“Up high and tough”. This is what’s inscribed on a tee shirt I purchased for myself after tackling a trail called Angel’s Landing at Zion National Park in Utah.
Not long ago I discovered a love for hiking, and even more so for climbing; or should I say reaching the top. Put a trail in front of me, especially one that moves upward, and I am instantly determined to reach the top despite all obstacles along the way. I approached Angel’s Landing with this same steely determination, not realizing just how much I was going to need it.
Legend has it that four friends were exploring Zion in 1916, when one looked up at this “great monolith” with it’s 1488’ gain in elevation and it’s peak at 5785’ and exclaimed, “only an angel could land there”.
According to one article written about the trail: “Angel’s Landing trail in Zion National Park is one of the most popular trails in the national park system and the most popular in Zion National Park.” All who write about it agree. Some would call it the kind of hike that changes you. I was about to find out why.
I am an amateur hiker at best. I credit myself with at least enough common sense to research my hikes and read all of the recommendations prior to embarking on them. I must admit, however, that in my enthusiasm, I don’t always follow the wise advise of those who have gone before me. Such was the case with this hike.
I was in Utah in July, when the mid-morning and afternoon heat and sun can truly be unforgiving. I had read that the 5 mile round trip trail would take approximately 6 hours to complete, so I wisely decided to start my hike at sunrise.
I found myself, however the morning before my planned excursion, close to the trailhead with nothing pressing to do. It was around 10 am, so I decided to take a look at the trail…hike it for maybe about an hour and turn back before it got too hot; just to get a taste of what I was in for the next day.
As I walked further and further on, past the one hour mark, I began to tell myself” just a little further“. Truth was, if you haven’t already guessed it, by now the trail had me and I wasn’t about to turn back until I had reached the peak.
By this time, I’d violated two very important rules of hiking. 1) Don’t hike in the heat of the day. 2) Never hike alone. To the former, I plead guilty. To the latter, my standard retort; “I am never alone. Jesus is my constant companion.” ; a fact that I am always grateful for. Another trusty companion that I was grateful for on that day was my Camelback water system. Armed with my companions, I pressed on.
After a while, I began the ascent through the area known as Walter’s Wiggles, which is a short series of switchbacks. At least the guide books say it’s a short series. This is a very strenuous part of the hike and steep enough that the people you meet coming down on the lower end of this section are running!
My next landmark was Scout Lookout. Many people end their hike here. The views are quite impressive and there is a sense of accomplishment at reaching this point. But for me, I couldn’t rest until I’d reached the spot where only an angel could land.
At Scout Lookout the Angel’s Landing trail turns southeast, and so did I. I had read that the last half mile of the hike was not for those with a fear of heights or the faint of heart. From the descriptions I read, I pictured this area to be a narrow path with chains on either side protecting ( sort of) hikers from the sheer drops of 800-1200 feet on either side. That was scary enough ! The reality proved scarier.
Yes, there were sheer drops, but the path was not a straight and narrow one. Sometimes the drop was on my right and of course, the chain was on the opposite side along the wall. And sometimes the reverse was true. Always the fin was very narrow at several points just wide enough to put one foot in front of the other. And at times the climb was treacherous.
At one point I lost the trail and found myself in a small niche, with nowhere to go, but back the way I came to re-gain the trail. The ledge was extremely narrow and I barely fit in the cleft of the rock. Now I had to turn around to go back down a few steps and get back on track. The thought that went through my mind at that moment was “I can’t believe I might die here.” One false move and the possibility was much greater than I could bring myself to think about. I prayed and told the Lord I believed He was right there with me and would be no matter what happened. I dug my back into the shape of the rock after I had safely turned around and headed down a few steps back to the trail. This was the only time in the whole trip that I seriously contemplated turning back.
I caught my breath, whispered a prayer of thanks to Jesus and continued on. I was so close to the top!
When I finally reached the peak, I did feel as if I was on top of the world, just like the guide books promised. The views were breathtaking and I remember thinking “no wonder that hiker said only an angel could land there”; I sure would have been grateful for a set of wings to carry me that last half mile. Then again, maybe some had.
It took a long time for me to fall asleep that night and an even longer time before I could think about that hike long enough to begin to see many spiritual parallels. To this day, I learn more about myself every time I revisit that awesome adventure.
That determination to reach the top , I’ve discovered is a great gift from God; what Paul called perseverance. It has seen me through many tough climbs in my life. And today I find it much easier to tell the scoffers that I truly am never alone.
One of the greatest and most pleasantly surprising things I’ve learned is that Jesus has given me the courage to do things I would never have even dared to dream of before I knew Him and I am so grateful to know how beautiful the view is from the top, no matter how tough the climb.