Day three in Zion looked quite different form the previous days. The sun disappeared, and in its place were low hanging clouds that spit mist from dawn to about 4:00 PM. The drizzle tamed the dust and generated cooler hiking temperatures. I packed up all of my gear and caught the park shuttle to The Grotto, which doubles as the trailhead for the west rim.
Trailhead 9:15 AM. The first two miles of the west rim trail are extremely strenuous, unforgiving, switchbacks. Most trails level out now and then, but this stretch seemed to be entirely uphill. About a fourth into the 2-mile climb, I caught up with a gentleman from Florida who also seemed to be struggling. His family had gone ahead of him, and they planned to meet up at the end of the switchbacks. We got to talking about flat land, altitude, and fishing. He also told me that his family was on a large tour of the high desert parks. Zion was their second stop. The family had just returned from a hellish tour of the Grand Canyon, where the father had been struck by lightening, frying a cell phone in his hands! Before we knew it, we had commiserated our way to the top of the switchbacks. The climb ended at Scout Lookout. At this junction, most climbers elect to climb up Angel’s Landing, arguably the park’s best view of the canyon. Some hikers, but not nearly as many, continue hiking west along the west rim trail. I would continue west, climbing higher up the west rim, setting aside Angel’s Landing for the next day’s return trip.
At Scout Lookout, I parted with my Florida friends but instantly met two new trail buddies. Long story short, two scout leaders from Las Vegas were tracing the steps of their group in search of a lost camera. I had the camera, and they were very grateful. The two scout leaders and I hiked all the way up to Cabin Spring together, just over three miles. Along the way, they helped pass the time through conversation. One of the scout leaders had hiked the west rim trail many times, and he pointed out features that I may not have noticed. For example, he identified an example of cryptobiotic soil and discussed its importance to the region.
Our journey together ended at Cabin Spring. At this point atop the rim of one of Zion’s beautiful, lush plateaus, is campsite #2 (my campsite), Cabin Spring (the only water source around), and the continuing trail west along the rim. The entire group of boy scouts, probably about fifteen in all, were waiting there, and one scout in particular was very happy to see his dad carrying his camera. We all sat under a large tree and ate a late lunch. Afterwards, the scouts continued west, and I walked the short distance up to campsite #2 to set up for the night.
While obtaining my permits on the previous day, a park ranger tipped me off to the splendor of the west rim, “If you’re going to camp at site #2, you might as well hike a few miles further out along the west rim. You won’t want to miss those views.” I left camp and hiked about two miles further along the west rim. Just like the ranger promised, the views were amazing, beautiful, jaw-dropping, inspiring and every other cliché phrase typically used when attempting to describe the indescribable. I went as far as campsite #4, about 7-8 miles from the canyon floor. There I found an unoccupied one-man tent and benches made from loose rock. From this vantage point, the trees thinned and the view was totally unimpeded. The park’s most majestic peaks and greenest plateaus were highlighted by the sun. I stared out for nearly half an hour as shifting clouds drastically changed the landscape. Each minute seemed to reveal a new image. The most impressive sight from campsite #4 was that of Zion’s painted desert in the far distance. Just then I heard voices coming from the west. Sure enough, four young men in their early 20s came around the trail. They introduced themselves and mentioned that they were hiking to campsite #1, not far from where I would end the day. I told them about my plans for the evening, and they graciously invited me over to their site for dinner. We planned to meet up before dusk, and they went ahead down towards the camps. I sat and surveyed the southern extremities of the park for a few more minutes, taking in as much of the beauty before starting back for camp.
To reach my remote campsite I hiked about 50 yards along a thin path surrounded by shin-deep vegetation. The path spilled into the campsite which was nestled against a wall of red sandstone. Looking back over the path, I could see the canyon below – another amazing campsite view. I set up my tent and found the accommodations irresistible. It was only 2:00 PM, but a short nap was in order. Out of shape and not accustomed to high altitudes, I was whipped from the morning’s climb – 2,500 feet of elevation gain over five miles. A short nap rejuvenated my body and mind. I woke up to sunshine and fresh legs.
Just as planned, I made my way over to campsite #1 before dusk. The guys were easy to get along with, very upbeat and positive. Each of these local men were young Mormon missionaries that had just returned from trips abroad. On these adventures, they completed their formal missionary service. Now back from their service, they were in college working on various degrees. We ate dehydrated meals and chatted until just before dark. At this point I realized that my headlamp was not on me. I thanked them for their hospitality and made my way back to camp #2. Before hitting the sack I gathered my food items and aromatic cleaning supplies, bagged them in a stuff sack, and hung them from a large tree – the same tree where I had eaten a late lunch with the large group of boy scouts. The tree looked eerie to me against the night sky, so I took a photo. I made my way up the campsite trail, barely visible now, and crawled into the tent. Just before passing out, I thought about where I was and how long it might be before I would have this kind of night sky again. I looked out the rain fly and saw that the cloudy sky was beginning to clear, so I set my watch for 10:30 PM, at which point I would awake and take a few long exposure shots of the starry night sky.
My alarm sounded and I stumbled out into complete dark with camera, tripod, and headlamp. I flipped on my headlamp and began to set up. With the legs of the tripod out and the angle of the camera set, I moved on to adjust the shutter speed, but just as I was going to do that I heard a rather loud rustling sound in the brush to my right. Naturally, I turned my head toward the sound. My brand new, and extremely bright, LED headlamp instantly found a pair of eyes staring back at me. Even with the beam of light, it was hard to discern how far away the eyes were and how large the animal was. Being from south Louisiana, I assumed I was looking at some sort of medium-sized nocturnal rodent that was very close. As ridiculous as it might sound, my initial reaction was – something along the lines of a Raccoon. Then the animal moved. Its body came out from the brush and into the clearing of the campsite’s path. I still didn’t know exactly what I was looking at, but then everything changed. A long, thick tail slowly uncurled, wagged a bit and then froze. My depth perception came into focus. The tail, taller than me and probably as thick as my arm, was no longer moving. The body was very large and not more than fifty feet away. The eyes that reflected straight back at me were from a large mountain lion, and I had its attention! Most guidebooks will tell you to “look large” and “throw rocks” at a mountain lion, but without thinking, I jumped right into my tent and doused my headlamp.
Scared out of my mind, I struggled with the camera – I couldn’t turn it off and therefore couldn’t turn off the light that it emitted. I was ready to crush it with a rock when I finally found the off switch. Then I turned to the door of the tent. I decided to leave the rain fly open. Actually, you have to reach way out of the tent to grab hold of the rain fly zipper. There was no way I was going to hang half of my body out of the tent at that moment, but I did grab the inner zipper. Predictably, the zipped snagged on a piece of tent material. I struggled with it for what felt like forever, finally closed the tent, and then froze. At first I thought my ears were deceiving me, but no, I heard something outside the tent! I couldn’t move. Nothing could have moved me. I just listened in horror as the mountain lion paced through the sandstone gravel of my campsite. Then a thought occurred to me. There was no doubt in my mind – I was going to be eaten by a mountain lion. The steps didn’t last very long, and I thought things might get better. After much waiting, I opened the largest blade on my multi-tool, placed the knife on my chest for easy access, and allowed myself to lay down on my back.
The silence was broken by the sound of rustling in the brush again. “What is it doing?” I murmured to myself over and over. Soon, I started to hear large rocks tumbling followed by more rustling in the grass. The situation was pure torture, and I didn’t think it could get much worse.
Nothing happened for several minutes. Then, a horrible sound, steps in the campsite again followed by sniffing. Sniffing! I can only compare it to something I’ve witnessed my dog do on countless occasions . Angela and I will be in the front room of the house when someone passes by on the sidewalk. Betsy, our dog, barks, sticks her nose right in the bottom crack of the door, and takes repetitive sniffs – three short sniffs in and then a longer sniff out. This happened over and over again, only I was in a tent, and the animal sniffing could kill me in one or two swift moves. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, and again, I thought that this would be the end for me. I started to have thoughts of how I wished that I’d spent more time with family and friends and that I’d done more for my wife. I thought about the people that I was leaving behind, and I felt bad for leaving them. The sniffing eventually stopped. Time went by without incident. I looked at my watch and calculated nine hours until the sun.
After the sniffing incident, I started to shake uncontrollably. I knew that the shaking was not from cold – I was in shock. My mind and body were already exhausted from the day’s hike, and there was no room for this kind of stress. I knew that I should pull the sleeping bag over me, but I couldn’t convince myself to do it. Pulling a sleeping bag out of a stuff-sack is very loud, and I was trying to avoid all noise. I allowed the shaking to continue for at least twenty minutes before finally overpowering my mind. I covered myself with the sleeping bag. The warmth instantly helped and the shaking diminished. Still, I clutched the knife to my chest waiting for the inevitable.
I watched the clock all night, counting the minutes. I heard rocks tumbling and brush rustling all night. At one point, in the middle of the night, the silence was broken by the scariest sound I have ever heard – a large cat shriek followed by the sound of claws ripping something to pieces. It sounded like a cat fight in an alley, if the cat were 300 lbs. and the opponent were some sort of synthetic material like nylon. My initial thought was that the mountain lion had found my food stash and was ripping it apart. My second thought was, “Will it come looking for more here?” My third thought was, “How are the neighbors in campsite #1 doing?”
I continued to watch the clock for the rest of the night, and I continued to hear sounds for the rest of the night, rocks falling, brush rustling, and every now and then, pacing in the campsite. It never ended. I never slept.
Still, somehow I must not have been appealing to the lion. It did not eat me or my food. I would later find out, from a park shuttle driver, that the mountain lion may have attacked and killed a mule deer. That was possibly the roar and ripping sound that I heard. When the sun was up in full force I scooped up all my things and hightailed it over to camp #1. The whole way over I yelled out loud, “HEY! HEY! HEY!” just in case something was still watching me. I entered their campsite and found one of the young Mormons sitting on a hammock.
“Man am I glad to see you’re up,” I said. “You have no idea how bad a night I had.”
“Oh, we’re not up yet,” he said, “I slept out here on this hammock last night.”
I stared out at him, “You’re joking?”
“No, it was too hot in the tent, so I came out here. What was the problem at your site? Was your tent too hot also?”
“No, I saw into a mountain lion! It was in my campsite! It came back over and over again. I didn’t sleep at all.”
“Wow, that’s awesome!”
One at a time, the other campers slowly woke to my panicked voice. I explained what happened in detail and they were very understanding and extremely comforting. Not a single joke was cracked by the group. I informed them that I was not leaving the rim until they left the rim, that I was walking down with them. Thankfully, they were more than willing to accommodate. We would soon walk down to Angel’s Landing together. As they took care of various morning duties, I sat on a log, still shaking slightly. From their campsite I looked out over lush wooded peaks bathed in morning’s first light. This undisturbed blessing stretched as far as my eyes could see. I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was. I couldn’t believe that I was alive.