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Nearly everyone who has climbed the South Guardian Angel agrees that
it’s one of the best DPS peaks, and certainly among the most memorable
experiences they ever had on a desert peak.
– From the Sierra Club’s Desert Peak Section Guide.

Zion’s 7,140-foot South Guardian Angel

My quest for Zion’s Guardian Angel Peaks began in 1978 when I arrived in Zion with only a rough idea of how to reach these fabled summits. A major late November storm arrived a few hours later and, wisely, I took my team elsewhere. My queue of things to do is often quite long, but fabled peaks have a way of bubbling back to the top of my queue. Jennifer and I checked out the modern trailhead for these peaks on our return from California in April 2001. We also secured two trip reports from the backcountry ranger. Armed with this information plus the ever-trusty DPS description, we felt ready to attempt these summits. What we did not know was that we were still under prepared for the task.
Determined to try, Jennifer and I drove into Zion in early June 2001 during a period of spectacular, stable weather, and climbed 7,395-foot North Guardian Angel first. Our success on North Guardian Angel thrilled us, and we descended carefully. Back in camp, we prepared for our assault on South Guardian Angel.
On top of North Guardian Angel, we spied the incredible South Guardian Angel On top of North Guardian Angel, we spied the incredible South Guardian Angel, our next objective
South Guardian Angel is on the south or far side of the left fork of the Virgin River. Crossing the gorge presents the greatest challenge, and the route to South is much longer than North’s. There is a popular hike that goes through this gorge and the famous Subway. In the old days, climbers packed into the Subway from below, climbed up through the Subway and on to the peak. Camping is no longer permitted in the Subway, and one must now cross the gorge. We had spotted the Subway Trail leaving the Northgate Peaks Trail, and reasoned that this trail would take us easily into the gorge from where we would climb out the other side of the gorge to join the DPS route higher up. Fascinated by this amazing place, we resolved to start an hour earlier and carry more water. True to our plan, the next morning we quickly hiked down the Subway Trail into the cool gorge.
Approaching the gorge on the Subway Trail Approaching the gorge on the Subway Trail as South Guardian Angel watches our moves from far above
The cool pool where the Subway Trail meets the Left Fork The cool pool where the Subway Trail meets the Left Fork
After a snack, we quickly discovered that we could not climb out the other side of the gorge at this location. No problem, we reasoned, we’ll just hike down the canyon to the top of the Subway and join the DPS route there. Two hundred yards down the canyon, we had our next surprise, a short rappel. We were equipped to rappel, but if we pulled our rope, we would not be able to return this way. We could not commit to a through trip down the Subway because we had no permit to do so, and we did not know if our rope was long enough to get through. Also, we did not believe that we could count on finding the other escape route below North Guardian Angel. The description we had made it sound very obtuse and difficult. So, we hiked back up canyon in hopes of finding an egress upstream. This program came to a screeching halt when we came to a pour-off a hundred yards above the point where we had entered the canyon. We considered climbing back up the Subway Trail a ways and launching on various cross-country routes. We had seen the terrain across the canyon upstream, and the trip report for this route made it sound ridiculous. We rejected that route. Heading cross-country to the west to join the other descent route was not reasonable or even possible in this canyon country. We were out of options. It was still early in the day, but we trudged back up the Subway Trail in defeat. For consolation, we could further enjoy some of the sun-soaked scenery on this trail.
We hiked up the Subway Trail in defeat Salved by the beauty of the rocks, we hiked up the Subway Trail in defeat
For additional consolation, we climbed East Northgate Peak to get more views of this complicated terrain, and better understand our options for a future attempt on South Guardian Angel. Back at our vehicle, our brains and bodies were cooked from the heat, so we retreated to an air-conditioned venue to collect our wits. We pondered what we had seen and the route options. We tried and failed to get a permit for the Subway. We made a phone call to Charlie and Dianne Winger back in Colorado for more information. We made a new plan and vowed to try again the next day, which was the last day we could devote to the project on this trip. We would commit to descending the steep route below North Guardian Angel to reach the canyon. This route reaches the canyon directly across from the tried and true DPS climbout. Make or break, that is where we would go. We started before 6AM, hiked the Northgate Peaks Trail for the third time and plunged into the slickrock wilderness. We were immediately rewarded with an incredible view of our objective.
South Guardian Angel as seen from the top of our steep descent route South Guardian Angel as seen from the top of our steep descent route
The descent tested us. At first we rolled down easy slickrock slabs, but all too soon the ridge we were following splintered into 6 ribs. We had to get on the correct rib or fail. We probed, guessed and, based on a sentence in the trip report, tried the easternmost rib. It proved to be the correct rib, but it grew steadily steeper. The final plunge into the canyon was awe inspiring as we climbed down gullies and swung from branches in the thick brush. After a mere three hours, we were once again in the canyon floor, this time just above the Subway. We were rewarded with cool temperatures and intimate canyon portraits.
Looking upstream from the top of the Subway Looking upstream from the top of the Subway
Looking downstream toward the Subway Looking downstream toward the Subway
After our snack, we started up the climbout on the other side of the canyon, and immediately found a series of Class 4 moves just above a small jug-handle arch that marked the beginning of the ascent. We had not anticipated this antagonism, and fumbled around for a few minutes getting our rope out of the bottom of my pack. Once in synch, we dispatched the difficulty. Higher, we cleverly dispatched a Class 3 chockstone.
The jug-handle arch at the beginning of the canyon climbout The jug-handle arch at the beginning of the canyon climbout
Clever Gerry at the Class 3 chockstone on the canyon climbout Clever Gerry at the Class 3 chockstone on the canyon climbout
Higher still, we traversed left and got above a dreaded black cliff that we had seen from the other side of the canyon. Above this, we followed a tiny trail to a notch above the inner gorge. We had crossed the canyon, and our optimism soared. Nevertheless, we still had a long way to go. An hour later we were closer, and began hiking up into another slickrock wilderness.
Gerry in search of South Guardian Angel Gerry in search of South Guardian Angel
When we finally spotted the upper peak, we could not believe our eyes.
Oh my God! There it is! Oh my God! There it is!
We entered that special place climbers know and strive for. We were cut off from that other world, and committed to penetrating deeper into the unknown. You seek solace, and find it in every step. Your experience becomes more mysterious as you unravel the mystery of the route. Just as success seems assured, it seems less important. Beauty is everywhere as your life is reduced to essentials. With peace in your belly, joy in your heart and compassion in your mind, you climb toward the sky. Suddenly, words seem less important.
Reduced to essentials, we stand on the Guardian Angel Reduced to essentials, we stand on
the Guardian Angel
Views of North Guardian Angel further inspire us Views of North Guardian Angel
further inspire us
We climb toward the sky We climb toward the sky
Almost there Almost there!
Guarded by angels, we reach the summit and spin round once more Guarded by angels, we reach the summit and spin round once more!
Reluctantly, we descend through fairyland Reluctantly, we descend through fairyland
We reach the sanctity of the canyon one more time and reach the sanctity of the canyon one more time
The other world would return soon enough The other world would return soon enough
Copyright © 2001-2021 by Gerry Roach. All Rights Reserved.
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