Teetering on the edge of a slippery sandstone cliff, I wait patiently for the lady in front of me who was looking rather green in the gills. Her husband offers some friendly encouragement as she turns around and apologizes for being slow.
“No worries,” I say. “Take your time. I’m not in a rush.”
And why would I be? Zion Canyon looks especially picturesque this morning. Being able to look down on the canyon floor from such a precarious position was oddly peaceful. Everyone always tells you “don’t look down” when you’re up that high, 2 feet away from imminent death. I thought I might freak out, but really, it’s totally fine.
Or maybe not? My palms are a little sweaty. But I take a sip of water and continue along. It’s now my turn to grasp a heavy duty chain that’s bolted into the rock I’m leaning against, and hoist myself 5 feet vertically upward. Hope this chain holds.
Angel’s Landing is the most popular hike in Zion National Park, but it’s deadly. The signs tell you so. Though the hike is mostly paved, the last half mile has you traversing a nearly vertical narrow spine of a 1500 foot cliff, akin to a class 4-5 level climb (for you experts). Fully exposed on either side, precarious passageways and throngs of other hikers mean that one wrong move could send you plummeting. Getting cold feet beforehand is not uncommon. Clawing up at a snail’s pace is to be expected. And for a good reason. Since 2004, Angel’s Landing has claimed 6 lives.
After inhaling a proper Hampton Inn continental breakfast, I caught the first shuttle out of the visitor center and was on the trail by 8:30 AM. The morning light was already beaming through the canyon, and it was beginning to get warm. People were pouring out of the bus left and right.
Ah, the joys of traveling during shoulder season thinking it won’t be crowded!
I set off on the West Rim trail towards Angel’s Landing after one last quick glance at the warning sign. The beginning is flat, paved and semi-shaded so far. Love this! However, I immediately come across a quartet of baby boomers blabbering boisterously about the election. Not my idea of trail talk.
I say a quick “hello” and “excuse me” and dart out ahead.
But man, this trail is getting steep!
As I’m huffing and puffing trying to keep my distance, I happen upon a few more characters. A guy hiking in jeans with a serious-looking camera strapped to his chest is peacefully soaking up the views. A couple is disrobing their matching Patagonia jackets. A group of athletic-looking hikers speaking German is already heading back. An older gentleman wearing a Vietnam Veteran’s hat is plugging along. I nod hello to everyone in solidarity, doing my best to keep up. A paved trail doesn’t mean an easy one.
And then I see it. The infamous Walter’s Wiggles. Walter who?
Walter’s Wiggles is Zion Canyon’s cruel version of climbing the stairwell of a 23-story building and is the last hurdle before reaching Scout’s Lookout (i.e., place of reckoning). Climbing up 23-stories involves trudging up 21 short switchbacks.
Scout’s Lookout has magnificent views and is the turnaround point for many people. Here, I would need to decide if I would do the same. Continuing any further involves that treacherous half mile crawl over that death-defying sandstone cliff. Looking up, I see hikers dotting the nearly vertical spine like ants in a trail. Holy shit!
I start overhearing many hikers discussing it with their crew. Some are reassuring their reluctant friends that turning back isn’t an issue.
A father pleads for his adult daughter to stay: “It’s not you I’m worried about. It’s other people knocking into you.”
A few hikers who have already made it downhill are promptly called over and asked: “On a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being the most dangerous, what would you give it?” One young guy shudders, takes a deep breath, and reluctantly calls it an 8.
Well here goes nothing. I sidestep the interactive discussions and am on my way. Carefully crawling forward, I make sure and graze my palm against the safety chain which occasionally appears to help hikers navigate the cliff’s edges. So far so good.
While the chain may provide a false sense of security (experts proclaim), it’s better than having no chain at all!
But as I crawl further, several hikers are heading down.
“How is it? I say
“I bet it was amazing, but it just got too hairy!” one woman proclaims.
Another guy chimes in. “After awhile, I was like hellllll no…”
Not reassuring, but I shake off the uncertainty.
The path is not wide enough for downhill and uphill climbers to pass. After finding the safest-looking spot to wait, I end up camping out for at least 5 minutes while the group descends.
This situation continues over the entire half mile, but it’s totally okay. People are courteous, and some even cheer you on! One guy offers his hand to pull me up!
And then I’m there. A long, flat, white-ish plateau leads me to my final destination. The tip of Angel’s Landing!
WOW! WHAT A VIEW! 360 degrees of it!!!
A small group eating lunch claps for all the new arrivals. A 5-foot tall Chinese auntie wearing a bucket hat beams with pride as if I were one of her own. A crazy intellectual guy is reading The Stranger by Albert Camus while laying parallel to the cliff’s edge, 3 inches from doom. How strangely poetic.
Feeling an odd sense of accomplishment, I persuade someone to take a picture of me for “proof” (and Instagram, of course) and engage in all out war with a cheeky little chipmunk who wanted my trail mix.
And I can’t believe I’m seeing what I’m seeing. Zion Canyon is a freak of nature and being able to see it from Angel’s Landing is no joke.
As I prepare to descend, a lady asks me to take a picture. Today is her 50th birthday and climbing Angel’s Landing is #7 out of 50 new things that she plans to experience this year. What an awesome idea! She was beaming with pride and accomplishment, and her infectious enthusiasm inspired me to feel the same.
Oddly enough, going down was easier than going up. I thought it’d be the reverse due to my bad knee. But then again, I was on my butt most of the time!
After I returned to Scout’s Lookout safe and sound, I said to myself: “Angel’s Landing wasn’t that bad!”
It was a badge of honor. A bucket list item. Wonder. Fulfillment. Appreciation.
I happily descend the switchbacks feeling better than I had in awhile.
I was sure to sleep good that night.