Humphreys Peak-Arizona trip report September 18, 2003
September 29 2003 at 12:27 PM
SEPTEMBER 18, 2003
I have been to the end of the earth.
I have been to the end of the waters.
I have been to the end of the sky.
I have been to the end of the mountains.
I have found none that are not my friends.
This hike was a long time coming. Ever since I joined the Highpointers Club in 1997 I knew that Humphreys Peak in Arizona would be my first attempt at a highpoint higher than 10,000 feet. For six years I wondered whether I was capable of hiking at that altitude. It may seem melodramatic to the more experienced hikers and highpointers but at the time I really had doubts about myself.
Those doubts were magnified last year during my hike of Mount Washington in New Hampshire. That particular hike really drained me physically and I was wondering that if I were having so much difficulty with a mountain nearly half the size as Humphreys then what would happen to me when I tried Humphreys? Simply put, Humphreys Peak was the first time I attempted a highpoint without feeling confident of success.
My hiking of Humphreys Peak was part of a larger vacation in Arizona. During my stay in Arizona I was staying in Flagstaff and visiting such places as the Grand Canyon, Meteor Crater, various National Park Service sites within the vicinity of Flagstaff, and a quick visit to the trading posts in Tuba City and Cameron within the Navajo Reservation. Yet, it was Humphreys Peak that dominated my thoughts during my time there.
When I arrived in Flagstaff on Sunday the 14th, I had the whole afternoon to kill. Seizing the opportunity, I decided to perform a reconnaissance hike of the beginning portion of the Humphreys Trail. The advantages of the reconnaissance were twofold: first, it would allow me to familiarize myself with the lower end of the trail which would allow me to move more quickly during the actual hike itself; second, it would also be a good acclimatization hike for me.
After buying water and other supplies I set out for Humphreys Trailhead. When I got there it was nearly mid-afternoon. After arranging my gear, I shouldered my backpack and made my way along the trail. Pretty soon I caught up with three guys from Michigan who wanted to reach the summit even though they weren’t carrying backpacks while one of them wasn’t even wearing a shirt!
I held my peace and soldiered on. After reading several trip reports by people claiming to have gotten lost while hiking the trail, I kept asking everyone who passed me while I was ascending whether I was still on the Humphreys trail. For the most part I was. One time, though, I did accidentally deviate from the trail. I missed a switchback and had lost my bearings. Luckily the three guys from Michigan were right behind me. They found the switchback and I backtracked and followed them.
Although I was huffing and puffing from the altitude, I was not suffering any of the effects of Acute Mountain Sickness. This realization was certainly welcome news to me. (My main concern about this hike was to find out what effects the altitude would have on my body).
I would rest at times, drinking from my water bottles. Overall, I hiked for ninety minutes before turning around and heading back. I think I may have reached about 10,000 feet, give or take a few hundred feet.
After ninety minutes, I figured I had seen enough. The afternoon was waning and I wanted to get back to the car before it got dark. Secondly, it was getting cooler and I didn’t have a jacket so I decided to turn back.
The hike back took place without incident.
The reconnaissance was a boon for my self-confidence. I felt more at ease with the lower approaches of the Humphreys Trail. I felt much better about coping with the altitude. I also felt that the trail wouldn’t take too much out of me physically.
My original intent was to hike Humphreys on the 19th (my last day in Flagstaff) with the idea being that if I failed to reach the summit then I wouldn’t feel bummed out for the remainder of my vacation. Weather considerations changed that. At first I thought I would try on the 17th and then, finally, I changed it to the 18th because the Weather Channel promised perfect conditions on that day. I was not disappointed.
When I woke up at 4:02 AM on the 18th the mountain sky in Flagstaff was black and full of stars. The night air was cold, my breath was fogging as I walked to the Dennys right next to my hotel. I had a quick breakfast and then began to prepare to leave for the mountain. I left the hotel at 5:07AM and drove through downtown Flagstaff to get to Route 180 which takes you to Snow Bowl Ski Resort and the Humphreys trailhead parking lot. It’s fourteen miles from the turnoff onto 180 to the Trailhead parking lot. Oddly enough there were a number of vehicles on the road. In one spot there was flashing beacons marking a construction zone site along the road. The flashing lights made for a psychedelic train effect for me. I was listening to an oldies jam on the local radio station.
By the time I reached the access road to Snow Bowl and the pre-dawn sky was changing from black to light blue. When I reached the trailhead parking lot there were three other vehicles there but no one was out and about the lot.
It was 5:36AM. It took me twenty some minutes to get situated before I started. The load I was carrying for this hike was the heaviest I’ve ever borne. Inside my backpack were my camera, camcorder, five 1-liter bottles of water (of which I would consume four during the hike), two power bars, one box of raisins, my psychedelic T-shirt, a mirror, extra batteries for the headlamp, a flashlight, a pair of long johns, and the miniature U.S. and Arizona State flags. During my hike I was wearing blue jeans, my trusty L.L. Bean day hiker boots, wool socks and sock liners, a flannel shirt (that would eventually be saturated with sweat), my trail jacket, a pair of gloves, and a black wool cap.
I had anticipated hiking the early stages of the Humphreys Trail in darkness therefore when it came for me to make this hike I was equipped with a Petzl headlamp I had bought at L.L. Bean. Ironically it wasn’t necessary. By the time I started my hike at 6:00AM there was enough sunlight filtering over the mountains and through the tress that I make out the trail quite clearly. The weather was cool with the temperature around 37-42 degrees. My breath was fogging during the early going of the hike.
Even though there had been three vehicles in the trailhead parking lot, I was completely alone when I started my hike and remained alone the whole time I was hiking upward.
The Humphreys trail begins as a simple, narrow dirt trail that crosses underneath a ski lift and takes you into the trees. Once you enter the trees the trail winds and switchbacks leisurely up the mountain.
When I entered the timberline I was surprised by a rustling sound and beheld a deer scampering across the trail, plunging deep into the dark periphery of the forest. Just before I reached the visitor’s register kiosk on the trail, I saw another deer scampering away in the wilderness.
I never had a moment’s cause to worry. My prior reconnaissance of the lower approaches of the Humphreys trail had done me a world of good. During my hike I received an omen that warmed my heart. I was hiking along the trail between my first and second rest break. I paused for a moment to take a swig of water when I beheld a tiny, scraggly bird feather lying on the ground. Not believing my luck, I picked it up and examined it. Despite its scraggly appearance I saw this feather as a positive omen: it was then I knew that I would succeed in reaching the summit. (The feather would be added to the burgeoning collection of feathers stuck in the headband of my medicine hat).
I maintained a steady but unhurried pace. My philosophy was to follow Stonewall Jackson’s method of marching his troops: fifty minutes of marching followed by ten minutes of rest. (Jackson’s soldiers—his foot cavalry—could cover two miles in fifty minutes using this method).
I rested at 6:50AM and 7:50AM. The latter rest break was right above the sign that said “11400 feet, no camping beyond this sign”. During my rest breaks the silence and the green vastness of the Coconino National Forest struck me. The rising sun had cast a lovely radiance to the valley below. Through openings in the trees I could see Flagstaff below me. I was alone in my contentment. The cool morning breeze moved the trees in a gentle dance that calmed the senses.
Funny thing during my rest breaks: when I tried to eat the power bars I found that they were rock hard. I could only gnaw on them. It was only when I got to the summit that bars melted enough that I could chew them easily.
What struck me the most was my concentration. I felt very focused on this hike. I reminded myself that I had felt the same way when I was hiking Harney Peak in South Dakota three years ago. There was a slight difference however. In South Dakota I was so intense in my journey that I had trouble coming down from the high once I had reached the summit. Here, in Arizona, my concentration was quieter, more reflective.
For the record the Humphreys Trail was less stressful on me physically than were the trails on Mount Washington in New Hampshire or Mount Mansfield in Vermont. The Humphreys Trail is less steep and less rocky within the timberline. The former two highpoints have steeper trails that required more effort on my part. Also the trails on those two highpoints were more rock than earth which made it more difficult for me to hike. The Humphreys Trail below the Weatherford Saddle was soft, dark earth dotted occasionally with embedded rocks and tree roots. Pine needles provided a soft carpet that muffled the sound of my footfalls. The switchbacks on Humphreys were much easier on my legs than were Washington’s or Mansfield’s. The switchbacks had long straight sections that made for easier hiking whereas Washington and Mansfield’s switchbacks were shorter and curvier.
It was 8:22AM when I made it to the Weatherford Saddle. Although I had rested only a half-hour ago I wanted to stop to take some photographs and take stock of my position. I had left the green canopy of the timberline and had now entered an exposed area where the trail was composed of loose, crumbly rock. During this phase of the hike, I would have to adopt a slower, more cautious pace. The trail to the summit was much narrower and trickier. In some areas the trail skirted some rock ledges, plus I had to cope with the 3-4 false summits I would encounter before I reached the top.
I rested for ten minutes. While I was doing this, I could see the brilliant vistas of the valleys north and south of my position. The day was brilliant. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky.
The early morning air was cool but not too cold. Visibility was perfect although a haze did obscure the more distance features on the horizon.
I began my approach to the summit at 8:32AM. The trail doesn’t go directly over the false summits but, instead, traverses them on the south side of the Weatherford Saddle. Wooden stakes marked the trail for me. Although I was huffing and puffing from the altitude I felt strong physically. My legs were not rubbery like they were when I was hiking Mount Washington. A couple of times I had a fluttery moment when my foot would slip on the crumbly rock and I would have to steady myself. Moments like those only made me focus harder on keeping my footing on the trail. While I was hiking along this exposed area I noticed a bird hovering at eye level with me, looking for prey. Then, after I saw the bird, I saw a Cessna flying by. The plane, too, was at eye-level and that was when I knew I was pretty high up! (I would have been more freaked out if I had been above the clouds! Thankfully that didn’t happen!) Despite my slow pace I was making progress. I ticked off the false summits one-by-one. Fifty minutes had passed when I decided to take my last rest break before reaching the summit.
I was near the crest of the last false summit. I could see the true summit beckoning to me. I was so close. After resting for another ten minutes, I began the final approach. It was a cakewalk. The trail no longer traversed. It went straight up to the summit. With every step my burdens became lighter and my happiness became more and more real. At 9:37AM I reached the summit of Mount Humphreys.
For six years I had visualized what I would do if and when I would set foot on Humphreys. I thought about giving my Cheyenne Dog Soldier cry or buying a bottle of champagne and toasting myself or dancing a jig. Instead my celebration was quiet and contemplative. I sank to my knees and kissed the ground; then I said my trinity of prayers of thanksgiving to God; then I hugged the summit sign.
The summit was very calm. There was nary any wind at all. The sun was shining brightly and in fact it was rather warm. (When I pulled out the last of my power bars I found out that the bar had finally softened from its previous rock-hard condition).
I found shelter in the windbreak nearest the summit sign. I shed my backpack, hat, and gloves and pulled out my camera. I began to take pictures of the summit sign, the windbreaks, of me holding my two flags, and of the surrounding countryside. It’s been said that, on a clear day, you can see the Grand Canyon from the summit of Humphreys. I don’t know if I saw the Grand Canyon or not. I thought I saw what looked like a canyon wall in the far distance but it was too hazy to tell.
After I took my pictures, I signed my name in the register book on the summit. (I was surprised to see that I was the first person to reach the summit on the 18th).
After doing that, I broke out my camcorder and began to film the summit area and the scenery surrounding the mountain itself. While I was filming I saw a solitary hiker slowly making his way up towards the summit. Several minutes later, a guy named Frank from Phoenix greeted me. Frank had driven all the way from Phoenix earlier that morning and proceeded to hike up the trail. He started about an hour after I had started. I had been planning to leave when Frank arrived but the guy was so companionable I decided to extend my stay on the summit a little bit longer.
Frank was an active hiker (but he was not a member of the Highpointers Club). Frank had done Pico de Orizabo in Mexico and was doing Humphreys as an acclimatization hike for an attempt on Mount Rainier in Washington.
After chatting with Frank for a little bit I began my descent at 10:22AM. The descent was a little trickier than the ascent because it’s harder to descend on loose, crumbling rock. I had to move with deliberation until I could get to firmer ground. On the way back to the Weatherford Saddle I met a lone female hiker heading towards the summit; then two male hikers. With all three I told them how much time it would take them to reach the summit and all three were glad to hear the advice.
I reached the saddle at 11:10AM and decided to rest. There were three other hikers there: two guys and a woman. They were resting too. Someone had left an empty water bottle at the Saddle (shame on whoever did that!)
After my rest break I resumed my descent and quickly reentered the timberline. Once that happened my pace quickened because the trail was now back to soft earth that made for surer footing on the way down. By this time my flannel shirt and trail jacket were soaked with sweat. The day was warming up and son, my second rest break, and I removed my trail jacket, flannel shirt, cap and gloves, stuffed them into my backpack and put on my psychedelic T-shirt instead.
I spent twenty minutes putting my backpack in order when I was surprised to see the girl hiker I met on the way down, already coming down herself. She walked briskly right by me and said ‘hello’. I was amazed. Either she set the land speed record in reaching the summit or hardly spent any time at all on the summit or else failed to reach the summit at all. I have no idea which one of the three happened. Still her fast pace amazed me. I got the feeling that somewhere along the way she missed something.
After that the descent was an anticlimax. I stopped to sign my name on the visitor’s register. I had another rest break at 1:20PM and after that final rest break I walked the final stretch of the trail. When I left the forest and reached the open field leading to the trailhead parking lot I began to feel ecstatic, whole, and fulfilled. Like I did at Mansfield at Vermont, I began to hum the theme from the movie The Great Escape. I reached my car at 1:47PM.
It had been a long haul for but it was worth all the effort. The only part of me aching was my feet. I had three blackened toenails when I took off my hiking boots. It had been my desire to call my parents back in New Jersey from the payphone at the ski lodge but the building was locked up. After removing my hiking gear, I drove down the mountain and called from the motel right across the road from the Snow Bowl access road to tell my parents the great news.
Of all the hikes I’ve done. This one, by far, is my favorite of all time and my best effort so far. Whether I can top this moment in the highpoints to come is another matter. Arizona was the 17th highpoint of my career and a personal best in terms of altitude gained.
And now for the “thank yous”: I want to thank God in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, amen, for giving me the strength to reach the summit and return safely. I couldn’t have made it without the Lord’s intervention.
I want to thank Flagstaff radio station Cool 96.7 KWMX for playing some righteous oldies jams during my stay in Flagstaff. I want to thank the staff of the Quality Inn in Flagstaff for super service during my stay there. If you’re travelling to Flagstaff, stay there, I unreservedly recommend the hotel. They live up to their name.
I want to thank the Weather Channel for providing me with up-to-date weather reports of the region. Many a time the Weather Channel has influenced my choices of where to go and what to do on certain vacation days.
I want to thank the Dennys in Flagstaff for making some great breakfasts for me.
I want to thank all the Highpointers Club and all the highpointers out there for inspiring me to become a highpointer.
Before I joined the club I never dreamed that, one day, I would be hiking mountains like Humphreys. The club made that possible and its allowed me to discover inner resources within myself that I never knew were there. Thank you!
I want to thank L.L. Bean for making such great hiking gear! The stuff I buy from them is worth every penny.
I also want to thank the Evian Bottled Water Company for making water bottles that fit perfectly in the side compartments of my backpack. Water bottles made by other companies are either too big for the compartments of my backpack or are too small for proper usage during a hike. Evian’s bottles fit the bag perfectly.
Lastly I want to thank my parents for always keeping the home fires burning while I’m on the road. It’s great to travel but it’s greater still to return safely to family and friends.
My next highpoint will be Mount Wheeler in New Mexico. I will try to crack the 13,000- foot barrier for the first time. That will be a year from now.
Congratulations on the successful climb! It brought back pleasant memories of my own climb in May of last year.
It sounds like you may be located in the East with your references to Vermont and New Hampshire.
I'am also in the East (western New York)and a new member of HighPointers. I have completed most of the peaks east of the Mississippi but only a few of the western ones.
Your mention of Wheeler peak in New Mexico caught my attention as that is on my list as well. I was thinking about trying to put a trip together this summer, but have a hard time finding a friend who wants to both climb and travel that far. As a result I am always looking for opportunities to tag along with others on the more strenous climbs. If you may have any interest in having someone else along on any of your outtings please let me know and we can exchange more information.
I am rather cautious on the trail, certainly not a speed hiker, and do like to appreciate the natural beauty.