Humphrey’s Peak has been teasing me ever since I moved to Flagstaff, AZ a couple of months ago. I knew at one point I was going to set out to climb the mighty peak, it was just a matter of when. I have fallen in love with the area since I have been here. Flagstaff is a quiet mountain town on the Colorado Plateau and in the heart of the Coconino Forest at 7,000 feet elevation. It’s a green oasis amidst the harsh, desert regions all around. Humphrey’s Peak looms over the town. At 12,633 feet, it is the highest point in the San Francisco Volcanic Mountain Range which is a series of peaks that make up the eroded remnants of a once mighty volcanic mountain in the area.
Every time I drive downtown, Humphrey’s Peak cannot be missed. It sits high in the sky, daunting and prominent, and for a wannabe adventurer like myself, it’s just waiting to be scaled. I set out this weekend to climb this volcanic peak, perhaps for pride and a sense of accomplishment, perhaps for the adventure and challenge of it, and perhaps for the splendor and beauty that I would discover along the trail. Or maybe because it is just there. Humans have always been naturally curious so maybe it is in our sincerest nature to discover and push boundaries.
It is with this spirit that I set out this weekend, both eager and concerned, for I felt it was important to have a respect for the mountain going into this. I am but a meager traveler on its ancient slopes and it has no concern for my safety or well-being. Isolated on a high peak, you can very easily start to see how indifferent the mountain is to you. It is a place of beauty and wonder but also a place that would squeeze the life out of you in an instant, either with its suffocating altitude, its jagged, loose volcanic rocks, or with its freezing temperatures.
I made sure to plan ahead and pack smartly, for this was going to be a challenge to both the mind and body. The hike starts out at around 9,200 feet near the ski slopes in the area, huddled in the dense aspen forest on the western side of the peak. The hike is 10.2 miles round trip with a gain of 3,400 feet in elevation. The entire trail is heavily sloped with loose rocks and tree roots. The altitude adds an additional challenge as well. This was going to take discipline, focus, and determination but I was ready.
The trail began in a field of tall, dried grasses overlooking the western plain and its distant mountains which were a stunning awakening to this adventure and had me exuberant for the journey ahead. The trail proceeded through a lower forest predominantly made up of aspens. Being in early November, the aspen’s luminous, golden leaves had fallen and blanketed the forest floor. When the sun bled through the dense thicket of trees and reached the forest floor, these golden leaves were like beckons of light guiding the way. This golden forest floor gave me a sense of being in some mystical realm, far removed from the normal and the familiar. I halfway expected an elf or a hobbit to pop out of a stump or from behind a tree but that’s just where my mind goes.
As a continued to climb, I noticed the terrain began to change. The soft, illustrious carpet of leaves gave way to jagged rocks. I had to adjust, making my every step all the more careful and precise. The aesthetic of the forest changed as I ascended, as the aspen forest gave way to a forest of thick bristlecone pines. Bristlecone Pines are amazing. They are some of the toughest and most resilient trees in the area, able to survive in high altitude, and in dry and cold regions. They are the last beckons of refuge and shelter high up on the mountain.
I remember stopping for a moment on the trail just to take in the sensory experience. There was no one around me and it was dead quiet for a moment. I remember feeling a panging cold on the areas of my body exposed to air. My face and hands were stinging from the morning wind as the sun was still low the sky. At the same time, internally, my body felt hot and in overdrive from the strenuous hike. To feel both hot and cold is a strange feeling I recalled as I slowly looked around this enchanted piney forest. The soft breeze rustled through the pines only to be overshadowed by the rhythmic, echoing sounds of a distant woodpecker. I was in the thick of it and nature came alive for me in that moment. All was still and simple and it felt like I was aligned with the rhythms of the earth. Maybe this is why I do these hikes, for moments like that.
As I was taking it all in, I must have wandered off on some side trail that was carved into the woods which slowly disappeared after a time. I looked around only to be startled by the unfamiliar. It was only for a moment but I remember fear creeping in as I looked around and suddenly found that there was no sign of a trail. I was lost. I was on a particularly steep hillside and the pines blocked my view of any prominent trail in the area. I knew that all I had to do was either retrace my steps to the trail or blaze up the hillside and eventually run back into the trail, but still, the sense of being lost is an eerie feeling.
The forest, which was enchanting and magical just moments before, now turned alarming and disheartening. It’s funny all the thoughts that go through your mind in that instance when you feel utterly lost. I remember thinking how stupid I had been to get into this situation with my lack of perception and being distracted. I remember thinking about being stranded up there at night and slowly freezing to death. I even saw the newspaper headline “Local Idiot Gets Lost and Dies on Mountain”. In that moment I had to shut all of those silly thoughts out and logically solve this dilemma. I knew I didn’t want to backtrack back down. Luckily, I had a trail app on my phone with GPS so I knew if I kept climbing straight up the slope, I would run back into the trail. And luckily that’s just what happened.
I eventually reached around 11,600 feet elevation, just a thousand more feet up to go. This was on the edge of the tree line and the forest once again changed. Conditions are so hostile to life up there. The forest seemed to effectively shrink, as the bristlecone pines became less dense, short and stunted. The trees on the edge of the tree line don’t get very tall. They are short from the inhospitable conditions of high elevation and they are bent and twisted by the wind and the frost. As my breathing became more labored and my heartrate increased, I knew I was starting to feel the effects of the altitude as well.
I passed through the last of the trees to emerge on the ceiling of the mountain. The desolate, rocky terrain sprawled out before me looking none too pleased to have me there. This was another world. Not much survives up there except small tundra shrubs, sporadic wildflowers, and lichen. Mostly the terrain consists of sharp, loose basalt rock and other volcanic stones. Looking down on the trail, I became curious of the rocks, many of them black and porous, both smooth and jagged.
This region has a violent volcanic past. As I got near the top, it felt like transcending time in a way, as this high altitude, volcanic world both marveled and humbled me. In the back of my mind, I kept thinking how dangerous a place like this can be. I wouldn’t call it a fear, but a concern for my safety was ever-present. I was lost in the beauty and diversity of the Northern Arizona landscape, but I was ever-cautious and vigilant.
The last mile and a half of trail seemed to take just as long to traverse as the previous three miles through the forests. The altitude at this point halted me down to a crawling pace. Up there, I was constantly out of breath and having to stop every few feet. Every time I stopped the sounds of my deep, gulping breaths were deafening. My head became light and I felt like my heart was about to burst from my chest, but I couldn’t stop now. The trail had a series of false summits. You muster all of your effort to make it to the top of what you think is the summit, only to see another ridgeline.
The last false summit really hit me like a punch in the gut. By this time, I was utterly exhausted. I pushed all my energy to make it up to the top of the ridge only to see more trail in front of me. This mountain is a test of the mind as well as the body. It is a test of will-power, mental strength, and endurance. It will brutalize and dishearten the spirit if you let it. I took a deep breath, found my inner strength, and made the last stride to the top. I had made it!
The summit is a narrow, rocky strip of land providing a gorgeous 360-degree view of Northern Arizona. The wind began to pick up at the top as I scanned the horizon. I was amazed at this region that I have so recently called home. It gives a whole new perspective of the region. The green patches of forests, the rolling hills, the isolated volcanic peaks in the distance, and the desolate desert region of the North (Grand Canyon could be seen as well) could all be viewed in its unabated splendor.
We live in a world of boundaries, barriers, and lines. Up there, everything seemed to meld into everything else. The landscape was diverse and yet all of it flowed together, seamless and unbounded. There were no discernible areas or names or lines or boundaries that came to mind looking out over the land. It was just…there. The land had no name. It was a raw, untamed, and incomprehensible monolith of energy in that moment. I could imagine the singular movement of land and strata, of rocks, lava, trees, and wildlife. I could see the land as a whole molding, shaping, and moving in unison, with only the illusion of standing still from the perspective of our minds in the briefest of times. What a joy to be totally lost in nature, overcome by the detail but also the simplicity of a world far older, larger, wiser, and bigger than yourself. It felt like I was on top of the world, if only for a moment.
The trek down proved to be its own set of challenges, for the terrain was unforgiving and I had to pay extra close attention to my footing. Each step became a tactical move in this technical descent. I found myself comforted by the warming temperatures as the afternoon sun was in full swing. I was running on fumes towards the end. As I made it back into the aspen forest on the last leg of the trail, my body was screaming for respite. I could feel the utter exhaustion permeate every inch of my body. My legs were on fire and my shoulders were aching from the weight of my pack. I felt delusional as my mind had been wholly spent. There wasn’t really any thought at that point other then the voice in my head telling me to keep going. My world condensed, as my only concern was the next step in front of me. All I knew was that I had to keep going, as the sun would set shortly.
I finally made it back to my truck in the late afternoon, right as the sun was beginning to set. My mind and my body had been drained of its resources and the only thing that washed over me was a feeling of accomplishment and a deep gratitude at having come out unscathed. As I drove back home, my mind was like static. It was neither here nor there but lost in a wave of exhaustion and emotion. I couldn’t make sense of any thought. All I knew was that I was alive, healthy, and blessed with an unforgettable experience, a test of the mind, body, and soul. I smiled looking back at the mountain in the rearview mirror, knowing I would never look at it the same way again. I also smiled thinking about the hot shower in my immediate future 😊