Ascent of South Guardian Angel on 2013-10-12

Climber: BMS 914

Others in Party:Joel Brewster
Collin Kamholz
James Morehouse -- Trip Report or GPS Track
----Only Party on Mountain
Date:Saturday, October 12, 2013
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
    Motorized Transport to Trailhead:Car
Peak:South Guardian Angel
    Elevation:7140 ft / 2176 m

Ascent Trip Report

This outing had been on the schedule since 2012, but we were unable to make it last year, and nearly had to cancel again this year due to the US Government being shut down and the Guardian Angels being within Zion National Park. In fact, Collin and I had basically decided to do the peaks and ignore the park closure, when the State of Utah paid to get its National Parks back open just in time. We felt like we had a relatively small window to do them, as it gets hot during much of the year (making the South peak tough), or snowy for the rest, increasing the already tricky climbing on the North peak even more. So canceling might have meant waiting until October of 2014 for another shot, and Collin had waited since 2011 and really wanted to complete them.

Collin, Joel and I met Friday evening in Las Vegas and drove up to Kolob Canyon Road, where we knew Jim would be already camping. We were unable to locate Jim's vehicle in the dark (which wasn't unexpected), so we picked a camp spot just off the side of the road about a few hundred meters from the Wildcat Canyon trailhead. The legality of our camping spot was dubious, but Collin reasoned we would be gone before we were noticed as we were meeting Jim at the trailhead just before daybreak anyway.

It was quite cold at nearly 7000', around 34°F, and very damp as well. We all spent a night in our tents trying to stay warm and listening to the bugling of nearby Elk bulls as it was The Rut this time of year. Joel and I stayed pretty warm, but Collin was cold all night and couldn't fall asleep. I woke to the sounds of Coyotes howling, quickly got out of my warm sleeping bag and dressed, and began breaking down my tent in the predawn chill as fast as possible. After loading all our gear in Collin's Subaru, we drove the short distance to the trailhead and arrived just a few minutes before our scheduled meeting time of 7:00AM MST. Jim arrived moments later, and we shouldered our packs and got ready to begin.

Before we had left, I had loaded two different sets of tracks in my GPS at the request of Collin. The first was a looping route from Bob Burd's website that visited both peaks in one day. He had been lead by Courtney Purcell, a very accomplished climber from Las Vegas who had also authored a couple books on hiking and climbing up peaks, including one of Zion. It is reasonable to say that he is THE authority on peakbagging in Zion. The route he took with Bob Burd looped well northeast of the standard route, crossed The Subway (a very deep chasm with a river running down its middle) northeast of Russell Gulch, then skirted The Subway and made for South Guardian Angel. The passage sounded like a labyrinth in Burd's description, and GPS signals in deep canyons are of no use. The route was supposedly faster, but only if we could find the way. Could we find this route without the guidance of the expert who discovered it?

Eventually, we decided that our prospects for success were higher if we just went after each peak individually, so we left our heavy 60m rope and brought a 10m cordelette instead, shouldered our packs and headed for the southern peak by the standard route that runs between the Northgate Peaks.

The first part of the hike is quite easy. It follows an nicely maintained, sandy trail along an essentially flat elevation profile. This trail sees a lot of use as it is a main access route to The Subway, which itself is a very popular canyoneering outing. After about a mile we took a fork off the main Wildcat Canyon Trail onto the Northgate Peaks Trail. More of the same here: flat, easy, and occasionally sandy. The maintained trail ends between the two Northgate Peaks, but a path takes over and passes to the east of North Guardian Angel (our other objective).

I had also loaded our friend Harlan's GPS track for South Guardian Angel. As we neared The Subway, he had thoughtfully included an estimated side-track of what he believed was a better route than the one he had taken, which he discovered online. But we unfortunately had passed the spot where the turnoff for the improved route was before I noticed it, so we just stuck to the faint path we had been following and Harlan's original GPS track. This section was choked with brush and lots of scratchy plants, mostly Manzanita and Sonoran Scrub Oak, but nothing worse than that, except for some very occasional Wild Rose. Plenty of Prickly Pear Cactus abounds, but most seem to lack spines and all of it is easily stepped around or over.

We reached The Subway at last, and our helpful path came to an abrupt end. We all began scouting for a way down to the bottom of the deep canyon. Collin looked to our right, and didn't like what he saw there. He looked strait ahead, then left; and suddenly the route he had seen on the right looked more appealing! We began picking our way down the very steep, very sandy, brush choked chute. It was narrow, and ledgy. The thin tree-like bushes made the movement difficult, but also helped stabilize the sandy footing and prevent slips down into the deepest part of the gully to our right. It was time consuming, and painstaking, but eventually we reached the Left Fork of North Creek at the bottom. My GPS had of course been bouncing all over the place as the signal was poor, and by the bottom it has lost all its satellite contact. So if you look at my GPS track, please keep in mind that it is estimated in both directions crossing The Subway.

The creek at the bottom isn't very wide or deep here. We all had brought plenty of water and gave no thought to collecting any for drinking, but it could certainly be done though I would use a filter due to people using this canyon in numbers. Lots of flat partially submerged stones provided multiple easy paths to keeping our shoes dry. Joel remembered reading a trip report that described a terrain feature called The Jug Handle that marked the correct chute to ascend the south side of the canyon. Less than a minute of searching revealed a large sandstone formation that looked a lot like a handle on gigantic coffee mug, and Joel recognized it immediately from the picture he had seen as our landmark. This was good, as Collin had prepped mostly for the Purcell Route we had decided against.

Unfortunately, Joel couldn't remember which fork of our chute to take. He looked at the left section, which had an angled slab ending in a smooth wall perhaps fifteen feet high, with a decent notch running up its right side. He worked part way up the notch, but the going was difficult as the stone here was damp and mossy, and lacked good holds. Halfway up he decided this was probably the wrong spot, and backed off to go explore the right section instead. Meanwhile, I decided to take a turn at the left section.

A word here on the sandstone before I continue. The sandstone on much of our route, but especially in The Subway, was damp. It is often very soft and will crumble into coarse sand with little provocation, and was something each of us had to watch out for along the entire route whenever sandstone was encountered. Some layers are strong and hold up to weight and pressure, just like the sandstone in Red Rock Canyon near Las Vegas where I hike and climb a lot. But other layers, visually indistinguishable at a glance, will crumble like a Graham Cracker when stepped on or used as a hold. When damp this phenomenon seems to be amplified. Even projections 2.5 inches thick crumbled or broke off on members of our party on a couple of occasions. From the standpoint of limiting impact on the park, not to mention continued longevity, it is important to keep this in mind, especially while climbing, lest your handhold suddenly become a handful of colorful sand!

Anyway, I worked my way up the notch as Joel had, got a little bit innovative with the footholds higher up, and reached the top of the wall. A large, split, overhung boulder covers the wall here; but there is maybe a 14" gap above the top of the wall and the beneath the big boulder that forms something approximating a small cave. Getting my body into the cave proved a problem. The "floor" is covered in deep sand and a few fist sized loose rocks, and there is very little to grab on to. My legs weren't long enough to push against the notch and get me far enough into the "cave" to not slip back out. The cave itself is a very tight squeeze even flat on my stomach. The front of the cave is not blocked from view to the ground below, so Collin and Jim watched with mounting amusement; eventually joined by Joel.

Joel had nearly gotten up the right hand section; but a slight overhang, lack of handholds, and the slippery/wet/crumbly sandstone left him one move away from making it go.

Meanwhile, I managed to wiggle like a worm into the tight cave, only to find that getting out the other side was going to be even more tricky. The boulder is split - perhaps 80% of which is on the right (entrance) side, with the rest coming to a point with a 4" gap on the left. The contour of the chute begins bending around there, resulting in a twenty foot drop to the bottom over another smooth side wall. The 9" shoulder on top of it is rounded, covered in sand, and somewhat below the level of exit to the cave. I found myself committed at this point, unable to exit the cave going backward the way I came in. I was now wiggling downward, face first, toward this rounded ledge, with no idea how I was going to get out of the cave without sliding into the chute and falling down to the feet of my companions. With much struggling, some use of the point of the left section of the roof-boulder and its crack, and lots of contortionist moves, I somehow made it clear, relieved and fatigued from the approximately five minutes of continuous high exertion involved.

I took a break to recover before heading to the right side option to rig a belay for the others as it HAD to be easier (and quicker) to go that way then what I had just been through. Meanwhile, Collin had decided to try the cave route, and before I could warn him against it (I couldn't see him from where I was at atop the roof boulder) he had made it up the notch and into the cave below me. His greater size had made entry into the cave easier and much quicker than it had been for me. Once inside it became a liability however as he nearly became stuck, also unable to back off. He made it through and discovered the head-down perch on the little sandy shelf over the dropoff, and began asking how in the Hell I had managed to get out without falling. I could tell by the faint hint of panic in his voice that he was in trouble, but there was nothing I could do to belay him, and little advice I could give him to help. My exit "move" had been wiggle, struggle, and fight like crazy not to slip. I did tell him I twisted my torso to the right and had grabbed the point on the boulder and used the crack. He emphatically imparted that the cave route was "NOT recommended" to Joel and Jim who were watching the drama from below.

He made it out at last, fatigued and saying he had never been more scared of falling in any of his years of climbing mountains. We used our rope to pass up our packs, but mine got stuck and we gave up on it. I kept the rope and headed for the other option with Collin: Jim followed Joel struggling to scramble up the first portions while carrying my pack on his shoulder with his already on his back.

Since Collin and I were now above the spot that had turned back Joel, I looked for something to use as a belay anchor. The sandstone wall here had many pockets and holes, some of which had posts and could be used as natural anchor points. I found a series of holes that joined up passing behind several sandstone posts. I placed some runners here, linked them with a locker, and pulled like crazy on them to see if they would hold. Collin looked at my anchor with reservation, we discussed its merits and perceived limitations, and he too began tugging on it to induce a failure. It held, and we came to the conclusion that it was better than it looked and would be sufficient to protect the one move each of our friends would have to make. Since we had nothing else we could use given our short cord, it was that or they would have to climb it unbelayed. Had the sandstone they were climbing on been more dry I doubt we would have needed anything here.

Joel went up, and I belayed him from above using my ATC in autoblock mode. He began to slip backward at the crux just as he had feared. I was right above him at this point, and with my free hand I grabbed the haul loop on his pack and gave him just enough of a tug to get him back on the wall. He scrambled up with a smile. After handing up my pack, Jim tied in and followed. He too began slipping here as well, and the haul loop on his pack got employed, and we were all up at last. I listed this section as Class 4 due to my cave adventure, and it was the toughest portion of climbing on the entire route. Had the spot Joel and Jim had taken been dry it would probably been nothing worse than maybe one move of 5.5 - 5.6. In retrospect, climbers aiding each other from above and/or below (i.e. haul loop pulling and a hand on a back or butt) could probably do this section without ropes, even in the damp conditions we had.

The rest of the hike up out of The Subway was steep, loose, and involved more bushwhacking; but less so than the route down the other side. Once back up to the rim of the canyon, our objective for the day, South Guardian Angel, loomed somewhere above us and to our right. The rest of the way up was a route following cairns/ducks, walking on sandstone. Harlan's GPS track was helpful here for micro-navigation as there are many walls and obstacles that get in the way of the final ridge leading to the summit. We ended up coming in a little south of the GPS track we had, and had to do a bit more heavy Class 2 light scrambling (some exposed) to get back to the ridge we wanted to reach.

We could at last see the ridge leading up to the top of the mountain, although the true summit is further southwest and blocked from view. More Class 2 light scrambling here on small ledges on the sandstone here. The often peter out, necessitating friction climbing up to the next terrace-like ledge. This section is exposed to some significant long falls of the sliding variety, as the sandstone gets pretty steep in places, and care is required. Occasional easy Class 3 moved were sprinkled in at times here too.

The view at the summit is just unbelievable: North Guardian Angel, The Subway, and numerous domes, walls, and canyons painted in tan and red, amid the sea of green chaparral abound. I could double the length of this trip report going into detail! Jim mentioned it was the best view he had ever seen. Lunch, summit photos, and smiles followed.

Our route back followed much the same path we took in, with a couple of exceptions. The first of which was to stay atop the shoulder of the the connecting ridge a little longer, and avoid some of the steep and tricky Class 2 we had on the way in when we went south of Harlan's GPS track. That is visible in my GPS track posted on this site, and proved a better way to go.

Upon reaching the tricky climb down into North Creek at the bottom of The Subway, we all elected to rappel using the cord 30' of 8mm cord I had brought and the improvised sandstone pocket anchor I had used to belay Joel and Jim up. I ran the cord directly for the final rappel, recovering my locker and runner. Jim didn't seem to trust the rope or the anchor much, essentially downclimbing as he rappelled, an issue that would come up on North Guardian Angel the next day.

We all made it down, crossed the creek, and began the tedious Class 2 scramble up the opposing chute. From my perspective, it was more strenuous but easier overall struggling up the steep, sandy chute than it was trying to go down. As before, there were a also couple of easy Class 3 moves mixed in here.

This time I was able to locate the bypass side-track Harlan had included with his GPS route. Collin, who was out front, had to back track to me a little, and seemed doubtful of where I was proposing to go. I had decided that I was going to try it solo if no one else wanted to go, but in the end the others followed me up what looked like a brushy chute that was going to cliff out and require going back down. I found some cairns/ducks, and kept going, eventually having to guess where to go, as the track I had was only an estimate drawn on the map. Just as I was beginning to despair of its viability, I found a way up and over, spotted a welcome cairn, and made for our outbound track, hitting the use trail. I am not certain, but I think this section bypassed some of the worst of the bushwhacking we had taken in. The true route is visible on my GPS track posted here.

We approached the base on North Guardian Angel, but my GPS showed 1:20 until sunset. Clearly, we didn't have enough time left to squeeze in an attempt. Collin and I were not dissuaded by the darkness, and we all had headlamps (I think), but the cold we encountered the night before, and our lack of a real climbing rope to use on the rappels made coming back the next day the best choice.

The use trail gave way to the groomed trail, Collin leading at a good pace, and Joel coming up the rear. We made it back to the trailhead just as the sun was about to go down. Tired but satisfied, we began planning our camping arrangements for the night and our attempt at North Guardian Angel for the next day.

Collin wanted to drive into town and get food at a local restaurant, which sounded good to me. Neither of us had brought a lot of food, and after our long day we both wanted a good meal. Joel wanted to go back to where he had camped the night before, make dinner, and get some sleep. Jim elected to join him. Collin and I were going to come back and meet them after dinner, but I wasn't thrilled with spending another night at that spot. So I told Jim and Joel if we didn't show to meet us at the trailhead the next morning at 7:30AM MST. It was already showing 40°F, and I didn't want to spend another night in the cold damp conditions. Jim offered Collin his extra sleeping bag to use as additional insulation, so at least he wouldn't be cold again all night. I was also concerned that we might get rousted and/or cited by park rangers in the early evening, and have to take down and set up our camp site a second time.

On the road down to the little town of Virgin, we spotted park ranger pickup truck pulling off the road, not a good omen for Joel and Jim. Lower, we found a nice turnout on BLM land, about 20 minutes from the trailhead, and decided to check it out as a potential campsite on our return trip. We had a nice if pricey meal, then stopped at the turnout. Two vehicles were now parked there, and some tents and a campfire were in evidence.

We got out, the thermometer reading 55°F in Collin's Subaru, which had to be at least 20°F warmer than where Jim and Joel were at. The decision was an easy one, we pitched our tents, and immediately fell asleep.

Please see my trip report on North Guardian Angel for the rest of the details on this trip.
Summary Total Data
    Total Elevation Gain:3845 ft / 1171 m
    Total Elevation Loss:3845 ft / 1171 m
    Round-Trip Distance:12.4 mi / 20 km
    Grade/Class:Class 4
    Quality:6 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
Maintained Trail, Unmaintained Trail, Open Country, Bushwhack, Scramble, Exposed Scramble
    Gear Used:
Rope, Tent Camp
    Nights Spent:1 nights away from roads
    Weather:Pleasant, Calm, Clear
Perfect weather
Ascent Statistics
    Gain on way in:2089 ft / 636 m
        Gain Breakdown:Net: 175 ft / 54 m; Extra: 1914 ft / 583m
    Loss on way in:1914 ft / 583 m
    Distance:6.2 mi / 10 km
    Route:Northeast ridge from Subway
    Start Trailhead:Wildcat Canyon trailhead  6965 ft / 2122 m
    Time:5 Hours 9 Minutes
Descent Statistics
    Loss on way out:1931 ft / 588 m
        Loss Breakdown:Net: 175 ft / 54 m; Extra: 1756 ft / 535m
    Gain on way out:1756 ft / 535 m
    Distance:6.2 mi / 10 km
    Route:Northeast ridge to Subway
    End Trailhead:Wildcat Canyon trailhead  6965 ft / 2122 m
    Time:5 Hours 34 Minutes
GPS Data for Ascent/Trip

 GPS Waypoints - Hover or click to see name and lat/long
Peaks:  climbed and  unclimbed by BMS 914
Click Here for a Full Screen Map
Note: GPS Tracks may not be accurate, and may not show the best route. Do not follow this route blindly. Conditions change frequently. Use of a GPS unit in the outdoors, even with a pre-loaded track, is no substitute for experience and good judgment. accepts NO responsibility or liability from use of this data.

Download this GPS track as a GPX file

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