1,100 feet above the canyon floor isn’t the best place for a photo shoot.
Try telling that to Kat Mietchen.
Gripping a thick metal chain with everything I had, I was trying to lower myself down from a ledge. We were on the decent of Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park and to say I was a little nervous and incredibly overmatched would be an understatement. We had just hiked over 2.5 miles through a series of switchbacks that would drop a llama and I was pooped.
It probably didn’t help that my fitness level was a notch below “morbidly obese” and I was hungover. The 1,900 foot gain in elevation was a beast and the sheer drop offs on both sides made me question both my sanity and love of the outdoors.
But there I was. Feet struggling to find a hold, arms shaking on the chain and Kat asking me to look up and say, “Cheese!!”
Instead of being a good sport, I elected to snap back and snarl, “I’m just trying to get down.”
Famous last words. And I’ve been paying for those six little words for a very long time.
Little did I know as we made our way back to her husband’s truck that my then girlfriend/now wife, and two of my best friends endlessly mocked me as I limped down the mountain. Instead of celebrating a summit of one of America’s greatest hikes, I was the butt of a joke as Kat and Erin laughed hysterically at me.
It still hurts.
Fortunately, I have something called gumption and grit. I have forgiven but never forgotten their insults and determined the best way to forget this injustice is to climb to the top of Angel’s Landing with a stiff upper lip. Or at least with minimum amount of complaining.
My first shot at redemption fell short when Matt and our pal, Gwyn (Raskin New Friend of the Year 2011) Fisher turned back after reaching a patch of snow and ice. It was February of 2012 and we were about 100 yards from summiting Angel’s Landing. Gwyn and I were inching our way along a sheer rock face, pulling ourselves up when the footing became slick-as-snot. In my humble estimation, I had bravely gotten to Scout Lookout and attacked the last half-mile. I wanted nothing more than to get to the top of this God damn mountain but a simple glance from Gwyn said it all—we were turning around.
It wasn’t until last weekend that I had another shot at glory.
Erin and I hit the trail early on Saturday morning. The October sky was beautiful against the sheer, red rocks as we started up the trail. The Virgin River was full and the vegetation was lush as we started our ascent. The trail to the top is actually really well-maintained and we were flying up the hill. Even though I was huffing and puffing, I felt good. It was much better than the last two times I made the trip.
It took us about 90-minutes to get to the signature series of switchbacks—Walter’s Wiggles. It’s 23 of the most my-calves-are-protesting-like-a-mofo vertical climb with a payoff unlike anything in the park. Even though the views are stunning as you look throughout the canyon, it was crowded—really crowded. There was probably 200+ folks milling around and the trail to the top of Angel’s Landing had a queue like a Soviet market.
We caught our breath for a moment and started the last half mile. To get to the top, you have to inch along the side of the narrow trail with only the confidence of your legs and the chains drilled into the soft sandstone to help you along.
It quickly became a logjam.
The congestion at Scout Lookout was a fraction of the problem when you’re fighting for real estate a thousand feet in the air. While most hikers understood the gravitas of the situation, it was the rare couple of folks who fought for position that made my third attempt a nightmare.
After climbing through the mosh pit for approximately a third of the climb, we decided that we have had enough. Common sense and a desire to avoid being knocked off the mountain was enough and we made our way back down.
It’s curious that if you want to hike the Narrows from the top down, you need a permit. But if you want to play roller derby on Angel’s Landing all you need is a pair of flip-flops and no regard for other people’s safety. I was surprised that there wasn’t a single park ranger throughout the entire hike and bodies weren’t falling like lemmings the entire time.
With that said, the hike was remarkable. Even though I haven’t had my “return with honor” moment, this was by far the best attempt at Angel’s Landing to date. My knees buckled and swayed on the way down but the beers at Zion Brewery made everything worthwhile. And the fact that we safely made it back to have beers is the most important thing of all.
I doubt the stigma of “I’m just trying to get down” will ever fade but I’m happy we made another trip to Zion. It’s without a doubt my favorite National Park in Utah.