February 21, 2011
It all started when Bryan and I drove to Salt Lake City having planned some climbs nearby, only to get skunked by an atrocious weather front and more fresh powder than we had bargained for. It was predicted that there would be a blizzard every day, for the next 5 days. We were supposed to meet up with fellow SP member Eric Willhite for the climbs but that was not going to happen now. Eric later told me that only 3 or 4 days a year in Utah are too nasty for climbing and they just happened to be when we were there. So we made the decision to drive down to southern California for a better chance on some 10,000 foot peaks. I was looking at the map and I noticed Zion National Park was right next to the driving route we would be taking. Zion was one of the last great destinations of Utah I hadn't yet visited so we agreed that we should break the drive in half and stop there.
I couldn't remember any details about what there was to do and see in Zion but something called Angels Landing stuck out in my mind. I remembered people talking about it over the years but had no recollection of what they had said about it. I sort of expected that we would park our car and then walk a short distance to some sort of overlook like at the Grand Canyon. I sure underestimated what we would find. We were excited at the trailhead to discover that there would be some actual mileage (5 miles round trip).
Figuring it would be a pretty tame hike, I didn't bother to put my boots on. I just wore trail runners and threw some food and water in a tiny pack. We crossed the river and hiked up some amazing switchbacks cut into the rock cliffs. Then we entered a canyon where we encountered the first snow. Some more switchbacks led up the back side on Angels Landing to the top of a ridge. There was a lot of compact snow on the trail and I had to concentrate on not slipping. It made me wish that I had brought micro-spikes. We came to a section where a heavy duty chain was bolted into the rock underneath the snow. We traversed along a steep snow slope with a terrifying drop off right below us. Without the chain, I wouldn't have done it. Then we reached the first high point on the ridge.
From there we could see the summit. Whoa! A knife edge ridge led out into the middle of the canyon with sheer cliff drop-offs on either side. Beyond the knife-edge, it looked like there was a slope that went straight up to the summit. It was totally covered with snow and looked extremely dangerous. We both agreed that we would not take such a risk. But then I saw two tiny specs coming down from the summit. We waited awhile for them to get to us, and asked what the route was like. They said it wasn't any worse than what we had already come through (not true). I decided to give it a try and Bryan followed. We followed another chain down to the narrow section. In one spot that was only a few feet wide, and precipitous on both sides, Bryan said "Dude, I don't need this kind of stress". He turned back and I totally respect that decision.
I went on without him, just wanting to see how far I could make it before my instincts told me that enough was enough. I knew that if I came to a spot that I felt I couldn't do safely, I would turn around too. But all the really bad spots had chains to hold onto. If my feet slipped out from under me, I could still hold on with my hands. It was a nerve-racking climb. I've never done Class 3 scrambling, snow covered, with so much exposure like that (the photos don't really capture it). I made it to the summit but didn't take a break because I wanted to get back down.
By the time I got back to Bryan my heart was pounding and my nerves were shot. It took me hours to calm down. The feeling reminded me of the time I had been sky diving. We agreed that this was it. No more scary climbs on this trip. On the way down we passed a lady who told us that every year someone falls to their death climbing Angels Landing. That night I checked Peakbagger and Summit Post to see who else had climbed Angels Landing in February. Out of the some odd 200 people, no one else had. It made me think that Bryan might have made the better choice.