If I was to tell you that there was a race that involved climbing five to seven mountains in one day, for a total of twenty to twenty-six total miles, you’d probably assume that this race was going on in Colorado. While that’s a good guess – you’d be wrong. This race is actually in Phoenix, Arizona, and it’s called the Phoenix Summit Challenge. If you’ve never heard of this race, don’t feel bad: I love hiking, and I had no idea that this race has been going on for the last nine years. Fortunately for me, a friend of mine and Arizona wilderness blogger, JestheCCC brought this race to my attention several months ago because she was looking for participants to join her team for the second consecutive year.
Even though Jes brought the race to my attention weeks ago; I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to fit into my schedule this year. But, after weeks of dithering I decided to go; and on Saturday, participated with Jes’ group in the 2013 Challenge. Even though it was a crazy long day for me, I’m glad I did as it was a great event that allowed me to challenge myself, meet new people, and learn more about the hiking trails of the greater Phoenix region. As much as I’d like to get into all the details of what was an epic day, from this point on I’m going to just bullet point the mountains we did climb. Do note that these comments aren’t intended to be full trail reports, and if you’re interested in learning more about them, I suggest you check out sites in the Arizona Hiking Community – such as Jes’ – and hopefully these comments inspire you to get on the trails for the Challenge next year.
South Mountain. This was the first mountain on the challenge, and was the only mountain we did not climb as a group. Unfortunately, due to a combination of factors, I was running late in getting to Phoenix, so the group had to leave without me. When I did hit the trail, I started running – literally. While this kept me warm on a cold and rainy morning, I did not get to appreciate the early features of the Holbert Trail that passed through a couple of washes during the first mile. I did, however, appreciate the gradual rise of the trail from 1.5 miles to 2 miles, which allowed me to catch my breath before the final set of switchbacks to the summit. Since I was in a rush, I didn’t linger on the summit (it was also raining), but what I liked best about this trail was the descent – stretches with flat expanses that allowed me to pick up speed, interspersed with rocky sections that challenged me to watch my footing. When I come back to Phoenix, this is a trail I’d definitely like to come back to hike or run – especially as it’s near the Mystery Castle.
South Mountain – Ranger Trail. Since I had caught up to the group mid-way down South Mountain, this was the first trail I was able to slightly slow down on and enjoy the views of the Phoenix area on. The trail headed out over mostly flat terrain into the mountains, angling up and over a few washes, before crossing a road, and gaining most of its elevation in a series of switchbacks that culminated in a slight saddle. Just beyond the saddle, the trail headed up to the top of the mountain with a modest elevation gain. I’ll be honest: even though I enjoyed the views of the misty mountains around South Mountain; and enjoyed the rainbow we saw over Phoenix at the top, I was not overly impressed – nor was I feeling particularly challenged at that point.
Piestewa Peak. You know the saying, “Pride comes before the fall”? Even though I wasn’t feeling challenged on the first two hikes, Piestewa Peak (a/k/a Squaw Peak) changed that perspective in a hurry. I’ll admit it: when I looked up at the mountain from the parking area, I felt it would be an easy climb; and when we headed up the early mostly level switchbacks of the trail, I figured that it was another summit that was basically in the bag. Then, the trail changed. From mostly level, it went to rocky terrain that ascended steeply. On the one hand, the mountaineer in me loved it – it was terrain that was interesting and challenging. On the other: my legs hated it, because we didn’t stop. While the first two trails were busy, Piestewa was packed – partly with people doing the challenge, partly with people just challenging themselves. As such, we silently decided not to stop on the ascent because we did not want to get stuck behind a line of hikers slowly plodding to the summit. At that point, my legs felt the burn – and I knew that the day was indeed a challenge. Even though the summit was packed, as a non-Phoenix resident, this hike was my favorite of the day – steep terrain, great views, and a real challenge. When I return to Phoenix, I’d definitely come back to Piestewa even though it is obviously super popular.
Lookout Mountain. After the challenge of dealing with the terrain and crowds on Piestewa, I assumed that the next mountain would be a little easier, and I was right, as the ascent of Lookout had half the elevation gain over roughly the same mileage as Piestewa. Despite this, I liked how the trail started with a view of the free standing mountain, before winding around and ascending up to a saddle on the backside of the mountain. From the saddle, I thought Lookout had an interesting little rocky traverse that kept your attention, and also had the by now standard – but pleasing views of the city of Phoenix.
Shaw Butte. Unfortunately, this was the last mountain that our group climbed. Originally, we had planned to go for all of the seven summits, but since I was late, we had to settle for only climbing five mountains. As such, at that point in the day, Shaw seemed like a little bit of a letdown, especially as we were still going strong. Like Lookout Mountain, the Shaw Butte trail also wound around the mountain, before heading up a ridgeline to a graded access road, which then headed for the summit. To me, Shaw also felt like a bit of a letdown as the summit was covered with antennas, and did not have the greatest views we had seen that day. Despite that, it was still a great feeling atop the summit to know that we had successfully climbed five mountains, hiked twenty miles, and gained slightly over 4,000 feet of elevation; and it certainly inspired me to come back for the challenge another year so I can get all seven peaks in one day.
Tips: I didn’t train specifically for this race as I’m always training, but I will say that if you are going to attempt either the five summit or the seven summit challenge, you should focus on your cardiovascular fitness, as you will need to be able to go at least twenty to twenty-six miles over the course of the day. I would also recommend that you bring two pairs of shoes for the race and a couple pairs of socks. I changed my footwear once during the race, and my feet and legs felt great during the day, and the next day as well.Finally, be sure to bring the right gear – on Saturday we had to contend with rain, wind and sun, which lead us to have to layer up and layer down throughout the day, so if you are planning on doing the challenge next year, watch the forecast, be prepared, and be ready to have fun!