Conquering the Mountain: Humphreys Peak

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Nestled among the San Francisco Peaks north of Flagstaff, Arizona, Humphreys Peak would be of no consequence to me if I did not regularly pass it enroute to visiting out-of-state relatives. Standing at 12,633 feet, Arizona’s tallest peak is visible for nearly one hundred miles from any direction.

From the time that I first travelled west in 1977 on a tiny motorcycle, I have been fascinated by mountains and made it a point to climb the most prominent of them wherever I lived: Utah, Idaho, California, Colorado and Arizona. Now, at age 61, Humphreys Peak was calling to me. Overweight, out of shape and well beyond my prime, climbing it seemed an impossible dream. Nevertheless, numerous hikes up lesser peaks during the previous months spurred me on, even though the tallest of them paled by comparison.

Over the years I’ve come to appreciate that our limits are self-imposed. We are capable of achieving much more if only we would apply one thing: grit. Grit has been my favorite term this year as I have tested my limits more than ever. Besides the many interesting and challenging hikes, I traveled 1300 miles through India, a country I never dreamed I would visit and explored Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona for nine days on a solo motorcycle ride. Now, it was time to apply grit once more and conquer Humphreys.

Not only is it unwise to undertake such a challenge alone, it’s more fulfilling to share it with a friend. Therefore, I asked Kaihao to join me. Kaihao and I met in 2016 under unexpected circumstances. Having heard that I was a writer, he stopped by my desk at work one day to ask me for an autographed copy of one of my books.  At the time, he was a newly hired engineer whom I had never met. Subsequently, I invited him to join me on the most grueling hike I had ever attempted. Despite formidable challenges, nothing seemed to rattle Kaihao. I deeply respected his indomitable spirit and surprisingly, our shared misery of that day forged a strong bond. Kaihao accepted without hesitation and we made plans to scale Humphreys on July 30, 2017.

Although I love to hike, it’s difficult to do so in Phoenix from May through September due to the blistering heat. In fact, my last hike of consequence was three months earlier up 2500 foot Maricopa Peak in South Mountain Municipal Park. The trail to Humphreys begins at 9200 feet and then climbs 4.75 miles and 3421 vertical feet. I hoped that the heat would provide a training edge and began walking outdoors in 106 degree temperatures, increasing my distance to four miles a day. As July 30 approached, I added mile-long hills to my route.

I knew from hard lessons learned while climbing 14,000 foot peaks in Colorado thirty years earlier that my worst enemy would be altitude sickness. I had never before climbed above 11,000 feet without succumbing to it. If I managed to scale Humphreys and not get sick, it would be the first time. In recent years, I’ve learned two keys to prevent altitude sickness naturally: super-hydration and managing your heart rate. Those would be my only ammunition against altitude sickness and keys to completing the hike.

As our departure approached, the weather turned ominous. Humphreys has its own peculiar climate and fierce storms can envelop the mountain without warning. After a young man was recently struck by lightning and killed on the peak, it was determined that lightning struck the same location over one hundred times in a single hour. Fearing the worst, Kaihao urged me to reschedule and I reluctantly capitulated.

Postponing crushed me, but Kaihao’s positive attitude kept my hope intact: “It’s okay, we will do it another time when the weather is better.” I studied Flagstaff weather history and noted that the rainy season, which was then at its peak, would subside by mid-September. I rescheduled for October 1.

By the end of September, the relentless Phoenix heat had driven me indoors. My training had dropped to weight lifting and a half-hour on the treadmill or elliptical machine three days a week. Two weeks before the climb, I braved the plus 100 degree temperatures once more, armed with a backpack loaded with seventeen pounds of steel weights—double my expected pack weight. Nevertheless, walking three miles a day, five days a week with a heavy pack and brutal heat paled in comparison to what lay ahead.

At 3 p.m. on September 30th, Kaihao and I left for Flagstaff where we had reserved a hotel room. Upon arrival, we ate dinner and then went to bed early so that we would be well-rested when we reached the trail head at 7AM the following morning. Although both nervous, we felt confident that our undauntable spirits would carry us through.

When we arrived at the trail head, I was surprised by the number of vehicles already there. Many hikers had opted to witness the sunrise from the peak. As we began our hike, we ran into a few of them returning, having started their climb at 3 a.m. I couldn’t imagine hiking for hours in the dark across such rugged terrain, but I am sure that the view was worth it.

For the next two hours, we forged our way through stately pines and aspen groves whose leaves had recently turned golden. Tree roots that laced the steeply sloping switchbacks eventually gave way to boulders and the trees grew more sparse and disfigured as we neared tree-line.

By 11,000 feet, the altitude burned my lungs relentlessly and the least exertion left me breathless. With the trees all but gone, a howling wind with gusts of up to eighty miles per hour struck us full force and numbed our exposed flesh. We hurriedly donned winter jackets, gloves and balaclava ski masks that covered everything but our eyes. From then on, the trail climbed steadily upward through a barren and rock-strewn landscape.

As the route steepened, the altitude began taking its toll. Desperate to prevent dreaded altitude sickness, I stopped every hundred feet, leaning heavily on my trekking poles and taking deep, labored breaths until my heart slowed. As we neared the peak, that distance shrank to thirty feet and I began to wonder if my body would survive the continual abuse.

By the time the peak loomed a quarter-mile away, I had nearly fainted several times from overexerting myself. It was difficult to gauge how hard to press on in such an unfamiliar environment. I had slipped while climbing and been saved from falling backward onto jagged rocks by Kaihao’s quick response. The sole of my left boot—torn almost entirely off—was held on by a grocery sack twisted into a makeshift rope and tied around the toe of the boot. Perhaps it was time to call it: find shelter from the merciless wind behind an outcropping and let Kaihao continue alone.

A year earlier, Kaihao and I had set out on hike that took us straight up a mountainside through a boulder-strewn wash, some as big as a house. After hours of scaling giant boulders and fighting intense heat, we ran out of water and were forced to abandon our final objective. Remembering that failure, a voice eclipsed the doubt seducing my mind and screamed “you can do it!”

Goose bumps raced down my neck and arms and a burst of adrenaline vaporized my uncertainty. The goal: a weathered wooden sign with the words HUMPREYS PEAK 12,633 FT. engraved upon it suddenly seemed much closer. I scrambled across the remaining rock-strewn slope without pausing for breath and collapsed at the verge of unconsciousness behind a hand-built stone wind break next to the sign. Moments later, Kaihao joined me and we gleefully high-fived each other.

As I savored a store-bought sandwich and chugged a bottle of Gatorade, I gazed in awe at the cloudless blue sky and incomparable view, grateful to have once again stepped outside of my comfort zone to explore the limitless capacity that we all share.

About the Author:

Ken Dickson is the author of Detour from Normal and The Road to Amistad. Detour from Normal is the shocking true story of how our broken medical and mental health care systems robbed Ken of his life as a respected engineer and devoted family man, and landed him in a high security psychiatric ward. In The Road to Amistad, an unprecedented psychological change catapults people from all walks of life into an extraordinary new level of human consciousness. For most, this leads to confusion and heartache, but for some, it is their calling. They are a new breed of human: resilients. Ken Dickson lives in Phoenix, Arizona with his wife and a motley crew of pets.
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  1. Dan Lyle  October 3, 2017

    Inspiring. I’ve heard the toughest part after getting to the peak is making it back down. How was that, easy or tougher? Thanks!

    • Ken Dickson  October 3, 2017

      Hi Dan, It was much easier except I had to take it slow because of the bad boot. The other one was starting to fall apart as well. Next time, I’ll take some duct tape! I didn’t get out of breath on my way down but I did get a bit nauseated a few times. A short rest fixed that. It took eleven hours all together. Longest hike I’ve been on in awhile. To give you an idea of difficulty, I hiked to Plateau Point in the Grand Canyon and back (12.3 miles) in eight hours and it is exactly the same vertical climb. This was only 9.5 miles. The difference is the quality and steepness of the trail and the high elevation.


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