It was interesting that as I returned from my recent vacation that I read the many SummitPost forum entries about the ethical and moral dilemmas raised by the ’13 Year-old on Everest’ topic.
For the third year in a row my son Evan (now also13) and I used Spring Break to enjoy hiking and scrambling across Southern Utah. This year we would continually have our plans altered by the record snow pack still lingering in the upper elevations of Zion in late-March 2010. What follows is a series of miscalculations due to my almost continuous underestimation of the effects of the record snowpack on the Zion backcountry. And it is also a look into my own decision making about what was and wasn’t appropriate for my 13 year old son, and myself.
6460 ‘Lost Peak’ – Snow Problem
Arriving in Zion on a warm Saturday afternoon, my son and I were immediately struck by the amount of snow still highlighting the tops of the Zion towers and spires. But the canyon was warm and since our objective for the day was 6460, a minor peak only a mile or two from the road on the east side of the park, a mere introduction to a week of scrambling. So we packed our jackets but decided that gloves were overkill. Scrambling up from Clear Creek we were greeted by a mountain goat and patches of snow still lurking in the crevices of the canyon. As we clambered over waves of red slickrock on the initial slope out of the creek, we could not see our objective at first. We even wondered as we neared the top of the wavy rock plateau if we had already arrived. As we crested the top of the plateau we were greeted by the real summit looming up from the surrounding redness – a summit that had a some wide layers of snow draping over our expected northern approach.
Approach to 6460 6460 'Lost Peak'
It all makes sense now, a north facing slope still retaining snow. But up to that point I had not thought there could be enough snow to make a difference to our route. Well it made a great deal of difference and we almost right away missed having our gloves. The snow made some parts easier but several other parts much harder than they should have been as ‘Class 2’ scrambling. At one point I thought we were well and truly stymied at a wall of rock beyond our abilities to surmount. And I was quite ready to turn back, as I was not suffering from summit fever and looking forward to a week of hiking. Just as we were about to call it off, we found a route around snaking around the wall on 8 inches of snow free ground poised over a steep snowy slope. It was a ‘parental safety moment’ and I determined that it was not-without-some-danger-but-still-in-the bounds-of-good-sense for my son and I. I am trying to teach Evan not to give up easy. Evan agreed we should give it a shot. We got up the route without incident, naming it ‘the Crack of Doom’. As we proceeded up, I could tell this peaklet was not something climbed often because of the vast quantities of bad plate-like rock that was always seeking to slide down on us. But we eventually celebrated the summit with great views across the east side of Zion.
Way Up 6460 'Lost Peak'
Loose, cracked and ready to slide.
Our descent was easy (avoiding the crack of doom by dropping down the barrier wall) and we detoured to the northwest to travel through a heart-stoppingly beautiful slickrock bowl to the canyon of Clear Creek, still frozen in some parts. The canyon descended past Cockeyed Falls and the remainder of the hike was easy. It was a great beginning to our vacation, even if a little more involved than the ‘introductory’ hike I had promised Evan.
Way Down from 6460
Unedited comment from Evan: 'Half the mountain was rotten rock'
By the way, everything that I ever learned about 6460 and many other Zion summits I learned from Courtney Purcell’s book ‘Zion Summit Routes’. I also recommend this web site Here
Mountain of the Sun
Being a bit wiser now, I looked over maps the next day to see if an attempt on Mountain of the Sun would be stymied by snow. This was the peak that had seized Evan’s imagination during the winter. As we were going up a south facing side of the mountain, I thought snow would not be an issue there. I was right. But we would never end up getting to the Mountain.
We went up Pine Creek canyon to the falls and started up its western ridge. The approach to the Mountain of the Sun requires you to get up and over this beautiful but intimidating red rock ridge and drop into the next canyon over. The ridge itself was pretty severe but scenic slickrock heaven, and when we finally descended the other side of it, we thought the worst of the approach was over. We still had not even seen the Mountain of the Sun, as it is hidden by the bulk of The Twin Brothers.
Ridge on Approach to Mountain of the Sun
Going north up a mild creek to its head, our route required that we continue up and over the head of this south running creek, and descend into the north running Employee Lodge canyon to the base our objective. We easily reached the watershed between the two canyons…and stopped.
Steep Canyon Snow ends our Approach
The steeply sloping canyon we had to descend was choked with snow, looking more like a bobsled run than a canyon, and the slope was intimidating. It would be quite an ordeal to descend the canyon, much less to ascend it. Parental Safety moment #2. I knew when we started that this was a very challenging objective for us, and we really did not have margin to deal with this obstacle. The climb over the ridge had been tougher than I thought, and our trip had reached what I felt was the point of ridiculousness, and I was not comfortable with the thought of having Evan retrace the steps alone in an emergency situation. To continue on would have made this hike epic – or idiotic. Turning back was the right call for amateur scramblers like us. But not right away. We ate our lunch at the watershed and had an enjoyable scramble back up and over the ridge back to our car. For the second day in a row, we had seen not one person.
Unedited comment from Evan: 'This was a good enough hike even without the Mountain of the Sun'
Kolob Terrace Snowed out – Return to South Ariel
The next day I thought I would show Evan the Kolob Terrace, which he had never seen. As we drove up the Kolob Resevoir road, I had plans for the Northgate Peaks or perhaps North Guardian Angel. Well, I was surprised by snow – again - when the road was closed a mile or so shy of Wildcat trailhead. You know, at some point you would have thought this snow thing would have made an impression on me. A couple of hikers reported 3-4 foot drifts of snow. Now I had expected snow, but not a road closure. We revised our plans for the day and drove back to the canyon. We would try again to surmount South Ariel peak, which we had come within 30 feet of summiting two years ago. Choosing a different line up, we kept ascending the progressively steeper surfaces. The gradually more extreme slick rock slopes near the top gave Evan the heebee-jeebees about down-climbing…and I had to admit he was right to be concerned.
South Ariel starts easy...
..but gets much steeper
So Parental Safety moment #3 was a no brainer, and I turned around. After some tricky down-climbing, we sailed down to the car. South Ariel defeated us again. At least there was no snow…
Evan: 'Worse the second time around'.
Water Canyon/Canaan Mountain
Time for a change of pace. The next day we took dirt roads from Springdale south to Hilldale in order to hike up Water Canyon and maybe route find our way across vast Canaan Mountain to its summit. Ten minutes into our hike Evan objected (he despises trails and wants to scramble everything – and the sandy trail did not hold his interest). I talked him into continuing. 30 minutes later, as we reached the first of the wonderful waterfalls of Water Canyon, Evan completely rebelled. He had had a bad experience hiking up a cascade 2 years ago at Zion’s Subway hike. I had not realized how much it had affected him until we had to climb a few steps up a waterfall.
Watery beginning Water Canyon
He absolutely refused to go up. Parental Safety Moment #4. Another no-brainer. I went up without him and shamed him into following. Truly, that was it, as far as watery climbing went, but Evan had imagined an entire watery labyrinth ahead.
One of many waterfalls
After climbing up the incredible canyon, equal to any of Zion’s great wonders, we began our ascent to ‘the Top of the Rocks’, the end of Water Canyon itself and the beginning of a long route on the summit plateau to the highpoint of Canaan Mountain. As the trail elevated, we were again greeted by heavy snow drifts, and we were glad to have other deep boot holes to follow.
The Top of the Rocks was wonderfully scenic, and a great place to have lunch. But as I surveyed the snowy top of the plateau and the long route we had left, I knew that this was another snow-shortened hike for us. The route finding would probably be fine in a month but there was too much snow for me to be comfortable with. Parental Safety Moment #5. As Dirty Harry once said, “A man’s got to know his limitations”.
Top of the Rocks
Top of the Rocks with plenty of snow
Evan: 'I don't like slick rock'
Last Day Scrambling... comes Early
Our plan was to drive to Capital Reef from Zion, and I had noted that a dirt road route existed as a scenic 4 WD ‘short cut’. The Skumtauph road was beautiful, but 30 miles or so into it a sign announced its closure due to…snow. We had to backtrack completely and this added much wear and tear on my back, which would massively spasm on me the next morning, cancelling the next two days of Scrambling.
I laid on my back for a day and could barely stand. We had to get back to Nevada and the drugs my wife had wired out to me. Evan offered to drive. Parental Safety Moment #6…
Evan Comment: 'It was a long boring day when he hurt his back - even with cable TV'