When we bought our house in Tucson while we were still full-timing in the Airstream, I explained to everyone that we never intended to spend summers here. Now, three years later, here I am in ARIDzona in June, when daytime relative humidity runs in the single digits and every day is 100 degrees or hotter.
But I really don’t mind, as it turns out. Yes, it’s hot, but I don’t spend my days standing in the direct sunlight. And in Arizona there’s always a cool respite at the top of a nearby Sky Island, high above the desert floor.
Brett is in town for a few days. We have to head out for business this week, but it is traditional that when he comes to town I abuse him as much as possible by taking him on a tough hike. He lives in Florida you see, and as such he is altitude-deprived. No mountains. Last year I took him up Picacho Peak, which is a short (2 mile) but challenging trail, especially when the temperature is above 100 during the hike, as it was that day.
He survived that and came back again, so this time I brought out the big guns. I’ve wanted to hike Mt Wrightson ever since I first read about the trail to the summit. It’s about 30 miles south of Tucson, not far from Green Valley. The hike starts at 5,400 feet and ascends rather steeply and steadily up to 9,453 feet. In addition to being a hike that “everyone should do once,” according to one hiking guide, it would also be the first time I’ve climbed a mountain over 6,000 feet. Brett, for his part, was game for anything.
Being at relatively high elevation, the temperature at the trailhead was only about 80 degrees when we started, and for the rest of the hike things never got much hotter, since we were ascending most of the day. That was the good news. The bad news was that the dryness of the air only gets worse as you go up. We both consumed about 100 ounces of water, and ran out about halfway during the descent. All of that water went out through the pores and we were never sweaty, thanks to immediate evaporation.
Mt Wrightson was almost my undoing. I haven’t spent much time at altitude lately, and I haven’t been hiking much lately. At about 8,500 feet I started to hit the wall, and the problem was simply that I couldn’t get enough oxygen. My rest breaks become more and more frequent. Suddenly, I felt rather old, and it didn’t get better when the 20-something hardbodies from the local university started passing us like we were geezers. It worse when, during a gasping break around 9,000 feet, a woman passed us on her second complete ascent of the day. Now that’s just wrong.
As people always say at the end of a brutal hike, “the view was worth it.” But I’ll be honest with you. The view was spectacular in every direction, but it wasn’t worth it. What made the strenuous 10.6 mile hike worth doing was simply the feeling of achievement. Now I’ve hiked to nearly 10,000 feet. Now I’ve seen a hundred-mile panorama from the tiny summit of Mt Wrightson: Tucson to the north, Patagonia and Sonoita to the east, Green Valley and the copper mines to the west, and the mountains of Mexico to the south. Now I don’t ever have to do it again.
Hiking down again, of course, is much easier. But I could have done without running into the woman who was on her way back up for a third complete ascent in one day. At that point Brett and I were both feeling every bit of the late-40s man, complete with twinges in the knees and muscles begging for Advil. The uber-hiker woman didn’t look too happy either, on her way back up again, but she at least had the excuse of being (A) about 22 miles into it; and (B) obviously, completely insane.
When we landed back in Tucson, it was about 102 degrees but we were told we missed the real heat of 109 earlier in the day. So I guessed we picked the right place to be on Saturday. The rest of the evening was recovery: showers, re-hydrating, a quick trip to Bookman’s for cheezy paperback sci-fi novels to read during evenings of our business trip, a pair of burritos from Nico’s Taco Shop, and a really early bedtime.