Sunday, September 29
Sunday, September 29. Our first full day in Zion. We should now be ready to tackle a big-ticket objective, right? Well, not quite yet. As part of the complicated logistics of our trip, our next trip companion - Arn's brother Kyle - had arrived in Las Vegas the night before and was scheduled to drive (in a second rental vehicle) to Zion and join up with us this very morning. The problem was, there was no practical way for him to join with us later than mid-morning - and that meant that we really couldn't schedule something too big and long for today. We'd simply be getting started too late. Instead, we opted to schedule in something that, while definitely much harder than the very easy Watchman Trail we'd done the night before, we still interesting and challenging. That objective, as you'll find out, was one of Zion Canyon's peaks, called Lady Mountain.
Morning at Site F-6
Before talking more about Lady Mountain or about Kyle's join-up with us, let's recount our morning's activities. First off, we had a chilly but super-scenic breakfast at our great walk-in campsite (by the way, if you're interested specifically in this spot after seeing the pictures, the site is F-6, Watchman Campground). Then, seeing as we had to wait for Kyle, and given how busy the campground had been the day before, we decided to head down to the ranger kiosk at the campground entrance and inquire about renewing our campsite for another night.
Visiting the campground entrance early in the morning turned out to be quite a wise move. Across The Watchman's 162 sites, there was only one that had come up free this morning. We quickly made our way over to the neighbouring South Campground, but it too seemed to have its sites already occupied or spoken for. We returned to the kiosk at the Watchman Campground entrance and reserved that free spot for ourselves. Mind you, it wasn't as nice as our little gem of a walk-in site, but it was a site, and we wouldn't have to worry about accommodation for the rest of the day.
We packed up (or in the case of Jenn and myself, "transferred") our gear to our new campsite, then set about organizing ourselves for the upcoming challenge of Lady Mountain. This organization was a bit more involved than usual, for the way up Lady Mountain was not just a regular trailled route to a mountaintop - it was more of a light mountaineering objective.
We figured climbing Lady Mountain would be a roughly six-to-eight hour endeavour. That meant that if we started climbing by, say, 11am, we'd have ample to time to finish any technical bits before sundown, at about 7:20pm. It would fit well into our Kyle-waiting constraints.
Readying Climbing Gear
By 9:30 am, we were fully settled into our new campsite and were just about complete with getting our packs ready for our climb of Lady Mountain. Since we expected some technical climbing, we all prepared and packed our helmets, harnesses, carabiners, and belay devices. As the two people with the most climbing knowledge, Roland and I additionally packed the rope, some webbing and cordalettes, a few quick draws and a few pieces of protection.
During our prep, I had established intermittent SMS (i.e. texting) communication with Kyle. He had departed early from Las Vegas, and was well on his way to Zion. We projected his arrival at about 10:30 a.m., which would fit well with our plans. In the meantime, we took the opportunity to teach and practice the basic knots needed for belayed climbing.
A bit of knot practice
10:30 a.m. came and went, and as the minutes ticked by, we began to wonder about Kyle. Was the traffic so bad on this very busy weekend that he was being held up? I sent him another text message, and when he finally got back to me, we understood. It seems that Kyle had missed the proper Interstate exit north of St George, and had ended up driving almost all the way to the next major town - Cedar City. By the time he'd recognized the mistake, he had driven thirty minutes farther than the required exit.
We kept in closer communication for the next while - we wanted to ensure that there were no further mistakes - and finally, right around 11:30 am, Kyle rolled up in a gray Jeep Patriot. It looked suspiciously like the very Jeep Patriot the five of us couldn't fit into the night before (now that we had two rental vehicles, though, our car packaging problems were over).
We were happy that Kyle had finally managed to join us, but a little bit concerned about the late hour. We were going to be doing a climb of a mountaineering route none of us had ever done before, and it was quite prudent to want to cover any technical sections - both upwards and downwards - during daylight. If we were going to attempt Lady Mountain at all today, we needed to leave tout de suite.
Boarding the Shuttle
So, meetup pleasantries were brief. We thrust Kyle some climbing gear and told him to get his pack ready. In a few short minutes we were walking towards the Zion Park visitor center, where the first stop of the Zion Canyon shuttle was located.
During Zion's busy season (from April to end of October), a mandatory (and free) shuttle bus system services Zion Canyon - the busiest part of the park. Since Lady Mountain is one of the peaks bordering Zion Canyon, we needed to take the shuttle bus to get to the start of our climb.
Twenty minutes later, the shuttle bus dropped us off at the Zion Canyon Lodge stop. All around, rising above us, were the impressive soaring walls and peaks that form Zion Canyon. Immediately to our west, one pyramid-shaped peak towered over us: Lady Mountain. It was impressive-looking for sure. Daunting, in fact, for we knew that somehow, we were going to snake our way up what appeared to be about two thousand feet of largely sheer-looking sandstone. And, being already a few minutes after noon, we knew we had to try and keep our pace brisk.
Bound for Lady Mtn
Knowing from experience that a difficult-looking face is not always as difficult as it seems when you are actually up close to it, I decided that I would re-judge the scary-looking route later. For now, the objective was getting to the start of the route, which (as it turned out) wasn't as straightforward for us as we would have liked.
Let me step back for a moment and give you a bit more background on Lady Mountain. Long before the now-famous route on Angel's Landing was constructed, there existed the Lady Mountain cable route. Constructed in the 1920s, it provided a steep but semi-protected way to get to the top of 6,945-foot Lady Mountain - one of the many peaks that bordered Zion Canyon. The route was fortified with blazes, cairns, chains, ladders and chopped-out ledges and steps.
Over the years, several fatalities and several rescues caused the park to de-commission the Lady Mountain route, roughly around 1970. Less tricky routes, such as the one to the top of Angel's Landing, had been constructed, and served as an alternative to those wanting a climb-to-the-summit experience. The ladders, chains, and other aids were removed, and the route was no longer marked or mentioned in the park literature. And so, knowledge and frequenting of Lady Mountain began to fade away.
I myself had not heard about Lady Mountain for the first twenty or so years of my visits to Zion NP. It was only during the research for 2013's trip, when I was looking for alternatives to the main Zion objectives, that I stumbled across a few trail reports of Lady Mountain. Intrigued, I dug a little deeper, and realized that it looked like a route that was within our group's abilities. It would require a bit of technical climbing in a few spots where key aids had been removed, but on the whole, it sounded like a reasonable challenge that was within our group's abilities. And so, here we were today, looking for the start of the herd path that would lead us to the start of the route.
In search of the herd path
Based on the various descriptions I'd researched online, I knew that the start of a faint herdpath leading up to the base of the route was located along the "upper" of the two park trails leading to Emerald Pools from Zion Lodge. Therefore, we walked from the Zion Lodge bus stop, following the signage for Emerald Pools. This led across one of the two footbridges across the Virgin River. At this point, we had a choice of the lower or the upper trail. The upper trail would have been best, but it was marked as closed "due to rockslide". I figured that it would be no big deal to go right instead, taking the lower route over to near Emerald Pools and then doubling back on the upper trail.
In retrospect, this was a mistake. Although we did get to see the pretty scenery of the lower Emerald Pools, all of the extra foot traffic, another trail detour, and the overall extra distance wasted about thirty extra minutes of time - time that we really couldn't afford to waste, given our already-late start time. Since we were about to head off-trail and be climbing steep rock anyway, we should have just ignored the trail-closed sign earlier and taken the upper trail directly.
Upper Emerald Pools Trail
We finally arrived at the crest of the east-trending ridgeline coming down from Lady Mountain at about ten minutes past 1pm. We immediately started up what looked like a very faint, intermittent footpath, making as best we could up a cactus and juniper-dotted slope. After about five minutes of this, we intersected another, much more distinctive herdpath coming up from further south - likely the main access route. We'd be using this for sure on the way back down later on.