North Guardian Angel, South Guardian Angel
By: Dave Boyle
Having been intrigued with Desert Peaks Section accounts of climbing the North and South Guardian Angels, my wife Audrey and I decided to use this as the excuse for another trip "out west" from Maine. Our usual hiking partners in such ventures, Tom and Laurie from Olympia WA, were unable to join us this time, so this would be an exploratory trip for just the two of us. Relying on the DPS Road and Peak Guide as our essential planning resource, we took to heart the advice about doing the trip in June or early July because of the swimming. The 4th of July period was the best time for us, but we knew that temperatures in southern Utah this time of year would likely be a problem for two northern New Englanders.
Sensing at the last minute that there might be a problem with getting the backcountry permit around the 4th, I made a nervous call to the visitor center just before leaving home. Indeed, I found out about the new regulations against camping in the Left Fork (Great West Canyon in the Guide), and the 50 person per day limit on Subway hikers, as reported in the latest Desert Sage. Without being able to camp at the Subway, our plan to do South Guardian Angel was in serious question, but we were committed with plane tickets. An anxious call directly to the backcountry staff put me in touch with a helpful ranger who said they would help us work out an alternate approach. He even suggested that we might be able to backpack up beyond the Subway through the waterfall, the Slime Traverse, and the sections where the DPS guide advises fixing ropes, to eventually camp on the high plateau above the canyon. This was the approach we expected to use when we left home.
Once at the visitor center, a different plan was worked out. We planned to use the route that most day hikers now travel, from the Wildcat Canyon trailhead down Russell Gulch to its confluence with the Left Fork, then downstream through the Subway narrows and the lower canyon to emerge at the Left Fork trailhead, a total distance of 9.5 miles. We intended to do this as a three day backpack, with the second day being set aside for a day trip to South Guardian Angel. To avoid camping inside the canyon, we would have to establish a base camp for two nights on the bench above the confluence of Russell Gulch and the Left Fork, and return there the second night after going to SGA. The climb-out point for SGA as described in the Guide is about a mile down the canyon from this camp site. Total cost for the permits to do this was $30 (two nights backcountry plus one Subway day permit). Fortunately, the rangers were willing to make an exception to the rule about getting Subway permits only one day beforehand. In any case, we were glad to have a plan that was a "go", and were excited about the chance to experience the hike through the entire canyon. It was also an advantage that all travel with a full backpacks would be in a downstream direction.
Because the 50 person quota was full for the next several days, we decided to first climb North Guardian as a day trip (no permit required). By this time, the really hot weather prevailing this summer had arrived, so this would let us experience the heat and answer a question much on our minds - how much water to carry? With a 7:20 am start, all went well, and we reached the summit by Route A of the Guide, but found no register. The views of South Guardian across the Left Fork were wonderful. We could clearly see the Left Fork canyon below, and spent some time trying to see the routes leading out of the canyon up toward NGA and SGA. The vertical relief of this region proved to be far more impressive than is obvious from studying the topo map. Hiking out in the heat of the day, however, took its toll, and we were glad to have the following day for a rest before starting the backpack in toward SGA on July 3rd.
Another early start let us get a head start on the heat, and our anticipated route finding problems over the slickrock turned out to by unfounded, as the park has thoroughly marked the route. We arrived at the steep descent gully into the confluence by 9:30 am, giving us plenty of time to locate a camp site and later explore down the canyon as far as the climb-out point for SGA. A tree lodged in the 126 drop-off at a boulder jam made negotiating this obstacle easy both coming and going. Swimming two deep pools below this point with packs and gear proved more of a challenge (there is no way to bypass them). The climb-out of the canyon at the designated point looked manageable, and we considered fixing our rope here for the next day, but didn't want to leave it in view of parties hiking through.
By now we were beginning to suspect that reaching SGA from our campsite would be difficult for us. The reconnaissance of the canyon as well as our earlier views of SGA from the summit of NGA gave a good preview of the hike in store. Our concern about dealing with the heat in the open on the slickrock and about the round trip elevation gain led us to conclude that it would be unwise to try SGA by ourselves. Instead, we decided to content ourselves with doing the remaining trip through the canyon at a more leisurely pace. Starting the hike out one day earlier on the 4th of July, we much enjoyed the beauty of lower section of the narrows below where we had explored the day before. At this warm time of year there are numbers young kids in groups romping through the canyon, swimming all the pools, and jumping some of the drops. At the waterfall we helped a large group of young kids with one adult negotiate the drop by linking our slings to construct an aid ladder. (Some hikers later told us they jumped this drop also, but the submerged rock in the pool at the bottom made this seem highly questionable.) Two college students from Provo finishing their hike were willing to provide a quick ride back up the Kolob Terrace Road to our car, much to our gratitude. That evening we watched fireworks from the parking lot of Denny's Restaurant in the town of St. George after a late (10 pm) dinner. The next morning intense thunderstorms arrived, causing us to wonder what new dimension this would have added to the hike out if our plan hadn't changed.
Addendum No. 1: The new park regulations will make for a challenging approach route for DPS hikers now trying SGA. We believe our planned route would have been possible for us during the cooler months (but warm layers would be needed for swimming the pools). Information in the last Desert Sage (July-Aug) makes it clear that day hikes are possible from the Wildcat canyon trailhead by descending into the canyon via NGA Route B to join with SGA Route A at the canyon climb-out point. This has the advantage of avoiding swimming, so it can be done in the cool weather.
Addendum No. 2: To get some idea of the stream flow in North Creek you can look at the USGS Real Time Water Data web site, and check the automated gage readout for the Virgin River just below its confluence with North Creek near the town of Virgin. After our return home, this gage was showing a steady flow of about 90 CFS until July 21, when it spiked to 2500 CFS within a few hours. Two days later it spiked to 4000 CFS. Glad we weren't in the canyon on those days!
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