April 28, 2012

Third Time Is The Charm, Right? Probably…

So today we attempted to hike to the top of the world in Arizona, also known as Humphrey’s Peak. The trail head is located at one of the Arizona Snowbowl ski area parking lots, 14 miles outside of Flagstaff. To get there, you head north on highway 180 out of Flagstaff for 7 miles, then make a right turn on the Snowbowl Road, and drive 7 more miles until you arrive at the ski resort parking lots. Flagstaff is located at around 7,000 feet elevation, the 7 mile stretch you drive to get to the ski area gains another 2,000 feet, so you start the hike at just over 9,000 feet of elevation.

We’d driven to the trailhead yesterday, but were turned away because of the huge amount of snow we encountered at the trailhead.

The view we saw the first day
Today, armed with new hiking shoes and hiking poles, we arrived once more. The trail head view was drastically different from yesterday, all the snow had melted off, so we figured we were good to go. 

What we saw when we came back the next day
The Humphrey’s Peak trail is 4.7 miles long one way, and gains 3,333 feet in elevation. You are supposed to hike past the tree line, onto the ridge of the mountains, and then head over the tundra landscape to finally climb to the top. The first 3 miles were pretty tame. We hiked through tall Aspen trees, on a nice single track trail. We encountered mounds of snow pretty much right away, but they were all packed down, and didn’t cause too much trouble. On the first 3 miles we also saw 5 separate parties that were on their way down. We asked all of them if they’d been to the top, and all 5 said that the conditions further up the trail were too snowy and slick, and that they’d turned back early.
Small mounds of snow the first three miles
At just past 3 miles we started getting into heavier snow, and had to pause often to catch our breaths. We were hiking along when we ran into a man going the other way. He was running….in short shorts…and a t-shirt…and coming from the direction of the peak. We asked him if he’d made it to the top, and he said he was just out running the mountains, he had already traversed 12 miles, and had 9 more to go. WTF? After that, we felt like total pansies.

Awesome running man
Around 3.5 miles, the trail disappeared, and the only way the shoe prints we’d been following headed was straight up the mountain, through thigh high snow. We climbed through that snow for a good 50 feet before we found the trail again.

Where is the trail? Follow the footprints...
We continued on the trail for another half mile before the trail ended again. This was right around where the trees started thinning out, and the only way up to the ridge was to climb straight up through loose dirt and rocks, and occasional snow. We’d gotten to this point with two other hikers, and after conferring about what we should do next, we all decided to give it a go. There was absolutely no trace of a trail, we just climbed up and up and up, slipping and sliding on the loose footing. Finally, we reached the ridge, and when we found no evidence of the trail up there, we had no idea what to do next. To the right was what appeared to be the tallest peak around, to the left, there were a couple of trail heads, but they were 50 feet away through deep snow. We chose the path to the right, and our fellow hikers chose to turn back and go back down.

Hiking the ridge
After a bit we found footprints…of the guy who’d been out running the mountains. We recognized them from when we’d seen the distinctive shoe print pattern earlier. We followed his footprints over the ridge, around several large rocks, over a couple of peaks, and then walked out to the snow bowl. If you’ve ever been skiing, you’ll know what I’m talking about. It’s the area at the very top of the mountain where there are no trees, and its just a huge bowl on the side of the mountain that’s filled with super deep snow. If we’d had brought up our skiis, we probably would have had a blast skiing back down, but since we hadn’t, our only option was to traverse the snow bowl from one side to the other following the Running Man’s footsteps (he’d come from the other direction).

Around the corner from the snow bowl
This was a very grueling and taxing task. For every two good solid steps we took, we’d take one and sink down in the snow all the way up to our hips. It was also a bit creepy to cross in the middle of all that snow across the mountain…all I could think about was how do avalanches happen?

If you look closely, you can see our footsteps through the snow bowl.
When we got to the other side, feet soaking, we were presented with an ugly sign saying that the trail further on was closed, no trespassing. WHAT?? Do you mean we just climbed to the tippy top this f’n  mountain for nothing? I almost started crying. We sat down, ate our packed lunch, fed the pups their treats and then turned back to head down the mountain. I have to say, I was completely demoralized. I’d also lost some of the spring in my step that had been there from the anticipation of climbing to the top.

When we got back to the point where the other two hikers had decided to turn back, we decided to hike those 50 extra feet and see what was on the trail head markers. What do you know…Humphrey’s Peak was the complete opposite direction of where we’d hiked off to. We’d gone the Weatherford trail..that lead to the Snow Bowl… no kidding. By then we were so tired of hiking and snow and everything, that we had no more gusto to finish the hike to the top. We slid down the dirt mountain, hiked the snow mounds, then slid down the snow mountain, and finished out the rest of the trail back down.

At the bottom, we ran into an elderly couple who was signing out on the trail record books. We asked them if they’d made it to the top, and they had. They’s started at 8:20 that morning, and were finally done at 5:30. We asked them how much further it would have been had we had gone the right way and they said it was another .75 miles, with three false peaks that you hike over before you get to the top. After hearing that we figured we’d made the right decision.

Now we’re sitting here, with our feet hitched up, having eaten about 3 meals worth of food. Sammy and Chloe are passed out. We fed them extra-large portions tonight, with milk and eggs for extra calories. We've decided to stay another night in the Coconino Forest at our free dispersed camping spot. We’ll probably be asleep by dark.

Sky and Sam took a nap while I warmed up dinner
They say third time’s the charm..but I don’t think we’ll be attempting Humphrey’s Peak in the morning. We plan to hit the road for the Grand Canyon, and save this hike for another day.

To see more pictures of the hike, click here.

Happy Snow Mountain Exploring,


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  1. I did that hike in early June (I think) and there was a hellalot of snow and ice up there. To the point where I put on my microspikes. It was also ridiculously windy. Impressive job getting as far as you did!

    1. Did you see the views of Grand Canyon? I heard you're supposed to be able to see it clearly from the top! :o)