Zion, Angel’s Landing, and Facing My Fear

angels landing

This blog post is extremely difficult for me to write.

I’d never heard of Zion National Park, nor was it on my Amazing Adventure Map. But while I was in Sedona, Steve and Chris both said, well, you MUST  go to Zion if you’re going to Bryce Canyon, they’re right next to each other. So, I circled it on the map! I’d picked Kanab, UT as my home base for the next couple of days, as it was a short drive from Zion and Bryce, and on Thursday morning, headed out on the short 45 minute drive to Zion National Park, northwest of Kanab. I drove again on 89A before turning left and heading west on route 9 into Zion. I was excited as I passed the sign for the park entrance, full of anticipation for another day of hiking.

Heading into the Park!

Heading into the Park!

I passed through the admission ranger gate and the entire world changed. The most BREATHTAKING rock formations appeared before me, HUGE and red and sandstone and all enveloping, nothing that I’d seen at the Grand Canyon. I was truly aghast in amazement, and barely crawled along at 10-15 mph, frequently stopping to take pictures of the unbelievable rock formations all around me. There was one called Checkerboard Mesa that was just stunning. And I wasn’t even in the park yet!  Eventually I drove through one very short tunnel, and then came up to a tunnel that was a full mile long. I almost got a bit claustrophobic!

First look at Zion!

First look at Zion!

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Checkerboard Mesa!

Checkerboard Mesa!

Zion Tunnel!

Zion Tunnel!

Closer and closer I got to the park, and drove down these switchbacks overlooking the canyon, getting close to the edge, with more and more unique and amazing rocks appearing in front of me. Finally I made it to the Visitors Center, backed my car in, and made my way to the Ranger inside the center. I admitted that I really wasn’t familiar with any of the hikes, but that I was in great shape, had all day, and was looking for a challenge. The ranger suggested that I take the Angel’s Landing Trail via the West Rim Trail. She asked if I had a fear of heights, and I said why yes, I do a bit. She said, well, you can hike all the way up the West Rim Trail, through the switchbacks at Walters Wiggles, and up to Scout’s Lookout which overlooks the Canyon. She said that the last half mile of the trail is up to Angel’s Landing, and she said it’s very narrow with often nothing on either side, and if your fear of heights is too much, you don’t have to make the climb.  That sounded great to me.

Zion has a FANTASTIC shuttle bus system. It takes you all along the length of the park to each of the trailheads. So, I jumped on a shuttle and headed towards the Grotto Stop. I got off the bus and full of excitement, walked over to the trailhead.

My trail for the day

My trail for the day

At this point, I have to admit that I was surprised at, after my extremely solitary day at the Grand Canyon, how many people were taking the trail. No matter, I started walking, greeting every person with a hearty “Good morning!”as they walked towards me. Also surprising was that this trail was paved, like a sidewalk. Hmmmm, I thought to myself. After hiking up the rugged Elden Lookout Trail in Flagstaff and Uncle Jim Trail in the Grand Canyon, this seemed a bit odd. As I continued on though, I began to be grateful for the footing it provided!

The "Trail"

The “Trail”

The hike started off pretty easily, and offered a fantastic view of the Virgin River running through the canyon. I spotted several deer along the banks of the river and just relished the view as I walked along.

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Eventually, the path started getting steeper and steeper, and the switchbacks became more challenging to climb. I  also noticed how narrow the trails were and how close I was to the edge of the canyon as I got higher and higher. The final switchbacks to Scout’s Lookout were incredibly steep, and all I could think was that this hike could rival many a crossfit workout. I passed a woman on her way down who smiled and said “Not much further!” That was all the encouragement I needed to make that final push to the top, and I finally stepped out into the open and onto Scout’s Lookout.

Scout's Lookout

Scout’s Lookout

Scout’s Lookout is a fairly flat long rock at the top of the canyon. There are no guardrails or other protective devices surrounding the lookout. I sat down a bit from the edge, took off my backpack, and tentatively snapped some pictures as I had a snack.

Me at Scout's Landing

Me at Scout’s Lookout

Off to my right was the infamous Angel’s Landing. I looked over and was surprised to see LOTS of hikers scaling up and down the rock. It looks quite daunting, and has a rope chain up the side. I sat there, looking at it. Looking at little 8 year old kids going up and down. Looking at folks 60+ going up and down. Big, small, tall, short, young, old…getting in line to go up and coming down with triumphant smiles on their faces. I thought to myself, the longer I sit and stare at it, the more scared I will get. And finally, after seeing a man in his late 60’s coming down, I thought, alright, if he can do it, I can do this. So I walked over to the base and stared….and stared and stared. And I just could NOT get myself to do it. The warning signs (6 people have died since 2004!), the chains, my experience with the edges of the Grand Canyon and my earlier hike up and looking out on Scout’s Lookout, my all encompassing fear of heights…all of these just got to me and I walked back to the safety of the Lookout. I chided myself over and over….Alise, you’re in fantastic shape, you crossfit,  imagine Erin Stimac’s voice encouraging you and motivating you, this trip is all about facing all your fears and conquering them, c’mon, just fucking DO IT!

I couldn’t.

Defeated and deflated, I turned around and walked the long long way back down to the bottom of the trail, tears streaming down my face, as I tried to hide my sobs from the hikers heading up the trail. I felt like a failure. I felt that the fact that I could not bring myself to hike that final half mile up to the top of Angel’s Landing that somehow that made me inadequate. Twice as I was heading down I stopped and thought about going back up to try it…but didn’t.

I got back to my room in Kanab and just cried my heart out. I am trying to understand why this has affected me so much. Why am I so hard on myself and why do I feel that I somehow failed? If anyone else had told me this exact experience, I would have wrapped my arms around them and been kind and compassionate and counseled them to be easy on themselves, and to look at what they had achieved – a very successful and challenging and enjoyable hike in one of the most beautiful parks in the world. Why do I feel that I don’t deserve the same compassion from myself? I think that deep down, for whatever reason, I feel inadequate, and just not good enough. And instead of looking at the wonderful things I have been doing the past month and a half (or even my whole damn life for that matter), I look at this one small thing today that I was unable to bring myself to do, and use it as confirmation of my unworthiness. “See Alise, you couldn’t climb Angels’ Landing, you couldn’t conquer that fear of heights, so that proves that you aren’t good enough”. Which I know in my head is entirely untrue, but the fact that I’m sobbing uncontrollably as I write this and reflect upon the experience at the top of Scout’s Lookout proves to me that I have a long way to go. It’s not my fear of heights itself – I talked to my brother after my experience in Zion and he assured me that a fear of heights is basic self preservation! But it’s about what that fear prevented me from doing, and the fact that I’m having a hard time being gentle with myself about that. And mostly, it’s the fear at the core of all of it – the core belief that I’m just not good enough.

 So, although I am going to some fabulous and beautiful places and doing some wonderful things and having amazing adventures, this little experience at Zion National Park reminds me that I still have some work to do on myself along the way. Much to ponder as I drive in the vast solitary stretches of the West.

I-am-enough

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11 thoughts on “Zion, Angel’s Landing, and Facing My Fear

  1. Kat says:

    This is by far the most courageous of all your blog posts. Now the great adventure truly begins… The great spiritual adventure! I’m so excited for you! We can only be free when we acknowledge our painful beliefs and experiences head on. It takes incredible courage to do that and then share it with others! I know this journey is helping you and I believe this journey you are on will help many others as well. 🙂

  2. Patti Echsner says:

    Alise,

    Sung in the voice of Mother Superior (and imagine Russ and I with white cloth napkins on our hands):

    “Climb every mountain, ford every stream…follow every rainbow… Till you find your dream!”

    “What is it you cunt face?” Teeeheeeeee.

    Hope I made you laugh….love to you on you journey.

    PLE

    Sent from my iPad

    >

  3. Ab says:

    That voice is not you. It’s the ego. You are not your ego. And if you don’t (not can’t) do something it doesn’t mean anything or define you. It simply means that you didn’t in this moment. The next moment will be different, because it’s the next moment, not the same moment. No two moments can be the same…it’s impossible (and aren’t we damn thankful for that!!). That voice can say whatever it wants, you can listen, hear it, and then recognize that it’s not you. You are growing and that is to be celebrated!

  4. kathleen maltese says:

    This is easier for me to say than do, but i really believe that you are lucky to have been brought to Angel’s Landing and had the experience you did. You came to your new edge (no pun intended) of feeling real fear and were able to see and feel it clearly. You have the opportunity to relate to fear and self flagellation in a fresh and non-theoretical way. Each time that happens you have a new opportunity to learn a different way of relating to the edge and fears and to practice trying to be much more gentle. Without those monster teachers like Angel’s Landing, it’s all just head work – useful as far as it goes, but not as powerful as the direct experience you just had. I very much admire your determination and courage and capacity for joy that you’re allowing yourself on this trip!!! Love, Kathleen

  5. Alise,

    I know exactly what you mean about Angel’s Landing itself, as well as trying not to let your decision to stop at the Lookout define you as a failure. Angel’s Landing is in a category by itself, and like every mountain, it is ultimately in charge and its power must be respected. The mountain doesn’t care about us or respond to us no matter how strong or determined we are – we must constantly “read” it and “read” ourselves to see if we can be there safely. Lightening, a hail storm, altitude sickness, blisters, a bear on the trail, a washed-out trail, a narrow ridge, a snowfield, an overly ambitious climbing goal can and must make us turn around and go back down. You have to listen to all of these factors, including your gut feelings, whatever they are, that tell you “not today”, and that is not failure, it is learning the first lesson of climbing, which is self-preservation. If a person cannot learn that lesson, and yes, it is humbling, then they should not climb mountains or hike in deserts and canyons, because failure will find them in the form of injury or death.

    I think I understand a bit about cross-fit, how it instills an ingredient in you that allows you to breathe fire and eat 100-lb weights for breakfast. That is good, but a weight is an inanimate object that is constant – a mountain is a living and constantly shifting thing and IT breathes fire, and it can breathe more fire than we can imagine. Humans put chain ropes on Angel’s Landing but Angel’s Landing’s fire is its steep, narrow exposure. I have learned that there is no “one-size-fits-all” courage and determination that I can apply to every mountain and canyon that I encounter, because they are all different and I am different every time I meet one of them.

    One my first trip up to Angel’s Landing, I turned around at the Lookout disappointed because that last 1/2 mile climb was like nothing I’d ever seen before, and it was packed with people, which seemed to make it even more dangerous. I went back the next day at an earlier hour and got to the top. The first time I saw it, it didn’t “feel” right, but the next day it did though it was a very tedious climb. Two weeks ago Laura and I set out to climb Mt. Elbert, Colorado’s highest peak. I had two 14ers under my belt, and the trail guides rated it a “1”, which is the “easy” category, so I figured we could make it. After 5 hours of hiking and climbing 3,000 ft, I had to admit that the remaining 1,000 ft were too much for me. That mountain’s fire was its size – it was enormous. I so wanted to bag my 3rd 14er and Elbert at that, but I couldn’t handle it that day. I was disappointed in myself but turned my disappointment into respect for Elbert. The next week we climbed Gray’s Peak, a 14er I did last year. I so wanted to do Torrey’s Peak right next to it so I could have 3 different 14ers, but Torrey’s had a snowfield and a very steep final ascent that made me less certain – I had too much doubt so I stuck with Gray’s. Climbing Gray’s Peak turned my disappointment over Torrey’s into a reminder that any 14er can kick my ass.

    I hope what I have learned can give you some food for thought as you process your adventures. I think you are doing great. Angel’s Landing did not say that you are a coward; it said that it is one fierce fire-breathing mountain. It always has been and always will be.

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