The view literally took my breath away. Not just because of the panoramic vista we were perched upon, but because of the several thousand feet which we had gained to arrive at the destination. This was Angels Landing, and it lived up to its name, in grandeur that surrounded it, and the elevation on which it was perched. The angelic voices in our head sung melodies of awe and wonder. Hearts were still thumping out of our chests from the exhilaration of advancing up this pinnacle of rock, with nothing but a chain handrail keeping us from plummeting to our demise. I was finally gazing from the heights at something I had sought to experience for so many years: Zion National Park. But it was only one of 5 National Parks that we had experienced in our whirlwind tour of southern Utah.
Adventure is different for everyone. It comes in various forms, and sometimes when you least expect it. For me, short notice trips are the norm, and occur quite frequently. Thankfully, owning my own business in video production and photography allows me to set my own schedule, and say “yes” to opportunities that arise. This trip to Zion started with a Instagram message from an old friend, Chad, that I had not seen in ages. He would travel a couple times a year to various places across the globe, to hike, climb, and experience. This year he had scored a permit for the coveted Narrows top down hike. A 16 mile river trek in an incredible canyon. With three spots on the permit, and his adventure buddy Ken on board, they had one to fill. With such a varied travel schedule, I was not able to commit to the trip until only weeks before the adventure. But once I cleared the time, I began to realize one of my dreams would come true.
Working as a traveling creative, I spend nearly 6 months on the road each year. So I have compiled extensive packing lists for all manner of trips that I go on. So this was no exception. Something unique to this adventure was that we would be traversing a wide array of terrain, from rugged high desert, to slick rock, to canyons and rivers. This was due to the amount of parks and area that we planned to cover. Zion was the final destination, but the journey to get there included Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Grand Staircase Escalante, Canyonlands, Arches, and finishing in The Narrows. All in a matter of 4 days. From running and hiking shoes, to Luna sandals and river shoes, each had its purpose. I love to hike in sandals or minimalist shoes whenever possible, to allow my feet to breathe, and to feel the ground. Although later in the trip, this proved to be my downfall. I never travel anywhere without my camera gear, so having the proper bags and backpacks was key to keeping everything organized and accessible during our hikes. The plan was to hit as many trails as possible in each park, and to do so we had to stay nimble and light.
The departure day arrived. After a short flight from Idaho to Vegas, and a quick hotel stay, we piled into our tiny rental car, en route to our first park, Bryce Canyon. The weather proved to be quite stormy, resulting in a muddy hike. But it did not reduce the amazement of views that engulfed our vision. Words are difficult to describe the ornate carved canyons that zig zagged for miles. The orange, yellows and whites, in such contrast to the green pines all around, it was a sight to see. We managed to squeeze in two hikes there, before heading to Grand Staircase Escalante for an evening waterfall hike to Calf Creek Falls. The following two days took us through arches, cliff edges, precarious paths, and awe inspiring views. I was able to experience so many new places, as well as ones I had explored before. Sleep was lacking, but our adventures and experiences were not.
To keep up with such a rigorous schedule of hiking, it required us to be properly fueled. On many of my adventures, when flying into remote Alaskan locations, weight is a huge factor. But thankfully on this trip, it was not the weight that dictated, but the space. Three dudes, crammed into a small car, with backpacks and gear, did not allow for lavish food or extra space. Which is why I brought Heather’s Choice meals on the trip. Several days of food did not take up much space, and allowed us to be self sufficient when we were miles from a town on a remote stretch of Utah desert. Each day we were logging several long hikes, and having enough calories to stay sharp was huge. Lunch consisted of protein bars by Wilderness Athlete, Packaroons, trail mix, and a nuts and seeds bar. Then dinner would be chocolate chili or salmon chowder. Both my favorites. Since we wanted to stay extra light on the trail, and out past dark, I would boil water and add it to the dinners before we would leave, to allow me to leave the stove. The zipper pouch was extremely convenient, allowing me rehydrating the meal while I hiked. Having our meal ready to go in the pack was ideal. I was able to focus on the experience and capturing photos, without having to spend extra time on dinner. As an Alaskan guide, I have spent many days living off of freeze dried meals, so it has been a much appreciated change to have high quality dehydrated meals when venturing outdoors.
The last day had arrived, and started very early, since we stayed in the next town over from the park, we had to drive almost an hour to get to our pickup spot for our shuttle. We would be ending up in the heart of Canyon, able to take a bus back to our car at the end of our trek, but it required a long shuttle ride in the morning to the headwaters of the Virgin river that fed Zion. We had done a brief exploration the night before, giving us a breathtaking taste of the beauty all around, from our view on Angels Landing. So at this point, our muscles had been feeling the last several days of hikes. After bouncing along the dirt road for a lengthy but scenic drive, we arrived and geared up for the long day. Feet are important during a 16 mile hike in a river, and my decision in footwear proved faulty. Since I enjoy a minimalist style of running, I often wear Vibram Five Finger shoes for running and scrambling. It is hard to beat the barefoot feel. I figured this hike would be the same. Neglecting the suggested and primary footwear of the other river trekkers. Their big “canyoneering” boots seemed like overkill, so I opted for less popular option.
The first few miles were upon a dusty farm road, and my feet loved it. Upon entering the water, traversing back and forth deep into the canyon, I started to think otherwise. I was awestruck by the sheer faces and cliffs on either side that rose ominously and beautifully around us. It made sense that this was so sought after, with only a limited number of people allowed per day to make the trek. With most of the hike all to ourselves, it left our mouths wide in amazement. The water was chilly, but a welcome break from the heat of early summer that was brewing above. What started as a creek, slowly widened with every mile, from the many streams that fueled it. Logs crisscrossing the chasms, created waterfalls and whirlpools. It was hard to keep moving, with so many angles and gorgeous views, yearning for me to document them on camera. This lengthened our trip, but also allowed me to soak it all in, knowing how privileged we were to experience such a place.
The river was our pathway, strewn with bowling ball size boulders. Sometimes forcing us to carry our packs overhead to avoid dunking them. I was amazed at the beauty all around, yet my feet were screaming. Lacking the protection of thick soles and ankle support, they were constantly pummeled by hard surfaces, and rocky river bed upon which we traveled. More and more tender as the miles wore on. I am no stranger to pain, enduring ultra marathon races, as a fun challenge. But this was nearly unbearable. Taking time to capture the beauty in photos helped to keep my mind occupied, but only slightly. It seemed to stretch on forever, which gave me mixed emotions. The urge to be done, and rid of the pain, but also the desire to keep going, and to observe the great sights and sounds that overwhelmed our senses. The people accessing the Narrows from below grew to almost clogged proportions. But with it came the end in sight.
I don’t know if I have ever been so elated to get off a trail before. I learned a lesson though. Sometimes, minimalism is not the best way. I was thankful for the time and experience that I had shared, one that will stay with me for a long time. But also drawing me to come back, and to explore even more, in the land of water, rock and canyons.