Humphreys Peak 12633′ via Dutchman Glade/ West Ridge
Total Time: 8:30
Round trip mileage: ~9 miles
Elevation Gain: 3400′
Companions: Sean McAdams
Trailhead: Agassiz Lodge, full amenities
When it comes to alpine climbing in Arizona, Humphreys Peak is unmatched. As the highest mountain in the state, it dominates the landscape, towering over Flagstaff and various smaller volcanoes nearby. Considering my love for all things alpine, it’s a bit surprising that it took me 7 months to get to the top after moving to Arizona. Although I had been up to Flagstaff many times, I had always put it off, knowing that I’ll probably climb it many times, and that there was no reason to rush to hike it alone. During my orientation at Mayo Clinic, I met Sean McAdams, a Urology Fellow that had a similar interest in climbing. We had talked about a winter ascent when we first met back in July, and after a storm that brought over 50 inches of fresh snow to Flagstaff, it seemed like an opportune time for an authentic winter climb. I had checked the weather constantly the week leading up to our climb, and it seemed to change on an hourly basis- hurricane winds to calm, cloudy to sunny, snowy to clear. The Kachina Peaks Avalanche Center had reported some slides after the storm, but the route we had planned avoided many of the major avalanche paths. By the end of the week I wasn’t much surer of our plan; it would either go very smoothly, or turn into an epic. We met at my house at 5AM and set up for Flagstaff. They had received an additional 3 inches overnight, so the road up to Snowbowl was icy, and we were stuck behind several slow moving cars. By the time we had parked, gotten changed, and checked in with our significant others, it was already 8:15. We headed up the not yet opened ski slopes to the west, picking up the trail on the other side of the “Route 66” ski run.
Leaving the packed ski area, we put on our snowshoes, and followed fresh ski tracks along the trail. We continued along the slopes traversing to the north until reaching the first switchback of the summer trail, buried in snow. Here, the ski tracks continued north away from the summer trail, and we continued to follow these to the bottom of the Dutchman Glade. The glade was a narrow clearing formed by rock slide, which made for an unopposed 800′ ascent upslope.
Partway up we met some skiers and thanked them for the tracks they had made for us to follow. Climbing higher, the views began to open to the west, with multiple snow covered volcanoes (Kendrick, Sitgreaves, Bill Williams) coming into view.
Way in the distance, you could see the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, covered in snow. At the top of the glade and back in the trees, we took our first break. I had heard that finding the next glade, the location of the B-24 bomber, was not straightforward. Luckily, there were tracks to follow, as the narrow trail continued to weave North and upslope, coming to the bottom of the glade. I could see parts of the plane wreckage adorned with an American flag, and headed straight upslope towards it. The plane crashed on September 15th 1944, killing eight men en route to New Mexico from Bakersfield, CA. Even with the fresh deep snow, the landing gear stood 10 feet above the slopes, with smaller bits of metal sticking out nearby.
I grabbed an obligatory picture, and continued following the tracks upslope, with the trees growing more stunted above 11,000′. When it looked like we would be above treeline, we took one last break before subjecting ourselves to the growing winds.
Another snowshoer passed us during our rest, telling us he had hiked Humphreys about 30 times, often in the snow. We learned that the summer route is easier than the Dutchman Glade even in the winter, and that my assumption that the trail would be buried and difficult to find might be incorrect. He recommended that we descend by that route to avoid the steeper slopes on the west ridge. With this in mind, we continued up slope, and I started to have my first snowshoe difficulties of the day, with the 5 year old instep crampon being so dull, that I was having trouble getting any purchase on the windblown icy crust.
After sliding a few times, I changed my tactics and aimed for scattered rocks sticking up through the crust, providing better traction and bringing me to the ridgeline. A number of unfortunate things happened from this point. The first was that the cold sapped the battery from my GPS, meaning my track on 3D Earth above ends at the ridgeline. The second was that as we ascended the ridge, the winds increased and thin clouds moved over the summit. I grabbed some shots before being completely overtaken by the clouds and we slowly trudged up the ridge, starting to feel the altitude.
The only other climber to summit passed us just below the summit, and we topped out after nearly 5 hours of climbing. We found some shelter in the rock pile at the summit and tried to rehydrate, although there were no views to be had in the cloud.
We discussed our options for the return, and decided to try and follow the summer route down, since the other climber had mentioned that it was well packed and would be faster. We dropped down the summit ridge, past the turnoff for the Dutchman Glade, and over another false summit to the low saddle between Agassiz and Humphreys.
Near the saddle, the snow was a bit deeper, having been loaded by the NW winds. Even with snowshoes, we were sinking to our hips, and I snapped my Leki pole when it was caught in some rocks. We hit the low saddle, finding the signed junction half buried in the snow, and no clear packed trail heading down. There were plenty of ski tracks, and we picked one and started heading down. The tracks soon disappeared, and we found ourselves plunged down thigh deep snow, my snowshoes popping off every few feet from the weight of the snow and iced bindings that I couldn’t tighten further. I tried to glissade down some of the steep sections, but the snow was too loose to make much progress.
The going was tedious, and we abandoned hope of refinding the trail and headed directly towards the packed ski slopes. We finally reached the packed slopes at 4PM, shortly before the lifts closed, and snowshoed under much easier conditions along the edge of the resort back to the car, taking 8.5 hours in total. We grabbed a quick bite to eat in Flagstaff, then headed home.