The thermometer on the car read 112 when I stepped out into the parking lot in Apache Junction. Hot air rushed over me, feeling more like an oven than not, and I took an unsteady breath in. I was about to tackle a hike that I probably should not in temperatures that I probably should avoid and I was going to do it alone. I was about to backpack up Flatiron on a triple-digit weekend.
This was not a foolhardy adventure. I have been wanting to spend the night on Flatiron since I first climbed it a year ago and found both established campsites and pines for hammocks up there. And this whole ultralight kick I'm on, I've been wanting to make trips like this possible, to go on challenging hikes and only carry a few pounds of overnight gear. My base weight for today was 4 lbs 3lbs, plus three liters of water and less than a pound of foodstuff. Climbing up the 3000' and spending a night should be no big deal.
And yet there was the whole 112 degrees to worry about. At least I wouldn't get cold in my hammock, I guess. As I walked down the spur trail from the Mining Restaurant and started on the slow climb of Siphon Draw I tried to ignore the sweat dripping down my face and splattering on my glasses. This is what I so affectionately call 'stupid hot', when it's so hot outside that I get done with work and have no interest in taking the boys out back or heading to the nearby park. So apparently I was going to go hiking in it instead.
I wasn't the only one out here. I passed two groups returning down the trail on their way out from the relatively shorter Siphon Draw hike, with one group of young men having shirts wrapped around their heads in typical cool-teenager style. And then I caught up with another group heading up, two men of very different ages, and we played leap-frog for awhile. They were planning on making the climb up to Siphon Draw today, though the older man was expressing some doubts.
The younger one, who was visiting from New York and was a firefighter, flipped on his afterburners and zipped forward to Siphon Draw alone while I stayed back with the older guy. Turns out we were going about the same pace, huffing along the steep climbs and stopping regularly to let the sweat run off us in puddles. He made for a great conversationalist, having hiked the Grand Canyon several times in the past and actively training for a rim-to-rim-to-rim this fall. We chatted about local hikes and general Arizona topics, frequently mentioning how ridiculous it was to be hiking in this heat, and eventually caught up to the other hiker at Siphon Draw. They had some figuring out to do so I left them to it and started up the next leg of the climb.
I break up the climb to Flatiron into three main sections. There is the long, drawn out hike to Siphon Draw that covers two miles and 1200'. The next section is a very hard 400 yards, a steep climb with a little drop into a canyon after. Then it's only a steady 1100' or so over a half mile. I was heading up that middle section, the steepest part that forces hikers to use their hands for balance, when I saw the younger hiker following. He was going to continue up while the other waited in the shade. I welcomed the company but hoped he wasn't expecting me to match his pace. He did not look anywhere as tired as I felt.
The next two hours passed in a horrible fashion. I took the climb slow, at first hoping to limit my sweating and conserve water (three liters for an overnight is not a ton of water). The sun was beating directly into the little canyon like a solar stove. That other hiker stayed comfortably ahead of me, sometimes within sight and more often not, and we both lost the trail about three-quarters up. He ended up turning around and heading back down to Siphon Drawn while I pushed through thick growth and over piles of talus and re-discovered the path.
There got to be a point during the climb when I wasn't going slow to conserve water any more. I was going slow because that's the best I could do. Dizzy spells began to hit me every five minutes and forced me to stop and sit. Something stung me (probably a bee) and I had a momentary freak-out when I wondered if I was allergic (my dad is). I took things slow and sensible, sipping water during the frequent breaks and finding shade when I could. Heading down would have been more dangerous in my state, especially as the sunset wasn't that far off, so I pushed on and tried to be as smart as I could in the tough situation.
I reached the top of the climb in just under three hours, possible my worst time to date, and I couldn't care less. I was still alive, had over two liters to my name, and was about to sleep on top of Flatiron. My original plan was to head over the little saddle between it and North Peak, and to camp at the collection of pines on the far side, but the thought of another hundred foot climb right now was just too much. Luckily I saw two trees a short distance to my right and managed to rig up my hammock with an even better view than I had planned for.
Hammock setup was only a few minutes and I took some time to relax and finish off that liter of water. Ten minutes of munching on some peanut snacks and drinking water made a world of difference. Maybe that dizziness had been more hunger-induced than anything else - I hadn't eaten much today and didn't have anything on the climb. After that break I got up, quickly changed into some sweat-free socks and boxers, grabbed dinner, and headed over to the tip of Flatiron in time to catch the last blaze of color before the day died.
Sunset was pretty, though I had a hard time identifying what was going on out there. I think it dropped over by Scottsdale, by the McDowells, but I couldn't tell. It almost looked like it dropped over northern Phoenix and unfamiliar lands. After the light was dimmed I finished my dinner and looked over the Phoenix valley proper, Apache Junction and Mesa and beyond. Some lights were beginning to gleam down there, traffic and street lights, and I realized that the valley might actually be the highlight of this trip. I usually try to avoid the city's light pollution by camping further east, yet it might actually be pretty to check out later tonight. That and the almost-full moon, that is.
After a few pictures of the moon over the blooming agaves I headed back to camp. It wasn't dark enough to need my headlamp yet, still dim from the dying daylight, and I made it back to the hammock and took off some layers of clothes before swinging in. I was still worried about getting cold over the night, with how exposed to winds the ridgeline is, so I had my sleeping bag and pad on standby. For now I just laid back, clad only in my boxers, and read from my kindle.
An hour later and it was obvious that the sleeping bag wouldn't be needed. I wasn't damp with sweat, just uncomfortably warm, so I packed the bag and pad away before settling in for the night. I only had a few pieces of gear anyways, so getting up in the early morning hours for the sleeping bag would have been trivial.
Sleep came fitfully at best. The hammock wasn't terribly comfortable tonight. It was a lot better than the ground, and the occasional breeze underneath felt great with the hot temperatures, I just think I pitched it too tight or something. I got a few scattered hours of rest and read in between, brushing away the few moths and bugs that dropped onto me while kicking myself for not bringing a bug net. It's not just mosquitoes that I need protection from, even in a hammock. When 4 AM rolled around I swung myself up expectedly, quickly packing away my gear and making the short walk back over to the edge of Flatiron.
City lights in the valley were as fantastic as I could have hoped for. The highways were almost empty, lit more by streetlights and overpasses than from cars, and the sounds flowed up quietly like a shushed spring. A few dogs barked in Apache Junction and everything else just blurred together. The full moon was particularly great to see, even if the softer light was obviously marred by the valley's pollution.
I munched on breakfast and mulled over the morning's plan. I had a liter and a half of water and the only thing left to do was return to the car. Might as well finish that half before starting downhill. There was the question of when to start heading back, too. Today was going to be much hotter than yesterday, with a high around 120, and it did not drop down below 75 over night. While I did want to watch the sunrise I was more interested in getting back to the car and home to Katie and the kids. I watched the final moonset, noticed the sky already beginning to light up, before packing up and heading out.
Before I reached the descent I stopped and looked north. Exactly where would I have watched the sunrise, anyways? North Peak is in the way, and I wasn't about to do that climb right now. There was another trail leading around the peak, circling around to the north, that looked like it headed out on the sister formation to Flatiron. Curiosity won me over. I followed this trail and soon found the name of the formation on a plaque - Ship Rock. I also learned from the plaque that this is where that plane crash in 2011 occurred, when three adults and three kids died in a tragic accident.
There was a few items to make a little shrine at the plaque: some pinwheels, stuffed animals, photos, etc. I had heard of a plane crash up here, right below North Peak, yet didn't know where exactly it was or that there were kids involved. Feeling a bit sobered up I continued on past the area and followed the trail up a little climb to some flat rocks overlooking the eastern skies. A few minutes later and the sun peaked up from the ridges near Tortilla Peak. It was after five now and it was long past time for me to start on the hike down.
The descent was much easier. It helped that the temps were below ninety, I was heading downhill the whole time, and the entire canyon was shaded from the waking sun. I stopped a few times to drink water and snack on my remaining food, determined to finish off everything before I made it to the car. Packing food or water out is a sign of bad planning in my book. Just like the way up, the tarantula hawks and wasps were out in full force, and there were times I had to bat them away with my hands in order to continue hiking forward.
I bumped into the first hikers of the morning just above Siphon Draw. First was a lone man hiking up Siphon Draw, moving fast and hard like he was tracking his ascent time. I warned him about the wasps and got out of his way. The next group was a father-daughter pair doing their Father's Day tradition of hiking this trail. Maybe next year I'll haul Noah out here on Sunday morning… If it's not a hellish ninety degrees at six in the morning, that is. There were more groups further down the trail, mostly doing the two miles in to Siphon Draw before turning around, and I stopped frequently to chat with them as my hike drew to a close.
Two hours after leaving Flatiron and I made it to the car. It was just after seven and the thermometer read 95. Awesome. I had a liter of water and some Gatorade that I left in the vehicle and I drained most of that before starting the drive back, only a Clif bar left for the ride. I wouldn't be opposed to doing the hike again this the summer, leaving my sleeping bag and pad behind and hauling another liter or two up, and probably supplementing with electrolytes and sugar to combat heat fatigue. It really does make for a great overnight destination. Especially so when I got back to Gilbert in time to pick up breakfast donuts for Katie and the kids.