If you’re a hiker and you live in America, you can’t really call yourself a hiker until you’ve done Angels Landing. It’s an icon in one of the world’s great national parks. Over a decade ago I gazed up and saw ants crawling around the top. Only, of course, they were people. I wanted to go, see if I could it. The bus tour I’d been on had given us 1 hour 20 minutes free time. It would take at least that just to get up there I reasoned.
For years it gnawed at me, along with the rest of the magnificence of the park. Towering cliff faces, a multitude of hikes, lots of slickrock (that’s a common term here for coloured layers of sandstone). When photographers who have been good die, this is where god will send them. But only if they’ve already been to Angels Landing.
My chance had come and I sat down to do the research. Quite recently it had claimed its sixth victim. There’s a poignant sign letting you know before you actually do the tricky bit.
I’d watched a few videos about the climb and it looked seriously scary. To be honest, I looked at the last section and knew I would be lucky to do it. Hanging on to a chain over vertiginous drops was getting to me and the videos didn’t help. I literally was scared just viewing the footage. I cringed while I saw people going up this razorback ridge that was seriously steep.
Another little voice kept nagging at me saying that, if you take it one step at a time, it might be possible.
Now, the day had arrived. I was up well before dawn and headed down through the unlit tunnel of the eastern entrance (it’s the scariest I’ve ever driven through, just under 2 kms long but seems more like 5) to one of the park’s two entry points. It was still dark and another car pulled up beside me. The driver’s name was Kurt and, with a couple of other guys, he owned three hotels in Springdale (nearest village), one in Salt Lake City and was in the act of building another at Bryce Canyon and then another at Salt Lake City. He had the aura of someone who was a go-getter and he filled me in with all the trails in Zion while we waited for the first bus at 7 a.m., because you can’t drive your car in there.
I had a flannelette shirt, jumper, wind jacket and beanie on and was still feeling the cold. Kurt had shorts, a thin full length top and not much else. Obviously he was more accustomed to winter than I was. The bus pulled up, already half full, and we motored on, arriving at stop 6 not that long after. We’d done two stops, no-one had gotten out, but now it was like we’d been warned of a terrorist attack and everyone was rushing for the exit. The sun was making a small effort to put some light into the canyon, kissing the tops of the highest peaks but not yet Angels.
I bid farewell to Kurt with the retainer, “See you on the way down”, and set out after a pause at The Grotto trailhead. Everyone has a toilet stop here. They warn you to do so with prominent signs and there was a queue by the time I rocked up. Eventually, deed done, I got under way and was soon last on the trail where it crosses the Virgin River. It was quite pleasant walking, slightly uphill but you hardly noticed that with the scenery taunting you. Then you start to climb up a number of switchbacks that leads you into Refrigerator Canyon, a narrow affair where the sun rarely shines and the wind glides down, but the trail levels out for a short while. It’s here that I see Kurt again – he’s on his way down already and he’s running flat out. No time to savour anything.
The next busload are starting to pass me but I can’t help but notice that some of them are puffing. It shows when we reach Walter’s Wiggles, a direction-changing (21 times) steep zig-zagging route that gains elevation quickly. I repass some of the others here while they’ve having a break, using the short step technique I figured out in Germany many years ago, confirmed when scientists analysed Cliffy Young’s shuffle after he’d won the Sydney-Melbourne ultra marathon all those years ago. It’s the best way to conserve energy and you just keep going without breaking into a sweat.
The upshot of the Wiggles is that you reach Scout’s Lookout. Most people opt for a break here, most don’t go any further. For it’s here that you can see the ridge, tempting you, flaunting its epic majesty if you dare. We that are paused query those coming back. None of them made it. Oh dear, more fear. Especially when one guy was wide-eyed like he’d had an epiphany and shook his head about a section without chains. Then someone arrives who has made it, we find that mildly reassuring.
I remove my jumper and head out. I fall in with a couple of black girls, Gabrielle and Sarah. As we pass and repass each other, I learn that they’re on a week’s holiday, shacking up with friends and relatives. I’ll move on from them but we’ll catch up later.
It’s odd how in places the wind howls around you and in other spots it’s perfectly calm and you never quite know when a gust is going to hit you.
The chains. Yes, the chains, the chains of Hogsback, for that is what this ridiculously steep ridge is called. Now I’m hanging onto them because it makes for easier walking and it’s strange. When you’re walking you don’t notice just how evil this trail is. It’s when you pause and look into the distance that doubt erupts all over again and makes you cling onto the chain just a little bit harder. The bits without chains aren’t bad except for one short bit of track where you aren’t too sure where to go but you’re positive where not to go! On and on, one step at a time.
You actually have to haul yourself up in a couple of spots, it’s so steep, but fear is on the ebb at the moment because I realise I’ve done one of the worst sections and only have another to go. Climbing, climbing and then, just before the summit, you’re on your own. The flat section is only about 15 metres away but there’s no help here. I garner up enough courage and take the final few steps. There’s no real feeling of ecstasy, just a huge onrush of awe at the overwhelming majesty of the place. For 360 degree views, this is hard to beat.
While I gingerly make my way to the end about 60 metres away, I can’t help but notice a youth sitting on the precipice, seemingly inviting doom. When I settle down to some refreshments, I spy Jack, a lovely young lad I’d seen a few times during the ascent. He insists on a fist pump, he’s so impressed that I made it. Apparently I’m a “dude”, because that’s what he calls me. It’s a real head swell moment and, looking around, it’s fairly obvious that those in my age bracket don’t feature heavily here. Jack’s from just north of San Francisco and he’s climbing with some friends. He knows the lad sitting on the edge and shrugs, saying “He’s a rock climber”. To each his own.
Everyone spends time here. It’s something to wallow in after nearly 1,500 feet of climbing. I’ll not see its like again in my lifetime. Cameras are out and clicking and Jack and I exchange shots before we pat each other on the back and part. There’s a wonderful camaraderie up here. People are in such a giving mood it’s almost worth the climb just to be a part of it.
I’m just about to descend when Sarah and Gabrielle arrive and sit down. I’m just reaffirming our friendship when Gabrielle lets out a terrified shriek. Sarah and I are almost immediately in tears. A tiny chipmunk had just scuttled past Gabrielle and she’s frightened of it. I explain how Lorraine and I were feeding them in Glacier a couple of years ago but Gabrielle says she thought it was going to bite her backside which brings forth more laughter from her audience.
It’s a lovely note to leave on and I do most of the chain descent backwards and it’s surprisingly quick and easy. The holdups come when later busloads arrive on the scene, one of the main reasons for me leaving early. The internet is full of stories about the crowds and having to wait at the chain sections.
I’ve travelled surprisingly well, only needed my small bottle of water but, going down the steep switchbacks does me in. My legs are found wanting. My mind wants to keep going but my legs are in total disagreement. I try and channel famous breakaway cyclist Jens Voight and say, “Shut up legs”, but it’s only a partial cure. Then, the bliss of Refrigerator Canyon with its relatively level section before more murderous switchbacks to return to the river crossing. I stop several times and am amazed no-one passes me except those running down. Perhaps I’m not the only one suffering.
The bus stop is such a blessed relief. I’ve made it in something just over 4 hours I think and it more than lived up to expectations. I’ll have some boasting rights when I get home but you have an odd feeling that somehow you’ve just bonded with a unique piece of nature.