Mountain of Mystery... the name alone is enough to capture the attention of any respectable peakbagger. How could one's curiosity not be thoroughly piqued? For me the draw is intensified by the fact that the Mountain of Mystery is situated in the heart of my beloved and already innately mysterious Zion National Park. I'd eagerly listened to CP speculate about this enchanting summit on hikes in the past and when he recently told me he was ready to pull the trigger on another attempt I just couldn't help myself. A last minute emergency trip to Zion was devised and Kevin quickly signed on board.
The history of the Mountain of Mystery is almost as good as its name. According to local Zion gurus only a single party has ever reached the summit and they had quite an epic adventure. Very long ropes were used to do a 300 foot rappel on the approach and bolts were installed on the descent to rappel 700 nearly vertical feet in a previously unexplored canyon. The party of two was forced to bivy for a night during the undertaking.
CP's done plenty of poking around and has reason to believe that there may be an alternate approach that does not require absurdly long ropes or a bolt kit. His proposed route will put us in five different canyons, involve a lengthy car shuttle, and require wetsuits. This time of year daylight hours are somewhat scarce so speed and efficiency will factor heavily into the equation. Furthermore, our success is contingent on the existence and climbability of a dead tree which, if its still there, has been wedged almost vertically in the narrow canyon for more than 30 years! Without it upward progress is hopeless and its game over. A report from the late seventies by a party who did not reach the summit references using this tree. Would you believe CP verified it was still there less than two years ago?!
Kevin and I pay a visit to Zion Adventure Company to rent wetsuits; neither of us have worn one before. The girl fitting us clearly instructs us that the zipper goes in the back but being sleep deprived from driving all night through a snowstorm I screw it up regardless... and upon walking out of the dressing room with the suit on backwards who do I run in to? Tom Jones: employee, master canyoneer, guidebook author, father of Imlay Canyon Gear.... and incidentally one of two men who have stood atop the Mountain of Mystery. “Zipper goes in the back”, he says. I play the role of the dumb noob, pretend I don't know who he is, and retreat back to the changing area.
After our wetsuits are sorted out Tom seems slightly disturbed that we can’t give him a straight answer about what canyon we plan on descending. The fact is we’re not sure ourselves! Kevin finally lets it out of the bag that we are conspiring with CP to climb the Mountain of Mystery. Tom’s reaction is a little hard to read; he seems surprised and a bit concerned. We chat for a few minutes but Kevin and I know so little about our intended route at this point that we can’t satiate his curiosity.
Thanks to DB’s help the car shuttle is greatly simplified. She drops CP, Kevin and I off in darkness at the eastern edge of the park boundary and we cruise the standard approach to popular Mystery Canyon by headlamp. Two miles of flat trail fly by and then the terrain roughens dramatically as we begin descending into Mystery Canyon. It feels good to be making such progress before the daylight clock has even started ticking.
Near the point of non-reversibility of Mystery Canyon our route exits via a bushwhack and makes a long and convoluted excursion in an attempt to avoid the 300 foot rappel executed by the first ascent party. We descend some obscure, mossy, aptly-named canyon known as “Not Worth It” in its entirety and find ourselves in famous Orderville Canyon. No time to gawk now though. Strolling around the corner into “Monolith Canyon”, another small, mossy slot that parallels “Not Worth It” and also drains into Orderville, we stash our wetsuits and finally begin to gain elevation instead of losing it.
“Monolith Canyon” presents several interesting obstacles. At one point we find ourselves climbing a steep class 4+ dirt and pine needle slope and welcome the security of the rope. At another point I squeeze and thrash my way up through a very tight slot and belay/haul CP and Kevin up through a wider but more difficult one nearby.
The key dead tree is indeed still in position and its in relatively good condition to boot! A 5th class climb up this log is the key to overcoming a 30 foot overhung drop in the canyon. Its intimidating to say the least. CP takes up the lead, protecting the pitch in true Zion form. He ties some webbing tightly above a knob in the trunk and then slings a little bush up high. The nubby knobs here and there along its length, although small, make surprisingly secure footholds. High up the walls of the slot start to offer some help.
Happy to have nailed the approach we take a snack break in upper Monolith Canyon and then turn our focus to solving the next part of the puzzle: finding the start of a ledge system that reportedly leads out of the canyon and toward the mountain’s north ridge. With seemingly vertical walls towering overhead such a well placed ramp seems highly unlikely but we explore around and find what seems to be the only possibility. The ledge starts out wide and full of trees and pine needles. Life is good.
The fuzzy feelings subside however when the friendly ramp peters out and leaves us on an extremely dirty face of sorts below the north ridge. Extreme care is in order; the slope is steep and I don’t think scrambling can get much dirtier than this. I pick my way onward behind CP thinking to myself that the angle has got to relent soon but the opposite keeps happening. The exposure below combined with the dirtiness of the scrambling is getting pretty intense. I reach my threshold and ask CP for a belay up one short section. Kevin’s more than ready for one as well.
Soon we’re more or less on the north ridge but we find its actually not much of a ridge at all really. For the most part we pick the brushiest line upward because the bushes and trees offer the best protection against certain death in the void below. We belay ourselves on branches as we bash our way through the middle of little thickets. CP and I are enjoying the sicko scramble and are delighted with the unfolding of this highly implausible route. Kevin on the other hand doesn’t seem nearly as amused and is ready for this craziness to end.
A short, dirty low 5th class pitch is eventually all that remains between us and the summit plateau. CP tosses the rope around a tree above for protection and then announces a few moves later that he’s off belay. The pitch is easy but its part dirt, part tree, part poor rock.
There are two summits on the summit plateau. We’ve topped out near the northern one but the true summit is still more than a quarter mile to the south. We begin casually strolling between manzanita bushes on the wide plateau but near the saddle it pinches in to form a fairly narrow ridge and a highly exposed traverse gets our full attention.
The final summit area looks difficult and the first ascent party reported roping up for some 5th class climbing here but CP thinks he’s spied an easy weakness on the south side during his recon work. We circle the base of the summit cliffs and eventually find a short, low 5th class slab made easier by aiding up through a sturdy bush. At last, the top!
The views from the summit aren’t anything special but that doesn’t matter because we can’t stick around anyway. We’re on a tight schedule and still have our work cut out for us. We rap down from the summit plateau as well as the spiciest spot of the dirty face below.
Various rope and partner assist tactics are used to overcome a few obstacles on the way back down “Monolith Canyon”. Decent anchors aren’t readily available or obvious but we manage.
The canyon spits us back into Orderville and the three of us change into wetsuits and prepare for the wet canyon ahead. I’m really excited to be in my first canyon with flowing water despite the fact that its mid November and the air temperature is in the mid to upper forties. The canyon is beautiful and mellow. A handline is in place at the most difficult drop. Some pools are avoidable and others are not. The water is never more than chest deep. We move at a quick pace to stay as warm as possible and soon we're brushing arms with tourists in down jackets on the paved path back to the parking lot where DB awaits our arrival.