Jesse Huey is a rock, ice and mixed climber. After seeing a Climbing Magazine cover of ice climbing in Zion National Park and realizing it was a banner year for ice, Jesse headed to Zion. Here is his write up of the trip, complete with incredible photography.
Having traveled to Zion four times previously for world-class finger crack climbing, it never crossed my mind that Zion held a potential frozen goldmine. Synonymous with adventurous rock climbing, slot canyons and scary aid climbing, Zion could be a seldom-seen winter secret. I wasn’t convinced of the ice potential until I spoke with Scott Adamson, a Utah resident who had spent a large amount of time guiding and climbing in and around the Zion area.
4:30 AM, pitch black and pissing rain, peering outside the window of Springdale’s Pioneer Hotel, I clawed at the fresh pink bedbug bites on my back. My altimeter read 3,800 feet and it was 43 degrees outside. I did the quick math and realized that the park – high country at 7,000 feet – should be just below freezing and I became skeptical of what we might find in terms of quality ice. An hour later, driving through over a foot of fresh snow, the thermometer on the car read 5 degrees. The conditions, although cold and puzzling, were perfect.
The information available to ice climbers in Zion is scarce at best. The Internet gave us pictures and a couple trip reports, but lacked any navigation information. Our best source was Junior, a 5.14 canyoneer with experience descending almost all of Zion’s slot canyons. Over dinner the night before, Junior and my conversation instilled hope for serious potential in the park and assured my confidence in navigating to it.
After three hours of walking up snow-covered roads and indiscreet trails, we arrived at the beginning of Englewood Canyon to find the Zicicle – a long, previously climbed 230-foot pitch of WI5. However, after reaching the bottom of the first long pitch, it crossed our minds that with the amount of ice on the Zicicle, it was entirely likely that there was more climbing below us. We quickly regretted the decision of not bringing rock gear when we looked down a 50-foot pitch of difficult dry tooling and extremely thin ice. Lacking rock gear, and having been hurt before in my climbing career, my better judgment kicked in and I backed off. But Scott was super keen and a very competent and incredibly strong mixed climber and he fought through a hairball lead.
A short 50-foot pitch of WI4 and we were at the bottom of the 230-food mega pitch. With several hours having passed, the bottom of the Zicicle had changed dramatically. Still in shape to be climbed, we realized the fickle nature of desert ice climbing. It was one of the most beautiful ice pitches either of us had seen and we decided that we would have to lead it.
Hollow at the bottom, we chose to climb quite high before placing ice screws. Feeling each of the first 30 swings in our lungs, the ice gonged like we were hitting a thin sheet of plywood. After reaching the halfway mark, we were each completely soaked to the bone and stopped trying to find the “dry areas” on the climb. Topping out, we changed our clothes and started looking down canyon for more.
With plenty of daylight left, we headed towards another line that we spied from the top of the Zicicle. We found another small flow that captured the essence of ice climbing in Zion: a long two-pitch route, ending on a ledge in the middle of a 700-foot wall. The bottom, about 2-inches thick and nearly vertical, was questionable for leading. Before pulling our ropes to lead out, we had to find an anchor and lacking a rock rack, we had to get creative with what was at hand.
Rapping into a slot canyon only to pull your ropes is a type of commitment that I would only equate to climbing in the remote mountains. When you pull the rope you are 100 percent committed. Deep in the canyons, with no cell reception, your only escape, if not up, is down, and down likely is impossible, as you’ll be rappelling through cold running water further down canyon. With all this in mind, I led off with freshly sharped picks on ice that was likely to not be there in another day or two. With another 90 meters of unclimbed ice under our belts we began to realize how many more ice climbs there must be in the areas surrounding us.
The following day we made our way to the Kolob Canyons. Scott had already scouted a line that upon our arrival was even better than we surmised from his photos. With Scott and his girlfriend Angela’s hard scouting work, they deserved the leads on the new route. I watched Scott ticktack his way up an 80-meter pitch of ice no more than 2-inches thick. There was no protection, but Scott’s hard-earned experience made it look easy. Angela took the final pitch, leaving us above another unclimbed smear that I wanted for myself.
I lowered in on two ropes and realized that the pitch seemed really dangerous. With an increased air temperature, I wasn’t sure it was safe any longer. Scott lowered in halfway and belayed me out on top rope. By the time I was at his anchor, half of the climb literally disappeared. I was barely able to get up the pitch without using ascenders and had probably fallen on top rope 15 times before joining Scott at the anchor. It would have been a horror show on lead and I felt like my judgment was validated. Topping out a second new climb that day and our fifth likely first ascent of the trip, we realized how special and just how ephemeral this experience was.
The trip opened my mind to where similar conditions may also exist – the Grand Canyon, other slots in Utah. Winter reverse canyoneering – is this the creation of a new sport?