Snow Canyon is divided up into five separate climbing areas: Hackberry Wash, Island in the Sky, Balkan Dome, the Enclosure and West Canyon. I have climbed in all five and Island in the Sky has by far the most routes (64+) and is further divided up into nine distinct walls with multiple routes ranging from 5.6-5.12b: Breakfast Nook, Circus Wall, Aftershock Wall, The War Zone, The Dip Area, The Doghouse, The Sand Dunes Area, The Indian Wall and the South End.
There are eight published routes on the Circus Wall of Island in the Sky to the left of a large arch where Morman Pioneers carved their names dating back to when this area was first settled. As of June, 2007, I have climbed half of these routes. The walls in Snow Canyon are comprised of soft sandstone and therefore climbing the same grades in Snow Canyon compared to granite or limestone slabs or hardened sandstone makes the grading somewhat stiffer by consensus. That being said, even within Circus Wall the grades vary depending on when and who put the routes in. I have climbed a three pitch 5.7 route, Pygmy Alien, that offers as much of a challenge as a three pitch 5.10a, Cloudwalker, in my opinion. Most of the routes on Circus Wall are a mixture of trad and sport (as the two just mentioned), with much of the sport portions relying on older pins versus bolts. Snow Canyon is full of Red Navajo sandstone, capped by an overlay of black lava rock. This process creates significant, but sometimes delicate climbing holds called desert varnish. Wet or not, some varnish holds do give way from time to time. I have taken a 25’ whipper when one of these varnishes failed on a run out route in the Sand Dunes area. I highly advise staying on the well climbed existing routes of Snow Canyon. If they are dirty (thus unattended), I can assure you they are probably not worth it. All of the published routes on Circus Wall are well climbed.
Access for climbing simply cannot get easier (ok it can). Park at the Pioneer Names trailhead pullout on the right side of the road after you pass a dip in the road beyond the West End parking lot heading northeast through the park. Stay on the trail directly up to the wall (where the pioneer names are carved into the arch). All the Circus Wall routes are left of this arch. Snow Canyon is exceptional in that most are climbing nearby Zion and Red Rocks leaving it very quiet. Normally we are the only party climbing in the park and there are over 200 routes. One could camp and climb here for a week and not get bored. It has a significant state park campground. The wildlife is a little different than what I am used to in Canada. The most likely suspects are Gila monsters, desert tortoises, scorpions and the Mojave rattlesnakes which I have seen up close. Please avoid walking on the microbiological soil. It is the dark crust that holds the surface layers together and prevents erosion. It takes centuries to reoccur. This whole ecosystem is much more delicate than most.
The Routes are Right to Left, South to North
- Trapeze – 5.10b – 2 Pitches/
- Roar of the Greasepaint – 5.10a – 2 Pitches/ I just combine these two pitches with a 70m rope which gets me down with one rap. The first part is fun, mantling up above the arch. Then a few black sections make you think. The pins are fairly close whenever you run into these sections. A lot of holds and edges have been polished off, very soft sandstone through this part of the wall. I go slow! The second pitch is much easier, like 5.9, with varnished jugs.
- Illegal Alien–140'-5.10b/ All these face pitches are a bit stouter than when Olevsky established them. The sandstone is soft and holds break over time. This route can be hard to follow with pins all over the place, including some traverse to the right about 2/3rds up. Use some shoulder length slings if you want to avoid rope drag, this route is not straight by any measure. Two cruxy blank sections to overcome. Ends in the same pod as Pygmy Alien.
- Pygmy Alien – 5.7 – 3 Pitches/ 1st Pitch- The first pitch is 140’ (photo) to an anchor in the pit via 12 pins. It starts out laid back. In fact I skipped the first two pins. Then it gets vertical on varnish edges. I know I got off track at least once and just clipped a long runner to protect my traverse back to the line. The pins can be confusing. The Pygmy pins are supposed to be painted green, but much of the paint has worn off. This is a popular route and fairly well cleaned through the first pitch. Some parties must bail at that point since the second pitch was not such a clean pitch. There is a rap station midway down that can be used for a bail situation (2 rappels) off of the first pitch. 2nd Pitch- (90’) The second pitch start is the crux of the climb (photos). Move out left of the pit via two pins. It is best to skip the first one and put a long runner in the second one. Reach up and out of the pit and traverse ever so delicately left and then climb back right through the next two pins (crux). Move left into a crack and start placing finger to hand gear through a small roof to a large alcove beneath a wide chimney. You will have to set up a gear anchor here. The rope drag on this route can be considerable if you are not using long runners through the pin portion. If it is a windy day, you will not be able to verbally communicate with your belay. 3rd Pitch- The chimney is easy 5th class climbing. I placed one piece of gear on this pitch. Enjoy the easy moves through the chimney which leads to a leaning block, then climb easy varnish to a larger ledge/platform with a tree. Belay off of the tree or build a crack anchor. From here, it is 4th class scrambling to your right up and over a block and onto the right side of a chasm. Continue up and back left to the top of the north end of Island in the Sky.
- Freak Show – 5.9/
- Jimmy the Geek – 5.9 – 2 Pitches/ Hard to identify the start because the “painted” pins referenced by Todd has mostly warn off. It is easy to get started on the Freak Show versus Jimmy the Geek, but also easy to correct yourself and get over right on the direct line of pins that lead to the right handed crack/flake. This is one of those routes that is defined by one move in each pitch. The 1st pitch is the longest (100’) and presents you with a 5.11 slab move about midway up on loose footing. Six pins leads you to a small crack/flake on your left that you can place a small stopper in or two. I chose to run the route out on nice sized varnish holds straight up to the anchor. The 2nd pitch is short (40’) and with a sweet move or two as you pull a slightly overhanging section on solid varnish edges. Head for the shared anchor with Pygmy Alien in the hole. Double ropes will get you to the ground.
- Barbarian – 5.6 – 2 Pitches/ The local guide service uses this route to run up "fat camp" clients or tourists. That is about the extent of our local guiding really, thank god (our local guide service kind of sucks). Of course I use it for the same purpose if we have visitors who don't climb. A good route to learn trad lead as well. There is a pin on the first pitch at the crux move, which is right and up with little feet, but bomber hands. Then follow the corner to a ledge with a fixed station above. Most just rappel or set up top rope here, a full 60m rope required. But you can run up a second pitch that leads to 4th class that takes you to the top left edge of Island in the Sky where you can walk off north.
- Cloudwalker – 5.10a – 3 Pitches/ 1st Pitch- (200’) 5.8/ I ran the start of this route out 40’ on easy terrain to a bolt placed on the wall over the corner. Gear is easily placed from there, medium to large, until you reach rap anchors at the top of the corner. I never experienced a crux move and the whole pitch felt more like 5.6 by Snow Canyon standards. Older routes (pins) are more difficult than newer routes (bolts). This is a general rule thumb no matter where you climb but particularly for Snow Canyon. You will pass two mid station anchors en route. One used for a mid rap station and another used to make a top rope practice pitch for the local guiding company. 2nd Pitch- (80’) 5.10a/ Proceed straight up from the 1st pitch station following 9 bolts to chains. There are two sets of chains, use the left set on a hanging belay below a treed ledge. The pitch is straight vertical, but consists of fairly dependable varnish with variable choices. The pitch feels more like 5.9 versus 5.10. The second should top out and clove hitch the tree on the other end of the ledge and bring up the first onto the ledge. 3rd Pitch- (115’) 5.8/ The guide book fails to mention the rating on this pitch. I peg it at about 5.8. The ledge offers a great shady belay with one of the largest trees growing on Island in the Sky. Continue up angled ground on varnished edges to rap chains just below the summit through 11 bolts. This is a real straight forward pitch and route.