We left Tucson around 3pm headed for Flagstaff. We had two options for our hike. We could either find a campsite, get a good night's sleep and start early in the morning OR we were considering having dinner, getting a few hours of sleep and starting around midnight, putting us at the summit around sunrise. We had dinner at the Lumberyard Brewery in Flagstaff which was delicious. After a beer we decided to head to the trail head and go for the midnight start.
A note on camping at the trail head: According to a staff member at the Snow Bowl lodge, you are allowed to leave your vehicle in the parking lot overnight but you are not allowed to be there after dark. He did say that we could camp or park on the road anywhere that was not marked as "No Parking". We found a spot about a quarter mile away from the parking lot, laid out our sleeping bags and tried to get a couple of hours of rest before we started.
The alarm went off at 11:45pm and we popped up and tried to eat a quick breakfast. If you haven't tried it yet, PocketFuel makes a delicious and nutritious breakfast, especially on a banana or bagel. It is a nut butter (usually almond) that has other flavors and crunchy bits. We quickly packed up and were hiking by 12:11 AM. We crossed the ski slope and entered the forest as the trail starts a series of long switchbacks that lead up the slope to the saddle. We weren't hiking more than 20 minutes before we heard something crashing through the brush. We stopped and listened and started to guess at what was making the noise. After about 2 minutes the animal seemed to get spooked and started moving quickly making quite a racket breaking branches and dislodging large rocks. You can't be sure without seeing it but we assumed it was a bear and starting moving slowly up the trail, tripping on rocks and roots as we scanned the forest for eyes instead of looking at where our feet were going. A few minutes later as I came around a turn I illuminated a pair of eyes about 30 yards away and quickly came to a stop. My friend caught up and as his headlamp hit the area, we could make out 3 separate pairs of eyes! We both prepared for a bear encounter and started making noise and doing our best to be as big as possible. We finally got enough light on the creatures to realize that they were deer. After a few deep breaths we were off again up the trial. We were moving slowly and reached the main saddle after about 3 hours of hiking. There are several steep sections before you get there but the trail is pretty easy to follow, even at night.
At the saddle the wind picked up considerably and we started adding layers to stay warm. From the saddle the trail gets harder to follow at night but is marked by small cairns and large white branches. There are several false summits along the way but we reached the final summit just before 5am. My GPS watch didn't seem to be recording very well but it recorded 5.24 miles to the summit. It was a tough hike after a week of work and a day of driving but for me, it was worth the reward of seeing the sunrise at the highest point in Arizona. It felt like temps were in the high 30's, give or take 5 degrees. The wind was already building for the day and our best guess was a sustained 25mph. Both of us were feeling the day's elevation gain of around 10,000 feet (from Tucson) and were eager to get down as quickly as possible. We found our way over to one of the higher ski slopes and worked our way down the mountain that way.
This hike at night was a challenge but an achievable one. It definitely makes me want to do more night hikes, especially if they have a fantastic view at the top.
Here is a list of noteworthy gear I was using and would recommend:
Pack – Repack 15 from Boreas. What a great pack! The volume was a little bigger than I needed for this trip but it easily compressed down. Enough pockets to keep things organized but still simple in design.
Trekking Poles – Ultra Distance Z from Black Diamond. The carbon Z poles from BD are fantastic. They are so light you forget they are there when they are on your pack but still give all the stability you need when you are using them.
Footwear – NewBalance MT10. These were the first minimal shoe I tried over a year ago and I keep going back to them. They are light and give enough cushion for the very rocky sections if you slow down. For me, the fit is fantastic and I love the heel cup.
Jacket – TNF Verto Micro Hoodie. This jacket combines down insulation with waterproof and breathable arms and hood. It’s very light, compact and surprisingly warm. Look for it on the rack in early spring 2013.