I tossed my water bottle behind the twisted low branches of a bristlecone pine, the only thing hardy enough to live in such an inhospitable environment. I could not bear the weight of the 25-ounce bottle anymore. It had come to that.
Many hours earlier, I had set out for what was to be a six-hour or less hike up Mt. Humphreys in Flagstaff.
Although it ranks as the highest point in Arizona, at 12,637 feet, the guidebooks described the hike as strenuous, but easily accessible by people not bothered by the altitude. One writer said “anybody in some sort of shape” could make it; it just might take all day.
I figured “I’m kind of in shape — how hard could it be?” Heck, just five miles up and five miles back.
Alas, I forgot to take into account the 3,300 feet worth of elevation gained and then lost.
I had even searched #MtHumphreys on Instagram to see the latest pictures people had posted from the trail. Although the weather forecast called for clear skies, I was not taking any chances in late October when a winter storm could easily overtake us.
Months earlier, my boyfriend and his brother had set out for the top and nearly didn’t make it down. When they tried it, a slow drizzle morphed into a monsoonal storm near the top. As others fled the summit, they pressed on, two men from Illinois looking for adventure. Above the tree line the danger of a lightning strike increased. Just a few hundred feet from the top, they finally decided to turn back (after much disagreement). They jogged down the trail, managing the whole ordeal in less than four hours (but I think running for your life had something to do with it).
As we started from the now-grassy ski runs at Arizona Snowbowl, one caption from an Instagram picture stuck out in my mind: hardest thing I have ever done, one person wrote. The hardest thing. Really?
I had hiked the Grand Canyon twice, climbed Weaver’s Needle and made it up Angels Landing in Zion (in the snow) and completed countless other hikes. I can do this, I thought.
So we ambled up the trail, away from the nearly empty parking lot and I pushed my doubts away. I just focused on the trail, now covered in a carpet of muted yellow aspen leaves.
We had missed fall color by only a week or so. The ponderosa pines were as rich a dark emerald as ever though, creating a canopy to block the afternoon sun. The ground was damp and there were patches of snow tucked in the corners of the trail that didn’t ever see sunlight.
As we hiked, my boyfriend recounted his harrowing journey with his brother. He predicted we would reach the saddle in a few hours. But after a mile or so, I knew that might not happen.
Hiking the Humphreys Peak Trail is like getting on a StairMaster, setting it to the highest setting and handcuffing yourself to the handles. It is relentless. There are no downs, no places to gain momentum, just up, up, up.
A short distance in, I was already regretting my decision to bring a jacket, sweater and two extra bottles of water along with my water bladder.
The weight tortured me, my shoulders burning under the pounds. I felt under the sweaty Camelback straps and found two knobs. I remembered someone on Tonto Rim Search and Rescue once telling me to stash water on a trail that way you know you have water waiting and you don’t have to truck it back and forth. So I stopped to stash my water bottle behind a dead log.
When I set out again, I discovered my energy was already nearly gone. But I trudged on stubbornly, my boyfriend and his dog practically skipped up the trail.
A mile and many stops later, I rounded a corner and heard one of the sweetest sounds — a faint flute, its simple melody trailing off into the canyon. Curious, I kept going, thinking I would find a Native American, since Mount Humphreys is considered sacred to the Hopi, Zuni, Havasupai and Navajo.
I found a man and his daughter a short while later, the tiny girl playing the flute. Not what I expected, but just the lift I needed.
I took another step forward and another: Five miles, 10,000 steps, a 3,300-foot climb. So I’m gaining four inches of elevation with every step. Another step. Another four inches. Be there in no time.
By the time we finally reached the saddle, I’m crawling along at a snail’s pace.
Time to lose more weight. The guide books said the worst is yet to come.
If I thought the first three miles up through the trees was hard, the next 1.5 miles would be even steeper.
The summit of Mt. Humphreys affords one of
the noblest of mountain views, the panorama
including the north wall of the Grand Canyon,
the Painted Desert, the Moqui (Hopi) villages,
the Superstition Mountains near Phoenix,
many lakes and far glimpses over a wide circle.
“From Grand Canyon to the Colorado River, Arizona”
by Charles Higgins, 1897
Just beyond the saddle lies Arizona’s only tundra, a treeless mountain tract reminiscent of Mars.
I looked at the dark volcanic landscape ahead and knew I couldn’t carry a drop of unneeded weight.
I found a bristlecone pine crouching off the trail and behind it stashed my last extra bottle of water.
I learned later the stunted tree battles wind and cold most of the year, but can live for 5,000 years — making them the oldest trees on earth.
It had taken me four hours and I was finally nearing the summit. But I’ll tell you, I didn’t want to leave that pine.
By then, people were already descending from the summit.
I pointed toward what I desperately hoped was the top. Nope, said my boyfriend — at least three false summits lay ahead, ready to crush my hopes. The reality weighed heavily.
Still, I gathered my now-lighter bag and pushed for the top. Increasingly, this mountain had become a brutal test of willpower.
When I finally rounded the last false summit, I could see several people laid out asleep near the summit, enjoying the unseasonably calm day.
Teetering toward the top, I slapped the peak sign and staggered to stop to soak up the views, which went on for miles. The rim of the Grand Canyon looked like it was just a few miles to the north.
Despite the awesome scenery, all I could think about was the dehydrated astronaut ice cream sandwich I had brought. Since this was the highest peak I had ever climbed, I thought the treat was fitting.
I scarfed it down and it was time to go.
Since it had taken me roughly four hours to reach the top, we didn’t have much time to get down.
I figured I would fly down.
No such luck. My legs were spent. The trip down only extended the test of willpower, one step after another — dropping four inches with each step.
We finally reached our vehicle just as the sun slid behind the mountains, eight hours after we set out — younger, stronger and full of hope.
Much longer than it took him last time, my boyfriend said.
Yea, I said. But then, they hadn’t made it to the top.
Mount Humphreys facts
• 26th most prominent mountain in the lower 48 states
• Named after General A. A. Humphreys, a U.S. chief of engineers
• Best time to hike is June through October
• Wind gusts are common at the top and can exceed 50 mph
• People often sign and leave trinket in the guestbook stashed in a metal box at the top
• The highest point in the San Francisco Peaks
From Flagstaff, take Highway 180 toward the Grand Canyon. Turn right on Snowbowl Road to Snowbowl. Continue up the road for seven miles. The trailhead is near the bunny slope of the skiing area.