember that I was lagging because of stretching out those cramps), me.
On the summit, there was brief talk about it being cool to do an FA, but there was no chest-pounding. That's not the kind of group it was, even though the sweat we'd excreted might have warranted some exultation. Instead, we shot the shit awhile, sucked some water down, had a snack, and then began the journey out. CP built a small cairn, but we left no register behind. Back to the head of the canyon we went, and from there we were to descend and wind up in Zion Canyon after some bushwhacking, scrambling, hiking, and rappelling.
The canyon was something else. At first, we had to fight through pretty dense brush, and that was no fun, but CP spotted something that made it worth it: the skull of a bighorn ram, horns intact, lying on the ground.
"How did it die?" we wondered, but we will never know. The surrounding terrain didn't seem like anything likely to get a bighorn killed, but anything can slip, I suppose. Snow or ice could have been a factor as well. And it could simply have died of old age in that lonely spot.
As the canyon narrowed to what for all intents and purposes was a slot, we began to think about the upcoming rappels. CP had descended the canyon on his previous outing to Peaks A and B, so at least he knew what to expect and had prepared us accordingly.
Now the weak link showed itself, or himself, for it was I. All day long, I'd been hoping we could avoid getting on the ropes, not out of any kind of fear but because I didn't want to slow things up or get on people's nerves. You see, it had been nearly four years since I'd last been on a rope, and that was for single-pitch trad routes. Although I'd told CP already about my experience level on a rope and he told me not to worry, I still felt like a newbie and a square wheel as I received a quick refresher course on rappel technique.
Long story short-- I got into climbing by hiking, then scrambling, and then searching for bigger challenges. Before I ever knew about the YDS, I was climbing "easy" Class 5 terrain unroped without knowing it. Nowadays, to keep in practice, I like to "scramble" the 5.0-5.4 routes at the local crags. Going rock climbing was never some notion I got in my head one day, and I never took a class or fell under the wing of a mentor. And truth be told, I have found roped climbing somewhat boring because there seems to be so much time wasted setting up gear and standing around while others climb. I have tremendous respect for the strength and the skill of the rock artists who can do such amazing things on the crags, but that gig simply isn't for me.
So maybe now you'll understand why I felt so awkward when downclimbing was not a sane option.
We did at least four rappels and maybe six, but I don't remember for sure. Everybody was helpful, but especially Dominic and Sarah. Dominic, thank you for the patience you showed even if inwardly you were shaking your head. Sarah, thank you for the fireman's belay you threw in on each rappel; even though I pretty much got back into the swing of things after the second rappel, I still appreciated the additional security.
Signs from the Past
Something really cool about the canyon descent, based on your perspective, was seeing signs of pioneer climbers who had gone the same way. At some of the rappel spots, we found eyebolt anchors, some loose and some good and solid. Above the longest rappel, there were engravings on the walls dating back to the mid-1930's. At another were the remains of a ladder some party had put up while ascending the canyon. We rapped this spot because the rungs disappeared after about three from the top, but even if the ladder had been intact, we probably still would have rapped because that ladder was looking mighty flimsy.
Three days earlier in Nevada's Red Rock Canyon, I took my six-year-old son to see some petroglyphs. He was aware that some vandals had been arrested recently, and he asked, as a kid would, why it was bad to write on the rocks today when it was okay for the Indians to do it before. It was a good question, and I had no good answer, at least not one a six-year-old could grasp. To me, there is a big difference between contemporary vandalism and ancient art even if both are side-by-side etchings. One is the means of expression of a culture; the other is some punk defiling the temple. But try explaining that to a six-year-old (though I did).
Regarding the engravings on the wall in Zion, I could not make up my mind. Part of me thought it was neat to see them, and part thought it was a real shame. But I did not take a picture of the etchings, and that was a choice, so maybe that says where I lean on the matter.
But my pontifications will not change the facts, so let's get back to the trip...
After we exited the narrows and got onto non-technical ground, the rest of the going was pretty easy. Ultimately, we hooked up with a maintained trail that brought us back to the floor of Zion Canyon. Entranced by some particularly stunning blooms of paintbrush, I fell behind again.
A Mystery and a Mess
Before we exited our canyon onto the trail, though, we had one last memorable situation.
Suddenly, we stumbled upon a sad scene of disorder. There was a yellow tent, a good distance from any formal or informal trail, and trash everywhere-- wrappers and cans especially, and a weather-beaten philosophy book. The tent was in good shape, but some of the trash looked pretty old.
Speculation ensued, and one early theory was that it was a spot locals visited to party. But that didn't make too much sense after reflection; it was a hell of a long hike and climb just to drink some beer. Other theories: a fugitive (also hard to buy since the tent was actually visible from Zion Canyon), a homeless person (but there is a lot of BLM land close to Springdale that is far easier to access and free to camp upon), some loner who got lost or hurt and later died, or someone who went up for some final reflections before committing suicide.
After a few minutes, we realized that we were going to have to look inside the tent, but no one really seemed to want to be the one to open it. We had already called out enough to be sure that there was no one awake inside. Sarah seemed to be playing the manly-pride card on us, making some comments that hinted it was a man's job to open the tent and look.
Wanting to get it over with and also yielding to my own curiosity about the morbid and the gruesome, I went over to the tent, unzipped the flap, pulled it back, and looked in. Before the big unzipping, I announced that there was no smell, so we at least wouldn't be finding a fresh corpse.
Then I pulled the zipper down and warily looked inside.
"Holy f---!" I yelled while jumping back.
It didn't work. Maybe I overdid it. Everyone just gave a "whatever" look.
The tent was empty. Not totally empty-- there was a backpack in there, and it appeared to be in good condition.
So we have no idea, absolutely none, about the real story. All we know is that the site showed many signs of having been abandoned.
At least the dude could have left some cash...
So there you go-- a first known ascent in the Zion backcountry. Thanks go all around to CP, Dominic, and Sarah for a great day and being great climbing partners; I'm glad to have met all of you. Thanks again to Dominic and Sarah for their help and patience with the rappels. Another thanks to Sarah, again, for saving my GPS device two times. And thanks especially to CP for inviting me and showing us the way. It was a great honor to meet and climb with such a well-known and highly respected SP member, and CP turned out to be a friendly, humble guy as well. Considering all he's done and how some climbers can be, that's pretty remarkable.
* As it turned out, for every day of our 15-day trip, I climbed at least one summit, and all but two were solo. Usually, it was a case of getting up really early, going out for a climb, and getting back in time for family-friendly outings after lunch, but sometimes it was a case of hiking together for a bit and then heading on to a summit while my wife did her own thing.
** After the climb, CP gave me a ride back to Cliffrose, and we hooked up cables and gave the 4-Runner a jump-start. The 4-Runner had battery issues for the rest of the trip, and my wife and I got into the habit of parking facing downhill so that we could always pop the clutch and get the engine going. One of several reasons I prefer a manual transmission...