Cliffside chains at Angel’s Landing
Are you crazy? Hannah and I didn’t think so at the time. You see, when Molly, Robyn, and Will were preteens in 1992 we took them on a ranger-recommended family hike to Angel’s Landing. Naïve to be sure, Hannah and I continued the “family hike” even though for the final half mile we were all grasping on to heavy metal chains 1500 feet above the canyon floor. Angel’s Landing was named by a Methodist minister, Frederick Fisher, who said, Only an angel could land on it. Attempting to summit the lofty perch of Angel’s Landing, we were not candidates for parents-of-the year.
Years later, while Robyn was serving with the US Army in Afghanistan in 2006, Hannah and I took Molly and Will to Zion National Park again. When the discussion of hiking Angel’s Landing came up, I was in the “No way Jose” category. Molly and Will wanted no part of it either. Only Hannah wanted to go, but she wasn’t going to do it alone.
In 2010, Hannah and I returned to Zion National Park, hiked the two miles to where the chains begin, looked at them, and turned back. In the summer of 2012 Hannah had surgery for a fractured tibia. Just three months ago, when we were planning this hiking trip, she said that she just didn’t want to risk the good health of her leg hiking Angel’s Landing.
But as our late February trip to Zion drew closer, something was changing. Not in me, but in Hannah; she began to find the idea of hiking Angel’s Landing a little more appealing. I was fine with her hiking it. We each make our choices. I just didn’t have the “want to” to hike Angel’s Landing.
Preparing to hike on a Friday morning, we breakfast at Wildcat Willie’s with a free breakfast voucher as part of our stay at the fabulous Bumbleberry Inn here in Springdale, UT. Hannah’s blockbuster scrambled eggs between biscuits covered in gravy with bacon on the side and my three egg to-die-for omelet, western home fries, and sourdough toast put us in an upbeat mood to consider hiking Angel’s Landing.
At this point, the Universe is talking and I am beginning to listen. Five events started turning the tide for me to at least consider the assault of Angel’s Landing.
The trail to Observation Point
First, the day before we had hiked the Observation Point Trail (OPT) here in Zion; I felt good climbing the trail despite its harrowing drop offs. Our daughter Molly (and her hubby Tip) having hiked this very trail the week before we arrived thought that if she had down the OPT before they approached the mountain chains, she might have tried Angel’s Landing. If Molly considered doing it, maybe I should.
Hannah’s fractured tibia
Second, Hannah was 60/40 that she would climb, but needed to get to the point of the chains to decide. Nearly three years since her fractured tibia surgery, she felt healed and finally strong. With Hannah on board, I really didn’t want to be left behind. I was getting to 50/50.
Third, a guide book said this is not a hike if you are extremely afraid of heights. Well I’m just afraid of heights, not extremely so; so maybe I could climb it. Hundreds of people do this hike every day.
Fourth, I know this sounds shallow, but I saw an “Angel’s Landing” car decal and thought that would be really cool on my Hyundai Elantra back in Maine. How shallow can one be?
And fifth, what would a blog be, dear readers, if I just got to the start of the chains? I want some drama for the blog.
Hannah as the trail to Angel’s Landing begins
With showers, rain, and snow forecasted for the weekend, we set out on this 34F Friday for the Grotto trailhead on the Zion Park Scenic Drive. I, in my jeans, long sleeve tee shirt, and sweatshirt, and Hannah similarly bundled up take to the mountainside switchbacks.
Looking down on the trail to Angel’s Landing
With its 1500 feet of elevation gain, the Angel’s Landing Trail immediately grabs our attention with its steepness. Let the labored breathing begin. Within five minutes, I catch a hiking rhythm following Hannah; I am feeling the “want to” to climb the final half mile; but I have turned back before.
Entering Refrigerator Canyon
Hiking above the Virgin River Valley, we are on a red sandstone paved trail switching back and forth up the mountain. Hannah with her backpack of lunch and warm clothes and I with my fanny pack of lunch and gloves steadily climb with purpose and a growing commitment to hike to the perch of Angel’s Landing.
A mile into the hike the trail heads inland through Refrigerator Canyon on a sandy red rock trail with 20-30 other hopeful hikers. Soon we are climbing Walter’s Wiggles, an architectural masterpiece of switchbacks, that take us to the staging area for the final half mile assault. I’ve erased all doubts at the ridgeline and will give the first stretch of chains a shot.
The last half mile begins
Leaving Hannah’s backpack and my fanny pack plus our extra clothes under a pine tree, we waste no time in attacking the first set of chains on the west facing wall of the mountain. My strategy is to take any fear of heights out of the equation. How? I will never look to the right or later to the left down to the canyon floor below.
The chains before us
When I first grab the one-quarter inch metal chains, I grab with a death grip. I lean into the mountain and just focus on the sandstone one foot ahead of me. I am gripping tightly and the tension courses through my entire body. But my grip is not so tight that I feel unsteady with my grip. Hannah climbs ahead at a faster pace, but still in sight, which is reassuring.
With catlike movements, Hannah scales the trail to Angel’s Landing
There are chains for 60-70% of the half mile hike to the perch at Angel’s Landing. Behind us are a 12 year old Jocelyn and her mother Dixie. At the trailhead there is a sign that six people have died hiking this trail since 2004. I have heard these stories. That must mean 20,000 have made it. Doing the trail math boosts my confidence.
Looking back from where we’ve been
Over the first 200 yards of chain grabbing hand by hand, I swear to myself I will never do this again. I am tense and nervous, but…moving forward. With no thought of turning back now, we climb through rock slots on the wall and cling to chains on the mountainside. I never look to the canyon floor below. Never. When we reach a level area with no chains, I stay focused. I am not into conversation. We nod and proceed. My hands are shaking nervously as I snap a picture on my iPhone; but I am not so nervous that I feel frozen with fear.
There’s plenty of company on the trail
There are times where we rest waiting for others to pass; they have already been to the top and are now descending. There is no doubt that these chains could handle a 300 pound man. I don’t look upward to where Hannah is. I just look at the sandstone rocks before me and pull myself up by the chains.
The trail dips before one more ascent
With each pull of the chain, I gain more confidence. And then, before I realize it, there is just 100 yards more of careful rock walking to go. I do not relax nor lose my focus.
Atop Angel’s Landing looking west down the Virgin River Valley
And then Voila. There I am with twenty others on Angel’s Landing. Views up and down the Virgin River of 360 degrees are stunning. It’s an accomplishment that soothes and calms me.
After viewing this video, you’ll see why we have to return to Angel’s Landing.
Virgin River Valley from Angel’s Landing
I never felt fearful on the chains. I was charged, energized, nervous, gripping with grimness. But not afraid I might fall. There is a celebratory feel to the summit. The twelve year old appears nonchalant; her mother most pleased. Of the hundred plus hikes Hannah and I have done throughout the United States and Canada together, Hannah says this is her favorite, “the prize.”
Hannah on her way back down the trail
You might think well guys, you do have to go back. And we do, but it’s easier. I have conquered the initial fear. We can hold on to the chains and walk backwards down the sandstone cliffs when necessary. There is lightness to my grip and a growing confidence that this is a reasonable hike that thousands and thousands do each year.
Damn! We made it.
PS It snowed that night. Rain with thunder, and lightning overwhelms the area the next morning. We would not have been able to hike Angel’s Landing the next day. The universe unfolds in goodness and opened a door that we stepped through.