Picture by Lin Morese
In a previous post, I detail a life of sitting at the center table on rooftop bars, covering my eyes on altitudinous mountain roads and keeping a distance from soaring vistas. Lifelong acrophobia had been negatively impacting me for way too long and I was ready to take it to the mat.
Researching the topic, I learn the psychological community has had great success in fighting phobias with systematic desensitization. One methodically exposes oneself to greater and greater doses of the fear-inducing situation. As the exposure increases, the fear gradually recedes.
After much consideration, I decide to create my own systematic desensitization plan. I already know my ultimate goal: I want to summit Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park. It is a crazy narrow rock formation, a half mile long, with incredible summit views of the canyon 1500 feet below and cables, due to the perilous drops, draping much of the trail. Intertwined in its online descriptions are multiple warnings for anyone who has a fear of heights, enhanced by death counts of previous climbers. It is the perfect, horrifying “I beat acrophobia” final test.
I figure my desensitization plan will consist of watching terrifying videos of hikers climbing Angel’s Landing, sitting near the edge at rooftop bars, and taking every opportunity to expose myself to heights. Physically, I have big ideas about getting in shape and losing weight so I will have the best possibility of succeeding. I also decide I will need some new equipment to streamline my body for this trek and some supportive friends who will not be irritated by my fears. In addition, I am hoping to actually enjoy the experience…and not throw up.
Welp…that was the plan and here is how it actually went down:
In the three months I had to prepare for my summit attempt, I watch Angel’s Landing videos but cannot get over being terrified, so I stop. I also learn there are not a lot of potential acrophobia-inducing spots in Orange County (maybe that is why I moved here) therefore I do not gradually expose myself to increasing doses of fear. I do not get into better shape by joining a climbing gym and I think I put on weight. I did get a streamlined backpack from REI and Eastside Sports in Bishop held my hand in the shoe buying process throwing in some “You can do it!”s, just for good measure, but that was about it.
Thankfully, my friend Skippy signs on for the challenge. She is the perfect companion. She is energetic, well-coordinated, and has summitted Mt. Whitney twice, even assisting others along the way. In addition, she is a lot of fun and a really nice person who will not become exasperated with me and my fears.
We drive up to Zion on a Saturday. I purposely reserve a room for four nights. I figure this will give us plenty of opportunities to summit. We can go every day until I freak out and need to turn around. (Of course, Skippy can continue.) My fear should start receding after a couple of attempts and I figure I can complete the hike on one of our remaining days. I want to give myself every chance for success. Checking the weather, my plans and backup plans are foiled. Sunday is sunny but thunderstorms are predicted for Monday and Tuesday. One obviously does not want to be on a solid rock peak, with no shelter, during a storm or even on the days following a storm. Slippery rock and mud do not make for a safe summit attempt. Sunday is our only window.
During this time, I do not think about the hike. I am burned out from worrying about it. Even the night before, I do not think about it. There is nothing intentional in my actions, I just do not think about it. Being a person who usually ruminates and worries, I was certain this would be part of the process. For some reason, it is not, and I am so glad.
On summit morning, we wake at 5:15 and trek to the coffee shop. I am surprised by how many people are there. I guess everyone has read the websites warning hikers to start early. (Angel’s Landing has a single-track trail and less hikers make for fewer harrowing two trekker pass situations on the extremely narrow path.)
During our stay, portions of Zion are closed to cross traffic and shuttles are the only option for accessing the park. We arrive at the shuttle stop finding a hoard of people. (Come to find out, everyone wants the Angel’s Landing patch on their backpacks!) The first shuttle is packed so we take the second and everyone exits at the trailhead. Long streams of early sunlight shine on the red washed mountains. It’s going to be a beautiful day.
Picture by Mary Minerman
Standing at the entrance is a sign with a hairy picture of the last half mile of the trek, Angel’s Landing. It warns of seven people falling to their deaths. I know, for a fact, this number is incorrect. There were two deaths the previous year and one a couple of weeks ago. (I like to feed my acrophobia beast by googling horrible death-by-falling stories.)
We cross a sweet little footbridge, fording the Virgin River, to a paved trail. I marvel at how civilized it all appears. There are switchbacks crisscrossing the broad rock formations and we quickly ascend from the valley floor to a narrow canyon. The sun is unable to find us and the jackets we shed at the trailhead are zipped up.
We arrive at Walter’s Wiggles, consisting of 15-20 switchbacks, and named after a park ranger. The contrast between the goofy name and the terror-inducing conclusion to this trail is not lost on me.
After becoming a little winded, we reach Scout Lookout. It is very civilized with bathrooms, people sitting on big rocks eating and sweeping views of the Virgin River and the canyon below. Using a sexist term, this is the area separating the men from the boys. Hikers, who do not want to attempt Angel’s Landing, wait here for the hikers who do. I see a lot of boys waiting for their men to return or perhaps a lot of men waiting for their boys to return. I am not sure which.
We fortify ourselves and Skippy looks at me. “You ready for this?” I nod. We don our cable gloves and make our way to the Angel’s Landing trailhead. Neither of us mention the second sign warning hikers again of possible death.
I used to wonder how doctors handled the stress of the life and death consequences of their actions. Now, I think, I know. They do not focus on the outcome because it is just too important. They attend to each precise task driving them to the desired conclusion. And this is what I do. I systematically find a good foothold, secure a portion of cable, place my foot and move forward. I do not take pictures. I do not look around. I do not do anything but secure a strong foothold, grasp the cable tightly with both hands, and move myself forward.
Here and there, I spot the Virgin River coursing the canyon 1500 feet below in my peripheral vision, but I do not consider it. If I do, I fear, I will freeze.
We come upon a sloped rock face, without cables, opening abruptly to the chasm below. I drop on all-fours, lean into the hard surface, reach for and finally grab the cable on the far end. These chains are my umbilical cord to the mountain, and I cling to them accordingly.
Edging our way up the trail, we find a man sitting defiantly clutching the cable. He gives me an “I’m not moving” look. I grasp the cable on one side of him with my left hand, swing around his body and plant my right hand on the other side, so I am basically hugging him. “We really should be dating,” I say. He looks a little too terrified to respond but I’m still pretty proud of my Tom Cruise-like verbal repartee in these circumstances. Come to find out, I am kind of cool when I am afraid.
The cables grow taunt and slack depending on who is grasping them. Sometimes I reach for one and barely get my grip. Other times, they are loose, and I feel a disconcerting 3 to 4-inch release. I just hold on. There are areas with long gaps between cables and I question the installers’ rationale. In one spot, I sit down and slide on my rear to across it. On others, with extremely hairy drops( I choose not to acknowledge) I ask awkward teenage boys, expert Japanese climbers with all the gear, jovial middle age men, members of a rambunctious Spanish speaking sports team, energetic purpose-driven college girls, or my sweet friend Skippy, to hold my hand so I can reach the next cable. None hesitates to assist me. I wonder if this might be the answer to world peace. Force world leaders to climb Angel’s Landing together. The common connection of fear and universal purpose is very bonding.
But it is not all perfect. This is a single-track trail and there are hikers anxious to get this bucket list item checked. They tailgate, make exasperated sounds and sometimes just push past. Skippy and I find ourselves pulling off the trail a lot to let these characters by. One guy jumps off a rock behind me, does not plan well, teeters but regains his balance. Another man pulls out beyond the cables to take a picture on a slanted piece of rock, steps back, loses his balance but recovers. We all heave a sigh of relief, but this does not help my acrophobia abatement plan one bit.
The trail continues into a narrow, steep slot of rock. I grasp the cable to the side and hoist my body through it giving silent thanks for my nightly one-minute planks. Skippy easily pulls herself up; she does five-minute planks nightly. We continue our ascent, sometimes edging sideways grasping the cables, sometimes sliding our rears along high exposure (benign hiker term for big drop-off) areas where I get as close as possible to the mountain. We grasp the cable or the best possible handhold, place one foot, place the other and move forward.
Time becomes murky in this forward march. I am continuously solving mini problems of the best place to put my hand or foot. At one point, I look up and see we have quite a way to go and feel a little overwhelmed by the perils that await. I decide not to look again.
Onward we climb. Plant one hand, plant the other, place each foot and move forward. I am tall and realize this is helpful in reaching and having better options for foot and hand placement. It is not helpful in that I have a higher center of gravity and am less stable. And this is how I occupy my thoughts.
The final push is a broad sedimentary sweep with hollowed out footholds in the rock, leaving the cables along the cliff behind. Leaning into the mountain, we scale the slab and reach the top. A solo hiker congratulates us upon our ascent and assures us we are finally safe “up here”. But he certainly is not seeing what I am seeing. The top is about 8-10 feet wide with slats of rock at a 30 to 40-degree slope. You put a ball on it, and it is going to roll off. I continue pushing into the mountain.
Picture by Lin Morese
On countless videos, I’ve seen an oddly shaped mound of rock resembling a hornets’ nest at the summit. Pictures of a woman sitting cross-legged on it, and a man balancing himself in a perfect handstand on its pinnacle, clog the internet. I plod across the sloping ridge, find this landmark (it is not difficult) and touch it. We have officially completed Angel’s Landing! But actually this is not true. We are only half-way done. We still need to go down.
Savoring the summit, we sit ensconced in the roots of some badass tree that thought the top was a good place to grow. Skippy takes pictures and enjoys the view. Unfortunately, I am not great company. I do not look at the sweeping panoramic vistas or take pictures. I am still worried I might freeze.
After a few bites, Skippy looks at me. “You ready?”
We cross the sloping rock face, Skippy on two feet and me crab walking with my rear dragging along the rock. My clothes are assuming the distinct red cast of the area. She grabs my hand and relinks me to the cables. I place my feet in the same rock footholds along the cliff face and retreat to my familiar rhythm. Grasp the cable, plant one foot, plant the other and so forth. But trekking down is different. We are no longer working against gravity; we are now functioning in concert with it. The rules have changed, the margin of error is a great deal narrower and I am realizing momentum is a squirrelly beast requiring constant monitoring. I grasp the cable and rather than pulling myself forward, I plant my hand holds, using muscles I did know existed, lock my arm and gradually release the lock lowering myself downward. This is awkward but not our only dilemma. Having recognized the diminishing weather window for peak ascent, lines of ant-like hikers swarm their way up the single-track trail. Anxious, exasperated hikers.
Like the view of the Virgin River 1500 feet below, I cannot even consider this new pile of terror-inducing information. It is just too much. The trip up tested every synapse of my fear fighting ability. It moved my needle to full capacity, and I am now officially on overload.
Not knowing what to do, I retreat to the new rhythm. I grasp the cable with locked elbows, carefully place one foot, then the other and slowly unlocking my elbows move down. I come upon the rock slot again and this time I am not pulling myself up but lowering myself down. I turn around and go backward avoiding the rigid locked elbow move. Skippy turns to help me, but I have already managed on my own. Seeing the surprised look on her face, I feel inordinately proud.
In some spots we hear anxious hikers behind us and move off the trail to open spots. With no designated authority figure, climbers create their own systems in narrow areas, alternating downward and upward moving groups.
We make our way to an especially harrowing spot. The cables drape along a sharp cliff edging an extremely narrow trail tracing the sheer drop into Refrigerator Canyon 1500 feet below. (For the record, a park ranger told us this is where officials usually find the bodies.) Two guys ahead of Skippy come head-to-head with hikers trekking up the trail. The guys grasp the cables swing their legs above the abyss and move around them. The opposing direction hikers expect Skippy to do the same. She refuses and we are at a stalemate. Everyone is frozen. Finally, a problem-solving college girl makes room to the side and Skippy and I sidle up next to her. The obstinate hikers pass, we reenter the trail and continue our slow methodical labored trudge down.
I do not think about finishing because I do not want to be anxious and do anything stupid. I continue placing my hands and locking my elbows on the cables or rock outcroppings and planting each foot and propelling my body downward. There almost becomes a rhythm to the movement and I start feeling more self-assured and almost take a little pleasure in the process. I am not sure if it is my surging confidence or because we are approaching the end of Angel’s Landing.
Coming across the final cables I feel nothing. I’m so entrenched in denying reality I cannot acknowledge we actually made it. We squat down on a sloping pile of rock at Scout Lookout and somehow, I manage to fall off. Hikers around me start laughing and cracking jokes about my timing. I do too, relief washing over me.
Upon finishing the hike, I thought I would feel empowered and more ready to take on the world. Instead, I am conflicted. We saw plenty of spots where falling was a very real possibility. We put our lives at risk for what? Were we thrillseekers or dumb asses? Skippy agrees with me and says she is not sure if it is Angel’s Landing or the Devil’s Playground.
The After Aftermath
Now, a month later, as the memory of the ascent and the possibility of death is fading, I am glad I did it. I did not think I could. I fought my acrophobia, learned skills for managing terror, feel braver and as a result will live life more fully. I already have taken on some of my other fears. I watched a horror movie, did some extreme distance driving and scheduled a hike with the possibility of some harrowing drop offs. Skippy is taking it one step further and talking about doing Angel's Landing again. She wants to go back during an uncrowded time of year, stay closer to the trail head and bring her thrill seeker daughter with her.
Maybe I’ll join them…