That Time I Met a California Condor on Angel’s Landing
The first time I climbed Angel’s Landing, the weather was perfect. I’d caught the first shuttle to the trailhead at 6 a.m. It was in the days before lottery-won permits were required to hike what is a bucket list-topping trail carved into rock overlooking Zion Canyon in Zion National Park. I was, that first time, prepared for the dramatics of a trail I’d been warned about. As you near the top, the trail narrows, leaving hikers a slim footpath cradled by 1,000 foot drop-offs on either side. Chains line the last half-mile of trail, providing some sense of safety and security for hikers to cling to as they ascend. At the top, once you reach Angel’s Landing, the views are staggering, the chipmunks incessant in their demands for hiker-born snacks. That first time, I made it to the top easily, quickly, and by 8:30 a.m., I was already settled on my butt, warding off peak-dwelling chipmunks and enjoying a summit beer.
The second time I climbed Angel’s Landing, the weather was not perfect. By some sort of likely birthday-related luck, I’d managed to snag a permit to hike the trail, a permit I’d put in for mostly on a whim. I figured, what the hell – it was fun the first time, it would probably be fun the second time and so that’s how I found myself, the day before my birthday in mid-March, hiking up the trail in the shifting light of mid-afternoon. Rain had already fallen, had, in fact, been falling in the weeks prior, along with snow. Recent trail reviews warned of ice, especially at the top, but I was prepared. I had micro-spikes. I’d checked the weather report half a dozen times in the last few hours, trying to predict whether that likes to remain unpredictable. Maybe it would rain again, maybe it wouldn’t. I had a rain coat. I had gloves. I’d be fine.
All the way up, the weather shifted. There were blue skies. There was rain. There were moody clouds of doom and fluffy clouds racing each other across the canyon sky. I shifted layers along the way and tiptoed around ice patches until Scout Lookout, which affords solid views without the treachery of sheer drop-offs and chain-holds. There, I strapped my micro-spikes to my feet and began the wild ascent to Angel’s Landing. Halfway up on the last push to the top, I head a thunderclap. I saw a lighting bolt.
Fuck, I thought. Standing on the rocky spine of a mountain in a canyon in the middle of a thunderstorm is not a good survival strategy. I stopped, fully exposed, and listened hard, trying to place the thunder, trying to determine where the storm was at and where it might be headed. Then, it started to hail. To that point, light rain had been intermittent. I’d shrugged on my raincoat in the first mile and continued forward, but this was different. This was pea-sized pellets raging down from a thundercloud. This was, I determined, an additional indicator that I was, in fact, in the danger zone.
I stood under a tree, weather-worn and twisted from life near the top, and debated my options. I could nearly see the top. Angel’s Landing was right there. Maybe the storm would move. Maybe it would leave the canyon. Maybe it would rage itself out, tire of spitting hail and maybe I’d be clear to ascend, and then, in the midst of my mental hurdles, I saw it.
At first, I wasn’t sure what it was. It was in the air in front of me, just below Angel’s Landing hovering with a massive wingspan and seeming almost mechanical with bits of metal glinting at its shoulders. In my mind’s haste to identify the thing, it decided it must be an airplane. Then, my critical thinking skills reactivated, I recognized the metallic shoulder plates as tracking tags, and said, to the few weary, worn hikers around me, “That’s a California Condor, holy shit, it’s a California Condor.” Then, it was gone.
I’d heard of these birds. I’d seen signs about these birds, had, in fact, maybe seen a sign about them that very day in that very park. I knew about the intense efforts to bring them back from the brink of extinction, but nothing could have prepared me for the magnitude of spotting such a creature in such a moment. Beaten by hail, damp to my lowest layer, camera tucked away for safe keeping, hopes folding in on themselves, seeing that bird felt like a gift.
A few minutes later, the hail shifted to rain. Still, thunder hounded the canyon. I backtracked some, to lean against a wall to watch and listen. The storm was moving, I knew, but I wasn’t sure if it was wishful thinking or reality that had me thinking it was moving away until finally, the sound changed, the thunder was distant and we were free from the worst of it. Slowly, with micro-spikes on, head still swimming with the joy of spotting a California Condor, I took careful steps up and up to reach Angel’s Landing.
This second time at Angel’s Landing, it was driving rain that greeted me instead of entreating chipmunks. Snow was everywhere, marred by deep trenches carved by the footfalls of the hikers that had come before me. There was no crowd. No one else was there.
I didn’t stay for a beer that second time. Instead, I carefully made my way back down the trail. Past the chains, past the snow, underneath waterfalls that smashed onto the pathway, fueled by hail and rain that continued to fall. Later that night and still today, I can’t help but marvel at my luck. I saw a California Condor.
- Listen to “The Quest to Save the California Condor” from NPR’s Short Wave to learn more about the these incredible creatures, and most especially the efforts to save them.
- A thing I just learned: some Indigenous peoples call them “thunderbirds,” believing the beating of their massive wings to bring thunder, which, frankly, explains quite a lot about my experience.
- California Condors are one of the largest flying birds in the world and the largest in North America with a wingspan up to 9.5 feet. They can weigh up to 23 pounds, reach maturity when they’re around six or seven, mate for life, and can live into their 60s.
- In the 1980s, the California Condor population dropped to just 22 (or 25, or 27, depending on your source). Latest numbers have their population pushing toward 600, with more than half of those birds living in the wild, thanks to extensive conservation efforts to save the California Condor from extinction. Lead poisoning is a frequent killer of California Condors, and this year a wave of bird flu smashed through the southwest’s California Condor population, killing at least 20 and likely setting back rehabilitation efforts by years.
- A friendly reminder to not do dumb shit, know your limits and always go prepared for worst-case weather when hiking in less-than-ideal circumstances or, really, any circumstances.
- Don’t feed or touch the chipmunks at Zion, or anywhere else. I know they are cute. I know it is precious the way the climb onto your pack and ask for your trail mix with imploring little chipmunk eyes, but feeding them fucks with their diets and can make them aggressive to people and sometimes those fuckers have the plague and I don’t have time for the plague. Don’t touch the deer either. Or the condors. Or anything else.