Canyon Tales
Mountain of Mystery
by Brian Cabe

Mountain of Mystery
Ascent  &  Canyon Descent

—   Zion National Park   —

Class 4 climb to the summit of the Mountain of Mystery followed by a technical canyoneering descent of the canyon in the middle of the ‘U’ shaped valley into the North Fork of the Virgin River. 10 rappels, the longest being 330 feet. Compiled by Brian Cabe (Salt Lake City) following his and Tom Jones’ ascent/descent on 15/16 September 2001.

The information provided herein is for historical reading entertainment and is not intended to be a guide.

Temple of Sinawava, Utah (7.5 minute, 1980).

28 September 1974 vintage trip report by Jene Arden et al. on climb of Northeast Buttress to mesa rim from Orderville Canyon.

One 70 meter (240 foot) rope, 100 meter rope (330 feet), 45 meter (150 foot) pull cord, helmet, small rock climbing rack, rappelling gear, bolt kit, extra sling and rapid links. 4 liters (or more!) of water.

Getting started:  
Note: all directions will assume hiker is facing the direction of travel. Distances and descriptions are estimates.

—   15 September 2001   —

•   Approach to Mountain of Mystery  •

Parking the car at the Observation Point trailhead past the Zion Ponderosa, we hiked on the trail until it seemed prudent to strike out through the forest toward Point 6730, east of Mystery Canyon. On the mesa rim west of Point 6730, we noted a small, north facing ridgeline, which we accessed via a short rappel from a pine tree. Down climbing the ridge, referred to by Tom as ‘double corniced,’ we continued until we could cut across loose slopes to the left (southwest). We debated the merits of this uninspiring traverse especially after I busted a dry, brittle manzanita handhold and plummeted, thankfully unscathed, for 5 feet into a manzanita patch. At the far edge of this loose slope, a pine tree provided a sturdy rap anchor and access to the high ground at the crest between a canyon running to the north into Orderville and south into Mystery. We hiked south then west down the shallow drainage until we were just above the classic Mystery Canyon narrows (could hear and see folks in the drainage) at the big north–to–west bend in the Mystery drainage.

Finishing a quick lunch, we hiked north up the adjacent drainage that led to a pass below the knife–edge spur ridge leading to the southeast buttress of the Mountain of Mystery. From the pass, we scrambled up the exposed ridge past a freestanding pinnacle to a large, stout pine. At this point, we noted the nifty bench that ran under the east face of our objective. The steep, 330–foot rappel to the bottom of the very loose drainage was past bushes and loose rock. We gained the bench at the earliest opportunity by cutting behind a pine tree on the uppermost shelf and down climbing for a body length. An easy and somewhat brushy traverse led across the length of the east face to the northeast ridge.

•   Climb of the Northeast Buttress   •
Mountain of Mystery

By weaving back and forth up the ridge crest, we were able to 3rd class weaknesses. A short, low angle shallow chimney was passed and several small rock outcroppings interspersed between loose dirt were surmounted. The climbing technique that seemed most useful was plunging fingers and hands as deeply into the loose dirt as possible, walking the feet up, mantling off the hand placements, then kicking in a high stance for the feet to prevent coming loose in a dirt avalanche. Sounds fun, eh? Loose, fragile rock had to be carefully weighted and the occasional large pine provided some transient security between jousts with the thrashy difficulties. By following lower angle dirt and rock outcroppings, we were able to work back and forth and surprisingly, we popped out onto the mesa without placing any gear or donning climbing shoes. Individual rock moves were probably no more difficult than easy 5th class although the entire escapade seemed like a necky alpine climb.

Once on the rim, we dropped the bulk of our gear at the mesa top above the middle of the ‘U–shaped’ canyon, noted a spoon left by a previous visitor, and made our way over to the summit block. Traversing to the south, then southwest, we followed along looking for an obvious weakness. Just shy of the far southwest corner, we discovered a low angle ramp with enough bushes and ramps for hand and foot holds and quickly made our way up to the top. On the summit, we enjoyed fine views stretching out in all directions. A search of the highest summit area revealed no evidence of prior visitation. We traversed across the summit crest and found a suitable tree anchor for a short rappel back to the mesa top. Back at the packs, we finished the last of our water and took a quick nap in the shade.

•   Descent into pocket forest   •

In the middle of the ‘U’ formed by the Mountain of Mystery, we descended west. Rappelling 110 feet from a large pine tree enabled us to walk down to a 12′′–diameter pine located on the rim above a long, smooth wall. Leaving a black sling and rapid link, we dropped down 320 feet to level ground. In dusk, then darkness, we hiked down the drainage on the north side of the neat pocket forest and bunked down in the sandy creek bed for the night.

—   16 September 2001   —

•   Descent of Mountain of Mystery Canyon  •
to the North Fork of the Virgin River

The next morning, we packed up and noticed a real nice sandy alcove a short distance from our bivy site, up and to the right of the drainage, which would have been a fine campsite. After a few minutes of following the brushy creek bed, we broke out onto open slick rock and encountered a short and shallow series of four potholes festering with small toads. We body stemmed the first one then waded the next three in thigh deep, brown mucky water. Following the watercourse, we soon arrived at a shallow bowl pour off. We girth hitched a small bush with webbing and rappelled for 110 feet down the smooth, low angle slope to a short steep drop into an open pothole. We followed the stream course, down climbing and scrambling, to a shallow shelf above the big drop to the river.

The canyon disappeared and we were left with a ‘big wall’ descent. Tossing the ropes down the roll over, we rappelled from a bolted anchor past a brush pile (on the right, facing down the drop) to a hanging anchor consisting of 1 baby angle piton and two bolts (one bolt, one stud). Another angle piton to the climber’s left allowed for a better pull on our temporarily stuck ropes. From the hanging rappel station, we rappelled 230 feet to a nice ledge. From a two–bolt station, Tom rappelled down using an ATC on his belay loop and a munter hitch for additional friction on the leg loop of his harness. Due to the additional weight of the long rope on this rappel (in combination with the additional friction from the rappel set up), some bouncing occurred and the sheath of the rope became quite damaged even though the rock edge below the anchor was rounded and smooth. Scary movies!

I pulled up the rope past the damaged area and re–rigged it (we used a carabiner block with a clove hitch against a rapid link for rappelling our longest line single strand), with the damage on the far side, inline with our pull cord(s). This long rappel was 330 feet and with no rope to spare, we landed on a nice ledge just above the North Fork of the Virgin River. A small tree provided an anchor for the last welcome rappel (150 feet) to the river. Very thirsty, we topped off with water from Mystery Spring.

•  Notes   •

We felt fortunate to find a fourth class ascent route to the summit. Not having to stop and belay, place gear or fuss with ropes made the ascent go quickly. Our adventurous approach was perhaps a poor choice since the climb up the northeast buttress could be more easily accessed from either Mystery or Orderville Canyon.

The ‘canyon’ coming out of the pocket forest (inside the west facing ‘U’ formed by the summit mesa) was much shorter and shallower than we expected and the ‘big wall’ finish a surprise. The watercourse gives way to a shallow bowl, which flattens out into a steep wall. From the bottom of the descent at the North Fork of the Virgin River, there is no evidence that a canyon exists above. The bulk of our descent route is somewhat visible from the base of Mystery Springs as the farthest and highest wall in view on the east side of the river.

Since our approach was dry, we should have packed more water as we ran out on the summit of the Mountain of Mystery.

•  Time   •

— 15 September 2001

Left the car at 9 AM
Mesa rim past Point 6739 at 10:00 AM
First rappel at 10:30 AM
Lunch above Mystery Canyon bend at 12:20 PM
Finish rappel below east face of Mtn. of Mystery at 2:30 PM
Mesa at 5:00 PM
Summit at 5:30 PM
Pocket forest at 8:00 PM
Bivy at 8:30 PM

— 16 September 2001

Left camp at 7:40 AM
4 short waterholes at 8:00 AM
First fixed anchor at 9:30 AM
Arrive at North Fork of the Virgin River at 1:30 PM
Temple of Sinawava bus at 2:30 PM
Visitor center at 3:00 PM
Reunited with car past Zion Ponderosa Ranch at 5:30 PM

See also Tom’s Rave:
Mountain of Mystery • Tom Jones

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© 2001 Brian Cabe