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Angels Landing dangers

August 10, 2009 |  3:43 pm

Related: Angels Landing update

The news of a Glendora woman falling to her death Sunday from Angels Landing in Zion National Park got me thinking about my failed attempt to reach the summit of this trail three months ago. It was the first time my hiking partner and I ever had to turn around due to the inherent danger of a hiking trail.

Our experience made us come to one conclusion: Angels Landing Trail should be permit-only and have more extreme warnings.

Angels landingOne of the problems with the Angels Landing Trail is that it isn't a trail at all, but a series of rock steps so narrow and precipitous that chains to hold onto have been bolted into the rock face. This isn't entirely unusual: Think Half Dome, but instead of a continuous cable-assisted climb, picture narrow rocks barely large enough to stand on in spots — and large gaps between chains. And there are people hiking the trail in sandals, flip-flops and with young children in tow.

Angels Landing itself is the summit of a long, narrow rock fin. The photo at right was taken from close to where I chickened out; the white dot is a hiker heading up.

After two miles of a very pleasant, scenic hike on the West Rim Trail— including the famous 21 switchbacks called Walter's Wiggles —  things got very steep very quickly. After a few minutes of chain-assisted scrambling, my partner was so terrified that he stopped for good at Scout Lookout, an area two miles in, and about half a mile from the summit.

I continued for another few minutes until reaching an extremely narrow saddle with 1,000-foot drop-offs on both sides — and NO CHAINS to hold onto. I made the mistake of looking down, and that was that.

Steve chains We were frustrated and disappointed with ourselves for chickening out, until we got back to our hotel and discovered during an online search that there have been a number of deaths on that trail. Then we got mad. How could the National Park Service not post more severe warnings about this route? Yes, there's a sign about the dangers before the chains begin (shown below).

And warnings in park brochures about the hike not being suitable for those with fear of heights. And a lovely "e-hike" on Zion's website warning of "long drop-offs and steep edges."  Vast understatements.

Angels sign

I don't know exactly what the circumstances of Sunday's death were. I do know, from reading online forums that were posted following a death there in 2007, that the trail to Angels Landing gets very crowded and that there are casual hikers unprepared for such a seriously dangerous trek. There are those who feel that hikers proceed at their own risk, and those who think the chains actually make unsuspecting hikers complacent. I think all hikers should have access to this stunning trail, but the park shouldn't make it easy. Require permits, enforce a daily quota. And for crying out loud, fill in the chain gaps.

-- Julie Sheer

Photos by Julie Sheer / Los Angeles Times

Angels Landing hike