Where Even Angels Fear to Tread



Psychiatrists will tell you that acrophobia is an extreme or irrational fear of heights. It is in the category of phobias dealing with space and motion discomfort. Acrophobia is a manifestation of the mind, usually attributed to a traumatic experience involving heights. In contrast, scientists have also suggested that a fear of heights is instinctual in most mammals. It is a natural survival instinct that has helped preserved our species. My question is, how much fear has to overcome you before you shift from instinct to phobia?

The Angels Landing Trail in Zion National Park helped clarify this distinction. The sheer cliffs on both sides of the trail were daunting. What started out as an enjoyable day hike became a test of my fortitude, a psychological drama played out in my head. I crossed and re-crossed the fine line between instinct and phobia.

In Zion National Park, there is a trail aptly named “Angels Landing,” that will test your nerve and challenge your senses. For those hikers with little no fear of heights, the trail to Angels Landing is just another walk in the woods. For those hikers afraid of standing atop a ladder, this trail makes the knees weak and the stomach churn.

The West Rim Trail in Zion Canyon takes you to Scout’s Lookout and the beginning of the Angels Landing trail. It was built by the Civil Corp of Engineers in the 1920’s. The trail begins at the Grotto picnic area at approximately 4,000 feet, and quickly rises to Angels Landing at 5,800 feet. It’s approximately 2.5 miles from the Grotto picnic area to the highest point at Angels Landing. The first two miles are relatively easy. There is a rock cliff on at least one side of the trail. A wall for you to back up against. When you leave Scout’s Lookout and get to the Hogs Back section on the trail, you are no longer afforded the luxury of a rock cliff behind you. There are sheer 1,800 foot drops on both sides of the trail. This is where it gets interesting.

During my first attempt to hike to Angel’s Landing, I ended up clinging to the guide chains provided for the safety of hikers along the razor-like Hogs Back section. I clung to the chains and swung my camera around over my head trying to get a few pictures before the trail gave way and I fell to my death. No, this is not what actually happened, but in my mind…

The trail seemed to actually grow narrower as I stood there. Other people were walking past me like there weren’t sheer cliffs on both sides of the trail, like they weren’t going to fall, like this was no big deal. They walked past me laughing and having a grand old time. Some stared at me, with that “Oh honey, look, a scared photographer” look on their faces. Before I ran for my life, I had to figure out who were the crazy ones, those calmly walking along the trail, or those clutching the chains in terror. I decided it was the calm ones. I did an about-face and quickly hiked back to the start of the trail at Scout’s Lookout, knees shaking, palms clammy and gasping for air.

When I reached Scout’s Lookout, my hiking partner, who wouldn’t even attempt this “insane trail” was very glad to see me in one piece. I was babbling incessantly about guide chains, two foot wide trails, the edges of cliffs and crazy hikers. After I calmed down, I realized that I would have to try to actually get to Angel’s Landing someday. Tail between my legs, I hiked back to the car. There have been at least six people who have fallen to their death from Angels Landing Trail. Park officials have posted signs warning of the narrow trail and the unstable rock near the edge of cliffs throughout the park. I agreed with these warnings on the long ride home.

The second time I attempted to hike to Angel’s Landing a year later, I followed the narrow trail, staring down at my feet, never straying too far from the chain guides, but not holding on for dear life, and eventually I made it out to Angels Landing. I took one quick look at the view down the canyon, clicked two pictures, turned around and basically ran back to Scout’s Lookout with my heart stuck in my throat. Yes, I had made it, but I barely remember what it looked like. But as time passed, I realized that I had not done the trail justice. Once again, I would have to try it again.

I was given an assignment by the art director at the now defunct CERCA magazine to photograph Angels Landing trail for an upcoming article. When asked, I explained that I had been there many times and would be happy to document the journey. What little white lies we tell for a publication.

On an early April morning, I began my third assault on Angels Landing. Standing at the trail head in the Grotto Picnic Area, checking my photo gear and tightening my hiking boots I mentally prepared myself for the challenge ahead. The thing about phobias is they are not based on rationality. I knew that falling off this trail would be akin to falling off a sidewalk. I knew the trail was wide enough and the cliff edges didn’t actually move closer. But, I also knew that walking along a sidewalk suspended 1,800 feet in the air is a whole different thing.

I began the hike along the West Rim trail following the sand bench that parallels the Virgin River. The trail quickly ascends through manzanita bushes and scrub oak, heading towards the red cliffs on the west side of Zion Canyon. It was early morning and not many people were on the trail. The sun grew warmer as I approached the switchbacks that signaled the beginning of the strenuous climb through Refrigerator Canyon to Scout’s Lookout.

I stopped along the switchbacks to take a series of pictures to document my time along this section of the trail. I was thoroughly enjoying myself. Snapping pictures, talking to people as they passed by. However, in the back of my mind, I knew what lie ahead. As I emerged from Refrigerator Canyon, I was confronted with “Walter’s Wiggles”, a series of 21 short switchbacks that takes you to Scout’s Lookout. Walter’s Wiggles were built in 1924 and named after the first superintendent of Zion National Park, Walter Reusch.

When I reached Scout’s Lookout and looked down the trail towards the Hogs Back section once again, I realized just how intimidating this trail can be. I stopped to take a few pictures of the narrow trail that would provide a context for the images of the trail ahead. A tinge of doubt crept into my mind. A dapple of sweat appeared on my brow. A slight tremor emerged in my hands. Would I panic and run back like the first attempt, or would I drag myself to the end like the second?

I sat down at Scout’s Lookout, away from the edge of course, and ate an energy bar. Perhaps there was some courage mixed in with all the fruit and grains. As I sat there, several hikers were making their way back from the Landing. They were smiling and talking away as if the hike was no challenge at all. They talked about the lovely view and the beautiful weather. I began to think once again about who were the crazy ones.

It was time to start. As I began to walk along the sandstone formations that marked the beginning of the trail, I thought to myself how calm, cool and collected I must appear. To the unknowing passerby, I might even look as if I was enjoying myself. On the inside, I was screaming “Oh @#$%”. It’s not that I was scared TO death, I was scared OF death.

I also knew that stopping to take pictures in the middle of Hogs Back section would be the hardest part of the trip. In between taking pictures, I was furiously scribbling notes for my assignment. My handwriting is bad when I am calm and at sea level. The notes in this notebook were chicken scratches at best. I clung to my tripod like a security blanket.

A small voice in my head kept telling me to “keep moving, don’t stop here, keep moving.” I stared through my viewfinder and took picture after picture of the trail itself. I looked at the scenic overlooks and tried to remain calm. My palms were sweaty and my heart had been beating like a bass drum since I left Scout’s Lookout. I tried to enjoy what I was seeing and doing. After about an hour, I actually made it out to Angels Landing and began to relax. It was time to take that picture of myself standing on Angels Landing. My victory picture.

As I stood on Angels Landing, looking down the canyon at the Great White Throne, I felt a sense of accomplishment. I had conquered my fear, well at least set it aside for awhile, and made it to the end. When I had finished taking a few pictures, I turned to face the trail again. From the top of the landing, you can see the Hogs Back section in all its glory, a narrow slice of trail suspended high in the sky. I could not believe that it looked even smaller from the end of the trail than it did at the beginning. Unfortunately, there is only one way out alive.

On the day that I attempted the Angels Landing trail for the third time, the trail felt a little different. I walked a little taller. Said “hello” to a few hikers. The sky even seemed a little bluer.

I felt like telling every hiker I passed, “I made it out to the end, you know.” But, I figured they probably wouldn’t care. Most of them probably thought the trail was no big deal. They were some of the crazy ones. You can’t tell one kind of hiker from another until you get to Scout’s Lookout and see the expression on their faces. Some just hike on, while some stop and say, “this is a good place to stop.” On that day in April, I was one of the ones that hiked on. I set aside my fears and enjoyed the trail. I got the photos that I needed for the magazine, survived the journey, and at times even enjoyed myself. I mean, it’s just another walk along a sidewalk, right?

© Frank Serafini 2021