25th May- Flew to the Sincity for the second time, again because of cheap airfares. This time again we ignored the phenomenon called Vegas, the glitz and glamour of the strip, the enticement of the casinos, the world famous shows and infectious enthusiasm of the people. We yawned at it all and slept in our hotel room that we booked just for one purpose- to sleep. We got one cheap-ass motel (save where you can) right on the strip with MGM Grand’s grotesque shiny green expensive exterior mocking its poorer neighbor. From this motel we could see most of the casinos crying out for attention, trying to outdo one another in their pompous exhibition of wealth. I shuddered, jumped into bed and slept soundly in the middle of a grand party.
26th May- Woke up early and the four of us headed eastbound in our rented Chevy Impala to Utah. In 4 hours, we entered the Zion National Park. The first thing that strikes you is the weird formations in red. The soaring cliffs surround you in no time and you realize you haven’t shut your gaping mouth for a while. The roads are red and match the surrounding stone. We see some interesting shapes, color, texture and overall it looks a lot like the Grand Canyon as we saw it from the bottom. Yes, someone had told us before. Zion is like an inverted Grand Canyon. People drive in the bottom where as in the Grand-Canyon you are at the rim and look at the valley formed by the river way below. In either cases, you can be privy to both perspectives if you have the time and inclination to take the stuff you need for a couple of days and explore the place on foot, seeing the places where your car just can’t take you. Not only are you treated to spectacular views most of the tourists aren’t aware of, you become a part of this place, like its wildlife. You develop a greater bond than when you spend just a day dangling your tongues out of the car windows and taking pictures at vista points to send to your loved ones. Away from million prying eyes, you share a secret relationship unique only to you. You see yourself defending this place when someone compares it to another. You long to visit again and again, year after year coz you have left a lot undiscovered and you need to make sure everything is all right with the familiar territory you had once left your pug marks on. Another tryst with nature is formed.
Our plan was to hike from Lava point to Grotto on the west rim trail. On the first day, we were to hike 10 miles along the west Rim trail and reach campsite # 1.
Second day, without moving base from campsite # 1, enjoy the vistas provided around this place.
Third day, head back to civilization to Grotto Point. Take a detour to Angel’s Landing.
The Zion backcountry visitor’s center was much cooler than the 98 degree outside and it was refreshing and concerning at the same time. The next three days we were to spend in the wilderness in the blazing sun with no visitor center in sight.
We also saw a stuffed mountain lion inside a glass case with warnings on how to deal with one of you saw it in the forest. It was the size of a mid-size dog that looked like a domestic cat. Not one bit scary. Of course the stuffer (guy who stuffs animals) got a little carried away with the canines to make it look formidable. Snigger. We come from the land of tigers and real lions!
Lot of flash flood warnings, lightning warnings and pointers on LNT (Leave no Trace) were scattered around. Beautiful pictures of Zion and neighboring Bryce Canyon adorned the walls. On trying to pick our permit, the ranger gave us bad news. We would not be able to start our hike from Lava Point (as planned) as the access was closed due to snow conditions. ‘SNOW??? You got to be kidding me lady! My brain is melting in the heat outside (good excuse for no brains) and you tell me that there is snow in these parts?! Why the heck is it then called ‘Lava’ point?’
Sorry, she said plainly. We would have to abandon this plan or start from another point (Wildcat Canyon Trailhead) south of Lava Point which would eventually meet up with West Rim Trail. The downside being, we would have to add 5 more miles to our trek on that day. Our Campsite being 10 miles from Lava Point was an ambitious plan to start with. Being in dessert country (fragile environment), we are not allowed to camp anywhere we want. We have to reach a designated campsite (general clearing in the wild for camping use- no amenities). No one would know, but it is backcountry etiquette that we follow fiercely or be admonished by Pi. Only 8 permits are given, which means only 8 small groups can camp in the whole backcountry area and the demand is so high that we booked our campsite early February, the day the online booking was activated by the park authorities.
We took the option. We weren’t ready to turn back for a measly 5 miles. 15 miles before sunset with 40 odd pounds in the back. Better start early, says hubby. Better alert the rescue workers, say I.
The ranger threw more disappointing news as a bonus. The Narrows was flooded and there is no way anyone should take that route unless destination is unknown. We were completely shattered. The whole premise of this trip was to hike the world-famous (not heard of it? Ok, now you have) Narrows. If the snow had decided to melt earlier (in March or so), we would be hiking knee deep on the Virgin river for miles. Soaring cliffs, 300 ft high just 12 feet apart would almost close down on us giving us a feeling of walking in a long corridor flooded with water. It is supposed to be an experience of a kind. Bah! I think we’ll have fun in spite of the Narrows being kicked out of the plan. ‘Secondly, if the Narrows are closed to public, please remove the beautiful pictures from your visitor’s center. It just hurts our sensitivities.’
That day we did some day hikes (hikes for which are relatively shorter 2-4 miles and the need for a backpack doesn’t arise) around the park and saw some great views from Overlook point, touched the waterfall at Emerald Pools and walked along the river with loads of people on the River Boardwalk that led to the narrows, marveling at the rocks and colors. Even as we did this and enjoyed the place, our excitement was reserved for backpacking (the next day) where we knew the views would only get better.
27th May- Woke up like a lark and showered (this shower would have to last us 3 days). Nai and Poo (another couple that joined us from Philly) were going to stay back in the hotel and enjoy the park doing day hikes (Zion has many wonderful day hikes) while the four of us (Dee, Ady, Pi and I) were adjusting the straps of our heavy backpacks and wondering why they weren’t getting any lighter. Poo and Nai were really sweet to drive us and drop us off at the trailhead where we would resume our journey by foot.
We were literally in the middle of nowhere, just had to follow the maps and figure out our way upto the campsite. The only sign we would see is after 8 hours at the campsite saying Campsite#1. For the first 5 miles we didn’t have any great views, just one of the valley, which seemed breathtaking at that point, but on retrospect the views just got better. We had a stream crossing in the middle where we had to remove our shoes and waddle through knee-deep water making sure the currents didn’t carry us away. It was the most exciting thing we did all morning apart from the fact that I drank a Snickers bar that got completely melted. We were getting stung by flies. The houseflies just don’t know how to bite, whereas the wild ones have a 7 course meal just sitting on your bare hands. The mosquitoes are relatively tame in Zion.
By noon we reached the point where we would have had to start if there was no snow at Lava Point. For all that extra work we did, the Wildcat Canyon trail was just OK but we weren’t deterred or anything, we just moved on like troopers. Aaaaaah!, the view on the WestRim Trail was awesome. The mountain or plateau that we were on top of must have been the west most point of Zion as we could see snow clad peaks far away. We walked and walked…enjoyed the views and walked.
More walking, snake sighting, potato hollow-very creepy place with charred trees in ghostly white), lovely views at every turn, might have crossed seven hills, still no trace of our campsite, check contour map to see how much more elevation we would need to gain, seems like quite a lot, didn’t waste time fretting but just enjoying our time, water running out, saw a stream, filled water bottles up, continued hiking upwards. (I was out of breath at this point and hence my sentences have come out in gasps.)
I had to go pee and found a spot away from the trail behind a tree. A captive mosquito escaped from my shorts and as I was in the midst of my job, a snake was happily slithering near my legs. I was in a precarious position and couldn’t move, let alone run. Usually people pee in fright… what do you do when you are already at it?!
Next I related my heroic deeds to my fellow hikers and they seemed vaguely impressed. We continued onward without a word. All of us were too tired to say a thing of importance to anyone. It was nearing 4 pm. We reached another clearing with charred trees, this time black. This happened due to an illegal campfire someone had started was back in the 90s and it cost the tax payers $50,000. The vegetation was just beginning to show signs of emerging. It must have been a lush forest at one point with more snakes springing out of bushes. There was no view at this point, only the think jungle with fallen trees and sparkling springs. We saw lightning and then heard thunder. We counted the gap between the two and decided it was safe for us to proceed. The dark clouds encompassed the area and it soon became very gloomy. I took out my raingear and wore them and covered my backpack with a rain cover. In case of severe thunderstorms we are supposed to stay away from conductors of electricity like metal or water sources, try to find a thicket or trees and camp there. If we have no choice but are stuck on top of a mountain or a mesa (like in our case) and there is a huge clearing, we were to sit on an insulating pad and scrunch ourselves into a ball apart from each other to avoid being struck by lightening. Luckily for us, the thunderstorm was just passing and left us in no time. It hardly even rained.
We crossed another tiny stream with unsubstantial water and climbed uphill for half a mile when we hit a sign that said ‘Campsite # 1. Yipppee! We reached in daylight and just looked around. Gasp! This is the best view we’ve had so far and we get to camp right in front of it. Holy cow! Just look at that valley to the east. So majestic…(this is where I become speechless for a little while)
I love it. I love it. I love it! Yooohooo!… It echoed.
We set our tent and had dinner. Dee and I went down to that insignificant stream (our only source of water) and filtered enough water to last us for the night. We were too tired and slept early (by 9 pm) as the sun went down behind us. Sleep didn’t come easily as I was so worn out. In spite of taking a painkiller, I probably also needed a pill that would make me deaf. Pi’s snores were competing with the winds howling around the canyon walls and made for interesting background music for my future dreams. Thank God for his snores, I actually felt slightly safer… don’t ask how. Suddenly in the middle of the night, just bored of staring at the tent ceiling I decided to sit up and stretch. I turned on my headlights (a lamp fixed literally on the head and not to be confused with anything else) to see Ady and Dee wide awake drumming their fingers on the floor looking desolately at Pi. Dee suggested we bring a silencer next time (hope she meant ear plugs). I tried to garner more sympathy by saying I have to deal with this phenomenon every night for which they just murmured something like ‘That’s not our problem’. Good friends they are! I had brought an assortment of anti-snoring aid. None worked. Need to sue the company.
We decided to play some cards and made a lot of noise. Ours must be the only lit up tent in Zion at that time, not that we saw any other. Then we hit our sleeping bags and slept sorta peacefully till I woke up with a start. I had decided that I would see the sunrise.
May 28th- I pulled the flap open and noticed the sun was on its way up going by the pink and rust signals it was sending in the horizon. I could hear the birds chirping furiously and realized how I had conveniently forgotten that sound. Excited as hell, I pulled out my camera and walked out of tent at last and came rushing back in. It was freezing cold. Jumped back into the sleeping back and slept soundly for the first time. I did manage to take some pictures from the tent itself. It was blissful and the rest were envious that I got to see the sunrise and asked me to wake them up the next day. ‘Yeah sure, I can even wake you guys to see the moon at 56 degrees from the earth’s axis if you like, I am rendered nocturnal anyway. Considering the snores have frightened away the wildlife here, I guess I'll sleep in the open tonight,’ disgusted look at Pi.
Getting filtered water uphill was an ordeal and we felt like village belles that had shorts instead of saris and Platypus bottles instead of earthen pots. That day all we did was laze around playing cards, exploring the neighborhood to find exciting views. We even went to the edge of the cliff and sat there gulping the view to our heart’s content. There were many peaks and plateaus and mesas that I’m glad had no name or a sign pointing out which was which. We felt like we discovered this place and felt that we had the rights to name them all- Sumountain, Deepeak and such. I am scared of heights and would not budge from my position around 6 feet from the edge where as the other two were like dare devils peering down the cliff while standing and sitting down dangling their legs into the vacuum that filled up a space immeasurable. They were also overdoing it as I was petrified. I yelled and screamed at them to stop showing off and that’s when they realized I was not kidding about my fear. I had to crawl back to our campsite for the fear of skidding to the bottom of the canyon. My fear actually comes from lack of railings, safety belts and the fact that we are liable for everything we do here.
I had a favorite place near the stream where I would just sit for hours together all by myself and reminisce. I loved every bit of the time spent with the trees and the little stream gurgling away breaking the comfortable silence I shared with myself. Rarely do I get this kind of solitude and laid-back life back in the city. I was going to make the most of it, fiercely protect it from infringement. Just then I saw a paw print, the size of a kid’s palm on the moist ground near me. A freaking Mountain Lion! Mummmieeeeee! I sprang up and ran to my companions almost tripping on the grass. I prefer crowds now.
In the afternoon after lunch, we were lying outside the tent and our discussion went religious. Pi was wondering how Lord Rama decided to create such a beautiful place as Zion for the Americans who believed in Jesus. It was a serious question and we went over it for a while. Me and Dee being agnostic; Ady and Pi being staunch believers that Vishnu did appear on earth in ten incarnations. Since the issue didn’t get resolved one way or the other and we were raring to find out what was there on the other side of a small hillock near our campsite, Dee and I decided to investigate. The guys were too comfortable to move. We laced up our hiking boots and set out. It was a great idea and we were rewarded with unbelievable views of the canyon and the majestic valley below from the south side. We edged closer to the cliff, strained our eyes and caught the glimpse of the thread like Virgin river hundreds of feet below us. Scampering geckos (hundreds of them - imagine if we were superstitious about geckos crossing our path, we’d have never moved), blooming wildflowers and cacti added a dash of character. The steep cliffs, the mind-blowing colors made me want to stay there forever (of course with constant supply of food sans the mountain lion).
While we were loitering around, we saw a man. He screamed in utter amazement, ‘Woah! Human Beings!’ Even we jumped out of our skins having seen no one for ages and getting too comfortable with the fact that we were the only homo sapiens around, Dee was about to perform a desert dance for my camera. The guy was looking for water source and had walked 2 miles from his campground (Site # 3). We gave him general directions of our stream and he walked away panting and puffing doused with sweat. We thought he had completely run out of water and offered some of ours lest he collapse. He politely refused and said he had a reserve knowing very well how precious this commodity is even to us in a desert.
We reached our camp before sunset, played a round of cards, cooked dinner, had some dehydrated ice-cream (strangely, it was yummy) and went off to sleep.
29th May- Saw the sunrise again, this time with Dee and winter wear. We walked up to the edge of the cliff and sat down to watch the spectacular show that couldn't be rewound. Had breakfast of oatmeal and hot chocolate before breaking camp and felt extremely sad to leave this paradise we had claimed for ourselves for 2 days. On the way down to the valley bed, we came across some amazing rock formation and scary cliffs. I was walking like a blind man holding on the walls of the cliff as we descended. As we walked down from the roof, the main canyon opened up like a blooming flower just to get prettier by the minute. Time to time we kept glancing back to see the plateau where we slept and shed a tear or two. We’d try and guess which of the many plateaus was ours and each of us came up with a completely different one. So much for belongingness. I’m sure my guess was right.
On the way to our base, we were taking a small detour and checking out the 360 degree view from a cliff called Angel’s Landing which is a trademark of Zion. We could see the thin daunting peak of Angel’s Landing below us on the way. It was right in the middle of the valley and I could only imagine what the views would be like from there. Just seeing it was an adrenaline rush and my palms got sweaty.
We reached the base of Angel’s landing (Scout’s Lookout), left our heavy backpacks in the care of no one (quite sure that not one sane person would run away with a fifty pound backpack containing stinking clothes and garbage for the most part and of course fart filled sleeping bags) and started the ascent. Here we saw other people than just the four of us. It’s a popular day hike for people with nerves made of steel.
Let me explain to you that this was no easy feat. It's much more mental than physical. It’s a mile climb almost vertical for the most part. So you climb or scramble on all fours and in some precarious dangerous places, the park authorities have provided chains. After the second landing you will start climbing on the spine of the mountain which is only 3 feet wide and has drop offs on either side 200 ft below. Your foot with is mostly on the edge of the cliff, as it had nowhere else to go if you want to stay alive. A wrong step (say 3 inches left or right) could have you reaching the bottom way before your party. And I guess I have also mentioned about my fear of heights.
So we start off on a wrong foot (not literally, thank God!) right behind this hyperventilating lady who seems to be worse off that even me. ‘Oh My God..Oh My God..Oh My God! This is soo scary. My head is going in circles. Heeeelp, I can’t move!’
What?! Please God, don’t let her fall on me now.
Her husband somehow managed to get her to the second landing where she almost collapsed and refused to budge. I felt slightly better about my own confidence seeing her. I even offered her some kind encouraging words to get her up there as my life was at stake too. I was not rearing to go or anything like that, but I wasn’t as bad as this lady. Dee and Ady were moving about like they were walking on pebbles in their backyard completely unmindful of the steep drop offs right next to their toes. ‘Comon Alpha, this is nothing!’ ‘Shut up!’ I yelled back obviously wondering what was pissing me off about them. I was jealous of course.
As we were proceeding with caution, a lady coming back from the very top looked completely hassled and in a trance. “Please don’t go if you have any fear of heights. It’s seriously not fun. It’s extremely dangerous and stupid.” She shuddered.
‘That does it! I think it’s utter stupidity. I’m not going! You three go up. I’ll wait right here. I am content with the views I have seen so far. View of hell is not appealing at this point. I am not trying to prove anything here.’
They didn’t force me, knowing very well that it’s not a good idea. Saying that they will meet me in 2 hours, they started scrambling up. I looked up at the peak..it was scary. I looked at them leave me alone… it was depressing. Now they’ll come back and gloat about this, bunch of show offs! I thought about this for a minute more and decided I must go.
I was at the heels of this crazy guy who was using his camcorder to take a video of his ascent while I couldn’t even get myself to stop and breathe. Silly man! He even had running commentary going on, ‘There’s the top from where people will fall to their deaths and hence it’s called Angel’s Landing.’ That’s all I needed. Thanks for the positive motivation and calming my nerves, my friend. Next thing I know, he asks me about life insurance and bungee jumping without cords. Wokay! That does it..I couldn’t even overtake this fellow in this narrow strairway to heaven. This guy’s sense of humor was misplaced, at least to me. I guess he realized how uneasy I was and he started telling me that as long as I had good footing, I was safe. Very profound indeed. My eyes were riveted on his shoes. I looked neither up or down, just his shoes (to think of it, I don’t remember the brand... it never did register). Every time I saw chains, I grabbed on to it and at places where there were none, I was praying. We reached another landing where I held on to a tree for dear life, three fourth the way up where I met my comrades. They expressed glee on seeing me, but didn’t overdo the part… luckily for me. Pi asked me to pass him the waterbottle. I took the bottle from his pack with shaking hands and it fell to its doom. ‘Don’t asked me to do such things ever again!,’ I yelled obviously disturbed. Other people might have thought I had a severe case of PMS.
Finally we reached the top in one single piece! We met Poo and Nai on the top as planned. They were here an hour earlier and were enjoying the views. Poo came to hug us and I gingerly hugged her laughing nervously, ‘Wow! You made it up too?’ She felt insulted. 'No, seriously this is not me..it's my soul..my body departed long ago!' I was sure. I heard Dee say, ‘This is so incredible. Look at this view. Wow!’ I didn’t dare to look. I found a reasonable spot, deposited my butt there and refused to move. I caught the view from there and it was more than incredible. I mean really wow! There were breathtaking views all around. Zion is just too beautiful to even try to do justice in words or pictures. We saw squirrels which looked a lot like our Indian variety (scrawny with the three lines on the back). “Look Lord Rama was here!’ exclaims Nai. I laughed thinking of our previous day conversation and wondering what’s with these guys.
I sure was glad I made it to the top, but I don’t think I realized that it meant going down the same way. ‘How much does a helicopter lift cost?’
I managed to come down too. Surprisingly that was easier… maybe coz I had got used to it by now. But I still refused to take pictures or pose for any (which I regret now, coz I don’t think I will ever do it again). On her way up, one lady asked me, ‘How many people in your group fell from the top?’ ‘I was counting at first and then the numbers got high. It’s easier just to let you know only six of us reached safely to the bottom,’ I grinned smugly.
(check out Joe's photos of Angel's Landing)
We reached Scout’s Lookout, picked up our bags and started on our way down the Walter’s wiggles, the most unrelenting switchbacks I have ever seen. We passed refrigerator canyon, a cave in the canyon that is really cool and finally reached Grotto Point and civilization where I almost got hit by a bus while crossing the road aimlessly. Wouldn’t it be ironic if I died like that after climbing a freaking cliff and having a close shave with a mountain lion!
30th May- Next day we went to Bryce Canyon and then Las Vegas. I’ve surpassed my word limit and refuse to continue in order to preserve your sanity. Bryce was awesome (nothing in the world quite like it) and Las Vegas was ….oh well, you know!