Johnson Mountain & The Watchman

Zion National Park
RT Stats: 8.7 mi, 4400 ft
November 28, 2009
With Dominic, Dwight & Matthew H

It was one year ago this Thanksgiving that I first laid eyes on Zion National Park. Despite the painful ten hour drive I've somehow managed five pilgrimages in little over a year - a clear testament to the draw of this magical haven! Maybe its the sense of escape the surreal and unearthly landscapes convey, the challenges that are involved in tackling the mighty summits in this unforgiving yet captivating wonderland, or simply the sheer beauty and incredulity of the place. There is without a doubt something very special about Zion and the peaks that reside there.

During my third visit last April Dwight and I attempted to find our way to the elusive summit of Johnson Mountain. We spent hours investigating dead ends and forcing our way up sketchy 5th class pitches only to find more dead ends (or in one case a bolted sport route!?). Eventually time ran out and we reluctantly gave up, used 25 feet of webbing to construct a rappel anchor in a funky spot, and hiked out unsuccessful and dejected with our tails tucked between our legs. After returning to the "trailhead" near Springdale that evening and drowning our sorrows in some disappointment beers Johnson Mountain taunted us with its grandeur during a dazzling, colorful sunset. It was my first failure in Zion, not a bad track record at all given the trickiness of the routefinding, but a huge disappointment nonetheless. I couldn't stay mad at that handsome fellow for long though... Johnson Mountain remained in my thoughts and thoroughly captivated me every time I drove into Springdale after that.

After failing to reach the summit (far right) Johnson Mountain taunts us at sunset

On the third day of our (now annual) Zion Turkeyfest Dwight and I set off for a long-awaited rematch with Johnson Mountain, this time accompanied by Dominic, Matthew Holliman, and a few more clues. After consulting with CP I was somewhat confident I knew where we'd gone wrong initially, but at the same time I was nervous about another potential defeat. After all, CP's party only managed to find this obscure scramblers route by following goat crap down from the summit after forcing their way through a manky, runout 5.8+ (R) pitch to get up there!

Practice makes perfect and since this was our third trip to the north/south running wash separating The Watchman and Johnson Mountain we finally managed to nail the approach - about time! Good thing too because we were going to need all the time we could get for routefinding later on. We proceeded down the wash for fifteen minutes or so until we were due east of the summit of Johnson Mountain and then did a short 5th class bushwhack to get out. In typical Zion fashion the bushes both inhibited and enabled forward progress simultaneously. Fortunately the brush was quickly overcome and enjoyable scrambling took us up much the same path Dwight and I had followed on our first visit.

On the Johnson Mountain Ridge

The slabby slopes can be very deceiving and its surprisingly easy to misjudge them from below and scramble into uncomfortable terrain. Dwight started up a steep section and before I knew it the boys had the rope out and were forcing their way upward. One thing I'd learned from the previous four trips was that this usually isn't the best plan of attack in Zion; taking the time to find a friendlier line is often a much more efficient mode of travel. I snooped around left, found I nifty but challenging low 5th class dihedral that I remembered Dwight and I climbing on the first trip, and sat above watching the boys waste a good 25 minutes playing with the rope...grrrrr. The weather had been unstable all morning and dark clouds nearby threatened to end all hope for a shot at the summit. Being caught up here with wet rock would be a nightmare; they don't call it slickrock for nothing and even 2nd class terrain can get hairy fast.

Scrambling high on Johnson Mountain's East Face

I could see where we had gone wrong the first time and now focused my attention on a long, vegetated ledge system on the east face. With some micro-routefinding we were able to attain the ledge system and begin a long traverse north, neither gaining or losing significant elevation. We thrashed through brush, tiptoed across exposed ledges, and generally picked our way across the face. The scrambling was dirty and at times exposed but I don't think it exceeded 4th class. Finding the right path took some systematic trial and error but we managed to avoid any terribly wasteful time traps.

After close to a tenth of a mile of traversing the terrain eased and we found ourselves entering the upper sanctum of Johnson Mountain, a place I had long dreamed about. It was even more beautiful and unique than I'd imagined!

Johnson Mountain's upper sanctum

We reached the summit before 11am, the ascent taking a respectable four hours. I was grinning from ear to ear. The register, somewhat of a rarity in Zion, showed no activity for more than a year. Only three parties had registered since its placement in early 2006. The views to the east were beautiful, the dark clouds casting a purple glow in perfect contrast with the bright orange and red rock. The complex Watchman massif was most impressive.

View east to The Watchman from Johnson Mountain

Dark clouds on the east side of the park and a chilly breeze cut our summit stay shorter than I would have liked but such is life. The descent turned out to be more straightforward than expected and with dutiful attention we were able to follow our ascent route very closely. The group decided to rappel the chimney I'd climbed solo on the ascent. Dwight and I had downclimbed it on our first trip but it was a bit spicy and I was perfectly happy to rappel it this time.

Back in the wash it was decision time. The weather was still holding and Matthew wanted to bag The Watchman, another fantastic peak in the immediate area with a highly convoluted route. Dwight, Dominic and I had already spent a very full day last spring solving that puzzle but were all game to lead Matthew to the top and relive the amazing route. I was anxious to test our memories and to find out how much quicker we could do it the second time around.

Ramp leading out of the wash to The Watchman

We quickly found the exit ramp out of the wash and were confronted with the low 5th class crux. Hanging from a small tree in the lower half was the same old piece of rope we'd found here ten months earlier. Dominic made quick work of the pitch and belayed the rest of us up. Our memories served us quite well; the scramble from here to the summit was enjoyable and free of significant routefinding blunders. The familiar summit appeared quickly and I was pleased to compute that we had bagged both peaks in less time than it had taken us to summit The Watchman the first time around! Not bad!

Descending The Watchman, Johnson Mountain in view

Other than the ever-threatening black skies the descent was uneventful. We rapped the crux using our old anchor and carefully climbed back down into the wash. From there the return trip was all too familiar but it felt good to finally know every bit of the route and to be able to navigate the maze nearly perfectly. The car appeared pleasantly early and no angry Springdale residents were in sight... perfect end to a perfect day.

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