Bloody Legs, Banged-up Shoulder, and No Summit!
Although I've done plenty of Class 5 routes at the local crags and have found myself in a few Class 5 situations on mountains, I am really not a rock climber. The few times I've been on a rope, I had fun, but it just didn't do it for me the way a good ridge scramble does, and I found myself hungry for the 5.0-5.4 stuff I usually do without a rope. Maybe I'd feel differently doing some multi-pitch trad route on a big wall, but in the meantime, I know I'll just prefer the simplicity and the thrill of free soloing some of the lower Class 5 stuff, even if it's not the smartest thing to do, especially for a father of young children. I know that limits what I can climb, but I accept that. It's wilderness that inspires me, anyway.
Such a philosophy, though, doesn't work too well for one aspiring to hit the summits of Zion National Park.
Driving to Zion Canyon from the St. George area, my wife and I took a side trip up the Kolob Terrace Road so I could have a go at one of three summits pretty much right next to the road (the idea was that I could get a climb in without eating up so much time that my wife would be bored to tears): Firepit Knoll, Spendlove Knoll, and Tabernacle Dome. Firepit and Spendlove, on topo maps I'd studied, looked pretty easy; Tabernacle looked much harder, but I thought the maps suggested at least one possibility for an unroped climb. So off we went.
We passed Tabernacle, which presented some access issues the maps hadn't suggested (more on that later), and kept heading north to check out Firepit and Spendlove, two little summits right across the road from each other and easily doable in one outing. But when I actually saw the two peaks, I lost interest, as they were just hikes through brush to summits that didn't seem to offer views much different from what the road right below them did. Back to Tabernacle.
Tabernacle Dome is a very obvious summit right off the Kolob Terrace Road just north of the parking area for the Left Fork (access to the Subway). The Kolob Terrace Road heads north from the town of Virgin and has its other end on UT 14, the road that connects Cedar City and U.S. 89 and which is one of the principal ways to access Cedar Breaks National Monument. The Kolob Terrace Road is closed at a certain point during winter months, but the parking areas nearest Tabernacle Dome will be accessible all year except during temporary weather-related closures. The drive from Virgin to Tabernacle Dome is about 11 miles and takes about half an hour.
The maps I'd studied left me thinking that I might be able to get up via the peak's eastern side after reaching a 6000' saddle on the northeastern side and contouring around to the ridgeline. The approach seemed easy-- to follow a drainage below the northern face of the peak and then attain the saddle, reaching the ridgeline after about a mile of hiking. There seemed to be an easier way up via the gentler south slopes, but access would be long and difficult due to there being no trail system and a line of sheer cliffs forcing a roundabout approach not possible with just three hours of daylight left.
Thus, the drainage, saddle, and eastern ridge it would have to be. But two problems confronted me right away. The first was that private property (neither the presence nor the boundaries of which were indicated on the map I had) abutted the northern side of the peak, occupying the easiest way to the drainage, and there were several people hanging out at the house there. The second was that the alternate approach to the drainage, from the west, required a descent into a wash and then a climb back up. That was not the problem; all the brush, much of it sporting thorns, was the problem. But that was the only choice.
Obstinately refusing to stop and zip on my pant legs out of a belief that the brush would end soon (a belief that persisted until it did end about 30 minutes later and my legs were torn up), I hiked, crashed, and scrambled through the brush and the rocks until getting right beneath the cliffs of Tabernacle Dome. I made my way for the drainage but tried a couple gullies along the way. No luck-- I kept getting into exposed Class 4 and 5 spots on soft, slippery sandstone, and a roadside peak like Tabernacle Dome, pretty as it is, is not something I want to risk my life for.
The drainage, tucked down in the cool shade on the north side of the peak, was filled with snow and was icy in several spots, but it provided easy, brush-free passage for several minutes. Again, I tried some side gullies but kept finding conditions either too difficult or too exposed shortly below the summit ridge. I began to be really annoyed and frustrated, even though I had set out telling myself that failure to find a way up was quite likely. Still, defeat is hard to swallow.
As I neared the saddle, I could hear the voices of several people carrying from the summit, and several were the voices of children. This both disppointed and encouraged me. It disappointed because I wasn't looking forward to sharing a crowded summit, but it encouraged because I figured if a bunch of kids were up there, there was an easy way up.
It took a few minutes before I realized that the "summit voices" were the echoes of the people hanging out on the deck of the house I'd passed beneath, the house that sat directly above the drainage on its north side. I couldn't help but envy their laughter and fun as my legs bled and my arms ached from all the fruitless climbing I'd done along the way so far.
Reaching the saddle required a short climb of some easy snow-covered slopes, but a few icy patches provided some unwelcome surprises. From the saddle, though, which yielded some spectacular views to the north and the west, I realized the slopes were too steep for a traverse to the eastern ridge, and the only other way to get there involved a descent of several hundred feet. Not worth it, and not enough time, either.
Above the snow slopes leading to the saddle was a narrow bench suggesting some more possibilities for accessing the summit ridge, and very close to the summit itself at that. Getting up to that bench meant climbing some moderate-grade snow slopes that moved into the "difficult" category considering I had no ice axe, crampons, or even trekking poles. Very carefully, I found a way up, sometimes negotiating some unpleasant exposure, and climbed all the way to... an overhang I had no business trying to climb without without roping up. The summit ridge was just a few yards above me and looked like a walk at that point. Yeah, I cursed a bit.
Admitting I'd been beaten, I headed back down. The reward for my vain efforts was slipping on ice in the drainage and falling hard on my right shoulder, barely missing whacking my head, and nicely. That shoulder was sore for several days afterward, and it was hard to raise that arm for almost 24 hours (though I had to suck it up and deal with it to climb Checkerboard Mesa the next morning).
On the return, I found a gully I hadn't noticed before. I climbed high up it, above its head and onto the rocks, experiencing mostly Class 3 and 4 with a good bit of snow in many of the wrong places for it to be, but I once again reached a point where going on didn't seem smart. Honestly, without the shoulder injury, I know I could have gone on some more and maybe reached the summit ridge, but I was tired, sore, and hurt, and I could feel it affecting my climbing. Knowing I wasn't 100% anymore and shouldn't push it when I didn't even know what still lay beyond, I admitted defeat for real, climbed down, and headed back to the car, where my wife was lying on a blanket in the warm sun and reading a book. The return of the conquering-- make that the conquered-- hero.
Just to spite the mountain, I guess, I didn't zip on the pant legs on the way back out. My legs looked even worse. I swore I heard a snicker roll off the mountain's walls. Someone at that house. I only hope...
Scramblers have to suck up their pride in Zion and accept that they probably can't do the big peaks and need to look a little harder, and off the beaten path, for their fun. That's not such a bad thing.
I had wondered why there was no SP page for Tabernacle Dome. Maybe the peak is too close to the road and not challenging enough to interest the experienced technical climbers here who frequent Zion. Maybe it's that unpleasant approach. Whatever, I hope this page provides enough get-to information and commentary to interest someone to get out there, climb it, and add this interesting little peak to the site.
My legs were an unsightly mess for about two weeks. I doubt I'll ever be on the cover of GQ, but I've always appreciated that members of the fairer sex have been known to compliment my legs (even my mother-in-law once did, which was a little weird). But this time, I noticed not gawks but grimaces instead. Even my wife winced. Of course, she's been wincing at me ever since I said "I do" almost 10 years ago.
Moral of the Story
Wear your pant legs when you bushwhack so there's hope for you if your wife has lost that lovin' feeling (good warning sign-- she closes her eyes around you when you're not kissing her lips)!