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Zion National Park: Where Angels Land

Tuesday, February 17th, 2009


We spent three nights in Southern Utah, staying at a glorious holiday house about ten minute’s drive from Zion National Park. The house was huge; four bedrooms, three bathrooms, a giant open plan kitchen-dining-living area with double height windows looking out onto the snow covered surroundings, two balconies, snow-covered gables, and a giant outdoor jacuzzi.

The jacuzzi didn’t cooperate on New Year’s Eve (the water was as cold as John Howard’s heart), but we got it working on New Year’s Day, and spent the evening on the first day of the year drinking Coronas in a bubbling jacuzzi surrounded by snow. ‘Twas a brilliant completion to a day that saw us traipsing over icy rocks and craning necks to look skywards at the domineering towers of red rock that formed Zion National Park.

A gentle river, the Virgin, snakes its way along the bottom of the canyon floor, weaving around thousand-foot high brutes of rock. We followed it’s edge as far as we could, to where the trail became too icy and the canyon too narrow.


We took another trail, this one up the side of one of the cliffs to some gentle waterfalls. Coats of ice covered the cliff face, and the water crashed into mounds of ice at the base.

A herd of wild deer emerged ahead of us, and crossed through the icy-cold river in single file, as the setting sun cast an orange glow across the water. We watched in silence, breath floating away in front of our faces.

Next morning I rose before dawn after just a couple of hours sleep, head murky from the Coronas the night before, and drove back into Zion on my own. I wanted to tackle the famous Angel’s Landing hike; a strenuous climb up 1500 feet to a lookout in the centre of the canyon, and with a last half-mile that is a fin of rock jutting out into the canyon little more than three feet wide in spots with an 800 foot drop on one side, and a 1000 foot drop on the other.

I donned Bec’s YakTrax for the trip – this was not a place I wanted to slip. Light was easing in as I started at the trailhead. There was no-one else around, just the noise of the river gently caressing rocks below me. The trail climbed up the side of the cliff, and my gloves and beanie came off as the sweat began to pour. The trail then briefly levelled out and turned into a gap in the cliff; Refrigerator Canyon. The gloves and beanie returned.

The trail climbed again, now coming from the back of the cliff, up a relentless series of twenty or so small switchbacks that had me gasping for air. The trail narrowed, and bunched up into a thin mound of ice covered rock that was too steep to walk up. A couple of feet to my right was a sheer 500 foot drop. A foot to my left was a sheer 800 foot drop. Chains had been nailed into the rock to haul oneself up with, though in some places they were frozen into the ice. I gingerly tried to pull myself up, trying desperately to get some sure footing.

After some nervous slips, I crested the rise, and about an hour-and-a-half after setting out reached Scout’s lookout; a (relatively) wide expanse that offered some stunning views back down the canyon, and was the resting place before one would normally attack the last fear-inducing, spine-tingling ascent. But I was out of time. We had to get to back to Las Vegas later that afternoon, and there was no way I could reach the top, take in the view, and make it back down in time.

As much as I wanted to keep going, to tackle a scary-as-hell climb up a narrow fin of rock covered with ice and snow, I had to let it go. I took some snaps from Scout’s Lookout (the big chunk of rock on the left of this photo is the trail leading up to Angel’s Landing), appreciating the fact that I had this stunning natural wonder all to myself, before realising I only had about half-an-hour to make it back down and to the house before the girls would start worrying.

And so I literally ran down the mountain. Down the ice-covered trail, bouncing along in Bec’s YakTrax (an absolute life saver).

Zion was almost overwhelming in its contradictions. Beautiful and powerful and peaceful and intense. I’d like to return one day. To Zion and to Bryce. To see them in the summer, stripped of their icy cloaks. And to reach the summit where angels land.


The Grand Canyon: A Big Fucking Hole

Tuesday, January 20th, 2009

It was mid-afternoon, around 4pm, and the sun was already low in the sky, ready to kiss the horizon good night. I drove the big SUV, a Ford Explorer, through the snow covered plains north of Flagstaff, towards the south rim of the Grand Canyon.

I expected the landscape to be more dramatic, but the road refused to budge from its dead-straight line, easing across the lightly rolling land. Christmas trees lined the road, and patches of ice hung onto the asphalt in the shadows.

Entry to the park was paid, only $25 for a 7-day pass for the three of us, and we continued along the road as it began to slowly wind through the forest, yet beyond that the landscape offered no further clues as to the gaping cut that scarred the earth just up ahead. We reached the main village, perched near the edge of the canyon, but still it lay hidden; my eyes focussed on the slippery road, my mind concentrating on driving.

We were moving at little more than walking speed; the roads covered in ice. We began to leave the village. Two cars were stopped just up ahead where a sign showed a map of the area. I put the brakes on, a little harder than necessary.

“Holy fuck! There’s a big fucking hole!”

“What, where?” Bec craned her neck to look down at the road in front of the car, expecting to see a pot-hole that had stopped us in our tracks.

“No, out there!”

She turned to look out the passenger window, where to our right the trees had parted to reveal an earth that simply fell away to depths we couldn’t see, fell seemingly forever, laying bare jagged red walls dusted with snow. She gasped. Literally gasped. I don’t believe I’ve ever actually heard someone audibly gasp before. I hadn’t been to the Grand Canyon before.



I planted the accelerator, and we raced along the canyon’s edge. I wanted to look out the window, but had to watch the road. Cars stopped as four or five deer munched on the icy grass by the side of the road. We kept on, racing the sun as it dipped ever lower. A lookout was reached, cameras set on tripods and clicked and clicked and clicked. Colours changed, faded, slipped away. The sky melted from blue into pink into nothing. The canyon walls cried yellows and oranges and reds, or hid under the snow. The air grew cold, and my fingers began to hurt. Cameras clicked and clicked and clicked some more. Heads were shaken as glances were exchanged and smiles of incredulity spread across faces.

The sun was gone, replaced by a smiling moon. We drove back to our motel to eat some steak and listen to an old cowboy tickle Johnny Cash covers on his banjo.

Next morning was cold. Still dark and real cold as we started the car at a little after 6.30. We made the canyon as the first light began to creep into the sky. The canyon edge was covered in ice that had been worn smooth from constant foot traffic. My feet started sliding, and I crashed onto my arse walking from the car, holding the camera above my head as I landed. No harm done.

A light wisp of cloud swept across the sky and turned slowly pink as the sun, though still out of sight, shed more light on the immense hole below us. It was a mesmerising sight. The desert reds of the land told my eyes that it should be warm out, that the sun should be piercing with its heat, but my fingers were frozen, my beanie pulled down tight over my ears. The first rays brought welcome warmth, and the canyon walls began to sparkle in the light.

We spent the morning driving slowly East along the canyon’s south rim, stopping at lookouts for jaw-dropping views, and stripping off layers as the sun climbed and delivered an unseasonable but entirely welcome warmth.

We left the park a little after lunch, and drove north on Highway 89 across Arizona, through the Navajo Reservation, and across the border into Utah.