Finding Winter & History on Mt. Humphrey’s in Flagstaff Arizona

Finding Winter…

This is a coming of age story about a chick who is addicted to the climb.  You may know her well or have just recently become involved with her.  Either way this is a great place to enter this circuitous journey.

A month ago a challenge was presented.  One that during my health troubles would have been the furthest from my reach and most unfathomable.  At one time in my life winter was unbearable for me.  My metabolism was running so slow due to undiagnosed hypothyroidism.  I could barely go outside without shivering if it was below 70 degrees.  I avoided the snow, cold, beauty and blustery tempests of winter unless it was from sitting indoors peering out a window.  Even that would make me quiver.

Once I regained control of my health one of the first items on my agenda was to get baptized in all that encompasses the harsh, humbling, rawness of winter.  This was the one season I had yet to fully explore and experience.

Since then those gravel grey, tomb like, mysteriously silent skies along with the powdery skull white snow, the unforgiving wind and bitter cold seeps into my skin and leaves me trembling for more.

I was chosen by Mountain Hardware to share my winter adventures with them while wearing their gear.  Mountain Hardware is the company I know very well as a mountaineer.  One of my favorite authors, one of the most respected mountaineers of all time, Ed Veisturs was their first sponsored athlete.  The tent I slept in night after night on Kilimanjaro was a Mountain Hardware tent.  For me MH is at the pinnacle of high altitude mountaineering.  The gear they make is incredibly legitimate however their philosophy is something I deeply connect with.

 

We believe in boldness, in the rush of life that comes when you throw your weight forward and lunge for the goal that’s just out of reach.

We believe in bonds between friends, the connections that come from shared hardship, enjoyment and awe.

We think that the magnificence of the outdoors is magnified when it’s shared.

We believe in joy, in the grin on your face and yell in your throat when you’re living life fully, when self-awareness disappears into seamless thought, action and enjoyment.

We believe that everything can be better, that what you are now is just a fraction of what you’re meant to be.

– Mountain Hardware

 

 

It was inevitably my turn to share.  When pondering how, where and when I couldn’t think of a better place to showcase winter than my beloved home state of Arizona.

When people imagine winter and Arizona they picture our 70-80 degree sun drenched skies, baseball spring training, sunflower seeds, cold beer, golf courses, sunburns and all the flocking snowbirds in RV’s.

I knew better.  I also knew I would need to call in a couple of very experienced mountaineers to be part of this expedition.  Chris aka The Last Adventurer who you may know as the host from the podcast I have co-hosted called In Ice Axe We Trust drove in from San Diego – of course he can’t resist a sub zero high altitude adventure!

I also learned that John aka Moosefish who is an expert in snow, avalanche conditions, and overall mountaineering would be in Phoenix visiting his in-laws.  This was an excellent excuse for him to join us.

Along with these two veterans I had one of my favorite adventure buddies Jon along for the schooling these two were throwing down.

 

 

Humphrey's

Photo: Moosefish

Only 2 hours north of Phoenix we have a 12,635 foot tall once volcanic beastly mountain with the only section of Tundra in the state.  The tallest peak on this collapsed volcano is Mt. Humphrey’s.  I know her well.  I have spent many days riding my snowboard down her smaller 12,365 foot tall peak Agassiz at Snowbowl Resort.

I have also summited her highest peak via Humphrey’s trail, a 9 mile and 3400 foot climb 5 different times in the summer months.  This is a difficult task regardless of season.  Add winter to this and the warm, sunny, spring training ballgames going on 2 hours south vividly demonstrate just how different of a ballgame this was going to be.

 

 

HWDstart

Photo: Jon Lewis

We slept at the trailhead the night prior and began our trek up the mountain by 7:30am.  As expected there were many different moody weather forecasts that were capable of changing hour by hour.  The morning was giving us those cadaverous grey and spooky skies.

 

 

 

 

HWDrockquarry Photo: Jon Lewis

The most recent snowfall reported 20 inches since the last time someone climbed to the crest.  We were able to follow the proper summer trail for the first hour then suddenly it was no longer visible.  I knew the summer trail well however with 20 inches of skull white snow on it was unrecognizable, like a face that had been stripped of its skin.

We noticed some Tibetan prayer flags at the entrance to this rock quarry.  We weren’t sure if it was a sign that this was the way to the summit for the winter route, or it was soliciting a prayer for anyone who chose to continue on.

 

 

 

IMG_9543

We continued across this rock slide quarry as it was the most direct route to the summit.  We fought through this with stiff limbs and chilblained feet for well over an hour.

 

 

 

medeepsnow

Photo: Jon Lewis

We continued on though this waist deep suffocating drift as John and Chris took turns of the exasperating task of probing and cutting trail.  John was quietly cursing himself for not bringing one item he was almost insistent upon.. snowshoes!  The predictions from the rangers and others along the way assured that they were not a necessity.  He brought them all the way to Phoenix from Seattle but did not bring them the 2 hours drive north to Flagstaff.  Lesson #1… always trust your gut and BRING the snowshoes!

We really started to feel the constricting, time consuming snow attempting to smother our chances of a summit bid.  We had a turnaround time and we were quickly loosing our battle to the boa constrictor strangling our legs.

John was up front when he suddenly yelled “I see something SHINY!!” I immediately jumped up from the sifling snow and piped in through my chattering teeth… I knew what he was seeing and I have been wanting to see this for YEARS.

 

 

 

IMG_9550

It was the elusive B-24 Bomber Liberator wreckage from WWII in 1944.  This wreckage is very difficult to locate and not advertized.  It incredibly still has many parts in-tact and serves as a memorial to the 12 men who lost their lives when the plane crashed into the side of the mountain.  5 different planes shared the same fate on this mountain range during WWII.

 

 

 

IMG_9549

We couldn’t believe our eyes.  It was the morale booster we all desperately needed.  The carnage was so well maintained and strewn down hundreds of feet of this frozen slope.  It gave me a chill- much different than the one winter cold at 10,000 feet gave me.

 

 

 

IMG_9551

We pondered the sheer fortune we had finding this treasure.  We all stopped chattering our teeth and began chatter about our upcoming and now in sight summit bid.

 

 

 

 

IMG_9552

We only saw half of the story with the snow blanket cuddling the rest of the wreckage.  It was a sight a select few have seen.

 

 

 

 

IMG_9558 Photo: Last Adventurer

For the full story on the wreckage this article provides a thorough account of the events that lead to this incredible museum at 11,000 feet.

 

 

 

 

HWA10 Photo: Last Adventurer

With our fascination in full fury we began our climb on the upper crystalline white snow.  We paid the fee for the honor of viewing the wreckage site with the currency of the exhausting waist high snow below.  Now we had the upper crest payment due in full for the next viewing.

 

 

 

HWDcramponup Photo: Jon Lewis

The moment that begins the quintessential mountaineer experience.  Crampon point.  From here we were headed strait up the walls of squall beaten snow to sub zero high altitude climbing.

I was given a lesson on self arrest techniques- it was imperative I passed before we could continue on.  No better place show I am a quick learner than 12,000 feet up the side of a ice and snow saturated mountain.

 

 

 

 

HWA1 Photo: Last Adventurer 

We had a conversation about our turnaround time, the weather, the conditions, all those important details that are associated with high altitude climbs.  We saw our opportunity, our summit bid.  With the constant thought in mind… In Ice Axe We Trust… we continued our climb.

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_9554

Perched almost 12,000 feet up using every one of your sore, stiff, frozen muscles, your oxygen leached lung power, harnessing your gnarly grit and downright determination you are forced often to take a moment to catch your breath and a glance of what all this suffering is for.

 

 

 

ridgestartme Photo: Moosefish

With Chris and John cutting crampon step by step we eventually stepped on to the final ridge to the summit.  We could see the final line of our climb.

 

 

 

ridge3me

Photo: Moosefish

The battering winds were at our backs and our gear was on guard from the 40mph gusts that beat us up and taunted us during each of the 3 false summits we passed.

Painfully each foot behind the other begging to stop.  When you give in to the begging something else quickly  screams at you, the sub zero temperature of -4 degrees whips you to KEEP GOING.

Once again the painful asphyxiated voice in your right mind begs you to stop, to turn around, the misery of it all is too much to bear.  Then you take a glance back at the friends you have suffering along with you and the views from this white zombie ridge silently whispering… keep going…

 

 

 

pano

Photo: Moosefish

Finally you are given what you want.  You get to stop – you made it.  You are there.  All you have wanted to this point was to stop, for a break, a stall in the madness.  You are given this gift.  The first thing I wanted to do with it was give it back.  -4 at 12,635 feet is indescribable.  It is colder than any other -4 you have ever felt.  We each took our earned shots of the costly summit views and immediately began our descent back down the ridge.

 

 

 

desentme

Photo: Moosefish

The winds were now needling us in the face, smothering us of oxygen.  This is when your gear is put to the full test.  The moist, frigid snow holds no comparison to the lacerating sub zero winds that can slice you in half.  Keeping these forces from penetrating your skin allows us humans to experience something that isn’t meant for mortals.  Views like this.

 

 

 

decent

We made it back to the saddle safely.  We went from one extreme to the next.  We had 3.5 miles to descend down this mountain and by now the temperature below 10,500 feet had risen to 40 degrees while the sun beat down on the now slushy whey colored snow.  Our solid earth was melting like butter in a hot pan below us.

After trying to make a sure footed and graceful exit with the snow below us turning into fluid we got to experience another phenomenon of winter… watersliding!  We sat with our legs extended, using our ice axes’ to control our speed and slid down the melting slushy snow for first mile of the descent until we could find solid ground.  From there we quietly continued to the safety of the trailhead.

I had 2.5 miles to think about the friends I had in tow and marinade in this serendipitous quote I had in my mind:

 

We believe in bonds between friends, the connections that come from shared hardship, enjoyment and awe.

We think that the magnificence of the outdoors is magnified when it’s shared.

– Mountain Hardware

 

So much gratitude to my fellow adventurers, friends, supporters and of course my family for understanding and encouraging the boldness that is me.

Until next time…

Leave a Reply