IS That the Question?
What do you do when a great summit and a great trail become too crowded for your tastes?
April 1, 1997--
My first real hike in Zion-- Emerald Pools the day before didn't really count, though it was a pretty hike and produced what to date is still one of my favorite pictures.
My three brothers and I were at the end of a two-week trip that had taken us from Death Valley across Nevada and through much of southern Utah, including a detour to the Toroweap area of the Grand Canyon. Matt wasn't interested in getting up early. I can't remember what Mike did, but he didn't go up Angels Landing. Chris and I were interested in Angels Landing because the trail sounded fun and the formation was so striking, so we got up early, drove to the trailhead (this was before the implementation of the shuttle bus system for Zion Canyon), and hit the trail.
The scramble for the last half-mile did not live up to the impression of difficult terrain and terrifying exposure that trail descriptions had given, but it was steep and fun and the views were great. Of course, I refused even then to touch the chains set along the route to help people (avoiding the chains actually makes the route more interesting and challenging in a few places). What I remember most, after the unforgettable sight of the Great White Throne seemingly right in my face, is the brave, fat, and hungry chipmunks. Irresponsibly (I am strongly against people feeding animals in the wilderness), I held a piece of oatmeal cookie in my hand, not actually thinking a chipmunk would be bold enough to take it. I now have a picture of a chipmunk sitting on my leg and munching on that cookie. Lesson learned.
Anyway, although the trail traffic was a turnoff, I wasn't then as antisocial and wilderness-obsessed as I am now, so I made unofficial plans to return and do Angels Landing again, but on a nicer day. This first hike had been on a gray morning resulting from a cold front that had swept in the night before. The views were still great, but they weren't, due to the overcast skies, exactly the type that make you go crazy with the shutter release.
It was near the end of my first trip as a father. My wife and I had brought our son, then six months old, along for a little tour of Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, and Zion National Parks, plus a good dose of the Grand Staircase-Escalante and Paria Canyon areas. Overall, things went pretty well, and we went on several nice hikes and backcountry drives together, but by the end of the trip, I was in pretty bad need of a good hike or climb just to myself.
Since we were staying at the Zion Lodge, a dawn trip up Angels Landing was a no-brainer. To ensure solitude, as I was by this time just slightly less antisocial and wilderness-obsessed as I am now, I left well before the shuttle buses started, adding a worthwhile extra mile to the hiking. I got the summit to myself, as well as about half of the return hike, and enjoyed a clear, cool morning high above Zion Canyon.
Mission accomplished. No need for me ever to go back, at least not until my kids were ready for a try.
March 24, 2008--
Back! And without kids. It wasn't my plan to hike Angels Landing (come to think of it, neither were the kids, but that's another story).
My wife, almost five months pregnant at the time and never one to like exposure, surprised me by saying she was game for Angels Landing. We decided to go up in the late afternoon because it would be nice and warm and the views would be about as good as they get then.
Hiking Angels Landing on a busy day can be frustrating for many people, but it is also instructive and ranges from amusing to shocking. The route climbs about 1500' over 2.5 miles, and the first mile is mostly flat. The final half-mile is a steep scramble, and the Park Service has (regrettably) installed chains to aid climbers. Trail descriptions make it very clear that this is a day hike that is serious and can be dangerous, but that does not deter people from hiking in sandals (and I do not mean hiking sandals with Vibram soles). It does not deter them from hiking in restrictive, heat-trapping clothes. It does not deter them from hiking without water.
You might wonder how it is that hikers sometimes have to be evacuated from popular, well-published day-use trails because of things like heat exhaustion and dehydration. A trip up something like Angels Landing explains just how.
Angels Landing is also an interesting place for illustrating one of the main differences between those who seek the summits, accepting the adventure and risk that it entails, and those who are perfectly happy sticking with the trails: reaction to exposure. It seems that many people, maybe even a majority, never complete the climb and just stop where the trail ends at Scout Lookout. And the issue is the exposure.
Where one sees needless risk, another sees fun. When I got back to Scout Lookout, where my wife sat it out after "freezing" shortly after the start of the scramble, I met a lady whose husband had just started the scramble with some of their kids. She was worried sick and asked me if the climb was hard. I told her, honestly, that I thought it was easy and that there was little to worry about. I hastened to add that I was used to worse and that my perception was therefore relative instead of absolute, but it didn't matter. She thought I was reckless or crazy or both and just couldn't let go of that fear for her family. I assured her that her husband was being careful and making sure the kids used the chains (he was), but it made no impression. There was nothing I could say that would ever make her see it my way, and there was no way I was ever going to be able to see it her way.
This is not to make light of the route; it does have the kind of exposure that can cause serious injury or death. It's just interesting to see how two different people can see it so differently.
That lady, by the way, apparently did think I was nuts. She saw me hopping down the final stretch of rocks and said to my wife (not knowing she was my wife), "You should see this crazy person not using the chains."
My wife's response: "That's probably my husband."
Back to That Question
Climb it or not?
It's a classic Zion hike. If you've never done it before, the answer is easy: Do it. Try to go early or late in the day to avoid the crowds, but do it.
What if you've done it before but don't live near Zion? Is it worth doing again? For some people, it is. The views and the accessibility make it worth it. Myself, I like doing things I haven't done before, especially since vacation time is precious and one never knows when the next chance to visit will be.
But what if you live nearby? Tough call. But it seems that many who live close to the park like doing the climb again and again, in all sorts of weather. To them, it's a great trip that outweighs the negatives of the crowds and the chains (plus, the chains can be ignored, and the crowds are easier to avoid if you live closer and have more schedule flexibility).
And that makes sense. I think of places like Old Rag Mountain and Whiteoak Canyon in Shenandoah National Park, my closest mountain playground. Both can be extremely crowded, and one can run into lines along some of the scrambling sections on Old Rag. But park lovers such as me still go back. We go in the different seasons and at different times of day to experience the changing moods and faces of the mountains we love, and we find something new or exciting each time we go.
It must be like that all over. Some places are very popular for good reasons. It doesn't mean we have to stop loving them. It just means that those of us who feel a deep love for them will probably have to pursue that love just a little bit harder, or with a great deal of patience.
P.S. I'll be back, but probably not until my kids are ready or unless we move to the area, which might happen soon.
P.P.S. After writing this, I realized that the themes here are very similar to those in this trip report I wrote last year. I guess I'm not changing!