You come up to a rock. Waist high.
The rock is as wide as your forearm. About as thick as a football, the color of dried blood. There is a step carved into the front of the rock, deep enough for you to get a foot into if you could figure out how to get your leg that high without slipping.
And slipping is everything on your mind. The sun is brilliant white gold in a searing blue sky dotted with clouds all the way between heaven and the ridge of mountains that thins to point on the horizon. But you can't look up. Look up and you'll be sucked into the sky. Can't look down to the road twelve-hundred feet down, just past your ankle you see it. On one side of your foot the tops of the mighty spruce like pinpricks on a canvas. On the other side of your foot are the tourists you cannot see looking up and wondering - is that a man I see up there?
The guy at Zion Canyon Mountaineering said: "We have hikes where you walk along a ledge and there's a sheer drop on either side of you, if you're into that sort of thing."
Do I seem to be into that sort of thing?
Focus upon the shoe you laced a few hours before. The toe covered in orange dust. Your feet on a stone wide enough to hold perhaps just one more shoe, but not two. Just past your toe is nothing till the ground. You are only five seconds to death, at most. It would take one step, six inches to the left or the right.
And it crosses your mind that nobody is born suicidal. There are no suicidal infants. We have to practice.
There is a wind that propels a bird, swooping high in the sky, through a whisp of white cloud. Below.
Falcon, they say. Peregrine, they say. This soft breeze that on earth would soothe you is a murderous nuisance up here. Here on this ridge I put myself onto. I stepped onto the slickrock no wider than two of my feet and I came to the stone with the step cut out, waist high.
I came to the sandstone in mid air and I heard myself say, "No." My knees shook. I was sure the geological formation upon which I was perched was swaying in the wind that held the falcon aloft. And that by the laws of physics had to be a perceived motion my mind manufactured. Which meant I was unstable.
Would I even realize I had stumbled?
I said, "No. No way," to myself, but loud enough for anyone to hear if they were passing by in a plane.
Then as if descending from God's own UFO came the guy from Santa Fe. He lept onto the rock in front of me, from somewhere I was afraid to look at for fear that turning my head would make me lose concentration on the few inches of brick red Navajo sandstone in front of me.
"Come on up. Plenty of room up here," he said. He smiled. Motioned with his hand as if waving me onto a bar stool. "I'm from Santa Fe. Where are ya from?"
I said, "Down there," hoping he could see me looking at the ground because I wasn't going to release my grip on the chain to point.
Then I looked in his eyes and I could breathe and realized I wasn't. Of course. This is easy. There's room. Grab the chain. There's a chain. Right there. Pull yourself up. Of course. Why hadn't I realized it before.
I put my shoe in the step.
I went up like I was taking the steps at home two at a time, and the blonde haired girl followed.
Angels Landing is one of the world's great hikes - perhaps the best short adventure hike in any US national park. It provides amazing views of Zion Canyon. Physically, this hike isn't that challenging. Virtually anyone in average physical condition can make the trek. But it is mentally challenging because the final leg is very steep, with sheer drop-offs. Chains have been bolted to the cliff to provide secure handholds. People seriously afraid of heights should not attempt the final leg, but can still have a very enjoyable hike up to Scout Lookout.
The blonde-haired girl pulled a white stone from her backpack. Said, "From the top."
"I don't remember you picking that up," I said. The breeze rustled our RV's awning. I had to grab the armrests of my lawn chair to stop from plunging down through the earth's crust. I still felt like we were up in the sky.
"You were ahead of me."
"I don't remember that," I said. "I just remember getting to the end of it and seeing open space on all sides of me and feeling like I was going to fall no matter what I did. Like that rock couldn't hold me up. I felt myself going off."
"But it was pretty safe and flat up there."
"It was not flat. There was a crown. It was like being on a stone beach ball. It sloped off to the edge in all directions. One false step and you'd slip off and fall twelve hundred feet."
"Yeah, but you weren't going to slip."
"Why do you say things like that? I stumble over cracks in the sidewalk and you laugh at me."
"Why are you arguing? You did it. It's over."
"Because I close my eyes and I still see it."
"Oh come on. It's just a hike."
"I've never been that scared. I've done lots of screwy stuff. This was...anything could have happened."
"It was just a hike."
"Then why am I still shaking?"
Angel’s Landing—if you have done your research, you know this hike is not for anyone with a fear of heights. You probably also know that it is one of the most unique and thrilling hiking trails in the national park service—the trail to the top takes you along the narrow spine of a geological fin, complete with chains to help you reach the summit of this highly exposed rock formation. The clincher for most hikers is the last half-mile to the top, where you must climb along the narrow ridge that has dizzying drop-offs on both sides—nearly a 1,200 foot drop on one side, and over 800 feet down on the other. When you reach the top, stunning valley views and canyon vistas spread out as far as the eye can see—a spectacular award for those who brave the climb.
The prior day we rode our bikes the length of the Zion National Park drive. We stopped at a couple trail heads. Walked up to The Narrows but it had rained and it was too cold and the water too high to wade in.
On a whim on the way back to our RV we stopped at Weeping Rock, and then saw the sign for Hidden Canyon. It was only a mile away. Let's do that.
That was our first experience with the chains and the realization that the Zion park people who measure their hikes feel that somehow going a mile straight up is the same thing as walking a mile in the park for exercise.
Let me explain the chains.
You hike uphill a thousand feet. You look down and see the Zion National Park shuttle buses cruising by below like a toy train set. Forget about the people looking like ants from so high. You can't see the people.
You keep walking because that's what you're there to do. If you stop, you'll be passed by people wearing bathing suits and flip flops. You'll be passed by pregnant women carrying infants in slings. You'll be passed by geriatrics recently escaped from the local LDS nursing home. You'll be passed by people so ill-equipped to hike a thousand feet up a mountain that you wonder why they didn't simply perish on the way to the driveway to pick up the newspaper.
So you keep going until the trail ends. When the trail ends it dissolves into space like an insult to the intelligence. You're rational. You couldn't have possibly expected to go farther. What were you thinking?
And for a moment you think you must have missed a turnoff somewhere, but you couldn't have, because on one side of the trail is a wall of rock, and the other side is the thin air and the force of gravity that would love to see how far you could dent in the roof of one of those shuttle buses.
So you ask yourself - what kind of idiot doesn't know how to continue? Clearly nobody passed you coming down - so there has to be more "up." But how?
And while you're standing there pondering the feasibility of antigravity someone with more mountaineering skills comes from behind you and says, "Excuse me."
"Sure," you say, stepping aside, wondering if you'll be complicit in the suicide about to occur.
And then he grabs onto a chain bolted to the rock mountainside that you hadn't noticed because walking on the near vertical rock is not something people do without special effects. Holding onto the chain, he puts a foot onto a ledge about half the width of a common adult tennis shoe and proceeds to lurch forward, step by step, hand over hand grasping the chain, strolling along the near vertical side of stone mountain as if this miniscule ledge was the sidewalk on Fifth avenue in front of Tiffany's. Somewhere in the distance, he reaches the end of the chain and jumps off the mountainside onto the continuation of the path that is invisible from where you're standing.
Then he walks away.
I say to the blonde-haired girl, "I guess there's a path over there."
"Looks like it," she says.
"How do you feel about this?" I say, hoping she's going to say we should turn around.
"Well, I'm pretty afraid of heights."
"We could turn around."
"We could just go grab an ice cream at the lodge. They have soft serve."
"I don't really like soft serve," she says. "But we don't have to go."
And then I watch myself grasp the chain as I saw the other guy do. I put my foot on the tiny ledge and step up, and look at me, I'm standing on the side of a mountain. And I take a couple tentative steps forward and look down, and see lots of space and the end of my life below.
Then I realize it's impossible to turn around.
So I stroll forward, hoping to reach some solid ground soon, because I know if I puke at this altitude the chunks of the taco bar beef I ate an hour ago will gain enough speed to kill the poor civilians below.
By the time I reach the end of the chain there's a trail below me again and I step onto it. Now I can see an entire family of four sitting there - father, mother, son and daughter, no more than six or seven years old.
"Isn't it beautiful," says the woman with a thick French accent.
"Sure is," I say, because I'm not sure I'm more impressed with the beauty or the terror coursing through me. And then, to put a point on it, "Wow. This really is living, isn't it?"
"Sure is," she says.
The blonde haired girl and I walk past them onto the trail to the Hidden Canyon, and I realize as we pass them that the reason they're sitting there so quietly is they're not at all convinced that successfully walking on the side of the mountain, holding onto a chain, wasn't just a once in a lifetime stroke of luck.
The Angels Landing Trail is one of the most famous and thrilling hikes in the national park system. Zion's pride and joy runs along a narrow rock fin with dizzying drop-offs on both sides. The trail culminates at a lofty perch, boasting magnificent views in every direction. Rarely is such an intimidating path so frequented by hikers. One would think that this narrow ridge with deep chasms on each of its flanks would allure only the most intrepid of hikers. Climbers scale its big wall; hikers pull themselves up by chains and sightseers stand in awe at its stunning nobility. The towering monolith is one of the most recognizable
landmarks in the Southwest.
April 10th was our third wedding anniversary. The blonde-haired girl likes to mark all special occasions with a hike. These are usually not so different from the forced marches the military imposes upon its soldiers in basic training. Today we're going to walk fifty-one miles uphill with 150 pound packs, just to give you an idea of what your typical day is going to be like.
She measures the goodness of a hike in hours. More hours, more goodness.
While I am not averse to the typical day hike, I feel I've put in my share of the miles on many continents, in all sorts of weather. I have lots of hiking credits in the great bank of walkers in the sky. I don't feel deprived if I miss a ten mile jaunt before lunch.
And then there is love, the cause of more death and destruction than any of the human motivations.
So we were on the Zion shuttle bus and the recorded voice gave a description of the Angel's Landing hike.
"You will marvel at the industriousness of the park staff to get this trail blazed over very challenging terrain."
"Maybe we should try that," I said on impulse.
The recording said, "The original Mormon settlers named the peak because they felt it was the ideal place for angels to make their landings."
"Well, that's kind of obvious," I said.
She said, "We could just take the cutoff to the Emerald Pool. That's flat."
"The trail is probably loaded with blue-haired people with walkers. We'll do the Angel's Landing. They say it's six hours."
"That's a good anniversary hike," she said.
We got off the bus at The Grotto and quickly walked past the junction where the road split between the trail to the Emerald Pools and high altitude hike. Two hours earlier neither of us had ever heard of the Angel's Landing or the half mile of chains and thin ledges one had to follow to get to it.
Hiker plunges from a trail in Zion Park
By Natalie Hale
Deseret Morning News
A Saint Louis man fell to his death Friday while descending the Angels Landing trail in Zion National Park.
Search and rescue crews found the body of Barry Goldstein, 53, shortly after he had fallen several hundred feet from the trail, said park spokesman David Eaker.
"The man was visiting the park and had family with him," said Eaker.
Mike Farley, an eyewitness to the accident, said Goldstein had been traveling with a large group that appeared to be a wedding party.
Farley and other adults were accompanying a church group of 14- and 15-year-old boys and were eating lunch at a nearby peak when they witnessed the accident.
"We were sitting there and couldn't believe what were were watching," said Farley. "It was a sheer dropoff. There were no second chances when he went off."
Farley and his group immediately dialed 911, describing witnessing the scene as "unbelievable. "
"They had left 10 minutes before us and were crossing narrow neck. The guy (Goldstein) had been standing near the edge ... the man who was next to him before he fell later told me that he (Goldstein) was goofing off near the edge and the ground crumbled as he stepped back," said Farley. "We could see him fall.... Just like that he was gone."
The trail was well marked and paved all the way to the top. It was wide enough for almost four people to walk comfortably abreast. Near the top was 21 switch backs called Walter's Wiggles. Climbing them is indeed akin to climbing any steep staircase in a high rise. After that we went onto flat sand and rock.
At nearly twelve-hundred feet above the canyon floor Scout's Lookout is impressive enough. Add to that the 4500 feet above sea level of the canyon itself, and you're now over a mile in the sky which sea-level dwellers can feel in the lungs. There's guard rail you can walk up to by climbing a slightly sloping, broad sheet of slick orange stone. You can achieve more than a little vertigo by climbing the rock and peering over the rail. The combination of the slope and the fact the slickrock ledge is actually an overhang gives you the feeling of being suspended in space.
Then there's a sign and a single track trail that seems to lead over the edge of a cliff.
The sign simply says that Angel's Landing is 0.5 miles ahead. Nothing else.
Looking down the trail it seems to fade onto a thin ridge of rock like the spine of a dinosaur. It seems impossible that one could climb that ridge without ropes and tackle. Yet, when you look closer, you can see the bright colors of various t-shirts and hats as indeed, there are humans ascending this very thin ledge.
Who are these people? Professionals?
"We don't have to go," the blonde-haired girl says.
"I'm not coming this far to turn back," I say, not realizing the superb stupidity I have just committed myself to.
I follow the thin trail until it comes to some chains. I'm familiar now with these chains. They're to let you walk on a ledge no more than an inch wide.
I grab the chain and step out onto the inch of stone ledge. I take a couple steps. A cool gust of air hits me in the face and suddenly there is no air and I'm gulping my breaths.
My knees shake. I step onto a tiny patch of loose sand, my toe slips a millimeter, and instinctively I look down and see my death, the end of everything I have ever worked for, no way home to bed tonight, no waking up tomorrow, my children crying at my grave side.
"Can I get around you?" comes a voice behind me.
I say, "Sure," because I can't figure out what else to say. How is anyone going to get around me? I'm hanging from a chain on the side of a rock wall that slants at nearly 75 degrees a mile up in the sky and someone wants to get around me.
And then I feel a presence, and an older gray haired man plants a ski pole on the rock face below my feet, apparently dangling in mid air a hundred feet above a cloud in the trees below, and simply walks around me without once touching the chain.
"Look at that guy," I hear the blonde haired girl say behind me.
"Yeah." Then I realize I'm not being pulled to my death. I step forward more confidently. Before I know it, I'm on a wide rock ledge with a nice shade tree sprouting from it. There are people sitting all around, staring at the thin line of rock ahead and the climb they face going forward.
"Do you want to stop here for a Clif Bar?" says the blonde-haired girl.
"No, but I wouldn't mind a couple Xanax," I say.
A woman who seems frozen to the rock says, "I have those if you want some. I'm waiting for them to kick in."
She starts fishing through her backpack.
"That's ok," I say, "I want to be fully conscious when I slip to my doom."
Nobody is laughing.
I say, "Who's idea was this, anyway?"
"Some crazy person," says a guy who's munching a sandwich under the tree. Beyond him I see hawks soaring, and probably the continent of Europe.
"Some crazy person like me," I say.
The blonde-haired girl says, "We don't have to go any farther."
I say, "You think I'm going to come this far and then know I turned around so close to the end?"
I walk forward. I grab the chain. I step out onto a rock surrounded by nothing but birds and gravity.
Woman falls to her death from Angels Landing in Zion National Park
by Kelly Burgess
Los Angeles Times
Another fatality has occurred on Angels Landing trail in Zion National Park, with a woman falling approximately 1,000 feet to her death Friday.
Pocatello, Idaho, resident Tammy Grunig, 50, was hiking the steep and narrow trail when she fell.
After receiving a 911 call from another hiker, park rangers closed the trail for a short time Friday while conducting a search operation, which concluded later that day with the recovery of Grunig's body.
Circumstances surrounding the incident are being investigated by the Washington County Sheriff's office and the National Park Service.
This is the second death on the trail this year. In August, 55-year-old Glendora resident Nancy Maltez died after falling about 1,000 feet from it.
Colleague Julie Sheer, who wrote the related posts linked below, concluded that perhaps more extreme warning signs and limiting access to permit-only hiking might prevent deaths such as the one that occurred this weekend. I wonder now if more serious thought will be given to such measures, or if it even should be.
After an hour my legs stop shaking. I've drained my 100oz camelback. Climbing near vertical staircases carved into the rock is something familiar.
The blonde-haired girl is singing behind me. Sometimes she hums. I concentrate on her singing, and keep looking at my feet and the rocks around me, and search for the next bit of chain, ignore the fact I'm climbing a mountain, pretend I'm on a ladder at home reaching for something in the attic.
"Sometimes I think they put the chains too far apart," someone says, when they see me looking around for the path.
"It's over the rock in front of you," says a woman. I climb up on the rock and see her. She's probably in her sixties. She's with a guy who's her equal in age. He's wearing a hat that says he plays golf at Pebble Beach.
I find the chain and marvel that these two aren't bothering to hold the chains on their way down.
"How is it up there?" I ask.
"Great," the guy says.
"Is the trail much more difficult than this?"
He passes in front of me and cautions me not to step backward.
No I will not die today. I will not move.
"If we can do it, you can do it," he says.
The woman says to the blonde-haired girl as she passes, "We're celebrating our anniversary. We did this fifteen years ago."
"It's our anniversary, too," says the blonde-haired girl. "But it's our first time up here."
"Congratulations," they say. They want to shake my hand, but I won't let go of the chain with my right hand so the guy just says, "Have a safe hike. Remember, when you get to the top, you're only half way there."
I want to say, "holy shit," because my mind is now reeling on the possibility I don't have enough energy to get back, but instead I say, "Yep. That's right."
From Zion's website:
Q. How many fatalities from "falling" have occurred in Zion National Park?
A. Below is a list of fatalities from "falling" in Zion National Park, dating back to the parks establishment. The info below is incomplete. The below list includes only incidents where suspicious activity was not involved.
Angels Landing 5
Cathedral Mountain 1
Emerald Pools 7
Lady Mountain 2+
Mt. Kinesava 1
Mt. of the Sun 1
Observation Point 2
East Rim Trail 1
Checkerboard Mesa 1
Crazy Quilt Mesa 1
Deer Trap Mountain 1
Hidden Canyon 2
Canyon Overlook 2
Far as I can tell this list has not changed since 2007. Signs at the park say that 6 people have been killed falling from Angel's Landing since 2004.
I reach the end of the chains and think I'm at the top. A woman is standing casually talking to a younger man, perhaps her son.
"I don't want you so close to the edge," she says, but then again, she's pretty close to the edge. He says so. "Don't get smart with me."
"Wow, this is it?" I say.
"No. It's that way, but it's flat," she says.
More. I can't believe it. I've been climbing for nearly an hour since I reached Scout's Lookout, literally dangling over open space most of the time, and now it feels like I'm sitting on top of a roughened bowling ball there's still the prospect of edging closer to where the curve of the rock will no longer provide enough friction to hold me up.
The blonde-haired girl comes up to me and I realize I haven't been worrying about her.
I realize I don't worry about her because she's a mountain goat. She climbs trees in our back yard twice the height of our house. She dangles from the end of the roof that hangs 20ft over the hillside to clean the gutters.
Once, she hung out the back of a C-131, suspended by a bungee cable, taking pictures while it circled the U.S. South Pole Station.
Who is leading whom?
She says, "We should go get a picture at the end."
"I think I like it here," I say. This is enough of a top for me.
"You don't have to go any farther," she says, and starts humming and making her way toward the edge. I follow her as we step over some tree roots: yes, there is a shade tree living on this rock, and then in front of us is a rock structure at least 6' tall and equally as wide that we have to scoot around as its base extends nearly to the edge of this plateau.
And then we are at the end. There are six other people there. They're sitting around taking pictures. Some are standing near the edge.
"Don't step backward," everyone says as they hand everyone else their camera to get their photo.
"Congratulations," says a guy with a German accent. Then, "Can you..." He holds out a camera. I take a shot of him and his companion.
I pull out my iPhone and hand it to him. The blonde haired girl comes up beside me for the shot, but I can't square myself to the camera because I'm too close to the edge.
He takes the shot. Says, "Wait...another..." takes it again. Gingerly hands me back my iPhone.
A text message pops up with its characteristic "ding."
"Don't answer that," everyone says.
I sit on the rock for a moment. It feels like it's moving. My stomach turns over and a green bubble slides up my throat. The wind picks up. Have I ever been blown off my feet? Could it happen here?
"We have to get down from here," I say to my wife.
"It's ok," she says, "we can stay up here a while."
"I get it, now," I say, realizing what she's been doing all along, and how programmable I am. If only she could make me fearless as well as brave.
"Ok. Let's go," I say. And start down.
The trail from here is not for the squeamish or faint of heart as it crosses the top of a thin sandstone fin with high exposure on both sides. Many are content with the view from Scout Lookout and turn around here. For the adventurous, a guide rail with chains aids you across this narrow section for the final 0.25 mile. Wet or icy conditions make this section of the trail very dangerous. Proceed with care. Once upon Angels Landing, the canyon’s grandeur unfolds in every direction. The view stretches north to the Virgin River Narrows and south, downcanyon, as far as the eye can see.
Read more at Trails.com: Angels Landing | Springdale Utah Hikes | Trails.com http://www.trails.com/tcatalog_trail.aspx?trailId=HGS400-043#ixzz2QUgCtZJb
Angels Landing (aka Angel's Landing or Angels' Landing), located in Zion National Park in Southwestern Utah, is a spectacular rock fin that offers arguably the finest hike in the park and a number of big wall routes as well. The summit offers impressive views of Zion Canyon and is a must climb for many visitors to Zion National Park.
The easiest and most popular way up top is the 2.5 mile class 3 Angels Landing Trail that leaves the Grotto Picnic Area shuttle stop (4298') on the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. The first 2 miles are up the mostly paved West Rim Trail including many switchbacks (hiking down this trail gives you the impression that some trails do indeed impact the environment much more than rock climbing bolts, pitons, etc.). This takes you to Scout Lookout (5350') where you can see the last 0.5 miles up the Angels Landing Trail, along the Northwest Rib. This is a class 3 trail comprised of a hiking trail improved with chains for better handholds. The exposure in some areas is over 1000' feet making a fall fatal (very rare). You'll want to get up here first thing in the morning for any solitude since the summit is small and the visitors are legion.
Some days later I learn the name of the waist high rock I encountered on my trek along the dinosaurs's spine. Someone called it The Step of Faith.
When I crossed it on the way down it didn't seem so imposing. I stepped down, and then on a slightly wider area came upon some hikers climbing up. I was able to move aside to let them pass. Their hands were shaking on the chains.
By that time I was so tired of being afraid, nothing on me shook any more.
There was a family of hikers heading up. The mother was bringing up the rear. As she passed me I could hear her chanting a sort of climbing mantra.
"We are alive, living the life of the being." Then directly to me, "This is living!"
"Amen, sister," I said.
"We are riding the dragon now. We nearly have him tamed."
I nodded, but when I was on the ground I realized she was wrong.
The truth of life, and perhaps all the mystery and beauty lies in that we never have him tamed.