From Joshua Tree, we motored east to Zion pretty quickly,
spending one night (awesome boondocking) in Nevada, and gathering supplies in St. George, Utah (loved Harmon’s for groceries). Cold weather would be coming later in the week and we wanted to enjoy Zion before it hit.
At the Zion entrance, the rangers promptly hopped out to measure the width of our Airstream, to see if we qualified for an “unescorted” trip through the narrow tunnel to Bryce Canyon. (At 91 inches, we just made the cut off of 94 inches!)
Perusing the information about hikes, we set our sights on Angel’s Landing – a difficult hike but lauded as one of THE very best day hikes in all the southwest. Why? It starts with the West Rim Trail, about 2 miles up a steep hill, then the special part: the Angel’s Landing Trail, a 1/2 mile hike across a narrow rock ridge – also called a fin – with steep drop offs on either side. Chains are installed to aid hikers along the narrowest and steepest parts of the trail. No one has died on it in the last five years or so. Who wouldn’t want to hike this?
I paid careful attention to the warnings provided by the Park Service and even searched the internet for others. How could a hike that was so perilous also be so popular? Some warnings stuck with me – from the Salt Lake Tribune for example: if you can’t get your footing without the chains, you might not want to hike it. There have been a half dozen or so deaths in the past decade, and the Park Service does not hide that fact, but rather uses it to discourage people. But A LOT of people do this hike. We figured we could too.
The initial climb up West Rim Trail took us about two hours, just as predicted. We stopped to rest a bit along the way. Though it was December, the conditions were perfect – sunny, no moisture on the trail at all. We maybe saw 10 or so other people going up or down, and 1/2 dozen Park maintenance crew members shoring up the trail at its edges.
This first section of the hike ends with “Walters Wiggles” (better pic here), a set of 21 switch backs to take you up a very steep part of the trail before the most daunting stretch begins. Apparently they are named for the first superintendent of Zion who designed them!
Now, I have to say, at the top of the mountain, at a place called Scout’s Landing, and before we began that last 1/2 mile stretch onto the actual Angel’s Landing Trail, I had a serious talk with myself about whether or not I was really going through with this. Some of the things I said:
“A lot of folks decide not to continue here. There is no shame in that.”
“It’s going to be tough, physically, but mostly mentally, and I have no problem getting down on my hands and knees if necessary to get across.”
“I am doing this mostly for the ‘I’ll be glad when I have done it’ feeling. I love that feeling.”
“This will be thrilling, and I’ll be totally ‘in the moment’ while doing it.”
“How often do we get these chances in life? Let’s go!”
The first section builds confidence – it’s steep and narrow in places, but without the sheer drop off inches away. Fairly soon though, I arrived at a critical juncture when I saw what looked like a very, very, narrow tightrope-size ledge strung between the rock outcropping I was on and the one I wanted to get to. It scared me. I felt physically woozy in my gut. How was I to go over that, knowing I’d only have to go over it again on the return? And, to add to my fears, I couldn’t see or plan for what to expect on the rest of the Angel’s Landing trail ahead, so I couldn’t know if I was expending the appropriate amount of courage at this juncture, or if I should save some because I’d need even more along the way. A true dilemma, with not a little pride at stake.
About this time, an older couple appeared, descending the trail and coming toward me – clearly reading my mind. They offered, more off-hand than directly to me – “Oh it’s easier coming down than going up” and “You’ll be glad you did it”. Somehow their words helped, and I am not ashamed to say so did the fact that they were older (most of the other hikers we’d seen were millennials practically running up and down the mountain in toe shoes.) I forged ahead.
Each 100 feet or so is a different challenge – pulling your self up, along side, against [insert preposition here] a rock face, with sure death in the form of a 1,000+ foot drop just inches or less away. It’s not hard to imagine how you could fall – it was more a matter of when.
We were lucky there weren’t more people around – in the summer the path is crowded, and all those people make the trail more perilous. For example, when two or more are holding (and moving) the same stretch of chain, or one is going up while another is going down. (When in doubt on a narrow rock face , go for the hug). Success is found in hopefully a shared belief in the preciousness of life, and a collective fervent but tenuous grasp on it while together on Angel’s Landing. (For the most part people were very well behaved, though we did pass a couple in some kind of argument – lips pursed, eyes stony, heavy sighing, the whole nine, somewhere midway-ish near the tree pictured below.
At another more treacherous point somewhere in the middle, I did gather myself a bit to at least appreciate the fact that while I was “in the moment”, I wasn’t appreciating the views. But the trail was so narrow here, I didn’t dare turn my head, and risk losing balance. So I literally raised my right and left arms just high and quick enough to take a shot of whatever it was I was missing, so I (and you) could see it later.
Finally we reached the end, a fairly wide rocky plateau with plenty of places to sit and rest and relax and eat lunch, reflecting on accomplishment, scouting for angels. We saw one reincarnated as a chipmunk who persistently hovered trying to catch our crumbs.
Indeed the trail back was easier, but maybe only because we knew what to expect. As you can see in the pics below, those chains were put to good use by me and my bad knees.
For Ben the way down, like the way up, was more of a walk in a park. Hands in pockets, shades drawn. Movie star cool.
Of course we made it. I had conquered the fears that had cropped up, it had been thrilling, and I was glad to say I had done it. Though Ben thought this image of a hiker tumbling looked awfully similar to how I had deliberately approached the descent.
And finally, nothing says “I defied death and conquered my fears” better than having happy hour outside on the “patio” in December. This one included our very first (in four months on the road) campfire. Cold, but very much in our comfort zone.