June 28, 2008

Zion: Angel's Landing

I've hiked a lot of trails that many people would consider crazy. From climbing Long's Peak in Colorado, to traversing a cliff in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park wearing a 50 pound backpack. There have even been a few times on a trail when I seriously questioned my judgement (or lack thereof). While Zion's Angel's Landing trail doesn't necessarily top my list of "crazy" hikes it certainly deserves a placement near the top.

I had originally planned to do the hike as sort of a celebration for the exciting news I got earlier in the day. Unfortunately due to Sonja's sore knee she couldn't go along. So, in order to make for a safer hike everyone wanted me to do it in the company of one of Zion's interpretive rangers, who was doing a guided hike up to Scout's Lookout at the top of the Walter's Wiggles section of the trail, rather than go it alone. But after speaking with the ranger prior to her hike, she suggested that if I wanted to make it to the top I should probably just do it on my own anyway. It was already 6pm and sunset was in three hours, so if I was gonna go, I had to just do it. I figured there'd be plenty of people on the trail with me if something did go wrong, so I went for it.

This was my destination, the top of that large sandstone "fin" in the center of the picture. The trail begins right about where I'm standing and proceeds along the left base of the cliff until it cuts sharply uphill, then scales the left side of Angel's Landing.

This was the lower half of the uphill section, looking down from near the base of Walter's Wiggles, one of the more famous sets of switchbacks in the national park system.

Now, I had mentally prepared myself for one helluva strenuous hike. I mean, I'd seen pictures of the wiggles and heard stories of it taking almost three hours to just get to the top of them. So when I reached this section I started climbing it with the belief that this was just the warm-up for the big push up the wiggles once I got to the top of these. I mean, it hadn't even been 45 minutes and I was already within two or three switchbacks of the top of this set. There just had to be more to go. Or so I thought.

Imagine my surprise when I climbed over the rise to see this in front of me. That's Angel's Landing, which meant that the section I had just powered through was "Walter's Wiggles". I seriously turned around in disbelief and asked a guy who was journaling nearby, "That was it?!?" He kind of looked at me weird and then nodded.

It actually wasn't until after my elation at discovering the "hard" part of the hike was over that I got a good look at what I still had to do.

Just looking at this picture it doesn't look so bad. I mean, there are steps carved into the rock and a handy chain to hold onto. Doesn't really look so bad. At least, not until you glance to either side of the trail...

This was the view directly to my left as I ascended the Landing. That ground you see above my hand is more than 1,600' below where I was crouching. And it wasn't a nice sloping descent to reach it either, but rather a sheer, vertical cliff straight down to the bottom. I didn't actually have the nerve to poke my head over the edge to look. It was hard enough to stretch my hand that close to the cliff. I wasn't about to actually lean out over it.

Now, it would be challenging enough to have to endure this view from one side of the trail. But no, on the hike up to Angel's Landing, you get it from both sides!

To really get what I'm talking about you'll need to click on the above picture to enlarge it. This is the section known as "the bridge". On the left, no more than 12 inches from my left foot, is a sheer drop of over 1,600'. On my right, no more than three feet from my right foot, is a sheer drop of over 800'. And directly in front of me the trail actually gets narrower by about a foot or two! Nice, eh?

The image is a little deceptive, since my grip on the chain doesn't really look all that desperate, but in order to click the shutter button on my camera I needed to use my right hand. Unfortunately, the chain was also on my right, and I wasn't about to stand there without holding onto something attached to the rock. So, I contorted myself to be able to capture the scene in two photographs without having to release my death grip on the chain.

Of course, it didn't really occur to me that it might be a little easier to just turn around and face the other direction. At least not until about five minutes ago as I was typing this.

This is looking back down towards the bridge section from about 2/3's of the way to the top. The entire time I was climbing, fighting vertigo and taking photographs to document the hike, I kept thinking about how much more difficult this was going to be on the way back down.

But the view that grew more impressive the higher I went kept spurring me forward and upward.

And I really mean upward. This was the last 50 yards of the trail to the top, and to take the picture I had to look practically straight up. This trail has been officially designated as non-technical (meaning it doesn't require ropes and harnesses), but I think that's being very generous. If they hadn't installed the chain there's no way it was pass muster. Not that it would prevent crazies from trying to scale it anyway.

And the requisite self-portrait from the summit, with the setting sun turning the cliffs of Zion Canyon brilliant shades of crimson and gold.

I had made it to the summit in a little more than an hour and a half. Not bad for an old, fat, out-of-shape park ranger, eh? While I was sad that I couldn't share the experience with Sonja (who was also sad she couldn't go along with me), I was relieved that she didn't try it. Attempting this hike without being 100% would be begging for a disaster. Besides, even at our best I would have been a nervous wreck, worrying about Sonja slipping on the rocks or not holding onto the chain tight enough. Next time we're in the Southwest we'll summit together, though.

I'm really glad I did it. The hike was pretty damn amazing.


kippur said...

Great pictures. Brings back good memories. We went in the morning so the colors were totally different. Way more red's and whites. It's neat to see it from that perspective.

T.R. said...

Ok, I'm back -- I had to throw up again. That's some vertigo inspiring post. Clearly I was pushed off a cliff in some past life and I can't even sit here at sea level and look at a picture of you and that damn chain. I did climb Long's Peak once -- for my 22nd birthday when I was a camp counselor in Estes. I paid for it the next day.

Karen said...

These pictures look familiar! I was similarly disappointed by the lack of physical challenge. That said, there were plenty of people who had no business being there panting behind me.

Nothing attracts foolishness quite like the National Parks System.

Anonymous said...

when me and my boyfriend climbed that (ages 20 and 18) we had no business being there i guess, but somehow we made it all the way to the top. of course, being the inexperience hikers, we had maybe 1/2 gallon of water for both of us. possibly the most strenuous thing i've ever done ><