People I sometimes hang out with are the type who, when they see a mountain, usually want to run up it. No questions asked, no prodding necessary.
Sometimes, though, even the most dedicated person needs a little nudge.
And that’s what Neil Weintraub, co-founder of the Northern Arizona Trail Runners Association, was sensing one Saturday last month when he gathered runners, 31 strong on this day, at the trailhead for Kendrick Mountain for a 9-mile out-and-back (more like up-and-down).
Already at 8 a.m., it was hot and figured to get hotter. Already, other hikers were trekking up the singletrack path, crowding the way. Already, the prospect of ascending above the 10,000-foot elevation mark seemed slightly daunting. Some days, you just aren’t feeling it. You might think, "I gave up sleeping in for this?"
But Weintraub, whose real job is as an archaeologist with the Kaibab National Forest, goaded us on. The prize, he reminded, was getting a glimpse of the historic 1911 Kendrick Mountain Lookout Cabin, which Weintraub and an army of volunteers have been lovingly restoring for several years.
As we stood in a circle listening to Weintraub fill us in on the cabin’s rehab — he was too modest to note that, a few months ago, the project won the prestigious Governor’s Heritage Preservation Award — suddenly ascending 2,672 feet seemed the least we could do. As a bonus, Weintraub promised to open the cabin for a look-see, brandishing the key in front of us like the proverbial carrot. Lastly, he gave runners this out: They could turn around at the cabin, rather than have to climb the additional half mile to the lookout tower.
“Well, I guess I better stop talking so we can get going,” said Weintraub, wrapping up. “It’s not that bad, really. I think the first two miles are the worst; it’s a steady climb. Then, it gets better.”
Off we went. There really is no easing into Kendrick Mountain Trail, the most popular of three trails that lead to the top. The climbing starts almost immediately…
Though I hesitate to disagree with Weintraub, the first two miles are not the hardest. Sure, it takes a while to get warmed up and in climbing mode, but the first two miles are mostly free of rocks, roots and other technical obstacles that might slow you down. It’s in the final 2.5 miles up when the going gets rougher, fatigue sets in and the possibility of a tumble becomes very real.
Besides, you can distract yourself during those first few miles by taking in the charred remains of ponderosa pines that denote the lingering effects of the 14,000-plus acre Pumpkin Fire in 2000 that devastated the area.
Regrowth is well underway, with lots of foliage sprouting and aspens dotting the path. Given the fire, there’s surprisingly plenty of patches of shade to keep you cooler on a hot day. The footing is fine, too, with the reddish cinder soil cushioning your feet.
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All that will change once the switchbacks kick in. The geology changes dramatically. Jagged rocks and boulders start cropping up, and the going gets tougher. Then again, the view starts getting better. Back and forth you’ll go, heading northeast and seeing Humphreys Peak in the distance, then south and west and seeing other lava protrusions down below.
The switchbacks eventually subside when you reach a saddle, treeless yet verdant. That’s when the heat hits. But you know, at this point, that the cabin awaits.
And there it is, sitting rather unobtrusively in a grassy meadow. Looming above it and to the right is the Lookout tower. Since Weintraub has the key and has yet to arrive, why not soldier on and push for the top?
It’s the rockiest section, barely runnable. The good news: It lasts only about 0.4 of a mile. At the tower, unstaffed on this late-summer morning, there are plenty of boulders to rest your weary joints, plus a flat concrete slab to take all the selfies and panorama photos you desire without fear of tumbling down mountain.
Back in the meadow, back near the cabin, a crowd has gathered, waiting for Weintraub. The padlock removed, he swings open the door with a minor flourish, inviting runners in.
It’s shady inside, thankfully, and seemed to weather the winter in pretty good shape. The corrugated tin roof is intact, the wood beams holding steady and only a few gaps in the walls remain.
That attests to the work and care Weintraub, American Conservation Experience crews, a Northern Arizona University class and Davey Mac Studio and Workshop’s Dave McKee put into restoration.
“One of the trees crushed this entire roof,” Weintraub said. “The cabin is on the National Registry (of Historic Places), so we had to replace everything in kind — same materials. We’ve still got a little work to do to extend the roof a bit, but we’ve sealed around the base. The timber we used is from here but all new and we did it hand-hewn, peeled with old turn-of-the-century tools. The walls are original -- 1911.”
The runners linger. We are impressed. But, truth be told, we also are enjoying the shade. So we pepper Weintraub with questions.
He tells us how the volunteers lugged all the materials to restore the cabin up the trail we just ascended. Groans among the runners were audible. It took 16 trips up the mountain, he said. And McKee, who sometimes runs with the group, designed a padded backpack to carry the 8-by-3-foot, 70-pound steel panels that were needed to replace the original roofing.
Compared to lugging such a haul, just powering yourself and a water bottle or two up the mountain didn’t seem like such a burden.
Eventually, the runners happily retreat down mountain, a much less taxing proposition.
Weintraub? He stays behind, having to do some measurements for 3-D modeling of the cabin. They hope to be finished with restoration, he said, in a year.
Just in time for another Kendrick Mountain ascent.