Tag Archives: Arizona

Trek Report: Humphreys Peak 2017

Humphreys Peak on the left

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.

Scruffy little guy

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.”

Tundra plants above the tree line

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.”

A view from about 10,000 ft

Miscellaneous Details

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.

A fire near Kendrick Peak

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.

I am Groot

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.

Same fire

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.

A view from the Saddle

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.

On the way from the Saddle to the peak

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.

I did it!

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.

Turn left immediately after you pass the log jutting out. From this view going up the hill, the log hides the true trail. We need a sign here. 

Yes, walk up the right side of this log!

This is the view of this log as you’re descending. Very easy to see trail.

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.

I’m at the Saddle

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.

Tundra flowers

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.

Don’t be so focused on the peak that you forget to look around

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.

Flagstaff

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.

 

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.

jj

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

 

Hike: Pinnacle Peak Park, Scottsdale, AZ

ppp

Half-way up to the highest point

This was just a one-hour training hike covering 2.5 miles and 523 feet of vertical elevation. I started at the west end, walked to the highest point of the trail, then turned around and came back. I carried a 10-lb dumbbell in my knapsack to make the hike tougher.

ppp

Typical trail appearance: mostly gravel

Mostly locals use this urban trail. You’ll see lots of 20–40-year-olds jogging it.

ppp

The west trailhead elevation is 2366 ft above sea level

The weather was sunny, 76° F. I thank God for another day in paradise.

Steve Parker, M.D.

PS: I start my mileage at the closest road near the west trailhead; it’s about a quarter mile to the formal trailhead marker.

Update Jan. 26, 2015:

I hiked the entire out-and-back trail today, starting from my front door. Carried a 15-lb dumbbell in my pack. Took about two hours. Probably five miles total.

This granite hill is similar to the geology of the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge near Lawton, Oklahoma, over a thousand miles away

This granite hill is similar to the geology of the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge near Lawton, Oklahoma, over a thousand miles away

East Trailhead, where most people start their hike

East Trailhead, where most people start their hike

Spring In the Sonoran Desert of Arizona

One of Boy Scout Troop 131’s scouts did hid Eagle rank project at Pinnacle Peak Park in Scottsdale, Arizona, a few weeks ago. I took pictures of plants on the trail.

Steve Parker MD, Sonoran desert, Arizona

Strawberry hedgehog

Steve Parker MD, Sonoran desert, wolfberry bush, Arizona

Wolfberry plant, perhaps related to the goji berries of China

Arizpona, Sonoran desert, wolfberry , Steve Parker MD

Wolfberries: the largest are 7 x 10 mm

Steve Parker MD, Arizona, Sonoran desert

Banana yucca. Most years these don’t bloom. Looks related to the Joshua Tree, doesn’t it?

Hike: Tom’s Thumb – Windgate Pass – East End Trails in McDowell Sonoran Preserve

On March 23, 10 or so scouts and adults from Scottsdale’s Boy Scout troop 131 did the headlined 10-mile hike.  It was preparation for the rim-to-rim Grand Canyon hike later this year.  Everyone finished in under five hours. I did it in four hours and five minutes, with few stops.  Total vertical elevation was 2,500 feet.  The trail guide says this is a “very difficult” loop.  The difficulty is mostly in the grade (slope) rather than footing.

Steve Parker MD, hiking, Arizona

The north trailhead for Tom’s Thumb trail in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.  Tom’s Thumb is in the middle of the horizon.

photo-41

Close to the top of Tom’s Thumb trail

Steve Parker MD, hiking, Arizona

Tom’s Thumb is in the middle of the horizon; much more impressive when you’re closer than this.

Steve Parker MD, hiking, arizona

Tom’s Thumb trail

hiking, Arizona, Steve Parker MD,

Tom’s Thumb trail

hiking, Arizona, Steve Parker MD

Saquaro cacti reaching for the sky

hiking, Arizona, Steve Parker MD,

A surprising natural spring probably between trail markers 13 and 14 on Tom’s Thumb trail, about 2,600 feet above sea level and 1,100 feet below the peak

Steve Parker MD, hiking, Arizona

These flowers will probably be gone in a couple weeks, only to return next Spring

Steve Parker MD, hiking, Arizona, exercise

River of rocks created by landslide on East End trail

hiking, Arizona, Steve Parker MD

The intersection of East End trail and Tom’s Thumb trail

hiking, Arizona, Steve Parker, Tom's Thumb trail, Windgate Pass Trail MD

Trails are marked well, so you shouldn’t get lost.

Campout at Burro Cove at the end of Butcher Jones Trail, Arizona

Scottsdale’s Boy Scout Troop 131 completed an overnight backpacking campout last weekend.  Six scouts and four adults participated.  Our original destination was Aravaipa Wilderness Area, but we cancelled due to the threat of rain and life-threatening flash floods in that canyon.

Burro Cove campsite is small.  Everybody had one-man tents.  You could probably squeeze another 4-5 onto the site.  About half way to Burro Cove, we easily spotted another potential campsite on a small peninsula.  We’re not sure, but we think a trail lead to the area.  I bet some campsites here are accessible only by boat.  You need back-up plans in case your spot is taken by others.  Butcher Jones Trail has few flat spots where you could set up 10 tents.

The scouts did a super job hiking with their packs.  I heard no complaints.  One scout carried a 56-pound pack!  Mine was 37 lb; my son’s was 20 lb.  Most packs were probably in the 20-40 lb range.  The Scout Handbook says to limit pack weight to 25% of body weight, in general.  I’m impressed with modern backpack design that distributes pack weight to your pelvis, not your shoulders.

Backpacking teaches you how to survive, even thrive, with minimal modern conveniences.  You have to carefully consider every ounce you carry.  You just need shelter, food, water, clothing, and a degree of physical fitness.  When you return to civilization, you appreciate it even more.

—Steve

Algae-covered rocks in Saguaro Lake

 

We had a great view of Four Peaks, which had a light dusting of fresh snow

 

Burro Cove campsite on Saguaro Lake, Arizona

One happy camper

Eureka Solitaire 1-man tent I rented from Arizona Hiking Shack

Arizona Lava Tubes Camp-Out

My son’s boy scout troop and I camped out near Lava River Cave last weekend.  We were about 15 miles northwest of Flagstaff, Arizona, in the Coconino National Forest.  Most of the locals refer to the cave simply as “the lava tubes.”

“Any tender young scouts in there?”

Our campsite was on the south side of FR 812, a quarter mile east of FR 171, at the base of Antelope Hill.  The Forest Service allows dispersed, primitive camping just off the dirt roads in the area.  The roads could be a problem for passenger cars if it rains much.  We were fortunate to have perfect weather: clear skies, high of about 80°F and low of 32°.  I think the wide gap between high and low reflects the altitude of 8,000 ft above sea level.

After setting up camp, we hiked to the top of Antelope Hill, about 1.5 miles round trip.  It’s a moderately strenuous walk since we went straight up rather than doing switchbacks.  You blaze your own trail.  The scouts caught and released a 3.5-inch long horned lizard at the top.  I hear they’re fairly common up here.

Mount Humphries as seen from Antelope Hill

After some campfire skits by the scouts we hit the hay, listening to bugling elk and howling coyotes during the night.  The cattle were even louder, but the noises didn’t interfere with sleep.  Some of us were caught off guard by the low temp during the night.

After breaking camp the next morning, we drove the 1.5 miles to Lava River Cave and dove right in, so to speak.  Round-trip mileage for the cave is 1.5-2 miles.  I and many of the others in our group had never seen anything like it.

It was an enjoyable trip and I can see why troop 131 makes it every two or three years.

Steve Parker, M.D.

Notes

Other adults in attendance were Scott H, Ryan W, Mark Z, Kathy S, Paul G, and Jeff L.  The scouts were Paul P, Matthew Z, JD H, Nathan H, Cole W, Christian R, Trevor L, Jacob F, and Riley G.  Let me know if I left anyone out.