Norman Clyde is credited with the June 29, 1935 first ascent of Mt. Humphreys east arete. Sixty-four years and a number of days later, Jim Brown, Michael Gordon, and Ellen Holden came to try Norman's mountain, where R.J. Secor says 'the easy routes are challenging, the summit is high, and the scenery is outstanding'.
The four-wheel drive Buttermilk Road is a challenge in itself. After navigating for more than an hour through a myriad of use roads, we arrived at the highest possible elevation where the road simply petered out; 9400 feet above sea level, but still 4600 feet below the summit.
We geared up and set off for Lake 10,960, where we would camp for the next two nights. Sometimes following a very faint use or animal trail, more often bushwacking through eastern Sierra scrub, we quickly entered the haunted cirque of the 'Checkered Demon'. This cirque is a geological and morphological wonder: dappled, striped, and veined in chocolate, gray, white, and black, its steep and foreboding north face split by two infrequently climbed snow and ice couloirs. From here we cross-countried through ancient glacial moraines, making camp at the lake in easy time, even though we went too high and wide and had to backtrack.
This little lake at the intersection of Humphreys east arete and southeast ridge provided little evidence that anyone might have ever pitched a tent here, much less passed through. Not a speck of trash nor a shard of glass. No flattened flowers, no matted grass, no bootprints in the sand. No fish were evident, and scarcely a bird was seen. So close to Bishop (as a raven flies), yet so far away.
That evening we discussed our plan, which was initially to attempt the 'whole' east arete (2000 vertical feet of climbing) as described in Fiddler & Moynier's 100 Best Climbs in the High Sierra. Just before repairing to a slumber, we witnessed a sight I hope never to forget. As the fiery sun dropped westward over the Sierra crest and its twilight diminished, the massive orb of the full moon rose slowly over the White Mountains. Sister moon passed from an eerie orange glow to a brilliant white sphere - beautifully illuminating our High Sierra cirque.
Our 4:30am wakeup came after a more than pleasurable night of rest - the nighttime temperature being extremely mild even though we were nearly 11,000 feet above sea level and only a few days from October.
Though I could tell the idea was losing ground with Jim and Ellen, I still held in my mind the potentially overzealous goal of 'conquering' the entire east arete from 12,000 feet all the way to the summit at 13, 986'. Although the climbing receives only a 5.4 rating at its most difficult and a Grade III, it is a huge day with a lot of ground to cover. I could sense Jim and Ellen's caution and their desire to more importantly gain the summit; a greater priority rather than the completing the 'classic' route. Because my resume of technical alpine rock routes is limited, I'm inclined to minimize the possible difficulties that may lie ahead. I just want to get on the arete - the whole arete - and see the massive exposure drape away from both sides of that knife-edge, and palm and jam those same holds that Norman did. However, I want to make the summit too. I hear Jim and Ellen's experience speak, and I listen. After all, 'mountaineering just means glad to be here' claims Doug Robinson. I am glad to be here.
We reach the start of the arete at 12,000 feet just around daybreak. Rather than aiming straight for the crest as I had envisioned earlier, we stay unroped and just below the crest to do some relatively uninteresting third-class climbing. We become bathed in the luxuriant and golden warmth of an eastern Sierra sunrise. This formerly white and gray granite now beams brightly in its new orange hue.
Just below 13,000 feet we are forced onto the apex of the knife-edged arete. Still unroped, the previously uninteresting climbing becomes horribly exciting as the arete drops off several hundred feet on the north, and enough on the south to make an unroped fall really painful or even deadly. The rock quality is good enough that we can friction in our hiking boots, but the holds become scarcer and the stemming becomes more frequent. The arete is so knife-edged here that we become forced to climb with our bodies draped over to the south side, making use of holds on the apex of the arete. Leaning into the rock often affords an exposure-filled view to the north towards Longley Reservoir.
Jim and I begin longing for rock shoes on this delicate terrain which is beginning to slow us down. We spy an escape that allows us to downclimb to a notch and then descend a west-facing gully from which we have to reascend a north-facing gully. This will put us at the 13,000' 'start' of the 'regular' route, or the abbreviated east arete. Ellen -- out in front of us on the knife-edge -- continues for a bit, but reaches an impasse which might require a rappel or tricky unroped climbing. She too takes an escape and is able to delicately downclimb from her aerie to meet us in the gully.
We stop at the 13,000 notch to hydrate, eat, and change into rock shoes. Although time has passed quickly, it has taken us four hours to make it here from our 10,960'camp.
We leave our boots and some extra water at the notch and set off across a wide sandy ledge to begin the 'real' climbing. Jim selects passage to a perch that we scramble to unroped for twenty feet. This is where we'll flake the rope and rig our first anchor. Ellen ties into the sharp end and Jim readies the anchor in preparation to belay her. I am separated from and just below the small ledge they share by a couple of wide, vertical cracks. My daisy-chain is clipped into a single fixed rap sling on a chockstone my only salvation here. I alert Ellen to the movement of the very large block she stands upon, and she makes note. She then easily negotiates the half-pitch of steep gully and discontinuous cracks to the crest of the arete, even though the difficulty has already exceeded the 5.4 rating given the route. Could we be 'off-route'? Couldn't be.
Jim agrees to let me second the pitch since I'm still not really anchored and on only the smallest of stances. I tie into the middle of the rope, and attempt the coarse, bulging cracks above me. Realizing the time-consuming difficulty of the moves, I quickly abandon the cracks and opt to step across to the block Ellen was on and repeat her moves. I stem across with my left foot, and in sheer horror, the loose block is set free by me. I swing into space, caught by Ellen's belay from above. All I can do is look down to see the massive granite monolith crater to a ledge twenty feet below us, then fragment into a multitude of large boulders which career out of control down the south face of this arete. The former silence of the granite amphitheater is now violently interrupted by the pandemonium and torrent of a rocky downpour.
I unweight the rope and gain the ledge next to Jim, but I am horribly shaken. I can feel myself hyperventilating and shaking. Jim tries his best to reassure and calm me, but I have thoughts on my mind. What if I had stemmed across to the ledge before tying in? What could have happened to me? Would I have lived? That death or serious injury was so near overwhelms me. I consume precious minutes trying to regain composure and admit to Jim that I'm unsure if I can even climb beyond this point.
Although I am now ever fearful of continued loose rock on the route, my summit fever overcomes me. I make the first few roped moves, but with great difficulty. I find it difficult to focus on the climbing as I keep reliving the incident in my mind. Though I intended to share in the leading of this route, I am now resigned to the status of a fearful second.
Mixed third and fourth-class climbing is interspersed with easy fifth-class. Jim and Ellen dutifully exchange leads on the blocky, exposed arete, guiding us closer to our goal. Fresh snow, which had fallen only a week earlier, gives the climb an interesting edge.
At approximately 13,500', we reach the surprisingly flat Married Men's Point where we unrope, and begin the sandy hike toward the summit ridge. Though an easy walk, we toil in the rarified air after nearly eight hours of continuous climbing, hiking, and scrambling.
Though we are walking towards what appeared to be our goal from a distance, I am disappointed to discover it is only 'Married Men's Peak' - a sub-peak on Humphreys summit ridge. Passing this false summit reveals the notch through which we must descend to gain the base of Mt. Humphreys final summit tower.
We rope up at the base, and Jim takes the lead. In mere minutes, we are on the summit enjoying the calm of the Sierra air and the grand view of Desolation Basin -- three-thousand feet below us and punctuated with many beautiful sapphire lakes sparkling in the mid-afternoon sun. We take a few photos, but realize our time here is short.
For me it is a bittersweet summit. I still cannot recover from the incident, and I fear potential fatigue-induced danger, loose rock, and the two rappels on the descent. However, this summit view is the grandest of Sierra views - if only we had time to spare.
We have been moving for nine non-stop hours, but are still only halfway there. The descent is the same as the ascent: back down the east arete, although this time almost entirely unroped to affect faster movement. None of us cares to bivouac on this arete, and we do not want to stumble around in the dark trying to locate our camp.
The descent from the summit back to the 13,000' notch only takes us two hours, covering familiar terrain and following our own bootprints in the snow. In another two hours, we are back at camp just as darkness falls.
It has been a grand but harrowing day. We share congratulations and spend minutes looking back towards Mt. Humphreys East Arete and our route, although we cannot even see it in its entirety. Again, sister moon gives us the same glorious display as the evening before, and we all relish in the thought that we will sleep well this night. Tomorrow is an easy walk out, and a day to relive memories of Mt. Humphreys, camaraderie with climbing partners and friends, and the hatching of new plans in the High Sierra.