Winter Ascent of Mt. Humphries on Snowshoes
(Flagstaff Outdoor Club Group Climb)

15 Feb 2002 - by Paul Heinrich

Written by Eck Doerry...

So here is the trip report: I got behind, of course, and packed in 10 minutes --- my house may be messy occasionally, but my GEAR is organized! I got to the parking lot at City Hall to find Frank and Paul waiting --- but no one else. We waited around till 930, and then headed uphill. The weather was stellar, blue sky. Looking good (but just wait...)

Snowbowl was thankfully not too crazy. Pretty full but not overflowing -- we had no delay on the drive up. We parked and geared up. I had decided on my plastic boots --- just the best thing when you're going to be hip deep in snow! We headed across the ski run and into the woods. After a couple of times out here, I still have no idea where the trail REALLY starts, so I did what I always do: follow the zen and just started leading through the trees, uphill. That's the beauty about mountains: never much question about which way you need to go!

We broke trail through 2 feet of powder for a half hour, until we hit the "real" trail, which had already seen some traffic since the snow a couple of days back. The temperature was chill in the trees and clouds had (huh? where did they come from?) rolled in --- but I was working hard so I just had on my bibs and an earband plus the usual fleece gloves.

We signed in at the register and I noted two parties ahead of us that morning. Hmmm. So we cruised on up the trail, going steady and flowy. Soon the trail petered out --- clearly most people turn around WAY WAY before the top. Eventually we passed first one, then the other party ahead of us (whoosh! slow yuppies!). The trail turned into tracks made by just two other snowshoers a day or two before --- and it was clearly not the "real" trail, just some guys like us, heading arbitrarily uphill. The snow was getting deep and loose too --- so when we decided that the previous bozos were not reading the terrain/snow drifts right, we just bailed and started breaking our own. Whew, very hard work. In the drifts I was in to my hips, having to thrash a little "pre-step" with my knee just to be able to plant the next snowshoe step. Progress was slow. But steady. I let the body work and the mind wander freely. Tried to stay in trees, find more consolidated snow, but inevitably the soft drifts would appear and need to be conquered.

Frank had dropped back on the packed trail, but soon caught up to the slow trail-breakers now. As time went by, my body remembered how to deal with the deep snow trail-breaking: if you just take a punchy little half-weight step, then pause for 2 seconds, the shockwave and short wait actually allow the powder beneath to set up a little, making for less sink-in as you bring your weight onto it.

As the trees began the thin, we stopped briefly and inhaled sugar/food and drank some water. Blowing tons of energy and sweating copiously, even in the chill air. Then we got going again before the cold could make us layer up. We got near treeline; conditions had continued to deteriorate. The light was now so flat, the mists so thick, that it was hard to tell any contour at all. But of course gravity abides --- always can feel uphill! Also, the snow conditions were spooky. The snowpack kept dropping with big "whoomps" as we crossed it. Clearly a compressible layer down there. We assessed it: decided there was not enough angle and too many trees for serious danger. Still, we avoided big meadows and led around towards a more southern aspect in hopes of shallower snow. We reached treeline, with conditions worse than ever --- but I was relieved to see wind-scouring rock ahead above treeline. Whew! Just what I'd hoped for! We cruised up to the last tree and stashed snow shoes.

We set out uphill through snow on boulder fields, occasional rocks poking out. We were clearly in undiscovered territory now --- obviously the first ones to get this high since the big snow. Always a perverse satisfaction!

Conditions were REALLY bad now -- hardly any visibility. It's bad enough not being able to see the top, gauge location and progress. But I was seriously worried we'd never find the snowshoes again. 20 yards and they were gone! I kept going, turning it all over in my mind. Should we turn back?

To make matters worse, I was feeling terrible! A little dizzy, nauseous, low-energy. Could this be AMS? Grizzled old Eck laid low by altitude? Strange. Never happened before. I decided to stop, hydrate, eat something --- and think. I sat on my pack, drank my entire remaining liter of water and ate gu gel and chocolates. Paul arrived and plopped down too. I was silent, thoughts to myself. Better to just rest and get some food/h2o on board before making decisions. We sat there for awhile until I happened to look up and see --- a patch of blue in the swirling mists! The weather had begun to break! We ate drank waited. Sure enough: in another 5 minutes Frank arrived and the sun was spotted through all over, the clouds lifting. I had guessed we were at 11200 in the fog, but now saw that we were actually much higher -- perhaps more like 11800 already. The summit ridge was only about 300 yards further up!

What's more, I started feeling TONS better --- it was the water, I knew it! So we saddled up, sprinted for the top. I stopped occasionally to snap cool pictures of clouds, terrain, and sun and the others on the ridge. At the summit I sat in the sun, got out my can of tuna and bagel. Paul joined me. We ate, BSed. Life was good: cold, but sunny and little wind. Frank made it a little later --- he was a trooper sticking with it even though he was clearly working hard due to altitude (He lives at like 1000ft in WA).

We relaxed a little, took some pics, but then the weather started coming down hard again. Time to get the hell off. With weather closing fast --- wind coming up --- we headed down. I moved quickly down the long summit ridge. The chill wind was so cold that it was freezing the snot in my nose. Aiiieee! I had parka and mitts on, but still feeling the cold, now that heat generation was lower on the way down. We cruised down to the snowshoes, having to follow tracks at this point because visibility was back to nothing. If it had been snowing and tracks were covered, we would have had to leave the snowshoes. As it was, we strapped snowshoes to packs to make better time for a bit over hard stuff into treeline.

At some point, the snow got soft and we strapped on the Sshoes. Paul and I romped down the mountain with much joy in the heart --- often just made new tracks -- so much easier to slide, poof and slide down through powder going down than up! Used the snowshoes for mini-skis! We stopped and regrouped a couple of times --- not a good time to lose a compadre with the weather coming down. Paul and I got ahead somewhat on the packed trail down lower --- we soon got bored with tramping this low-angle trail and just cut straight down through the woods --- woohoo! We cut the standard trail a couple of times --- saved tons of bland walking and enjoyed deep snow and jumping off logs --- and got back the truck in record time. Down at the parking lot, the weather was fine -- but looking up, the entire upper mountain was veiled in cloud. We lazed around till Frank showed up.

On the way home, it started rain sporadically, getting truly yucky. Just made it! We drove down and then decided to hit Crystal Creek for beers and sandwiches. Frank surprised us by buying --- a generous gesture of thanks for us breaking trail. Thanks Frank!

The whole thing took a good 5.5 hours car-to-car. 4 hard hours up, then just over an hour down. We had incredible weather karma --- just the opening we needed, and right at the crux moment, minutes before I was going to call a retreat. Awesome.

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