I'm really apprehensive, not sure if I even want to move forward at this point. I had decided the night before to attempt the Angels Landing hike at Zion under the light of my headlamp. It's not the most difficult trail in the world, but it has a lot of exposure to a 1400' drop and has killed 6 people in the last 10 years. Slowly I ease my left foot to its new surface and test its purchase. It seems solid enough. I'm still not sure if I should just turn back, it's not too late. Gut up, I can do this. I move my right foot to a position not far from my left and lightly experiment with my footing. This is the hardest move of the whole trip, and it's now or never. Throwing all doubt from my mind I lean forward, pressing all of my body's weight onto my feet. There's no turning back now as I rise fearlessly out of bed. Holy shit is it early!
I had set a timeline for myself that takes in to account how out of shape I've become. It's only 2 1/2 miles to the top of Angels Landing, but it's 1400' of vertical gain from the trail head. If it was flat I could breeze that in about 40 minutes without much effort, but just listening to my inner fat lazy voice go "1400 feet!?" and I decide to give myself a ton of time. I'm going to hit the trail at 5 am, or 0500, or "zero dark hundred", which means I'm waking up at 4:30 am, or 0430, or "zero dark thirty". That should give me ample time to reach the top by 6:45 when the sun comes up.
The night before I had wanted to get a better picture of the night sky at Zion. I had already posted a shot that everybody really liked, but I wanted better. It was a 90 second shot and some of the stars looked blurry as the earth spun underneath them the whole time. Plus there was a ton of clouds in the sky. Not awesome clouds, but high hazy ones that looked like badness. I had figured out how to fix it, I was going to change to a faster lens to cut the time to around 20 seconds, and I had even picked out a spot that looked good with the narrower angle of view my faster lens gives, but the night before ended up being almost entirely overcast so nothing happened. But then, at 4:30, I witnessed the perfect sky. No clouds, no light, just an infinite number of bright stars in a black sky! And I walked away, I had a trail to climb, no time to grab a tripod.
There's something about walking up a trail by yourself under headlamp. Other than my headlamp the only light was from the stars, and they were amazing. I had figured it would take as long as an hour to do the first part of the trail, 2 miles to Scouters Lookout. It was all switchbacks, and even paved. How do you call a hike "strenuous" when it's paved? Maybe it's the fact that it's all uphill. I was unable to appreciate how uphill in the dark as I couldn't really see the surrounding landscape.
At Scouters Lookout it was still pitch black out, and I only had about a half mile left to go. We're in good shape. From here the route gets a bit sketchy. It becomes a scramble along a sloping ledge that I'm told has a massive drop off next to it. I can't see the drop off, if I look out all I see is blackness. There are very large chains that serve as a handrail of sorts along the trail from here to the top. Fairly early on they start to lead up the slope instead of across it. Then they stop. I'm looking around in the dark to see which way the trail goes. There are no footprints, because the trail is exclusively on rock here. It seems that maybe the trail goes to the right traversing along the rock, but I also see how the rock just naturally turned into steps leading higher from here, so up I go, to the top.
After a not that difficult climb of maybe 20 feet up or so I find myself on a small flat landing next to a tree. It was way too short of a scramble to be a half mile, and this ledge is too shit to be the amazing place that I heard of, but it's still pitch black and I'm not going to down climb. I settle in to a nice seat and decide to wait until it gets a bit lighter out to try to find the route. It's now 6 am.
A bright spot is starting to form along the top of the rock across the canyon from me where the sky is starting to see the first bits of light from the sun. This is the blue hour, beautiful light. The more distant faint stars are already getting drowned out by the incoming sun, but there are still a ton of them making an amazing light show. Venus is glowing like a flood light pointed straight at me. I pull out my camera and try to capture it. Most of the shots turned out blurry. I had the ISO cranked way up, and the aperture opened way up, but I was still hand holding very long exposures. Somehow with the help of a big rock I was able to get the camera steady enough to get a decent shot.
By 6:30 or so the sky was bright enough that I could see my way around. I down climbed back to where I made my wrong turn and followed what was a fairly obvious trail in the light. It led to another landing with an amazing view. Not Angels Landing. I could clearly see where the trail leads now. It leads to the top of that huge narrow rock in front of me. It seems to go along the ridge line, which from here looks impossibly tall and steep. And now I can see the exposure. From where I'm at it's difficult to see the canyon floor, because it's nearly straight below me. I've been skydiving twice, and I've spent a ton of time rock climbing, and one thing I learned was that I am in fact very afraid of heights. I'm not paralyzed by the fear, but I feel it throughout my whole body and it makes me question what I am doing. Nobody else is on the trail, nobody will know if I turn back from here, and I will have been rewarded with an amazing view. But... Angels Landing is still a few hundred feet higher than me, and I bet the view is even better up there, so up I go.
It actually was not that bad at all. There was always ample footing, and the chains helped both with route finding and as a good place to hold onto with a death grip. But the route goes along the side of a sheer cliff, so no matter how secure you are, you're equally scared!
From the top I was awarded with the best view I found in the park. I wandered along the top of the landing trying different shots hoping to capture something magical for about a half hour until the sun was brilliantly lighting the tops of the rocks on the west side of the canyon, and at around 7:30 I headed down. On the way down I realized that the scariest part of the climb to the landing was the part that I did under headlamp! I was also surprised to see that the switchbacks were stacked on top of each other so steeply that they almost could have gotten away with using a ladder instead! In very little time I was back to my truck. It was great giving a pleasant hello to the first hikers I saw as I was about half way back. One guy asked me "did you spend the night up there?" No sir, I just decided to take a brave and difficult first step out of bed at 4:30.