Until near the end of January the ice season around Utah had been pretty lackluster. The warm atmospheric rivers that were pummeling Utah with snow and making the ski season all-time were keeping temps warm at low elevations. I hadn’t been out more than a handful of times as a result.
Then in the first week of February Nate messaged me to see if I wanted to head to Zion to climb some ice. As any avid ice climber, particularly one living in Utah knows, Zion National Park and its environs houses some beyond imaginable ice lines. The trouble is the fact that southern Utah is a desert—you never know when the routes are in, the routes require crossing or being on private land, and long approaches. Nate had solved these issues by being close to Andy K. who was the gatekeeper to the hardest part, the land access.
Nate and I had a delayed start from SLC on Friday and headed to Heber to pick up a borrowed snowmobile. After some food and catching up with friends we didn’t roll out of Heber until about 8ish. We opted for a hotel and heads didn’t hit the pillow until about 1am. The next morning we headed over to Andy’s place to meet and then on to the parking area.
The first part of the adventure started here. We loaded up the sleds for the 10+ mile approach. I rode two-up with Andy since his sled had the best passenger seat. As Nate and I found out within the first few minutes, not all snowmobiles are the same. The three sleds motored up the closed road for a couple miles then we stopped. Andy and Nate B. (Andy’s buddy) started tossing snow onto various spots on the sleds. We did the same on the borrowed sled since it was running hot. Apparently there’s two general types of snowmachines, 1) a trail sled, and 2) a powder sled. We were on the latter. These machines are designed to be ridden in deep powder and require snow getting kicked up onto it to keep it cool. The road was firm and icy so there wasn’t enough cooling happening. To mitigate the overheating we needed to toss snow onto various cooling spots on sleds’ frame. This needed repeating 3-4 times along the ride. Luckily the scenery along the way is fantastic. The high desert landscape of red rocks and sandstone peaks covered in snow is quite striking.
After getting to the end of the road we did a short snowshoe or ski down to the lip of the Shining Wall’s gorge. Since the land is private there is a basecamp setup with spots for hanging gear and a wood stove, quite comfy. From camp the depth of the gorge can be sensed, but not quite understood since the bottom is far out of sight.
Logistically, this is a top access only area. As such, we had to rap in—down the ~400 ft fixed line to the bottom. On my turn I got to the edge of the gorge and got the first good look at the scale of things and it was epic. The longest rappel I’ve done in the past is probably a full 70 m (230 ft)—this was nearly twice that. The climb we rapped was a little less than vertical and almost constant angle for its length—no ledges.
On the way down there’s plenty of time to get a look around. The fixed line goes down the widest flow in the gorge easily 60-80 ft wide this year. To climber’s left is the bulk of the steep lines. Up canyon there wasn’t much visible, but there are some shorter (but still well over 100 ft) lines we didn’t check out.
Once at the bottom it really sinks in how big the scale is. It is like a natural Ouray Ice Park, but 3.5-4x as high. Nate has climbed here before so he let me pick my line. I opted to get warmed up on The Altar (WI4). P1 takes a slightly left trending corner to the top of the “altar” a large ledge about 35 m up. The conditions this weekend were the stuff of dreams. Temps were mild, around freezing, and the ice was hero and plastic. From the top of the altar it is most convenient and aesthetic to run a monster 85 m pitch to the rim. Luckily we had an 80 m rope which made this more practical. After loading a bandolier’s worth of screws I ran it to the top placing 15 screws along the way. By far one of the most memorable pitches I’ve done.
For the second and final route of the day Nate did the Shining Path (WI4+) via Scottie’s (the right side). This one is adjacent to the rap line and started off a bit steep on some chandeliered ice then went into hero WI4 for days.
After that we left most of our stuff at basecamp and then headed back home in the dark on the sleds. It would have been a fantastic day until we realized after we got back to the parking area that the pack with Nate’s keys, phone, and wallet had come off the sled from where we’d strapped it. Andy, without a second though jumped on his sled and headed back to retrace our path to find the pack. Nate B also headed out just behind Andy as well. Luckily they found the pack, but unfortunately it had been about 2/3 of the way back to basecamp. Nevertheless they’d found it. We all headed for some late night Mexican food.
While Nate and I had thought we’d get a bit more sleep that night, only slightly delayed by the lost pack, it turned out we had another hurdle to overcome. After getting to the hotel our keycards didn’t work in the door. Upon check-in the previous night the person at the desk had needed to do a little funny stuff to get the key to work. The magic must have worn off and now the new guy at the desk at 11:30pm didn’t know how to fix it. After the third trip back down to the front desk from our third floor room we finally were able to get in and get some sleep.
Sunday morning we headed back in after seeing a fantastic sunrise/moonset over the white rimmed sandstone peaks. The Nate B. ended up opting out from climbing to head home so it was just Nate, Andy and I. After some deliberations Nate lead the first pitch of Last Man Standing (WI5). The initial pitch was tricky with chandeliered and dry ice behind a large pillar. From there it required stemming up between a split in the ice before pulling a small roof and up to the belay. Nate did a great job and then handed me the rack for the remaining 70 m of WI4 to finish out at the spring fed and muddy top out. It was another awesome climb. Similar to other desert climbing, sometimes it isn’t the number of pitches you count at the end of the day, but the number of feet climbed. We relaxed at basecamp with some beer and then packed up for home.
One last ride out on the snowmachines was needed and true to form for the weekend there was another snafu. We’d decided to head home after one route, not only because we were all tired, but because there was a storm forecasted. About 3/4 of the way out I noticed that Nate wasn’t behind us. So Andy I pulled over assuming he’d needed to cool his machine down a bit. After about 5 minutes of waiting Andy decided to unhook the sled we were towing, leave me and head back to see if Nate was OK. As Andy sped off I could see the clouds darkening and the snow moving in. In a few minutes it was snowing and I was on my own on the trail.
Unbeknownst to me, Nate was only a few hundred yards behind a curve in the road. His machine had chewed up the drive belt and couldn’t drive the machine. When Andy showed up they figured out how to get the covers off and there was an extra belt stowed for this type of thing. Luckily they’d had enough cell service to watch a YouTube video on how to change the belt and get the machine back up and running. They returned to scoop me up as the snow really started coming down. A fitting finish for a sweet weekend getting to climb some of the biggest and most consistent ice I’ve ever climbed.