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Cavorting With Angels

“Don’t Die.”

It was the last thing my seventeen year old said to me before we headed out the door to the airport. I confidently promised we would not. But now, as I leaned into the stone, gripping a hank of chain for dear life and feeling the great yawning chasm 1400 feet below, it occurred to me that I might have been a bit hasty.

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I blame Hugh and Lisa.

Last fall we sat across the table from them, comparing notes on some of our favorite hikes, and Hugh began to talk about Angel’s Landing. He talked about sharp drop-offs, about walking along slender fins of stone, about the lengths of chain that were sometimes the only barrier between you and falling, about the sections with no chain, about the lady who just last year dropped to her death. My heart pounded as he talked about it. It sounded terrifying. And amazing. And somehow I knew in that very moment that one day I would find myself there.

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Angel’s Landing sits atop a towering stone spine with dizzying drop-offs on either side. It received it’s name in 1916 when Fredrich Fisher, while exploring the canyon, observed, “only an angel could land on top of it.” Yet, on this day, a number of less than angelic beings were clawing, crawling, pulling and praying their way to the top. And we were among them.

When we decided to give Mike a little more time at altitude to acclimate for Grand Canyon, visits to nearby Bryce and Zion Canyons seemed the perfect solution. Both were places we wanted to see and the combination would give us a chance to hike high (Bryce) and sleep low (Zion). And as soon as Zion was on the table, so was Angel’s Landing.

We began researching the hike. We watched a number of YouTube videos including this ridiculous one shot with a GoPro. They made my stomach hurt. Most of the time I thought we were insane to even be considering this. But, every now and then…

We had decided we would go as far as Scouts Landing, and then evaluate whether to attempt the remaining half mile along the ridge. I did not feel one bit better about it when I got there. What those people were doing looked impossible. A couple of strong, athletic looking guys who were just coming down stopped to talk to us.

“You going up there?”

“Not sure yet.”

“Yeah. I wasn’t either.  Just kept taking the next step. I might have even crawled a few times. But then, somehow, there we were.”

I told Mike I could do that much. I would start. However, I reserved the right to turn around at any point.

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I’m not going to lie to you, I was scared pretty much the whole time. But here is what I quickly learned. What ever was out there–ahead, or behind–looked impossible. But what was right in front of me was doable. Pull yourself up over this boulder. Grab the next chain.  Lean into the rock here because there are no chains and the path slants sharply.

Any time I stopped to look back at where we had been, I wanted to throw up. But I could always do the next right thing.

I kept thinking of my friend Gail. I don’t know how many times she has said to me, when I am in a situation that seems too hard and I can’t think how I am going to get to the other side and I wish everything were laid out nice and clean before me and it never is, “Just do the next right thing.”

There was always an awkward little dance as we encountered hikers coming down and we had to figure out which of us had the safest place to lean into or wrap arms around to let the other pass. Unintentional intimacy made us fast friends. Many spoke kind words of encouragement as we passed, and their generosity was like a long, cold drink of water. Refreshing and invigorating.

When we finally crested, I couldn’t decide whether to laugh or cry. After I had securely installed myself against a cleft of rock to keep  me from falling, I think I did a little of both. Then I took deep, full breaths of the cool air and felt the sun on my skin. I looked out over the valley and drank in the astonishing beauty of it. I gave thanks for safety and strength, for exhilaration and joy. And for the boy at my side with whom I had shared it all.

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Of course, we still had to get down from here. On the way up I had refused to look down at the valley floor below. But on the way back, that would not be possible. Occasionally, I caught myself holding my breath. But by some combination of walking, and scooting, and turning around and backing down particularly challenging sections, I finally found myself back at Scout’s Landing with all my pieces and parts still attached.

That night I lay in bed thinking back over the hike. My stomach started churning and my heart pounded and I found myself as frightened as I had been standing there at Scout’s Landing. Something about seeing it from afar and not having a task that demanded my attention made it far more terrifying. I have been thinking a lot about that ever since. There is a truth in there that I need to keep close to me.

A friend asked me recently why we do crazy things like this. It’s a fair question. And maybe this is it: It’s good practice. Frequently life throws circumstances at us that seem insurmountable. In those moments, it is easy to despair and lose hope. But, every time something we thought would kill us doesn’t, we are made stronger. And hope becomes more resilient. I will never hear Gail’s words–Just do the next right thing–again without thinking of this day.

Of how the impossible became possible
one terrifying step at a time.

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That which does not kill us makes us stronger. ~Friedrich Nietzsche

*Special thanks to Mike who took all the photos in the post except #2 (public domain), half of the bottom shot, and the obvious selfie. 🙂