I cashed in credit card miles on Thursday for a 6 a.m. free flight on Saturday from Columbus to Phoenix. I needed some high-altitude training before the Idaho climb and I could attempt my 44th state highpoint at the same time by attacking Humphrey’s Peak.
The kids were on vacation and I was wallowing in doubt before I bought my ticket and my cellmate asked, “Is there any reason for you not to go? No, so go. It’s just Saturday to Monday.”
When you deplane in Phoenix, there’s no doubt you’ve traveled to a distant moon. It was 105-degrees, and because there had been so much rain during the “monsoon” season, it was humid as hell. Dry heat my butt, what kind of messed up desert was this place?
The cactus has to be one of the most unique plants — they will kill you if you run into them, they don’t care about water or heat and they are absolutely visually stunning with all the green hues.
My cousin Dusty Kline, a 1996 Madison graduate, has climbed many different peaks with me and was living in Phoenix, so we planned the climb together over the two days prior and he picked me up at the airport.
“You’re not ready. Good chance you die up there,” Dusty said, foregoing a hello and inquisition into the flight.
The cacti, dust and distant mesa views soon dissipated as we gained elevation on I-17 north towards Flagstaff, around noon, my 12th hour of continuous travel.
That highway was probably the most dangerous and insane road I’ve traveled on in a long time. Because of the dramatic inclines over mountain passes, trucks would be going anywhere from 10 m.p.h. to 90, jumping out into the left lane at will, along with all the campers and RVs heading towards the Grand Canyon. It was like being too drunk while playing Mario Cart — no matter what, one simply couldn’t control the environment.
Ears started popping as we hit the 6K elevation of Flagstaff, 145 miles north of Phoenix. The dessert dissipated and the cacti were replaced by these super tall things with branches, oh yeah, trees!
With all the summer tourism, the last thing we wanted was a camp spot near people. Luckily, Ashland native “Dan-O-War” McQuate had been doing guerrilla camping around Flagstaff for years, so he knew the perfect spot that was close to the mountain, but ages away from people. He dropped us a pin and with much precision, located the spot around 4 p.m. on Saturday.
Arizona had this really cool thing called dispersed camping in forest areas like Coconino National. You basically can camp wherever you want for free but can only stay in one spot for two weeks.
There are tons of unpaved dirt side roads that lead deep into the pine forest and you can have all the wilderness you want. No permits, no rangers, no little metal fire pits nor picnic tables. And no bugs, which was very odd. But plenty of mudslides.
The flash floods in Flagstaff had sent a Prius floating down the road and everyone told me that it was not the best time of year to climb Humphrey’s. The weather was concerning: rain and thunderstorms off and on for the whole weekend. There was a small window Sunday morning, but there was a good chance we’d have to turn back if the clouds got dark or if we heard thunder.
Rain came with the darkness, and the tapping on the tent put me right to sleep. Up at 4 a.m. on Sunday and it was comfortable and warm in my four-season tent and we were soon hiking on the trail at 5:15 a.m.
There was one group of three men ahead of us, and they made us start fast as we wanted to pass them and be first at the top. Who wants to share a summit? Our main concern, though, was the storm that was rolling in — set to hit the mountain with thunder and lightning at 11 a.m., so we had to be back to the treeline by 10 a.m.
A five-hour window between 10,000 and 12,000 feet was not ideal. Suffering from terror-induced speed was inevitable.
It’s the absolute worst to only acclimate for 12 hours — makes the first couple of miles feel like you’re suffocating and you can’t drink and you end up swallowing more air than breathing it.
But it didn’t take long for Dusty and me to fly by the first group and since we had 3,500 feet of elevation to climb, the uphill never stopped. Eventually, we got out of the trees and had views of valleys and the ski lift off in the distance.
Trees could no longer grow at that elevation, so nothing but rock and false summits. If I wasn’t constantly checking the route, I would have lost my mind with how it never ended.
What’s that dot? Another climber? The dot behind me, probably a half-mile away, was a solo hiker and he was moving fast! There were different ridge crests and I started timing how many minutes were between us. I had a six-minute lead, then five-, then four-. Some marathon freak was coming for first rights to the summit!
Like tracking the Uruk-hai, our pace increased and I was moving as fast as I could without snapping my leg in two by missing a boulder and wedging my leg down in between, with the full inertia pushing me forward.
Marathon boy was only a minute behind us when at last the final summit cone came into view. He was probably just enjoying the views and the climb as I was locked in some invented death race.
Don’t worry; we made sure to welcome him to the top of Arizona with smiles at the summit.
Most climbing accidents happen on the way down, and Dusty tweaked his knee so we had to be extra cautious. There was loud thunder for our last mile and at the trailhead parking lot, rangers had posted up.
A young female hiker approached the trailhead as we were coming out and the ranger said, “Are you fully aware the the potentially deadly lightning and storms that are happening right now?”
“Yes,” she said and kept walking. Again, the older ranger, half leaning on a giant pine log, tried to express the danger but on she progressed.
For us, the most life-threatening thing we did that day was get back on suicidal I-17 heading south to Phoenix, for night celebrations and libations. Even with only 6 hours of sleep over two days plus travel and climbing, I was ready to get “schwfity,” as my buddy Rick Sanchez would say.
The Melrose District of Phoenix was like the Short North of Columbus, only with a Los Angeles vibe — small houses crammed and cramped together but with towering palm trees and endless sun.
The Thunderbird Bar had free arcade games from the 80s and 90s and I had to rage against Ms. Pacman between whisky sips. (Damn you orange ghost!) Most Phoenix bar patios have fans that constantly blow mist and I found that to be extremely unsanitary (in my own mind), like the wind was blowing everyone’s sweat and breath into my face in vapor form.
We wanted to conclude the night by pounding a pizza, and I ordered a pie and stood at the end of the drive, waiting. Finally, a car pulled over in front of the house and I sauntered over, unbalanced.
“Hi, I ordered a pizza,” I said.
A lady exited her car, looked at me and said, “That’s great.”
She had a neon yellow vest on and a headlamp. This was the most prepared and serious Door Dash delivery driver I’d ever seen.
“I’m starving; can’t wait to eat it,” I said.
She opened her back door and pulled out a giant t-shaped body-length metal bar.
“That doesn’t look like a pizza,” I said.
“Sir, I work for the Department of Irrigation, I’m turning valves to flood the yards, please leave me alone,” she said.
Ten minutes later the real delivery driver showed up and I ran back into the house so starving and ready to soak up the alcohol and I threw open the box and it was covered in pepperoni!
Nooooooo, I’ve been a vegetarian since ‘99, damn this cruel world.
Immediately, I called the pizza place, and they were now closed. So, I ordered a new pizza from a place further away, and after they left it on the wrong porch, I finally located it and got my pie, 2.5 hours after the first order.
Had breakfast the next day, Monday, at the Melrose Kitchen with “Scavenger” Brotsky, an old college buddy that moved out to Arizona in ‘08.
“Didn’t have anything lined up, just moved out. On my first day, I got a job interview. Was hired later and have been at the same place ever since,” Scav said.
Boarded my flight with legs that had become locked in a lactic acid coma, but I had bagged state highpoint #44.
Before landing back in Columbus, anxiety and fear overtook me — in a few weeks I’d be attempting Borah Peak and #45, which is a Class 3 rock climb with no rope options and the infamous “Chicken Out Ridge,” where if you slip, you die.
Six state highpoints remain, here’s the breakdown:
There’s one easy hike in White Butte, North Dakota (3,506 ft.).
One moderate climb left in Guadalupe Peak, Texas (8,751 ft.).
And four extreme climbs left, in order of hard to hardest:
1. Borah Peak in Idaho with the infamous “Chicken Out Ridge” section where many climbers turn back due to the death falls on both sides.
2. Mt. Katahdin in Maine during the northeast winter.
3. Mt. Rainier in Washington, the most difficult glacier climb in the lower 48 states.
4. Denali, 20,310 feet of pure Alaskan madness and the hardest mountain in North or South America to summit, not to mention the sixth hardest in the world (Everest is #5, for perspective).
Only one person has ever soloed Denali in January, where there can be only 4-5 hours of sunlight a day.
The Life section is supported by Brethren Care Village in Ashland.