Small Miracles, Hummingbirds, and Blackberries

The last unclimbed mountain on maps of Zion National Park was Gregory Butte, named after a man who did a geological survey of the area in the 1930s. The bottom of the mountain sits on a plateau level with the top of Kolob Arch, one of the longest natural arches in the world. There is no easy way to get to the plateau. In August of 1954, Fred Ayres and A.E. Creswell were the first climbers to reach the top of the plateau. They climbed to it so that they could measure the span of arch. Gregory Butte remained unclimbed. 

My effort to do the first ascent of Gregory Butte began in 2015 when a friend asked, “Now that you’ve climbed the Altar of Sacrifice (one of the biggest and previously unclimbed mountains in Zion National Park), I suppose you are going to climb Gregory Butte?” I hadn’t thought about it. 

After exploring along the bottom of the mountain, I did not see an easy way to get to the top. Everything looked difficult. I believed in myself, and I picked a place where there were cracks to climb from which to begin. After several days, I gave up. When I told my friend about my failure, he reminded me that there is a gully that comes down from the plateau, one that was climbed to measure the arch. 

I set out again, in search of the gully. When I found it, there was water running down it from snow melting on top. It was spring. I played hopscotch to place my feet on dry holds but didn’t get far up it. 

I returned in July, when there was a cool spell of 90°F.  Although water was not flowing, the gully was covered in a healthy, florescent-green moss. It was slippery and treacherous. This was my first encounter with the hummingbird. It hovered near my face, wondering who I was and what I was doing. I wasn’t sure I was in the right gully. The rock was soft as mud. Near the top, the angle lessened, and I suddenly realized I was in the correct place. 

I fixed my rope to a tree and made three trips back to the ground to get the rest of my gear and water. When I reached the top of the plateau, the hummingbird buzzed me again. Once back on the top of the plateau, I walked around the bottom of Gregory Butte, looking for a climbing route that would go to the top. I wanted to find a way to climb it without resorting to drilling bolts. I agree with Reinhold Messner, the first to solo Mt. Everest without using supplemental oxygen, when he said, “Drilling bolts murders the impossible.” 

Although nothing looked possible, I believed I would find a way. I started where it was the shortest distance to the top. Standing at the bottom, looking up at where I had to go, I expected I would have to link a path of overhanging cracks, roofs, and blank sections and then negotiate around large blocks that clung to the side of the mountain as if they might fall off with the gentlest of touch. First, I had to go and get the rest of my gear. 

It was a long hike from the top of the gully to the bottom of Gregory Butte. It took me several trips to bring my ropes, sleeping gear, food, and water to the bottom. To prevent myself from over heating, I changed into a bathing suit. I walked short distances and stopped under every bush big enough so that I could rest in shade. I was going so slow I feared I might not finish the climb within the number of days allowed on my permit.

The first day of climbing I got only 200 feet, tied my rope to a bush growing out of the side of the mountain, and came down. I didn’t have a portable ledge in which to sleep on the side of the mountain. 

In the morning, I decided to go for it. I got an early start and thought, if necessary, I would sleep in my clothes, hanging from the rope. I knew the climbing was within my technical ability. Sleeping on the side of the mountain without sleeping gear or a big enough ledge would be a small bump. 

To my surprise and delight, the higher I got, the easier things became. In the middle of the route I found a hidden, wide crack that faced sideways. It looked like a giant staircase, allowing me to fit my entire body inside it for safety. It was rather easy to ascend, and I made good time. Small miracle. I was able to climb to the top, going up what seemed from the ground to be impossible. Hummingbird meet me at the top.

It took me two days to get down and to the car. I made three trips from Gregory Butte to the gully, and then went up and down the gully to get the gear to the hiking trail. I was out of food when I noticed a blackberry bush in the gully. Hummingbird watched me pick it clean. I took my time. Why wait for what you think it should be. Enjoy the space to get where you’ll be. Once out of the gully, I was back into direct sunlight on a hot, 90F summer day. My bag weighed eighty pounds. It was a seven-mile, uphill hike to the car. 


I twice returned to attempt to put up a second route on Gregory Butte. Both times I didn’t make it up the gully as I got scared and wasn’t having fun. I blamed my lack of desire on the rock being slippery, although the moss was drier than it had been on my first trip. I blamed it on the amount of work required. I wondered how it was possible that hummingbird and blackberries had come so easily the first time. 

It was heart. My heart wasn’t into subsequent attempts. Without heart, I was like a car not running on all four cylinders. Whereas the first time I had a childlike wonder about the adventure that lay ahead, what I would find, and what it would be like to stand on top of the mountain, I had no such enchantment on subsequent trips. The first time, no matter what the discomfort and uncertainty, there was no place I would rather have been. 

A key reason I am successful on climbs is that I want to do them, not for fame or money, rather because I feel like it. The classic question that mountain climbers are asked is why — why do you climb? The answer is simple — there is no purpose. Climbing is knowing what’s important to your heart, without the need to have a reason to follow it. When you are confident, have skills, and follow your heart, you are a force to be reckoned with, and can do things that seem impossible.

Leave a comment