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June 7-8, 2008

"Because It Is There..."

That was the only answer I could give...

For many years, John and I have talked about hiking the Humphrey's Trail, to the top of Humphrey's Peak - the tallest peak in Arizona.  There have always been different factors, though, to prevent us from doing so:  too out of shape, not the right season, don't have a babysitter for the kid, don't have a free weekend, etc.

This year, we made it a point to do it.  This year, we were going to hike Humphrey's.

And when people asked us why, the only answer I could give was, "Because it is there..."  They must think we're nuts.

We are nuts, but that's another story...

To hike Humphrey's, John and I had to make a lot of arrangements.  First of all, we consulted John's calendar and looked for a weekend where we didn't have any family, skydiving, or work commitments, before the summer monsoon season began.  That turned out to be the weekend of June 7, 2008.  Then, we arranged for Erika to watch Mary for the weekend, from Friday night to Sunday afternoon.  She agreed, so the next step was to figure out where to stay in Flagstaff.  Initially, we thought about camping near Hart's Prairie, so that we would be close to Snowbowl; then, we wised up and decided to book ourselves into a hotel.  (John Coffman helped us out with that; he booked us a room at the Radisson, on Route 66.)

Since we were going to be in Flagstaff, we decided to ask John Coffman and his wife Jan Banka to join us on our hike.  Jan was a definite "no" - she claimed that she just wasn't in shape to do the hike.  John, on the other hand, was a "maybe"; he could do it, but he wasn't sure about the weather.  No matter what they decided, though, they wanted to meet up for dinner on Saturday night, after we were done with our hike; that was a definite "yes".

The weather during the spring had been very odd.  After a very wet winter, in which Snowbowl opened earlier than usual, springtime proved to be equally wet.  The high country received another good dousing of snow in March, then another in April.  And just when we thought that the winter-like weather was over, another storm hit the mountains right before Memorial Day weekend...a week before our hike.

Which meant that there would be plenty of snow on the trail for our hike.  Great.  On top of that, the weather forecast called for high winds, becoming increasingly higher as the day progressed.  That didn't sound very promising.  Having heard that, John (Coffman) decided that he wasn't going to hike with us.  In fact, we were beginning to question our choice of hikes.  After hemming and hawing a bit, though, John (Verley) said, "Well, let's just do it."

Somehow, I knew he was going to say that.

On Friday evening, John and I left work early so that we could beat the rush hour traffic heading out of town.  We met up at home around 4:00 p.m., and we were on the road by 4:20.  Unbelievably, we had very little traffic - just a few brake lights through the construction and up to the Carefree Highway, but after that, it was smooth sailing all the way to Flagstaff.

We arrived in Flagstaff at 6:30 p.m. on the dot, much earlier than expected.  Instead of heading straight to the hotel, though, we decided to do a little geocaching first, since we had plenty of daylight left.  We found three caches along Milton Avenue, including one that we had looked for before but couldn't find because of the snow cover.  (It was much easier to find without the snow!) 

After claiming those three caches, we made our way to the hotel to check in.  Once we were settled in our room, we kicked back, relaxed, and did what any couple would do in a hotel room on a kid-free weekend (if you know what I mean, wink wink.)

Later that evening, we decided to go out for a walk, to help us acclimate to the high elevation.  We walked about a third of a mile to the Barnes & Noble at the corner off Milton Avenue and Route 66 and spent about an hour browsing through the books.  On the way back to the hotel, we stopped off at the hotel bar and had a glass of wine - just a little nightcap before bedtime.  Then, we retired to our room...

The next morning, we awoke at 5:00 a.m. and prepared for our hike.  Knowing that we were going to encounter wintry conditions - snow and wind - we dressed accordingly in long pants and long-sleeved shirts; and we brought with us two jackets and a pair of gloves each.  I also put on my "bub" - a tubular scarf that I received from the Breast Cancer 3-Day last year; this would protect my ears from the wind.  We then packed up our Camelbaks with an arsenal of high-energy snacks and our lunch - more food than we would normally bring with us, but we would need it.

John at the Humphrey's Trailhead - 6:25 a.m.Our plan was to be out of the hotel by 6:00 a.m.; but since we were kid-free, we were efficient, so we were ready to go by 5:45.  As a result, we arrived at Arizona Snowbowl earlier than planned, at 6:15 a.m.  Since we were so early, Snowbowl was not yet open for the day; that meant that we had to park at the alternate trailhead.  That was going to add a third of a mile, each way, to our hike.  Nothing major.

We stepped onto the trail at 6:25 a.m. and began our long trek to the summit of Mt. Humphrey's - a distance of 4.8 miles one way and 3,333 in elevation gain.  The trail began with a short, quarter-mile jaunt through a beautiful meadow, with views of the lodge at Snowbowl.  The meadow was cut with ski-lift poles and cables that ran through it, perpendicular to the trail.  This was the easiest part of the trail.

At the end of the meadow, we entered the forest - a thick grove of pines and aspens.  There were lots of downed trees along the trail; most of them had been cut away so that they no longer blocked the trail.  We were grateful to see this; John commented about how difficult the trail would have been if we had had to jump over logs!

As the trail began to switchback, higher and higher, we began to find small patches of snow.  At first, these patches of snow were off to the side and did not lie in our path.  Above 10,000 feet, though, the snow became thicker, though, at that point, it was still easy for us to pass through it. 

Up to 10,000 feet - for the first 1.5 miles of the trail or so - we were hiking at a pretty good pace (maybe 1.5 to 2 miles an hour).  The patches of snow above 10,000 started to slow us down a little bit, but we expected to slow to about a mile an hour.  The idea was to maintain a moderate pace so that we didn't tax ourselves too early in the hike.  We also took frequent breaks to eat our high energy snacks, which gave us that boost that we needed to keep going.

The snowpack on the Humphrey's Trail, above 10,700 feet.  Can you believe that this is JUNE?When we reached 10,700 feet, the trail conditions worsened.  Between 10,700 and about 11,400 feet, the trail was almost completely covered in snow, and it was several feet thick.  Navigating through the snow was very difficult.  Although there were plenty of footprints for us to follow, most of them were frozen - and thus, slippery.  I burned up a lot of energy trying to maneuver through the snow without sliding all over the place, and that slowed us down considerably.

After a number of jokes about me being allergic to snow, John finally decided that I should stop; there was no sense having me kill myself.  At 11,000 feet, we found a nice resting area for me to stop and wait for him.  There, we tested our iPhones to make sure that we had signal; surprisingly, we even had Edge Network, which meant that I would be able to keep myself entertained with YouTube and the Internet until he returned.

John hadn't even been gone a whole fifteen minutes before he called me.  I thought that he was just checking in; instead, he was calling to let me know that he had reached an area where the trail was clear of snow, not more than a quarter of a mile ahead of me.  If I felt up to it, I should try to do it. I did want it bad enough, so I resolved to do it.  I gathered up my hiking gear and my courage and set off to join John up the trail.

The remaining quarter-mile hike through the snow was still rather difficult, but that ten-minute rest helped a lot.  I hiked through the snow to the next switchback and found John waiting for me at the top.  From there, we hiked together for another tenth of a mile, to a point where the trail curved around the mountain, to the sunny side.  As promised, the snow disappeared, leaving us free to pick up our pace again.

We soon came to a section of the trail where the switchbacks became shorter, signaling that we were getting closer to the saddle and the treeline.  There, we had stunning views of Snowbowl and all of the ski runs; we also had beautiful views of Flagstaff.  We could see Hart's Prairie and Kendrick Mountain (been there, done that...twice) as well.  Just to be there to see all of that made the difficulty of the hike worthwhile; I was so glad that I didn't quit.

As we approached the treeline, the winds began to pick up.  It had been windy during the majority of our hike, but being in the trees, we didn't feel it as much.  Without the trees to protect us, we were at the mercy of the elements; and it was just going to get worse the higher we climbed.

I reached the saddle!  Wahoo!Around 10:45 a.m., we finally reached the saddle, at an elevation of 11,800 feet.  We were almost there!  Just knowing that we were so close to the summit was exhilarating, and that gave us the energy to keep going.

From the saddle to the summit, it was another forty to sixty minutes.  During that time, the sense of camaraderie between us and all of the other hikers attempting to climb the peak was amazing.  We were all there to help each other out, whether it was with directions or with a warning about what lay ahead.  Noticing that we were first-timers on the summit, one couple prepared us for the hike ahead:

"Follow the sticks; they are the trail markers," they said.  "On the trail, you're going to come to three false summits before you reach the actual summit.  It's very frustrating the first time you do it."

After the saddle, above the treeline, the trail became extremely rocky as it climbed steadily along the ridgeline on top of the San Francisco Peaks.  Had it not been for the high winds that blasted us along the way, the hike would not have been too difficult at all.  True, it was a steep climb, but it wasn't the groaner that we thought it was going to be.

Or maybe we were in better shape than we believed.

A view of the Inner Basin from the Humphrey's Trail - this is an awesome view!The views from the trail was breathtaking, and not just because the air was thin up there.  From the ridgeline, we could see the Inner Basin of the San Francisco Peaks (been there and done that, too...twice) and Lockett Meadow.  There was also more snow - not on the trail this time, but along the sides of the mountain.  The snow-pack looked like mini-glaciers, with wind-blown peaks on them.  It was quite beautiful.

Halfway to the summit, John began to get a headache - he was getting the first signs of altitude sickness.  He conquered it right away by taking a couple of Advils, drinking a lot of water, and eating a high-energy snack.  I, on the other hand, felt great; I had gotten my second wind after my ordeal with the snow, so I was hiking strong.

Once we passed the third false summit, we were ready to summit...if we could.  We were warned by other hikers descending from the summit that the winds were so fierce that they weren't able to stand up.  One hiker had to crawl down from the peak.  Up to that point, the winds had been gusting to about forty miles per hour; as we hiked along the final ridgeline to the summit, they were getting stronger, gusting to about sixty miles an hour.  Then, as we made that last push up to the peak, the winds were so brutal that we were knocked off of our feet.  We attempted to crawl through the rocks to the top; I made it within fifty feet but had to stop short of the summit for fear of being blown off of the mountain.

Self-portrait of John, at the summit of Mount Humphrey's.John continued towards the summit without me.  As he approached the top, he was stopped by a hiker who warned him that there were shelters up there; he recommended using them.  When John reached the summit (12,633 feet), he found those shelters; they were walls of rocks, built up to act as a wind-break.  He immediately ducked into one and began to snap pictures of his surroundings; he also sent three text messages - one to me, one to his father, and one to John Coffman. 

Meanwhile, I began making my way down the trail towards the ridgeline to safety.  Since I couldn't stand up, I had to crawl down the slope on my butt in order to descend safely.  It was very awkward, but it worked.  Even after I reached the ridgeline, I found it difficult to stand up; the winds were still very fierce and they knocked me down the first time I attempted to stand.  The second time, I was able to stay on my feet, so I hiked as fast as I could to the false summit to wait for John.

Once we were reunited, the two of us began to make our way down the ridgeline, back towards the saddle.  Having accomplished our goal, our main concern now was to get out of the wind as soon as possible.  The winds were just getting stronger and more dangerous, so we needed to get out of there.

Around 1:00 p.m., we arrived at the saddle; there, we stopped to take a long break so that we could eat our lunch and rest.  We still had a long hike ahead of us - and that included that long stretch of trail that was under the snow pack - so it was important for us to refuel and re-energize.

Upon leaving the saddle, we dropped below the treeline once again, giving us some relief from the high winds.  Unfortunately, the damage was already done; the winds had blown so much dust into my eyes that I was now having trouble seeing.  A thin film had formed over my eyes, and it was sort of like having cataracts.  That made it very difficult to watch out for all of the hidden dangers on the trail, like loose scree. 

Oh, yes, I missed the loose scree completely...and down I went, landing flat on my butt and hitting my elbow on a large rock. 

The fall knocked the wind out of me and completely shook me up.  it was a whole five minutes before I could move again, and even then, I moved cautiously, for fear that I had broken something.  Fortunately, the only injuries I had were bruises, so I was soon back on my feet again.  Before we could continue hiking, though, I decided that I needed to remove my contact lenses, in hopes of clearing the film from my eyes.  I placed them in one of the two extra bottles of water that we had brought along with us...and after I did so, I realized that I shouldn't have done that, because I had two different prescriptions and had no way of telling the two lenses apart.  D'oh!

Removing my contact lenses didn't do me much good; I still had a thin film covering my eyes, and that made the rest of the hike quite difficult.  I dreaded hiking through the snow pack without the ability to see clearly.  My only saving grace was the fact that the snow had melted a little bit because of all of the other hikers that had tramped on it, so it was slushier and easier to walk on.  Of course, that didn't stop me from falling several more times on my rear!

Once we were past the snowpack, our hike went much smoother, and we were able to pick up the pace a bit.  Around 4:15 p.m., we received a phone call from John Coffman, who wanted to confirm that we were still on for dinner.  He made reservations for us for 6:30 at Charley's at the Weatherford in downtown Flagstaff, so that he could take me on a trip down memory lane.  (The last time we were at Charley's, three years before on my 35th birthday, I had gotten a Pepsi dumped on me.)  I guess that's why we call him "Uncle Evil."

At 5:00 p.m. on the dot - after ten and a half hours of hiking - we finally arrived at the trailhead!  Oh, was it a sight of sore - and nearly-blind - eyes!  After dumping our hiking gear into the trunk, we climbed into the car, and I fished out a bottle of Naphcon-A (anti-allergy) eye drops from my purse.  We weren't sure if they would help rinse the dust from our eyes, but it couldn't hurt either.

We drove back to our hotel room at the Radisson, where we immediately stripped off our nasty, dirty hiking clothes and took a well-earned hot shower, which felt wonderful on my sore bruises.  We then dressed in something clean and appropriate for dinner at Charley's.  Finally, at 6:15, we limped out the door to meet John and Jan.

As usual, we had a wonderful time having dinner with John and Jan at Charley's.  We swapped hiking stories, skydiving stories, and travel stories for several hours.  Eventually, John and I began to fade.  John and Jan recognized that we were wearing down and suggested that we call it a night. 

John and I slept heavily that night; and when we awoke the next morning, we felt surprisingly good - that is, except for all of my various bruises that hurt to touch.  We probably could have done another hike, if we didn't have to get back to Phoenix to pick Mary up.

After getting dressed, we packed up our bags and checked out of the hotel.  On the way out of town, we stopped for breakfast at the Village Inn (one of our favorite breakfast stops in Flagstaff).  By 9:00 a.m., we were on the road, heading towards Phoenix.  We picked the perfect time, too, because we managed to avoid the usual Sunday traffic jam on the I-17!  That said, we pulled into the driveway at Bill and Erika's house at 11:00 a.m. on the dot.

And thus ended another Verley adventure...


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