Day 10: Zion: The hike to Angels Landing

The Altar of Sacrifice

I was up at daybreak in order to capture the first rays of sunlight as they tipple across the proclaimed ‘Altar of Sacrifice’- one of three Mesa peaks that proudly protect the entrance to the Mesozoic Canyonlands.
The ‘Altar of Sacrifice’ sits furthest right from the ‘West Temple’ and the ‘Sundial peaks’, taking its name from the blood coloured stains that appear to drip from a drenched flat, altar surface.

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The Three Patriarchs 

Continuing the bus-ride through the canyon, I reach the ‘Three Patriarchs’ trailhead. In truth, this can barely be labelled a trail, with no more than 50 steps to reach a vista overlooking the three giant peaks.
The peaks generate their name from three notable men of authority taken from the Bible- Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (left to right).

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The West Rim Trailhead to Angels Landing

At midday, after having lunch in Springdale, I head back on the bus and get off at the Grotto. Crossing the Virgin River I am greeted by the ‘West Rim Trailhead’. This marks the start of my expedition to Angels Landing- One of the National Geographic’s best and most dangerous treks in the world.
The trail is totally exposed and hugs the ascending cliff-line. This provides the most incredible views as you rise through the thicket of the canyon canopy. Having spent so much of my time in Zion hugging the floors, riverbeds and at the very pits of the canyons, this is the first time I can really gain an overall appreciation and the the volume of the valley. It is truly spectacular!
I’m sure that in the heat of the summer the trail can become very overwhelming. As such, the temperature is a tolerable 80° and having trekked to Eagle Peak in Yosemite, which was double the distance and treble the altitude and factor in that I was carrying a full luggage of camping gear, I find the first part of the trail relatively straightforward.
Perched 500 ft above the floor there are plenty of overlooking points that become heavily populated rest-stops. Slumped on some rocks, on one of the higher vistas sits an elderly native American looking woman. She is playing an Indian flute, which resonates across the canyon and lures the hikers below closer to the summit. Its pretty hard to describe how enchanting the calling from the flute sounds as it bounces between the canyon walls, spilling into the valleys below. Needless to say she has attracted a crowd that welcome the music, accompanied with a backdrop of one of the greatest views in the canyon.

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Walters Wiggles’

At about 800ft the route begins to shovel away from the panoramic overlooks into deeper, rising rock. This is the only section of the hike that forms some shade from the sun above.
The trail naturally carves through arches in the rock and drifts between different sedimentary layers, colours and textures. To contrast the various shades of red, various pigments of green tree jungles begin to take shape within the shaded confines of the canyon.

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A short trek through this lost world and we arrive at ‘Walters Wiggles’- a series of hairpin cutbacks that ‘wiggle’ all the way to the lookout. Again there is much similarity with this and the beginning stages of the Eagle Peak climb in Yosemite- except this time the rock is charred red; A harsh and sharp environment compared to the lush, Earthy greens of Yosemite- each spectacular and each uniquely beautiful.

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The Scout’s Lookout

Conquering the continuous sections of cutbacks and an hour and a half after I stepped off the bus, I have reached the Scout’s Lookout- the gateway to ‘Angels Landing.’
At 1100 ft above the valley floor, the lookout offers up panoramic views of both sides of the canyon, with only Angels Landing splitting the two.
The viewport to the South consists of the ‘Big Wall’ and Weeping Rock- the two cliff-faces that are popular climbs with mountaineers. It also reveals the openings to my conquered feat from the day before-  ‘The Narrows’. To the North,  the main bulkhead of the canyon peaks reveal themselves, sliced into two by the meandering river and green jungle territory.

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As well as serving as a stunning lookout, Scout’s Canyon also acts as a buffer-zone; A preparation and congregation area for those wanting to or have just scaled the ‘Angels Landing’ summit. It is as far as most people will come, with many backing out of the final trail to the ‘landing’ zone. There is a sign indicating the dangers of the hike- 6 people have died here since 2004.
The evident perils on display alert the evaluative and hesitative side of the conscious to kick in, while the elation on the ‘landing’ conquerors and cries of ‘it wasn’t that terrifying’ plays the more devious, adventurous part. As for me, there is no way I am not hiking it to the top- its been right at the top of my roadtrip as ‘things to do’. It is also especially hard for me to back down when I see a 10 year old girl completing her descent.
I sit on the rock for the best part of an hour, taking in both sides of the vista in equal measures. After consuming my lunch and replacing the energy lost hiking the West Rim Trail I head to the start of Angels Landing.

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Angels Landing

Sure enough the hike up the thin slab of sandstone is pretty intimidating. The biggest issue for me is the layer of top sand that sits on top of the sloping rocks. Considering I don’t really have the most adequate of shoes, (a pair of worn down nike football shoes) losing my grip on the soft sand layer is my main obstacle. Sure enough there are some moments where I slip and lose my footing and I am fortunate for the chains that aid the climb.
As long as you take your time and take things slow its really not overly difficult. There can be lots of traffic, meaning you should really wait your turn and don’t try to do anything to hurriedly or stupid.
As you reach the most narrow sector, a small sense of vertigo triggers voices of panic in the brain. This can make for a dizzy few moments. But again, I take my time and wait my turn to climb onto the next sector.
Finally at the top, the view that brought me to Zion. The entire unobstructed view across the entire Jurassic canyon . It is definitely one of the best views I’ve ever witnessed. Yes, the mountainous panorama across Yosemite valley was terrific- but this sandy, ancient, fossilized lost world is something truly unique.

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Most people take about a half hour to sit back in awe of the view. I take 2 hours, basking in the sun on the cliff edge at one of the greatest views I’ve seen. I stalk the stone slab to find the quietest crevice and then do absolutely nothing for about an hour, before taking out my camera to capture the view and strike various poses- By now, I’ve pretty much mastered the outstretched eagle pose, that seems to be ever more frequent in my photographs.

There is also a trend to build stone arches on the ‘landing’ zone. I take another half hour of extreme patience in adding my own arch to the small stone forests. Only when the sun begins to dip do I bring myself to part ways with this celestial marvel and make my way back down the slim cliff face.

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The Descent 

Descending the summit is much harder and stressful than the ascent. It’s far too easy to slip and with the added gravitational momentum it is not hard to see how some unfortunate people have tumbled to their deaths here. Again, this is largely as a result of my lack of appropriate foot wear. Also I think it is easy for the mind to switch off; After reaching the top your brain clicks into an unaware, delirious, ‘high’ state – This triggers a degree of complacency and a delusional sense of comfort with the surroundings.
I am quickly ushered back to the reality when my right foot slides uncontrollably on a rock plane; My clutch to the chains is the only thing preventing me slipping further down the worn surface.
Eventually I reach the safety of the Scout Lookout, back to a mere 1000ft above the floor! With ‘Angles landing’ conquered and a quick resupply of sustenance and I am ready once again to make my way back down the West Rim to the valley.

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Zion Reflection

2 hours later and I return to the bottom of the West Rim trail and observe my feat, which is now glowing its ambers in the setting sun.
Angels Landing is a truly phenomenal hike and I can take great pride in saying I have submitted the great rock. It is an absolute must do when visiting Zion, with only my incredible day in the Narrows topping this adventure. http://wp.me/p3Mm4F-5h

The park itself has been the highlight of my trip so far, just about edging ahead of Yosemite. This is purely because it is so foreign and alien to me. I’ve said it many times so far but it is literally like a scene from Jurassic Park; A lost, fossilized world that inherits true remnants from the beginnings of the Earth; It is a park that changes with the day, emitting every pigment of red, orange and yellow. Hidden slots, canyons, crevices, pot holes, cliff drops and river hikes are just some of the treasures that adventure addicts will find within the park grounds. Its is truly stunning!
Already I am planning my next trip to Zion. I want to be able to cayoneer and to rappel into the hidden cavelands that hide below the sandstone; Taking days to explore the slots and pathless cracks into rocky heartland; Eventually amalgamating into a hike in the ‘Subways’ and to visit the ionised pools deep underground.
But for now I can still absorb the final moments I have of in the present; I take in one more full loop of the canyon floor- stopping off at all the notable attractions- Weeping Rock, the White Throne, the Great Organ, the Three patriarchs and finally the Altar of Sacrifice. Then, with the sun at mid-evening stage, I detach myself from the canyon.
I want to be able to drive to Bryce with the remaining daylight. But before that its one final well earned visit to my favorite little Mexican restaurant in Springdale- my third in three days and practically my second campbase at Zion. Forget Angels Landing and the Narrows, the Burrito alone is worth coming back to Zion for!

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