Ascent of Humphreys Peak on 1989-05-04

Climber: Greg Slayden

Other People:Solo Ascent
Date:Thursday, May 4, 1989
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:Humphreys Peak
    Elevation:12633 ft / 3850 m

Ascent Trip Report

Wednesday, May 3:

After a while this flat road turned to the southeast, directly towards the San Francisco Peaks dominating the skyline, and Humphreys Peak, at 12,662 feet the highest in Arizona, was plainly visible in the early evening sunshine. I took a picture of them while driving, although I should have waited a little longer to get closer. The highway approached the base of the range and went through a pleasant pine forest, and signs told me I was approaching the road to the Fairfield Arizona Snow Bowl, where the trails to the peaks began. I saw the road, started to turn in, but saw that it was closed. A sign said that it was totally shut down for construction, and only opened on weekends.

Extremely annoyed, I pulled into a log cabin campground store at the junction and thought about what to do. The road was ten miles long, and I didn’t want to add twenty dusty, flat miles to my planned ascent of Humphreys. I could go off and check out Las Vegas and Hoover Dam for a couple of days and come back when the road was open (it was Wednesday), I could find another trailhead on the other side of the mountain, or I could somehow get reasonably close to the base of the ski area on another road.

I went into the little store there, talked to the young woman clerk, and she said that Hart Prairie Road went fairly close to the base of the ski area, where the road ended and the trails began. She even had a map of the Coconino National Forest she sold me, and even though it was at a very large scale I decided to use it to get myself to Hart Prairie rather than embark on a long drive around the San Francisco Peaks to some trail that I didn’t have any Zummwalt descriptions of (Zummwalt’s map of the route from the ski area didn’t show or describe anything beyond the base area accessible from the now-closed road).

So I drove back north on U.S. 180 a little ways with the blinding late evening sun occasionally in my face, and turned right on an utterly devastating dirt road, narrow and full of huge chunks of gravel and rock. I drove along it slowly in second gear, through pleasant pine forest, carefully noting landmarks that corresponded to my map. After a couple miles I saw the right turn I thought I wanted, but it was barred with a gate. The sign there said to be sure to close the gate when you went through, so I stopped, got out, opened the swinging split-rail gate, drove through, and went back out and closed it. This road, though, soon became totally impassable for my poor car—simply too rutted and rough, winding past grassy meadows and groves of pines—so I had to turn around and get back to the main dirt road through the gate again.

I continued, and immediately after my turn I crossed a rough cattle guard and there was another gate blocking another road to the right. Opening and closing this gate, the road led to some summer camp, apparently closed right then. Beyond the camp, though, the road became deeply rutted crossing an open field and, again, I turned around and returned to the main dirt road. Since I knew I was only a mile from the ski area base, I decided to crash for the night where I was and simply face up to an extra mile each way tacked on to my hike, at least better than an extra ten. So I went back through the first gate (I was getting real good at opening and closing these gates), where there were more trees to park under and hide myself. I positioned the car nicely on a grassy area just off of the side road just up from the main dirt road, under the canopy of some nice pine trees.

It was just sunset, and I went for a little walk around the area, especially to see the San Francisco Peaks, Humphreys and Agassiz, blazing red in the reflected glow of the setting sun over the open field near the road to the camp. I also heard some conversation in the woods just across the road from the gate that my car was behind, so I decided to go and investigate. Walking a little bit down a sandy road I shortly came upon a little clearing in the woods, where a young guy and his girlfriend were camping for the night—they had a nice fire going, and sleeping bags all ready to go in the back of his covered pickup.

I apologized for intruding, but they were very friendly and easygoing. I asked the guy if he knew a way to get to the base of the ski area from here, but he racked his brain and said if the two roads I tried weren’t it, then probably not. We talked for five minutes, then I said goodbye and walked back to my car, climbing back over the gate, and I arranged things (a never-ending chore in my car) a little before going to sleep as darkness fell. As usual, I heard a few cars (actually pickups) going by on the main dirt road in the evening, but I don’t think anyone saw me, and, as was the rule for my whole trip, no one bothered me.

Thursday, May 4:

My alarm woke me very early, at 5:30 A.M. or so, and after my breakfast of water, cereal, and candy, I threw together my daypack, put a note in my windshield explaining why I was parked where I was, and took off over to and then across the open field towards the clearly visible San Francisco Peaks. Closely following my awful large-scale map, I just struck straight across in the humid morning, sometimes following rough tracks in the field if they went the way I wanted to go, until I saw a break in the forest at the far edge of the field. I made a beeline for this, and when I got closer I heard noises from construction trucks—a good sign. The break was a dirt embankment that brought me up on to the closed ski area access road, and I soon saw that I was practically at its end.

Pleased with myself, I hiked up the road, dodging the earth moving equipment operating all through the area, and arrived after a quarter mile at a ski lodge at the utter end of the road. I asked a construction worker there where the trail was, and he motioned to a big sign that I would have seen if I had gone up just a few more feet—”Trail to Humphreys Peak”. The guy saw my T-Shirt that said “Philadelphia”, and said he was from there as well. I remarked that northern Arizona was a long way from Broad and Vine, or something similar, thanked him for his directions, and started up the trail.

The trail at first passed a plaque memorializing some plane crash victims who died on the mountain, then crossed and re-crossed wide, grassy ski trails. Since the trail went to Humphreys, and I wanted to climb Agassiz Peak first, then traverse the ridge over to Humphreys, I left the trail at a ski trail and started hiking up a beginner trail, covered with rough grass and an incredible collection of debris that skiers had dropped during the ski season.

At the top of the ski trail there were several ways to go up, so I walked over to a trail-map sign (awfully high off of the ground, because it was meant to be used when there were feet of snow underfoot), decided on a route to the top, and hiked on up a narrow, grassy ski trail that led to a wide, steeper trail in a little valley that led straight up to areas with snowbanks here and there.

I really cranked uphill here, having some difficulty with the rough footing on the tussocks and loose dirt of the snowless ski trails, but making good time nevertheless. Soon I had rounded a corner and was traversing gently uphill over hard-crusted snow towards the very summit of the ski area. I reached this area, at timberline, where the chairlift topped out, rested, and then started climbing up towards the summit of Agassiz Peak, another 800 feet above me. The terrain was all jumbled rocks, much like in the Presidentails, and the wind was very strong (now that I was above timberline, there was no snow at all). I soon came to a trail through the piles of massive boulders, followed it past a disappointing false summit, then finally reached the 12,356 foot top of Agassiz Peak, second highest in Arizona.

It had taken me only about three hours from the car to reach this point, and I was very proud of my lightning blitz up over 3400 vertical feet over four miles. I rested a long time, admired extremely wide ranging views, including the entire city of Flagstaff laid out before my feet to the south, ate some food, and then started down Agassiz to the north, beginning my long traverse along a windy ridge to Humphreys Peak, clearly visible in front of me.

It was a nice hike, marred only by the strong wind and the unexpected length of the ridge up to Humphreys, but the views were spectacular, including ones of the snow-filled bowl to the east, and the terrain gave me an odd sense of deja vu because of its similarity to the Presidentials of New Hampshire, complete with withered krummholz, intense wind, and rockpile mountains. I never would have expected this feeling in Arizona.

The top of Humphreys Peak, 12,662 feet, summit of Arizona, was marked by some rock breastworks, a canister with a log notebook, and sweeping views in all directions. I could even see the crease in the ground 100 miles to the north that was clearly the Grand Canyon. I signed the log, took the required pictures of myself (all these solo hikes made me think that I might have to be able to prove that I indeed had made it to all these state summits), rested, ate, and tried to determine which rock was the actual highest (it was on one of the windbreak/breastworks).

I left the summit and started back down the long south ridge of Humphreys Peak. In the Humphreys/Agassiz col, at timberline, I picked up a trail that led back to the ski area base directly, since I didn’t want to go back over Agassiz. However, I soon lost this trail in the open, steep woods littered with occasional snowbanks. Pissed off, I descended down the steep, rough slope, littered with loose dirt and rocks, making big zigzags in an attempt to come back upon the trail, but I failed. I saw the wide ski slope in the valley that I had ascended in the morning below me, so I decided to just go for it, dangerously descending straight down the pathetic slope, hurting myself here and there on sharp tree branches I brushed against.

Back on the ski slope I returned to the ski area base the way I had come up, along the rough and jumbled grass and debris of the ski slopes. It was now very hot and sunny out, and I tied my pile jacket around my waist, since it wouldn’t fit in my pack. I was also out of water, and very thirsty, as I descended. I got back to the beginner slope and then picked up the short trail back along the airplane plaque to the base lodge.

There I used the bathroom, since no one was around, then hiked back down through the parking lots and access road, again dodging bulldozers, to the embankment in a curve in a road where I again struck across the open field (Hart Prairie, I guess). This time, though, the field seemed much wider, and without the landmarks of the peaks to steer by, I had trouble getting back to the tracks through the fields that I was familiar with. I eventually came upon a road, that after a long time, led back right to my car in the pines near the Hart Prairie dirt road. I stopped to take a picture of myself staring back at the San Francisco Peaks, passed a reservoir, and got very tired of hiking on the rough road and treacherous thick grass before finally arriving.

My car was just as I had left it, and I drove back out to the dirt road, noticing that the gate had not been left the way I had last left it, meaning that some one had been around here while I had been up on the peaks, and had presumably read my note. Interesting.

Looking up to Humphreys Peak (left) and Mount Agassiz (right) from Hart Prairie (1989-05-04).
Summary Total Data
    Total Elevation Gain:833 ft / 253 m
    Total Elevation Loss:4183 ft / 1274 m
    Quality:5 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
    Weather:Extremely Windy
Ascent Statistics
    Gain on way in:833 ft / 253 m
    Start Trailhead:Humphreys-Agassiz Col  11800 ft / 3596 m
Descent Statistics
    Loss on way out:4183 ft / 1274 m
    End Trailhead:Hart Prairie  8450 ft / 2575 m
Ascent Part of Trip: 1989 - Humphreys Peak

Complete Trip Sequence:
1Agassiz Peak1989-05-04 a3906 ft / 1191 m
2Humphreys Peak1989-05-04 b833 ft / 254 m
Total Trip Gain: 4739 ft / 1445 m    Total Trip Loss: 4183 ft / 1275 m

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