Where Eagles Dare
April 24th, 2012

A week ago I found myself doing something I normally never would have done, but did anyway because, well, let’s just blame it on the so-called Lemming Syndrome. Thousands make the climb every year, so why shouldn’t I? How hard can it be?

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Well, pretty hard, actually. In terms of difficulty, I’d rank Eagle’s Landing above my two previous epic climbs: To the entrance of Timpanogos Cave and the top of the Duomo bell tower in Florence. But I was younger when I made those two ascents; today I’m a hypertensive 69-year-old who takes a daily dose of Micardis, which may cause fatigue and dizziness. The fatigue part set in quickly, only a few hundred yards from the trailhead. Dizziness didn’t occur until after I had successfully negotiated a waterfall and a series of steep switchbacks known as Walter’s Wiggles. Arriving at a level spot, I thought I had reached the summit, but then I saw the final pitch, and my head began to spin.

The trail dips, then rises sharply skyward along a narrow sandstone fin. Actually, it isn’t even a trail; it’s a series of footholds and handholds, tight squeezes and narrow passages with thousand-foot drop-offs on either side. There are no safety railings—only a series of low-hanging chains to which one clings for dear life. Why do we do this? I asked myself—echoing the words of Jim Stark to Buzz Gunderson in the film Rebel Without A Cause. Ah, so that’s what it is. It’s a chickie-run!

Now and again I would pause and turn sideways to allow a descending climber to pass. I’d look in his or her eyes, trying to determine whether said climber had made the summit or chickened out. Of course, no one was about to admit to being a chicken—nor was I. Oh sure, I could have turned back at any time, and no one would have been the wiser. My mates had elected to take a different, less strenuous trail to the Emerald Pools. I alone had chosen the path to Angel’s Landing, for no other reason than to prove that I’m not yet over the hill—and I’m no chicken!

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“Are you all right, old man?” That’s how I was greeted at the summit, by an impertinent young fellow who offered me a water bottle. At first I refused to take it, but he insisted, So I took it and I’m glad I did because otherwise I would just remained on my hands and knees, eating snow. By and by I recovered full consciousness and was able to stand long enough to have my picture taken. Then I commenced the long, long descent, staggering into our motel room base camp at dusk. No one could believe I had made it all the way to the top and lived to tell the tale.

“Actually, only six tourists have fallen to their deaths from Angel’s Landing,” I explained. “The Emerald Pools trail has claimed seven lives.”

My Australian friend Michael didn’t see how that could possibly be, but then at two a.m. the following day he awoke with chest pains. Luckily, Springdale has a crack ambulance crew and St. George has a very good hospital. Within 24 hours Mike was out of intensive care and feeling pretty good. That is, until he found out much it costs to have a heart attack in America. Ouch!

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-Richard Menzies