Some people are "extreme hardcore," others are "hardcore," and still others like me rarely venture into Pine Park without a flashlight, flare-gun and supply of toilet paper. I've never really considered myself much of an outdoorsman. Sure, I do enjoy the occasional brisk trot up a modest hill, like the walk between the River Apartments and Food Court, but I've never really aspired for more than weekend-walker status. It was with this in mind that I greeted the idea of hiking in the thin air of Utah with reserved enthusiasm.
Surprisingly, however, I was not nearly as lethargic as I imagined. In my family, I became something of a minor celebrity, given how quickly I "acclimatized" to the thin air. And I relished every minute of it. Don't laugh. From the beginning, I was bounding ahead of my weary parents, tossing jibes in their direction and loudly commenting on how glorious it was to be out on a simple hike. Although I thought it would never end, that novelty soon passed and instead I resorted to dashing up the trail ahead of them in an exercise of pseudo-masculinity. Exhausted after five minutes, I would plop down spread-eagle on the trail to recover so I would be revitalized when my parents finally reached me 30 minutes later. Upon their arrival, I'd sprightly spring up and continue my canter up the path, inquiring cheerily over my shoulder "Oh, did you get stuck behind the mule train? I thought you would never make it!" And so it continued for most of the two weeks. It would not be hyperbole to say that this faux competition with my unsuspecting parents was indeed going to my head.
The last day of our trip found us in Zion National Park attempting to ascend the allegedly steep Angel's Landing trail. From the trailhead I could see a group of rather senior citizens beginning their decrepit crawl up the path. No problem. I was mostly concerned about having to wait for my parents, again. Sprinting up the switchbacks here was no different; I once again employed the rest-then-run strategy that had been working for me. I waltzed passed the old people, many of whom were decked out in my dad's preferred style of knee-high dress socks and short shorts.
Jogging up Walter's Wiggles, I approached the summit trail. Summit, schmummit. The trail had only been cause for mild exertion; I could do a quarter-mile more. Unfortunately, the trail had spied me -- the arrogant, Ivy-educated cretin -- and had other ideas. My pocket guide described the remaining portion thus: "The last half mile of the Angel's Landing Trail ascends along the ridge to the summit, and is marked by rock cairns, occasional steps carved in the rock and chains, which have been added for safety, although they seem not to be really necessary."
What it should have said was: "Don't believe the guides when they tell you that you don't need the chains. You will be asked to walk on a 70- degree gradient with nothing but a few chain-links to keep you from plummeting 1,500 feet to your grizzly demise. Consider yourself lucky if you don't soil your pants while clinging onto the rocks for dear life."
All around, kamikaze chipmunks were darting mockingly around my ankles and hopping from ledge to ledge, as if they didn't realize that one mis-paw would reduce them to a little lump of orange fuzz smeared on the road below. I wonder how many die every year. Crouching, and then collapsing to my stomach, I attempted to slither toward the edge; just to see. I wish I hadn't. Straight down. One-thousand five hundred feet with nothing to break a fall. "Are you crazy?" my stomach screamed as it jetted into my throat. "No, just stupid" responded my bowels as they attempted to forcibly secede from my body.
Doing my best imitation of a paramecium, I temporarily lay motionless on the ledge, with the exception of my flagellate arm hairs that stood straight on end. Finally, I staggered to my feet, assured that I had gathered enough courage for the final assault. My steps were difficult, almost -- dare I say -- geriatric. But I eventually steadied myself and trudged forward.
Continuing on, hanging onto the chains for dear life, I dragged myself another 500 feet until coming to a slightly wider part of the ridge. It was a flat rock, roughly six feet wide and 10 feet long. "No problem," I thought to myself, my confidence revitalized, until I noticed the obvious problem. "No chains?" I squeaked in disbelief. I was hanging onto a chain that had just ended, six inches from a rather long fall. Quivering forward, I began fully to appreciate the situation. I was, once again, lying on my stomach on a six foot wide ledge -- with sheer falls of 1,500 feet on each side -- this time with no chains. My bodily functions had already cast their vote, as I felt my sphincter tremble and my bladder loosen in terror. Fearing a messy secession, I conceded defeat. It was just as I did this that I heard the scrape of a walking stick behind me.
The senior citizens cheerfully and talkatively tramped across the ledge, past me, and onto the next chained section without a glimmer of hesitation. One of them (perhaps cheekily) stopped to inquire, "Is this the way to the summit, lad?" Needless to say, I did not follow them, instead opting to skulk away with my tail firmly between my legs -- confidence damaged, but limbs intact and gastrointestinal system uncompromised. The ego had landed.