Climbing to New Heights
Mount Humphreys, Arizona
Elevation – 12,600ft
Summit Date: 12/8/12
In addition to working full time I have a part time job working for a company called MovNat teaching outdoor fitness seminars. On Friday evening I would fly out at 5pm to go teach a seminar after working eight hours for my full time job. Upon arriving in Phoenix Arizona I would get my rental car, drive to a hotel, sleep for a few hours and get up to teach an 8 hour outdoor fitness seminar. I needed to fly back and be back at work on Monday for my full time job. So if I woke up early Sunday, drove to Flagstaff and hiked quickly I could possibly squeeze in summiting Mount Humphreys. This would of course mean the red eye back overnight, a few hours of sleep in an airport and driving straight back to work Monday morning. Really in my mind there wasn’t a choice; I was given an opportunity so I was going for it.
Through the week leading up to my trip I was anxious Mount Humphreys has an elevation of 12,600 which was significantly further and higher than the highest point I had ever been before. Mount Rogers on the previous hike at 5,729 feet had been the highest elevation I’d ever experienced. I had heard about the effects of elevation, and was also reading several books on mountaineering where the debilitating effects were glorified. I knew it would be manageable, especially since I was in great physical shape…right? Further research let me know my down jacket I had purchase for my next trip coming up to the Grand Canyon would have its first trial run. Temperatures in Flagstaff were in the 20’s during evening when I would be descending, and inevitably the mountain would be colder. Challenges are what I thrive upon and I had decided I would conquer the mountain even if it was solo.
Work dragged on until Friday when I dashed out finishing just on time to make my flight. Travel went smoothly and I was crawling into bed many hours later in a warm Phoenix temperature of 67, which was of course at night. Saturday morning came early. The seminar went smoothly and everyone enjoyed my teaching. After extending the invite to Scott Price, one of the participants, he decided that he would join me Sunday for the summit attempt. Little did I know he had a background as an elite cyclist just missing a spot on the Canadian Olympic team. This turned out to be a huge blessing beyond what I knew then. I woke up Sunday morning, grabbed a hearty breakfast at Denny’s and drove to pick Scott up. He greeted me with a fresh cup of coffee, and piles of gear. We left Phoenix, at an elevation of 1,000 feet and drove just over 3 hours to Flagstaff which is a base elevation of 9,000 feet. There was a last ditch outdoor retailer we stopped by to grab baklavas upon Scott’s recommendation. From there we drove the base of the mountain at 9,500 feet.
It didn’t look so bad. I had climbed mountains that looked much worse than that. We bundled up, look extra layers and set off on a quick pace. Confident in our ability to move steadily up the mountain we strolled across the field, talking about what was to come. Then…WHAM…I was out of breath and my lungs were burning. I was unable to maintain the quick pace and conversation so I was forced to slow down right out of the gate. So this is what elevation felt like. Scott warned me the higher we got the more I would feel it and we would slow down. We would go as high as possible but if anyone wasn’t feeling right we could turn around. The summit was a goal but he warned we should not push if either was not feeling at full capacity. The first mile went slow, but steady. Then we started into the woods and gaining elevation faster and faster. The 3-4% grade turned into 15-20%. Ice covered sections of the trail, and threatened to take down anyone not paying full attention.
We climbed steadily, with our effort redlining on the bigger inclines. The first 4 miles were wooded but beautiful. The landscape was similar to the east coast, but still very unique.
We climbed to the wood line which was roughly at 11,500 feet. It was stepping out from a sheltered wood into a barren landscape with gale force wind. The temperature plummeted and literally in the 3 minutes it took us to find shelter behind a rock we went from hot in our gear, to shivering cold and numb hands struggling to open our packs. This was the single most vivid experience of cold I had ever encountered. Jumping into a lake in December in Virginia still didn’t hold a candle to this. I layered up, wearing tights, running pants, and insulated ski pants on bottom. On my upper body I had 2 base layers, my Mountain Hardwear soft shell, an 850 fill Go Lite down jacket, gloves, a baklava, and two hats. This was by far the most gear I had worn for any activity while moving. When hunting out east I had less layers and would sweat when walking through the woods. Now I only stayed warm if I kept moving.
The wind gusted up to 50mph literally moving us from one side of the trial to the other. We had to lean against it, but be aware when it would suddenly switch direction. The elevation robbed us of energy and heat. Scott told me that at 12,000 feet you lost between 20-25% of your power output, which felt like much more. The barren landscape was covered in boulders making your footing unsteady and unpredictable. This was an entirely different world. Between the hard breathing, disappearing path, and freezing cold everything physically screamed to go back down. But the determination rooted deep in mental toughness through other adventures told me I would be ok. Pain and suffering are simply part of the game during an expedition.
We hiked on, stopping every few minutes to catch our breath and let the burning subside. Not only were we fighting the elevation but the grade was roughly 15% at this point, but the steps were often several feet up to the next boulder. Luckily we are both over six feet tall and didn’t have to resort to low grade climbing. After fretfully checking out watches and trying to guestimate the distance we saw the summit. A few hundred more feet a slow progress and we had made it. I was overwhelmed with the feeling of satisfaction. This had been the most difficult hike I had ever been on and we made it. As soon as I sat down I wanted to take a nap right there on the spot. I have never been so tired from hiking or running. With the elevation you felt it stealing all of your energy and will to move. We spent several minutes just enjoying the view.
The way back down was easier due to the elevation loss. We moved quickly before the light faded. This was a trend with my hiking trips. It is always a mad dash to fit it all in, and coming out in the dark. Prepared we put on our headlamps and made quick work of the first mile down. After that we got back into the woods, shedded a few layers and kept moving. Now the dull awareness in the back of my head formed into a full blown elevation head ache. It was not simply the higher elevation but the fact I had gone from 1,000 feet to 12,633 feet in roughly 6 hours. I would better understand how significant the pressure changes were later on. For now we painstakingly creeped down the icy section of the trail taking turns falling. Going downhill on ice is a recipe for fun or a disaster. Neither wanting to carry each other out as we joked took their time picking our steps carefully. The hike out seemed to go on forever, with the next switchback always around the next sight line.
Finally we made it back down to the base. We hiked across the field and arrived at the car. Shedding a few more layers we commented on how warm it felt down here. We stripped to just our base layers. When we got ready to go we noticed the temperature reading in the car…It was only 18 degrees. That was an odd feeling that 18 degrees was now relatively warm to us, especially after the 75 degrees in phoenix the day before. After looking it up later online we realized on the summit it got down to below 0 that night shortly after we left, with a 50mph wind gust. That explained the freezing winds that almost stopped our trip dead in its tracks.
We drove back to Phoenix stopping at a Chipotle to buy two burritos each. While unloading the car back at Scott’s house he took out the plastic 1 liter bottles that had held his water which he finish at the summit. The air pressure had compressed them due to the elevation drop. Both bottles were over half way compressed because the difference. He pointed out the same changes had gone on in our bodies and in our heads explaining why the headache had set on. One I returned to the airport the headache was almost gone, adjusting back to an elevation that felt more comfortable. My flight left right on time at 12:05 that evening. I immediately fell asleep when the plane took off and remained out until we started our descent. I arrived in Charlotte NC at 5:30am and had a three hour layover. I wrapped myself around my carry on and fell asleep on the floor. Never had concrete covered in carpet felt so comfortable. Eventually I arrived back in Lynchburg Virginia at 10:00am just in time to drive home, shower, and head straight to work. I worked until 7:00 that evening to make up for the hours missed that morning, then came home to crash. Another adventure was now complete and one that had been well worth it. Such adventures always come at a cost often with sacrifice that makes you uncomfortable temporarily, but so far they have all exceeded my expectations.