Mt. Humphreys is an outstanding Sierra peak having no easy route to the summit. Standing just shy of 14,000ft in elevation, it so dominates its surroundings that it is one of the 15 Sierra Emblem Peaks so designated by the Sierra Club. No other Sierra peak to the north rises higher, and there are expansive views from the summit. From Bishop, much of the mountain is hidden from view by Mt. Tom in the foreground, with only its jagged summit visible. From the west and especially in Humphreys Basin, the mountain rises in such an impressive fashion as to demand one's gaze and attention. It was from this western vantage that it was first viewed by Joseph LeConte who made the first attempt on the peak in 1898. He failed, and it was six more years before Edward and James Hutchinson were to make the first ascent.
The easiest ascent, class 4 is from the western side, but there is much loose talus to be climbed first. There is a small glacier under its Northeast Face, and there are excellent ice/snow climbs be found on this face as well. Climbing Humphreys you will likely find yourself alone on the mountain and gazing out at an incredible view. Any route on Humphreys is a quality route and well worth the climb.
The usual approach is from the east over Piute Pass and on into Humphreys Basin to the west of the peak, a full day's hike if carrying a pack. SR168 out of Bishop leads to the beautiful lake basins above where you take the road to North Lake and the Piute Pass TH. Approachs from the west are often long multi-day hikes. There is a quick alternative approach via morrainal ridges just north of McGee Creek. This is accessed via Buttermilk Road off of SR168 and continuing on via unmarked roads until you come to a recently burned area and park at a cattle guard. Hike up and over the ridges you see to the west or continue on the dirt road to McGee Creek and follow it up. This alternative is best in winter. In summer use the McGee Creek TH.
Corrections to Buttermilk Road Description on page 301 of RJ Secor’s Second Edition:
Presently Buttermilk Road has no street sign. If you pass Starlight Road, you went too far!
9.5 miles Total Mileage from Hwy168/Buttermilk Road to McGee Creek Trail
The description is fine all the way to the McGee Creek crossing at 7.5 miles from HWY 168.
7.5 miles Cross the creek (deep water flowing across the road), continue.
7.7 miles Don’t take the two left spurs
8.1 miles Don’t take the road left
8.2 miles Don’t take the right turn
8.3 miles Don’t take the left turn
8.9 miles Don’t take the left turn
Bypass the next two left hand turns (one next to the other)
Make a right turn on a road going in Northern direction and steeply uphill.
The road curves sharply couple times and ends at 15-foot high aqueduct pipe, guyed with cables. The 1982 Mt.Tom 7.5 minute map has the aqueduct drawn on it. The McGee Creek trail starts at this pipe. A high-clearance vehicle is definitely required, and in the worst of conditions, a four wheel drive will be necessary.
Craig Peer adds:
If going to the McGee Creek trailhead for Humphreys or Checkered Demon I prefer the Dutch Johns Meadow Branch which starts behind the old wilderness permit kiosk a few minutes up 168 from Starlight Road. The topo map actually shows this road fairly accurately too. I then come out the other way you describe for the total scenic loop. From the kiosk, follow road 7S15 for about 4 miles and bear right at a fork onto 7S01. In about 2.2 miles you'll come to a clearing - bear left. Follow this for about 1 mile to another clearing and a three-way intersection. The route to the right ends at the aqueduct pipe described above. The center route dead-ends in a quarter mile. Take the left branch to the end in another 1/2 mile, park here.
Most climbing activity occurs in the summer months of June-August. Summer Sierra weather is generally very stable with afternoon thunderstorms not uncommon. This peak is an excellent winter climb via the eastern routes.
Camping allowed throughout the area with permit. Allowed only in developed campgrounds along Bishop Creek roads.
The highest of the Humphreys Lakes has a number of flat areas suitable for tent sites. As with most of the lakes in the basin, it is desolate with little vegetation, and exposed to the intense summer rays. Still, it provides probably the easiest jumping off point to tackle Mt. Humphreys, whose Southwest Face looms high above, only a short walk away.
One caveat for those travelling to Humphreys Basin: the fishing is poor. With little vegetation, there is little biomatter to support an ecosystem here, and the fish remain small and few.
"Andrew Atkinson Humphreys (1810-1883), soldier and engineer, the grandson of Joshua Humphreys, who designed the 'Constitution' and other frigates of the War of 1812. Humphreys distinguished himself [as a general] in the Civil War. After the war he was chief engineer of the US Army unitl he retired in 1879. The mountain was named by the Whitney Survey; it appeared on Hoffmann's map of central California, 1873.
James S. Hutchingson, Jr. and Edward C. Hutchingson made the first ascent on July 18, 1904. 'The summit of Humphreys is not more than eight feet square. ... It is one mass of cracked and broken blocks, thrown loosely together in such a way as to warn one to move cautiously lest the whole top should break off and fall into the great abyss to the eastward. ... Probably no one has ever stood where we then were, unless perhaps during the early Jurassic period, before the mountain was fully sculptured. Then the mariners of that age (if there were any) might have sailed upon the waters of the Pacific close to the base of the mountain, and, there landing, have climbed up its then gently sloping sides.' (SCB 5, no. 3, Jan. 1905: 171-72.)
Humphreys Lakes were first named on the Mt. Tom 15' quad, 1949."
- Peter Browning, Place Names of the Sierra Nevada
Clarence King, a member of the Whitney Survey under William Brewer, was later (1867) named U. S. Geologist in charge of the Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parrallel under Brigadier General A. A. Humphreys, the U. S. Chief of Engineers.
"[Joseph N.] LeConte's first significant mountaineering venture outside his familiar haunts came in 1898, when he and Clarence Cory decided to explore the possibility of a true high mountain route between Yosemite and Kings Canyon. During the early part of their month-long journey, the two men closely followed the pioneering route of their predecessor, Theodore Solomons, even to the extent of visiting the upper reaches of Mono Creek. From a camp near the junction off this stream and the Second Recess, the pair made the first ascent of Red Slate Mountain, the towering sentinel of this part of the Sierra. A few days later, from the top of Seven Gables, they were awestruck by the sight of unclimbed Mount Humphreys, a solitary monolith nine miles to the east. At that moment the men resolved to try for its tapered summit.
LeConte and Cory attempted to lead their pack animals toward the huge peak, but, finding no practical route, they returned to Blaney Meadows, a lush parkland on the South Fork of the San Joaquin River. Leaving their stock behind, the pair knapsacked into Humphreys Basin, a wild and austere region dotted with dozens of rockbound lakes. On July 7 they made their bid for the summit. After several false starts on various ridges, the men finally reached a small prominence on the mountain's northwest ridge, 500 feet below the top. The view upward was discouraging, as evidenced by LeConte's later description: "I have never felt so impressed, so utterly overpowered, by the presence of a great mountain as when standing amongst the crags of Mt. Humphreys looking up that smooth wall to its airy summit, and again down ten thousand feet into the depths of the Owen's Valley." So intimidated were the two men that they fled down the mountainside without even attempting the summit pinnacle. The immense landmark of the central Sierra would remain unascended for several more years."
- Steve Roper, Sierra High Route
James Hutchinson, pleased with his ascents in the Palisades the previous year, was also active during the summer of 1904. The San Francisco attorney was the preeminent climber of the Sierra during the early years of this century, complementing his friend LeConte, who was unquestionably the range's most prominent explorer, mapmaker, and photographer. With his brother Edward and two other men, Hutchinson entered the mountains in mid-July with a bold goal: the ascent of the still unclimbed Mount Humphreys.
At Blaney Meadows the group encountered Gilbert and LeConte, the latter welcoming his Bay Area Friends and begging to hear the news from home. "All the afternoon," LeConte wrote in his diary, "I talked with my friends, and smoked their cigars and drank their benedictine." The two parties traveled together as far as Colby Meadow, that exquisite spot at the head of Evolution Valley. (Readers familiar with Sierra geography may wonder why Hutchinson ignored Piute Creek, a far more direct route to Mount Humphreys. Lacking lightweight food and equipment, early travelers depended greatly on pack animals to transport their necessities; Piute Creek, extremely rugged in its lower reaches, was not feasible for stock.)
Leaving LeConte and Gilbert to their explorations of the Goddard Divide, Hutchinson's group ascended a faint sheep path leading up the north wall of Evolution Valley. Soon they arrived at a superb campsite, a lake "fringed with the exquisite alpine heather," as Hutchinson later wrote. In the background loomed a multitude of unclimbed peaks; closer at hand the men were amused by the antics of dozens of gray-crowned rosy finches, those hyperactive denizens of the subalpine zone. The beautiful lake, situated on a high bench overlooking Evolution Valley, was named Lake Frances, after one man's wife. It was to lose this name in later years, appearing on the map simply as Lake 11,106.
A reconnaissance by two of the men to the top of nearby Glacier Divide -- which they would have to cross to reach Mount Humphreys -- provided a dramatic view of their goal, only four miles to the north. But the forground terrain worried the men, for steep cliffs and ominous couloirs on the north side of the ridge looked difficult for humans and certainly impassable for stock. On the following day, having tethered their mules to shrubs along the shoreline of Lake Frances, the men were able, with only a few moments of apprehension, to cross the divide at what immediately was dubbed Snow-Tongue Pass. Four tired mountaineers set up camp that night in desolate Humphreys Basin.
At dawn on July 18 the quartet set off toward one of the range's most spectacular summits. Wary of facing the difficulties of the route attempted by LeConte and Cory, Hutchinson led his team up a different side of the mountain. Sheer cliffs blocked the upper part of this route also, but the confident Hutchinson made a courageous -- or perhaps foolhardly -- effort and succeeded in surmounting a frightfully exposed wall [a 5.4 climb, no easy effort]. Edward Hutchinson managed to struggle up a rope cast down by his brother, but their companions demurred, contenting themselves with the ascent of a nearby pile of rocks they facetiously named Married Men's Point. A few minutes later, at precisely the moment LeConte strode alone onto the barren saddle of Muir Pass, the Hutchinson brothers clambered onto the exposed summit rocks of 13,986-foot Mount Humphreys. Another Sierra giant had fallen.
- Steve Roper, Sierra High Route
"Andrew A. Humphreys was not a magnetic leader. He had none of the charisma of Maj. Gen. Dan Sickles, his corps commander. As he led his division onto the field at Gettysburg on July 2, the men had no affection for him. He was called 'Old Goggle Eyes' because of his reading spectacles, and at the age of fifty-three, they considered him an old man, though he was tall and slim and not yet gray. He was new to his division, and his men knew him only as a strict disciplinarian, exacting and precise, an unfeeling, bow-legged tyrant.
It was true that Humphreys was one of the most demanding officers in the army. When he advanced into a fight, he left no one behind. At the Battle of Fredericksburg, one colonel had detached six of his youngest, frailest soldiers to stay behind and guard the regiment's knapsacks, but Humphreys, swearing mightily, ordered them back into line with the rest. Two were killed. Charles Anderson Dana, the Assistant Secretary of War, thought him 'one of the loudest swearers' he had ever known, a man of 'distinguished and brilliant profanity,' much like the Second Corps's Maj. Gen. Winfield Hancock. But Dana also found Humphreys to be charming, a man completely without vanity in a profession swarming with prima donnas. Theodore Lyman of Meade's staff, who served under Humphreys later in the war, described him as a nice old gentleman who was boyish, with quick peppery ways, and extremely neat, 'continually washing himself and putting on paper dickeys.' Another of his peers considered him 'eminent both as a scientist and a soldier, a man of broad and liberal views, of commanding intellect, and of the highest personal honor.' Humphreys liked long conversations with his staff after meals and had knowledge of many things. He regarded the military profession as a 'godlike occupation,' and developed a positive fondness for battle, once observing that war was a 'very bad thing in the sequel, but before and during a battle it is a damn fine thing!' The division's provost marshal recollected Humphreys as 'without a superior on the field of battle--full of fire, and yet in absolute equipoise.' Brig. Gen. Joseph Carr commented on the general's 'conspicuous courage and remarkable coolness.'
Humphreys was not gifted with the ability to inspire, so instead he led his men personally into battle, putting himself up front, writing later that 'for certain good reasons connected with the effect of what I did upon the spirit of the men and from an invincible repugnance to ride anywhere else, I always rode at the head of my troops.' Lt. Cavada of the general's staff recalled that just before he took his troops up to the Stone Wall at Fredericksburg, Humphreys had bowed to his staff in his courtly way, 'and in the blandest manner remarked, 'Young gentlemen, I intend to lead this assault; I presume, of course, you will wish to ride with me?'' Since it was put like that, the staff had done so, and five of the seven officers were knocked off their horses. After his men had taken as much as they could stand in front of the Stone Wall on Marye's Heights, the next brigade coming up the hill saw Humphreys sitting his horse all alone, looking out across the plain, bullets cutting the air all around him. Something about the way the general was taking it pleased them, and they sent up a cheer. Humphreys looked over, surprised, waved his cap to them with a grim smile, and then went riding off into the twilight. In this way Humphreys had turned his first division's dislike of him into admiration for his heroic leadership, and he would do the same with his new division at Gettysburg.
Humphreys was descended from the famed Humphreyses of Philadelphia, the distinguished naval architects who designed the USS Constitution and Constellation and many other ships of the Old Navy. Andrew graduated from West Point 13th out of 33 students in the class of 1831, and served in the artillery in the Seminole War. His interest shifted quickly to engineering, however, and by 1838 he was serving in the Corps of Topographical Engineers, conducting hydrographic surveys on the Mississippi River (like Generals Lee and Meade.) His Report on the Physics and Hydraulics of the Mississippi River was published the year the Civil War began, a contribution so valuable to the knowledge of the hydraulics of great rivers that it was translated into foreign languages and permanently established Humphreys's scientific reputation.
At the outbreak of the War, Humphreys was a man with military training but little experience with troops in the field. His health had never been good, and illness prevented him from joining the army until late 1861, when he was appointed as chief engineer to Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan; he served on McClellan's staff during the Peninsula Campaign. Just before the Battle of Antietam he was given command of a new Fifth Corps division of nine-month men, which were held in reserve in that battle. It was three months later, at the Battle of Fredericksburg, that he and his division won fame for their valor, known for getting closest to the Stone Wall of any Union division before being driven back. 'He behaved with distinguished gallantry at Fredericksburg,' New Fifth Corps commander Maj. Gen. George Meade wrote afterward. Meade sympathized with Humphreys--even after such a performance, Meade said, Humphreys was omitted from a long list for promotion 'including such names as. . . Sickles . . . who have really done nothing,' probably as a result of Humphreys's long association with the discredited McClellan.
After the Battle of Chancellorsville, where his division was not heavily engaged, many of his men, whose terms of service had expired, were too tired or disgusted to re-enlist. Nearly a division in all evaporated from the Fifth Corps, so on May 23, about five weeks before Gettysburg, Humphreys was transferred to a Third Corps division to replace Maj. Gen. Hiram Berry, who had been killed at Chancellorsville. Humphreys would be the only West Point-trained career soldier in his new corps; although Third Corps chief Sickles--himself a political general--might not have fully appreciated it, Humphreys was a valuable addition to his command.
In mid-1863, Humphreys, though unfamiliar with his new division, was developing into a fine field officer. Meade considered him a 'splendid man,' and when Meade became commander of the Army of the Potomac three days before Gettysburg, he asked Humphreys to be his chief of staff. Humphreys refused, not wanting to give up combat duty for a desk job."