“Angels Landing” Zion National-Park, Utah

“Angels Landing” Zion National-Park, Utah


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This hike and this shot were on my mind years before it ever happened.  In fact, I had been traveling to southern Utah off and on for 6 years (mostly in the Moab area) before I made it to the west side of the state.  When I finally did, all I could do is chastise myself for not getting there sooner.  Even then, it took years before I made it onto the Angels Landing trail.

My first trip to Zion was more of a short stopover get acquainted trip.  I planned it as small part of a larger trip and I was still somewhat ignorant of all that it had to offer.  It was not until my second trip that I hiked several of the more popular trails and the Virgin River Narrows hike in particular captured my heart.  I was so impressed with the Narrows, I cancelled the Angels Landing hike and substituted another full day in the Narrows. (See “Drawn to the Light” Narrows image for detail.)

It wasn’t until my 3rd trip to Zion during October that I finally got to hike Angels Landing.  The 5-mile roundtrip hike has a lot of hype surrounding the inherent dangers of pulling yourself up the steep chain section.  I thought it necessary to do some homework before I would attempt it.  Actually, I did a lot of homework probably watching every online YouTube video I could find along with reading quite a bit.  Many videos are full length videos of the hike but after watching several of them, I found myself fast forwarding to the chain section.  After all, that section of the hike was supposed to be the most dangerous. There have been a significant number of fatalities on this hike (not just the chain section) over the years.  I watched so many videos that I knew the hike before I did it.  Refrigerator Canyon, Walters Wiggles, Scouts Lookout and the chain section.  I felt confident I could complete the hike but I also had to convince my wife.

I have been pretty faithful working out over the years and consider it not only prudent for good health but a necessity for my job as a photographer.  Still, there was something about turning 65 and hiking Angels Landing alone that caused me to reflect on it a bit.  I decided it was a go and convinced my wife I would be ok.  She stayed back at the hotel in Kanab, Utah praying….which I greatly appreciated.

When I started watching the videos, I originally thought a panorama image from on top of Angels Landing would be the shot to pursue.  As it turned out, I found something I thought was much more interesting.  Some of the videos showed an area part way up the chain section that veers off to the right about 20 yards to an outcropping.  This vantage point reveals both the spine of Angels Landing and the long valley to the right of it.  An image from somewhere out on that outcrop was the shot I most desired but getting there almost did not happen.

I started the hike about 3:15 pm and made it to Scouts Lookout in about an hour or a little less as I recall.  I had a fair amount of shade early on in the hike and I was congratulating myself on the decision to go later rather than earlier like most.  Pretty soon though I was in full sun and got fully exposed at Walters Wiggles.  I was hot and flushed walking the 21 steep switchbacks. Being fair skinned, I tend to get bad sun burns and have always looked beet red when exercising from the time I was a kid.

I found myself needing to stop and catch my breath halfway up Walters Wiggles.  Having my camera gear, tripod and considerable water didn’t help.  A woman coming down the trail asked if I was ok.  I laughed and said yeah, I always look like this.  When I arrived at Scouts Lookout, I took a brief break like most people before either heading up the chain section or back down.  This is generally the turnaround point for people who don’t wish to hike the chain section.

After a few minutes, I started up the chain section.  Ironically, the first section of the chain section was heavily slanted but without chains. I found this kind of disturbing because of the deep abyss just to my right.  It did not last long but it quickly left me wondering if the problem with the chain section was that there were not enough of them.  But, I soon realized that was not the case.

A little further up the chains traffic abruptly came to a stop. I waited a few minutes and word got down the trail that someone had frozen further up and no one was moving.  I waited another minute or so and headed back to Scouts Lookout so as to not get boxed in by people coming up from behind me.

I spent a good hour waiting for the trail to clear and was taking pictures from Scouts Lookout including California Condors.  They were landing on cliffside ledges just below me or on rock face ledges to my right.  I had seen them soaring earlier but never expected to have such close encounters.

There were only a few others observing the Condors as most people were heading back down the trail to catch the final tram out at 7pm.  I was starting to accept the idea that my pictures from Scouts Lookout would be the best I could get.  At about 5:30 after taking more photographs, all of a sudden I noticed the trail up had cleared.  I quickly packed and hurried up a practically vacant trail as time was of the essence.  It wasn’t too long when I reached the outcropping I had seen in the videos and quickly went to the edge and opened my camera pack.  I set up my tripod and as I typically do, walked around the area pre-composing possible shot selections.  A few minutes later I was taking photographs of various compositions I felt looked promising.  The lighting was soft as sunset approached and a beautiful cloud moved into the valley giving it all the more depth.  I frantically shot and recomposed some additional images before it moved out of the scene.  It was now about 6:15 and I had 45 minutes to get down to the tram stop.  It took a lot longer to get to my current location but it would be all downhill making the trip much quicker I thought.  Not having done a return trip before, I wasn’t sure.  If you missed the last tram out, you would be hitching hiking or walking 7 miles back to the visitor center.  I felt pretty sure I could make it down in time when I connected with a couple other guys who had done the hike before.  They assured me we would get down in time and we did.

I shot this Angels Landing on the evening of my 65th birthday. What a birthday present!

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“Angels Landing” Zion National-Park, Utah


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