The Year of the Angels

The Year of the Angels

Page Type Page Type: Article
Activities Activities: Mountaineering, Scrambling


Foreword-- This essay is in the new guidebook Zion National Park: Summit Routes (Second Edition) by Courtney Purcell (thanks again for the invitation, CP, and awesome book!). Although I have written of these endeavors in more detail in the trip reports "Calling on My Guardian Angels" Part 1 and Part 2, I am posting this version here to help promote this new guidebook. If you are interested in Zion summits, you will not find a more comprehensive resource than CP's.


South Guardian Angel from West Rim TrailSouth Guardian Angel from West Rim Trail



On a warm, bright afternoon in April 2008, while my wife hung out in the sun with a book, I set out to climb Tabernacle Dome with no beta other than a topo map on which I had noted some possible nontechnical routes.

I failed.

Lingering ice and snow on some of those routes, and difficult rock, left me unprepared and unable. Making matters worse, I at one point slipped on a patch of ice in a drainage and fell on my shoulder so hard that I could barely lift my arm for the next 24 hours. In fact, the pain lasted for several days.

As I walked back to the car that day, beaten and sore, I knew that I would have to return and find the right way up. And I also knew I needed to climb the South Guardian Angel.

Undoubtedly, I had seen South Guardian Angel many times before during the drive between St. George and Springdale, but until that day, I had not looked upon it knowing its name. Yet as I explored multiple ways to try accessing Tabernacle Dome’s summit ridge, there was a moment when I struggled up an icy slope to reach a saddle that, disappointingly, proved to be another dead end but at the same time gave me a stunning view north to an isolated, spectacular peak which, after a quick check of my map, I realized was South Guardian Angel.



South Guardian AngelSouth Guardian Angel from the saddle


“What’s in a name?” 

Shakespeare famously put those words into the mouth of one of his doomed tragic heroes. Sometimes, in the climbing world, a name can be reason enough to climb a peak, even to become obsessed with it. When the peak itself is elusive and spectacular, the obsession becomes deeper. Thus it was for me with South Guardian Angel and its sibling North Guardian Angel, which is technically harder but quite a bit easier to reach.

Zion’s Kolob Terrace country lacks the sheer grandeur that comes from the narrowness, colors, and big walls of Zion Canyon. For most people who even know of it, it probably is little more than the gateway to the Subway. Much higher and a good bit cooler than the canyon, the Kolob Terrace area has a montane feel, and, while lacking the mob-drawing power of Zion Canyon, it boasts what the canyon lacks for the most part: stand-alone peaks that rise from the earth like sharp teeth.

And out in Kolob Terrace world, the two that stand out the most are the Guardian Angels. True to the name, they loom as sentinels over a vast complex mostly devoid of trails and other marks of human usage.

Four years-- that is how long it took for me to get to those summits. Actually, I had my first shot in 2011. My wife and I hiked to the overlook of the Northgate Peaks at trails’s end, and then I climbed both peaks while she waited. North Guardian Angel was so close, and I wanted to climb it so much, but I knew that was asking more of her patience than I had earned.



North Guardian AngelNorth Guardian Angel


A year later, in April 2012, we were back, and that time I climbed the standard northeast ridge route on North Guardian Angel. Accounts of the quality of the route were not inaccurate; although it was easier than I thought it would be, there was still a lot of scrambling and some interesting exposure and route-finding choices. Further, the summit register was a minor gem. In it I found entries by several people I knew. Cool!

Despite all that, it was only bittersweet, for the best was also the worst: the incredible view of South Guardian Angel across the dark, deep defile of the Left Fork. A taunt was what it was.



South Guardian Angel and Left ForkSouth Guardian Angel and Left Fork from North Guardian Angel


Anecdotal evidence suggests that South Guardian Angel is one of those peaks that engenders more failures than successes. While it is only a Class 3 peak, the getting there seems to be the problem because the approach can involve three or more of the following: swimming, a Class 5 downclimb (and upclimb on the return), hours of exposure to the sun on rock radiating the heat, a dirty and awkward Class 4 section, and the need to spot an exact landmark or completely miss the crucial key to the route.


Sunrise on North Guardian AngelSunrise on North Guardian Angel-- seen on the way to South Guardian Angel


Regardless, I went out there one July 2012 morning, against all advice, and became almost drunk on the excitement of seeing the summit within view and soon afterward actually standing upon one of Zion’s, if not most difficult, at least most complicated and elusive summits.



South Guardian Angel and the NE RidgeSouth Guardian Angel and the NE Ridge


Up there, I read the sparsely signed register. I looked north and saw a view of North Guardian Angel that only a handful of people see in any given year.



North Guardian Angel from South Guardian AngelNorth Guardian Angel from South Guardian Angel


Not wanting to leave but knowing that I had to, I began the return journey.

My heart is split between two peaks in the Zion backcountry.

And I will keep going back to find those pieces and put them together again or to climb so many other peaks that my Guardian Angels become wispy memories.

Let it be the latter.

For it is in that endeavor that I plan my next trip to Zion even as I write this.

And, as you can see from the picture below, I also finally found my way up Tabernacle Dome!


The Guardian AngelsThe Guardian Angels from Tabernacle Dome


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