Zion National Park: A Brush with Fear on Angels Landing

After our time in Yosemite came to an end, we had our sights set on Zion National Park, one of the more known National Parks located in Utah, just a quick 14 hour jaunt from Yosemite. We packed up our tripods and cameras after watching one of the more surreal sunsets I've ever seen during the infamous 'Firefall' that occurs in Yosemite every year and started our next leg of the trip. With 14 hours ahead of us, we passed the time with editing photos and videos, talking about gear, and more. As night fell, we found ourselves in a Walmart parking lot; again. We had become accustomed to sleeping in the parking lots along the way, so this was nothing new. We awoke with a fire in our eyes to get to Zion, and so we did.

We decided against paying for camping in the Park itself, so we found a bit of BLM land outside of the boundaries and pitched our tents for the night. We cooked up a delicious dinner of rice and bean burritos; our staple of the trip thus far. The flurries of snow began to fall from the sky, but with nothing more than just a flurry, we weren't expecting any amount of real precipitation. Alas, we woke up with roughly 2-3" of dense, heavy, icy, wet, snow. It wasn't like the normal fluffy powder that you see out West, but more of a wet snowpack that stems from a warm front; reminiscent of the AT early on in North Carolina.

We had plans to attempt the hike known as Angels Landing; a strenuous, arduous, quite sketchy hike that leads it's travelers along an extremely narrow, cliffed out, panic inducing cliff face to the top of the Landing; a plateau if you will. When we awoke however; our thoughts immediately shifted towards believing that that we didn't stand a chance to get to the top of the Landing that day. Quite frankly, we bailed on the hike before we even got to into the Park. With that much ice and snow, there was no possible way it was an option, or so we thought. 

We began our drive into the Park along a highway that offers more than enough views for the average tourist, but as we approached the entrance to the park, I could tell that I was going to be blown away by what was within the Park. On the way in, I got a text message from a friend I met on the CDT who just so happens to be a wilderness guide near the area during his time off trail. He mentioned he would be in the park as well that day, and as the time came closer, I was enthralled at the idea of hanging out with Merlin again. The last time I had seen him was in Winter Park, Colorado back in late September during my attempt at a thru hike of the CDT.

How long ago that seems.

We split ways when I decided to bail on the remainder of the CDT and head North to tackle the Long Trail in Vermont. Merlin and I had become close friends, and our last couple days on trail together resulted in seeing Fleet Foxes at Red Rocks with my other good pal, Pokey, who I had met on the AT the year prior. 

With our eyes set on getting some awesome footage and photos, we parked our car at the visitor center, hopped on the first trail we saw and took a little walk. As the reds of the rock contrasted with the white snow falling and sticking to the rock, I snapped photo after photo. We even came upon a few deer who just so happened to be used to humans, resulting in a friendly encounter with a young buck.

Buck

Buck

He was curious to see what we would do, but showed no signs of aggression or apprehension towards us. I couldn't believe how beautiful Zion actually was. I had seen countless photos of the Park, but upon arriving and taking our first few steps along a trail, I was hooked into the Canyon Life. We filmed a little bit for Neemor's channel, as he was working on a video talking about synthetic jackets, continued to hike a bit, and eventually made our way back towards the Grotto when I got a call from Merlin saying that he was actually at the Grotto with a friend of his. A few minutes later we strolled up towards the Grotto anticipating a welcoming sight.

Merlin and I embraced a reunion, caught up briefly, and as our small talk wore down, we all looked at each other and decided that Angels Landing was a go. Sure there was still a little bit of snow, and ice, but what the hell, why not? The sun was beginning to warm not only the air and rock around us, but also the snow that lay on the trail, and the longer we waited, the more confident we felt. There's always a risk when inclement weather is introduced to the scenario, but as all of us had plenty of experience, we figured we'd be okay. 

Let me preface the next few paragraphs with the fact that although Angels Landing is a popular day hike, that doesn't take away from the fact that many people have been seriously injured or killed while hiking this trail. As I mentioned, it's an arduous, sketchy hike even in the summer, but with the added technical aspects due to the elements, it added a whole other level of focus needed. I was nervous to say the least.

Switchbacks

Switchbacks

The hike begins with relatively forgiving switchbacks that snake along the side of the rock face, buried deep within the side of the mountain. With a wide path, a relatively easy grade, and not many obstacles, plenty of people make it through the first mile or so of the hike, only to be turned away later on. However; as the switchbacks snake a long the mountainside, hikers are presented with sweeping, contrasty canyon views that nearly take your breath away. As your own breath becomes labored due to the elevation and incline, the gasping begins to protrude from the mouths of every day hiker around you. Folks stop to enjoy the view, rest their tired, weary lungs, and to continue to question their reasoning for attempting such a hike. The forgiving switchbacks eventually straighten out into a path that leads the hiker deeper into the canyon, filling each crack with a deep green hue that only a conifer tree can replicate. Although the trail presents the illusion of being done with switchbacks, it eventually takes a sharp right, leading you back up a steeper, less forgiving, switchbacked path from hell. Sure, during the summer, it's most likely quite easy getting to the treacherous part of the hike, but as our trail runners lacked any micros pikes or traction, I slipped on nearly every piece of snow or ice. A very, very reassuring foreshadowing of what was to come. 

Looking back into the Canyon

Looking back into the Canyon

The switchbacks quickly took us to the first plateau, which is the portion of the hike where the real danger presents itself with a side of anxiety. Not only do you get the first look at the approaching and impending anxiety attack that labels itself as a 'hike', but you also get to read the informative sign that presents the fact that multiple people have died since 2004 on the hike itself. In fact, my good buddy John recently was in Zion on the Angels Landing hike, and while he was there, someone indeed fell to their death approximately 1,800' down to the canyon floor. Not only did that happen, but John had to walk by the body on his way down. He told me this story not long before we decided on Zion for the hike. Needless to say, that was in the back of my mind the entire time we were hiking. 

As we took photos and watched a few people descend the narrow shelf laden with cables to assist the hikers, I pondered on my own abilities. Was I actually going to trust my footing, my hands, and my mind to keep me aware while trekking up the path? Of course I was. I had done quite a bit of scrambling and sketchy hiking on the CDT this past year, so I figured what the hell, why question my ability now? 

Looking ahead. If you look close you can see people making their way along the trail up towards the top.

Looking ahead. If you look close you can see people making their way along the trail up towards the top.

All five of us eventually made our way towards the cables and embraced the hike ahead. My first impression of the treacherous section, was that yes indeed, it was as panic inducing as I had imagined. Within the first few hundred feet, I questioned myself once again. I'm not sure what was inducing the anxiety more, the fact that there's a drop off on each side of the trail or the fact that we watched a girl slip under the cables as she was descending, only to grab them at the last second as she stood up on her own. If she hadn't grabbed said cables, she would have been another statistic. Happy that we didn't have to witness a grueling moment, we continued on, cautious with each step as the trail became covered with layers of snow and ice. As the cables appear and disappear on the ascent, so did my fear. At points, I was extremely confident in each step, making perfectly calculated steps to make the most of every minute on the trail. Fast forward to the following step, and my legs would be quivering as the cliff face stretched further out towards the edge. This was exactly how my mind worked the entire hike. I would be fine for a few minutes, then realize that if I happened to slip at a certain moment, that would be the last time my feet would be on solid ground. It was a grueling game my mind was playing, and it didn't make it any easier for me. 

Top of Angels Landing

Top of Angels Landing

Eventually, the blood pumping through my swollen veins subsided as we reached the end point of the hike. The destination was upon us as I stepped up on the last bit of rock. The view both in front of and behind us was incredible. With massive, expansive views of the canyon and the rock formations in front of my eyes, I was taken back. I couldn't believe that I had never been to Zion before. I couldn't believe that I had just hiked up one of the most infamous hikes in the U.S to get to this point. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. The snow flurries kicked up again, resulting in a show more beautiful than almost any I've ever seen. The rocks became consumed with clouds as another front rolled in and began to overtake any color in the park. We enjoyed the view for some time, talking about how grand of a place we were in and nothing more. Strictly taking in the view for what it was, enjoying every moment, and making damn sure to take plenty of photos. As the wind gusted and the cold breeze brushed against our faces, we decided that after filming a short video for my channel, we would head back down the way we came, hopefully with more confidence this time. 

Merlin getting the shot.

Merlin getting the shot.

We wrapped up the filming, and began our descent down. For some reason, I was much more comfortable descending than I was going up. For me, it was partially the ability to use my arms more on the descent, but also because we had just gone up this way. As the trail twisted down the mountain side, every so often I would look over the edge and get a sense of nausea in my stomach. As the nausea and anxiety passed, my confidence became heightened. At times I felt like I was more comfortable on this part of trail than any other. My steps felt solid, and my shoes seemed to be gripping perfectly. Without any major problems or incidents, we got back to the first plateau where I was originally questioning my sanity. All was well this time, and we casually made our way down the switchbacks. If you remember, I mentioned that these switchbacks were covered in ice and snow, and it was only fitting that we made use of these natural ice slides on our way down. Switchback after switchback we dropped to our bottoms, and slide down the declines, sliding into the rock walls, the gravel and more. The descent was clearly much more riveting and exciting than the ascent. Not only that, but much quicker as well. 

Zion Blog Photos-9.jpg

The last of the switchbacks disappeared into the canyon floor, and as we took our last few steps to the bottom, I still couldn't believe that we went up Angels Landing in the snow and ice. I still couldn't fully process some of the fear that spiraled through my body as we ascended. I'm not sure I've ever been that nervous, anxious, and excited all at the same time during a hike. Even Knapsack Col, which was definitely the most exposed and enthralling part of the CDT for me, didn't induce that much fear into my veins. Then again, at that point I had hiked about 1,100 miles resulting in a much more confident step and foot placement. But really, why was I as terrified as I was? I had never felt that way, so I was perplexed to say the least. 

Zion Blog Photos-10.jpg

Nonetheless, we ended our afternoon with a nice cup of coffee at the local diner in the town just outside of the park, something we all had been looking forward to following our hike. It was really a welcoming event to not only hang out with Merlin, but get to hike Angels Landing with him, as well as film a little interview for YouTube with him. It's funny how the trail brings people together outside of the physical trail itself. Our paths quite possibly would have never crossed had we not met on the CDT, or if they would have, we wouldn't have ever bothered to realize. 

I've come to appreciate the friendships I've been fortunate enough to make through long distance hiking more and more as time goes on and as I meet more people. The truly unbelievable amount of good hearted, driven, like minded people I've met is mind blowing. I wouldn't trade the relationships I've built through the trail for anything. 

As our coffee ran low and our hunger grew, we debated on where to head that night. We could either camp outside of the park on some BLM land with Merlin and Rachel or we could get a head start on our next stop; Arches National Park. As we always do, we opted to hang out for the night, so we jetted over to the grocery, picked up some beers and food, and found ourselves at the nearest plot of good car camping land right outside of town. Merlin and Rachel as well as some of their other wilderness guide buddies camp there some nights when they're not in the field, so we knew it was a good spot. We ended our evening with talks about adventures around the fire, well, actually it was a dying pocket rocket that hardly could boil our water, but you get the point. A good day was once again turning into night, and as sleep beckoned, we called it a night and crawled into the car.