Saturday, July 24, 2010

Camelback Hikers Brave the Summer Heat, but Not Always Successfully

Camelback's been in the news and mentioned in blogs quite a bit in the last few days, so I thought I'd catch up.

First off, several notable mountain rescues occurred due to the heat. This enabled me to mix business and pleasure by publishing a blog post in Valley Fever about the incidents, and a follow-up making fun of a local TV reporter. (Sorry, Kevin!) The news coverage of the rescues also spurred message threads like this one. I'm hoping the 13-year-old kid whose parents took him up the mountain without enough water is okay.

Seeing these incidents and the community's response to them, as heart-breaking as it may be to see anyone hurt, gives me confidence that liberty still rules the day. For all this talk about the feminization, wimpification, or whatever you want to call it, of modern society, the freedom to roam on our local mountains -- up its steep cliffs and in all conditions -- trumps notions of perceived, relative safety. It's 105 degrees and you're 73, from much-cooler Wisconsin, and aren't packing enough water? Nobody's going to stop you at the trailhead and tell you not to do it.

The firefighter interviewed in the Channel 10 report on the rescues, Captain Tony Mure, (they spelled his name wrong in their caption), says "I don't care what kind of shape you're in -- the human body cannot tolerate this kind of heat and this kind of exertion." That's simply not true and plenty of people who work outside prove him wrong every day. (Tony's a good guy -- the authorities often take a scolding tone with the public when it comes to these things, to try and warn people away).

I've hiked Camelback dozens of times in temperatures of 110 degrees or higher and only once did I feel like I'd made a mistake -- (4 p.m. hike, 117 degrees). The trick is to sweat a lot, which results in a "wind chill" (ha!) factor of much less than the air temp. This is difficult to achieve when the sun is directly above, so most of my 110-plus hikes have NOT taken place between, say, 10 and 3. Most often, those hikes were in the evening -- after 6.

Hiking in the sun, (even outside the hours of 10-3) requires extra precautions, like packing 2 bottles of icewater instead of one and wetting my shirt before heading up. Sunscreen is mandatory, naturally. Some people wear long-sleeved shirts. Once, while hiking at about 4pm on a 110-degree day, I ran into a guy coming down in full camo gear, long pants and long-sleeved shirt, with undershirt, calf-high boots and a backpack stuffed with unknown gear. This guy has the audacity to stop me and say, "Excuse me, can I ask you a question? Are you wearing sunscreen?" I told him I was, and asked him why he was dressed up like that. He said he was training for officer candidate school.

Meanwhile, plenty of people besides me made it to the top this summer without nearly dying. My next featured post is from a blog called "Daily Nuggets." The picture is of the blogger's "cousin Rob" making it to the top; my screen capture includes their text as well.

I also like this one from "DaSmith Foursome" blog. They met for their Father's Day hike at 4:15 a.m. (that's their picture below). Whoa! That's early. You go, girls. They all made it to the top.

I failed to summit the first time I hiked Camelback, I must admit. I was 18 and unfamiliar with mountains back then, though I was in better shape than I am now. The defeat was 100 percent mental.

I'd been by myself, huffing and puffing up the steep trail for a while, thinking I was getting somewhere. After I cleared the headwall area, the summit still looked very far, far away. I went a little further, and it still looked far away. I realized the only thing holding me back from cool comfort was a decision. And I made the wrong decision -- I decided to turn back. It had been warm, but not that bad. I'm pretty sure I'd brought a water bottle, but I forget what my water situation was that day. Probably not good. Still, I have no doubt now that I could have made it.

Anyway, my search this morning for mountain rescue photos led to a cool January report by Channel 3 I hadn't seen about rescues. The anchor keeps referring to dramatic scenes of firemen climbing the Headwall and of a helicopter as similar to a Hollywood stunt. I hadn't heard about the accident, in which a climber on the Monk fell 25-30 while rappelling, fracturing both legs. Holy ouch, Batman! I took this screen-grab of the shot of a helicopter next to the Monk.

One last note today: As the oppressive heat of July wears on, much as I love it, the green hills of the "other" Camelback Mountain featured in many Internet sites this summer makes me wish for a vacation there. I found a "SummitPost" posting from 2006 recently in which somebody crowed about the "great-tasting blueberries and rasberries" they picked, as well as the "amazing views." That sounds pretty good.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Jersey Girl Gets Sweaty

The pickings have been slim lately for good Camelback-related blog posts, at least for the type I enjoy.

I'm sick to death of the typical "all about hiking at Camelback Mountain" posts, which sometimes try to describe every step of Echo Canyon or Cholla in mind-numbing, technical detail.

"The Spicy Lens," is an example of my favorite type of post -- newbies exploring the pleasure and pain of Camelback terrain. (I also love posts about kids making it to the top for the first time). Spicy Lens hiked Echo Canyon trail in February, but published this post in late June.

People like Ms. Spicy Lens write about their experience because they need to -- because they had an adventure. And, of course, adventure is what I seek, either direct or vicarious.

She writes:

This was no easy hike, there are no fences or guard rails. If you lose your footing, it could easily become your last hike.

Local uber-hikers can scoff at such a warning, but she's right. I remember a story about a guy who fell off a cliff a few years ago at Camelback after sneaking up there at night to do the wild thing with his girl. As I recall, the story was that when they were done, he got up to stretch or something and stepped off into oblivion.

Spicy also worries about snakes:

I have trouble chewing gum and walking at the same time. Let alone knowing where to place my foot and how to look for snakes at the same time.

I've seen a half-dozen rattlesnakes at Camelback over the years, yet have never heard of someone being bitten there. It's a remote possibility. Out-of-towners fret about rattlesnakes, scorpions or even tarantulas on Camelback. The biggest dangers, though, are heat stroke, falling and killer bees.

The Spicy Lens blog typically focuses on photography. She's pretty good with close-ups of food and plants.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Heat Hike

At noon on July 5, you can always get a good parking spot at Camelback Mountain. It was 98, according to my iPhone.

Ninety-eight isn't so hot for a summer hiker around here. It was like a warm, spring day, (I'm talking about a normal spring, which it wasn't this year). I've certainly hiked Camelback in far worse conditions, in terms of temp, humidity and lack of wind.

Yet the sun was strong -- the temp later topped out at 105. To be sure, it was a hot hike. The incredible June we've just had lulled me into the delusion that the summer might not include a hellacious heat wave. I knew all along it would, of course, and when the normal weather finally arrived I figured there was no use fighting it. I needed a mid-day hike to set the tone for the next few weeks.

A few short years ago, almost no one would be on the mountain at this time, but the recession is keeping a lot of people in town. More Phoenix residents than ever in the last couple of years have discovered that Camelback -- and Piestewa, South Mountain and other mountain parks -- are wonderful diversions if you can't afford San Diego, Flagstaff or elsewhere. That's meant more people in nice weather and "bad."

I sweated my butt off and was grateful for the breeze that whipped up every few minutes. My pace is always slower in the heat -- so is everyone else's. Today, maybe half the folks seemed to be suffering. I didn't do too badly, but I took two water breaks.

For some reason, I often get passed at least once when it's warm, though usually not at all during un-hot days. Why is this?

Well, as I've mentioned before, it seems like the heat brings out the more hardcore people. These are folks who, like me, enjoy the challenge of the intense Phoenix heat. Perhaps it's the higher ratio of hardcore hikers that explains why I get passed more often. Or maybe it's that I almost never stop on the way to the summit, but on hot days I'm willing to take a break or two and not push myself. (That makes sense to me, because when the air temperature is higher than your body temperature and you're working out in direct sunlight, ignoring what your body tells you can be dangerous. Heat exhaustion can come on suddenly. When I know the weather will be extreme, I take at least one water bottle packed with ice-water, with lots of ice -- enough to have a couple of pieces of ice still floating in the water when I reach the summit. I also wear a hat. Noticed a few people today without one. I don't know how they do it).

The final possibility is that I hike more during the cooler seasons and, therefore, I'm in better shape.

Whatever it is, it's just one of those things I think about as I'm hiking. I don't mean to imply I feel I'm in a race, though I'll admit to a sense of competition among other hikers. If passed, I don't put on speed and try to retake the lead. I suppose on occasion I've increased speed, slightly, when it's clear the person who passed me is a poseur who isn't able to hold the pace. Then, when the poseur stops because he's overestimated his abilities and gets pooped, I'll have a solid pass. The mental competition helps me move up the slope and measure my climbing shape against others. (There is a prize for great performances, though -- I get to hike even tougher mountains!) Most of the time, if you started after me and you pass me, you win. I never attempt to race anyone. That would be lame. And since my cruising speed is a fairly high RPM for me, I'm unlikely to redline for very long.

Going down, I never worry about these things and can be passed by some of the folks I passed on the way up. I've gotten hurt falling while running down Camelback as if I was on a ski run, and I've also seen a guy break his arm doing it. I'll come back to those stories some other time.

Back to the hike:

At the summit, I took refuge under a palo verde I've used before for just such heat breaks and sipped the icy Gatorade I had brought. A bee began buzzing around my sweat-soaked shirt, so I poured a bit of ice and water on the ground to divert its attention. A minute later, a cute little fence lizard appeared out of nowhere and acted like it had been given a gift from heaven. I lingered in the semi-shade of the palo for a bit, watching it lick the ice and sit among the cubes like he was in a Palm Springs spa.