“We wanted to go up Angel’s Landing, but we couldn’t make it.”
“I told my friends I would do Angel’s Landing with them, but I chickened out at the last minute!”
“Oh, Angel’s Landing? That is one harsh climb. We decided not to go.”
I kept hearing fellow hikers in Zion National Park uttering similar quotes all week. Their trepidations piqued my interest: as a backpacker I was always ready to tackle any formidable ascents. I was in southwestern Utah to explore the delights of wading through the Zion Narrows: a route that wends through the middle of the secretive Virgin River. It is one of the most unusual trails in the national parks, a waterlogged thruway that slices narrowing violet and rust colored slot canyon walls rising hundreds of feet on either side. Nevertheless, as I slogged waist deep in water treading slowly over the rocky and pebbled stream bed, I kept hearing passersby mention Angel’s Landing over and over again.
The wild waters of this tributary hurtle over a precarious bed of glassy rocks and pebbles waiting to trip the unwary traveler. The protracted effort of managing this uneven walk allowed me the pleasure of chatting for brief minutes with more dexterous waders who passed me by. One of them, a lanky man with his overalls tucked into duck boots, told me that the 1,488 foot (454 meters) ascent leading to the 5,785 foot (1763 meters) summit called Angel’s Landing was one of the most beautiful he had ever hiked. The route, he explained, carved its way from the same river bed we were traversing towards sandy terrain dotted with pine and yucca, ascended through a series of picturesque switchbacks known as “Walter’s Wiggles” before making a decisive push towards the vertical peak. Despite the comments I had heard about the tremendous difficulty of the course, I was eager to attempt it and believed I would easily prevail.
I started early next morning from a spot called the Grotto near the visitor’s center, armed with a knapsack full of snacks, a full water bottle, and the self-assurance that this experience would be easily conquered. The mounded rim of Angel’s Landing shone white and bright like a steeple against the pale light. A satin breeze floated several cotton ball clouds across the flushed sky and the Virgin River sang a soothing song as I skipped my way up the serpentine lane. The canyon walls deepened, the paved road began twisting faster, and before I knew it, I was racing past other hikers convinced that rumors about the strain of scaling Angel’s Landing were greatly exaggerated. Instead, this was a scene from the Snow White movie with butterflies accompanying my avenue, cactus and sagebrush waving me forward, and a whistling tune as soundtrack.
“Even a gnarly tarantula stopped in its tracks to let me pass.”
The 2.4 mile (3.9 kilometers) long course melted with every step.
At the Wiggles, I was still keen to forge on. The series of twenty quickly turning bends designed in 1926 by the national park’s first superintendent, Walter Ruesh, were only partially carpeted by wheezing footslogs. Though the way was steep, my breath was hale and my legs hearty. The dizzying switchbacks conquered, I arrived at Scout’s Lookout believing I had finished the course. I was wondering to myself what all the fuss was about when a trio of photographers kindly alerted me that I had not reached the end of my excursion. They pointed up and I saw the craggy hump of the solid rock mountain ahead. A mere half mile lay in front of me, but my road seemed to have ended at my feet. Onward I saw no markers, no ladders, and no pathway. Instead my three new acquaintances signaled to a spate of metal chains along a paper-thin fin jutting out from the cliff: this was my passage to the top.
It was a rock climb with no rope or harness; only intermittent iron link railings to use as aids. Either side of the slim and silky face was a precipitous drop whose terror increased the higher I went. Spying a flock of white-throated swifts swooping level with my eyes I grew dizzy. The canyon walls cast giant black shadows upon the jade ribbon river far below; sagebrush clung to the crags alongside me for dear life; every which way I looked the smooth vertical cascade of rocks plummeted. There was little room to maneuver and nowhere to sit, so I perched awkwardly against the trunk of a lone Juniper and shut my eyes to the giddying sight.
“I could understand now the remarks I had heard from previous explorers of Angel’s Landing.”
My acrophobia meant that the rest of the half-mile jog was going to be far more painful than plodding through the middle of the Virgin River. Yet, I was confident that I could manage to the end: I only had to keep focused on my feet rather than the majestic and paralyzing scene.
I scrambled on elbows and knees up a polished nodule. I heaved on the last railing to mount up to a sharp-edged protuberance. Then a tapered ledge required me to shuffle sideways with my stomach and face pressed against its sheer façade. Next, a returning hiker and I eyed each other warily over the six-inch wide ridge to see who would make the first move. There was no end of unnerving moments on my ascent, but I was vanquishing them one by one, a triumphant smile on my face. The peak seemed so near I could taste the feeling of planting my feet on it. I stood aside on a tiny platform of Navajo sandstone to rest and allow several sets of couples to descend.
“Am I almost there?” I asked them as they dropped down to my area.
“Almost,” one of them replied, smiling, “it’s only another fifteen minutes away.” Another fifteen minutes? I balked. They must be mistaken about the time, I thought, as I glanced up. There didn’t seem any more mountain left after this knoll.
“Don’t worry,” another encouraged me, “the view makes it totally worth this final tough part. You’ll soon be there!”
I wasn’t so sure. I let a handful of trekkers behind me pass as I debated what to do. My position upon the dais was secure and comfortable while the immediate slope looked leg-breaking. I didn’t think my psyche could endure another fifteen minutes of precipitous clambering.
“It would be a shame, however, if I turned back after having made it so far towards Angel’s Landing.”
I had to go on! Teeth clenched and with clammy palms I set off once more, hoisting myself upon the next set of protrusions.
Ten minutes later I was heaving like an over-worked buffalo on a never-ending slope. A man was impatiently waiting to overtake me uphill; another warrior was hoping to make her descent. I stepped towards the formation’s flaky edge to make room for them. As they vanished with catlike precision beyond the turns, I sat down to gloat over my accomplishment. I was on par with a solitary peregrine falcon who drew a patient circle in the air. I could no longer see the squirming river or cliff-rose dotted valley. Canyon walls eyed me sternly and the wind whistled that I was nearly there. I turned to see a father and his teenage daughter pause above me.
“You haven’t far to go…another ten minutes before the end,” the father coaxed me as we exchanged glances. Another ten minutes? I thought I had already traveled far in the previous ten minutes. How high up was this unreachable peak? I straightened and looked once again at the vertiginous array of stone which disappeared around a bend. I could only imagine there was a similar scene on the other side. I had been too Sisyphean in my triumph and now, minutes away from the pinnacle, I realized I was not going to finish. I was mentally exhausted, no longer able to silence the terror of ascending towards the heavens.
“My body was still willing, yet my heart and mind refused to budge.”
My nerves were pulling tight from head to toe, too intimidated to brace for the attack. The ultimate gradient was an insurmountable barrier, the final ten minutes stretching to infinity.
Downcast that I would not see the view from the crown of Angel’s Landing, but convinced that I could not venture farther, I began to muse on the danger of foreseeing imminent success in an endeavor. Thinking my goal was a ripe picking, I had been careless about preparing mentally for the journey. Overconfidence got the better of me after completing so many trails at various national parks. I believed Angel’s Landing would be as achievable as other successful undertakings. I was proven wrong. Many years of traveling have inured me to its unpredictable nature. If circumstances start off in my favor I tend to believe that I will end up victorious, but the beauty of travel is that it always surprises me. Angel’s Landing has taught me to never assume I’ve won until I cross the finish line. The last ten percent of the trail, the concluding days before returning home, or the end most elevation from the capstone are times when I need to push harder and be most alert.
I began my long descent back to the shuttle stop. I will probably never master the crest of Angel’s Landing, but I will be planning future climbs with a lot more humility. I won’t expect to succeed at all of them until I have reached the ultimate marker. When I reached Scout’s Lookout I met again the girl and her father who encouraged me. They asked me how I enjoyed the view at the tip and I was too embarrassed to reveal that I came close but didn’t make it. I would have to add myself to the list of people who were defeated by Zion’s onerous formation. I understood what it felt like to not finish a task I was convinced I would achieve. I was disappointed in myself and yearned for the next challenge. Angel’s Landing had humbled me; it had also made me more tenacious.
Zion National Park has many strenuous technical hikes and climbs, and every year a handful of fatalities occur on them. Therefore it is important to remember that safety is your personal responsibility. Trust your inner instinct and understand your physical limitations. Always stay on trail paths, observe posted warnings, and drink plenty of water. Never ignore park alerts which are posted daily on the website as well as in the visitor’s center.
Have you forged the Virgin River Narrows or visited Zion National Park? What has been the hardest climb or hike you have undertaken?