Zion: Cougar Mountain

Categories: Zion

One of the last places i need to visit in Zion is the Terry Wash drainage but it’s difficult to reach. The most common route seems to be using ropes off the West Rim Trail. Another way is to walk up there from the South Fork, so I decided to see how long and how hard that is. Terry Wash would also most likely be an overnight trip but I just wanted to scout it out. The way to get there happens to also be the same way to climb up to Cougar Mountain, and that was something that can be done in a day. So, again, I decided to kill two birds with one stone.

The way to get to Cougar Mountain is to head up the Right Fork and then walk all the way up Trail Canyon. Cougar Mountain is huge. It’s really a miles wide mesa with various rock formations all over it. One of those rock formations is called the “summit” and is on the opposite side of the mesa as the pass for Trail Canyon. It’s a lot of mileage so I was very interested when I read about a “shortcut” in Courtney Purcell’s summit guidebook on Zion National Park. This supposed route made the climb into a loop that was several miles shorter. There was also a single picture in the guide book of a really cool looking arch I wanted to see. In fact, I was much more interested in the arch than the summit, which is not much higher than the rest of the mountain.

The first and last thing you have to do is climb up or down the lava cliffs. The Right Fork looms in the distance.

The Right Fork was closed for a few years due to a landslide that damned up this narrow part of the canyon and formed a lake. The slide is still very active.

The entrance to Trail Canyon. Another “fresh” rockslide up there on the cliffs.

Trail Canyon is a trudge through endless geologic disasters and thick brush or tangled trees.

Finally out of trail canyon and climbing up towards Terry Wash through a ghost forest.

A great view looking over Coalpits Wash. It had become overcast and ws getting colder.

I spent a lot of the second half of my day following an Elk Interstate system.

Terry Wash is the canyon left of center. While it was strenuous and time consuming to get up this far, it looked much easier going forward. The Bishopric East and West are the first two white peaks up canyon.

Done investigating the entrance to upper Terry Wash, I turned around to face Cougar Mountain. I had to descend back down to the pass and up the other side. There are several broad wall barriers (and canyons) so it’s best to go around all that on the far left, just out of view.

Skirting around a maze of hoodoos. The haze is either snow or dust.

It was February 10th, 2017. The weather had been going downhill all day and for about 2 miles I was in a snowstorm and sandstorm at the same time. It was extremely windy, as the clouds ripping off pine mountain suggest in the distance. I literally had to hang on to my hat. Except for the sand in my mouth, it was like Fall in Alaska!

Finally, the view off the western cliffs of Cougar Mountain! The prize for a less than optimal peak climb is this unique view looking straight up Cave Valley on the Kolob Terrace. You can see what’s left of a dust storm in Lee Valley.

Here is the Sweet Arch! In fact, I think that should be the official name of this arch, as Purcell also referred to it as a Sweet Arch and when you see it you will most likely yell “SWEET!”

It’s shaped large but is actually quite small. It is right on the edge of a huge cliff.

The view looking southwest is also spectacular. The clouds were breaking up but the winds remained strong, kicking up dust all across Washington County.

The other side of the arch looks completely different.

To the north the sun kept changing constantly. It was hard to leave, wondering just what might get illuminated, but I was more than an hour behind schedule.

According to the book description written by Courtney Purcell, this had to be the way down. It looked like a terrible idea. If there weren’t bushes to hang on you would slide down. I spent some time walking up and down the ridge looking for other possibilities just to make sure, because going down here looked like a one way trip.

It gets too steep for bushes right up there where the bushes stop. After that you start to slide down, along with dead trees and loose boulders, until you get to the bottom of a “V”, which feels like the bottom of an almost empty hour glass. The cliff wall at the bottom of the sieve has broken apart. The obvious thing to do is follow that exit, but it leads to cliffs that are not mentioned in the book. The book also doesn’t mention having to climb back out of that pit, but that is exactly what you have to do. On the top is a chimney downclimb between a cliff and a huge boulder tucked behind a high rock pillar. I was unable to find the leverage to do that downclimb safely. But, clearing away some rocks and logs nearby I uncovered a tight tunnel behind the boulder that was a much safer and easier way to descend. After that it was an extremely unstable descent down a washed out gulley through breaks in small cliffs. Pretty much every single rock was loose, and at one point I had to jump out of the way of a rock that was size of my torso falling down on top of my head after i had passed it

Unfortunately I didn’t take any pictures of the crux. I was seriously busy. I made it safely down to the steep slopes. From here is was a steep walk down to North Creek and then back up the lava cliffs. The kind of an eyesore glamping resort of  Under Canvas is over there shining in the sun. I got back to the car at the end of dusk.

Coming down the west face of Cougar Mountain was probably the most stressful thing I did last year. Looking back at it from the parking lot it looked ridiculous. You cant’ even really see the notch where you begin the descent, so I took this picture on another day from a little bit to the north and looking straight into the notch. This shows the route down and the gap is where I had to go down the pit, back up the other side, and down through the tunnel. While it is indeed a “shortcut”, it’s so dangerous it barely saves any time. I suspect it may have been damaged or washed by major storms in recent years, and is now more difficult than when it was originally written about. Definitely a memorable trip!

I don’t often publish my exact routes but the impact of this hike is low and the exit is critical.  For those interested here is the route and mileage.

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