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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.


Bryce Canyon: Hoodoo chile

Monday, January 26th, 2009


Bryce Canyon, just over an hour’s drive north of our accommodation in Southern Utah, was a stunning, ridiculously enchanting locale. It was small in comparison to the Grand Canyon from where we’d just come, but then, Europe is small compared to the Grand Canyon. America is a place that seldom does small. A car is only considered small if it has less than three axles.

It was the final day of 2008, and the holiday atmosphere had all in a good mood. We reached the park entrance only to find the booth unattended. Entrance was supposed to be $25, so we drove through to the visitor centre and approached the park ranger, informing him of the problem.

“Well,” he mused, “he’s probably out for a coffee or something, and I’m not really able to accept entrance fees here. So basically, if you pay on your way out, great. If not, well, happy new year!”

Bryce is made up of hundreds, maybe thousands of ‘hoodoos’; tall soldiers of orange rock that line the slopes looking not unlike the giant termite-mounds you find in the Australian outback. Our guidebook described them as looking like melting sandcastles. Being there in the winter meant there were trails of snow banked up on the hoodoos, leaving them looking like a bunch of naked Scandinavians left out in the sun too long; all white snowy hair and burnt orange skin.

After drinking in the view from the rim of the canyon, we walked down into the depths, following a snowy trail through giant amphitheaters open to the brilliant sunshine, where the sky above was the bluest of deep blues. It was like being deep in the ocean and looking up to the sunny surface, as if the graceful silhouette of a whale could go floating over us any moment. We walked deeper through the forests, and into narrow streets between the ever-larger rocks that seemed to glow orange in the reflected sunlight.

Bec wore designer gumboots borrowed from our friend Jill, winter tights, a woollen skirt, a funky short winter jacket, a hand-knitted scarf, and a woollen hat that my Mum knitted. She looked like a 60’s model on location for a photo-shoot; the most unlikely looking (but down-right sexiest) hiker you could imagine. This was brought into particularly stark focus as we passed a middle-aged couple (two of the very few other people we saw whilst walking through the canyon), supporting themselves with walking poles and who, at first glance, appeared to be wearing tennis racquets on their feet. They were, of course, snow shoes. This was some serious terrain we were crossing.

The reason Bec was able to rub shoulders with the likes of Federer and Sharapova over there whilst wearing gumboots was due to a nifty little attachment to the soles of her boots called YakTrax. It was a rubber sole that you stretched over your existing footwear, with a criss-cross of coiled wire on the bottom that provided traction. Bec and Jill had purchased them at the park visitor centre on the advice of the park ranger, whilst I, being a male (read: stubborn, ignorant twat) dismissed them with a wave of my hand, assuring everyone within earshot that I had the sure-footing of a mountain goat (cue mountain goat slipping off an icy ledge, Simpsons-style). I even had the friendly ranger convinced; “Yeah, you look wiry, you’ll be ok.”

I proceeded to spend the rest of the day slipping and skating down the slopes, spending more time with eyes trained on the ground in front of me than taking in the stupendous scenery. Wiry can only take you so far people.

The day was a brilliant outing; a wonderful way to spend the last day of 2008, and one of those times when nature’s astounding beauty truly does overwhelm you. As always, the photos just don’t do it justice….

Bryce 1Bryce 2Bryce 3Bryce 4

Bryce 5Bryce 6Bryce 7Bryce 8

Bryce 9

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 ... [Continue reading this entry]