Dow leading the 5th Pitch, 5.9+
Byran Bird published the best Zion guide book to date (2017) in 2009 (Zion Climbing Free and Clean). I have climbed most of the routes in the book and normally Bryan’s beta is complete. However, for whatever reason, he chose to take a different approach for the North Ridge of the Watchman. Not only is his grade off (IV, 5.10 A0, there is no aid necessary nor is the route a IV, it is a III at most), he gives little to no beta on how the route goes. In many cases a ridge climb needs little explanation, but in this case the Watchman’s N Ridge is not straight forward. Despite getting off route where most obviously would (and evidence points to others who have), we still completed the route in 12 hours car to car. Bryan mentions in his guide “bring your headlamp!”.
Perhaps his is the other party that got off route as well. I can say the correction to that was short and sweet and the descent was also much simpler than Bryan makes out: “this is a complicated one”
. The descent is actually quite fast. A walk off with three single rope rappels. Double ropes are not necessary on this route
as his gear call suggests. Neither are the double C4#3’s and #4’s and single #5 necessary for an experienced trad climber. If I did it again, I would take a single #3 and #4 and no #5.
Therefore, you can go light and fast on this alpine style route.
Dow leading the crux pitch, 5.10
There are only eight roped pitches
for the competent party taking on the North Ridge of the Watchman. Seven of which are just 100’ in length more or less. You start the route with approximately 400’ of elevation gain via scrambling before you rope up below the same wall you would rap from the top of Mythical Kings and Iguanas.
So basically you are ascending the MKI descent. From there, you are climbing 100’ pitches broken up by terrain that you need to move the belay on (hiking or scrambling). There are two key spots that task your route finding skills: finding the 5th and 6th pitches.
The fifth pitch is easy to find, but just not obvious. The sixth pitch is improbable as you leave the ridge proper to find your way to the final ridge which is hidden. Only three pitches offer much real climbing:
the 1st pitch, relatively easy 5.9 wide; the 5th pitch, a hidden, but good looking 5.9+ finger corner (albeit chossy); and the final (8th) pitch, the one that Bird referenced that he and his partner aided with fixed bolts. The bolts are no longer in sight and I found no need to aid and the pitch protected well with gear, closer to 5.10a than 5.10. This last pitch is the longest and best pitch of the day.
Wildlife en route
The approach to the ridge involves approximately a 1000'+/- in gain. Park at the visitor center and walk across the street to a large parking lot full of the trams used during tourist season to haul folks down canyon. When you come to a pedestrian bridge that leads to a maintenance building, drop down into the wash on the right below the bridge. Head southwest towards the backside corner (northeast) of the Watchman. Stay in the wash until you come to a significant gully on your right. Bushwhack up this gully on very loose ground. Make your way out of the gully and to the soft slopes on the left whenever the brush relents enough to do so. Walking up the left side of the gully through sporadic bush is more pleasant than up the gully or anywhere on the right side of the gully based on my first-hand experience. As you near the east wall (Chasity Crack)
of the Watchman, circumvent north all the way to the very start of the ridge. Ascend the east side of the ridge through ledges, trees and bushes to the ridge proper. Ascend this ridge to a gully full of trees. Continue rightward scrambling up to a significant shoulder on the west side. To the east is a 100’ wall. You are climbing the chimney on the right side of this wall. It is an obvious line (photos).
Route Description1500’+/-, 8 Pitches, 5.10
1st Pitch- 100’- 5.9/
If you have climbed Mythical Kings and Iguanas before, the first real technical climbing on the North Ridge of the Watchman is at the same wall that is your first rap from atop that route. This 100’ wall faces due west. On the right side is a short off width/white flake followed by an obvious chimney at the grade. The crux move is pulling a small roof via chimney technique and/or stemming. The first ledge you come to has a tree slung (2017) for a rap for Mythical. The best angle in which to bring the 2nd up is to scramble up to the next ledge and tree and belay from there. The 100’ is from the base of the short off width to the top of the chimney.
2nd Pitch- 100’- 5.7/
You do not need to coil the ropes. The next pitch starts just a few meters away on the north aspect. There are multiple moss covered cracks. The right one is the cleanest, then a short traverse left and up through a one move roof pull below a boulder and up to a comfortable boulder belay.
3rd Pitch- 100’- 5.9/
There is an old star drive bolt and worthless hanger on the mossy wall in front of you (2017). In fact this is the lone bolt on the entire route despite the beta from Bird’s guide to the contrary. It is not needed for the competent leader. It protects a traverse, left to right on the moss covered face, but there are good feet to make the moves. Then up and back left to start the hand crack above. The crux move is the mantel to start this crack and is well protected. Continue up to a shoulder ledge.
Move the belay right and then up a grassy gully at least one rope length.
4th Pitch- 100’- 5.7/
This is a loose pitch. Take the obvious line straight above (east) the grass gully. There are two cracks. A wider one on the right and more of a hands size on the left. Take the hand crack which goes to fist. Then make an awkward (crux) move left to exit onto the north ridge proper for the first time. Continue along the ridge and set up a belay at about 100’ of rope via slinging one of many features.
Move the belay down and left of the ridge along a bushy ledge. You will notice what looks like a simple corner on the left further up the ridge line but it does not go (closed corner). Instead, step down and scramble to the left side of the same feature that makes that right facing corner and climb the left facing aspect by starting lower down. 2nd best pitch of the day. Great photo included.
5th Pitch- 100’- 5.9+/
The crux is the start of this good looking left facing corner, due to virgin sandstone but also the size of the crack. Stem or chimney up to place a micro cam or nut and once you make another stem move or two, you can place a decent sized finger piece in acceptable rock. Continue up the curving corner as the crack widens to hands and belay on top, slinging a feature for a belay.
Move the belay along the right side of the ridge. This next several hundred feet of elevation offers your best chance of getting off route. We had no photos or good beta on what the “last technical chimney” pitch looked like. From this spot on the ridge, you can clearly see a chimney high up on the ridge line. However, this is not the final chimney pitch. We climbed up to it and sure enough found a slung feature where another party made the same mistake. It is a cool chimney like feature, but gets closed off up high. In reality, the final head-wall is not visible from this vantage. Therefore, scramble up the right side of the ridge line for 100’ or so.
6th Pitch- 100’- 5.7/
Grade will vary depending on which route you take. I went up an easy chimney that landed me into a cool chasm at the base of the before mention chimney feature. But that is not where you want to be. I then had to down climb and traverse right on bad rock to get back on route. You are best served by continuing to traverse after that previous 100’ move of the belay to the right and either climb discontinuous cracks or a chimney further to the right yet. Both would be approximately 100’ to the right of the narrower section of the ridge you just left. Climb to just below twin easy wide cracks.
7th Pitch- 100’- 5.7/
This easy rambling pitch will get you to the final ridge where you finally have visual of the final head-wall. Simply climb any route you want above. The right wide crack goes pretty mellow and clean.
Move the belay to the base of the right chimney. There are clearly two chimney options. The right side is the finish to the route. But I found no bolts in it (Bird and his partner aided on bolts). That being said, the right chimney pitch matched the guide beta and offered excellent climbing compared to the rest of the route, no aid necessary.
8th Pitch- 200’- 5.10/
Bird published this pitch as “probably going free at 5.10 off width”. They aided off bolts when they did the pitch. In 2017 there are no bolts, nor were any needed and it climbs closer to 5.10a or 5.9+ squeeze chimney than 5.10 off width. To begin, lean across the void and place some medium gear in the obvious crack. Move right and climb a clean hand crack which lands you into the base of the large chimney above. Start with chimney technique placing medium gear in a decent crack on the left wall. When it peters out, enter the off-width/squeeze chimney deeper in. All the way in is a good protection crack on the right wall. When you start this chimney you face left. When you find this pro crack deeper in, you face right. Then you eventually (squeeze chimney technique) switch back facing left as you pull a large chock stone. Continue up easier ground (stemming) and pull another large stone and belay atop the chimney off of a good tree climbers left.
In Bird’s Zion guide, he calls the North Ridge descent a “complicated one”
and recommends that you study and print out a USGS topo map. He also recommends double 60m ropes. We did zero study of the descent in advance nor had any map and found it relatively straight forward compared to most any other descent in Zion.
A single 60m rope via three rappels gets you off the mountain, again, in straight forward fashion.
From the top of the final chimney pitch, scramble up the short gully to the summit ridge. In short order you will make the true summit. From the summit you will notice a stark “hanging canyon” off to the east. That hanging canyon is horseshoe shaped and hugs the southern ridge of the Watchman. You will be descending down to the opposite side of the hanging canyon you can see (southwest) and then you will take one rap from its north west end to the ground.
From the summit, continue south along the ridge with no raps or technical climbing, just follow the road of least resistance. Eventually you start to trend right (west) off of the ridge and aim for Mt. Allgood (southwest)(the guide mentions Mt. Johnson, but you are dropping down between Mt. Allgood and the Watchman)
. As you descend the western slopes, heading south the whole time, you come to an intersection. Straight down leads into a grassy walled alcove. You want to go right and continue to descend to the hanging valley between Mount Allgood and the Watchman. A few cairns were leading the way in 2017. It sucks you right down into a water-worn slab that you take two single rope raps off of trees and fixed nuts down to the hanging canyon floor.
Hike a short distance west and descend the bushy canyon down until you come across a four bolt fixed single 60m rappel back to the ground. Circumvent along the west face of the Watchman to approximately the middle of the west face and locate a decent sandy trail that heads back down to the river.
The guide calls for double ropes and double to C4#4 and a #5. A single 60m rope will get you down the descent as I outlined in three raps. There is no need for double ropes.
The crux pitch (only 5.10 pitch on the route) is the final pitch. This chimney/off-width takes good medium sized gear in cracks on both sides of the chimney. When I was finished leading this long pitch, I still had the #5 and a #4 on my rack. The rest of the technical pitches were only 100’ before you had to move the belay (in other words not linkable and therefore relatively short by Zion standards). If I did the route again, I would take a single to #4 with doubles from C4#.75 to #2.
Take at least one micro off set cam and/or small off set nuts for the start of the 5th pitch. I placed no wires myself. Ten shoulder length slings. Plenty of cord for slinging boulder features for belay stations.