Highway to Humphreys

 Hundred of hikers of all abilities and preparation make their way up the Humphrey Peak Trail each weekend in the summer. 

It’s been a year since the tragic death by lightning of a Tempe teenager atop Humphreys Peak.

And as we noted at the time, it was unusual because it was so rare – the first in at least a decade on the peak itself. With hundreds of hikers climbing the peak each week in the summer, it’s a wonder that such tragedies don’t occur more often.

For the record, over the past decade Coconino County has seen seven lightning-related fatalities and five lightning-related injuries and/or medical calls for service, according to the Sheriff’s Office. Two of those fatalities have occurred at Grand Canyon National Park, while 17-year-old Wade Young’s death on July 20, 2016, was the only one that has occurred on Humphreys Peak over that time period.

But as we have reported, that doesn’t mean Humphreys is a safe place. It has the second highest number of search and rescue calls in Coconino County, mainly for falls. The number of injuries on the mountain is what drove the Forest Service to partner with Northern Arizona University, Friends of Northern Arizona Forests and Coconino County Search & Rescue to establish a preventive search and rescue program. And on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays during the summer season, volunteers staff a tent at the Humphreys Peak trailhead and talk with hikers about safety and preparedness, the chance for inclement weather and lightning, wilderness stewardship and other topics.

That is no doubt a good thing, because lightning isn’t the only risk facing the Phoenician peak-baggers who fill the trailhead parking lot to overflowing each weekend in the summer. Many are unprepared for the low oxygen at 12,000 feet, the slippery, snow-covered trail, the high winds and sub-freezing temperatures, and the lack of any facilities beyond the trailhead. We’ve seen hikers in flip-flops carrying nursing infants and couples with one water bottle between them – and no hats.

At least this year the signboard at the trailhead has a flier on lightning risk for the days of the week when the volunteers aren’t there.

Here’s some advice we’d like to see all hikers receive:

--Avoid monsoon season altogether above treeline. There are plenty of beautiful hiking days in May, June, September and October, and almost all of them will be safer than during July and August.

-- If you can’t start up the trail during monsoon season before 7 a.m., plan on doing only a partial hike – too many hikers get “summit fever” and push on upward through a storm, despite the risks.

--If you are above treeline, plan on starting down by 11 a.m. That is usually early enough to get hikers below treeline at 11,000 feet before the earliest storms start to form around noon.

--Do not start up the final mile of exposed rock if it is starting to rain – storms intensify quickly at that elevation, and lightning can reach the ground from a cloud as much as 20 miles away.

--Finally, if you are on exposed rock when it starts to rain, move as quickly as possible down into the trees, then pick a shorter stand and spread out if with companions. Taller trees tend to attract more lightning strikes, and if one person is struck, others can go for help.

It is also time to re-evaluate whether the Humphreys Peak Trail should keep its wilderness designation, which prevents the Forest Service from putting out portable toilets and trash receptacles anywhere along the 5-mile route. There is very little wildness left with so many people crowding the trail and summit each day in summer, and it’s time to face up to the impact of such overuse and mitigate it.

The alternative is to set up a permit system to limit access to the peak, similar to the system in place at Fossil Creek and, during the fall, at the Inner Basin. The permits – perhaps only 50 a day -- would give rangers a better chance to educate hikers about lightning and other risks while underscoring the need to pack out trash and bury all human waste thoroughly.

It may sound harsh, but if there is a candidate for enforcing a “stupid hiker” ban, the Humphreys Peak Trail is it. The risks to hikers and rescuers don’t leave much room for willful ignorance, and the damage to the landscape is already severe and growing. If officials insist on keeping Humphreys as wilderness, treat it as such and limit hikers to those who respect both its power and fragility.

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