The air temperature most days on our southwest trip was in the 60s, which was wonderful for hiking. The last time I'd been hiking in the desert was during August, when it was about 40 degrees hotter. What a difference 40 degrees can make! Of course, the dry air still made me thirsty. I carried a quart of water on every hike and usually drank it all.
Of course, the disadvantage of coming so early in the season is that some of the trails at the upper elevations were crusted with snow and ice. When we got to Heavenly National Park, we were disappointed to see that the signs at the visitors' center warned hikers to stay away from some of the trails we had intended to hike. After spending a day hiking some of the lower trails, which led to some lovely waterfalls and such, we decided to second-guess the information at the visitors' center by talking to anyone we saw at a trailhead, trying to find hikers who had actually been on some of the high elevation trails.
We did find two young men who had hiked to the Landing Named After a Celestial Being, the trail we had been looking forward to. They were kind of low-key about the whole thing. They said things like, "Yeah, there's a bit of snow, " and "Uh, a few tricky spots but it's do-able." Encouraged by this news, we decided that maybe we'd try the trail that very day. Then we talked to a another young man who had just come off the trail. He was by himself.
"Did you go all the way to the top?" my husband asked.
He nodded, with a wide-eyed look. "It's the most dangerous thing I've ever done."
My husband laughed, but the young man was completely serious. "It's not that there's that much snow. It's just that it's in all the wrong places."
We gave the snow two more days to melt. We came back to the trailhead to Celestial Landing on our last day in the park. We knew we could always turn back if we ran into too much ice. We didn't have crampons or anything like that. In fact, my husband hikes in sneakers instead of hiking boots with tread. He's had trouble with plantar fasciitis before so when he find footwear that works for him, he sticks to it loyally. But sneakers are not ideal for hiking on narrow paths of ice, where one slip could send you to your death. I kept reminding him of this.
The first part of the trail to Celestial Landing was just a path, with switchbacks that took us up the mountain. The trail was steep in places, but not dangerous or icy or even the least bit scary. When I'd turn to look out across the valley, I could see the cliffs rising on the other side, and the muddy river zig-zagging through. We were in full sun, and I kept looking for shady places where I could stop to drink some water.
But then we came to the high part. The trail changed abruptly for the last half mile, turning suddenly into a very narrow path that followed a rocky spine, with steep drop-offs on BOTH sides of the trail. Imagine walking on a sidewalk, and knowing that if you stepped off either side, you would fall to your death. Now make that sidewalk sort of crooked and lumpy with rocks. My youngest sister, Urban Sophisticate, would no doubt trot along a trail like this without a care in the world. But for someone who has a fear of heights, this kind of trail can be terrifying.
The park service, helpfully, had chains installed in some places along the path, but those turned out to be the easiest parts. The hard parts were the sections that didn't have chains. They were covered with ice and snow. And I know from experience that you can't ever trust your footing on ice. A patch of ice can make a common sidewalk treacherous. It takes me huge effort to suppress my fear of heights enough to hike along narrow ledges in high places; seeing narrow ledges covered with patches of ice was almost too much.
But the ice did come in patches, and we took the patches one at time, figuring out ways to have at least one foot on rock or one hand on rock, moving slowly and carefully, gradually making our way up the trail.
When I'm on a hike like that, I have so much adrenaline going through my blood stream that I feel just incredibly wide awake. I have no time for obsessive thoughts, for any kind of thinking, for anything other than the present moment. I am thinking only of survival, of where to put each foot, where to hang on with my hands. "Right foot here. Left foot here. Here's a handhold. Don't look down!" When I meditate, I often have trouble pushing away thoughts, keeping my mind clear. When I'm rock climbing, I have no trouble at all. I thought of nothing else for the next hour, but how to keep myself on the trail. "Left foot here. Grab that chain. Don't look down!"
Several times we did stop, when we'd reach a slightly wider area. Only when I was safely sitting on a rock, solidly in place, would I let myself look down and see how high we were, how incredible the view was. And at the very top, on an outcropping of rock with views in all directions, I did feel euphoric, as if all those minutes of concentration and all that adrenaline in my bloodstream had allowed me to climb up over any emotional baggage and into some higher plane of being.
And then, of course, it was time to hike back down.
The path we hiked went along this rocky spine and up over the top.