Sedona Westerners in the Red Rock News

October 14, 2011

Westerners Tackle Arizona’s Highest Peak


by Curt Kommer

In the late summer, when the days here in Sedona can still be uncomfortably hot, the Sedona Westerners Hiking Club find themselves drawn toward the cool air and elevation of the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff, where Humphreys Peak dominates the skyline and challenges hikers from all over the world. At 12,633 feet, Humphreys is the highest point in Arizona and, according to the Arizona Leisure Guide, “One of the best hikes in the state.” The Peak was named after Civil War General George Humphreys, who directed the first detailed surveys of the American Southwest. He is best remembered, however, as “one of the loudest swearers ever heard,” and “a man of distinguished and brilliant profanity.”

On a recent Saturday, a group of eight experienced Westerners “Rough Riders” hikers, led by Bill Johnson and Pam Green, set out on the 4.8 mile and 3300 foot (elevation) trek to Humphreys summit. As the early trail climbed relentlessly through deep forest, muffled curses could occasionally be heard from laboring hikers, no doubt in tribute to General Humphreys. Hard work aside, it is a beautiful trail. Transitioning from the alpine woodland of Flagstaff to the semi-arctic altitudes of stunted Bristlecone pine and Corkbark Fir, hikers finally burst above the tree line at 12000 feet onto barren and windswept rock that piles itself to the summit.

The “Rough Riders” of the Sedona Westerners navigate a rough stretch on the Mt. Humphries trail. The week’s storm with high wind created an unexpected windfall tangle. Mt. Humphries, at 12,633 ft., is Arizona’s highest peak and Flagstaff’s landmark.

The San Francisco Peaks were once a huge cone-shaped volcano that rose to an estimated altitude of 18000-20000 feet. For approximately one million years it erupted regularly, culminating in a cataclysmic eruption 400,000 years ago that, like Mount St. Helens, blew the top of the volcano off. The modern day peaks are what remains of the rim of the caldera, and the highest section of the summit trail follows this rim over a series of agonizingly false summits to the top. Like many hard-earned summits, Humphreys peaks out onto a patch of non-descript rubble, peppered with improvised rock shelters to block the frequently howling winds. Leader Bill Johnson joked, as the Westerners took in the views, that the peaks take their name because San Francisco, CA can be seen from Humphreys. Not on this day, but summit hikers could clearly see the Grand Canyon to the North, the Painted Desert to the East, and our own Wilson Mountain to the South.

The hike back down to the trailhead is a long one, but the feelings of accomplishment, the memories of spectacular summit views, and the laughter of good friends can make it seem much shorter. Thanks to Bill Johnson and Pam Green for a safe and memorable climb, and, for those who would like to tackle Humphreys our club would offer the following advice:
1. Mountain storms are common, and can rake the peaks with hail, rain, and lightning. Check the weather forecast carefully, try to be on the trail early, and carry rain gear. Come down if lightning threatens.
2. It is high-altitude hiking. The best way to prevent altitude related illness is to hike frequently in the Flagstaff area first, getting your body used to the altitude and maximizing your fitness.
3. It is a ten-mile round trip. Adequate food and water are a must, as are a good pair of hiking boots.
4. Hike the mountain with a friend or two, preferably someone who knows the trail.

The Westerners always welcome new members. If you are interested in joining the club, log onto our website, for membership information. You may also join at one of our monthly meetings. There is no October meeting due to the fall membership barbecue. Our next regular meeting will be Thursday, Nov. 10, beginning at 7p.m. at the Jewish Community of Sedona and the Verde Valley Center, 100 Meadowlark Drive, Sedona.