Summer Nights: Phoenix's Piestewa Peak

Aug 30, 2013
Originally published on August 30, 2013 7:01 pm
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Labor Day is right around the corner, so before we mark the unofficial end of summer, here is the final installment in our series, Summer Nights. And for this last evening adventure, we head to Phoenix, where urban hikers strap on headlamps to ascend Piestewa Peak. This time of year, the desert heat can be deadly, so hikers wait until dark to climb to the summit, about 1,200 feet above the city.

Peter O'Dowd of member station KJZZ sends this postcard of one family that's been making the night trek for years.

PETER O'DOWD, BYLINE: The granite boulders of Piestewa Peak erupted from the desert floor 14 million years ago, giving Blair Cook(ph) something to climb tonight.

BLAIR COOK: I don't like going to the gym, so this is my gym. With the kids, we're probably looking at 45 minutes to an hour to get to the top.

O'DOWD: It's just more than a mile up, but it's almost straight up. Blair hikes three times a week and he brings his boys to the trail as often as they'll tolerate it. Dalton is a lanky 13.

DALTON: I just like the challenge and the endorphins and just the accomplishment, 'cause I mean, it's a mountain.

O'DOWD: Keagan(ph) is 10.

KEAGAN: I've been hiking on this mountain since I was like 3 or 4.

COOK: I'm gonna carry you most of the way, but...

DALTON: Like a really long time.

O'DOWD: By now, the sun is almost a memory as it sinks below the horizon, but the day's heat still clings to the mountain as we get started.

COOK: Well, it turns into a giant oven, really, because these rocks - the rocks are way hotter than the air temperature. I've gone up in the afternoon in the summer, 113 degrees, and I was in really good shape and I was almost heaving.

O'DOWD: That buzz you hear is a chorus of cicadas, a summer night in Phoenix is alive with this sound. If we're lucky, we'll see the silhouette of a coyote scrambling along the ridgeline. But who cares about the animals now because with every step toward the sky, we're sucking air. The chambers of our hearts swell so fast we can hear the beat inside our ears.

COOK: Yeah, that's one thing with this mountain is it doesn't get easier as you go. I think it actually gets steeper as you go.

O'DOWD: On the right side, the mountain's kind of rising up. To our left, the city is unfolding before us. We're getting higher and higher. There's no breeze at this point, so really starting to feel the heat.

KEAGAN: Monkey boy returns.

COOK: No, Keagan.

O'DOWD: Keagan calls himself monkey boy because up here there are boulders to climb and the one he likes the best are off the trail, hidden in the shadows. Now, he's scampered up an outcropping and can't get down. It's completely dark. His brother, Dalton, reaches up to help.

DALTON: Now, put your left foot here and you can turn around and just go how I'm going. And watch out for loose rocks.

O'DOWD: When Keagan's safely down, Blair unzips a bag and gives his son a headlamp. It seems best if monkey boy has a light to guide him the rest of the way.

COOK: It's a little bit farther, we'll be at the top of these stairs and that's it.

O'DOWD: This high up, it's easy to see why a father would take his boys up a mountain on a summer night. It's given them time to talk about the next school year, about the physical challenge of the trail. Blair draws 10-year-old Keagan's attention to the city below. He crouches down and gets quiet.

KEAGAN: I'm just seeing the reflection. Dad told me there's a reflection that comes from the city lights.

O'DOWD: What are you thinking when you see something so cool as that?

KEAGAN: I just think I'm in some big city.

O'DOWD: A moment later, we'll crawl over one final boulder and the wind will rip into us. Recording sound at the top is useless. Besides, it's the way up that matters. For NPR News, I'm Peter O'Dowd in Phoenix. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.