Saturday, June 21, 2014

America the Beautiful: Camelback Mountain

This week saw my first business trip in my new job, heading out to Phoenix for a one day meeting. Travel from Northwest Arkansas is rarely quick and easy; getting from here to there required a layover both ways, and travel on Monday was a bit of a disaster. Which, as my sister reminded me, tends to be the status quo for me.

Long story short, after a multi-hour delay at my point of origin; a handwritten-gate-check-bag-tag; lost luggage; and a return to the Phoenix airport to retrieve my errant bag, it was a 21 hour day for me on Monday.
I was tired, but that had to be ignored: I had big plans for Tuesday morning.

I've been to Phoenix on business travel before, and did my typical morning run in the hot, dry air of the desert. Last trip, though, a friend mentioned that rather than doing his morning run, he had gone to Camelback Mountain, hiked to the top, and come back down again, all before that meeting had begun. I decided right then and there, if I could ever get back to Phoenix, that was going on the list of things to do.

With that in mind, and despite American Airlines' best efforts to thwart my plan, I had planned ahead and researched Camelback on TripAdvisor, bringing water bottles; a hat; sunscreen; and sturdy sneakers to manage the climb. I figured it would take me right around two hours to finish, so set my alarm accordingly (4:20AM) in order to be back in time for the 8:30 meeting start.

Given that The Weather Channel app on my phone said that sunrise was officially at 6:15, I brought my hat with the built in lights. I wasn't too worried about climbing in the dark; if Phoenix was anything like home, the first rays of dawn would light the sky well before the official sunrise time. Imagine my surprise, then, when I peeked out my hotel window at 5AM and it was already light enough to not need those lights. Apparently The Weather Channel app didn't get the word that Arizona has its own approach to Daylight Savings Time; sunrise was at 5:15AM, not 6:15. I felt behind schedule before I even started!

My sense of frustration was compounded when I neared the base of the mountain; the street parking clearly told a story of many others who knew sunrise was earlier and had been there to greet it. I hadn't planned on parking a half mile or more away from the trailhead, but I somewhat uncharacteristically took it in stride, flipping a quick u-turn in my rental car to get to the right side of the street, parked, and hustled up the sidewalk behind several other people heading the same place I was: the Cholla Trail.
Since this was exercise as much as sightseeing, I set out at a quick pace. The dry morning air felt great; a little warm, but certainly not as oppressively hot as the humidity of a Northwest Arkansas summer. I passed a few people already coming down, most of whom were wearing Camelbaks (which then of course led me to spend several minutes wondering if the mountain is the namesake or if it was a nod to the animal, as I'd always assumed); all of the reviews stress that the mountain is not to be taken lightly, and to carry more water than you think you should need. I passed a few folks making their way up, and was in turn passed by others going faster than me, but I had struck the right balance between exercise and sightseeing. I figured this might be my only hike up Camelback in my lifetime; I wanted to take it in as much as I wanted to burn a few calories.

My frustration at missing out on being at the mountain before official sunrise quickly dissipated; I had arrived at the perfect time to see this amazing sunrise:
The view didn't disappoint - there is a spectacular beauty about the desert, even with the sprawling city of Phoenix below you:
The first 2/3 of the hike was pretty straightforward; the trail was well marked and well maintained, so while it wasn't a walk in the neighborhood, it wasn't strenuous enough that I ever worried I wouldn't make it to the top. A little over a mile up, though, it got steeper; it got less well maintained; and the trail was harder to discern. It began looking more like this:
Of course, I didn't come to Camelback to *almost* make it to the top. Onward. Upward. Never quit.
I had set my alarm for 6:30AM as the deadline for making it to the top; being late for the meeting wasn't an option, so it gave me some incentive to push myself a bit. I made it to the top at 6:21, plenty of time to take some pictures, drink some water, and just enjoy the view.
It hit me as I looked back down the trail, though, that going down would be a bit tougher than going up, so I didn't linger long. Back down the mountain I went, punishing my knees and quads in some places, missing my step in others, but exhilarated by the accomplishment of achieving the peak of Camelback.

America is an unbelievably beautiful place. This was just a couple of hours of enjoying the desert vistas, but it has me counting down the days with even more fervor until our vacation out west in July.

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