Hiking to a WWII B-24 Crash Site and Eating Dry Cat Food
By Matt Marine
Hungry Enough to Eat Cat Food
I was not even half way through the hike and my legs burned, I was out of breath, my energy was depleted and I had a twinge of altitude sickness. If that wasn’t bad enough, it was the thought of eating cat food that made me think I’d gone too far this time. I looked at the plastic bag containing dry cat food I kept in my backpack for Cat-dog and wondered if it was gluten free. I REALLY wanted to eat some, but couldn’t risk it. I couldn’t afford an allergic reaction in addition to everything else. I put the baggie away and continued up the mountain, hoping I wouldn’t have to resort to eating cat food before my hiking partner caught up with me.
Earlier in the morning, I’d met Brian Sullins and his daughter at the Humphrey Peak trailhead just outside of Flagstaff. We had been trying to get together for over a year to make an attempt to reach the B-24 that crashed half way up the mountain in 1945. The trail is difficult due to steep terrain, almost 2,000 feet of elevation gain and a starting elevation of about 9,000 feet. To reach the B-24, it’s about 7 mile long roundtrip hike.
My drive up to the trailhead started off at 5 am (waking up at 3:30 am), arriving by 9:30 am. Thirty minutes ahead of schedule, I watched people arrive and gear up. Most had large backpacks to hold all the water and food they would need to make it to the summit. Although we weren’t going all the way to the top, I thought of my little water pack and suddenly felt unprepared. No problem, when Brian arrived, I’d throw in my chicken sandwich and some extra water bottles into my backpack.
Watching all the fit and usually much younger people head up the looming mountain in the distance, I gave myself a 50-50 chance at making it to the crash site. To me, this hike would be a significant challenge. I tend to do the short and sweet hikes or find places that I can drive to.
My Stupid, Costly Mistakes
Brian arrived shortly after 10 am. We shook hands and began to get our gear ready for the hike. In all my excitement for the hike, I did two really stupid things. The first was to leave the car lights on and the second was to forget to pack my food in my backpack. These mistakes would be costly later.
All geared up, we began our ascent. Things began to go astray even before we got out of the parking lot. Brian’s daughter announced she wasn’t feeling well. She had a touch of nausea, and felt light headed and dizzy. Our best guess was that it was a touch of altitude sickness combined with a sugar crash from a trip to Duncan Donuts in Flagstaff. She told us she wanted to try to tough it out.
The first section of the trail is through a woodland prairie next to the ski lift. It was fairly flat and easy going and I was feeling better about my chances at making it. But Brian’s daughter continued to have problems. After we got to switchback number 1, she said she couldn’t continue. Brain decided to walk her back to the car and set her up at the lodge. I would continue ahead at my usual slow pace and hopefully, Brian would be able to catch up. Luckily, Brian had packed two FRS radios so we could keep in contact. I took one, he the other.
Here’s where I made a third big mistake. I should have given him the keys to my car and had him bring my food back up with him, but by the time I thought of that, he was half way back to the car.
Climbing the Mountain
I continued up the mountain, counting switchbacks as I went. It was tough. Not super steep, but enough to get your blood pumping and the thin air didn’t help. I found I was completing each switchback in about 20 minutes. At that rate, it would take me two hours to make the last switchback before heading out on the B-24 trail.
After the first switchback, the trail heads into the trees and never leaves. It’s great for the shade and surrounding yourself with the forest's beauty, but it also becomes much more difficult to hike. You have to navigate tree roots, lava rocks and boulders. Nothing extreme by any means, the obstacles just add to the difficulty of a long trail at that altitude. It also takes a toll on your feet and ankles.
The trail was busy and I was passing people every five minutes or so. I walked by someone on their way down who was counting people and he told me I was number 250. I wanted a prize, but he refused. I was also surprised to see how many people were hiking this trail with their dogs. I missed Cat-dog, but at least that was one thing I did correctly (not taking her on this trail).
I called Brian on the radio at switchback number three to see how they were doing. He'd just got back to the parking area, they were having to take their time since his daughter was feeling so poorly (she actually vomited on the way back). I was concerned that he would never make it back up in time to catch me. If I would have brought my food, it wouldn’t have been so bad, but I didn’t know how long I could last without some energy in my system. All I’d had since leaving home seven hours earlier was a power bar and a banana.
As I continued to climb, I began to get an altitude headache, so I stopped, took a good 10 minute break in the shade and drank half of one of my bottles of water. It was at this point that Brian had told me he was about to start back up, but from an alternate trailhead. This trailhead was located at the upper lodge and he would save at least 30 minutes starting from there.
After the rest, I felt better and kept counting the switchbacks: four, five and finally six. Almost there. When I got to number seven, I was exhausted and super hungry. The original plan was for me to head up to the B-24 and wait for Brian there, but the trail looked hard to follow and I decided to wait for Brian at the start of switchback seven.
I attempted to find a flat place in the shade to take a quick nap, but the mountain was too steep and rocky, so I just leaned up against a tree and watched the hikers as they came and went. The scenery was awesome. I also found myself fantasizing about eating the cat food in my backpack. I’m not exaggerating that I was so hungry that if it had been gluten free, I would have eaten some of it.
Brian kept me informed on each of the switchbacks as he made them. He was really pushing it and making good time, but it took him a little more than an hour for him to reach me.
He threw off his pack, drank down a couple bottles of water and ate a sandwich. He gave me a Payday (gluten free!) bar and saved my butt for the first time that day (it wouldn’t be the last). I inhaled the candy bar and began to feel a little bit of my energy return. We took a 15 minute break, then began the hike to the B-24. Although the route didn't have much total elevation gain, the “trail” was tough. It had a lot of steep dips and climbs, and you had to cross a few lava fields. These are all rock. Some large, some small. And they are on a steep incline. The biggest problem is that many of the rocks are unstable, even the large ones. Although they may look like solid, you don’t know what they'll do until you step on them. Then, the rock shifts and you’re scrambling not to fall down.
The B-24 at Last!
It took about 30 minutes to hike the 1/4 - 1/3 mile to the crash site. The crash site is on a huge lava boulder field on a very steep incline. Pieces of aluminum are scattered over a wide area. It’s a surreal feeling.The first thing you’ll see is a big chunk of the wing. I walked up to it, carefully planning each step. When I got there, I turned toward the west and got my first view of the valley below since starting the climb (the trees are so dense you don’t have any long distance views on your climb up).
It was instant vertigo. I felt as though I was going to tumble all the way down to the bottom. It took me a few minutes to get used to it. Once my body adjusted, I was able to take in the view. It was spectacular.
Brian and I made our way up the rock slide to a section of landing gear rising vertically out from the rocks. It looked as though this was a monument to the plane and people who had died here. Very dramatic.
We found small pieces of the plane strewn about all throughout the area. We climbed up to a few more large chunks of wreckage, but even traversing 30 feet here was an exhausting feat (pun intended) of endurance. I looked at my watch - 3 pm. I would have wanted to stay for another couple of hours seeing more of the wreckage and enjoying the beautiful scenery, but we both knew we had to get started back down the mountain.
We climbed down to the bottom of the lava field to see a final piece of wreckage and headed back from there. I was leading the way, which I told Brian wasn’t a good idea since I have a propensity for getting lost. Sure enough, we weren’t even to the end of the lava field and we couldn’t find the trail. The forest is extremely dense here and the mountain is steep, so any mistake can be a significant detour. In addition, the trail is so faint, that even though the GPS said we were only 15 feet from it, we couldn’t see it.
We knew the direction we had to go, so we kept walking in toward the main trail. I would check the GPS every few minutes and it would usually show that we were less than 30 feet away from the trail we took in, but we never did find it. Our GPS track showed that we crossed the trail at least twice and never realized it. In the end, we found ourselves too low and had to climb back up to switchback number seven. That was like a slap in the face. All I wanted to do was go down the mountain. I had been going up for the last five hours and my legs were screaming at me for relief.
Down, Down, Down - Finally
We took another rest at switchback seven then started downhill. It was much easier than going up, but my legs were wobbly and my energy level was still low. I kept my mind off my body by subjecting Brian to any bad stories and jokes I could think up. Brian humored me by politely laughing at them.
We made good time down to the alternate route that Brian had taken up and I was grateful for the shortcut. We made it back to Brian’s car at a little after 5 pm. Brian’s daughter greeted us and was feeling much better. For me, seven hours of hiking was too much. I was shaky and not feeling well. All I could think about was my gluten free chicken sandwich waiting for me in my car.
My Mistakes Catch up With Me
Brian drove me down to my car. I waved them goodbye and we promised to meet them for a late dinner in Flagstaff. I got into my car, opened my “cooler” and found my sandwich warm (all the ice had melted). I took a bite, but the mayo didn’t seem right and I had to toss the sandwich away. I was devastated. Hunger pangs swept through my stomach. I needed to get to Flagstaff as fast as I could.
I attempted to start my car. It just clicked. Dead battery. All I could do was shake my head and call Brian. He was only a few minutes down the road and he would save my butt again by coming back to jump start my car.
I don’t usually carry jumper cables in my car (they are stored in my Jeep), but for some reason I had a nagging feeling that they would come in handy that day. As I was packing my car in the morning, an inner voice kept telling me to pack them. I tried to ignore it, reasoning that the chances were very low that I would need them today. Fortunately, I gave in and listened to whatever was telling me to take them along. We got the car started and I headed down the mountain to try to find food and a hotel.
As I drove toward Flagstaff, I reflected on the trip so far. The trail and the B-24 crash site was awesome (FYI: I will be adding the details of this hiking adventure to my website soon) and I highly recommend it for anyone interested in spectacular beauty combined with aviation history. But for me, the adventure was far from over. I had ulterior motives for going on this adventure and would find out my difficulties were far from over.
The Rest of the Story
I’ll come clean here. Only a portion of the trip was to find the B-24 crash site. The other equally large objective was to see if I could find a hotel that I could stay in. Since I became ill, hotel rooms make me sick and I have been unable to take long distance vacations to places where I can’t camp. As you can image, that puts a tremendous limit on traveling.
This summer I finally felt healthy enough to give staying in a hotel a try. The plan was for me to tour a few different hotels to see how they might work for me. If I found that I could stay in say three out of five hotels, the prospects for me making a cross country trip would be fairly good and it would give me options I haven’t had for over four years. If I found that only 1 out of 5 hotel rooms (or less) would work for me, the chances of finding hotels while on long distance travels would be slim.
That was the plan anyway.
By the time I’d reached Flagstaff, the plan had already fallen apart. I pulled into town at 7 pm and most of the hotels were fully booked. Luckily, I had reserved one room before coming up. The hotel was beautiful and the room nice, but it was more challenging than I would have liked. The good news was that it had a large window that would help if I could open it during the night. The bad news was that it was locked shut by an aluminum security slide bar that needed Allen wrenches to open. I asked the desk clerk if they could open it. He said, no, quoting safety reasons (the room was on the fifth floor). I spent the next hour trying to find a better hotel room. Only one of the next four hotels even had any available and it was a suite that went for $200 a night. Although I could open the window in that room, I was having a hard time justifying the money.
While I was deciding what to do, the hotel booked that room, so now I only had one option – the original room with the closed window. Dejected, I was thinking about driving home, but a call to my wife convinced me that it would be too dangerous. She also asked me if I brought my tool box with me. I had (this was also something I had taken out of the Jeep along with the jumper cables).
“Do you have the tools to open the window?” she asked.
“I think so.”
“Then get the room and open the window yourself,” she said.
So obvious, I’d missed it.
So that’s what I did. It was after 9 pm by the time I was showered, changed and met Brian and his daughter for dinner. We had a great dinner and decided to do a little more sight seeing the following morning before heading home.
Brian knew about a historic bridge and the Twin Arrows Truck Stop along old Route 66 that looked very interesting. The hotel stay seemed to go well and I was even able to sleep under the sheets and not in my own sleeping bag. I met up with Brian and his daughter after breakfast and we spent the morning taking pictures of the bridge and the truck stop. Click here to view the B&W and color galleries of the Twin Arrows Truck Stop. I fell in love with Twin Arrows and was already trying to find a way to visit there again before I’d left the first time.
All in all, it was a great adventure, but I learned a few things. It appears that the combination of the strenuous hike, no real food for over 12 hours and the hotel challenge may have been too much for my body. I got really sick Monday morning after returning to work and am still recovering more than a month later.
I also learned that there IS gluten free dry cat food and I will be carrying that for Cat-dog’s treats just in case I need a little refreshment along the trail next time.
I want to thank Brian Sullins for taking me on this awesome adventure - one that I will never forget!
Mmmm .... Gluten Free Cat Food!
Have you been on this adventure? What did you think? Comments and updates welcome by clicking here.
No member comments yet.