And A Little Child Shall Lead Him

The sign for the Angels Landing hike in Zion National Park wastes no time getting to the point. At the top it reads, Angels Landing. Immediately below: Since 2004, 6 people have died falling from the cliffs on this route. The enthusiasm tinged with fear that you arrived with to this point in the climb instantly gives way to dread tinged with too flimsy of hope in the presence of this stark news.

As arresting as that message is, it’s the “6” that holds you in its cobra’s stare. Not simply for the half dozen sudden and horrifying endings of which it speaks, but more so for the fact that the numeral is an affixed decal. The raw practicality and rank pessimism of this realization is spiritually flattening; it’s quick and dirty utility a personal affront of the direst sort. The mind briefly scrambles: maybe I don’t have enough water for this hike—I swear I feel a leg cramp coming on—I need hiking boots, not these sneakers—(I want my fucking Mommy). You can practically hear, standing there, the clock that ticks toward the witching hour when that decal next will be replaced. It is lost on you that that is actually your blood now pounding in your ears.

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Angels Landing is the most thrilling climb I’ve ever done—fear factor 10. It would have been so had I done the hike with friends, or Ann, or alone. The fact that I did the hike with Maisy when she was ten years old left me with a small case of PTSD that lingers to this day.

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Audacious, severe, nonsensical and sublime, by dint of signage and direct visual preview Angels Landing gives you every warning, and every chance to abort, well before you’re in too deep. Gazing from below on the access trail, you struggle to fathom where in fact the actual trail up the rock is. The rock is shaped like a blade tip pointing at the sky, or maybe the peaked back plate of a stegosaurus. Straining to see the trail, you suddenly realize there are ant-like creatures moving slowly upwards on the very edge of the rock blade itself; these of course are climbers. A glance through binoculars reveals that many are gripping a large linked chain strung along the trail, some with their feet planted on the rock, leaning almost perpendicularly away from the face, pulling themselves almost directly upwards before leveling off on the next ledge. What the fuck? you wonder, almost angry at the Park Service. How can that possibly be a trail available to all?

I was initially really excited for this climb. Somehow, when I’d visited Zion back in grad school, my friends and I had missed this option (though the climb we did do the one day we were here, The Narrows, up through a gorge with thousand foot walls and a river running through it, was wildly rewarding). My group on this visit was composed of four families, three with kids, ranging in age from Maisy’s ten up to Maggie’s 17. Most of the group had self-selected out of the hike in advance, fear of heights and word of what was involved being enough to back them out straight away.

Where my own family was concerned, Maisy, Ann and I were all fired up, while Claire had serious misgivings about taking this hike on. She also had no say in at least initially trying it out. The overall contour of the Angels Landing trail can be likened to one of those old time bicycles, with a massive front wheel and little wheel in back. After the first leg of Angels Landing (the small wheel), a short rise-and-fall section that still offers some sense for the much larger experience t0 come, Claire did not hesitate to let tears fly by way of asserting her desire to not go forward. Unfortunately this meant Ann had to guide Claire back across that rise, taking her out of the game for the rest of the hike.

I had a very direct conversation with Jesus myself at the end of that first section. In just passing through what amounted to kindergarten of this overall hike, we’d already had to scale some serious pitches and traverse trail that ran alongside cliffs the drop off from which was close to a thousand feet down. When we reached the end of that first section, and looked damn near straight up at the beast that now lay ahead, my heart was pounding from the fear that had dogged my every step being right behind Maisy. Performing a fairly technical climb with your attention 100% on the person in front of you is a funky deal. When that person is your pre-teen daughter, it’s downright harrowing. I felt compelled to scan maniacally ahead for her every handhold, for where she should place her foot, to be able to point out what dangerous feature she needed to avoid in her next move. That Maisy herself wasn’t giving any of it a second thought, that she seemed the picture of confidence in her ascent, was actually working against my comfort, suggesting as it did she was doing this blithely and without sufficient regard for the teeth of death gnashing away all around us. By the end of that first section, I’d seen and experienced enough, and told Maisy we simply could not go on (meaning I couldn’t do it).

So it wasn’t actually Jesus with whom I spoke, it was Maisy, of course. And she most decidedly had other ideas on the matter altogether. “Daddy, I can do this! Come on! I’ll be safe, I promise!  Daddy, please!”

There in the relative quiescence of that notch between small rise behind and massive one ahead, I couldn’t have been more torn about what to do. Maisy clearly had handled the first ascent well, with nary an instance of foot slippage, lost grip, or having to say “Oops!” (one oops would have doomed her, us, and this hike, let me tell you). It really all boiled down to my ability to withstand the marathon of fear I knew lay ahead of me. I protested, Maisy insisted this could be done…what’s a responsible father to do? Well, I didn’t do that, but grew a sack, established some ground rules for how we’d do this (including building in escape clauses), and off we went, bidding Ann and Claire a hopefully very temporary good-bye.

Had I known what was ahead for us, had I made my decision based on anything but complete ignorance for the trail ahead, would I have done this hike with Maisy? I doubt it. Any demanding hike that involves chain guided ascents and the skirting of cliffs is a hike wherein the tiniest of incidents can spell immediate and mortal disaster (and had here, six times obviously since ‘04). You step not on solid ground but a rock on the ledge that gives way; your mind wanders to what you’ll have for lunch and so you don’t get the grip on the chain you thought you were that was to allow you to swing around a tight corner; you pass over a rock bridgeway between 1500 foot drop offs, experience a helpless moment of vertigo, and right then a big western wind comes slamming through. In other words, the trail will handily challenge you itself, while your mind will bedevil the shit out of you with its catastrophic what-ifs at every turn. Yeah, I probably would have passed on all that.

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Thank God for Loje and Joel! This anagrammatic couple, members of our group, were climbing ahead of us on the trail. Maisy and I caught up to them in short order, but that’s the point: Loje and Joel were proceeding carefully and deliberately, as sane people would only do on this hike. Up to then, I was at the behest of my daughter’s pacing since it only made sense for her to lead if I was to keep an eye on her actions. And her pacing was driven by that bloody coltish enthusiasm I mentioned before that was privately driving me nuts. Loje and Joel represented a much appreciated governor to our progress, not to mention giving us an immediate and ongoing example of technique for every next maneuver. I could have kissed them (though, from behind, the target they offered would have made that indeed awkward).

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Much to the Park Service’s credit, Angels Landing, while demanding in its pitched ascent and downright heart stopping in the cliffs you must repeatedly skirt, is a ridiculously well engineered trail. As much as I described it as a technical climb, that’s not to say there are many moments that require death defying ingenuity or maneuvering of an expert sort. The razor’s edge trail you see from a distance is actually plenty wide for single file hiking along its course. And chains are strung at every dangerous point. You just need to have the balls to grab onto the thing and actually walk over and past the precipices they abut. I think this aerial view of the trail shows where I’m not being hyperbolic in my descriptions here. Yes, that tiny, pale etching along the upturned knife blade is the trail!

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Two points along the hike are worth highlighting—fear factor…11. One is that bridgepath I alluded to before, a hiking moment unlike anything I’d ever experienced. At one point along the way, well into the climb and toward the summit of the rock’s spine, you are confronted by a bridgepath of rock, three feet wide and no more than 8 or 10 yards in length, but situated between sheer drop offs on either side—1500 feet down, we’re talking. Chains run along both sides of this brief sprint, but they’re positioned low, about mid-calf, so it really does feel like you’re walking a tight rope when you pass over this stretch. There is no more thrilling and terrifying a moment on this hike, and being a one-lane bridge, as it were, it’s a short run that you of course must do by yourself. God in heaven, watching my ten-year-old cross over that pass. “YOU ARE THE SHITTIEST FATHER EVER!” blared from the billboard in my head (which of course changed to GREATEST once safely back down and off the trail).

The second point that just made you wonder about the ways of our species involved skirting a ledge around a corner that required you do so facing the rock, gripping the chain (that was itself embedded into a ridge into the rock, making its grip sketchy) and sidestepping your way around, all with your derriere hanging out over the same 1500 foot drop off behind you. It was as we made this maneuver that a big wind kicked up, convincing me God was NOT HAPPY with my decision making.

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Was it worth it? Can your destination, having passed through the “pinnacle of the shadow of death,” possibly warrant all the fear, dread, and strain required to get there? Oh my—YES! The trail ends at a broad flat top that offers 360 degree views of Refrigerator Canyon, including all the way down to Zion Village. You MADE IT, you are SAFE, it is BEAUTIFUL up here, and all is pure adrenaline fueled bliss, there at the top of the world of Zion.

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Short-lived, that, though, as you soon realize—you have to do it all over again going back down.

This proved its own horror film, what with all the same demanding features involved only your ten year old is now that much more confident in the process. One of them, Loje or Joel, had offered the brilliant advice along the way to always have at least three touch points to the rock—two hands and one foot, or two feet and a hand. I’m not kidding: I literally said, “Maisy, three touch points!” about every three seconds that entire trip back. To this day, when Maisy confronts one of the softly sinister moments of adolescence, I’ll say to her, “Maisy, three touch points!”

Loje and Joel served their same speed constraining function on the way back down, mercy be (I even remember Joel once having to say to Maisy, right behind him and breathing down his back during some multi-ledged drop, “Hey, Maisy, give some space, would you?”). By the time we passed over the initial short rise and rejoined our group waiting for us there at the top of the access trail, my body hummed from the physical effort just committed, but equally so for the infinite streams of emotions coursing through me.

Just the greatest hike…ever.

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I mentioned incurring a small case of PTSD, which I really did because of that hike. In the days that immediately followed, mind still blown from what we’d done, I’d revisit moments along the way, only my dark side would conjure alternative outcomes of the worst sort. I’d helplessly and literally shudder at each such thought. This went on for years.

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Why “Angels Landing”? Because flight alone was once thought the only way to get out to that point, thus it being the sole province of celestial beings.

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