Arizona Trail/Update; Still Alive

[August 2.] I’m still alive! On July 30 I finished thru-hiking the Arizona Trail, having started on June 21 from Mexico. The trail was far better than I imagined it would be and I’m glad I did it how and when I did.

There’s a lot to say about the AZT. I just wanted to post something to let you know that I finished the trail. Some stats: It took me just under 40 days. Averaging roughly 16.5 miles per day for the almost 500 miles across the Sonoran Desert, then well over 30 miles per day until the Kaibab Plateau which I think brings down the average miles per day to just under 30 for the final 310 miles. As a whole, it was exactly 20 miles per day. The lowest mile day was the first day at 8.5 miles, and the only single digit day. A couple around 12+, many around 15-16 and even more 18s.

Eventually getting consistent at 20+ miles while carrying heavy water weight through the heat up and down mountains. After doing this for almost a month I got really strong, and it took less effort to hike 30+ miles per day with less heat/water weight and no elevation than it did to hike the desert miles.

Summer was the only reason I was considering thru-hiking the Arizona Trail, would likely never have attempted the Arizona Trail otherwise. I was looking for something hard, something long, something in the summer heat. The Arizona Trail stood out for this reason alone, being that it traverses extensive desert starting at the southern US border. I chose to thru hike the Arizona Trail midsummer because it was something that I really wanted to do.

My apologies for not remaining current with updates. I know a lot of you were interested and following and supporting, and then I stopped posting. If I could have kept posting, I would have. Having lost my iPhone during the unusually strong July 16/17 storm over the E Verde River I was unable to update for the final 2 weeks on trail. Used to using an iPad which has significant water resistance, I didn’t realize how vulnerable the iPhone was to moisture from just spray blowing in through the mesh. Phone was protected from heavy rain and from submersion but it was too late; it failed within the next 24 hours due to the minor moisture that seeped through the casing. The casing on the SE is just placed into the frame, only held in place by screws, is much more susceptible to moisture.

It could have been a lot worse. Gale force gusts and gallons of water had everything flooded, even the flats, dry washes were flowing. This was an unusually powerful storm and it came very suddenly off the rim and out of nowhere. I was well positioned and protected but was totally not expecting a storm of this magnitude. My tent is heavyweight cuben and it can likely withstand the force of that wind but it has to be rigged for it, spending the time to pile heavyweight stones on all the guy lines. I was in a good safe protected spot but the tent wasn’t anchored to withstand that much gusting. I’m assuming I’d have lost my tent if I had been out in the open or up higher.

Worried about the wind getting under the tent and potentially then being fully exposed to the freezing monsoon rain and hypothermic risk I chose to collapse the tent, even though this meant losing some protection from the bathtub floor, and some exposure to the water. Monsoon rains are ice cold, often with hail, dumping gallons of water in moments and are a serious risk of hypothermia, even though it’s midsummer at relatively low elevation. The storm lasted a while, and there was much suffering being partially wet, but I managed to keep my sleeping bag dry and was able to use it as a quilt despite the tent being wet. It wasn’t possible to sleep due to the cold, but was far far better off than I would have been if the wind had lifted the tarp. This was a very unusually strong monsoon out of nowhere, coming over the Mogollan Rim and dumping over Pine area.

When I reached Pine, the front page headlines of the newspaper at the Early Bird Cafe said 10 people had lost their lives in the storm. The river flash flooded at 45 mph, and 6 feet above the high point. It was likely moving a head of entire trees and burnt wood from the Highline/Dude fires. It could have been so easy to have camped on the bank of the river just past LF Ranch, technically monsoon season hadn’t yet started and no one expected a storm of this magnitude, it was rather unfortunate for those people in the river, it would have been a 45 mph tidal wave of wood.

I had the option to camp alongside the East Verde River but chose not to. It was already late evening and the riverbank is a comfortable convenient cleared and easy camping spot. It would have been a good time to stop, I had reason and motive to be there, just as well could have been there, but chose to continue on into twilight. These people lost their lives just because they were in the river during this unexpected storm and couldn’t get out.

Last year I thru hiked the Hayduke Trail midsummer, it was my first ultra long distance thru hike; as such a lot of my experience on the Arizona Trail contrasts with my experience on the Hayduke Trail. The Hayduke Trail is also 800 miles, but it traverses intensely rugged terrain exclusively as a map and compass route; requiring navigation in and out and across the canyon systems of southern Utah and the Grand Canyon. The Hayduke Trail is a significantly more difficult trail, and it took me 75 days, after caching it. The only reason they’re even close is that I spent over a month caching the entire Hayduke Trail thereby increasing/guaranteeing water availability.

The Arizona Trail was not cached prior to hiking it. This was deliberate. Having already experienced extensively caching the Hayduke Trail, I was seeking a trail that I did not have to cache. This was a big part of my decision to hike it. In a ways, caching the trail beforehand takes away from the awe of seeing new lands for the first time. Worried about having to hike for days through repetitive landscapes like the Kaibab Ponderosa, the less time spend prior and less knowledge of the land beforehand added to the excitement and novelty, this being far preferable to caching; it wasn’t intended as a way to make it more difficult, this having been something I had lost by having cached the Hayduke Trail beforehand.

Having just completed the entire trail, I wanted to take time to write something while still fresh in mind; not intending to discuss the heat/risks, qualifications, or whether it was right or wrong of me to be on the Arizona Trail traversing almost 500 miles across the Sonoran Desert midsummer.

The most frequent question by far that I was asked on trail: Do/did you hike at night to avoid the heat? I didn’t hike at night for anything significant distance. It isn’t possible to see the trail at night unless it’s a full or near full moon, which only happens for 1-2 days per month where it’s positioned overhead after sunset.

Plus, it’s necessary to sleep. It’s probably going to be impossible to sleep during the day, even if it’s possible to find good shade. Sleep is not to be underestimated. Cutting sleep or altering circadian rhythms is as debilitating as deep dehydration. I wasn’t seeking ways to bypass the summer heat. I wanted to be there in the summer desert heat, and with adequate water I generally hiked straight through the midday sun, with few exceptions though always at a slower pace.

Aside from the inability to see the trail, and likely sleep problems, there are Mojave rattlesnakes in the Sonoran Desert. The Mojave species is exceedingly defensive in standing it’s ground, even more so than any other. There will literally always be a standoff with the snake, it will always coil up and ‘stand’ up in place like a coil, often even before it begins rattling. It will never run away to avoid being stepped on.

Rattlesnakes are going to be highly active at night and are guaranteed to be on the trail. Even hiking during the day it was necessary to keep scanning the entire trail during any cooling or altering of the weather to avoid stepping on them. Scanning for rattlesnakes, especially Mojave is far more critical and immediate than dehydration ever was/is. Dehydration is a slow and gradual process that can be delayed and predicted. Being bit by a Mojave rattlesnake will likely require immediate evacuation to avoid loss of limb/death. I can’t stress this enough. You do not want to be bit by a Mojave rattlesnake. However many snakes I encountered on trail is a very small percentage of how many are on the trail at night. You would want to be wearing leg/shoe snake armor and/or using extensive lighting to hike/bushwhack the Arizona Trail midsummer nights. You don’t want to hike at night, even if you could see the trail. It’s like playing russian roulette with rattlesnakes. Trust me. Don’t hike at night. Unless you’re literally out of water and have no other choice.

I couldn’t really hike at night to escape the heat. Sometimes I’d go a little further into twilight in attempt at better camping spot, or have a waxing gibbous moon over a jeep road or perfectly positioned treeless burn area angled towards the western moon to get a bit further. Any opportunity I had to night hike was never useful at mitigating or escaping heat, nor was I looking for ways to escape it. The only full moon I had was at elevation by Mount Lemmon/Oracle Ridge and it wasn’t useful in avoiding any heat.

In general I tried to hike straight through the midday heat. The Arizona Trail with rare exception is typically never over 110F, which is a far cry from 115F+; it’s a really big difference. In general the highs were under 108 and it is still possible to make significant miles hiking through it. It is necessary to slow down to reduce exertion and elevating core temperature. It might be inefficient but sitting there doing nothing is even less efficient. Trying to hike at higher intensity to make up for sitting out the midday heat is probably going to cost as much water and be higher risk of injury, with adequate water moving slow through the heat seemed preferable. The only way to prioritize reducing water weight comes at the expense of time. After being heat trained it is more about having water, and how long between water, than about how to escape or mitigate the heat.

Though I generally hiked straight through the midday heat, I did everything I possibly could to coordinate not ascending in the heat. The sheer amount of water to hike up elevation in the heat is exponential and being stuck on an exposed climb midday has to be avoided. The AZT app made it very easy to know exact elevation for any segment, and I did everything I could to try to avoid ascending in the heat unless the distances were short and water availability frequent.

The weight of carrying the required water is significantly more difficult than the heat. There is a point where hauling extra water doesn’t increase range, slows you down, increases risk of overuse injury. Typical water carries were around 2 gallons. Occasionally 2.5 gallons, to as high as 3.5 gallons. In general, anything that can be done to carry less weight and close mileage between next water.

Being fully hydrated after being heat trained can often be a difference of roughly 6 liters to rehydrate from dehydration and still be perfectly fine. Assuming being fully hydrated and minimal elevation change it required carrying roughly a gallon per 10 miles in the desert leading to a very rough maximum range of 35 miles over varied terrain, but potentially much further under better conditions. At ponderosa level water carries were a small fraction of this.

Water is typically being chugged in extremely large quantities, and coming into a water source it was not uncommon to drink a gallon and not pee any of it out, the body gets used to this range of hydration. Dehydration has a range and is gradual. It’s theoretically possible to hike 10+ miles in the desert with no water weight but generally you’d want to carry at least a few liters. Running out of water will typically still have a 10 to as much as 20+ mile range before reaching severe deep dehydration, inability to function, and accompanying long-term recovery; though impairment due to the dehydration is far far sooner, and is an incredibly unpleasant sufferfest to say the least; the above numbers are just pointing out survival based not efficiency as the miles per day starts to drop drastically, just that there is a very long drawn out process, you don’t drop dead in 2 hours like you would at 115-120F+ while not being heat trained, which is world’s apart. I’ve been severely dehydrated before, especially on the Hayduke Trail. There will eventually reach a point where the dehydration causes deep cellular damage and starts to require long term recovery, for me this point is about 2.5-3+ gallons of water which I think came out to ~17%+ of body weight. I’ve thankfully never reached the point where the kidneys are so dehydrated that I’m peeing blood. On the Arizona Trail the most water I needed to drink to rehydrate was 6-7ish quarts which had no long term effects.

On the Arizona Trail I made every effort to stay feeling good and strong in effort to avoid any crises. I made sure I got sleep, made sure I ate massive quantities of food; so, that when I was having water problems, whether from the weight of the carry or lack of water, that it was the only problem, and that I had started from a state of being strong. Usually the crisis of dehydration is the result of a series of problems that leads to a downward spiral of bad decisions and misfortune and eventual positioning that finally leads to a fatal decision/mistake likely due to difficulty doing basic calculation that never would have been made under slightly better circumstances.

Typically the Arizona Trail is under 110F at it’s hottest, even during heat waves, and can be much lower. The start of the trail was during a series of record heatwaves, but the hottest day was while I was at the Gila River during the heat wave that had Superior at 110F. The Gila River canyon system is lower elevation and canyonesque and significantly hotter than Superior. I’m assuming it was 115F+. It just as well could have been 120F. I have no way of knowing. I realized it was record heat as I had already drank 2 gallons before noon. The ground was already burning so hot that it burned through my shoes and socks while standing still.

There is generally no real shade in the Sonoran Desert, and the ground begins to bake making it difficult to even sit down to take a break. Palo Verde and Mesquite are typically terrible at providing shade, a far contrast to Utah juniper. Saguaros have a narrow moving column of shade that is usually too short midday, they have to be really big, and not be surrounded by cholla and prickly pear or on a bad slope, and the ground will still have been heated. It is actually possible to follow the AZT for miles and miles with no actual shade, so that has to be anticipated to avoid overheating with no escape.

Theres so much to say about the AZT. I’m glad I did it the way I did it. There are hundreds of miles of Ponderosa forest, hundreds of miles of Saguaro, some extensive jeep roads, massive amounts of elevation gain up and down sky island mountain ranges, one after the other; all in all the trail was better than I thought it would be and far different from I imagined it might be. You can see how much effort so many people have put into the trail.

There were frequent 20+ miles in the desert with absolutely no water. Absolutely dry. Between Italian Spring to Hutch’s Pool starts approaching 30 miles, but there were some gallons left beside a roadside trailhead after 20ish miles. Cattle are still grazing in the low Sonoran Desert during the summer so there is still that water, though it’s usually pretty foul concentrate, it’s still water. There are some 50+ mile sections that would have absolutely no water, and the AZT association has installed several large steel bear proof water cache boxes at these critical points. Volunteers and the AZT association have spent considerable time and money placing water in these chests. Passing through midsummer I needed a lot of water and would frequently need 2 gallons from a cache, sometimes as little as 2 liters. All chests had water, as described in the most current app updates, which I updated as well, and I never left anything empty. There was one chest, I think the one by Freeman Road where I needed almost 5 gallons as it was positioned in between a likely 30+ miles with no water, coming off a near 30 mile carry.

Thank you for that water. It would have been extremely difficult if not impossible to continue on without it. Thank you to all the people who supported me. The people that gave me food or water. All the hitchhikes and rides. The trail angels, some of whom went or were offering to go so incredibly much out of their way driving me to places to resupply.

When you look feral after several weeks of hiking, not everyone is so kind. I literally did nothing but hike, eat, sleep, hike, buy more food, eat more food, hike. I never took a 0 (a day off from hiking). Never showered, didn’t shave, wore the same clothes, never slept in a motel, did nothing but his or do what I needed to do to be able to keep on hiking. Needless to say some people were scared of me. I said hi to some people and they got startled and screamed in shock. Saying hi scared them. I was outside a store in Flagstaff sitting on a bench with backpack and shopping cart, throwing out packaging and eating tons of food, and someone came over trying to give me money for being homeless, which was pretty emotional until being patted on the shoulder in what felt like condescending dehumanizing empathy. Earlier on trail, I had a man come out of an establishment and start yelling and harassing me. A ranger asking me if I started any fires. (I was stoveless the whole trip due to the fire restrictions). In the general population, people just judge you based on appearance alone. It was frequently dehumanizing, so it was a stark contrast to chance upon people who were so kind and generous and giving and supportive; that chose to see me as a person, or a thru hiker, or an adventurer, or as someone doing something other than just being feral, treating me like a person wearing dirty clothes instead of fearing for their safety or whether I was worthy of their society. Anyways, there’s so much that can be said. I just wanted to thank you and to let you know that I finished the trail on the 30th. It took me 14 hitches over a 3 day/2 night to reach my laptop where I just finished writing this. Will post on Instagram when I’m next able to.

Thanks again for all your support and interest. I’m not sure yet what’s next, if there is a next, or if there needs to be a next; I’m going to take some time for now. I really wanted to do something with the Hayduke over the winter, but the logistics and gear and months on trail make it something difficult to prepare and commit 4-5+ months for, and even properly prepared for there’s still no guarantee that it won’t be a high snow year, and too technical, beyond my ability. I’d love to be able to just take 3+ months and thru hike something like the Pacific Crest Trail, but I’m not quite sure that I want to, so should probably wait until I find something that I know I really want to do. I’m in pretty good shape, able to hike 35+ miles per day at this point, so it feels like a waste to watch it fade; but that’s the nature of thru-hiking I suppose… Thanks again for all the support! -Ari

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