The environment above the tree line is inhospitable. Intense sunshine, constant gale-force winds, snow, frost, lightning, scarce oxygen and sparse rainfall makes life as hard on humans as it is on plants. Which is reason enough to go.
In Arizona you get above the tree line on Humphreys Peak, which we decided to ascend on the longest day of the year. We picked that day because the trail was free of snow and the monsoon storms hadn’t started. These mountains create their own weather. Watching summer storms batter the high country from the safety of Flagstaff is intimidating. Being caught on an exposed ridge during one would be terrifying. Even on the clear midsummer day we chose, we took gloves, hats and jackets. In hindsight using the longest day ended up being good idea just because of the time we needed for the hike.
Hike. Unlike a lot of high points in the western states, Humphreys doesn’t require climbing. You hike there. It isn’t even a tough hike. At least that’s what I was thinking while we relaxed in the saddle at 11,800 feet. We were sitting in the sunshine, warm and relaxed, enjoying a day that, until then, had been little more than a walk through a beautiful old forest of aspen, Douglas fir, white fir, Englemann spruce, and ponderosa pine. Nothing, except a sign half a mile back, suggested that we were over two miles above sea level. The sign, at 11,400 feet, announced the start of the delicate alpine zone: no camping; no off-trail hiking.
But from where I sat, not tired, breathing well, and–had it not been for descending hikers–questioning whether I would need my cold weather clothes, it seemed like a cake walk. A cake walk was not what we were there for. So, we pulled on our wind jackets, readjusted our day packs, and walked around the corner into the teeth of a steady 40 mile per hour wind.
I was there for the wind. I looked forward to the rocky terrain, to climbing over boulders. I was even ready to relish the breathlessness and sluggish pace the thin air induced. But I looked forward to one thing above all else: bristlecone pines. Lots of people are quick to recite the old saw that sequoias are the most long-lived plants on earth. That’s California Chamber of Commerce hyperbole. They are high in the running, but not at the top. None have been found more than two millennia old. The more quick witted will point to a creosote bush ring in the Mojave desert that is 11,700 years old, an age for a living thing that bends human comprehension. But while that creosote ring has been expanding outward since pre-history, the individual outer stems are not very old. No. The oldest individual plants alive on this planet are bristlecone pines. And bristlecone pines don’t grow in luxurious environments. They eek out existence in the inhospitable zones nearing the tree line. How high up they grow varies with latitude, climate and which side of the hill you’re on. On Humphreys Peak you’ll approach the last of them at 12,000 feet.
We passed many of them. But I was looking for the oldest one I could find, highest up on the mountain. Eventually I found one that might be it. Looking at its gnarled trunk and wind-sculpted form I honored it the only way I knew how, by recalling the words in Thomas McGuane’s wonderful Nicholas Payne soliloquy: “I believe in metal fatigue and the immortality of the bristlecone pine.”
Shortly before the summit I encountered a woman sitting on the trail crying. She was clutching her knee. “I tripped on that rock,” she said, pointing accusingly at the very stone that had tripped her. She assured me that someone was coming to help. So I moved on. It was then that I finally noticed that everything was rock. Big ones, little ones, loose ones, some that seemed anchored to the mountain itself. Lots that could easily trip you, spilling you down the slope. I could not help recall a huge boulder that we’d encountered at Arches National Park. It was near Delicate Arch parking lot and did not belong there. It was igneous, out of place among the sedimentary stone that formed Arches. Some sleuthing revealed that it had been blown there from the eruption of the very volcano I was now hiking up. Half a million years ago? A million years ago? However long, the eruption had blasted that rock into the air, landing it 300 miles away. It was enough to make you imagine the entire sky raining down smoking, flaming stones like some Biblical judgment. The explosion blasted away the entire northeast side, some 18,000 acres, of this gigantic cinder cone, leaving Humphreys as merely the tallest of a group of peaks, the Kachina Peaks, that form a semi-circle around the caldera.
Rocks. I continued upward over them, wishing that I could turn enough to let the wind buffet me from the other side. I was glad for my jacket. I was glad when the trail moved toward the lip of the caldera. For brief moments then the mountain would block the wind and I could get warm.
The summit, as they always are, was anticlimactic, even at 12,643 feet. Mary and I snapped a few photos then hunkered down behind a rock wall to eat and rehydrate. I suddenly found the crowd of peak poachers around me annoying, my first indication that I was more tired than I realized. We had spent nearly four hours getting there, an awfully long time for less than five miles of trail. After I felt my glucose level rise we started back down.
It didn’t seem possible, but the wind was worse on the way down. It gusted frequently, swirling the tip of my hiking staff before I could plant it, or knocking me off balance during a tricky step. The lightweight Mary claimed it was blowing 80 miles per hour. The base speed was probably still forty, but some of the gusts were probably sixty. And while it was at our backs going up, it was in our faces on the descent. I started crouching behind boulders when I needed to look back to gage Mary’s progress. The going was slow. Eventually we made it back to the larger of the bristlecones and smaller of the firs, rounded the corner to the saddle and sat down to shed our jackets.
That’s when things got weird. The trail, which had seemed almost paved on the way up, now seemed really steep. Worse, it now seemed really rocky. I began realizing that there was not a square foot of it that didn’t have a rock, a root, a stone, or a stick poking out. The light thin hiking shoes we preferred suddenly seemed like a really bad idea. Younger hikers bounded past us like deer while we stepped gingerly onto every cobble. We had been hiking for hours and breaks in the forest showed a valley floor no closer than when we left the saddle.
Eventually we passed the trail register, trudged through the last few yards of forest, stepped out onto the quarter-mile long meadow that began our hike. We had spent as much time on the descent as we had going up. Both of us had started wishing for the parking lot long before we got there. And both of us had decided that future hiking was going to be done in sturdier shoes. I thought of a tee shirt from back in the day. It showed a mountain goat in patched pants and plaid shirt, pack on its back, sitting on a peak enjoying a hot beverage. The caption simply read: Old Goat. Old goats. That’s what we were now. We needed thicker soles, more time getting up the mountain; Ibuprofen coming down.
Still, I had scarcely changed shoes before I started thinking about hiking Humphreys again. It was the highest point I had ever propelled myself to. The challenge, the views, the weather, the oxygen depletion was already in my blood. I could picture doing it on shorter days, in worse weather. At the moment, though, what I really wanted was to be in Flagstaff chowing down a cheeseburger. Thomas McGuane’s words had evaporated somewhere below 11,000 feet, replaced by Jimmy Buffet’s: “I like mine with lettuce and tomato, Heinz 57 and french-fried potato…”
When you go: The Humphreys Peak Trail can be accessed from near Ski Valley in Flagstaff, Arizona. Be mindful of the weather. This is no place to be caught in a storm or fading light unless you are prepared for such conditions. The zone above 11,400 feet is alpine. Do not leave the trail or camp above that elevation.
Another note: Apparently the fine folks at Sports Science Wear still carry shirts illustrated with the Outdoor People stuff from the 1970’s. Here is a photo of the Old Goat shirt: