Along the whole descent I was squeezing Jacks hand, telling him how much I loved him, how much we were a team and promising we would be safe. In truth I feared for our lives. As we got to the bottom where the trail levelled out tears mixed with rain streamed down my face, they were tears of fear I had held back and had now become tears of joy that we were almost at the grotto. That we had faced danger and that we were almost safe.
Zion National Park is a huge canyon of red/tan coloured sandstone cut out by the Virgin River. It is also renowned for being one of the most picturesque and dramatic national parks in the whole country. Located in Utah, some 3 million visitors make the trip each year, and on the wish list of many of those visitors is the world renowned ‘best hike in the USA’ and ‘most exhilarating hike in the world’ – Angels Landing Trek. Named after someone noted it must be the place Angels came back to earth.
Angels landing is a isthmus of behemoth proportions which protrudes about 5,790ft directly upwards from the canyon and has sheer cliffs around it. The trek itself is regarded as being strenuous and has claimed a number of lives along the final half mile stretch where a simple slip could result in a fall of a thousand feet onto solid rock. The stretch along to the summit has a single chain link which guides trekkers and offers a margin of security when surrounded by sheer drops. With my 7 year old in tow I wasn’t sure whether we would make the final crossing, but we would hike up to ‘scouts lookout’ the last point before the crossing and I would assess the situation. I had packed a rope and a few clips so that if we decided to go for the landing I could attach Jack to the chain link to prevent him falling as some of the trail is just a few feet in width and the drop either side is guaranteed death.
So why did I begin the trail with a 7 year old? Some readers are likely thinking I am irresponsible and they may be right. People said similar things when I let my 7 year old daughter para-glide down the Himalayas. But I disagree, on the route up Angels Landing I asked Jack ‘do you feel alive’? He responded with a beaming smile – ‘so alive’. I push the boundaries and I let my children sense and experience adventure. I let them skirt the edges of failure only to feel the euphoria of success. To face their fears and to relish from its overcoming. I also balance danger carefully. With the utmost respect to those that have lost their lives on the Angels Landing and the most sincere condolences to their families, they are relatively few in number when compared to the amount of deaths from dehydration and heat in the National Park system. I guess what I am saying is that you can die crossing a road, we have to live, we have to reach, we have to dream and we have to push the boundaries. It is in our nature. We are who we are because of those that have lived before us and those that dared to go beyond the normality of a mundane existence.
Zion national park has an absolutely jaw dropping highway running around and over the canyon, but if you want to venture into the canyon itself you have to catch the free shuttle which runs every 7 – 10 minutes from the visitor centre. The trail head for the Angels Landing is at the Grotto which if I remember correctly is the 5th stop.
The trail begins across a rickety bridge and you slowly make a gradual ascent of a mile or so through bush and along the Virgin River before coming face to face with the initial ascent to scouts lookout. In total there are some 21 switchbacks up to the summit and each one of them is a grinding uphill along a thin path on the edge of a cliff. As we tend to do, we had 1 litre each per hour of expected trek. The average time taken is 4 – 5 hours so Jack had to dig in and carry his own water in a camel-back I had bought him that morning as a reward for just how amazing he had been thus far whilst trekking.
Once you get to the switchbacks the slog is tough. When I am trekking I usually to get absolutely knackered at the beginning, but push through it and then seem to be fine from then on. This was no different, and as we grinded our way up to the top of the first climb we stopped to catch our breath. What we saw knocked both me and Jack backwards. It was perhaps one of the most beautiful and spectacular views man could ever witness. A canyon of tan sandstone speckled with greenery. We stayed to admire the beauty and had some of our trail mix (a high carb, high fat mixture of nuts, raisins and m&m’s). The snack itself is light, but the natural energy is slow burning and fantastic. Whilst munching down we were joined by a few chipmunks keen for a feed. Learning from mistakes at the Grand Canyon we looked on cutely, but didn’t feed them.
The trail flattens out for a while and is in-between a thin canyon along the edge of the Angels Landing, before eventually coming back on itself and making another steep set of switch backs up the cliff face known as willies wiggles. As we started our final ascent it started to rain slightly, the skies were half clouded over and I knew that if a storm came we would be completely exposed save for an occasional small covering in the cliff face. Knowing we were near the top we continued on and sweated the last few metres to the final part of the trek before we hit the chains and began the traverse along to the landing. Jack was excited, we walked along to the chain and the skies almost instantly started to get darker, but the rain held off. I took a few photos of Jack and was just about to go ahead and check the chain link to see if we should continue when the skies opened up.
The rain was intense, the wind was fierce and being on top of a completely exposed rock face surrounded by cliffs I saw dread in a fellow hikers face. Lightening crossed the sky, the sound of thunder echoed around us, people started screaming, Jack started shaking violently with fear, we had just entered a nightmare scenario and the situation was suddenly extremely serious and very dangerous.
Looking back now, I didn’t really have time to think but for a split second I recognised we had two options. One was to descend, risk being struck by lightning on the exposed cliff face or to try and hole up somewhere. Jack was screaming with fear and begging us to get off. I saw adults screaming, women crying, and everyone running. We had to get down, and we had to get down quickly. The rain was intense and difficult to see in, we were drenched within seconds and within a minute waterfalls were dropping from the switch backs with such a force that had one hit either of us we would have fallen to our deaths. The path became a rushing river and Jack was almost swept away but fell to the floor. I grabbed him with all my strength and he was crying begging me “don’t let me go dad, please don’t let me go”, running down the cliff I was shouting that I would die before I left him, that I would never let him go.
As we ran down the switch backs I had to be careful momentum didn’t take us off the end and it was a constant battle with Jack to ensure he stayed clung to me, and that we got down safely. Near the bottom of Willies Wiggles I saw a group of adults in ponchos all huddled up and screaming for help. I don’t know what had happened or whether it was fear, but I had to get myself and my son off that monolith and was focused on nothing else. The rain continued to be as intense as I have ever seen it and lightning struck the canyon around us, the sound was so deafening it was crackling and instant. We were completely in the storm and when the lightning struck it illuminated even the clouds beneath us, the flash was as though it was on us. I was shaking with adrenaline, with fear, and with exhaustion as I ran with my boy knowing that every second might be our last.
As we got to the top of the first ledge (about half way) things suddenly got much worse. Waterfalls were running down the rocks and bringing with them rubble, I had to instantly reassess what we would do and everything within me told me we had to continue. Running down I saw people running for their lives, people hoping it would pass, I remember now a Chinese guy telling me near the summit “I think it will pass”. Knowing what I know now, he was wrong. Very wrong.
Descending down the last switch backs things got dangerous. The paths were blocked by gushing water, by waterfalls littered with rocks and I saw a guy sat out on the floor clutching his face covered in blood with people around him trying desperately to get him off the cliff face. We passed them and in a fleeting glance I caught the eye of a woman. Her gaze told the story of someone who scolded me for passing by, by wished me and my child luck in getting down safely. We continued the descent and had now run all of the way, out of breath, aching, fearing our lives we continued on until we got to a part of the cliff which was impossible for Jack to cross. We were out of options, we were stuck, lightening struck around us, I gasped for air, and clung to Jack as though I was hanging onto my own life. The sound of the water was deafening and Jack had realised we were now trapped. As I screamed for help Jack began violently shaking again, a guy turned around and backtracked about twenty metres gesturing his wife to continue. She did. He came back and held out his hand across the water which would easily have washed Jack to his death, I passed Jack to him and saw rocks flying past his head, I clung to the rock face and crossed myself. The man that might have just saved Jacks life was now running in the distance. We followed and met more and more rocks, lightening, gushing water and could still hear screams around us as people ran for their lives.
Once we finally was safe, at the Grotto I fell to my knees and told Jack something. He burst into tears and flung his arms around me. He later told me he would remember those words for the rest of his life. I told him we would remember the Angels Landing for the rest of our lives.
A large number of people on the Angels Landing trek, people we had passed, spoken to and had passed on our descent had to be rescued, injuries were sustained, but thankfully (to my knowledge) no one lost their life. The park was closed and flood warnings struck much of Southern Utah, parts of Arizona and Nevada. That afternoon record rainfall fell and as we raced down the I–15 back to Nevada the radio was interrupted by a weather warning in the Zion area and nearby town of St George advising of an evacuation advisory. Not long after we were routed off the I-15 as the freeway had been washed away and was closed indefinitely. The only road to connect Utah – Arizona – Nevada was now closed. Sat in darkness, our vehicle illuminated by flashing blue and red lights, rain hitting the windscreen hard and in absolute darkness pierced only by the headlights of those around us I asked Jack a question and he didn’t respond. He and Toby were asleep.
I pulled the map out from under the seat and looked at what happened next. There was a 300 mile detour that would take us deep into the mountains, it would mean traveling through the night on lonely roads in darkness and wasn’t guaranteed to work. Our only other option was to return to St George and become part of an evacuation. With that in mind I tuned the satellite radio to the Comedy Channel, turned the key and set off into the darkness.