Video: A toy almost got me killed on Angels Landing

Angels Landing at Zion National Park, near Springdale in southern Utah.

Angels Landing at Zion National Park, near Springdale in southern Utah. (Mike Godfrey)


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ZION NATIONAL PARK — You'd be extremely hard pressed to find a more famous hiking trail in all of Utah, or, even the world, than Angels Landing.

The reasons for that are pretty obvious. The setting is spectacular, the final climb along the fabled chain section to the summit is bracketed by thrilling 1,000-foot cliffs. And, at less than 6 miles out and back, Angels Landing is extremely accessible, particularly so before the new permit program.

But, the mixture of its fame and ease of accessibility might well be chiefly responsible for Angels Landing's darkest claim to fame.

Year after year, a growing number of hikers have fallen to their deaths along this iconic trail.

That running tally of lives lost serves as an earnest caution for anyone who attempts the trek — while simultaneously functioning as a sort of morbid lure for travelers and outlets to claim Angels Landing as one of the world's "most dangerous" or deadly trails.

It's a dubious claim, but one often rewarded by the internet. Whatever its real or perceived ranking on lists of the world's most dangerous or deadly trails, there are obvious hazards on all sides when hiking Angels Landing. Hazards that I know better than most.

Every report of a hiker falling from the craggy spine of Angels Landing transports me back to the day, about eight years ago, when I shared the summit with an inconsiderate hiker and his stupid toy — the combination of which nearly resulted in me falling close to 1,500 feet to my death.

Even eight years later, recounting my experience reawakens the anxiety and the frustration of that experience. But lives lost at Angels Landing, like those listed here, have so often served to remind me that I enjoy an opportunity (if not an obligation), that others do not — specifically, to share my experience and what it says about this über-famous trail and the exploding popularity of Zion National Park, and other rugged, wild spaces.

The toy that almost killed me

My near fall from the summit of Angels Landing was not complicated and can be summed up in a few brief sentences.

While peering over the cliff's edge (as almost all hikers do), I was struck — suddenly and without warning — in the back of the head by a kite that had no business being anywhere near the cliff.

The surprise impact robbed me of my balance and focus, causing me to teeter, momentarily, between a certain and undeserved death, and the security of Zion National Park's most famous summit.

Simple enough, right? But those few sentences don't begin to capture the disorientation or the terror I felt that day while peering through 1,500 feet of empty air to the canyon floor.

In addition to sharing a one-of-a-kind view of this iconic trail, that is the purpose of this video.

I've reconstructed the event to demonstrate how otherwise benign toys and gimmicks can be deadly in places like the Angels Landing summit or trail, altogether. Please note: I used simple video editing techniques to recreate the experience, thus avoiding participating in the very gimmicks that nearly cost me my life.

Even when the consequences aren't fatal, gimmicks are incredibly disrespectful to both the land and people who have come to marvel, unhindered, at this one-of-a-kind dreamscape.

I am an extremely accomplished and pretty cautious hiker. I don't take selfies, nor am I prone to disruptive or hazardous antics. I DO NOT advise standing or sitting on the very edge of any cliff, whether visiting Angels Landing, or elsewhere. Had I not given myself a little extra space that day eight years ago, it's very possible that I would not have lived to share my experience.

Now, I can't say with any certainty what is leading to the growing number of deaths on Angels Landing. Each event is its own tragedy. Having hiked the chain section to the summit many times; I do not consider this trail to be particularly dangerous for hikers who are attentive, cautious, respectful and prepared.

However, I suspect extreme accessibility and social media fame are luring many underprepared, inattentive, inconsiderate and vainglorious travelers to this trail — increasing the risk and frequency of tragedy. Attempting Angels Landing with the wrong set of attributes is to tempt one's fate, as thousand-foot falls do not allow for do-overs.

And while deadly selfies have become the catch-all explanation for outdoor fatalities, the truth is that beginner and veteran hikers alike are getting into trouble in the backcountry without ever posing for selfies. Nature honestly doesn't care how experienced you consider yourself.

Your behavior is either your greatest asset or most hazardous liability. The value of preparation, respect and attentiveness in the backcountry simply cannot be overstated — especially when hiking a trail like Angels Landing.

Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also

Money and popularity might be the two metrics people most often associate with the word "success." And, if those are your preferred standards, Angels Landing's fame and the tourism dollars brought into the state's coffers by those visiting Zion National Park and hoping to climb this iconic trail might be cause to celebrate.

But, if my many trips up Angels Landing and tens of thousands of miles in the backcountry have taught me anything — it's that success is much better defined as balance, respect, courtesy and stewardship. Respect and courtesy for each other and the land are intangible and priceless commodities needed now more than ever. And, even though they're unlikely to swell anyone's bank account, they ought to be the dominant consideration for everyone who explores or values our natural treasures.

Courtesy, as I learned the hard way, is more than good manners. It can literally mean the difference between life and death. It's also key to preserving the priceless and vanishing spirit of wilderness.

The experience of hiking Angels Landing has changed so much since I first made the climb many years ago. Before the "Mighty 5" campaign and the maturation of social media — and, before an inconsiderate hiker and a stupid toy needlessly brought me within inches of a fatal fall — hiking Angels Landing was very much a sacred experience.

While taking my first steps atop the summit named as the abode of angels, it felt like I had entered the Holy of Holies within a one-of-a-kind wilderness temple. That response to this landscape stretches back to pioneer times, when locals began calling this exceptional canyon "Zion," meaning heavenly city, or kingdom of heaven.

In ancient Israel, Zion was known as the place where God dwells. In old Jerusalem, Zion was the hill where the temple was built. You simply could not pick a more sacred and reverential name for any landscape.

That day, standing slack-jawed suspended 1,500 ft above the Virgin River, I encountered a woman from England who had crossed half of the globe to visit this incredible place. Sitting in near silence, I will never forget her expression of wonder as she gazed out over Zion Canyon. Nor can I forget her description of the experience. "I'm not a religious person," she said, "but sitting here — I feel like there must be something out there."

In 2013, the Utah Office of Tourism launched their hugely influential "Mighty 5" promotional campaign for national parks in Utah. Zion National Park and Angels Landing took center stage in their marketing materials. In concert with social media, visitation to Utah's parks subsequently soared, most notably at Zion. Though only a tiny fraction of the size of far larger parks, Zion is now more visited than Yosemite, or Yellowstone and laboring under nearly identical annual visitation compared with Grand Canyon National Park.

In consequence, that sacred spirit which I encountered atop Angels Landing years ago is a lot more elusive these days; commonly drowned out by hoots, hollers, rowdy video calls and other disruptive, inconsiderate and sometimes dangerous gimmicks like the one that almost cost me my life.

The beauty of Utah's landscape, specifically Utah's National Parks, sells itself. Nurturing responsible, courteous and respectful visitation on the other hand is much more deliberate — and agonizingly absent from Utah's "Mighty 5" promotional materials and most of the social media landscape.

In the wake of disruptions, plagues of graffiti and overwhelmed infrastructure, Utah's Tourism Board launched the Forever Mighty initiative in 2021, finally focusing on educating those who explore Utah's natural treasures to "travel safely and ethically."

In many ways, Zion National Park and Angels Landing have become the epicenter of the debate over "How popular is too popular?" "When does economic benefit cross the line into exploitation and wanton destruction?"

The popularity of Angels Landing, Zion National Park and Utah's other parks and wild spaces pose some hard but crucial questions. What do we treasure most? Are our decisions and behaviors as individuals, or tourism boards, preserving or spoiling our irreplaceable wilderness temples?

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Mike is a writer, filmmaker and public speaker, who, along with his wife Michelle, owns and manages At Home in Wild Spaces Films, a film studio that produces informational outdoor adventure media and resources. Mike graduated from BYU with a degree in film and animation, and occasionally writes about entertainment and current events.

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