Matt Forney
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Old Man Clarey’s Field Trip: Hiking Angels Landing

When I flew to Las Vegas a couple weeks ago, I expected it would be a typical meetup. Drink heavily, imbibe illegal substances, get memorable stories I can use to impress the girls back home. The usual.

Unfortunately, this meetup was being spearheaded by Aaron “Captain Capitalism Killjoy” Clarey.

On Sunday, Aaron took me, Davis Aurini, the Bechtloff and a couple of our friends out to Zion National Park near St. George, Utah. Our mission, as we chose to accept it? Hike Angels Landing, one of the most treacherous and dangerous trails in the United States. Angels Landing is a 1,500 foot high rock formation in the western portion of the park, offering gorgeous views of Zion Canyon and southwestern Utah in general. The path from base camp is two and a half miles long, traversing steep switchbacks, a violent wind tunnel, and sandy dunes. The final half-mile of the trail is so dangerous that it contains chains to keep hikers from plunging to a violent death in the valley below; cold comfort to the families of the dozen or so folks who died on the trail in the past decade.

Basically, Angels Landing is one step below actual rock climbing.

Our journey began at 9am sharp, with a violent rumbling from my cell phone. I roused myself awake and lunged across the bed to grab the damn thing (the closest outlet was on the other side of the room). It was Aaron, sounding as chipper as a death row prison guard.

“Hey Matt, are you and the other guys ready?” he cheerily asked.

“Yeah,” I slurred. “Davis and Bechtloff fucked off to the casino and I’ll be ready in about five minutes.”

“Okay, just so you remember, we’re leaving at ten sharp!” he chirped.

After hanging up, I trudged over to the bathroom to shave and shower. I put on my prized Goo T-shirt and a fresh pair of pants, then went downstairs to grab a White Russian from the casino before we left.

Almost immediately, we ran into problems. After Davis, Bechtloff and I piled into Aaron’s car, we were heading north on I-15 when we realized that Davis had left his backpack on the hood of the car. Backtracking to the hotel, we lucked out and discovered that someone had brought it to Lost and Found, though they forced Davis to undergo a minor interrogation before letting him have. “What does the charger inside the bag say?” “I dunno, ‘Chevrolet’ or some car make that begins with ‘C!'”

As this was going on, Aaron pounded his steering wheel and howled, “This is what happens when you de-vee-ate from the plan!

Meeting up with one of Aaron’s friends at a Flying J, we pawned Aurini off on him so we could have more space to ourselves in Aaron’s car. On the ride up to St. George, Aaron, Bechtloff and I talked shop and excitedly scanned the desert around us for dust devils. We ate lunch at a gas station near Hurricane which Aaron had an almost fetishistic obsession with; on the way back to Vegas, he refused to stop there again because it might “ruin the magic.” After two hours, we arrived at Zion.


Aaron and Davis suiting up outside the car. Asked about his questionable decision to wear all black on a sunny day, Davis replied, “Black radiates.”

The tram ride up to base camp was punctuated by the petulant cries of screaming toddlers, whose parents can’t afford a babysitter yet can afford to spend Sunday afternoon putzing around a national park. Fortunately, they all disembarked at Zion Lodge, leaving only the hardcore adventures to sally forth to Angels Landing. Virtually all of the local landmarks are named after Biblical or Book of Mormon figures (the Court of the Patriarchs, Kolob Canyon etc.).

The initial quarter mile or so of the Angels Landing trail is a gentle series of rolling paved paths beside the Virgin River. Aaron took off at a near-sprint, urging us to go “at [our] own pace” even as he repeatedly showed off how fast he could move. I had been worried about my ankle holding out (I still have a residual injury from the New Orleans trip), but weirdly enough, my foot held together for most of the trip.


This view of the beginning part of the trail gives you an example of the heights we were dealing with. Unlike those wussy state parks you East Coasters are familiar with, Zion National Park doesn’t hold your hand. There are no guardrails, no warning signs, and no mercy. You slip just once and you’re dead. That little white square in the center of the picture? That’s a bus.


Atop Walter’s Wiggles. After the initial easiness, Angels Landing seriously ramps up in difficulty. After one series of switchbacks and a journey through a tunnel blasting enough wind to knock you off the cliff, you get to enjoy Walter’s Wiggles, the steepest switchbacks that ever were. I got used to Aaron hollering “Hey, Matt!” from the switchback above me as visions of ultraviolence played in my head. “And with the last of his strength, Forney repeatedly kicked Old Man Clarey in the stomach before hurling himself off the cliff in despair.”


Aaron at Scout Lookout, approximately two miles up. Scout Lookout is the turnaround point for anyone who’s too much of a pussy to handle the last half-mile of chain climbing. The area includes two foul, disgusting bathrooms if all that Powerade is getting to you. It’s also the last area you’ll see local wildlife in significant numbers; Davis was having a field day looking for geckos skittering in the sagebrush.


“From up here, you all look like LEETLE ants!”


The trail a little ways past Scout Lookout. Look to the right and you can see one of the chains the National Park Service installed to make climbing easier. You can also play a game of “Where’s Old Man Clarey?” if you’ve got the eagle eyes.


Midway between Scout Lookout and Angels Landing. Every time you litter in a national park, you make Sad Indian Biker cry.


After hours of pain and suffering, we all finally made it to the top. Here’s me sneering at the camera with Zion Canyon in the background. The facial expression was due to the beaches’ worth of sand that was being blown in my face; by the time we’d reached the summit, every inch of exposed skin on our bodies was covered in dirt.


The gang’s all here. I don’t even care that this pic makes me look fat, because guess what? climbed that mountain and you didn’t. Not only that, I was in third place (behind only Aaron and Davis) despite having a sprained ankle and no help (the guy sitting in front of Aaron brought a walking stick).

I win.

But the best part of hiking Angels Landing wasn’t the spectacular views, or the massive ego boost that came from hiking a goddamn mountain. It was the people. As Davis pointed out, strenuous hikes like the ones at Zion National Park attract a better class of human. There are no feminists, fat acceptance activists or other grievance mongers climbing Angels Landing. On the way up and down, everyone was friendly, courteous and wished us luck. Unlike state parks in New York, there was almost no litter on the trail, and what little there was was removed by the hikers themselves. Everyone is honest and open: one French tourist who lost his backpack on the way up was astounded to find that someone had found it and left it for him at base camp when he got back down.

And while not everyone is an Adonis, they are in top physical shape; anything less would be a death sentence.

It really drives home the crucial point that none of our so-called “enemies” exist in the real world. At the very least, they don’t exist in the places that are worth going. Even as 16-year old Tumblrinas shed crocodile tears over the “MRA terrorist” Elliot Rodger and demand that everyone who hurts their feeeeeelings be thrown in a gulag, the best of humanity is out doing real things, like hiking a goddamn mountain.

And that is the story of how Old Man Clarey taught his recalcitrant pupils about the beauty of nature.

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