Thursday, July 30, 2015

Conquering Mt. Humphreys

This week I decided that I would finally climb to the top of Mt. Humphreys in Flagstaff. Mt. Humphreys’ peak is at 12,633 feet, sitting approximately 6,700 feet above Flagstaff, and is the highest point in Arizona. I have attempted this as a hike previously 3 times, each time failing to make the final stretch from the ‘Saddle’, at 11,800ft, to the peak. These failures were all due to wind, snow, and cold, since the Australian Rules Football team I volunteered to lead to the top is only in town in November, and the weather gets pretty nasty that high up.

Humphreys Peak - 12,633 Feet

On the third of these attempts, the group and I tried to ‘brave the storm’ and push our bodies past the cold and wind to finally complete the challenge. Alas, we fell a ¼ mile short that day, as the weather only got worse. One man from the group decided to continue despite everybody else discouraging him, and he eventually returned with frostbite on his hands. The moral of that story is to be extremely prepared for this climb, because it is excruciatingly tough. Thus, for my first 5 ½ years of living in Flagstaff the only times I attempted to make it to the summit was in November. Those conditions took their toll on me and definitely made me fear Humphreys.

Two weeks ago I ran the SnowbowlHill Climb for the first time, which is the 7-mile road that leads up to Snowbowl Ski Resort in Flagstaff. The ski resort also serves as the starting point for the ascent to the top of Mt. Humphreys. After finishing the Snowbowl Hill Climb, I got the itch to attempt the climb up Humphreys again. Then, Wednesday night, Brian Tinder sent me a message asking if I wanted to run up to the top with him Thursday morning. As ill prepared as 12 hours might be for a run that would climb 3,400 ft in 4.8-miles, I figured that the coincidence was a good sign to say, ‘yes’.

Tinder's Little Celebration

I got up at 5:00 AM to brew some coffee, drove to Tinder’s house to meet him at 6:00 AM, and we carpooled up the hill to the Humphreys Trailhead, which begins at 9,200 ft. With 2 cups of coffee in me, and a handheld water bottle with cell phone pocket, I was ready to begin. We started up at a rather casual pace, neither of us had any record setting in mind, we just wanted to ‘run’ up it. The first 3.5-mile to the Saddle were uneventful, despite the roots and jagged rocks, there was a lot of stumbling but neither of us fell. We arrived at the Saddle in 55 minutes; our average pace taking a big hit as the trail gets steeper the closer you get to the top.

After pausing for a minute to check out the scenery we begin the final 1.3-mile ascent. I am amazed at how rough the terrain is, hiking is difficult and running is nearly impossible. The last time I was up here, there was 3 feet of fresh snow, which covered all the jagged rocks and made the trail impossible to find. Seeing it now without any snow allowed me to realize how steep the fall is on either side of the trail, and how damn lucky I was to have come out of my previous attempts unbroken.

View Looking Towards Flagstaff from Summit
23 minutes later we reached the peak, we quickly celebrated with some sips of our drinks, a couple pictures and a video, and checked out the view from the top of Arizona. We could see the fire burning 30 miles South just above Sedona and the Grand Canyon 90 miles North. We stayed only a few minutes because despite the beautiful summer weather, the wind and temperature at the top was getting cold with us just in sweaty shirts and short shorts.

Cold - And Ready to Head Back Down!

Then, we descended, which was nearly as tough as the climb at some parts. I stumbled nearly 50 times on the way down after catching my toes on rocks and roots, my legs getting tired and my stride getting lazy. I nearly fell one time when we were 100 ft from the top, catching myself by slamming my palm into a rock just before my knees and face hit the ground. Every other stumble was under control, and served as a wake up call to keep paying attention to the ground!

We arrived at the trailhead and ran a loop around the parking lot to make the run an even 10-miles. The run roundtrip was 2 hours 20 minutes; our ascent was 1 hour 18 minutes, and decent 1 hour 2 minutes. Each is approximately 13 minutes and 21 minutes behind the course records, respectively. Some day, maybe not some day soon, I will attempt to break those records. For now I will start to focus on the roads again. The Olympic Marathon Trials is 6 ½ months away!


  1. Can I ask why it was so difficult to make it to the top. When i attended NAU my 3rd day there I ran to the top with a teammate of mine in about 70 minutes to the top and 35 back to the bottom.

  2. SJWO,

    As I mentioned, my first 3 attempts were extremely difficult because they were done in November. Weather conditions with Snow, 40mph winds and cold kept us from getting much beyond the saddle.

    My most recent attempt was not difficult and done at a casual run effort.

    Did you run for NAU? Those are some of the fastest times I have heard of anyone going up and down Humphreys. Very impressive.

  3. Dear Nick,

    I'm Phoenix with Stryd. We make a power meter that helps with run training and form. We would love to talk with you about using power in training, and give you a chance to try the power meter. We'll be at the New York Marathon (Expo booth 550), so we could meet there if you are attending. We can also arrange a call whenever it is convenient for you. Please let me know if you are interested. :)

    Phoenix Dai