It can be really cold and dark when you get on the first shuttle from the Zion Canyon Visitors Center at 5:45 a.m. When you get off at the Grotto, the wind makes it feel even colder. That works to my advantage. The earlier and more uncomfortable it is, the less likely it is that I’ll see you there.
Don’t get me wrong – generally, I don’t have a problem with sharing. On most Zion trails, I don’t typically notice other hikers much. I’m far more likely to be thinking, “Wow, nothing can beat this scenery”… then rounding the next bend and thinking “OK, now nothing can beat THIS.”
The Angels Landing trail is an exception. That trail just dares me to get to the top as rapidly as possible, without any rest breaks and regardless of how high my heart rate gets. I’m happy to take up the challenge, just me and the trail. Interlopers standing in the middle of the path, gaping at the scenery or gasping for breath, seem to be there precisely to aggravate me. Thus, my early and chilly start.
I get off the shuttle, make sure my jacket is zipped up as far as it can go, and trot across the road. It’s the kind of barely restrained, stiff-legged walk-run that children do when the lifeguard yells at them not to run around the pool. I’d break into a full run to beat the other shuttle riders to the trailhead, but that feels too childish.
As soon as I’m on the bridge across the river, I switch on my headlamp, increase my speed, and don’t look back. I might look up briefly when I pass between high canyon walls to marvel at how dark it is, but otherwise my eyes are fixed on the circle of light just ahead of my feet.
By the time I reach Scout Lookout, I’ve worked up a good sweat. I take a quick glance around to make sure it’s still just me and the trail. I take off my jacket and skip ahead to what I consider the “real” Angels Landing trail, the final narrow and steep half-mile. At this point the pitch black has broken, replaced by a cobalt blue. This is good because the trail becomes extremely uneven in spots here and my headlamp casts funny shadows on the rocks that make me uncertain of my footing.
That doesn’t slow me, though. I cover the remaining distance quickly, scrambling along the chains to the highest level and dashing to the very end of the trail.
As soon as I get there, the urge to win leaves me. I take off my headlamp, leaving a bright red stamp on my forehead, and relax. I delight in watching the panorama around me change by the minute as the sun rises and the shadows that obscure the view vanish. Other people start arriving at the top, and I’m happy to see them. What a wonderful moment to share! I wave cheerily to oncoming hikers as I make my way back down to the Grotto. All is well with the world.
But the next time I visit Zion, I’ll want to conquer the Angel Landing trail at top speed again.