I am not trying to minimize the tragedy of that day by my choice of title. The day was indeed a shitty one for us but that of course pales in comparison to the tragedy experienced by a family on that very same day. Our deepest condolences go out to them.
Many thanks to Trevor Long for the beautiful photos he emailed me & allowed me to post up.
Our late arrival in Vegas on Friday night was followed by a long wait at the rental car counter and finally a 3am bedtime in Motel 6 in St. George. We woke up equally late, ate breakfast and slowly made our way to the zoo that is the visitors’ center of Zion NP. Whole f..ing lot was full and so after unloading our pig & gear, I drove back to Springdale to park. Finally by 1:30pm we got off the shuttle bus, crossed the river and shortly found ourselves hiking along the base of the northeast face of Angels Landing. I started up the first pitch ladder at 2 pm – we figured no problem: short route that is (reportedly) mostly C1. I linked pitches 1 and 2 and dispatched the fun (C2-ish) pitch 3 (crux being a topstep onto an aider hanging from a talon hook to place a high yellow Alien…good gear below, no issues). Somewhere mid-pitch, the stitching on one of my aiders’ steps gave out and I almost took a fall. Too much aid this season? Our elementary school-level big wall regimen this year is to be blamed. We did one more pitch but as I was setting up to haul atop P4, Shirley suggested that perhaps we should fix P4 and bivy on the narrow ledge atop P3…given that it was 6pm and there was a decent if narrow ledge there, we set up camp for the night. With 4 or 5 more pitches for Sunday, we figured we had plenty of time to finish before our Monday morning flight home. We set up the ledge and enjoyed a decent dinner while entertained by “people watching” the tourists getting on and off the shuttle bus.
A somewhat uncomfortable night followed. First, my insomnia (I’m too long for the portalege) and the accompanying tossing and turning eventually tipped the ledge – we both had to wake up in the middle of the night to straighten things out. Then, as predawn hours approached, the temps dipped and we were actually both shivering in our (very) light bags…Zion in August, go figure.
When the sun came out, things finally became comfortable and we slept in late. By 8:20am, we were almost packed up. Shirley was at the left edge of the small ledge at the main DA anchors and I was closing up the pig hanging just below the ledge from the chains on the right side (kinda like in this shot from night before). We both heard a loud noise above and felt as though our hearts stopped. Time slowed down to a crawl…
Shirley later told me that I yelled “ROCK!” but I do not recall. Whatever the noise was, it instantly directed our gazes skywards. My eyes locked-on to an object clearing the rim 500-600 feet directly above me. HAULBAG! I thought to myself. I would later find out that Shirley was tracking a large rock that sailed left in her direction while not really noticing the larger “object” that had my undivided attention. She was trying to make herself small under the slight overhang/dihedral that marks the start of P4. Did I mention that time flowed like molasses? I felt frozen yet my memories of those seconds are crisp. I was hanging below the ledge with nowhere to go. All I could do was watch and so I did. A tiny fraction of a second later, my brain shifted gears to “BASE JUMPER!” I assume I made out limbs by that point. I followed the person with my gaze hoping I could shift my position at the last moment if needed. With a horrendous sound of rushing air, the person flew behind me and slightly to my right. Close. My eyes followed. I don’t know why. I wish I would have looked away. By the time they passed my position I knew that shit was not right. We were less than 300 feet above the ground. I have no clue about base jumping but it seemed improbable that things would turn out well. And then came the impact on the rock slab marking the top of the rock band at the base of the wall. The body ricocheted into the brush below the rock band. We saw a small object falling by us slowly. A small pack and jacket. We knew then it was not a base jumper. I saw small papers gently floating down as well. Without thinking I grabbed one as it floated past my face. It was a twenty dollar bill. I recall telling Shirley not to look down. But there was nothing to see. The brush below obstructed any evidence of the tragedy. I thought “suicide” – there was no scream, no struggle. Shirley did not see this and was asking whether I was sure it was a person. I was.
It was a rare moment – there was no shuttle bus below. In fact there was no one below. We were almost sure that it was a lone person who decided to kill themselves by taking an early shuttle & hiking to the top. We had to alert someone – there was no question about a rescue of course but still…how could you continue moving up IF you had a choice to come down easily? I jugged our fixed line on P4 and rapped down. I kept looking down to see if I had imagined it all. I couldn’t see anything…maybe I was wrong? Maybe I just imagined shit?!! I felt the bill in my shirt pocket. No – I saw what I saw. We had to get down. I was careless pulling the ropes on P4 & they got stuck. Time ticked by. Shuttle bus came and went with people ignoring our waving. We did not want to yell to give anyone the idea that it was us who were in distress. We thought we saw a hiker up on the rim and up-canyon looking in our direction. We tried to signal him. We had no idea if we were successful. Couple tourists at the bus stop waved back at us and then left. Silence. The ropes finally pulled and we started rapping down. As we were atop P2, a marked park ranger sedan arrived. We waved & tried to communicate with him. Couldn’t hear us but at least we knew that others knew something had happened. Two rangers were crossing the river as we rapped to the ground. I found the pack and some personal belongings hanging on a bush directly in line with our route. I put the twenty dollar bill in the pack. By this time one of the rangers arrived at the base of Prodigal Sun. He told us that it was reportedly a slip…a hiker, a woman had slipped on the trail above. She was hiking with her family. We packed our stuff. There was nothing else to do. Two St. George detectives met us on the hike out. A chopper arrived on scene above apparently to examine the cliff top. The recovery team was crossing the river as well. We left our statements and headed home.
About a week later we were elsewhere. That outing had been preplanned before. I was midway up pitch 1 when I heard a short scream from Shirley. Without thinking I yelled out “Duck Shirley!!!”, flattened myself against the rock and waited for the sound of rushing air and the horrible impact below. Nothing happened of course. I looked down only to see a startled black bear running away from Shirley (having apparently snuck up on her). Fu…ing idiot that I am. Prodigal was to be a dry run for something bigger. We felt like shit. I felt out of it. We got no further. We went home in defeat. It’s been three weeks. I don’t think about the accident all the time. It’s only in those moments before sleep comes that the memories resurface without fail. They push back sleep. Our free time is spent running and hiking. The most ambitious climb was the 5.easy route on Three Fingered Jack. Good time spent with the whole family.