Home > Uncategorized > We’re all angels now

We’re all angels now

September 13/Day 58. Backpacker magazine calls Angels Landing one of the top ten hikes in North America. The story goes that back in the 1870s a Methodist minister saw the promontory and exclaimed that it was so inaccessible that only an angel could land there. In 1926, a trail was hewn from solid rock leading up the side canyon on Angels Landing’s left flank. It includes a series of 21 steeply ascending switchbacks that are affectionately known as Walter’s Wiggles, after their designer. At only five miles round trip, it’s a fairly short hike; most of the first two miles of the trail are paved with a rough slip-free surface.

View of initial ascent from Scotty's Lookout

At about the two mile mark the trail opens into a large sandy area called Scotty’s Lookout where most people, including me, stop to catch their breath and prepare themselves psychologically for what lies ahead. The views from Scotty’s Lookout are spectacular; about 50% of hikers choose to venture no further. Of the 50% who decide to attempt the last half mile, about 80% turn back within the first 10 minutes. The National Park Service claims that since 2004, six people have plunged to their deaths on the final section of the trail. The locals say the NPS is being optimistic and that several more have fallen. Everyone waiting at Scotty’s Lookout is acutely aware of these statistics.

Long way down

A bird’s eye view of the trail’s last half mile is shaped like a tennis racket, the handle being a narrow ridge with a 1200 foot drop off on one side and 1000 feet on the other. The racket’s business end represents the end of the trail, an area with sheer drop offs all around, that can comfortably accommodate about 40 people.

I decided months ago that Angels Landing would be at the top of my agenda in Zion. Just to be sure I’m up early, I set my alarm for 6:00 a.m., even though I know there’s no chance of my oversleeping and missing the first shuttle bus at 7:00 a.m. I want to be at the trailhead early for two reasons: first, there won’t be so many people (people descending from the last half-mile of Angels Landing and those ascending to it have to pass each other on the trail, doubling the danger of an accident; and second, storms are predicted for this afternoon and, as at Pike’s Peak, you don’t want to be the tallest object around when lightning get cranked up.

Is that chain really helpful there all by itself?

Before my alarm has a chance to ring I pack my Camelbak with the essentials: camera, extra lens, ipubrofen (for my foot), full water, trail mix and rain pancho. At 7:00 o’clock only four of us are waiting when the shuttle pulls up. When we stop at The Grotto, trailhead for Angels Landing, only two of us disembark, a muscular, tall young fellow with a blonde buzz haircut and me. The other two riders proceed to another stop. Tall Guy is off like a shot up the trail.  I break out my trekking poles; any weight I transfer to them is weight my feet don’t have to carry. The trail is quite steep and although I’m not pushing it, I’m sweating in the 60 degree temperature by the time I reach Scotty’s Lookout. Tall Guy is nowhere to be seen.

Scotty's Lookout, where people wait for courage

At Scotty’s Lookout, like most sane people, I stop for a bit of reflection. Here’s where the real test begins. I begin having thoughts like, “Well, if I die here—what better time and place than doing something I love?” or “What will I be thinking about for the several seconds on the way down to the rocks a 1000 feet below?” or “Should I keep my eyes open or closed as I freefall?” or “Should I try something quixotic like a series of somersaults on the way down?” or “Should I spread-eagle and see if I can maneuver like a skydiver?”

Final assault on the summit requires a scramble up this narrow neck

In the meantime, several other people show up, arriving on later shuttle busses, which are spaced at seven minute intervals. We begin joshing and making macabre wisecracks among ourselves. Some decide right away they’re going no further. Some couples split up, the woman, perhaps more grounded in reality, being the one to stay below.

As we’re carrying on, here comes Tall Guy, his eyes large as saucers. “No,” he admits, “I couldn’t do it. I got to the second chain and that was it.” Not a great confidence-builder for the rest of us.

Soon, though, in ones, twos and threes people break loose and begin the ascent. If I don’t make up my mind soon, the knife-edge trail will be crawling with people working their way back down.

Going up...or down?

Quite sure I’ll never come as far as Scotty’s Lookout again in my life, I make a decision that takes a full hour: go for it. I collapse my trekking poles and put them in my pack—they’ll be of no use from here on. I begin climbing. Twenty seconds later a couple, who had been wavering, follows. “We decided if you were going to do it, we were too,” they call up to me.

The initial ascent is almost a scramble, with footholds among the boulders irregularly spaced at one or two feet apart, steep as a ladder. In places the path smooths out somewhat with only a few obstructions, but hugs the cliff wall only three feet from disaster, moving relentlessly upward. In places there’s a heavy chain attached, not to the outer edge of the trail to keep you from falling over the precipice, but to the inner edge, like a handrail. Most of the time I find the chain is just a distraction. I want to grab it because it’s there, when I ought to be concentrating on where I should place my feet.

A group of Germans at the summit

As I make progress, the trail generally becomes steeper and narrower. In some places, footholds have been carved out of the solid slickrock. But once committed, I have no thought of turning back. I simply concentrate on my hands and feet and ignore the gulf between me and the rocks 1000 feet below. In one place I remember vividly, the trail becomes a bare flat rock several feet long and only three feet wide, the narrowest part of the trail. It has a chain stretched along it, but the dropoff on either side seems infinite. “Don’t look down,” I tell myself, “Concentrate on your next step.” Over the years that chain has been polished bright by the tight grip of countless sweaty palms.

Standing on top

The closer the goal, the steeper the trail becomes.

Finally, by sheer dogged determination, I’m within sight of the summit. Another 100 feet and I’m there. It is a moment of exultation. I feel invincible, alive! I can buy the T-shirt!

Of course I have to make it back down first, a challenge at least as intimidating as climbing up. But this is a moment to savor. I remain at the summit for two hours, enough time for a number of people to come and go. At one point I count 40 souls on board, all swapping cameras back and forth to make a record of their achievement.

View from the top

It’s hard to tear myself away, but storm clouds are developing on the horizon and the choice becomes automatic. I clamber back down, sometimes backwards so my hands can maintain a grip while my boots seek a foothold. It’s hard work. In half an hour or so, I look down and see Scotty’s Lookout, dubbed Quitter’s Corner by some insensitive wag. There are dozens of people there, waiting as I did for the right moment to advance or retreat.

Looking into the beyond

I break out the trekking poles and I begin the final portion of the descent on the steep two-mile paved trail. I use my trekking poles as brakes; somehow going down seems steeper than coming up. I’m exhausted but happy. And sure enough, just as I reach camp a heavy thunderstorm rolls overhead.

There are regular rumblings that Angels Landing should be closed down permanently because of the danger. Editorials to that effect show up in the LA Times, The Salt Lake City Deseret News and various interest groups. I, for one, am grateful the government has so far seen fit to allow each of us to take responsibility for our own safety at Angels Landing. I fear it won’t always be so.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Olivia
    September 15, 2011 at 4:34 pm

    Good for you Brian!

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