I felt cold yesterday!

It’s August in Phoenix, which means it’s still hot….and muggy….basically, July and August in Phoenix is like living in a desert sauna. Sure, we Phoenicians get a fantastic winter season, but our “tax” for that glorious winter weather is that “dry heat”/monsoon sauna each summer.

What do Phoenicians do to escape the summer heat? One of the most popular things to do is to drive up to Flagstaff and camp, hike, or bike. Flagstaff’s elevation is almost 7000 feet, which makes for drastically cooler temperatures compared to Phoenix. That said, yesterday, my friend Crystal and I drove to Flagstaff in order to hike the highest point in Arizona: Humphrey’s Peak. (Apparently, we were not the only ones with that idea, because we saw a lot of people on the trail). Also, I just learned today that yesterday (i.e. August 4) was the inaugural National Summit Day–what a serendipitous piece of news!

The weather was pretty much perfect: sun, no chance of thunderstorms or lightning, a brisk 46F/8C at the summit. Humphrey’s Peak stands 12633 ft/3851 m high and is actually not a difficult hike; total round-trip distance from the Arizona Snowbowl trailhead just outside Flagstaff (the easiest trail of the 2-3 different trails to the summit) is almost 10 miles and total elevation gained is 3303 ft/1006 m. The biggest variable is whether altitude sickness will hit you. Crystal and I had hiked Humphrey’s before, but it had been a few years for both of us. We were both out of hiking shape too, so we agreed to hike at a moderate pace with breaks, if necessary (of course breaks are necessary!).

I’m happy to report that we successfully summited Humphrey’s and got to enjoy being cold! No altitude sickness for us, although we did experience the expected shortness of breath and leaden legs as we neared the summit. We got to the top in 3 hrs and 50 minutes and completed the descent in 2 hours 50 minutes, i.e. going downhill was much easier and faster. One of the best things about hiking is the food afterwards and we celebrated with some Chick-fil-a and Starbucks. Yay for cold summer temperatures, good company, successful summits, and FOOD!

 

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Pine trees galore

Summer in Phoenix is not a joke. It is “normal” to have temperatures of 95F (35C) by 7am. But “normal” does not mean “enjoyable.” The heat gets oppressive, which means Phoenicians have to find places to escape to, if only for a few hours. That’s what we did today–we drove up to Pine (about 1 hr 45 minutes’ drive from home) to hike the Pine Canyon Trail, with our friend, Ian. Best part of the day? Hiking in the morning without the danger of heatstroke. Second best part of the day? Drinking my can of ginger ale (I didn’t have any baby Cokes!).

The Pine Canyon Trail starts at the aptly-named Pine Canyon trailhead, just outside of Pine, AZ. Ok, so the names aren’t the most original, but they work! Some online hike descriptions say that the distance end-to-end is 8 miles, while other descriptions say 12 miles. If one were to hike the trail “out and back,” that would have been a minimum of 16 miles, a distance none of us were ready to do today. So, we decided to hike about half of the trail, then turn around and hike back to the trailhead, for a total of 10+ miles. The trail is well-marked, easy to follow, and features a gradual (i.e. gentle) incline (at least, the first 4-5 miles we did were gentle).

It was a lovely day, with lots of pine trees, some manzanita trees, and lots of greenery due to the recent rains. Also, Pine is a lot closer to us than Flagstaff, which is the more popular escape option for Phoenicians in the summer. I can’t wait for the fall…!

 

Cold in the desert

What the heck have I done the past few months? Nothing exciting, which is why Memorial Day weekend was great! My SAT (self-appointed trainer) and I joined our friends Carl, Lifan, Steve, and Ian for our (sort of) annual mountain biking camping weekend near Prescott. I did go on a few “training” mountain bike rides in anticipation of the Memorial Day weekend trip, during which I saw a gila monster (!) and saguaro cacti in bloom:

Currently, there are fire restrictions in place all around Arizona, which means camping spots are super limited. A lot of campgrounds are closed, including most primitive camping areas. However, we decided to do the primitive camping thing at Thumb Butte, which was open (the fire pits were taped up as a visual reminder not to start campfires).

The temperature was lovely and cool, albeit windy (the highs were in the high 60sF/low 70s….a.k.a. low 20s celsius). I was actually cold and delighted in wearing my favourite puffy jacket.

puffy

Phoenix has been heating up a lot lately, i.e. we are basically back to cookie-baking temperature now, so enjoying the cooler weather in Prescott was a treat. Being outside at noon is always more fun when you’re not concerned about heatstroke.

My SAT has gotten into archery recently, and brought his bow, arrows, and practice target on the weekend to practice. Here he is, pretending to be Robin Hood:

archery

Whenever we camp with our friends, one of the highlights is making s’mores around the campfire. Sadly, that did not happen this year due to the fire restrictions. However, Lifan made some s’mores bark that was absolutely delicious! I would have included a photo of the bark, but we ate it too quickly. I am DEFINITELY making some s’mores bark for the next camping trip, even if campfires are allowed.

Trails make hiking easier.

Yesterday, we (me, my SAT–“self-appointed trainer”, and our friend Ian) joined another Meetup group on a hike up to the highest point in the western Superstition mountains: Superstition Peak 5057. Not the most creative name for a peak, but it’s definitely descriptive. As you may have guessed, the elevation at the summit is 5,057 feet. (Official statistics from hikearizona.com: 7.8 miles round-trip and 3000 feet elevation gain.) It was a lovely day with good company, beautiful views, and an actual TRAIL! Another bonus of hiking with this Meetup group vs the last one: we took a few breaks! That last point is really important because that meant I could breathe.

We started from the Hieroglyphic trailhead in Gold Canyon, so named because of the petroglyphs you will see:

(Clarification point: “hieroglyphs” refer to stylized pictures of objects that represent different words, syllables, or sounds, as found in ancient Egyptian and other writing systems. “Petroglyphs” refer to rock carvings, especially prehistoric ones. I think that the specimens we saw are actually petroglyphs because they looked more like rock carvings than a quasi-writing system, but I’m not an archeologist.)

After the canyon, we followed the trail up to the saddle. The trail is fairly steep the whole way, but the group took a few breaks to breathe, regroup, and enjoy the views. Some online hike descriptions warned potential hikers that the last mile before the saddle features a grade of almost 30%. My legs certainly felt the steepness of that section.

We finally reached the saddle and had a last break before the final push to the top. The summit was probably about 10-15 minutes away from the saddle.

Then, the summit. The views from the top are fantastic and it was lovely to soak in the landscape (and to sit down).

We took the same trail back down and boy, was that hard on my quads! In addition to descending the same steep trail we took up, we had to deal with a lot of loose rock, which made the way a bit slippery in spots. Some folks ended up with minor cactus puncture wounds from accidentally grabbing onto them whilst losing their balance. Despite those minor setbacks, it was a great day to get out in nature and meet new people.

Running on empty

Have you ever had a dream in which you were running after something or someone and the harder you tried to keep up, the more you fell behind? Well, a similar experience happened to me last weekend.

Last Saturday, my SAT, Ian, and I joined a meetup group in an attempt to meet other potential hiking buddies. (The meetup website is a portal to thousands of groups categorized by activity/interest. After you join a group, you can participate in that group’s activities and hopefully, make friends!) The group we joined billed itself as a “fast pace group” that does “advanced hikes.” I thought we’d be ok, as we’ve been hiking hard hikes for the past month and haven’t died (well, perhaps I may have felt close to expiring when we did Mazatzal Peak recently). The scheduled hike was in the Tucson area: the “Window” via Ventana Canyon. According to hikearizona.com, the hike is 12.8 miles (round trip), boasts 4,310 feet in accumulated elevation gain, and takes about 8-10 hours to complete. I was a little concerned at my ability to keep up with a fast-paced hiking group, but my SAT was optimistic, citing our recent weekend hikes and my propensity to keep up appearances, i.e. ‘save face.’

We elected to meet the hiking group at the trailhead and left our place around 6:30am, giving us 2 hours to get to the trailhead by 8:30am. Unfortunately, we were not even 15 minutes into the drive when we noticed that we had slowed down a lot….and were in the company of dozens of other cars. Turned out that there was a bad accident up the freeway that was blocking traffic and the cars up ahead were being detoured. I contacted the hike leader and told her that we were stuck in traffic, would probably be late, and the group should go on without us. To be totally frank, I was sort of relieved that we would probably not meet the group (I don’t have to prove myself as a “fast hiker!”). However, things have a way of working out and we actually ended up meeting the group at the trailhead only 15 minutes late (they had just arrived themselves).

After exchanging greetings, we took off. And by “took off,” I mean “started running.” Good grief, the starting pace really scared me. I was 3rd in the line of hikers and the pace was the fastest hiking pace I had ever encountered. It really was more like running. Ian was behind me and I muttered to him that “this is really really fast!” He agreed. My SAT, on the other hand, was 2nd in the line and was chattering like a blooming chipmunk, not even pretending to be out of breath or terrified at how painful this day was going to be.

After a half hour or so, the trail got steep pretty quick and the hike leader slowed down a lot. Half of the group (all guys who had 1% body fat and didn’t need oxygen climb steep mountains) told my half that they were going to “run up for a bit.” I would have said something, but that would have required air and I didn’t have any to spare.

Most of the hike was pretty challenging for me, not because of the amount of elevation gain, but because of the overall pace. The pace, while not the terrifyingly fast pace initiated at the start of the hike, was still strong and I was struggling at times to keep up with the group (but I DID keep up, as my SAT kept on telling me).

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Aside from my SAT (who took this picture) and one other group member, my perspective during the hike was from the very back. Sigh.

This group hike was also the first time that there were NO BREAKS. I’m used to having a break or two on the way to the top. This group does not stop. The break occurred at the top. Lastly, because I was hiking faster than my normal pace, my legs were shaky a few times….so much so that my SAT literally had to give me a boost up over a number of large steps/boulders. He was actually lifting me up. It was sad (for me) and amusing (for him).

Despite my pain, I still have to say that the group was pretty nice and we enjoyed getting some food with them after the hike (by the way, it’s a LOT easier to pretend that all is well when you’re done the hike, sitting down, and eating good food). The temperature was lovely and there were great views from the top. I also really enjoyed the break we had at the top. Very much. As a side note, total hiking time was just under 6 hours. (Remember the estimated time I cited of 8-10 hours? Apparently, that timeframe is only for people who want to breathe during their hike.)

Here are some views from the “Window:”

I do much better with breaks.

My first thru-hike!*

(*not true. I just wanted an attention-grabbing headline.)

Yesterday, my S(elf)-A(ppointed)T(rainer) and I completed a hike we’ve been wanting to do for a while: South Mountain’s National Trail. Over the past few months, we have been slowly tackling the peaks around the Phoenix valley and have kept the National Trail on our radar for when the weather is cool and when our legs have been trained up a bit more. My SAT asked his work friend, Matt, to join us for this adventure, to which he agreed. (For the record, Matt told my SAT that he wasn’t in great hiking shape. Cool! I thought I’d be able to keep up with him at least, or maybe even make him feel inadequate by hiking faster than him. Well, Matt lied. He’s in plenty good hiking shape. Lying isn’t cool, Matt.)

The National Trail is 13.71 miles long (22 km) and gains 2,611 feet (796 m) in elevation. In an effort to be environmentally-conscious, we hiked to the trailhead from our house, adding 3.25 bonus miles. Yay us! However, since we were only doing the trail end-to-end and did NOT want to do a round-trip hike (that would be about 35 miles of pain), we had to drop off a car at the end….which was not being environmentally-conscious. Boo on us. Anyway, we knew our limitations, so about an hour before Matt was to arrive at our place, my SAT and I drove both our vehicles to the end point, then drove back home together in one vehicle.

The weather was great for a lower elevation hike (trailhead sits at around 1400 feet): it was cool (high of 14C / low 50s F) and partly cloudy with 0% chance of precipitation (true, even though I did feel a few drops at one point).  [Note: a thru-hike is when one hikes a long-distance hike end-to-end within one hiking season. Examples of iconic thru-hikes include the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), the Continental Divide Trail (CDT), and the Appalachian Trail (AT). Obviously, my use of the term “thru-hike” to describe what my party did today is for humorous purposes only!]

We started our hike on the east end, which is the more popular end. As we hiked west, we saw fewer people and mountain bikers (the National trail is also a popular mountain biking trail). However, we did see a horseback rider and his dog, which was unusual. Another surprising thing we saw was a summit register. Generally, summit registers are on peak summits for hikers to sign. Instead of marking an actual summit, the National Trail summit register marked the highest point on any trail in the park. The last surprising thing we saw as we were firmly on the west side of the park was a cholla cactus forest.

 

 

I’m happy with our day today for a number of reasons:

  • we got some more good hiking training in;
  • we got to do a hike “close to home;”
  • we didn’t have a huge drive to the trailhead (other than setting up the car shuttle);
  • we got to see the remote west side of South Mountain;
  • we got to hang out with Matt!; and
  • we got to eat a lot after the hike! (We went to a local Mexican restaurant to refuel and rehydrate.)

Stay tuned for more hiking adventures!

 

 

Read the directions first.

In our quest to hike the biggest peaks in and around the Phoenix valley, we decided to attempt Mazatzal (“Maz”) Peak, the highest point in central Arizona and the Mazatzal Mountain range. Maz measures 7903 ft / 2409m in elevation. My SAT’s (self-appointed trainer) GPS said that we hiked 12.4 miles / 20 km and gained 4185 ft / 1276 m. That GPS did not measure the large number of scratches, bruises, and overall pain we incurred during the hike. Let me explain…

When my SAT chose Maz Peak as our weekend challenge, he neglected to inform me or our friend Ian (our delightfully agreeable hiking buddy) that he did not read any of the multiple hike descriptions he found. Therefore, we all assumed that we would be hiking on a groomed trail and that we should be finished the hike by mid-afternoon. That was mistake #1.

We left Phoenix at 6:45am after picking Ian up and arrived at the trailhead at 8:17am (Maz Peak is near Payson, AZ). After organizing our stuff, we started the hike by 8:30am, choosing the “Y Bar” trail for the ascent portion of the hike. The trail was a bit chunky in sections, but was definitely a clear path. Views were pretty and we noticed A LOT of manzanita bushes along the way (this is foreshadowing…).

Around mile 4, we noticed that the trail just…vanished. My SAT checked his GPS (he downloaded a gpx track recorded by a previous hiker) and said that the route just goes…up. We looked up:

IMG_2170
The GPS said we were supposed to go up the red rock. My stomach just dropped.

At this point, we had a LOT of climbing to do. Most of the climbing was bushwhacking, or forcing one’s way through manzanita bushes and thorn bushes. We also had to climb up little cliffs, like this:

It was very slow going. Because none of us thought to bring an axe, the bushwhacking part was just plain annoying. Good thing we all wore long pants and shirts. After 5 hours, we reached the summit. I think I almost cried, and not because of the views.

Now that we made it to the top, how do we go back down? We all agreed that going down the way we came up was NOT a feasible option. That left us with going down “the other side.” So, we started our way slowly — the word of the day — making our way through the snow and rocks and those dratted bushes. Our goal was to hit the other trail (the Barnhardt) before sunset. We kept moving down the gully over boulders and pine logs, instead of staying on the ridge as the online instructions directed (this was mistake #2). Because we were descending in the gully, we ended up stopping at a couple of points because we were “cliffed out” (i.e. when you want to climb down a mountain, but find yourself on the top of a cliff and have to find another way down). After much tedious work, we finally FINALLY reached the Barnhardt trail after only 3 hours.

Because I did not want to be dramatic or anything, I did not indulge in my first reaction upon hitting the trail (i.e. kissing the ground). Being on a trail again felt amazing. Realizing that we had another 2+ hours to hike back to the car was not as amazing, but hey, we made it to the trail with about an hour of daylight left. This is what we saw in the waning light of day:

We finally made it back to the car at 7:17pm, which meant that we were “out there hiking” for almost 11 hours! (Of course, we weren’t moving the whole time, as we took some breaks to eat, check the GPS, or cry (internally).) We thought about going for a celebration dinner, i.e. “We made it out alive!” dinner, but decided to go for something fast and ended up grabbing some Chipotle when we got back to town.

Final note: during the drive back, I read the hike description that Ian and I thought SAT read. Turns out that after my SAT read the first paragraph, he thought “hey, that doesn’t sound too bad! Since we’ll be on trail the whole time, we’ll just wing it.” THAT WAS A BAD DECISION. The first paragraph of the hike description says this: “This is a loop hike beginning at the Barnhardt Trailhead. It takes the Barnhardt Trail to about the 4 mile point, freestyle your way to the top, then a fairly direct route down to the Y Bar Trail for the return.” If my SAT read the NEXT paragraph, he may not have been so cavalier about the hike, because the writer indicates that 1) the Maz Peak hike is the most difficult he’s done, 2) there is a lot of route finding and bushwhacking, and 3) his accompanying GPS route is “possibly not the best.” And that route was the one we used. Read the full hike description for yourself for more detail on how challenging the route is (we actually ended up doing the reverse of the hike description writer’s route).

Next time my SAT plans a hike, Ian and I are not going to agree to do it so readily.