Overcoming the “double-drop” of Angels Landing

As the hiking saying goes, “My eyes were in my feet.” But in this case, I would have to say that my eyes were in my feet AND my hands.

IMG_3200-1On the final section of my climb to the summit of Angels Landing in Utah’s Zion National Park, I opted to put my virtual ‘blinders’ on. My focus was squarely on my feet as they navigated the ever-steeper rock steps, and on my hands, as they slid along the chain support cables bordering much of the trail.

I knew that on both sides of the narrow path was a sheer drop. Yes, I knew it, but I chose to tune it out for much of the hike. It worked for me. I made it to the top, and, finally, I had a chance to take in the sweeping views.

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For once, I was glad that I hadn’t done my research before I set out. That sounds clueless, but let me explain: As I approached my first visit to Zion in October, it was The Narrows hike along the Virgin River that had my full attention. That was the “must” hike for me on this trip, and Angels Landing was a recommended side trip.

So, I ‘ll cop to not being exactly prepared for the strenuous hike up Angels Landing, although I did take the advice of a friend and bought climbing gloves before the trip. I knew there would be some chains; I just didn’t realize how many.

And as a regular hiker, I guess I didn’t believe that the five-mile round-trip hike could be all that difficult. I had done many longer and steeper hikes in the past, including rim-to-rim in the Grand Canyon, and Humphreys Pike, Arizona’s highest mountain.

IMG_3180But I soon realized that Angels Landing has some unique challenges that are unrelated to its mileage and grade. Namely – the “double drop.” For much of the last half-mile or so, the trail is a bit of tightrope. The chains become your best friend. Still, there are sections where the chains briefly end, and you’re on your own. It was at those points where the imaginary blinders came in handy for me!

Had I chosen to read the Tripadvisor reviews before I set out, I would have seen: “I chickened out this time, but I’ll be back to try again,” and “Wow! But know your limitations,” and “Very challenging walk, but beautiful scenery.”

I’m afraid if I had read the reviews, I would have doubted myself. I also didn’t stop for a break at Scout’s Overlook – the point that offers a somewhat terrifying view of the climbers inching up and down the last, steep half-mile. I did stop at the overlook on the way down and watched the ant-like hikers moving slowly along the chains. Let’s just say that I was relieved that the climb was behind me.

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Angels Landing from Scout’s Overlook

Don’t get me wrong; Angels Landing is an amazing hike. It is exhilarating in every way – from the never-ending views visible in the first mile or so, to the unbelievable engineering feat of the “Walter’s Wiggles” switchbacks, to the landing itself – a narrow reef of rugged red rock rising in the distance.

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IMG_3142There were a few drawbacks, though. First and foremost was the number of people on the trail. I realized as I joined the throngs heading up the trail that Angels Landing has become a “bucket list” climb for many people. Young and old, fit and unfit, men and women, and boys and girls – they all were determined to make it to the top.

Although the first mile or so is grueling, it was at Walter’s Wiggles – a series of short, steep switchbacks – where the hiking really got serious. After the hot, sunny first mile, I actually was relieved when we got to Walter’s Wiggles, because it was mostly in the shade, and the switchbacks gave you the feeling that you were really getting somewhere. Also, when you get to the top and look back, you have a wonderful view of the jagged route.

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Walter’s Wiggles from above

It did not really get to crunch time, though, until we arrived at the chained portion. Even before Scout’s Overlook, there was a traffic jam. We sat down on the rocks and waited for about 10 minutes before we could proceed.IMG_3166

Then, after the overlook, the crowds got even more intimidating. Because the narrow route allows for only one-way traffic, our upward-moving crowd had to wait numerous times for those heading down. It seemed that once you stopped, the downward train of people went on forever.

Eventually, though, the traffic thinned out, and we were able to proceed on to the top. Be warned: Along with the scary drops, there are also sections that are very steep, and you need the chains and bordering rocks to help hoist yourself upwards.

If I were ever to do Angel’s Landing again, I would do a few things differently. First of all, I would get an earlier start. We were on the trail at about noon on a Saturday in October – probably one of the busiest times. I think setting out at 9 or 10 a.m. on a weekday would have made a lot of difference.

I would also use a more streamlined pack. I usually hike with a waist pack with a large water bottle on each side. Through the narrow rock corridors of the final half-mile, my pack repeatedly got hung up. I wished I had either a Camelback or a smaller backpack on this hike. Also, some prior conditioning on hikes with super-steep sections, as well as some practice at rock-hopping, would have helped.

Overall, though, Angel’s Landing IS a bucket-list-worthy hike. Just come prepared to let your feet and your hands do the talking!

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