I climbed Angels Landing once before, about 20 years ago. When I went out west last year, I felt compelled to complete it again. I don’t know if I wanted to prove that I still “had it,” that I could do a hike I had done nearly half a lifetime ago. Perhaps I wanted it as some exhibit that age is not crawling up on me.
I debarked the shuttle tram and started out. It was a cool morning, especially in the shade of the rocks. I had underestimated how cold it would be. I was underdressed by about one light layer for the first 20 minutes until my body warmed up.
This is not surprising. I am always excited to get underway and inevitably forget something major, like an extra layer of clothing, enough underwear, or toothpaste. I have the end in mind but always forget a few details.
The trail was pretty level, with a few few switchbacks, before I arrived at Walter’s Wiggles, a series of 21 tight and steep switchbacks.
I hike methodically. I crave elevation. My steps are small and moderately paced. I do not stop.
I made it to the top of the ridge relatively quickly. I was at Scout Lookout in about 45 minutes. The suggested duration of the hike is 4-5 hours and I thought I was ahead of schedule. I learned.
As soon as I started on the ascent, I remembered the difficulty of the climb and the reason for the long duration. There is only one way up in a number of places and it is not wide enough for more than one person. There were a lot of people on the trail that day, so there was a lot of time staying in place. Balancing in a particular place, on rocks that are not level, was sometimes more physically challenging than being in motion.
The rock face is sheer, dropping over 1400 feet. There are chains drilled into the rock to help provide a place to hold onto in some areas. In other areas, you are just climbing on rocks, placing your feet one at a time. The path is only about 12 feet wide in some places. It rises on a single rock shelf out into the middle of the canyon.
One of my favorite moments was on the way up. The sun had fully emerged and was bright. My body had warmed. I was holding onto a chain pulling myself up while also continuing to climb with my legs. My entire body was working at an extremely high intensity, in harmony with itself.
It took another hour to finish the climb and two more for the descent.
The next day was my last full day at the park. I was looking for a real challenge, something larger in terms of both elevation and duration. That was Observation Point. The 8-mile route has a suggested duration of four to six hours.
On the shuttle that morning, I sat next to a woman who had an 18-month old strapped tp her chest. I expressed my uncertainty at being able to finish. She said that she, her husband, and daughter had done it the previous day and assured me I’d be fine.
I set out. Switchbacks were early, up a rock face, then into the cool dark. The trail dipped into a canyon that featured curved and striated rocks, and even small pools of water.
I stopped and stood for a moment and heard nothing. The silence had a depth to it. I remained there for what seemed like a long time, squinting into the silence. A bird chirped, the sound ricocheting over the rocks, breaking the deep quiet. I set off again.
The trail then emerged from the rock outcrop and began a climb, back and forth, up a broad face. The land seemed to be in a checkerboard pattern. The sun was out now and hot. It seemed even hotter since there weren’t many people on the trail. This was less-traveled than the trail yesterday.
I tried listening to music to pass the time but kept hearing birds calling and took off my headphones. The birds were singing unfamiliar songs. I thought of them calling out to other birds, out of range for my ears.
There is at least one low point of every hike and I feel like this was it for me. Steps. Sunlight. Puffs of dirt with each footfall. This portion of the trail was out of sight of the rest of the canyon. It seemed to go on forever, like I was not making any progress. The trail twisted and wrapped around. It reminded me of the rocky, desolate landscapes of Star Wars.
I was roasting in the heat and was nearly about to turn around. The trail kept climbing slowly in a series of switchbacks. Finally, it wound around and I could see the canyon.
My goal was to get to an elevation higher than I had been the previous day. I was already considerably above that. I may have shouted in delight; I don’t remember. No one was around.
The sight made me feel buoyant because by the time the trail emerged on the canyon, I could see that I was at the highest elevation of the trail (and of most of the entire area). This was as high as I would need to climb. The rest of the way (about a mile? I’m not a great judge of distance) was flat and even had a little tree cover. This energized me for the rest of the hike.
The end of the trail was about 500 feet higher than where I had been the previous day. I had only sought to duplicate what I’d done earlier in life, but had ended up going far beyond what I thought was possible.