Peak(s):  Humboldt Peak  -  14,068 feet
Date Posted:  08/17/2015
Modified:  08/19/2015
Date Climbed:   05/24/2015
Author:  AnnaG22
Additional Members:   katbiette
 Hiking Blind on Haunted Ground   

This past spring, I spent a good amount of time working to gain snow travel skills, working to understand the mountains in something other than peak hiking season. After a few snowy summits in March and a glorious, long, breezy day on Pikes at the beginning of April, I was set to attempt Humboldt with Katy and RyGuy on April 26th. The spring precip that eclipsed the month of May moved in on April 25h. Humboldt was postponed and postponed and postponed. Four weeks later, I resolved to give the ridge run a shot despite a likelihood of overcast skies. Monsoon season was looming far nearer than I liked, and I was hungry for a new summit. Given Humboldt's east ridge has minimal avy risk with careful attention to route, I was committed to mitigating the existing subjective hazards. I finally drove down to Westcliffe on May 23rd and met Katy at the winter/2wd parking lot. Ryan had elected to stay home.


After the usual silliness and chatting when we camp in the back of my Subaru, we conked out around 10pm in anticipation of the 3am wakeup. We read some lovely soothing bedtime stories from the 14er Disasters book. Given that we were planning to be roundtripping from the winter parking lot and the weather for the 24th looked iffy, we were allotting ourselves plenty of time. When our alarms went off and we first looked out the window, we couldn't see anything, only clouds. My sleeping bag felt damp, which didn't make any sense, as I'd cracked a few windows to vent the condensation of sleep. I grumbled and retreated back into my sleeping bag to await the alarms 15-20 minutes later. Had a very serious self-talk, considerably moreso than usual before a hike. "Okay, the weather doesn't look great. You're tired. Sleeping bag is damp, which is weird. You and Katy are here right now. If you get out of this car and hike, you need to have a good attitude and really make a solid effort for the summit. Otherwise there's little point in leaving the car, there's no half-assing today. Why is the sleeping bag damp?" That was cycling in my head for a good amount of time. Finally steeled myself and quickly threw my hiking clothes on inside my sleeping bag, mechanically shoveled the leftovers of my pad thai down my gullet. During this process I discovered my go-mug for my tea between my sleeping bag and sleeping pad, which had somehow tipped over during the night in such a way that my body weight compressed the drink button and released the liquid. The middle of my sleeping bag and pad were soaked with tea. It wasn't horrible, just uncomfortable, but that dampness would prove to be a theme for the day. Katy and I finished putting our packs together and started walking just before 4.30am.

We were less than a quarter mile up from the gate when we saw lights behind us. What. a. stroke. Of luck. There were two hefty SUVs- seven guys on their way to the West Ridge TH for a guys' weekend hike of the mountain. They generously made room for us and shuttled us up to the Rainbow TH.

Something that I have found in doing non-standard routes is that I LOVE THEM. I like the mental engagement that comes with searching for less-than-glaringly-obvious tread, cairn and landmark spotting, considering which aspects of a slope or ridge will allow easiest passage and vantage points. I like the illusion these routes give of being in a wilder place, of being somewhere less tame, older and purer and less orderly than the sanitized version the outdoors we so often experience. And once we stepped off the Rainbow Trail onto the slopeside tangle that would lead us up onto the East Ridge, that's what it was like. Not a struggle, by any means, but interesting in the light of sunrise with that delightful jolt of excitement every time a cairn reassured us that the trail we followed was not just a game path but our trail. By then it had started snowing lightly. Only a flake here or there, and it wasn't totally overcast, but it was an omen of things to come.
I love that tranquil hush that comes with walking purposefully through tangled forest in early morning, speaking when necessary for navigation or determining a break, otherwise happily sharing companionable silence. The perplexion of trying to decipher the hum of a grouse when heard but not seen... the metallic vibration at first sounded like muffled music which would have come from a car stereo on the South Colony Lakes road far below. Enjoying those sweet sounds- the crunch of crusty snow, the chatter of territorial squirrels, crackle of twigs underfoot, steady woosh of breathing and thud of your own heart. It becomes a kind of meditation that carries you rapidly through the trees. We reached treeline sooner than anticipated- one minute predicting how many more feet of vertical to get there, the next choosing a break spot about fifty horizontal and ten vertical feet from the uppermost edge of krumholtz.


Our glimpse at the broad lower ridge from that snack spot at 8am was the last significant visibility we had for over two hours. The low clouds sitting a quarter mile west up the ridge sank and consumed us, leaving us to ascend with the faintest trace of a trench and western compass bearing, our visibility fluctuating between 5 and 20 feet.
I've been in low-vis situations before, downhill and cross country skiing...but both of those generally involve the helpful contrast of dark conifers looming in the mist and snow, lending shape to the world. I have been truly cloud-blind a few times (Highlands Bowl comes to mind) but never for very long. There's something eerie and otherworldly, trance-like and vertiginous about having to trudge forward and up, holding faith that somehow the line is unwavering. As we plogged upward through the void, we were gifted by a sudden electronic chirp. Katy checked her cell phone, which inexplicably had switched out of airplane mode. She had full cell service, and Ryan was checking in to wish us luck. Katy and I had been continually discussing the weather conditions for 30 minutes of our ascent through the haze- time deadlines, factors of change with which we would feel comfortable or wary, et cetera. All we could see was wispy white permeated with light. If you've ever made a lantern with a headlamp and Nalgene bottle... it felt very much as if we were inside the bottle. We kept contemplating turning around, though we continued ever upward.


When Katy's phone chirped, we stopped and peered at one another through the haze filling the five feet between us. Both thinking the same thing. "Ryan has full computer access. He has greater ability to look up detailed radar. Ryan can tell us what we can't see."
"So..." I hestitated "didn't think I would feel so glad that Ryan isn't here today." Katy chuckled. We continued up through the clouds, physically blind but aided on our ascent by electronic eyes. Every ten to fifteen minutes, we would check in about the radar. The clouds gradually, slightly dissipated, and the east ridge revealed itself in increments of 20 to 80 horizontal feet, brief glimpses of our setting, while the summit and surrounding peaks remained shrouded by the low clouds. With the support and encouragement of our own personal base coordinator, we steadily made our way to ~13,800 feet.
Not the crux, but something close to it...apparently I was too scared to take pictures in the exact section

We had put on snowshoes a bit shy of 12,000 feet, and they had served very well. But as our mystery ridge revealed its gradual rise through the clouds, it grew ever narrower, with 25-40 degree slopes reaching down into the valley to our south and cliffs dropping precipitously under large, fresh cornices to our north. At our elevation, the ridge coated in 4+ feet of snow, we had at most 8 feet of corridor between the increasing southern slope and the several feet of dangerous cornice lip. Around 10.20, the clouds started to lift. We got our first real glimpse of sun and of Colony Baldy to the north, visibility increasing a few hundred horizontal feet to the east and west. Ahead of us, the ridge began to rise more steeply- our corridor for travel was narrowing, necessitating a preference for traversing the top of the southern slopes several feet below the ridge proper. Snowshoes were starting to become more difficult than helpful.
A steady drip of adrenaline had started for me, coiling through my gut, fear seeping into my bloodstream. The ridge still rose- to continue, we had to traverse the steepest section of slope we would encounter. Ridge proper held the cornice lip, unreliable. The southern slope below, though snow covered, was peppered with rocks nonetheless. Visions of monkeys danced in my head. We were posting our ice axes per stride, but this was not a place I wanted to glissade, to need to self-arrest.
"Katy. I need to switch to my crampons." We stopped for me to switch to crampons and her to switch to microspikes, and to eat. On the SE-facing slope that curved ahead of us, we stared, perplexed, trying to determine if a dot on the slope was a rock or an animal. I breathed deeply, hoping that the obscured higher reaches of this steeper pitched ridge section just might finally yield us the summit. The section ahead of us was exciting but I could not restrain myself from envisioning a fall, wondering if I would manage to self-arrest right away. We got up, having decided the spot on the slope was a rock. I led, so that I could kick steps with my crampons to mitigate the lesser traction of Katy's spikes.

That short traverse was very psychologically difficult for me. My perception of time slowed to a crawl. My heartbeat amplified in my ears, a bass drum booming alongside the pant of each breath and the thoonk each time I punched my axe almost desperately into the snow. My surroundings seemed crystalline, glittering, and I felt like gravity were suddenly twice as strong. The minute felt like an hour in my slow lucidity. As I regained the more stable corridor, the rock on the cross-slope moved. It was not, in fact, a rock. It was a lone sheep, switchbacking up the SE face.
That sheep provided good comic relief to help me relocate a sense of calm. The low hanging clouds were still maintaining less than optimal visibility, and midday was looming nearer. After a stretch of interesting mixed steps which alternated snow, rock, and ice, we finally gained the summit just before 11.30.


Our summit was eerie. The clouds started expanding again, until the only blue sky was directly overhead. We didn't stay especially long, especially on receiving an update from Ryan about precipitation and clouds building to our southwest.

Not long into our descent, the risk we'd undertaken with the cloudy day began to fully manifest. The clouds to our south began to darken rapidly. We saw no lightning, but soon heard an ominous rumble, motivation to keep moving and to be very very meticulous. As we hiked briskly downridge, we discussed potential developments with the weather. What would we do if our axes started buzzing? We took stock of landmarks and a refreshed compass bearing when the clouds opened enough to give us 500 horizontal feet of vantage down the ridge.
The thunder was regular, rumbling in the south every few minutes, a frequent reminder that we were still exposed and adorned with quite a lot of metal gear. Ice axes and poles we were fine with abandoning if it became necessary, but we were unsure what to do about snowshoes. We'd likely need them lower down- how did travel speed weigh against conductivity? A good fine minutes of our near-run were dedicated to wondering how lightning behaves when it strikes snow. We kept moving, stepping rapidly, eager to reach treeline and descend far enough for increased safety and for lunch. I had a Taylor Swift song looping endlessly in my head.

Around 1.45, we decided on a lunch spot several hundred feet below treeline. We placed our axes, poles, and snowshoes several feet away from where we sat, and sat a few feet apart from one another, just in case. Never have I ever housed a bag of potato chips so fast. We hadn't heard thunder in at least ten minutes, but it did start snowing shortly after we sat down. But a little snow didn't matter. By reaching the woods, we were (mostly) "out of the woods."
The rest of our descent was more typical and mountain-idyllic. We meandered downslope at a more leisurely pace and indulged in non-mountain conversations which had been shelved for risk evaluation most of the day. By the time we hit the Rainbow trail, we'd left the clouds far above and behind, and were strolling in sunshine.
That day is probably the best instance I can cite of truly appreciating being granted a summit. The weather was dicey- never truly imminently terrifying, but almost continually threatening enough for it to be in constant consideration. Katy and I took immense pride in our teamwork and cohesive decision making and efficiency throughout the hike. Humboldt may be a class 2 peak, but the conditions necessitated high situational awareness and methodical communication. It was disappointing to see nothing from the summit, but in retrospect, that really is the only shame of the day. As with mundane things, the removal of one sense heightens the use and appreciation of the others. Humboldt wasn't about the view. Humboldt was about the determination and intense cohesion of two partners.

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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Comments or Questions
Nice TR
08/18/2015 09:07
Nice trip report, very enjoyable reading. I guess it better be, since it took almost three months to write!

Well earned summit!
08/18/2015 16:37
And thunder snow always boosts the blood pressure......Congrats on getting this one in tough conditions.

lag in writing
08/18/2015 17:40
polar– I learned my lesson in trying to co–write a TR. eventually you stop waiting for sections and just write the whole thing yourself.

08/18/2015 20:47
So are you saying that Katy is lazy? 8)

08/18/2015 22:30
life happens; it’s much easier for either person to write the entire thing than to try and split it. I’m probably the lazier of the two of us, if we were comparing.

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