Hike Report: Humphreys Peak in Arizona

Yes, that's snow in late June in Arizona

Yes, that’s snow in late June in Arizona

This wasn’t a fun trip but it was rewarding and educational. I don’t regret doing it. Overall, the hike to the highest point in Arizona was an ordeal. The required degree of exertion was on par with the two marathons (26.2 miles) I ran when I was in my thirties. These are the potential fun-killers I’ve identified thus far:

  1. My level of fitness wasn’t high enough
  2. I got dehydrated
  3. I didn’t eat enough on the trail
  4. I wasn’t acclimatized (aka acclimated) to the altitude
  5. I’m too old for this (60)

The Route

The trail was easy to follow but it's a good idea to have a map "just in case"

The trail was easy to follow but it’s a good idea to have a map “just in case”

I took Humphreys Peak Trail #151, the most common way to the summit. The trailhead is at a parking lot adjacent to Arizona Snow Bowl, a ski area resort.  Elevation at the trailhead is 9,320 feet above sea level. (I live at about 2,000 feet above sea level.) The round trip to the summit is about 10 miles. The tree line is at 11,500 feet and the summit is at 12, 633 feet.

Most of the trail is more chaotic than this

Most of the trail is more chaotic than this

The first half of the trip is unrelentingly upward, about 3310 vertical feet. The footing is mostly rocky. Many other portions have exposed tree roots just waiting for a tired hiker they can trip. Often the rocks and roots share the trail. There are rare patches of smooth dirt without obstacles. When you’re moving you have to keep your head down and on the trail at all times. By the end of this trip, I never wanted to see another rock for as long as I lived.

Trail crossing a river of rocks

Trail crossing a river of rocks


There are a few places you have to scramble over isolated boulders, meaning you have to use your hands as well as your feet. At no point do you need technical climbing equipment if you’re hiking in the warm season.

Other than the summit, the other prominent geologic feature on the trail is “The Saddle.” It’s a high-altitude ridge between two of the San Francisco Peaks, shaped like the seat of a saddle.

The Saddle

The Saddle between Agassiz and Humphreys Peaks

My Pace

It took me three hours from the trailhead to reach the Saddle at 11,500 feet. From there, you’ve got another 1.5 miles of hiking to Humphreys’ summit, which took me another 1.5 hours. This last portion is no steeper than the trail to the Saddle; the problem is the thin air. Either that or something else slowed my pace to 1/2 mile per hour!

About half way down from the peak

About half way down from the peak

So it took me 4.5 hours to reach the summit. I had to stop frequently to catch my breath and regain some energy over a minute or two. Five-minute hydration breaks were amazingly refreshing. Slogging uphill, my heart rate was consistently about 160 beats a minute. Even after sitting and resting for five minutes, my heart rate would drop only to 130. Walking on the flat at 11,000 feet was fairly easy, but adding any elevation was almost immediately taxing.

At the summit I was greeted with five minutes of very light rain and sleet.

The trip down took 3.5 hours and was much easier, with far fewer resting spells.

This trail on a Saturday morning (June 27, 2015) was what I’d call crowded. It was as busy as Pinnacle Peak Trail, a popular urban hike in Scottsdale, AZ. I estimate 800–1,000 people were hiking. The large trailhead parking lot was full and overflowing at 9:30 AM when we arrived. The serious hikers are on the trail at 6 AM (good idea). Many folks stop and enjoy the fantastic views at the Saddle, then go back down.

My daughter snapped this picture of me in the parking lot at the trailhead

My daughter snapped this picture of me in the parking lot at the trailhead

If you read other people’s trip logs, you’ll find many reporting five to eight hours to complete the hike. My time was 8.5 hours, including 30 minutes resting and enjoying the summit. A couple of times I seriously thought about quitting and turning around. But I knew if I did, I’d probably never attempt this again. It’s been on my bucket list for a decade. Plus,my  wife and children made the trip to Flagstaff with me; their presence spurred me on to complete the trip.

I don't look too miserable, do I?

I don’t look too miserable, do I?

What Could Have Kept Me From Enjoying the Trip?

1) My fitness level wasn’t high enough.

I’m not buying that, mainly because it’s now the day after and I have no muscle soreness at all. I feel good.

I’ve been training for this trip for six months. My Boy Scout troop and I did a 20 mile hike in March. For the preceding three months we did training hikes every two weeks, starting with six miles, then eight, several 10s, and finally 12 miles. Granted, all those were on the flat. To maintain my fitness thereafter, every week or so I walked Pinnacle Peak Trail, starting at my front door, walking to the west trailhead, then back home, a five-mile hike. I carried a 15-lb dumbbell in my pack to enhance the training effect during this two-hour hike.

2) I got dehydrated.

This probably has some validity. I carried with me 4.2 quarts of water and drank 3.6 quarts. I made a point of stopping every 30 minutes for a hydration break. I sweated a fair amount. I never “felt” dehydrated. Yet I never urinated during this 8.5 hour trip. That’s a huge clue.

My backpack probably weight 20 pounds at the start. The majority of that was water weight. At this altitude you don’t want to be lugging around unnecessary weight. If I ever do a similar trip, I’ll be sure to “fill my tank” by drinking lots of water just before starting, and carrying more water to drink on the trail. I’ll minimize backpack weight some other way.

3) I didn’t eat enough on the trail.

Maybe, but probably a minor issue if at all. I ate two large handfuls of cherries and 400 calories of peanut butter crackers. I had some sweet and salty trail mix but didn’t eat it. I wasn’t hungry. I wonder if that’s an altitude effect. Considering the number of calories I was burning, more food might have helped.

4) I wasn’t acclimated to the altitude.

I think this is the major reason I didn’t enjoy the trip. Our bodies need time to get acclimatized to the low oxygen levels at high altitude. How much time? Probably three to five days staying at 7,000 feet or higher; the longer the better. You might be able to speed up the process by staying at higher altitudes, if only temporarily.

A thunderstorm probably 20 miles away, but I kept a close eye on its movement

A thunderstorm probably 20 miles away, but I kept a close eye on its movement

Lots of us low-landers have trouble simply sleeping at 8,000–9,000 feet above sea level. Why? We’re not acclimated. On the other hand, if we’re sedentary and awake during the day, we may not have any trouble at those altitudes.

This San Francisco Peaks groundsel is only found on this mountain. It's a tundra plant.

The San Francisco Peaks Groundsel is only found on this mountain. It’s an alpine tundra plant.

While I was hiking, my wife and children rode the ski lift up to 11,000 feet. They all felt slightly short of breath even at rest; much more so with exertion. My daughter also noticed the increased urination many experience at altitude.

Another alpine tundra flowering plant

Another alpine tundra flowering plant

If I ever do this hike again, here’s what I would do to acclimate. Establish a base of operation in or around Flagstaff at 7,000–8,000 feet. That’s where I’ll sleep intermittently for three to five days. I’ll make periodic forays to higher altitudes. Examples would be picnics, sight-seeing, easy short hikes to 10,000 feet, even a few trips on the ski lift to 11,000 feet and spend a couple hours up there.


On the final push from the Saddle to the summit

The most astounding thing I saw on this trip was un-athletic-looking 16 to 20-year-old girls making it to the summit with apparent ease. Good for them! A lot of hikers on the trail, you can look at their calf muscles and tell they’re either serious hikers or relatively athletic. The girls I’m talking about were slender but had calves like your typical cough potato: small, undefined. I suspect these girls live in Flagstaff, which is a college town (Northern Arizona University), and are acclimated to the altitude. Nevertheless, a 10-mile hike gaining 3,000 vertical feet of elevation is something most untrained folks cannot do even if they start at sea level.

A huge river of boulders

A huge river of boulders

Thankfully, I didn’t get high altitude sickness this trip. My wife got a pretty bad case of it here 23 years ago and did the smart thing: headed down the mountain post haste. Some people take Diamox (acetazolamide) to prevent and treat altitude sickness.

5) I’m too old for this (60)

Quite possibly, but I’m not ready to give up. I saw 15–20 people at the summit, and they were all in the 16 to 40-year-old range. Elsewhere on the trail I did see a few folks who looked older than me. For me to investigate how much of a role my age played in this ordeal, I’d have to repeat the hike, but with optimal acclimatization, hydration, and nutrition.

If any of you experienced mountain climbers have any advice for me, please share. For decades I’ve fantasized about climbing Longs Peak in Colorado; it tops out at 14,259 feet and requires a 5,000 foot vertical climb. I’m less inclined now.

Steve Parker, M.D.

PS: After extreme physical exertion, I get painful leg cramps over the subsequent 24 hours. I seem to be able to suppress them by taking, immediately after exertion, mineral supplements: magnesium, potassium, and calcium. Unless you know you’re entirely healthy, check with your physician before you try this.

The last 100 yards of the hike

The last 100 yards of the hike

A fake farmer's tan caused by dirt

A fake farmer’s tan caused by dirt


Elevated Fasting Blood Sugars May Increase Your Risk for Pancreatic Cancer


Insulin from the pancreas’ beta cells is a major regulator of blood sugar levels

A recent meta-analysis found that elevated fasting blood glucose levels, even below the diabetic range, are associated with higher risk of developing pancreatic cancer. This is important because you can take action today to lower your fasting blood sugar level, which may lower your risk of pancreatic cancer over the long-term. The researchers conclude that…

Every 0.56 mmol/L [10 mg/dl] increase in fasting blood glucose is associated with a 14% increase in the rate of pancreatic cancer.

In the developed world, your risk of getting an invasive cancer is roughly one in four. Pancreatic cancer is the most lethal. Surgery is the way to cure it, but at the time of diagnosis only two in 10 patients are candidates for surgery because the cancer has already spread. Pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer death in the USA and the fifth in the UK. Nevertheless, pancreas cancer is not terribly common; the US has 50,000 new cases annually. As a hospitalist, I run across one or two new cases of pancreas cancer every year.

We’ve known for years that type 2 diabetes is linked to pancreatic cancer, with diabetics having twice the risk of nondiabetics.

What if you have elevated fasting blood sugars? There’s no proof that reducing them to the normal range will reduce your risk of pancreatic cancer. But if it were me, that’s what I’d shoot for, by losing excess fat weight, exercising, and eating a Low-Carb Mediterranean Diet book detail page at Amazon.com.

Other that type 2 diabetes and prediabetes, some other risk factors for pancreas cancer are:

  • heredity
  • smoking
  • sedentary lifestyle
  • body mass index over 30 (obesity in other words)

You can alter most of those risk factors. Why not get started today?

Steve Parker, M.D.

PS: If you’re not sure if your fasting blood sugar’s elevated, click here.

ATMC: Get the Best Bed You Can Afford

I slept in a sleeping bag on a 1-inch thick foam pad in this Eureka Solitaire 1-man tent.

I slept in a sleeping bag on a 1-inch thick foam pad in this Eureka Solitaire 1-man tent.

You spend a third of your life in bed. Make it a good bed.

When you’re a kid or young adult, you can sleep just fine on a couch or a pallet on the floor made from a few folded blankets. After the age of 25 or so, your body won’t appreciate that sort of treatment. You’ll sleep fitfully and wake up with scattered aches and pains. Sleep in a bed that gives you support, comfort, and peace. By no means is that the most expensive bed on the market.

Back in 1981, I graduated from medical school and moved to Austin, Texas, for three years of internship and residency. My starting pay was $14,400/year. If that doesn’t sound like much, you’re right. The low pay was a hold-over from ye olde days when interns and residents were mostly young single men who actually resided in the hospital. They didn’t need a house or apartment. $14,400/year was just enough for a single guy to survive. We were working 100-hr weeks—no time for a second job. By the third year of residency, I was making $16,000-sumpin’.

I was new to Austin and needed a bed, so I went to a cheap furniture store in the low-rent part of town and bought a crappy twin-size box spring and mattress, $40 I think. At least it was new—I didn’t have to worry about anybody else’s bedbugs, fleas, or germs. Good times.

I upgraded as soon as I could afford it.


PS: Remember those cars back then that had a vinyl-like covering over the roof? I had one of those in 1981, probably a Chevrolet or Oldsmobile sedan. It was so old that the vinyl was half gone, rotted off. One of my pulmonology attending physicians said they shouldn’t let me park that embarrassing mess in the doctors’ lot at the hospital. I think he was only half-joking.

PPS: I graduated medical school with only $22,000 of educational debt. I made monthly payments for 10 years. Medical student debt these days averages $176,000. Consider that before you gripe that doctors make too much money.


Advice to My Children

"Listen up, son"

“Listen up, son.”

I think it was Hunter S. Thompson who gave avuncular advice in Rolling Stone magazine 40 years ago:

  • Never play cards with a man named Doc
  • Never eat at a place called “Mom’s”
  • Never get involved with a woman who has more problems than you do

I’m starting a new category of posts: Advice To My Children (ATMC).

My father died six years ago at the age of 83. I can’t remember a single specific piece of advice he ever gave me. Which may be a reflection more on me than him.

He was a good father. I would say he taught me through quotidian action rather then with words. Allan Edward Parker, Sr., was a great provider for the family. He respected and loved my mother. He was always available and always seemed to be in a good mood. We had some great camping, fishing, and sailing adventures.

My two children, a boy and a girl, will probably be leaving home in the next few years. Any ability I have to influence them will wane significantly then. For the last few years I’ve been thinking about core concepts I’d like them to remember, if not take entirely to heart. Maybe they’ll refer back to these posts when life throws them for a loop or after I’m dead and gone.

Life can be hard, and we don’t get an owner’s manual at birth. We build our own manual by trial and error, learning from our elders or other reasonable adults, reasoning, observation, and through literature.

Why make your own mistakes if you can learn from others’?

Steve Parker, M.D.

Sure-Fire Ways to Overcome a Weight-Loss Stall

It's time to re-commit to the program

It’s time to re-commit to the program

It’s common on any weight-loss program to be cruising along losing weight as promised, then suddenly the weight loss stops although you’re still far from goal weight. This is the mysterious and infamous stall.

Once you know the cause for the stall, the way to break it becomes obvious. The most common reasons are:

  • you’re not really following the full program any more; you’ve drifted off the path, often unconsciously
  • instead of eating just until you’re full or satisfied, you’re stuffing yourself
  • you need to start or intensify an exercise program
  • you’ve developed an interfering medical problem such as adrenal insufficiency (rare) or an underactive thyroid; see your doctor
  • you’re taking interfering medication such as a steroid; see your doctor
  • your strength training program is building new muscle that masks ongoing loss of fat (not a problem!).

If you still can’t figure out what’s causing your stall, do a nutritional analysis of one weeks’ worth of eating, with a focus on daily digestible carb (net carbs) and calorie totals. You can do this analysis online at places like FitDay (http://fitday.com/) or Calorie Count (http://caloriecount.about.com/).

What you do with your data depends on whether you’re losing weight through portion control (usually reflecting calorie restriction) or carb counting. Most people lose weight with one of these two methods.

If you’re a carb counter, you may find you’ve been sabotaged by “carb creep”: excessive dietary carbs have insidiously invaded you. You need to cut back. Even if you’re eating very-low-carb, it’s still possible to have excess body fat, even gain new fat, if you eat too many calories from protein and fat. It’s not easy, but it’s possible.

Those who have followed a calorie-restriction weight loss model for awhile may have become lax in their record-keeping. The stall is a result of simply eating too much. Call it “portion creep.” You need to re-commit to observing portion sizes.

A final possible cause for a weight loss stall is that you just don’t need as many calories as you once did. Think about this. Someone who weighs 300 lb (136 kg) is eating perhaps 3300 calories a day just to maintain a steady weight. He goes on a calorie-restricted diet (2800/day) and loses a pound (0.4 kg) a week. Eventually he’s down to 210 lb (95.5 kg) but stalled, aiming for 180 lb (82 kg). The 210-lb body (95.5 kg) doesn’t need 3300 calories a day to keep it alive and steady-state; it only needs 2800 and that’s what it’s getting. To restart the weight loss process, he has to reduce calories further, say down to 2300/day. This is not the “slowed down metabolism” we see with starvation or very-low-calorie diets. It’s simply the result of getting rid of 90 pounds of fat (41 kg) that he no longer needs to feed.

Steve Parker, M.D.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids Linked to Improved Strength and Muscle Size in Elderly

Rich sources of omega-3 fatty acids include salmon, sardines, herring, trout, and mackerel

Rich sources of omega-3 fatty acids include salmon, sardines, herring, trout, and mackerel

Admittedly it was a small study but it was randomized and the only intervention applied was for the experimental group to take 1.86 grams of EPA and 1.5 grams of DHA daily for six months. The control group was given corn oil. Study participants were 60–85 years old. The specific form of the fish-derived fatty acids was a proprietary product called Lovaza.

Improved strength during aging should help with maintenance of independent daily activities and prevention of falls. In other words, these fatty acids are anti-aging. I’d like to see the study replicated with more study participants.

I don’t know if the study was paid for by Lovaza’s manufacturer, nor whether that would influence results.

This study supports my recommendation of cold-water fatty fish (great sources of omega-3 fatty acids) in all my diets:

Steve Parker, M.D.


Is That Scientific Journal Legitimate?

"Diabetes Care" isn't on Beall's list

“Diabetes Care” isn’t on Beall’s list

Librarian Jeffrey Beall has a blog (Scholarly Open Access) where he keeps a list of what he calls predatory publishers and questionable journals. This would only matter to you if you, like me, enjoy reading scientific journal articles. The problem with some journals is that they exist only to make a profit for the publishers, and will do so by any means necessary. Researchers in academic settings feel great pressure to publish their research results, or anything that looks like research. Even if they have to pay the publisher $1,8000 USD. The result can be a research report that has very little, if any, scientific validity. In other words, if you got the money, you’ll get published even if your research is crap.

If you wonder if a particular journal is questionable, check to see if it’s on Beall’s list.

Steve Parker, M.D.