My Saturday Hike, a Cautionary Tale

On Saturday I hiked to the top of the highest mountain in Arizona--the 12,633' Mt. Humphreys.  It's the second time I've done the hike, the first being about 6 years and multiple hiking and backpacking trips ago.  I treated it not much different from any other hike I've done and since I hiked the Inca Trail last year didn't think of it as much of a challenge.

I'm going to be in trouble if my Mom reads this, but I've never had a hike where I was more genuinely terrified that I wouldn't make it off the mountain. 

I'm not sure if I can pinpoint exactly what went wrong so that I could change that one thing on a future trip.  Though I didn't treat the hike with reverence, nor did I think of it as a walk around the block.  I don't think I'm invincible, I know I'm in average shape at best, I bought snacks and such the night before.  Yet I struggled like never before.

We started the hike a little later than ideal--around 10:30 AM.  It's a 11 mile round trip, I figured about 5 hours, so a 10:30 start didn't seem so bad.  I had a sandwich, multiple protein bars, electrolyte snacks, 3 liters of water, electrolyte tabs for the water, layers, sunscreen.  We even joked with the ranger at the trailhead about the hike--he said "this must be your 6th or 7th time hiking?" I replied, "yea, today!"  He seemed pleased that we had our hiking sticks, water, windbreaker, sunscreen, and that we had aborted a previous attempt to summit due to foreboding weather conditions.

Almost immediately after entering the forest, though, I started struggling.  Maybe I'm not used to the altitude anymore.  Maybe I've fallen out of shape due to the Phoenix summer.  All I know is that I was immediately huffing and puffing.  Stopping every few hundred yards to catch my breath and hope the lightheadedness would go away.  "Focus on the exhale.  Take deep breaths.  We don't have to summit today."

Little over a mile and a snack into the hike I finally felt more normal.  Sure, the climb was tough and I still needed more breaks than I'd prefer, but they were finally regular rest breaks and not breaks that made me doubt my ability to take a hike.  My confidence was renewed, and we pressed on.

That's how the next two hours went.  Hike, breathe, break.  Hike, breathe, break.  My pace got a little closer to normal at 2 mph.  Someone even saw the activity tracking on my watch and was impressed how far we got in 2.5 hours. 

Just before the saddle at 4.5 miles I got a quad cramp.  The first time my legs have ever cramped on a hike.  I popped some sunflower seeds, a couple jelly beans, had some water, and stretched.  Things seemed ok and the final few hundred yards to the saddle were uneventful.

Only one more mile.  A family at the saddle said it took them about an hour to summit from the saddle.  "Ok," I thought, "so probably about 30 minutes for us."  And we hiked on.  As we left the saddle an athletic looking guy arrived, probably an NAU student.  He seemed a little frantic.  Said he was cramping badly.  We gave him some jelly beans and sunflower seeds to help with his electrolytes and wished him luck.  Good hiking karma, right?

False summit after false summit wore on my morale.  The quad cramp started popping back up from time to time.  Catching my breath was difficult, but we were pushing 12k feet above sea level--and 11k feet above where I woke up that morning.  I realized I should have eaten lunch at least an hour ago, so I started in on another energy bar, some more seeds, and some more jelly beans.  They we hard to swallow and the combination of salty seeds, exceedingly sweet jelly beans, and whatever was in the energy bars weren't sitting well.  I HAD to eat, but every time I swallowed a bite, I thought it might come back up.  But hey, almost to the top, and after that it's all downhill.

FINALLY.  The real summit.  By now both of my quads were starting to feel a little crampy, but the flat ground leading up made me hopeful that I would work the cramps out.  Unfortunately, the steep, steep final few steps had other plans.  As I crested the top I was pulling myself on my hiking sticks more than I was stepping forward.  Each time I straightened my legs my quads threatened to seize. 

I hobbled to a rock for a much needed seat.  As I examined my supplies, I realized I only had one liter of water left.  That was defeating.  After four-and-a-half hours of hiking I could have drank a liter of water right there on that rock...instead, it had to last me another 5.5 miles back to the car.  A long swig was out of the question.  Instead, I ate an apple.  Luckily it was incredibly juicy.  The sugars in it did me wonders, and it helped settle my stomach a little.  Oddly, despite having eaten less than I would in a workday, the apple filled me up.  I tried to eat more anyway, but couldn't (though that's a product quality issue with Sprouts more than anything). 

Someone said the current time.  "No, it couldn't be...3:30 PM and we're still at the summit?"  So much for time to relax, now we're racing sunset.  A quick sip of water, and we're off.  Thankfully, my legs felt better, no cramps. 

Wait, no, cramps.  Just a few steps into the descent and my legs start to cramp.  This time the flat stretch doesn't work out the cramps. 

Reality is starting to sink in--this could be bad.  My legs are barely functioning.  My mind turned to the guy at the saddle whose body was all but shutting down, to a story I heard about hikers dying above the treeline during a winter hike.  I have a liter of water for 5.5 miles.  5.5 miles that I have to hike in 4 hours to beat sunset, because I didn't bring a headlamp.  And the stretch back to the treeline is rocky descent that invites ankle rolls and requires a lot of quad work.  While I brought layers, they weren't sufficient to stay the night on the mountain.

I had already dug deep to make it to the saddle.  Now I had to ask my body to push beyond it's physical limits.  Maybe I was being melodramatic, realistically rangers could have gotten to me before sunset, but in my mind the choice was between making my legs work and not leaving the mountain. 

Pushing ahead, I decided to drink more water right away--rationing to have water at the end wouldn't matter if I couldn't make it to the end.  I forced bites of Clif Bar.  I finished my jelly beans.  I kept moving forward.  After about a half mile the cramps went away.  My legs were still exhausted, but at least they were functional.

When we got back to the saddle the end already seemed in sight, despite having 4.5 miles to go. My body didn't feel great, but it was cooperative.  Finally I felt the dread lift.  I had another energy bar, and we set off.  The hike down was long.  My legs were tired.  My feet ached.  Water ran out with 2 miles to go.  But we made it. I felt lucky to return to the car, lucky to make it back to town and to home, lucky that I suffered nothing more than a headache, sore legs, and achey feet. 

I said earlier that I can't pinpoint one thing that I did wrong.  Maybe that's giving myself too much slack--once the cramps came back I probably should have stopped climbing.  I usually know my limits pretty well, but being so close to the summit I thought I could push a little bit further and recharge at the summit. 

In retrospect, ideal circumstances would have been staying at elevation the night before hiking.  Hydrating better the night before and morning of hiking  Having a heartier breakfast.  Stopping for lunch when my body needed it, not at a predetermined location.  I would have carried at least four liters of water and more snacks that could be easily eaten while moving.  We would have started a few hours earlier.  Lots of little things snowballed and hit me hard.  I wasn't "unprepared", but I was definitely underprepared.

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