Arizona at Altitude

Slightly after 7am I stood in the first line of defined light to surpass the mountain and pierce the treeline. The rays warmed my body, fuelling my excitement to solo hike. Feeling freshly energized I finished arranging my camera and snow gear into my pack while consuming a banana. Twelve hours earlier while photographing Agassiz Peak near my campsite, I considered probable snow conditions above the saddle point leading towards the summit. Since I had arrived in Flagstaff, the San Francisco Peaks were largely obscured by persistently developing clouds. Having largely cleared up overnight, pockets of cumulus clouds still grazed upon fast winds above.

Within the first mile of my trek I was hiking across thin layer of miniature snow balls, a refreshing experience for mid May in Arizona. Upon cresting the saddle, the always beautiful inner basin was full white. I followed snowshoe tracks to help keep from postholing through inches of fresh powder I encountered above 12,000 ft. This fresh layer made the landscape that much more spectacular, a fantastic warm up for the Colorado peaks I plan to summit in mere weeks. Predicted weather was suppose to be the single clear day for the week, the mountain had other plans. 10:30am, now advancing full force from the West, an endless sea of dark cumulus clouds. Not wanting to miss an opportunity to summit, I keep my footstep momentum constant and focus on regulating breathing.

Center left: The normal route follows posts up the side, my route is in view splitting right.

Center left: The normal route follows posts up the side, my route is in view splitting right.

Endlessly thankful for the snowshoe tracks of days before, I was able to cover ground quickly, allowing me time to scope for photographs. Following this snowshoe approach, I hiked near directly over each false summit and close to the edge on every ridgeline. A unique perspective of the landscape, considering the normal route cuts along the West side of the mountain. I felt very physically strong, and confident with my gear setup, traversing the terrain while searching for photographs was entirely enjoyable. Looking over to the West, the cumulus sea kept a constant flow of waves heading my direction. This was a spectacular day, the clear air making it possible to see far across the state. Shifting my admiration to the local tundra scenery ahead of ice on rocks, I kept my summit goal in close sights.

“Whooo-yeah!” I let out a joyful and energetic call into the mountainscape below. I was on the summit once again! The landscape beckoned to be shot, I took a series of photographs marveling at the snowy sight. I had to take a summit self shot, executing it by carefully balancing my dSLR on top of the summitpost. A precarious position for my gear with the wind.  After a few self timer releases I was thankful to have gotten the shot. Surveying the landscape further by lens, I noticed a few clouds beginning to break over the Lockett Meadow area in the valley below. This fuelled my initial downclimb, although at altitude imaging takes time and kept me above the saddle pass longer than I had anticipated.

Making my way back down along the ridges and crests, I deviate from the snowshoe tracks, entranced by the qualities of light raking across the mountain faces. Cautiously stepping through fresh powder into the root of a snow cornice, I shot the seemingly foreign landscape. It’s difficult for me to not be completely mesmerized in the moment, erasing time and energy completely, the Kachina Peaks Wilderness paralyzes me with permagrin. Cautiously stepping back into my chosen route, I start to ponder it’s overall safety while hiking alone. After several minutes my musings are interrupted by potential photographs. Just as quick as I set the camera to self timer and place it on a protruding rock face, I run down the mountain to a vantage point of the basin. Burning unneeded time and energy getting a few more takes, my desire for my tripod consumes my thoughts.

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Having enjoyed my fair share of sight gawking and camera clicks, I returned to the saddle just shy of an hour from leaving the summit. The spectacular beauty continued throughout the hours, even as the temperature climbed. The snowpack and ice trail I had followed up the mountain had started to slush by the time I was descending around 11,000 ft. Requiring more energy to traverse now, I still felt robust without tiring from the hiking I had already done. Feeling more confident about my fast approaching trip to Colorado, I am curious to how this training week hiking and mountain biking at elevation will aid in my climb to 14,000 ft. I’m positive in my climbing partner Conner’s abilities and my own. We can only hope that weather and mountain conditions are favorable for safely summiting our goal peaks.

Continuing down the mountain, my mind drifts and my steps slow, rather relaxingly descending. I contemplate how one of my personal heros, Galen Rowell, was able to always have such superb abilities to create spectacular images in harsh mountain conditions. Making countless expeditions mountaineering the globe, Galen had the focus, determination and strength to conquer difficult outdoor challenges while wielding cameras. During previous ascents of this mountain, focusing my brain on looking for beautiful light while hiking at altitude had been a constant battle. But now finishing my trek for the day, I am self-assured of my readiness for the higher altitudes that await in Colorado.

Taking in the sunset near the TH after a 20 mile mountain bike ride the following day.

Taking in the sunset near the TH after a 20 mile mountain bike ride the following day.

Second summit, first with snow. 7 hours & 15 minutes total.

  • Trailhead                7:30am
  • Rock Field             8:50
  • Saddle                    10:14
  • Summit   12,633    11:22
  • Saddle                    12:19
  • Rock Field             1:20
  • Trailhead                2:45pm