Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Getting to the Summit is Optional

Into thin air

I was going to entitle this blog “Hiking Humphreys and Haunted Hotels” because I liked the letter “H” in the title but I wisely reconsidered. The title comes from a quote from Ed Viesturs who once stated, "Getting to the summit is optional. Getting down is mandatory.”

Who is Ed Viesturs?

Ed Viesturs is America's, and perhaps the world’s, leading high altitude mountaineer. He has climbed all 14 of the world's highest mountains (above 8,000 meters) without the use of supplemental oxygen. In doing so, he became the first American and the 5th person in the world to accomplish this. He has also summited Mount Everest seven times. In other words, this guy is a mountaineer God (okay Reinhold Messner still takes the title). In all those feats Ed Viesturs has climbed some incredible mountain peaks and has always returned. A lot of other mountaineers have summited the same peaks but have never returned. A key lesson to be learned here is that wisdom and not physical strength, bravado, nor the latest and greatest hiking gear is what is needed on the mountain.

A couple of years ago I used to call myself an avid hiker until a very dangerous bug called photography infected me.

Half Dome Trek

Into in Thin Air: Mt. San Jacinto

Into the Wild: Sequoia Backpacking

Grand Time in the Grand Canyon

Hiking "Old Greyback"

Hanging with the Supai!

Now I wake up two hours before sunrise not to be at the trailhead but to set up my tripod to capture nature’s light. My home office floor is filled with so many camera bags, camera bodies and lenses that the only hiking I do is around this garbled mess to get to my computer.

So when I got a call from my friend, Vince Puccio (of The Heart Attack Grill fame –see previous blog), to go hike Mount Humphrey in Arizona I was definitely onboard. The depressing part was going to my garage and dusting away the cobwebs from my Camelbak and trekking poles.

After picking up Vince at his home in the Coachella Valley we sped toward the California/Arizona border to have lunch in the historic town of Prescott, AZ and eventually rest our heads in the new age town of Sedona. We spent the next day wandering around Sedona hoping their famed vortexes would energize us for our upcoming hike. Before leaving Sedona we had lunch at the Oak Creek Brewery (great food and even better award-winning micro brewed beer). I wouldn’t recommend drinking and driving (or rather drinking then driving) but if you had to then indulge in a pint of the Oak Creek Nut Brown Ale and drive the scenic highway 89A that connects Sedona to Flagstaff.

While the fresh mountain air of Flagstaff was invigorating, we didn’t take too much in since we spent the better part of that evening indoors. Partaking in adult beverages (i.e. micro-brewed beer) is not the most optimal way to prepare for a hike the next day. At least on our part we were contributing to the local economy. We ended the evening in the Monte Vista Lounge, which was convenient since it was in the same building of the historic Hotel Monte Vista in downtown Flagstaff in which we called our temporary home.

Age and dehydration welcomed us in the morning. Our goal was to be at the trailhead by 7:00 AM and we promptly delivered ourselves sometime after 10:00 AM to start the hike. Not a great beginning.



The trailhead is located in the Arizona Snowbowl just outside of Flagstaff. At 12,637 feet (3,852 meters for the rest of the world) Mount Humphrey is the highest point in the state of Arizona. Although in my dilapidated state my body screamed go back to bed, my mind said to forge on. I’m an addict for hiking any peak but to bag the highest one in Arizona was an added incentive.



Vince and I left the trailhead and hiked across an open meadow and under a ski lift. It was a nice easy beginning for our weary bodies. Once in the woods it was a slight ascent among some switchbacks. Thankfully with every step and the ever-increasing altitude I was beginning to feel better.

I'm at the Agassiz Saddle and being beat up by the high winds

As we approached the Humphreys/Agassiz saddle the whipping winds made life difficult for us. We talked with a couple of hikers who made their way down from the summit and just by their attire I could tell we would be in for one hell of a ride. Their hiking gear resembled a team on a Himalayan expedition. They informed us that the winds at the top were about 80-90 miles per hour. They described how some other hikers were literally climbing on all fours on the summit ridge to avoid being blown off the mountain. Well if I was going to be blown off the mountain at least I got my drinking in the night before.

A view from from the inner basin. Mount Humphrey's peak is on the left outside the frame. This was our last view before we turned around and headed back down.

We persevered toward the summit ridge all the while we were blasted with such powerful winds I felt like I was being pounded by a heavyweight boxer. Actually, at times the wind was at our backs that a huge gust would literally carry us up the trail. After all that fun, we reached the inner basin and twice I nearly lost my balance due to the fierce gusts of wind (or maybe I was still in a discombobulated state from the previous night’s wild activities). Either way, Vince and I stumbled around like we were in a drunken state.

As the “old” saying goes, “With age comes wisdom,” and wisdom dictated we turn around and head back to the friendly confines of Flagstaff. But the competitive side of me screamed to go for the summit and wisdom be damned. After another slap in the face by a gust of wind that brought me back to reality, I remembered reading in Ed Viesturs’ book “No Shortcuts to the Top” that, "Getting to the summit is optional. Getting down is mandatory.” At nearly 12,000 feet with 90 mile per hour wind, Vince and I decided for the mandatory rather than the optional.

All good things (in this case windy things) must come to an end so we decided to turn around head down the mountain. Vince perhaps was suffering more than me since he didn’t have any gloves, proper headgear, and proper eyewear (he later said that his eyes were irritated from the wind). I popped in my Apple earphones, powered up my iPod and marched on down toward the car.

Downtown Flagstaff at sunset.
View from our hotel room #305. It's also the same view from the infamous "rocking chair."

Back in Flagstaff I powered down what looked like a hamburger from Jack in the Box since I all I had to eat the whole day were two fiber bars. We then took our weary bones back to our room at the Hotel Monte Vista where Vince and I pondered the haunted past of the hotel. I googled the hotel on the world’s greatest hand held computer, my iPhone, and I read aloud the Monte Vista’s haunted past.

We found out that we were staying in the most haunted corner of the hotel. Next door to us in room 306 two prostitutes were thrown out of the third floor window back in the 1940’s (talk about a quickie). Male guests have claimed that while sleeping at night in room 306 they feel as if someone is choking them. Doesn’t this happen to any married man who annoys his wife with his snoring?

Seen any ghosts lately?

In room 305, where we were staying, the hotel website claimed that the room is the “most active” in regards to ghost activities. In fact, the TV show “Unsolved Mysteries” filmed a segment here. They stated an elderly lady, who was a long time renter, would sit in a rocking chair staring out of the window for hours on end. To this day, employees and guests have asserted to seeing an apparition of an elderly lady sitting in the rocking chair. Hotel housekeeping claims that if you remove the rocking chair from the window it will reappear again in the same spot.

We decided to put this claim to the test so before we called it an evening we moved the rocking chair to the center of the room. Upon waking up the next morning the chair was still in the same position. Either Grandma Ghost was on vacation or she was present and was too old to move it back to the window.

We checked out of the hotel and started our drive back to California. No summit and no ghosts. Considering I wasn’t in the best condition the day of hike (and my aging body), I still had a great time. No blisters, throbbing knees, bodies blown off mountain, and no ill effects from the altitude. Yes, the summit is optional but on my next trip to Mount Humphrey it will be a requirement. When I do reach the summit I’ll celebrate back in Flagstaff at the Hotel Monte Vista with a beer, Grandma Ghost and the rocking chair.