Led By Sheep

Alex Lenail
6 min readOct 15, 2015


Climbing rocks is probably the best way I know of to slowly lose all your time and money. There is hardly a better way of doing so.

I was climbing near Aspen, CO, when the opportunity arose to go to southern Utah to see my godfather’s daughter (also my father’s goddaughter) who was spending a year abroad at Southern Utah University (she’s French). My brother and I naturally leapt on the opportunity to explore another part of the climbing world: Zion National Park.

So we picked up the SuperTopo book for Zion. ProTip for new climbers: SuperTopo & Chris McNamara are the very best thing that has ever happened. We accidentally own most of the books now. They have just about saved our lives at least once.

As novice climbers, we looked through and couldn’t really find much in the way of a good learning experience. But we came upon the very back of the book, and there it was: 5 pitches of bolted 5.6 sandstone slab: Led By Sheep.

We chanced upon a guy who ran a business called ZionGuru (henceforth referred to as “The Guru”) the night before the climb.

Whenever two climbers meet, there always seems to be this initial period of estimation, where the climbers need to politely and gracefully determine the skill level of the climber they’re speaking to. So when we asked for recommendations of where to climb, he asked what kind of rack we had.

He recommended a few spots, and then we mentioned that we were thinking of doing Led By Sheep, and the Guru’s eyes lit up. One of his favorites, he said, and an amazing place to meditate. The Guru, it turns out, spends a lot of time meditating, which I think is very appropriate.

He gave us all the details and printed us out a beautiful map and highlighted the approach, which probably saved us two hours.

The approach, it turns out, follows a path that’s been marked for reclamation, but it’s the only access to the climb, so we climbers have to push our way through a partially-reclaimed trail. Partially reclaimed by cacti, mind you.

Eventually you get to this massive sandstone face past Keyhole Canyon. It’s a landscape that has no analog. The sandstone has this rippling texture like little wavelets. It reminded me a lot of Yosemite, except in sanstone instead of granite.

“Definitely glacially carved” I told Max.
Zion National Park is not glacially carved.

Something I neglected to mention was that two days prior, I had been in a bike accident. I was biking to class when a pedestrian popped out from behind a car to j-walk across a busy street with cars all standing still in traffic, and didn’t bother to look both ways. I managed to swerve a little and half hit him at 25 mph or so, and fell on my face on smooth asphault. Ambulances were called, I was urged to get in one and go to the Hospital because there was no way I didn’t have a concussion.

But obviously, after walking my bike over my shoulder with a bent front wheel the 2 miles to the bike shop to be repared, I was in my class 30 minutes later icing my bleeding face (this attracted a lot of stares, and was fairly disruptive in retrospect).

Two days later, I found myself across the country at 5000 ft of elevation on a sandstone mesa preparing to climb 5 pitches with my brother. Not the best thing to do with a concussion. But if I had a concussion, it was definitely minor, because I wasn’t feeling many symptoms.

A couple of Clif Bars later, I was no longer doubting how bad of an idea this was, and we racked up.

The approach actually takes you a fair bit up the dome, the part which isn’t so steep that you’re actually climbing. There we noticed two people rappelling down, and waited for them to come to the bottom. We talked about the climb, and they gave us some idea of what to expect. We only had one rope to rappel, and were thinking of rapelling off of individual bolts midway through the pitches.

“If you’re going to rappel off of individual bolts, that’s between you and Jesus, but make sure to only load them in the direction of the wall.”

Sound advice from a fellow climber.

We began the climb, and for the first time, swapped leads, which was wonderful. Usually I lead, which is the act of climbing first, with less protection in the event of a fall. This is usually done by the stronger climber. But since my brother Max has gotten stronger, there isn’t really a noticeable difference in our climbing strengths, so I led, then he led, then I led, then he led — we switched off, which was logistically ideal in terms of rope management.

Pretty soon, we were rather high up.

And then soon after that we were even higher.

As we approached the top, the grade eased up, but the very last “pitch” was unbolted, which meant we had to climb it without any protection, nothing to catch us in case of a fall. When we reached the top, we looked out over Zion, and I have to say, it was breathtaking.

A year prior, I had been in Yosemite with some friends, doing a hike I’ve done many times. “Yosemite” I said “is the most beautiful place in the world.” “Have you been to Zion?” Simon asked. I hadn’t. “Then you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Rappelling down multiple pitches sucks. This isn’t something I had previously known. Especially bad is rappelling down multiple pitches with only a single rope. It took us over an hour to get down what took us only two hours to climb, and that hour was pretty miserable. For one, our rope was perpetually super tangled, and second, I took more stupid risks than I should have. Next time: two ropes, and some sort of safety hitch, and knots at the bottom of the rope. By the time we reached the bottom, it’s fair to say we were pretty exhausted. But at least we had some clif bars left.

All in all, it was a lovely climb, and I would stronly recommend it.

One thing that’s weird about Zion is that the sandstone is at least as much sand as it is stone. Climbing shoes seem to be better prepared for granite than semi-solid sand dunes. At least once, we actually broke off a hold.

Since it was a slab climb, there weren’t too many hand-holds, so this climb was mostly about foot placement and keeping close to the wall. My quads still ache from this climb, 4 days later.