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Zoroaster Temple, Grand Canyon, Arizona, Northeast Arete


Written by Rick Booth October, 2002 

The southwest face of Zoroaster Temple
The southwest face of Zoroaster Temple

April 23 to April 26, 2002

I had been to the Grand Canyon several times over the years but never
strayed far from the standard South Kaibab/Bright Angel corridor.  The
view from the south rim is fabulous, especially on a day when clouds throw
long shadows into the canyon.  Dominating the view from the south rim is
the triangular summit of the Zoroaster Temple just to the right of the
Bright Angel fault and is backed by the massive Brahma Temple.  I had
never thought of climbing anything in the canyon but for some reason ran
into an article discussing the ascent of the Zoroaster.  It started with a
Sierra Club book entitled Adventuring in Arizona, ran through an issue
of Arizona Highways of all things, and ended with a topo of the
Northeast ArÍte route in Rock and Ice some years back.  Since then I had
more or less plotted to accomplish the ascent of the Zoroaster Temple.  An
exploration of the Clear Creek area with Dee Booth and Dot Reilly some
years ago ended up with no new information since I had no real idea where
the break in the Red Wall was.

The project was attempted several years ago with Jim Curl but got no
further than a bad weather report which cancelled the effort.  This time
was different.  For the last three and a half years I had been working at
a wireless start-up and in the last several months several events
precipitated a sharp "refocusing" of the company's direction.  About half
of the company was "refocused" right on out of there.  I was one of them. 
My euphoria at the thoughts of being able to hit the road for some
extended climbing trips was short lived: I found a new job immediately.  I
decided that I was going to at least have a few weeks off.  One of the
potential projects was to go to the Grand Canyon and make a genuine
attempt on the Zoroaster Temple.

The first problem was to determine if the permit system would allow us to
even get close.  A few phone calls to the backcountry office were
encouraging.  It looked like a permit would allow us to camp in the Clear
Creek region and then spend a few nights in the Cheyeva region.  The
weather looked promising.  It was not too hot and not too cool.  This is a
double edged sword: the good weather was good for our attempt but it is
also good for everyone else who was interested in backpacking in the
canyon.  The next step was to round up some companions for the trip.  Jim
Curl was easy.  He had always been interested in this project and had also
been "refocused" recently.  The conversation with Maxym Runov went
something like this:

"I think I am going to get laid off soon and with the time off I was
thinking of going to the Grand CanyonÖ"

"I want to go."

"Öand climb the Zoroaster TempleÖ"

"Cool.  Even better.  What's the Zoroaster Temple?"

"Öwhich will require hauling a bunch of water around and climbing six
pitches of 5.6 to 5.9..."

"Wow!  Now I really want to go!"

"Öwhich ends in a pitch of 5.9 offwidth."

"Whatever."

Hiking the South Kaibab Trail
Hiking the South Kaibab Trail

Hmmm.  Maxym was not even remotely dissuaded so maybe I shouldn't try
rounding up a lot of people.  The conversation with my friend Bojan Silic,
whom I climbed the Prow with and was also "refocused" with me at the same
company went about the same as the conversation with Maxym.  This meant
there were four of us, which was about perfect since the strength and the
climbing skills of the group were pretty good and four would allow for a
good margin of safety.  We decided to meet Monday night on April 22.  I
was going to be in Joshua Tree and would leave there Sunday evening and
try and get the permit on Monday April 22.

I decided to arrive early at the backcountry office Monday morning.  At
7:15 AM I was second in line and feeling confident.  Eight AM arrives and
the ranger announces that there were twelve holdovers from the previous
day so those of us waiting would start with number 13.  That meant I was
number 14 and my confidence evaporated.  The two rangers called out the
first twelve numbers.  About five failed to show.  This was looking
better.  I finally got to the window and asked for the desired Clear Creek
permit plus the two nights in the Cheyeva zone.  The Cheyeva zone is easy. 
There is always room there since there is no water there and only nuts go
up into that region.  Nothing was available for the Clear Creek zone.  I
was outraged.  The conversation with the ranger a week or two earlier
indicated there would be permits open in that region.  Now what?  The
ranger mentioned that there was a site open at the Bright Angel campground
at Phantom.  It was the last one and the German lady behind me in line was
also interested in going to Phantom.  I took it.  It turned out this is as
good, if not better, than spending the first night in the Clear Creek
zone.  Armed with my permit I headed off to breakfast and a shower.

The Red Wall chimney
The Red Wall chimney

I spent the rest of the day goofing off.  In the early evening Bojan
showed up and about 12:30 in the morning Jim and Maxym showed up.  This
was sort of late and as a consequence we dawdled around Tuesday morning. 
At the stunning time of 11:35 AM we headed down the South Kaibab Trail. 
This is one of the most picturesque trails in the world.  About 3 PM we
all collected at a campsite at Bright Angel Campground near the Phantom
Ranch.  About 4 PM we decided to pack up our water and climbing gear and
hike up the Clear Creek Trail and stash it in the Sumner wash.  We took
two and one half gallons apiece and chugged up the Clear Creek Trail. 
There is a small wash just before the Sumner Wash on the Clear Creek Trail
and we stashed our water and gear behind a rock and raced back down the
trail in order to be in camp by dark.  We just made it.  It turned out to
be a long day and we celebrated with a beer at the Phantom Ranch dining
room.

I slept solidly and so did everyone else.  We got a pretty early start
Wednesday morning and headed back up the Clear Creek Trail.  We passed our
stash of water and gear.  Jim, Bojan, and myself decided to shuttle our
water and gear to the base of the Red Wall.  Maxym chose to lug it all in
one pull, which amazed us all.  We headed up Sumner wash and stayed to the
west and went directly towards the obvious chimney or gap in the Red Wall. 
There is a faint climbers trail that shows up as soon as the hiking starts
to go up hill steeply.  This trail got more obvious the closer to the
chimney we got.  The Red Wall is limestone and has been apparently
varnished red since the underlying limestone is the usual gray.  The Red
Wall is everywhere in the Canyon and is impenetrable in most areas.  We
chugged our gear up to the base of the chimney and hid from the sun for an
hour or so before heading back down to lug up our remaining water and
gear.  We then shuttled our equipment and water to the top of the chimney. 
This chimney had been advertised as class four and I suppose it is but it
is only in short sections.  The bottom section is passed by climbing out
to the east (right) on the broken limestone and then traversing back left
into the chimney.  A short section of class four on the west side (left)
got us past a chockstone and the rest of the approximately 200 foot long
chimney is loose class three.  At the top of the chimney is a very nice
flattish section just up to the right.  It is a fabulous bivouac spot.  It
is flat, and the view is tremendous.  The long buttress of red sandstone
coming from the Zoroaster is right above the bivouac spot and the Red Wall
drops off on both sides of the bivouac spot.  The long Sumner ridge leads
off to the west.  At night the lights from the south rim are easily
visible in the far distance from the campsite.  The weather had been
holding but Bojan's weather radio indicated the weather was going to
change soon.  The next day was climbing day and the prediction was for
showers late in the day.

Camp on saddle above Red Wall
Camp on saddle above Red Wall

On Thursday we got most of an alpine start.  At least it was dark when we
fired up our stoves.  About 6:30 we were moving up and east along the
large cliff of red sandstone.  We ran into ducks immediately and followed
them fairly closely.  The ducks brought us right up to an apparently
impenetrable sandstone cliff.  It looked like it could be ascended in
several difficult ways but Jim noticed the ducks folded back towards the
west.  Following these ducks brought us to the base of a modestly
troublesome chimney.  At the top of the chimney was another nice shelf and
the ducks headed back to the east towards another chimney.  The second
chimney was easy class 3 and at the top of the chimney was a long flat
ridge heading back towards the summit of the Zoroaster.  It is very
picturesque.  The Brahma Temple is in clear view and the vast Grand Canyon
itself drops away to the south.  We followed this until we were blocked by
another red sandstone cliff.  The start to this requires another short
chimney and then a long traverse on loose sand and sandstone above a
fearsome looking drop off in some areas.  This ends with a break in the
red sandstone cliff, which is apparently the Supai band.  Getting through
the break requires two sections of class four.  One section has a fixed
rope in place but the other section does not.  Above this is another
section of loose class three red sandstone, which winds towards the main
white Coconino sandstone which forms the main summit of the Zoroaster.  We
headed up through the red sandstone and eventually ended up at the base of
the Northeast ArÍte.  The saddle between the Zoroaster and the Brahma
Temple is directly below the start.  The start of the route is marked by
an obvious red scar where the rock has recently fallen away.

Brahma Temple
Brahma Temple

After about 30 minutes of goofing off we started up the route.  It is not
particularly aesthetic looking and the topo is not very accurate.  I lead
the first pitch and linked the second pitch to the first pitch.  Our 50
meter double ropes were plenty long enough to do this.  The topo claims a
point of aid is needed on the first pitch which none of us saw.  This
pitch was not any harder than 5.7.  The end of the linked first and second
pitch ends at a small tree with a bunch of slings and rappel rings.  The
next pitch is supposed to go up and right.  If it does it isn't obvious. 
We ended up going left somewhat and ended on a nice flat ledge with more
slings and rappel rings.  This pitch was about 5.7 but was pretty scary. 
Exiting this shelf is a long pitch in a right leaning crack system which
is not any harder than 5.6.  This ended at a small alcove.  Exiting
directly above the alcove was an odd stemming section that turned into a
short unprotectable section.  This was about 5.7/5.8 and was also scary. 
It ended at another pile of slings, rappel rings and a bolt.  This belay
station was just to the left of the obvious overhanging roof above the
route.  Supposedly there was a two bolt traverse from this belay station
to the west.  There was only one weird bolt on this traverse which
required going straight up past the bolt on 5.6/5.7 face and friction to
get to a hole above a chimney and a move to the west to get on a shelf. 
The hole can be slung with a long sling.  Bring a skinny carabiner or an
old style oval without the tab, which identifies the gate opening to clip
the bolt.  This brought us to another nice shelf just to the right or west
of the overhanging roof.  This is where the final offwidth pitch is.  It
is about 5.9 in difficulty and we all thrashed on it except for Jim.  The
route descriptions indicate a #5 Camalot would be useful but it was not
even close to being necessary.  A #4 was useful.  The offwidth section is
fairly short and a hand or fist jam is available at the back of the
offwidth.  This ends on a sloping loose area.  This is the end of the
technical climbing but is not the summit.  We stashed our ropes and gear
and headed for the summit block.  The summit block area is more limestone
sitting on top of the white Coconino sandstone.  There is a huge chimney
on the east side of this block and that allows easy access to the very top
of the Zoroaster.  We climbed this and spent the next 30 minutes or so
being amazed by the remoteness of the location and the views of the
canyon.  It was just amazing and I found it hard to leave.  Near the south
edge of the summit limestone we found a piece of pipe with a summit
register of sorts.  If the summit register was to be believed we were the
second party on the summit in the year 2002.

Rick leads Pitch 1
Rick leads Pitch 1

We down climbed the limestone chimney and headed back across the white
sandstone to the rappel station.  We rappelled the route and in two hours
or so we all ended up at the base of the route.  There are rappel rings
and slings at all the stations and they all looked to be in pretty good
shape as of the date of our trip.  Fifty meter ropes will allow you to
rappel all the way to the deck on the next to the last rappel avoiding the
supposed last rappel from the small tree which is just thirty feet up
above the red scar.  We headed back down the loose sandstone and rappelled
the fourth class sections.  As we scooted across the sloping traverse it
started to shower slightly.  This was apparently the predicted late day
showers.  They were very light and did not last very long.  We retraced
our route, pausing only to take pictures, and returned to our bivouac site
about an hour before sunset.  Our plan was to pack up our camp and return
to the Clear Creek trail where we had stashed about two liters of water
apiece.  We were too tired and the hour was getting late.  We all had a
liter and half apiece left over so the option of staying another night in
our bivouac spot was easy to choose.  The winds came up that night as the
weather front moved through.

Bojan poses in front of the summit block
Bojan poses in front of the summit block

We slept in somewhat on Friday morning, packed up our gear, and headed
back down the chimney in the Red Wall.  The fourth class sections were
bypassed with two rappels and in short order we were back in the Sumner
Wash.  We headed back to our stash of water near the Clear Creek trail and
then headed back down to the Phantom Ranch.  We took a short rest at the
Phantom Ranch and then headed back up the Bright Angel Trail.  It was very
hot near the river and I was thankful for the breeze blowing down the
Bright Angel fault.  The hike out was uneventful and I pulled to the top
near the Bright Angel Lodge at about 7 PM after stopping for some last
minute pictures.  I was greeted at the top by a stiff breeze and snow
flurries!  I headed back toward the backcountry parking lot and was not
feeling too happy about the thoughts of spending another night in the
Mather campground in the cold.  As I was throwing my pack into my 4Runner,
Maxym, Bojan and Jim pulled up and announced that they had rented a motel
room!  That was good news.  The next day Bojan, Jim and Maxym headed for
home and I started meandering around Arizona checking out the climbing
areas.

Bojan, Jim and Maxym on the summit
Bojan, Jim and Maxym on the summit

This was a fabulous trip.  It was a big treat to climb something in the
Grand Canyon and get off the beaten path followed by everyone else.  We
just made it in terms of getting a permit and we just managed to fit the
trip into a reasonable weather window.  Thanks to Jim Curl, Bojan Silic,
and Maxym Runov for sharing my enthusiasm for this project.

Some Statistics:

First day: Hike down 5000 feet in 7.1 miles.  Hike up 1500 feet in 3.5
miles to Sumner Wash and then hike back 3.5 miles and back down 1500 feet. 
Total mileage is about 14 miles.  Total elevation lost is about 6500 feet
and total elevation gained is 1500 feet.

Second day: Hike up 3000 feet in about 4.7miles (to the top of the Red
Wall).  Hike back down 1500 feet in 1.2 miles and back up 1500 feet in 1.2
miles.  Total mileage is 7.1 miles.  Total elevation gained is 4500 feet
and total elevation lost is 1500 feet.

Third day: This is climbing day and the total mileage is about 1.5 miles
in to the base and about 1.5 miles to return.  The total elevation gained
is about 2000 feet and the total elevation lost is about 2000 feet.

Fourth day: This is hike out day.  Drop 3000 feet in about 4.7 miles to
the Phantom Ranch.  Sit on the front steps of the Phantom Ranch panting in
the heat.  Hike 9.5 miles back up the Bright Angel Trail gaining about
4800 feet.

Totals: About 38.2 miles of hiking, 13000 feet of elevation lost and 12800
feet of elevation gained.  The elevation difference is because the
trailhead for the South Kaibab Trail is about 200 feet higher than the
trailhead for the Bright Angel Trail.

Logistics:

Northeast Arete of Zoroaster Temple (click to enlarge)
Northeast Arete of Zoroaster Temple
(click to enlarge)

There are three main logistics problems associated with climbing the
Zoroaster Temple.  The first is there is no water available beyond the
Phantom Ranch which is at the bottom of the Grand canyon.  This means
containers are needed to carry water up from the Phantom Ranch and the
time and effort must be allocated to move his water up to the camping
area.  The second problem is the weather.  The temperature ranges for this
project are amazingly large.  The temperature at Mather campground the
night I drove in from Joshua Tree was 29 degrees F.  The temperature at
the Colorado River when we started hiking up about 1 PM on Friday was over
90 degrees F.  That is a huge variation.  The best time for this project
is in the spring or the fall.  Fast guys could do this in the winter but
the days are shorter.  The last logistic problem is the Grand Canyon
permit system.  The Grand Canyon is very popular and the best climbing
season is also the most popular backpacking season.

For the water problem you will need to understand your own needs for water
in a hot or warm environment.  We allowed about a gallon a day and the
extra stash at the Sumner Wash was overkill but that is only because we
expected to use it for our last night of camping.  I was slightly
dehydrated and drank most of my water.  The other extreme was Maxym who
seemed to be able to cruise on considerably less.  Keep in mind that the
only water available will be what you bring up from Phantom Ranch. 
Supposedly there are pools below Sumner Wash that may contain water in the
spring and fall.  This year was a dry year and we saw no sign of water
anywhere near Sumner Wash.  We think we saw wet sand in a wash just at the
top of the Clear Creek Trail as it broke onto the Tonto Plateau.  Nobody
was interested in climbing down to check it out and confirm this but the
conclusion remains: water is a problem.

Rappelling the Red Wall chimney
Rappelling the Red Wall chimney

For the permit system the best solution is to get a permit in advance. 
The Grand Canyon permit system is user unfriendly.  They charge you for
the permit and then five dollars per night per person.  If you plan to go
in a time frame sooner than a few weeks then reserved permits are not
available and you must go and get a first come first served permit.  Don't
count on going the day you arrive or even the next day.  I consider myself
lucky that we were able to go as early as we could.  Our original plan was
to get a permit for Clear Creek the first night, the Cheyeva zone (top of
the Red Wall) the second night, and back in the Clear Creek zone the third
night.  It didn't work out that way.  If you choose to camp in the Clear
creek zone the first night you will have to move all your gear and water
up to the Clear Creek zone the first day.  I think that the Bright Angel
Campground for the first night is a better option.  The second night in
the Cheyeva zone is easy.  There is always room.  The third night would
ideally be back down in the Clear Creek zone but this requires a fast day
when climbing so that there is time to get back down into the Clear Creek
zone.  As it turns out, there is enough time to get all the way from the
Cheyeva zone back up the Bright Angel Trail to the south rim in a day even
if the rangers find this somewhat unbelievable.

The facilities in Grand Canyon village are fairly extensive.  Don't expect
a fully equipped rock climbing store like the one in Yosemite, but there
is a fairly complete selection of back packing supplies which includes a
complete selection of the various gas canisters, alcohol, and white gas. 
The backcountry office is now next to the railroad tracks in a building
designed to look like an old railway station.  There is a big parking lot
here.  A shuttle is available to bring you to the South Kaibab Trailhead. 
There used to be parking allowed at this trailhead but it has been
removed.  It is recommended to go into the Canyon on the South Kaibab
Trail since it is shorter than the Bright Angel and much more picturesque. 
However you hike in it is recommended to hike out on the Bright Angel
Trail since there is water available at three places and the parking lot
next to the backcountry office is within easy walking distance of the end
point of the Bright Angel Trailhead.  This also removes the problem of
having to wait for a shuttle.  For early risers an express shuttle goes
directly from the backcountry office to the South Kaibab Trailhead,
however, the "milk run" works well enough.  There are numerous motels at
the South Rim and very good shower and laundry facilities for campers.

Hanging at Phantom Ranch
Hanging at Phantom Ranch

For a rack we brought a 50 meter double rope system, a selection of
stoppers up to about .5 inches, one each green, yellow, and red alien,
.75, 1, 2, 3 and 4 Camalots, a selection of slings and a few quickdraws,
and two tabless old style ovals.  The number 1 and 2 Camalots were
doubled.  We brought a #5 Camalot but it proved to be unnecessary.  The
double rope system or an extra rope is required for the rappels.

Finally, there are a few other objective dangers in the Canyon.  The first
is the potentially lethal heat and water combination that has already been
discussed.  The second is the potential for an encounter with a
potentially lethal critter.  While most climbers are familiar with
rattlesnakes, there also is the potential for an encounter with scorpions. 
These are apparently much more poisonous than the scorpions running around
the Owens Valley.

References:

Rick on the summit at last
Rick on the summit at last

Grand Canyon Backountry Office direct telephone line: (928) 638-7875
Monday through Friday 1 PM to 5 PM.  Remember that Arizona is on Mountain
Standard Time but does not go on daylight savings time so during the
period when California is on daylight savings time the time will be the
same in Arizona.

Rock Climbing Arizona, Stewart M.  Green, Falcon Publishing, 1999.  This
will likely be the most accessible reference.  The route description is
fair and the there is a topo but the topo is not very accurate.

Zoroaster Temple, Robert H.  Miller, Rock and Ice Classic, Rock and Ice
#64.  Year unknown.  This is a brief description which also has a topo. 
This topo is different than the one in Rock Climbing Arizona but is not
any more accurate.

Adventuring in Arizona, John Annerino, Sierra Club Travel Guide to the
Grand Canyon State, 1991.  This has some word descriptions of the routes
on the Zoroaster but no topo.  Interesting since it describes more history
in detail.

Rock Climbing in the Grand Canyon, Bob Kerry, Arizona Highways, February 1994.

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