Friday, September 19
“Nah, we’ll use the little string knapsack from Amazon, I don’t feel like spending $65 for a backpack with a water reservoir.” I say to Julie as we stand in an outfitter store in Springdale, having spent the last half hour or so going over the options in town.
Little did I know.
The sun beats down in Zion Canyon, the temperature having risen over ten degrees since our arrival into the mid 80’s.
The two us had planned on hiking the Narrows today, but a 30% chance of thunderstorms now in the forecast has changed the ranger’s prediction of flash flooding in the slot canyons from “Low” to “Probable”, so instead we’re going to hike Angel’s Landing, the other dayhike that Zion National Park is known for, and one I haven’t attempted yet.
Angel’s Landing is the tallest point of a narrow fin of land that juts out into Zion canyon, standing over 1,400 feet above the canyon floor and offering views of the Virgin River on three sides in an area known as Big Bend. The park shuttle drops you off along the river, and the hike is a 5.4 mile round trip out (and up) to that peak and back. The numbers vary depending on who you ask, but more people die hiking Angel’s Landing than any other hike in the park. So far, there have been no fatalities this year, in 2013 there were three.
What starts as a jaunt along the river quickly becomes an arduous climb. The trail is paved with areas where sand has washed over it, but it’s not rocky or uneven – there’s just so much UP. Julie and I take several short breaks along the switchbacks and I’m already regretting not having gotten a real bag and more water – we each have one water bottle. Lunch is a peanut butter sandwich eaten about a half hour in to the hike. While we eat a chipmunk watches us from the next switchback up, there will be a lot more of his kind higher up, begging hikers for food.
After a little more than a mile and a half the switchbacks lead into a slot canyon where voices echo off the canyon walls and the air is cooler and more damp from the bit of water still at the bottom. Here the sunlight only reaches the floor at the very middle of the day which has past, and sagebrush, juniper, and pinion pine give way to another kind of pine tree, it reminds me more of spruce or fir, but I’m not sure if that’s what it is. Water running down the canyon walls has carved holes and pillars out the sandstone. One particularly large one not far off the trail looks to be accessible with a short climb, but we’re not up for any more climbing that doesn’t get us closer to the peak right now.
As the slot canyon nears it’s end, the trail enters another series of switchbacks known as Walter’s Wiggles. It’s so tight and uniform that it reminds me of a brick staircase more than a typical switchback, but the paved trail is not carved into steps. Goodbye slot canyon, I’ll miss your shade.
After an interminable number of steps, the way flattens off into the first payoff view: the steep cliff we’re on drops off dramatically over the Virgin River facing upstream. All around peaks tower over the canyon below, bathed in warm afternoon light. A dark ribbon threads it’s way along the river and white lego-sized vehicles inch along it – the shuttle buses we rode in on reduced in size and scale to insignificance.
Many people assume (and hope) this is Angel’s Landing, but it’s not. We’ve caught up with the aptly named West Rim trail, a multi-day trail that follows the west rim of Zion Canyon. There are port a-potties up here, but no water and by now Julie and I are under a quarter of our water bottles remaining.
Angel’s Landing is still another half-mile away, along the most arduous and dangerous part of the trail. There is no paving here, but a narrow exposed ridge of rock with chains nailed into it to provide handholds. You spend as much time on four limbs as two, and keep a sharp eye on where you’re placing a foot or hand next because there is precious little room for error. Many people who make the climb up to the West Rim will turn around on this last section, it’s extremely difficult for those with a fear of heights since there are sharp drop-offs on both sides and the trail is very narrow.
But the view. The lack of trees and position of the fin give great views both up the canyon and down, although there are limited places where one can stop to pull out a camera and get a picture.
And finally, when your arms and legs are feeling like rubber and you’re running low on energy and panting for breath, the chain ends and you find yourself standing at the top.
Stunted pines cling to sheer stone, the top of Angel’s Landing is a long strip of land wide enough for two people to safely pass each other, but not a whole lot wider than that. Julie and I join the informal party of people gathered at the top who are celebrating a significant achievement.
There’s a special kind of camaraderie that forms between people who manage a feat like this. It doesn’t matter that we’re all strangers to each other and many of us don’t even speak the same language. We say “congratulations” to each other anyway, not in words so much as grins and nods, unified in our shared feelings of accomplishment and awe at the view. I’m not sure that any of us knew what we were getting into when we started at the bottom hours ago.
The hike is rated at “Strenuous”, but I feel like there should be a grade harder than that, because not only is it physically exhausting to climb 1,400+ feet in two and a half miles, but then you throw in the nerves from the the extreme height, narrows ledges, and precarious footing for the last half a mile and it puts a strain on a person unlike facing either challenge alone.
Alas, it’s getting late in the afternoon and we are now completely out of water.
While sometimes hiking back down can be harder than going up, that’s not the case here. The muscle in my legs are getting sore, but at least I’m not panting for air. A kind soul gives us some water from his extra bottle, which is very welcome. Back at the West Rim meet point, we munch on beef jerky and happily give out advice to others headed to the top – we’re now Angel’s Landing veterans.
Descending into the slot canyon, that water carved hole beckons. The light is running out, but it’s still very neat and worth the effort to get to. It turns out that it’s actually a pillar, the hole becomes narrow at the back and runs back behind the cliff face for about ten yards before opening up farther down the trail.
Back down at the river, a ranger is leading a talk with a group of visitors. I want to exclaim that we just came from the top, but that would be rude, so instead we slip past the group of people, secure in our accomplishment. We’re now back at the beginning of the trail head, five hours after starting.
It’s been a great day, and it makes me want to get out and try more truly challenging hikes. Next time though I’ll know better: bring more water.
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