So now, the real reason I came to Flagstaff, AZ.
NOOOOOO, not to ski. To hike up Humphreys Peak. If you’ve checked out my Bucket Lists tab, you’ll see I’m try to bag the highest point in every state. So here’s Arizona, Humphreys Peak, topping off at 12,633 ft.
The first thing I did after getting setup at the Flagstaff KOA is run over to the Flagstaff Ranger Station to get info on getting to the summit. As you can see, there’s still snow up there so I wanted to be sure the trail was passable, maybe get a map, etc. First off, the ranger told me that I should wait until Wednesday for the best weather. She was spot on with that. It was a perfect day with nearly no wind, bright sunny skies and temps that would eventually reach into the high 60’s at the trailhead. Summit forecast was 48º (9º C) and 25 knots of wind…. not bad at all.
She also told me there were still patches of snow obscuring the trail and I’d likely need “micro spikes” as it was well compacted and could be icy in spots. I don’t have “micro spikes” but I do have Yak Trax, which are metal coils around a rubber frame which you slip on to the soles of your shoes for traction on ice and snow. Good to go!
It’s 4.8 miles each way, starting from the Snowbowl at 9200 ft elevation and I got started right around 10 a.m. I was figuring about 4-5 hours. After cutting across the ski slope the trail enters the forest and up you go. Not terribly steep though. A nice way to get the legs warmed up. For the first mile there were a few minor snowy patches, a few yards across and well compacted, just like the ranger mentioned. It was warm enough that the snow was just a bit soft. Plenty of grip with my hiking shoes alone so I was not wearing my Yak Trax.
Soon after the first switchback, about a mile and a half in, the snow became much more prevalent and soon the trail was far more
snow than bare trail, and getting deeper. Now I was walking over snow that was 3-4 ft deep. Still compacted where it had been walked on, but a slight step to either side would often mean sinking in up to my knee. Not too much further up the trail I passed two young adults trying to make their way up in slick bottomed tennis shoes. Yeah, good luck with that.
By mile 3 there was no such thing as bare trail. It was all snow, at times atop drifts several feet deep. More than once I sank in up to my hip. I met a couple on their way down and asked if they’d made it to the top. They said no, that the trail just continued to get more slushy and worse farther on. I stopped here and slipped on my Yak Trax. I was still doing OK in just my shoes, but it was a good spot and I needed a little break and some food. Air is thin at 11,000 ft.
And THEN the adventure began. About 2/3 of the way up the trail crosses a scree field. The scree field, because there are no trees, was devoid of snow. It also happened to be devoid of a trail. But surely I will find the trail on the other side, if for no other reason than because I have my Garmin GPS which will show me the trail. It’s maybe 100 yards across, and across I went, gingerly. Upon reaching the other side……nothing! A few footprints heading off here and there. Nothing like the well tramped upon “trail” leading up to this point. Some went up the ridiculously steep mountain side, some went down. In essence I spent the next 30 minutes struggling through snow several feet deep on a 45 degree slope, to find ways up, comparing my position to where my GPS said the trail was. Any time I got there, there was NOTHING resembling a trail. Eventually I ended up back at the scree field higher up than when I’d crossed when I met a couple making their way down diagonally across the slope/scree field. They just told me to follow their tracks up as it would be a much easier way to the saddle above where the trail eventually leads. Thus I was able to make it to Doyle Saddle.
Doyle Saddle is above the tree line and from there the trail heads pretty much straight along the ridge line to the summit. There are, however three false summits along the way, which I did not realize at the time. Oh and the wind up here was blowing at least 25 knots steady. I’d say more like 30-35.
The temperature itself was not cold and in the few places where there was respite from the wind I was very comfortable in my long-sleeve base layer, short sleeve tech shirt and light fleece sweatshirt. In the wind it was a bit chilly, especially when I would stumble or slip and my hands would end up wet from the snow. Once they dried, working them using my hiking poles kept them warm enough I didn’t need my gloves. Of course I was working pretty hard.
From the saddle the trail slips off the west side of the ridge where the snow again got very deep, and the trail physically difficult to follow. It goes through two sections that are really steep. I was pretty fatigued by this point and a little frustrated. When I came to the first false summit I thought I was almost home free. One more stretch to go and I’d have made it. When I got very near to that peak I could see the rest of the way up. No only was this not the summit, the next peak was not the summit either.
It was soul crushing. I nearly gave up, partly from frustration but mostly because I thought I was under a time constraint. I could have sworn I’d seen a sign in the parking lot that said the gates would be locked at 4 pm. Turns out I was wrong about that but at the time I wasn’t sure, if I continued, I’d be back down by 4 pm. Then again, there was no way in hell I wanted to have to come back and climb this mountain again. I waived for a moment or two, then got mad and took a few steps further up the mountain. And a few more. Then I saw some other hikers up near the actual summit and my spirits shot up. I wasn’t the only one struggling up here and even if there was a time limit I knew I could summit and catch them on the way down so I wouldn’t be alone.
Now it wasn’t even a question and on I pressed. There were two other people on the summit as I FINALLY started up the last climb. One came by me on his way down before I got there, but the other was still up there when I arrived. I was fatigued, out of breath, my quads and hamstrings achy but was so glad I continued and made it to the top. Not that I wanted to spend much time there. The wind was howling and an overcast layer had moved in. Not really a pleasant place to sit and enjoy the view. A few quick photos, thanks to my co-climber, and I was on my way down.
I’d caught the previous four hikers by the time I was back down at Doyle Saddle. I briefly attempted to follow the actual trail down from the saddle but quickly found that not really an option and ended up trailblazing a bit to the upper part of the scree field where I’d met the couple earlier. Then it was more making it up as I went along, trying to get
back to the where the trail was supposed to cross the original part of that scree field. Look! Look at this picture below. You can clearly see a trail across. Even according to my GPS I was very near where I’d crossed on my way up….. but, THERE WAS NO TRAIL. One last check of my GPS and I headed across figuring I’d find my way back to the trail on the other side. I put my GPS back in the side pocket of my pack. What I DID NOT DO WAS ZIPPER THAT POCKET!!!!!! That scree field isn’t completely stable and several times I lost balance, leaning or partially falling over. Somewhere, on one of those, and unbeknownst to me, my $600 Garmin GPS made its bid for freedom. I only discovered this when I got all the way across and reached to that pocket to find it was gone.
I turned back toward the scree field. No Way! No way I would be able to retrace my steps. Even if I did, the GPS very likely tumbled from where I was and probably fell between rocks or boulders. No Way I was going to find it. Worse, yet, how the hell am I going to find the trail????? It’s not here where I came across and I have no idea if I’m above it or below it. Hmmm…….this is bad.
But wait……I have my phone……and…….YES!!!!! There’s signal. Google Maps saves the day….and My Ass! It showed the trail was just a little ways below. THANKFULLY. I wasn’t in any condition to go trailblazing back UP that hillside again. Sure enough the trail was there, about 75 yds down hill. Now before you go getting all verklempt, the fact is that 1) I could have just worked my way up and down the slope till I found the trail; 2) I could see the ski slopes and though much further down the mountain, I could have made my way down to them and followed them all the way back to the Snowbowl and 3) I knew there were others coming down behind me and I could have waited for them to come down and hopefully see them cross the scree field. But I was certainly happy to have had the phone option to get me to the right place. Always, ALWAYS adventure with a map……or two.
Once back on the trail the rest of my hike was merely putting up with the fatigue and exertion of getting back down. Once back in the forest, the temperature was quite warm and the snow had significantly softened. My Yak Trax were pretty well destroyed by now, having traversed large stretches of volcanic rocks. Really, they are meant for recreational walking or running, only on snow or soft ice. Rocks, not so much. Even though I kept what was left of them strapped to my shoes, the slushy snow meant a lot of slipping and many more sinkings, often to my hip. At this point it was just as exhausting and frustrating as going up.
I don’t remember being more glad to finish a hike. I also don’t remember being more glad that I’d not given up on a hike. It certainly left me with some great memories……and one pretty wicked case of wind burn. I’m rather certain the snow made this hike exponentially more difficult. That’s not to say it would ever be easy, but knowing what I know now………I’d wait until July!