The latter half of life is a battle with aging and gravity. We all eventually lose the war, but I’m not ready to give up the fight. Physical fitness is a powerful tactic in that war. For me, hiking is one way to get and stay fit. Mountain climbing, and the preparation therefor, pushes me to greater levels of fitness.
I walked this route to Arizona’s highest point two years ago. Read that report for typical details. The post today is more personal and helps me plan my next climb, if any. A goal of mine for decades has been to climb one of the 14,000 foot peaks in Colorado, like Longs Peak. At my age, 62, that’s probably too ambitious. However, per Infogalactic: “The oldest person to summit Longs Peak was Rev. William “Col. Billy” Butler, who climbed it on September 2, 1926, his 85th birthday.”
I usually label posts like this a “hike report.” But I found one definition of trek as “a trip or movement especially when involving difficulties or complex organization : an arduous journey.” That’s more accurate here than a simple “hike.”
Two years ago I wrote that if I ever did this hike again, I’d want to acclimate to the altitude first, by spending 4–5 days in the Flagstaff area at 7,000 feet. Family obligations precluded that this year. We came up a day early and took the ski lift up to 11,000 feet, spending about an hour there. We then spent the night in Flagstaff at Sonesta ES Suites (very nice, and less expensive than many other hotels in the area). I slept fitfully, probably because of the altitude. I wonder if Diamox would have helped me sleep better.
I started on the trail on June 20 at 7 AM and finished at 4:30 PM, so nine and a half hours. If you read trip reports from younger or more avid hikers, six to eight hours is more typical.
Trailhead temperature at the start was 65°F. I was in shorts and a tee shirt the whole day. Even in the afternoon, it can be much colder on the Peak, so you have to be prepared for that. I was too warm for much of this trip, so if I do it again it may be in mid-May instead of June.
I drank four quarts (one gallon) on the trail. I ate six orange-colored peanut butter cracker sandwiches, four ounces of leftover Sizzler steak, and dried banana and apple slices.
The hip belt on my backpack did a great job of taking some of the weight off my shoulders. I should have used this more during my training hikes.
From the trailhead to the Saddle took four hours. The reverse took 2.5 hrs.
I was surprised that my walk between the Peak and the Saddle took the same amount of time whether I was ascending or descending. About an hour and 15 minutes to cover the mile.
The Peak was covered with thousands of flying gnats. They didn’t bite much so I just ignored them and got off the Peak immediately after taking pictures.
It’s easy to lose the trail as you’re heading up at a particular switchback at approximately 11,000 feet. See the photos below for details. This is dangerous, and whoever is in charge of trail maintenance needs to fix it before catastrophe strikes. I lost the trail and searched for it for 10 minutes before finding where I lost it. I was ready to give up and head down the hill when a couple from Prescott, AZ, showed up and pointed me in the right direction. Smooth sailing from then on. Nearly everywhere the trail is easy to see.
I did this on a weekday, so there were not nearly as many folks on the trail as when I did a weekend trek two years ago. If you hike this on a summer weekend, get there early or you may not have a place to park.
There were patches of snow on the ground as low as 10,000 feet. Very unusual for this time of year.
At the start of the hike and even half-way into it, I put my odds of success—reaching the summit—at 50:50. It’s up to me whether I sprain an ankle or break a bone, but it’s up to God whether I get altitude sickness or have a heart attack or stroke. My biggest doubts were inadequate preparation and my patellofemoral pain (PFP) syndrome. My last training hike was on June 3, and the day after that I was resigned to calling off the trip entirely. Part of me was willing to try it, but my smarter side said it wasn’t worth possible permanent knee injury or 6–12 months of disability and rehabilitation. But by June 14 the knee was feeling much better so I decided to forge ahead. After this trek, I was done hiking for the summer and expected the knee to be back to normal within the subsequent 3–4 weeks even without rehab or NSAIDs. But it took three months.
That last mile to the Peak was not as arduous as it was two years ago. I’m not sure if that’s psychological, or attributable to better hydration, better nutrition or pacing. I consciously kept my pace slow on the way up, averaging one to one and a half miles per hour (don’t be critical; this includes breaks for hydration, food, rest, and photos). I’ll keep this slow pace next time.
Overall, I think I was in the same state of physical conditioning as I was two years ago. I had no muscular soreness the day after the hike.
I had no trouble with altitude sickness.
This is the home of Northern Arizona University, a typical small college town. The main drag is Milton Road. I love visiting here. I almost took a job here until I learned that the average daily low temperature is 32°F or below for seven months out of the year. We are “horse people” and didn’t think the low temps were a good fit.
Free Hiking Tips
Obvious dangers to consider on a trek like this: dehydration, rain, sleet, hail, lightning, heat exhaustion, sun over-exposure. Bears and mountain lions don’t seem to be problems on Mt. Humphreys, although bears are certainly in the area.
A less obvious but more common danger is missteps. You always have to be on the lookout for rocks and tree roots that can trip you or sprain your ankle. Particularly treacherous are flat rock surfaces coated with gravel or dust; these can be nearly as slick as ice. In the wilderness, a bad ankle sprain, lower limb fracture, or torn knee ligament or meniscus can put your life at risk, particularly if you’re by yourself. Missteps are more likely to occur when you’re tired.
In the wilderness, keep track of your location constantly, either with a map or GPS unit or both. Yes, GPS units can malfunction and batteries die. If you’re on an established trail but suddenly find yourself off it, stop going forward immediately and try to find the trail. Don’t panic. If you get hopelessly lost, a personal transmitter could save your life. Before your trip, let someone know where you’re going, on which trails, and when you’re expected to be back in civilization. Tell them to expect your call when done. Hike with a pal when able.
Steve Parker, M.D.