Earth, Wind, and Rubble
“This is a bad idea,” I want to tell James. We’d both managed to convince our friend Scott Morely that this soaring 2,500-foot ridge presented a much better option than an afternoon of climbing splitter hand cracks. Morely, who has been making the spring and fall migration from Jackson Hole to Zion for years, isn’t buying our “back home for dinner” timeline.
“It’s going to be a long, cold night, definitely below freezing,” Morely says with resignation. He stuffs a bivy parka into his pack, and we take off.
By the time we’ve stumbled up the trail, bushwhacked through a piñon stand, and scrambled to the route’s base, we have five hours of daylight. We slump on the ground and refuse to make eye contact. Glowing with orange afternoon light, the Mountain of the Sun looks like a golden tombstone. From below, we pick apart the the North Ridge’s complex topography — a series of ledges, a deep gash, and a broad ridge capped by a cockscomb of iron-tinged rock dubbed the “Golden Spur”.
Like an interlocking puzzle yielding to patient hands, the route unfolds before us. Shuffle along deteriorating ledge. Friction-climb for 10 feet. Follow a broad, sandy ledge. Wrestle through a yucca webbed with spikes of various lengths. Swear. Hurl softball-sized rock in frustration over route-finding mistakes and pace across a small ledge. We smile after discovering a 50-foot 5.6 hand crack, and slide hands into the snug fissure, moving up rapidly.
Twenty minutes later, I grovel up the last stretch of 5.7 chimney. “We’re here,” says James. “Hopefully this will put us on the summit.”
Ahead of us sits the 500-foot Golden Spur, its teetering, golden rock seracs stacked haphazardly, like a distracted child’s building blocks. We bounce from one side of the thin ridge to the next, lightly pulling on rock fins and stacked rubble. I pound a block with an open palm and cringe at the resulting dull, hollow ring, then mantel onto it before I have time to think. After two weeks of ridge running, I’ve grown oddly comfortable with the loose rock and constant exposure — two elements I typically prefer to deal with one at a time. And while we’ve been almost religious about roping up for fifth-class terrain, today we free solo. I relish the occasional, hearty hand jam or finger lock. To the right, there is nothing but yawning canyon and thick fall sunlight. My stomach tightens with each dose of exposure. Few 5.7s award a climber with 3,000 feet of air. We summit soon, and then begin the mad race to the car. Darkness hits just as we reach the mouth of Employee Canyon. Our headlamps’ blue, tepid beams do little to push back the night as we prepare the first of many rappels. We slide silently down the ropes into a slot canyon and Zion’s embrace.
The Cowboy Ridge (III 5.7), which follows the western spine of Mount Kinesava, is the most improbable, beautiful, and prominent of Zion’s ridges. From 30 miles away, the ridge looks like a simple connection, an obvious path from a beginning to an end, but this view is deceptive. On closer inspection, the ridge is a twisted, gnarled saw blade of ledges and notches, its sandstone fins and towers aligned like notched vertebrae.
Surprisingly, the intimidating 2,000-foot route only has four or five roped pitches. Stick to the very ridge crest and you get about a dozen fifth-class pitches. When the climbing grows difficult, a little investigation reveals a small ledge system 10 feet below. When an almost-blank face confronts you, a chimney appears.
We move slowly, gingerly weighting each undercut ledge, and jam the cracks rather than pull on the flexing flakes that punctuate the ridge. Anxiety fades with upward progress. We’re aiming for the massive red tower split by an ugly-looking offwidth clearly visible from the valley floor. Here, two-thirds of the way up the ridge, we pause, taking a 5.7 chimney in a cleft to the right, and then wiggling to the top of the tower. The wall in front of us is featureless; our options seem spent … until James downclimbs 10 feet and peeks around a corner. The Cowboy Ridge responds with its best pitch yet — a splitter 5.7 hand crack above Kinesava’s 1,500-foot western amphitheater. We move past the false summit, where the word “free” is spelled out in three-foot letters made from oddly uniform bricks of dark-brown rock.
Higher, I explore a large, carved-out channel in which, each spring, snowmelt cascades 1,500 feet down the amphitheatre. I study the rock. I wander toward James, hunched over a long panel of petroglyphs, following each symbol in the hopes of deciphering a story. The carvings, etched in a chocolate-colored varnish, show antlered creatures and men armed with bows and arrows. After a few minutes, James drops into a bed of soft grass, while I lean against a large pine. We work through two tuna fish sandwiches garnished with wayward granules of sand.
The trip’s final summit is only a 20-minute scramble up a white dome, but I don’t want to move. I want savor it like the final chapter of a great book.
I twist my fingers into a seam in a small boulder. The skin around my knuckles is red and tender, the crack painfully sandy. I keep twisting, though, imagining my fingers turning to roots that burrow deep in the broken sandstone until I become a semi-permanent fixture, like the petroglyphs and piñons. I remove my fingers and see that my knuckle is bleeding. I’ve reopened a week-old wound; it’s caked in fine, yellow sand and will surely become a scar. Aside from a few wayward cactus needles, it’s the only memento I plan to take. ~
After his second story on Southwest rubble wrangling, Oregon-based Fitz Cahall is patiently waiting for Climbing to send him to cover bouldering on a lush tropical island.
Season Spring through fall. Wth summers brutally hot (100-plus degrees F) on the canyon floor, Zion's high country can be pleasant -- with an early morning start. Winter is too cold.
One 60m rope, a small assortment of large nuts and medium cams, runners, extra webbing, and a headlamp, space blanket, and safety matches for every climber. Ultimately, however, a topo map and sense of adventure are the two most important tools.
Success depends on moving quickly through third- and fourth-class terrain, and making quick transitions to short stretches of fifth-class climbing. Aside from the Mountain of the Sun, these ridge routes are outside the main canyon, so you won't have to contend with the shuttle bus.
At the park's visitor center, the backcountry desk has four binders of route information, with brief but helpful descriptions. Check here for bird closures -- in recent years, Kinesava and Mountain of the Sun have been subject to seasonal restrictions. Zion Rock and Mountain Guides (435-772-3303) is the best resource for gear and up-to-date information. In Springdale, the Mean Bean Coffeehouse is the climbers' hang.
The park's Watchman Campgrounds ($16 a night) are ideally located, and reservations can be made at nps.gov/archive/zion/pphtml/camping.html. Most climbers opt for Mosquito Cove, a free, undeveloped BLM campground sandwiched between the highway and the Virgin River. To get there, drive south from Springdale on Highway 9, through the sleepy town of Rockville until you reach mile marker 23.5. Look for a dirt road leading down and right.
While Springdale has two small markets, your best bet is to stock up in St. George, 45 minutes away.