September 2, 2011

To The Mountaintop and Back

photo credit: Dru Bloomfield – At Home in Scottsdale

My tales from the outer journey continue.  If you didn’t catch the first one, check it out here.

I thought after meeting Daniel in the foothills of the Chilean Andes it might be a while before I ran across another wise old man on a mountain.  Little did I know I’d meet Sam barely a month later.

Early in August I made a trip to Phoenix to see my new baby nephew who is, without question, way cuter than the average newborn.  Coming from south Florida, I knew it would be hot in Arizona, but I am at least somewhat used to (and gravitate toward) heat.  I figured there’s a good chance that ninety-five and humid in Florida is equivalent to 110 degrees in Arizona.  And if you read my first post on the outer journey, you’ll know I can’t go anywhere without trying to squeeze in some outdoor native terrain time.  Thus, my rationale for deciding to summit Camelback Mountain in Phoenix, the hottest month of the year in that desert city.

Camelback, Hiking, and the Arizona Desert

For those unfamiliar with Phoenix, Camelback Mountain is unique in that it literally sits smack in the middle of the entire city, not just Phoenix proper but the whole metro area.  So, it’s an ultra-convenient outdoor escape into the native Arizona environment for urban residents.  Easy to get to, challenging for a beginner, fast yet fulfilling for a pro, Camelback boasts an elevation gain of 1,200 feet from its base and two different one-and-one-half mile trails to its 2,704 ft. summit.  People hike to the summit every day.

I’ve done it before myself on several occasions, although always on the busier and easier Echo Canyon Trail.  The last time I was even on the mountain, years ago, I attempted the longer Cholla Trail but ran out of time to complete it.  If you’re looking at the photo above, it basically runs from the far right side of the mountain to the summit, so basically you’re getting to the top the long way. I was determined this time I would complete it.

I’ve done other hikes in Arizona before including the easier Squaw Peak summit and South Mountain also in Phoenix, plus several hikes in the incredible sanctuary that is Sedona two hours north.  Then there was that First Water trail hike in the Superstition Mountains with friend Kelly where we got really hot, separated and lost at the end.  Suffice it to say, I have a healthy respect for the Arizona desert.

So much so that I mentally debated whether it was just too hot in August to be hiking there at all.  But after three days straight around my six-week old nephew (did I mention, he really is cute), and doing the things one does to help new parents adjust to parenthood – like cooking, cleaning, and otherwise helping out – I needed to get outside, heat be damned.

Sam, the Treasure at the Top

Gazing up at Camelback Summit from final third of Cholla Trail

I made the best decisions I could given my experience with Phoenix in August, which admittedly was limited.  On the day of the hike I awoke at five a.m., ate a light breakfast, packed an emergency energy bar and a full Camelbak pack of water, and was headed up the mountain by six, sunglasses, sunscreen and hat on.  The only shortcoming of the less popular Cholla trail is you have to park rather far from the trail-head, up to a quarter mile away; even this short extra distance is not something you relish after a three mile round-trip hike.

Up I went, passing the saddle about two-thirds of the way to the summit and recognizing the spot I’d had to turn around at last time.  The final third of the ascent on either Camelback trail is pure boulder scramble, so you’re literally hauling yourself over huge rocks.  Still, I made it to the top without incident and plenty of water left.

That’s where I met Sam.  Skin weathered to a deep tan by wind and sun, wrinkled yet muscular, he was clearly the oldest person at the top of the mountain.  As young buff shirtless men summitted from the other trail, they all greeted Sam by name.  These young buff ones are the “regulars” that hike Camelback like you and I go for a jog on flat paved roads.  Since first discovering Camelback Mountain almost twenty years ago I have simultaneously been awed by and insanely jealous of these ultra-fit locals who run the mountain (yes, up and down).

Sam, however, takes it to a whole new level.  He has been hiking Camelback Mountain since 1975, when the Valley of the Sun was a shadow of its current self.  Sam doesn’t just hike the mountain though; he hikes it almost every day.

But not just once a day like most people.  When Sam hikes Camelback, he goes up and down three

Camelback Mountain Summit

times back to back.  Yes, that’s three consecutive round trips to the summit and back down, six days a week.  Or by my calculations, about ten miles of hiking per day.

Did I mention Sam is 78 years old?

I couldn’t resist a short conversation with the man, so I asked him if he ever got bored repeating the same hike.  “Never” was his reply.  His fastest total hike time was three hours.  Today he averages a total of four hours for the three round trips. I had my phone with me but didn’t think to take his picture.  Brimming with curiosity after my hike I looked him up online.  The only picture of him I could find and the rest of what I’ve learned about him is here.

Me at the top, happy to have made it

Meanwhile, the sun was rising. I’d taken my sweet time on the ascent (about an hour and a quarter) then spent twenty minutes more at the summit.  I needed to immediately head down before the most intense heat of the day kicked in.

Coming Down

There are so many things you learn on the outer journey (especially if you’ve ever included trekking, hiking or climbing in yours).  We’re so focused on our destination, or the summit, or the getting wherever we’re going, that we often underestimate or completely overlook the return.

My descent down the top third of the mountain went well.  What I hadn’t realized or accounted for was that this less traveled and more scenic Cholla trail I was so determined to master that day ran directly up the east face of the mountain.  Consequently I was in continuous full sun, a sun rising rapidly to its zenith.

About half-way down a strange impulse to get to the bottom as quickly as possible overtook me.  My water supply was adequate, but I felt a very clear instinctive urgency to get down.  I plodded on, one foot in front of the other.  If there was one thing I knew for sure, it was that I couldn’t afford distraction.

Two-thirds of the way to the bottom I understood what I’d felt moments before were the beginning twinges of survival instinct.  I had passed no one the entire time.  I was nauseous, despite having eaten my energy bar.  My clothes were soaked through with sweat.  Small sips of water seemed to keep the nausea at bay but my water was now running low.  I recognized the beginning stages of heat stroke and felt a surge of adrenaline accompany the fear that I might become disoriented and therefore take even longer to descend.

Three quarters of the way down, I was wondering if once I was finally off the mountain I’d be able to make it to the car.  Would I have accomplished this amazing feat only to drop from heat stroke trudging that extra quarter mile on level ground? That would be not only laughable, but embarrassing.

But thankfully, you see, I’d just met Sam.  And by God, if Sam could do this, I certainly could.  (Shame I hadn’t reflected on the fact that Sam routinely hiked the other trail, the one almost entirely in shadow.  No wonder he can make it up and down three times in a row).

Lessons Learned

In my nauseous semi-delirium, in between fantasizing about 72-ounce frozen Big Gulps, I reflected on what I’d learned from this journey:

  • Persistence is not just about making it to the top.  The journey is only half over then.  Persistence is about going the distance, there and back again, multiple times if necessary.  Like Sam.
  • Preparing to reach your destination is half the battle. Real preparation lies in knowing you can make the round trip and navigate the unexpected twists and turns along the route.  Ultra preparation allows you to go off trail completely.
  • The destination is not your goal. A successful journey is.
  • Success is relative.  For some success is mere accomplishment; for the accomplished it is mastery.
  • Now that I have hiked the Cholla trail on Camelback Mountain, I will never hike it during the summer in Phoenix again

I eventually made it back to the car without fainting, although what should have been an easy seven minute walk turned into twenty, scurrying from drip to drab of shade to sustain myself after my water ran out.  I headed to the closest convenience store I could find and soon enough was chugging not just a Big Gulp, but a Gatorade and bottled water too.

And that’s the strangest thing about the outer journey, I guess.  Despite the unexpected twists and turns, pain and suffering, challenges and even losses, what you gain is always greater than the cost.  It’s always worth it, and you always make it in the end. The greater the challenges you overcome, the greater the challenges you know you can handle.  The larger the adventure you swallow, the hungrier you grow for more.

But there is icing on this cake which makes it especially sweet. It is always the windfalls, like meeting Sam, that make my outer journeys priceless and keep me exploring no matter what. All of it – the mountain, the new trail, Sam and the heat also gave me what all great outer journeys provide: inner illumination.  Consequently I’ve had to ask myself:

  • Where have I been willing to go only half way, to stop after the ease and fun, without going the distance?
  • What do I think I’m prepared for that I could be much better prepared for?
  • Which mentors or masters would I do well to learn from?
  • Am I taking a more difficult route than necessary to my desired goals?

What about you? Who or what inspires you to keep going in the face of adversity? What outer challenges have you overcome and what have you learned about yourself in the process? Tell me in comments below.

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