March 20, 2008

One foot in front of the other

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 ahead

The path we hiked went along this rocky spine and up over the top.

33 comments:

Linda said...

Wow! I'm a coward. I doubt I'd have done it.

Beautiful!

Madeleine said...

Reading your description is making my heart pound.

plainjain said...

I have hiked that trail in the summertime, without snow or ice, and it was still scary. Only half of my group actually went that last half mile. But the two of that did were well-rewarded--what a view!

JM said...

nope, no way, no how. good on you, though!

Ianqui said...

Dude. That trail is scary enough without any threat of ice or snow. We did it about 7 years ago, and when I think back on it, I canNOT believe how crazy we were to have done it. I'm not sure I'd ever do it again. Aren't there crosses on the top to memorizalize people who fell over the side?

At least you probably didn't really have to deal with hikers coming down using the same chains and footholds while you were going up. That was one of the scariest parts of it when we did it.

All of this said, I'm very glad I have done that in my past, but I'm not sure I'd do it again!

Kris said...

Congrats on doing it.That hike sounds like a few nightmares I've had. Yikes!

Anne said...

Wow. that sounds like a really scary hike even in good conditions. A few weeks back, I saw a hike description in China that looked even more terrifying...I don't think I could do either. I'm not afraid of heights. Just edges.

rachel said...

i was scared for you reading this! i am afraid of both icy patches and heights so can't even fathom this hike!and adrenaline is coursing through me now so that i am writing this comment with intense concentration :)

jo(e) said...

I'm laughing at some of these comments. I'm glad I didn't consult y'all before I went, or I think maybe you would have talked me out of it.

My husband hiked this particular trail last year with With-a-Why, and with Boy in Black three years ago. So there was no way I was going to wimp out on something the guys in the family had done. Although that damned ice came pretty close to changing my mind ....

jo(e) said...

Ianqui: Oh, we did pass one hiker, a very polite young man who stepped off the trail onto a rock to let me pass. It made me triply nervous to see him just casually sitting on this rock outcropping, inches from a fall to his death. I think I said something like, "Oh my god! Be careful! I have this fear of watching people fall to their deaths!"

He laughed and said, "Fair enough." And he didn't move again until I had gone safely by.

He was probably thinking, "Oh, great. This is like being on a trail with my mother."

kathy said...

I want to know where this trail is. Where were you?

jo(e) said...

It's the trail to Angels Landing in Zion National Park.

dance said...

Now, I did once climb a dark, worn, stairway for the view from the top of a tower in Central Asia, and I was glad I did it and I wouldn't do it again. But I bet there are other good high views in that park--the difference between good and great doesn't strike me as worth bone-chilling terror.

susan said...

I'll be keeping good company with Julie at the trailhead. But a good story you tell about it!

Ianqui said...

I posted a picture on my photoblog for you, jo(e). I'm pretty sure this was taken while we were at the very top of Angel's Landing. (Taken with my PowerShot A20--my first digital camera ever! A 2MP, I think.)

Sarah Sometimes said...

Even though I know you're back safe, while I was reading I was worried about how you were going to get back down the mountain. The power of a good narrative, I guess.

p.s. my word verification word is nppywek. I just had to report that. Sometimes they are so oddly like words.

Rev Dr Mom said...

You are very brave!

I'm back in the crowd cheering your on....

Gawdess said...

the photo is stunning and so is the story to go with it.
I have suffered from plantars fascitis so I feel for your husband and I do not like heights that much-so I was all agog.

BlackenedBoy said...

Not to freak you out or anything, but I'm almost certain I know who you are.

I mean, I won't say your name just in case I'm right, but I'm nearly positive.

I'll e-mail you.

jo(e) said...

Blackenedboy: There's an email address on the blog. Now, I'm curious as to who you are ....

(Do I know you?)

BlackenedBoy said...

I'm e-mailing you now.

BlackenedBoy said...

E-mailed.

Heather said...

my palms are all sweaty...great pics, great descriptions...

concretegodmother said...

i would have been freaking out most of the way, but i would have made myself do it.

the chains remind me of the chains on the backside of half dome in yosemite. terrifying -- utterly -- but also completely worth the terror.

you go, jo(e)!

Cloudscome said...

Amazing! You are so inspiring. Or crazy.

hele said...

Thank you for taking us along on your trip. So much beauty, mystery and adventure - it makes my head spin.

simplethymes said...

Wow, what an adventure. I'm so glad you came back safely. Did you find climbing down to be harder? Whenever I walk down a slope or a semi-steep hill, I often have this fear of just tumbling down.

Jodie said...

Wow,

Zion, Bryce, Grand Canyon, ... People die on those trails every year, you know. Most of them just slip and fall...

j said...

Does anyone else see the elephant in the rocks?

j said...

Also, it reminds me of this song: http://youtube.com/watch?v=5Kr6L22w7H8

Scrivener said...

When I hiked that trail 13 years ago (!), we heard bunches of people saying how terrifying it was and saw the t-shirts saying "I survived Landing Named After a Celestial Being" and all that, so I said I definitely had to hike that one. I thought it was anticlimactic. Maybe it's just that I'm not afraid of heights or that I was that much younger and stupider back then, but I was disappointed by all the chains and footholds and such. I had wanted it to feel scary, but didn't think that it did.

angelfeet said...

Wow. Never mind the adrenaline you were feeling, that put my heart in my mouth. Definitely not for me, I would have been in tears halfway up.

Ooo, my verification word is floft!

Ampersand said...

What an incredible accomplishment!

I have enjoyed your pictures from your trip so much.