It was still dark. Though I had been unable (unsurprisingly) to get any sleep on the flight, my lifetime batting average at catching winks at a trailhead predawn remained .000. I studied the driver’s manual for the Jeep, trying to figure the (limited) extent of its 4WD capabilities, and getting impatient, brought out my flashlight and set off uphill along an excellent trail.
I was working off a most severe case of cabin fever. It had been awhile since I’d last been outdoors. Following a most amazing dayhike in the Bonds in New Hampshire the prior October I’d spent a long winter moseying about, intending to but never getting around to a winter climb. I managed to salvage some of the season with a trip up to the Whites before the snows completely melted, but I still felt the most primal urge to satisfy significantly my increasingly unshakeable wilderness fix.
Not that I’d been lying idle. After throwing out my back in December the past winter and spring had seen me more active than ever before, lingering around the gym as long as possible, doing as much cardio and lifting as I could fit in before 10 PM. And there was basketball too, several times a week. Personally I’m awful but it’s still a great way to get exercise. A little more than a month before I flew out though, I banged my left knee on the court. I shrugged it off but apparently it never fully healed.
All this obviously couldn’t hold a candle to the mountains, and as I climbed above the lights of Kingman below and watched the sun rise from behind the endless north-south horizon of the Arizonan Colorado Plateau to the east I felt, pure, unadulterated joy. Every new rock and new ridge this day revealed to me I reveled in completely, laughing to myself, giggling absurdly, and singing gibberish to the heavens. It was good to be back.
The Hualapai Mountain Park, though far from a wilderness experience, is excellently maintained, and the trail signs and junctions are meticulously documented in their brochure and on the trail. For those who would like their outdoors experience micromanaged it is an excellent place to spend the day. For me, it was a great way to start a week of solitary desert wandering with a low-stress low-key hike. Or so I thought.
I looped around along the trail as it traversed besides Aspen Peak, soon revealing the cliffy, rocky block of Hualapai Peak perched like an eagle’s beak in the distance. The trail descended, intersected a forest road, and then kept descending before starting up for the bulk of the elevation gain. Walking along the firm, compact, and almost steep slopes of the road I felt a discomfort in the backside of my left knee. I had experienced this before, many years ago, when I was very out of shape, had just begun my hiking hobby, and was tackling what was then to me epic endeavors. This was just an easy trail hike, so why was my knee acting up? I chalked it up to being just a fluke, possibly due to weak muscles following a recent stomach bug and the resulting dehydration. I didn’t even remember hurting it in basketball until several days later, and even as it continues to bother me now I can only speculate upon the root cause of the injury.
Though presenting a troublesome and unnatural feeling my knee was far from debilitating, and I kept going up the trail while trying not to put too much pressure on it. I concentrated on my other senses, on the cool morning air of high elevation Arizona, on the always sweet smell of the conifers that I had grown up with in nearby Flagstaff when I was a kid, and on scouting out a summit block of Hualapai that loomed closer and closer.
One last steep ascent along the trail and I was right below the rocks. I read and re-read the guide. Knowing that there was a brushy but easier alternative, I still intended to ascend the class 4 rocks to the top in order to get in even a bit of quality climbing for the trip. I explored the area for quite awhile, scouting out the various possible routes and lines to the summit, lying unseen 200 ft above me. The rocks were large, bouldery, and occasionally unstable. In climbing a break in which I was fairly positive was the main route I got to a point where I knew I could continue on up but I also knew that I would not enjoy downclimbing, especially not by myself. I thus returned to the trail and descended a bit to locate and see for myself the class 3 alternative, to ensure that I had a descent option I was comfortable with. My mind at ease I returned from whence I came and cautiously made my way to the top via several tentative and somewhat exposed class 4 moves that definitely, for me at least, required some thinking and testing before each move.
Seeing the two main summit blocks above me I contoured left and walked over some overhanging rocks that definitely had air below them before arriving at an area between the two highest summit rocks. From here getting to the highest rock wasn’t too difficult, and though it didn’t offer enough room to sit I stood precariously for several minutes, taking pictures and videos and marveling at the views, sucking in and absorbing completely each breath of the wilderness aura that had eluded me for so long a winter.
The bushwhack down back to the main trail was a little annoying but did not present too many difficulties. The plants were sharp and thorny but I always wear long sleeve pants (dress slacks) as a rule while hiking.
On the descent I continued to nurse my left knee but to my deep chagrin I knew in my heart of hearts that something was wrong with it. I was angry and frustrated, having somehow strained it on an easy trail hike, the first of my vacation, no less, and I was deeply worried at how it could adversely affect the rest of my summit chasing plans. The morning sunk in as I approached the trailhead and greeted several parties of hikers, the first people I had seen all day on the trail. I stopped by the ranger station afterwards. I had seen a lot of wild looking tracks along the sometimes muddy trail. Thinking they were merely black bear tracks I was not too concerned, but I got a good shock when the park rangers informed me that they were probably mountain lion tracks. This gave me a good jolt as I drove back to Kingman, wondering whether I had been unknowingly observed that morning by sleek, unseen eyes.
I followed Scott’s guidebook suggestions and took the Old (and narrow) Rt-66 through some wonderful canyons and ravines to the see the famous wild burros of Oatman, AZ.
Then, braving the midday traffic of Bullhead City I drove up the highway back to Las Vegas, ultimately finding shelter in a Holiday Inn a block away from the Strip. It was a Friday night, in the epicenter of the evidence best demonstrating our worldly existence, but operating on zero sleep, and knowing I’d be back a week later, I turned a blind eye to the temptations of the Sin City to sleep and dream wistfully about the following day’s exertions.