Once Upon a TimeOnce upon a time there was a child; let’s call him Little Victor. In the beginning, there was a map. Little Victor couldn’t have been more than five or six years old when he opened his first copy of a Rand McNally Road Atlas, and he was hooked. He would study every line, every road, every city, every feature of the map. He noticed these little white triangles on the map. Those must be mountains. Little Victor was fascinated by these mountains. He had seen mountains in real life too, he had seen the Black Hills of South Dakota, the Allegheny’s of Pennsylvania, the rugged escarpments of Yellowstone, and the grandeur of the Tetons.
But he wasn’t satisfied, not yet, because on his maps Little Victor saw these little BLACK triangles. Little Victor knew these mountains were special, because black meant it was the highest peak of the state, and Little Victor, using logic perfectly sound to a child, imagined that these mountains were the most spectacular of them all, even more spectacular than the Tetons, and he dreamed of the day when he could gaze upon them with his own eyes.
One day his parents announced to Little Victor that they were moving to Flagstaff, all the way down in Arizona. Little Victor couldn’t have been more happy, because he knew that in Flagstaff he would be living below the highest point of Arizona: Humphreys Peak, 12,633 ft above sea level. Maybe one day he could even climb to the top of the peak!
But it was all a tease. As spectacular as the visage of the San Francisco Peaks are from Flagstaff, Humphreys Peak was always hidden away. For three years Little Victor woke up every day, gazing at the peaks, and wishing for a chance to climb it. A good day was when he could catch a glimpse of Humphreys, visible from certain angles in the city, peeking behind the saddle between Agassiz and Fremont Peaks. Twice, Little Victor was able to finagle a hike out of his parents, but both times his parents were sufficiently satisfied to reach the saddle and go no higher, leaving Little Victor devastated, because he knew he was only a tantalizing mile and thousand feet away from the top. He still dreamed of reaching that elusive first highpoint, but these dreams slipped away when, one day, his parents told him they were moving away, far away from his beloved mountains, all the way across the country to Massachusetts. His last day in Flagstaff was a cloudy one, and Little Victor never did get one last glimpse of the peaks he never quite consummated.
And so the years went by, and Little Victor sprouted into a 6’3” frame and grew to become Big Victor. Big Victor went to college, enjoyed his share of beer and Beirut, had a great time, but he never quite forgot the mountains. Once he acquired the resources (specifically a car and a working bank account) he renewed his pursuit of highpoints. More than a decade after leaving Flagstaff, Big Victor would return out west. By this time hours and hours spent on sites like Summitpost meant his world was expanded beyond just highpoints alone. He learned about 14ers, and 13ers, and 12ers, and such. He learned about prominence, and range highpoints, and ultra-prominent peaks, and other such peaks that, though they do not fall into any neat little category, just damn deserved to be climbed. And so as he drove out west every summer to check off a few more peaks off his list, Humphreys Peak, that elusive, almost mystic goal that had entranced him for three of the most formative years of his life, became just another peak, an easy one, to be casually bagged and brushed aside on some unknown day in the future.
As is usual I planned my trip with an overly ambitious peak list. With four days to cavort in the SW before a bachelor party in Las Vegas, my preliminary plans involved Mt. Taylor Monday, Pastora Peak Tuesday, Humphreys Wednesday, and Hualapai on Thursday. As my departure date approached I noted that while snow was forecasted for Taylor on Monday, Pastora Peak was bluebird clear. Already stretched for time, with a little more than two days to drive from Boston to New Mexico, I now faced the prospect of tacking on an extra 3 hours in order to hit Pastora Monday, then returning to Taylor Tuesday. I raced across the country over the weekend and, cruising through Eastern New Mexico on Sunday evening I was on pace to arrive in Grants or Gallup at a reasonable time. Then it started to snow. Thick, furious, white-out snow, winds blowing at my windshield 20-30 mph. I-40 soon became an undriveable sheet of slush a foot deep, but yet it was 50 miles before the first exit with accommodations: Moriarty, NM. Or so I thought.
All hotel rooms in town were sold out about 10 minutes before my arrival. I was only a half an hour away from Albuquerque, but, as I confirmed in the local gas stations, with my raggedy little Camry the city, and all its hotel rooms, might as well have been on the moon.
The city packed me with about a hundred other travelers sardine style into the local Elks club. I was grateful for the shelter, but had trouble sleeping with all the crying babies and cats meowing at the top of their lungs through the duration of the night. The road to Albuquerque was driveable the next morning, but ill weather and other car accidents resulted in an hour long backup 20 minutes east of Grants. Clouds loomed over Taylor, so I continued on, arriving at the Pastora trailhead around 12:30. I made a respectable attempt and snowshoed up a few miles, but ultimately turned back due to two concerns: running out of daylight, and, after downing two bags of beef jerky on the way there, not having enough water to quench my worse than usual thirst. Exhausted by the a long weekend of driving and discouraged by the failed attempt, I took a rest day Tuesday and slowly made my way towards Flagstaff with the intent to redeem myself on Humphreys Peak on Wednesday.
I knew that returning to Flagstaff after thirteen years would be weird, but still, as I travelled down US-89 towards I did not expect the powerful and intensifying waves of déjà vu as I approached my old hometown. Strange emotions simmered under the surface as I drove by and gazed upon old yet still very familiar sights, all the while aware of the powerful presence of the San Francisco Peaks looming above me. I walked around downtown. As with the rest of the city, some places remained the same, some places had changed. The bookstore that had been featured prominently in Forrest Gump was gone, but the clock besides it remained. At times it became all too much; I didn’t what to think, how to feel. I needed a few beers to take it all in. Inside the bar, a purported Irish Pub, the bartenders were busy putting up St. Patty’s day decorations, and I realized that while I would be attempting Humphreys, many friends, at least those who weren’t working, would be celebrating the holiday back home. I remembered a year ago: a St. Patty’s weekend barcrawl traversing through Boston and ending with a perfect lack of memory. Who would have known a year later I would be thousand miles away, walking in my very own homecoming parade of one and embarking on a traverse of a much different kind, the ending of which still very uncertain?
Gameday. A perfect pitch blue morning ripe with anticipation. I’m usually pretty tense the morning before what I perceive to be a more difficult ascent; with only one successful winter summit under my belt (a mere Killington, in VT) I wallowed in my anxiety, as well as the usual lack of appetite for food. A few things weighed heavily on my mind as I drove fitfully through downtown Flagstaff. My intended route, after much research and feedback on SP, was the Dutchman Glade. Finding this snowfield sans trail was to me the biggest challenge, though my nightmare scenario of wandering lost in the woods was alleviated somewhat by the ever present signs of civilization surrounding the Peaks. My own speed of ascent on snowshoes was an unknown quantity as well, as I had struggled on Pastora two days ago. Was this due to simple exhaustion from the drive, or was I simply neither fit nor practiced enough to make decent time on a snow climb?
Parking at the upper lot was not a problem on a weekday morning. I was on my way some time after 8 AM: not as early as I would have preferred, but time enough if all went well. I caught daunting glimpses of the ridge several thousand feet above Hart’s Prairie. Finding the Kachina Peaks Wilderness sign, I left the ski run, took a deep breath, and stepped into the woods. I walked in the tracks of countless snowshoers and skinners before me, and thanked them for leaving their tracks behind for me. I made steady progress with few postholes in the brittle morning snow. The grade was not difficult, but several times I faced the prospect of having to descend slightly into a drainage to continue. There were tracks going straight, and tracks leading up the sides of the drainages. Several times I went up (east) instead of straight (north/northeast). A few times in an attempt to shortcut some of the (informal) switchbacks I forced my way up some steeper slopes. Here, the snow gave way below me several times, and I spent much effort and energy scrambling up.
A small snowfield. Was it the Dutchman at last? If it was, looking at the shape of the field it would only be the very bottom of the glade. I thought I had gained more than enough elevation though, where if I happened upon the Dutchman from the south, it would at least be in the lower middle of the 800 ft Glade. I caught a sight of Kendrick Peak to the west. Was I higher or lower than Kendrick? How high was Kendrick Peak? 10,000? 10,500? 11,000? Five hundred feet, a thousand feet, it made all the difference. I thought I had made good progress, but what if after all that work I had barely gained a thousand feet?
I crisscrossed my way up the snowfield. Soon trees enveloped me again, and I followed the tracks, now much sparser, back to the right (south) of the snowfield I just climbed. Obviously this wasn’t the Dutchman. Obviously I was off the main Dutchman route, probably parallel to it. The question to me, at this point, was where was I, elevation wise, in relation to the Dutchman? Above? This would be too good to be true. Below? How discouraging that would be! I figured as always, the truth would be somewhere in between. Any which way about it, I lacked evidence.
Another open area. Was this the bomber wreck? Was it too good to be true? I couldn’t spot the landing gear, but part of me hoped that, since it was such a heavy snow year, I had just walked over it. Kendrick Peak was key, Kendrick was the benchmark. The bomber wreck is around 11,200 ft. I appeared about level with Kendrick, maybe even higher. How high was Kendrick again?
More trees. Thinner now. Is that a good sign? A solid ridge, very high above me. The West Ridge? Damn it looked steep. High, out of reach…but closer, and closer, and finally, relief. The snow opens up before me. I see the open snow ahead, with only a few scattered patches of evergreens standing between me and the main Humphreys/Agassiz Ridge.
I see I’m already higher than the lowest point on the ridge, to my right, which would be the summer saddle. This means I missed the Dutchman and the Bomber, having ascended too much before reaching it, and make a parallel line to the south to where I was now. The impressive looking ridge to my left, the north, I was pretty certain was the West Ridge, which meant I would soon be rejoining the main Dutchman route. I had made it! Barring catastrophe, summiting was a sure thing!
I made a straight line across the basin, towards the West Ridge. The snow was perfect; every crack of the friction between it and my snowshoes was music to my ears. The slope got steeper right before I gained the ridge proper, but pumped with adrenalin and buoyed by the great surface below me I barely noticed. The snow thinned near the top of the West Ridge, and alternated with the volcanic rock of the peaks from then on. My heart stopped after gaining the main ridge; the view over and into the Inner Basin, bathed in a gleaming white varnish, was tremendous and still leaves an indelible impression.
The rest of the way was pretty easy going, especially since I was mentally prepared for the small bevy of false summits.
Then I spotted the cairn marking the summit. It was done, and as Big Victor screamed and gave voice to his joy at exorcising a ghost of fifteen years, Little Victor breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that he could rest in peace, that now the summit he so desired now could never be again snatched away from him. To many, a winter ascent of Humphreys is a just another amble up a backyard, but for me, at this point of my climbing resume, it made an already special peak all the more memorable.
As with on most summits the mere word “view” does scant justice to the scene presented to the admiring eyes of the climber. My solitary view from the top of Humphreys was of a transforming world, surrounded immediately by snow and ice, giving away into a sea of evergreens, the entire forest visible from my vantage point, then the snow finally melting into the vast, yellow, dusty expanse of the Arizonan desert. Dozens of little volcanic cinder cones dotted the landscape, mirroring their (very) big brother. Unlike most sky islands of the west and southwest Humphreys is vast, isolated, with nary a neighbor coming close to challenging its dominance. There are, of course, better, greater, more powerful peaks, but none are visible from Humphrey's summit.
With reception in my phone I made a few calls to friends and, for the first time from a summit, to my parents as well Though I still carried with me some vestiges of resentment against them for the failed summits of years ago, I knew that they would appreciate the specialness and grandeur of this summit, especially in the winter.
I could have stayed there forever at the top, but there is a time for everything, even the departure from my own personal paradise. Besides, looking south I had another target for the day: Agassiz. And although the weather was a glorious 60 degrees in Flagstaff (and only slightly lower for most of the mountain), it was getting cold up on top, with the wind and my own lack of motion. I reluctantly put away the camera and began the traverse to Agassiz. My main concern was mustering enough energy to regain the 600 ft or so to the summit from the summer saddle; a little effort was needed, yes, but other than that I had nothing to worry about. I glided past the West Ridge, setting in stone the fact that I would not see the Dutchman today.
It was on the final section before the summer saddle that I would face a new more brutal opponent, one that would ultimately knock me down for the count and then some: the sun. Ten feet of snow on the mountain, the top three to five of which now were turning into slush, especially under the weight of my snowshoes and my own bulk. Traversing south along the west side of the main ridge, my right side faced the down the slope and my right foot walked a lower line with my left. The right foot kept slipping with each step on steeper terrain, sliding along with the deviously soft snow several feet and often taking with it the rest of the body. With absolutely no traction in snowshoes I was falling every few steps, and in a few more uncontrollable falls I needed to use the ice axe for to self-arrest. It took forever to negotiate this last section to the summer saddle, and the route up to Agassiz seemed to present more of the same. Though it was a mostly continuously path of snow from the saddle to the ski runs of the Snow Bowl, this path was steep, and I would have preferred to avoid it. Backcountry ski trails were visible below the summit of Agassiz, angling towards the high chairlift, but I was unsure of whether they were wide enough for snowshoes; if not, it would be more of the same. Possibly my best bet would be to gain the summit of Agassiz and descend the southwest ridge directly to the chairlift, but I could not tell whether there was enough snow on that ridge, and even if there was, whether it would more or less treacherous than where I now was.
I went up from the saddle for awhile before climbing up a very steep face to gain the main ridge. I couldn’t do it. I slipped five feet down for every foot I gained. It was a losing battle, and I was running out of gas. The Snowbowl below looked tempting. I began a long, tedious slide directly down into the ski runs below. At least this gave me the chance to practice glissading and controlled self arrests for 1000 plus feet.
The Snowbowl snow was just as soft and annoying, if less treacherous. My snowshoes clunked clumsily with every step as I descended along the farthest edges of the ski runs, eyeing the speed and graceful elegance of the skiers and boarders with some amount of jealousy. Finally back to the parking lot, I packed up my snowshoes and got a beer at the ski lodge. I called my buddies to see when I should meet up with them the next day; already my mind was moving ahead to Vegas. But then I sat, savored the beer, and gazed up longingly at the peaks. Only now did the significance begin to kick in. Only now did I realize the full extent of demons exorcised. Exhaustion gave way to blind joy and unyielding satisfaction. Humphreys was the first mountain I had tried to climb in my life, and right now, it felt like the first peak I had climbed successfully. There is a sense of euphoria that accompanies such firsts, untempered by the weight of experience. I’d felt it before, on prior ascents; I felt it now, more intense than ever. There are still goals for the future, harder mountains, harder climbs that would make today seem like a cakewalk. God forbid I actually survive those attempts I can only imagine the feelings then, but now, for now, there was Humphreys, and only Humphreys.
I drove towards Vegas the next day determined to have a good time.
Nothing would stop me, not even the severe sunburn and snow blindness from my climb the day before.