Talus a Story

Talus:

A slope formed by an accumulation of broken rock debris.

An ankle bone.

A fictional planet in Star Wars.

I found all three of these definitions to be quite accurate. Walking across talus indeed resembles a fictional isolated planet with no signs of life, on which one could easily break an ankle bone. Or all their bones, for that matter.

Mt Humphreys, Flagstaff AZ

I learned that a lack of confidence, balance, and agility make a walk across talus like a walk across a mine field. I crossed it so slowly that one might think I was standing still, or even moving backward. I feared I was going to start a rock slide and tumble down the slope to my death. Many of the rocks were unstable and I did lose my balance on a number of occasions.

But in conquering my fear of crossing such terrain I was well rewarded by ending up at the crash site of a B24 Bomber from 1944! I only reached this site with the instinct and encouragement of Mountain Goat, the guide of this trip.

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11,000 feet and sitting on a B24 Bomber wing.

Funny thing is, this was not at all part of our original plan for the day.

Let’s start from the beginning…

I have lived in Flagstaff, AZ for over 3 decades and never even dreamed of reaching the summit of Mt Humphreys. It is the highest point in all of Arizona at 12,633 feet (and an extinct volcano)! It is a gain of 3,367 feet in the 5 miles you hike up from the lower parking lot of the Arizona Snowbowl. My “beyond my dreams, dream” became reality yesterday. I’m typing this article with a huge grin on my face, and feet and legs that feel incapable of moving.. but I’m handling the pain with a combination of moaning and pride.

I have a goal of hiking ALL the trails listed in the Flagstaff Trail Map, and I assumed Humphreys would be one of the last hikes I would attempt during my training. I happened to mention my desire to do this hike to several friends. Catching my enthusiasm for training someone brilliantly suggested we do the hike this week. Not one to miss out on any adventure, I promptly agreed. And that’s when my anxiety began, and continually grew to the point of not being able to sleep the night before the hike. I figured I would make it to the summit but “knew” I’d suffer every step, hate it, feel like dying, and take 12 hours to complete it. In fact, my backpack weighed 15 lbs because I knew I would need extra water, extra clothes, extra food rations, first aid kit, inhaler, pain pills, antiseptic wipes, one emergency anxiety pill, and a few other items that I read were a necessity for surviving such a hike. And I wanted to cover all the bases.

The next morning we met at 6am sharp at Late for the Train coffee shop (a local favorite) to grab a delicious cup of coffee before driving to the trailhead. I asked the barista for a triple shot sweet coffee. He asked no further questions and made me the strongest sweetest coffee ever. My confidence was slightly boosted as I realized I would actually feel awake by the time we hit the trail.

When we arrived at Snowbowl, we found that the upper parking lot was closed because of construction. We learned this from a very uptight, unfriendly park ranger who was unwilling to give us a break. Mountain Goat said this ranger needed to be reminded he was a public servant whose job was funded by us, the taxpayers. I agreed that he could at least have smiled and acted like he cared that we’d now have to hike further. I was in a forgiving mood though, because I was now hyped up on caffeine and sugar.

The lower parking lot only had a few cars in it and I hoped that would mean less witnesses to my suffering on this hike. I hoisted my backpack on, grabbed my trekking poles, and was ready to get this day over with. We started straight up the beautiful wild iris filled meadow toward the trailhead. Within the first few minutes I was already starting to breathe heavy. “So it begins“, I muttered to myself. But once on the trail I relaxed a bit, because it was not as steep as the meadow climb and was actually a pleasant gradual climb.

img_3780I took only one picture the entire length of the way to the summit; by a sign that said $500 fine for going off trail. Little did I know at this point I would end up possibly paying $2,000 worth of fines by the end of the day. With the first $500 for climbing straight up the meadow to reach the trail.

I let Mountain Goat set the pace, which turned out to be perfect for me. Slow and steady. I didn’t want to stop at all because I’ve been taught that it’s easier to keep going than to stop and restart frequently. Very wise advice. And it served me well as we continued on the switchbacks higher and higher. Not to mention that I was force fed Shot Bloks… which by the way are delicious, filling, and energizing. I didn’t want to eat any food because it just didn’t sound good, but those yummy tasting Shot Blocs were addictive. The weather was absolutely amazing also – cool and overcast – ideal for a long strenuous hike. I found myself actually enjoying the hike! Who knew that was possible?! I was so surprised and happy about this I do believe I became a little giddy. Maybe it was just the altitude, but whatever the reason it felt good!

Once we reached the saddle, we had only one mile left to the summit! It was then that I realized I was not only going to make it, I was going to be thrilled. We didn’t sit or really even rest at the saddle, just looked around enjoying the views and taking a few pictures.

The last mile was a long one, and my first glimpse of the summit seemed so far in the distance. But again a steady pace was great, breathing was just a bit harder due to the altitude, but the summit was in sight! I could hardly believe it when we were literally standing at the top of Arizona. As my “proof picture” was taken by the sign it suddenly hit me… I ACTUALLY CONQUERED Mt Humphreys. And I enjoyed it! I was feeling so thrilled at this realization I literally jumped up and down and laughed. It had taken only 3 hours to summit. Suddenly, all my earlier fears seemed so foolish.

At the summit, I met a woman named Happy Oasis who was planning to start the Colorado Trail in just 10 days. I was so excited for her and told her I wanted to hear every detail of her trip when she returned. She gave me her email and, perhaps because of my overabundance of enthusiasm, said “only email about once a month, okay?” It was impossible to truly sit and savor the moment at the summit due to a gazillion gnats. The summit is notorious for high winds, but this day was calm allowing the gnats to happily cover you from head to toe.

 

We met several hikers who had camped overnight to enjoy the strawberry moon (also summer solistice ) and then the sunrise in the morning. I thought that sounded like a great plan, so I made a mental note to put that on my training list… overnight stay on Humphreys to enjoy both sunset and sunrise. I also knew it’d be worth the extra weight to bring my nice Nikon camera to capture such sights! Once we reached the saddle we finally sat down. At this point I realized I had literally drank 3 liters of water. Hydration is a life saver. I am no camel. The cool breeze and breath-taking views relaxed me to the point of not wanting to ever move again.

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Reluctantly, I stood up, and continued the descent back down the mountain. It was a relaxing hike down the switchbacks. About 7 switchbacks down, Mountain Goat saw a small trail blocked by a tree limb, leading off the main trail and said, “I bet that’s the way to the B24 crash site“. After discussing how we wanted to see it, but not today, there was suddenly a unanimous “let’s go for it!” and off we went. Upon soon losing all trace of a trail, we bush-whacked straight up (another $500 fine) until we came to the ever daunting talus, only daunting if you’re not a mountain goat. Just going on instinct we crossed a few more talus fields and decided if we didn’t see the site soon we would turn back. I stopped on the third talus crossing and encouraged the guide to go ahead a bit and see if anything looked promising.

Soon a voice said, “I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is, I found the crash site! The bad news is, you still have to cross that talus to more talus, because darn if that Bomber didn’t crash right into the rocks!” Ugh… but there’s no way I was going to miss this opportunity. So I made it across, with great anxiety, to the site! And, wow!

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Amazing how much debris was still left from 1944! Wings, brakes, propeller, wires, electronic boxes, gears, etc. A moment of silence to honor the 8 men who died in the crash seemed appropriate.


Time to head back and find the trail… but the trail was nowhere to be found. So we began bush-whacking again (cha-ching, another $500 fine). The anxiety from crossing the talus and bush-whacking caused me to start laughing. A nervous laugh. And the desire to sit down in the dirt and be done with it all was building. I heard several “Are you okay?” questions. Then more questions. And of course I replied to every one of them, “Uh-huh“, giggle-giggle. “What’s wrong?“, “Nothing“, giggle-giggle. When the trail was finally discovered I had to explain my anxiety attack and assure them I would be just fine in a few minutes.

I soon settled down and began happily trekking down the trail. We reached a nice spot to sit and drink and discover a short cut down the mountain… which turned out to be straight down a now barren ski run. What a brilliant idea, (minus the additional $500 fine)!

Back at the lower parking lot we celebrated with ice-cold lemonade. Lots of it! I was covered in dust and dirt and my feet hurt, but I felt so, so happy and proud of myself. Then later, fish tacos, cold drinks, a shower, and a soak in the hot tub, became the perfect way to end a perfect day.

p.s. For clarification (and some comments below), I feel I should add that these fines were not actually charged to us… but it sure was fun to keep a tally of such a possibility! I’m weird like that.

p.p.s. If anyone would like to know how I feel 2 days after the hike, just ask me.

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Any guesses as to what this might be?

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