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Angels Landing

Nature wrote a tale of contrasts that day for four heroines who suited up their bodies, hearts and minds and set out to dance with a mountain named Angels Landing. Two of us had been there before and were armed with experience, while the other poor souls wore only their imaginations and a desire to meet the challenge.

The fearsome four - Donna, Saundie, Lin and Ali

The fearsome four – Donna, Saundie, Lin and Ali

We had read the description. We were properly intimidated.

The Angels Landing Trail is one of the most famous and thrilling hikes in the national park system. Zion’s pride and joy runs along a narrow rock fin with dizzying drop-offs on both sides. Just before the trail spills onto Scout Lookout, it’s time to ‘squiggle the wiggles,’ as they ascend the steep twenty-one sharp zigzags to a scenic plateau. Walter’s Wiggles was named after the first superintendent of Zion who helped engineer the steep zigzagging section. The trail culminates at a lofty perch, boasting magnificent views in every direction. Rarely is such an intimidating path so frequented by hikers. One would think that this narrow ridge with deep chasms on each of its flanks would allure only the most intrepid of hikers. Long steady climb. 1488 feet change in elevation.

Courtesty of Zion National-Park dot com

Crossing the bridge from the Grotto - Angel's Landing in the distance

Crossing the bridge from the Grotto – Angels Landing in the distance

But I don’t think we truly realized that we were about to jump out and take a giant tarzan swing on the pendulum of life. And did we ever swing, big and wide, from tears of exhaustion to tears of exhilaration, we felt the fear of doing it and then the even bigger fear of not doing it, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

You already know Ali and I and our various powers (and weaknesses), but let me introduce you to the two guest-starring super-heroines of the day. First, Donna Dalton, “Double D”, master of information acquisition and delivery, able to befriend even the meanest of people, and wielder of her secret weapon, the Never Quit Gun. Then there was her springy sidekick Saundie, with her charm-bazooka strapped to her back, maestro of one-liners, bringer of epic giggles and sparkle.

We were the fearsome four, a team, ready to bring to bear all of our individual super powers on whatever events might befall us on this 5 mile, 5 hour hike. If I had video of the four of us walking side by side toward the camera in slow motion backed by dramatic music I would insert it here.

A view of the early part of the trail after we reached Scout's Lookout.

A view from above of the early part of the trail after we reached Scout’s Lookout.

Switchback masters!

Switchback masters!

Finally we entered Refrigerator Canyon

Finally we entered Refrigerator Canyon

For the first two miles we trekked along a nice wide paved path that climbed up into the mountain side via long, steep switchbacks until the trail poked it’s way back into Refrigerator Canyon. (In the proof reading of this Ali suggested that looooong and steeeeeep needed many, many more vowels and should be in all caps.) This was the easiest HARD part of the trail, not hard scary, not hard for our legs, but hard because we were pushing our lungs and hearts to the edge. For a little while in the beginning it was full on boot camp inside my head, complete with a nasty, screaming drill sergeant calling me maggot and threatening push ups if I didn’t keep going. She kept pointing out that bouncy Saundie was half-way up the mountain – “MOVE, you loafer, MOVE!”

Ali joined me for a rest on a slanted rock seat that was in the shade and we panted short sentences at each other in between aggressive sucks on our water bag. Ali’s heart was beating really hard and fast, I actually saw each beat vibrate her t-shirt and I had experienced a couple moments when I knew I wasn’t getting enough oxygen, so we both needed a small reset in pace. It’s frustrating and emotional to slam into a personal limit, you feel vulnerable, or as a dear friend of mine would say, like a soft shell crab. So we let our frustration off the leash, it growled and barked, bared it’s teeth and paced around us for a while until it finally settled down at our feet, and sat quietly, but stiffly on guard.

Even when your cheek is pressed up against that chain link fence of your limit, there’s such cool stuff on the other side that you know have to find a way around or over, so we discussed a new strategy. We were going to trade in the drill sergeant, the Jillian Michaels, for a Bob. We were going to encourage ourselves, think positive thoughts and take as much time as we needed to stay safe, but still get it done. Love the body you’re in, dammit.

Wally's Wiggles

Wally’s Wiggles

Refrigerator Canyon gave us a small respite in terms of elevation change and a definitive break from the heat and sun, but it was short lived. We soon found ourselves at the foot of Wally’s Wiggles, the 21 insanely steep switchbacks that bring you up to Scout’s Lookout. We wiggled, we sucked air, we waved to each other from differing heights and made it to the top and around a corner where we were treated to our first glimpse of what was still to come. The last half mile. The scariest half mile. The hardest half mile.

Loved this sign

Loved this sign

The last half mile, nearly straight up that narrow fin of rock

The last half mile, nearly straight up that narrow fin of rock

Our first chains

Our first chains

Chains

Chains

Chains

And more chains

Ali's on her way up

Ali’s on her way up

Waiting for my team

Waiting for my team

At Scout’s Lookout it seemed we could see the entire Zion Valley. Even though this wasn’t the end of the line, the height our legs had earned us so far bought us a diamond grade view. Many hikers do choose to end their trek there, it’s a worthy goal and reward, but I was almost immediately distracted by the last part of the trail ahead of us and I blurted out, “No way! We get to climb that?!!! How cool!” with a fist pump. Ali looked at me with a blush of pleading on her face and said, “Tell me again. Why are we doing this?” I must have made my same exclamation 20 more times that day, I just couldn’t really believe that we were allowed to climb this incredible trail, it simply seemed too dangerous. I think Ali asked why we were doing this a few more times too.

Tired vanished, I forgot my thirst and my eyes opened as wide as they would go as I grabbed the first chain and navigated a ledge of rock that was sloped at a 45 degree angle down. I absolutely love a trail that makes me think, that asks me to make choices and to give more, that keeps me engaged the whole time – that’s the difference between hiking and taking a walk. Angels Landing was going to call on everything we had, our toe, ankle, leg, arm and core strength, our intelligence and depth perception, our balance and agility, our courage and spirit, our willingness to endure risk and fear.

The valley below

The valley below

I'm sticking my foot out into the picture, I'm not actually that close to the edge

I’m sticking my foot out into the picture, I’m not actually that close to the edge

Despite passing some and being passed by many people on the trail, my way up felt mostly like a solitary experience. Saundie’s goat legs propelled her up ahead of me though we did meet up and rest together at times, while Donna and Ali worked together at a steady climb that kept them behind us. I stayed true to my own pace on that leg of the trail and it didn’t match up with anyone on my team, so that created my oneness, but it was also the deep concentration. I was so in the moment, the moment was me, for a minute I was only my legs, and then I was only the view, followed by being only my mind deciding how best to pull myself up into that next ledge. Every so often I would look for Donna and Ali and send her thoughts of courage and hope that she was doing well, but this wasn’t a shared experience in the same way we’d shared other hikes. We would have to tell each other stories later.

A look behind

A look behind

Breaking the don't look down rule

Breaking the “don’t look down” rule

It had been a little while since I’d seen Saundie up close, and I’d heard from a few hikers on their way down that I was almost to the top so when I got to the point of the mountain where there was no more “up”, I actually thought I’d hit the end of the trail, but quickly realized that I was still about a football field away. The last 100 yards was a flat walk across the roof top like ridge of the mountain. My legs had heard me think that we were done, so they had already grabbed a towel and were headed for the locker room, but I took a deep breath and picked my way out carefully to the other end of the peak. I saw Saundie ahead sitting on a fairly level rock surface and I joined her. We smiled, acknowledging each other silently.

It wasn’t until I sat down, let my eyes scan the horizon and officially let my body clock out that it happened. A match strike flare of exhilaration burned through my chest, tears fell, and I swear you could hear it, like the soft creak of leather being stretched, it was the sound of my soul growing bigger again. Before I left on this trip I did some hypnotherapy and one of the visuals my therapist used was an ascent, of getting higher and higher and then spending time up there surrounded by the utmost beauty. It was a moving experience even when it was just inside my mind and now here I was really in that place, a place where only angels would dare to land.

We did it

We did it

After a little while the girls found us on the summit, we lunched, took a few more photos and prepared ourselves mentally for the descent. All along the way up I shoo-ed away thoughts of how the heck am I going to get back down this with my bad knee, thinking I would just deal with it when it was time. It was time. We stayed together as a team on the way down, helping each other with the bigger drops, taking our time, gently testing our already exhausted legs.

Ali and I hugging the wall

Ali and I hugging the wall

The trail back to Scout's Lookout

The trail back to Scout’s Lookout

Ali mastering the chains

Ali mastering the chains

By the time we made it to the wiggles again, Saudie and I both had to turn around and walk backwards for long stretches to give our bad knees a break. There was a completely different energy on the way down, the excitement had passed, we were lighter from having met the challenge and won and we were heavier from having still 2 miles to go on jelly legs. I started writing this blog post in my mind as we made our way down. It was a tale of contrasts, tears of exhaustion and tears of exhilaration. We had been afraid of doing it, yet even more afraid of not doing it. Our lion’s pride flew on the butterfly wings of humility that day and though we flitted and fluttered our sputtering way up, we made it, stood tall at the top of the world and let our hearts roar.