This is a story about Zion, fear, and personal growth.
I remember standing on a thin ledge with over 1,000ft drops on either side of me, feeling as if my life were coming to an end. My heart was pounding so hard my entire body shook with the force of it, my palms were sweaty, and my hands quivered involuntarily. Each breath was faster than the last and despite my best efforts to hold everything in silent tears were streaming down my face. I have always believed that no matter how impossible something seemed I could get through it. That my ambition, determination, and sheer will were enough to carry me through any situation. I understand what scares me but instead of succumbing to fear I often push past it without pausing to understand my feelings. Attempting to hike the Angels Landing trail at Zion National Park in Utah forced me to become reacquainted with fear and address it head on instead of skirting around it.
Everyone is afraid of something and saying otherwise is a feeble attempt to hide from the truth. When we pretend we aren’t afraid we deny ourselves the opportunity to better understand how we function as individual human beings and in turn grow from the experience. I understand there are instances in which not addressing fear can be beneficial, but there comes a time when we all have to sit down and have a chat with ourselves about the things that terrify us. For me, that chat occurred when I was at an elevation of 5,790 feet clutching a metal chain for dear life.
Let me back up a little. Utah has held a special place in my heart for a very long time. After my senior year of high school I made the trip out west with three of my best friends, and while I can’t speak for all of us it was definitely a transformative experience for me. As we drove through New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado in Kinsey’s mother’s Durango it was as if I were seeing everything for the first time. The hard-packed red clay was so alien from Florida’s perpetually wet grass, and the wild flowers and grasses that sprung up alongside the desert highways were prettier to me than even the best kept gardens. I remember looking up at the monumental spires and towers of earth that rose from the plateaus with tears in my eyes. Everywhere we went I was completely blown away by the beauty and majesty of the landscape.
And then we went to Zion National Park.
Driving into Zion is an experience like no other. A long tunnel transports you from Utah to Mars. That is honestly the best way I can describe it, and you can’t even begin to comprehend it unless you witness it in person (which I HIGHLY recommend you do). Our itinerary for Zion was to hike the infamous Angel’s Landing, a trail so dangerous people with minimal hiking experience and/or a fear of heights are strongly dissuaded from attempting. Yet there I was, with my minimal hiking experience and fear of heights, stumbling up the path.
Photo by Paige Charlick.
True to my character I was determined to make it to the top of the hike without giving up, even though I was rapidly losing confidence in myself. A grand total of 4.8 miles round-trip, the Angel’s Landing hike can be broken down into two separate hikes. The first and largest portion consists of steep and never-ending switchbacks that bring you to Scout’s Lookout, a rest area before the final push to the Angel’s Landing viewpoint. Most people turn back at Scout’s Lookout without even attempting the final portion of the hike. That’s because the last mile (give or take) is essentially a completely exposed scramble over slippery rocks, thousands of feet above the ground. A heavy metal chain runs along portions of the trail to aid hikers, yet conveniently disappears during what I considered to be the more treacherous sections.
Despite all the determination in the world Angel’s Landing pushed me so far past my comfort zone that I had to turn back. Looking back now I can acknowledge that I simply wasn’t ready to stare my biggest fear in the face without blinking first. As ashamed and disappointed as I was when I made my friends abandon the rest of the hike without making it to the summit, I know that it was necessary for my own personal growth. I needed to not only experience such all-encompassing fear but admit to myself that I wasn’t strong enough to push past it. Sometimes you need to be broken down in order to come together stronger.
And I have come back stronger.
After Zion I resolved to conquer my fear of heights instead of letting it conquer me. I decided to allow my fear of heights to inspire a new passion in my life, so I dove head first into rock climbing and have achieved things I never thought possible. Every time I go up a grade, or climber a route taller than the last, or even fall and get back up again I am reminded that I can do so much more now than I ever could have before. Rock climbing has not only increased my physical abilities but has strengthened my mental fortitude. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I have cured my fear of heights – it will always be a huge part of my life – but I have learned how to stay in control of myself when confronted with my fear, and that means more to me than finishing a hike ever could.
So watch out Zion National Park, I’ll be back one day. And I’m coming for you Angel’s Landing.
Was this helpful? Have feedback for me? Let me know in the comments, or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. All photos in this post were taken by me unless otherwise specified in the caption. Header photo by a kind stranger.