| Humphreys Peak, AZ highpoint
Summit Elevation: 12,633 feet
Date Climbed: June 30, 2011
Trailhead / Route: Arizona Snowbowl Lower Parking Area / Humphreys Trail, Class 1
Round-trip Distance: 9 miles
Total Elevation Gain: sources vary from 3,200 to 3,500 feet
Climb Time: 3 hours up, 2 hours down
Mountain Info: Humphreys Peak is the highest mountain in Arizona and it’s the 26th most prominent mountain in the Lower 48
Going from a temperate rainforest climate at sea level to a 7,000-foot-high desert within a matter of hours was rough on our bodies. As soon as we rolled into Flagstaff, Arizona, my lips immediately became chapped, my nose dried up and I developed a serious case of cottonmouth. Having lived in Bellingham, Washington, for almost a year now, we’ve definitely lost our Colorado defenses against the high and dry climates.
Humphreys Peak from the edge of Flagstaff:
Because we got into Flagstaff late the previous day, we only got about five and a half hours of crazy-dream sleep. At 7 a.m. we started up the mountain.
The conditions on the mountain seemed much better than the last time we attempted Humphreys on May 28, 2008, when our summit bid was thwarted by deep snowdrifts and a looming snowstorm.
This spring, Jen and I have done some hikes up to 5,000 feet, but it’s been a long time since we’ve been above 10,000. Needless to say, we were definitely feeling the altitude. I now have a much greater respect for flatlanders who climb high mountains. (BTW, we now live at 60 feet above sea level.)
The trail was well maintained and the grade wasn’t too steep. The high altitude, on the other hand, made it somewhat strenuous. My heart felt like it was going to jump out of my chest; my eyes felt like someone was pushing their thumbs into them; and my hands felt just like two balloons. But my slightly hypoxic state felt curiously comforting and familiar, so I kind of enjoyed the pain in a strange sort of way.
Looking down toward the Snowbowl ski area:
Unfortunately, my hiker’s high didn’t last long, and the higher we climbed, the more serious things became. Wind whipped loudly through the pine trees, and it seemed to blow harder with each step up the mountain. Half-fallen trees swayed and rubbed against other trees, making horrible creaking and groaning noises. It was a little spooky.
Eventually, we crossed paths with a solo climber on his way back down the mountain. I asked him if it was really windy on the ridge. “Oh, it’s windy,” he replied, with raised eyebrows. Then he cruised by so fast that we didn’t get a chance to ask him if he made it to the top.
Once we gained the saddle between Agassiz and Humphreys, the wind really picked up. Gusts were probably in the mid 40s, strong enough to knock us around. Bursts of wind kept shooting up our noses, giving us ice cream headaches and making it feel like we were hooked up to high-powered CPAP machines used for sleep apnea. At times, I had to consciously gulp down the air before getting back into my breathing rhythm.
Ridge view, looking toward Agassiz Peak:
Jen pulling a rock out of her shoe, Agassiz in the background:
Farther up the ridge, we came across three women who had just turned back because of the high winds. As they approached us, we could still see the fear on their faces. They warned us about continuing on, but we decided to go up farther, just to see what it was like for ourselves.
One thing I’ve learned over the years is that perceptions of mountain conditions (and routes) are highly subjective, skill levels vary greatly, and everyone has a different level of acceptable risk. In short, what might horrify one person might be a walk in the park for another.
Moments later, a descending solo climber stopped to tell us about the summit conditions. “I made it to the top, but I don’t recommend it,” he yelled over the wind. “It was the scariest thing I have ever done in my life.”
My heart sank. Was this “easy” mountain going to become our nemesis? We already had to back off it once before. And earlier this month, I thought wildfires might screw up our plans. Then, after seeing the lane closure on Snowbowl Road in the morning, I thought road construction might even block our plans.
But wind? It’s a rare summit blocker, though it has kept us off some summits. In 2010, violent, gusting winds kept us from getting above 17,300’ on Pico de Orizaba.
But how strong could this wind be?
The next three climbers we passed, who had turned back just shy of the summit, answered that question. I couldn’t hear what the first guy yelled to us, but I caught a few words from the second guy. “It’s 80 miles per hour up there!” We presumed he had just been knocked down because he had dirt all over his face.
The summit was teasingly close, probably less than a couple hundred feet away. But in this final stretch, conditions were much worse than the previous sections of the ridge. It was as if the bottom of a jetstream was raking the tip of the mountain.
Within a matter of steps, the wind went from sustained 30s with gusts in the 40s to sustained winds in the 70- to 80-mph range. My hardshell's hood whipped against my ears so violently that it actually hurt.
Jen taking a few quick steps before kneeling back down to brace herself:
Over the last decade I have experienced high winds on many mountains, but I have never experienced sustained wind speeds like this before.
Fortunately, they weren’t headwinds, which would have made things damn near impossible. Instead, the wind was hitting us from the left, perpendicular to our direction of travel, and it was sustained (not gusting), so it was manageable. With our backs turned to the wind, we just stayed low and leaned into the wind while scampering on threes and fours.
Progress was slow, and it wasn’t what I’d call a pleasurable experience, but our determination paid off when we finally gained the summit. Potential nemesis thwarted.
As you might expect, we didn’t stay long up there. We just rode the earth for about 20 seconds or so, breathing and bracing ourselves against the stacked rocks on the summit.
Because my camera was hard to hold in the wind, and because I didn’t want the lens to get blasted with dirt, I was only able to snap two quick summit photos in this direction:
After retreating to the less-windy section of the ridge, it was smooth sailing to treeline.
Then, once below treeline, all that remained was a dusty hike all the way back down the mountain. And back at the sun-blistered trailhead, the wind was nice and calm.
Did I mention it was dusty? Check out my dirt tan:
Post-hike, local craft beers were definitely in order:
Aside from the high winds on top, we really enjoyed Humphreys Peak. It took us three years to finally make it back for a second attempt, so it felt good to complete that unfinished business.
BTW, the following morning, before driving back to Las Vegas, we did a little tour of nearby Sedona, so I thought I’d share some of the photos I took:
Jen behind a twisted Juniper tree at the Airport Vortex (we didn't feel anything):
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):