Angels Landing - Zion National Park - Utah
February 7th, 2010
It was almost a year after my last big mountain hike that I found myself (accompanied by my friend and co-worker, Peter Crane) in Zion National Park in what was to be the beginning stage of our great southwest adventure... and what a beginning it was!
After picking up Peter in Las Vegas, the original plan was to drive to St. George, Utah spend the night and in the morning head to Bloomington Cave in the desert west of the city. However, due to some heavy rains the previous day, our attempt to negotiate the winding and hilly dirt road to the cave came to an abrupt end when our rental car couldn't make it up a particularly muddy incline. After a few moments of considering our options and getting our car and shoes terribly muddy, we decided it was quite hopeless and possibly dangerous to try and continue (even with the optional chains we had for the tires). And so, to Peter's relief and my disappointment, we had to turn away from our planned caving adventure and decided to head straight to Zion. Both feeling a bit discouraged by the rain and lack of adventure in our St. George explorations, it was along the way to Zion that I failed to yield to the outer lane as I passed a police car on the side of the road. Sure enough, he gave chase and next thing I knew I had a cop checking my license and insurance. I have no idea what kind of fine this could have incurred, but luckily we had a sympathetic officer who took pity on this ignorant Canadian and left us with a warning only. Thank you, sir! Also luckily, with Peter, anything can be made into a joke and so all these minor setbacks only served as fuel for his crazy humour.
Thankfully the rest of the journey to Zion was smooth and the weather was starting to look good. As we got closer to the park the snow capped mountain peaks began to reveal themselves on the horizon. This was a surprise to me. I hadn't done much research on Zion and didn't really know what to expect, but in my mind it wasn't supposed to look like this. As we made our way further and further in I was starting to feel that excitement and joy I always feel when I'm close to mountains, only the mountains of Zion were something entirely new. As we paid our $25 park entrance fee and took the quiet road deeper in, we were surrounded by cliffs so imposing and so near, I couldn't help but get a sense of my size in relation to this environment. I was so distracted by the views that I wasn't paying attention to where I was supposed to be going and so we ended up taking a sharply winding road up a mountain side that eventually leads to a tunnel in the mountain. In a kind of foreshadowing of what was to come, Peter began to get his first pangs of fear from the steep views outside his window, but we laughed these off. In an odd stroke of luck, we were stopped by a park ranger near the entrance of the mountain tunnel and asked where we were headed. Luckily for us, she said, Angels Landing was back where we came from because the road ahead was closed due to an avalanche.
So back we went, eventually taking the correct turnoff (the one towards Zion Lodge) and arriving at the trailhead parking area called The Grotto, by 1pm. With the weather blessing us with an opportunity, we decided to do the hike then instead of waiting for the next day as originally planned. Suited up and ready to go, we crossed the road and bridge over to the start of the West Rim Trail. From there it is a 2.5 mile (4km) hike to the top of Angels Landing which stands at 5990 feet (1826 m). With an elevation gain of only 1070 feet (326 m), we weren't too worried about the physical challenge despite the trailhead signs insistence of a "strenuous hike" ahead.
Yes, it is certainly a steep climb with many switchbacks up to Scout Lookout but with the kind of views surrounding you, it's easy to be distracted. There are sheer, massive cliffs everywhere you look, and to be honest, going in winter is probably ideal for the most part. The contrast of the reddish mountains against the white snow caps is incredibly beautiful and by the sounds of it, Zion in the summer can be packed. We practically had the whole place to ourselves and there was a lot of availability in the hotels near the park (we stayed at the cozy Best Western Zion Park Inn for $60).
I'm not sure what the trail conditions are usually like at this time of year, but for us there wasn't any snow on the first mile of the well maintained trail. It was along this route that we heard a strange sound coming from the cliffs across the valley. To our surprise we were hearing the sounds of an avalanche... not only one, but two! They almost looked like temporary waterfalls from that distance. So another first for me in the mountains... witness to two avalanches.
As you head up that first mile, the tower of rock directly ahead of you is Angels Landing. The only way to the top is through a canyon that cuts between the cliffs on your left and takes you up near Scouts Lookout where the trail junction to Angels Landing begins. There was snow on the trail once we entered the shade of the canyon, but it wasn't problematic with our hiking boots. By 2:30pm we were at the trail junction for Angels Landing, which was only another half mile to the end. My giddiness was beginning to grow because I knew we were about to enter the "challenging" section of the trail. The warning sign stating that "falls and deaths have occurred on this trail" soon appeared, which set the mood nicely. Nervously, we continued forward following other peoples prints in the snow and the chains embedded in the rock. It didn't take long to understand why that sign exists. The exposure quickly begins on the right side of the trail. Combine that with the slippery snow and a fear of heights, and you may find yourself in a situation similar to what my friend experienced. An immobilizing uncertainty and seizing fear. We've all experienced this in some form in our lives, and personally, I think it's one of the more important moments in life. It's raw and true and comes from the deepest part of us.
Like what I have experienced on some of my other hikes, Peter was struggling with his sense of safety versus the goal of completing the hike. He waited for me to report back on the exposure levels as I continued forward. Only a few paces away there was an opening on the left side of the trail that dramatically revealed a sheer thousand foot drop. As I stood there feeling the sweat build on my palms, Peter and I discussed what was ahead for him. It was soon concluded that he would not continue forward with me and that I would quickly return once reaching the top, which we assumed was very near. Once passed that vertigo inducing drop on the left, the rest of the hike doesn't feel as exposed in this section. On the right side there is exposure, but it felt less intimidating for me, especially with my hands always on the chains.
I was soon at the top where it widens out and the views open up around you. Smiling and pleased, I walked along the top of this section thinking my hike was complete and my peak bagging hiatus was finally over (it had been close to 3 years since the last time I reached the top of a mountain). As I thought about this accomplishment and worked my way to the best view point, the fresh prints in the snow came to end and I looked ahead of me. And that's when my stomach dropped. This was not the top. It was only a small plateau with edges that fool you into thinking you're at the top. As much as I wanted to believe that steeply rising rock spine ahead was part of a separate mountain, it soon became apparent that it was in fact the continuation of the trail to Angels Landing. I could see some half buried chains snaking their way up and a faint hint of a trail in the snow. There were no fresh tracks. Everyone who had been up there recently had stopped exactly where I was, and I know why. From that vantage point, the route up the spine was one of the most intimidating looking paths I had ever seen before. It looked incredibly steep with little room for error, packed with snow and edged with long vertical drop-offs on both sides.
Staring in stupefied disbelief, I had trouble imagining the average hiker attempting something that looked that dangerous. The pictures I had seen on the web did not convey what was before me. To my surprise I even started thinking it was reckless for the park to open up and advertise a trail of this nature... and that was before I had even read about the growing list of falls from this trail. Although, with some perspective, I now realize it's not the parks responsibility and I appreciate the fact that they aren't trying to control peoples sense of adventure and choice. Again, it comes down to personal limits and how to recognize your own. I was having serious doubts at this point, but I knew no matter what I decided, I still had to make my way back to Peter to explain the situation (if I went for it, it was going to take some time). I'm not sure at what point I committed myself to trying, but I think a part of me just couldn't let it go. I had to make the attempt at least. Discussing it with Peter, he decided he would start heading back down and wait for me at the bottom. I was now on my own. The only fool left in Zion.
So I headed back up to the top of the "plateau" and eventually started blazing some new tracks in the snow towards the ridge of Angels Landing. For anyone afraid of heights and not sure footed, I would not recommend this trail, but to be honest as I started working my way up the ridge I realized it wasn't as intimidating as it looked from the plateau. It was steep and exposed in some spots, but overall I felt confident and comfortable with the trail and chains.
I did have some concerns about how the journey back would be considering the steepness and snowy conditions, but nothing dramatic took place. Working my way up the ridge was tiring and the adrenalin must have been kicking in because my heart was racing and I was starting to feel a bit of stomach pain... not surprising as it must have been in a knot the whole time. Getting to the top made it all worth it though. By 4pm I was walking along the widened, snow covered top of Angels Landing until I reached the end of the path.
Alone, I literally fell to my knees in awe of the stunningly beautiful views surrounding me. It's hopeless to try and convey in words what it looked and felt like up there and, as usual, photos would never do it justice. I don't know if I arrived just at the right moment in time and space (the weather, the snow, the sun), but it was indescribably gorgeous. I understand why they chose to call it Angels Landing. There is a heavenly feel to it. It's as though you are standing on a high stage in the center of a divinely created masterpiece. In every direction you look the masterwork spreads out before you. I felt emotional and was even whimpering in a strange kind of submission to the overwhelming beauty. I was overcome by it and so very thankful for my life at that moment. I don't think I've ever experienced wanting to cry from witnessing something so beautiful before, but this place awakened it. I can only hope that one day I will get to experience something like that again, but even if I don't, I will always be grateful for my experience on Angels Landing.
Distance: Round trip is about 5 miles (8km).
Time: Took 5 hours with a lot of pauses for photos and back and forth hiking.
Trailhead Elevation: 4265 feet (1300m)
Elevation Gain: 1070 feet (326m)
Angels Landing elevation: 5990 feet (1826m).
Top of Angels Landing: 37º 16' 9" N; 112º 56' 52" W (NAD83/WGS84)