Date: October 15, 2016
Distance: 9 miles round trip via Humphreys Peak Trail (or is it longer? Keep reading)
Elevation: 12,635 feet
Vertical gain: 3,500 feet
Bathrooms: Port-a-johns near the trailhead
Time: 8 hours, including 30 minutes at the summit
You’ve probably read mixed reviews about what it’s like to climb Humphreys Peak. Some describe it as the hardest mountain they’ve ever attempted, which may be true if those reviewers exclusively stick to easy terrain; others cavalierly suggest that any out of shape fool can scrape themselves off their couch and saunter their way to the summit if they just give themselves an extra hour or two.
Put both of those extremes out of your mind. While it may be technically possible to go directly from your couch without any physical conditioning to the summit, I don’t recommend it. You’ll be flat out miserable the entire way and probably would never feel the lure of another mountain, which would be a shame. Likewise, many mountains, especially those out West, are tougher. If you’re accustomed to strenuous day hikes at high altitude, this mountain is perfectly achievable. Don’t let the haters get in your head.
Our journey began peacefully during morning civil twilight, as we joined only four other cars in the parking lot, all of which were empty. We exchanged good mornings with a photographer who was poised with his tripod, ready to capture the sunrise over the turning Aspen. The sunrise was nothing short of exquisite – truly worth an early morning autumn rise just for the view. After passing the photographer, though, we didn’t see another soul for a few hours.
Early on, the trail was dotted with gorgeous fallen Aspen leaves. The terrain starts pretty soft on the knees, and gradually becomes a bit rockier with elevation gain. Below the tree line, hikers benefit from a great deal of shade and shelter. Once above the tree line, all bets are off.
Near the tree line, we began bumping into climbers on their way down, each of whom offered commentary. My favorites came from two different solo hikers, one in his mid-thirties; the other in his mid-sixties. I’ll leave it up to you to decide who said what.
The summit is cold as F#$@!”
What started as a nice walk in the woods, sure went to hell pretty quickly.”
Shortly after this insight, we passed a couple on their way down. In reply to my inquiry about the upper mountain conditions, they talked of how they turned around just shy of the summit in the face of 80 mph winds. They went on to tell us about how they crawled their way down much of the final mile between the summit and the saddle so they wouldn’t blow off the mountain. This was their second failed attempt on Humphreys. Hopefully they have better luck on attempt #3.
With the wind picking up already, this intel started messing with my head. Maybe we should just turn around too? But, as with every tougher mountain, an animal instinct took over and we carried on.
Turns out, the reports about being cold and windy once we hit the saddle were spot on. We layered our softshell jackets each with a puffy jacket, winter hat, buff, and gloves. We needed all of it. The winds did not feel like 80 mph, as described by the couple. That would have required using all of my strength leaning into the wind to keep moving, which wasn’t the case. But, the winds were strong enough to knock me into a boulder every so often. On a couple of notable gusts, I had no other option but to brace through the impact before I could continue on. One man who was climbing Humphreys for the second time (first was 21 years to the day) had a wind gauge with readings of 50 mph. This number seemed much more in line with our experience.
Adding to the mental games high up on the mountain, like everyone else will tell you, this is the mountain of false summits. Many say three and that’s probably true. I’m guessing I lost count, because I thought I’d already counted three and felt certain the next visual mark was the highpoint. It was nothing short of deflating to round yet another corner and discover an even higher point several hundred yards in the distance.
At one point, I separated from my husband, thinking I should just carry on alone since he might not make the summit. Then, I realized he had my phone. I couldn’t go through all the effort and not capture this on film. So, I found a large rock that offered a touch of protection from the wind, and hunkered down until he came around the corner. He apparently tapped into his animal drive too in his time alone because, arms spread, he began shouting at the mountain things like, “Come on! Is this all you’ve GOT?!”
At the summit, we generated excitement when I pulled a fresh register out of my pack. In the ammo box were a few stray scraps of paper with names on them, but no book. I also carried up a bag full of Highpointers brochures, courtesy of the Highpointers Foundation. If there are any left when you reach the summit, enjoy it. If none remain and you’d like a copy, let me know.
The trip down was largely the trip up in reverse. We spent an hour each way battling gale force winds between the summit and the saddle. On a non-windy day, it would take half that time. Overall, the descent took nearly as long as the ascent.
Beware the Circus at the Bottom
The bottom, which had been silent when we began early morning, was now a jam-packed circus. Hundreds of people dressed in tank tops and shorts had woken up to overflow the parking lot, inventing non-spaces. They sucked up valuable real estate on the trail so they could snap family photos among the changing Aspen. The final few hundred yards took about 20 minutes to navigate – not because of terrain difficulty or fatigue, but because everyone in the state of Arizona had seemingly scraped themselves off their couches and colluded to block the path of hikers who needed to pass through. I’ve never seen any mountain or highpoint look as though it was offering an early Black Friday deal at the trailhead. Having just completed a strenuous mountain, the overcrowding was utterly jarring.
Hopefully being aware of what you might discover at the base will adequately prepare your level of patience. Or, perhaps you might consider a spring or summer climb as an alternative. More food for thought – a fellow highpointer friend attempted Humphreys one winter and lost the trail for several hours in the snow cover. While the trail is easy to follow when clear, I can see how it would be indistinguishable through snow. Be sure to plan accordingly.
Is Humphreys Peak Longer Than 9 Miles?
I’m pretty sure it is. Wildly variant descriptions of the hike aside, I strongly question the reported distance of 9 miles round trip. Maybe it is, but that just doesn’t match up with my step count or pace. For comparison purposes, climbing Mt. Whitney (22 miles), my fitbit registered 66,000 steps. Mt. Marcy (15 miles), I got 45,000. No matter the mountain, I get roughly 3,000 steps/mile when hiking. On Humphreys, I logged 33,000 steps, which would put the hike at what it felt like: 11 miles.
Not only that, but I tend to keep a 2 mph pace on strenuous mountains that have a relatively clear path. The final mile from the saddle to the summit took one hour each way due to high winds. Removing those two hours and miles from the equation along with the time at the summit and the time battling crowds near the trailhead puts me pretty close to my normal pace. Maybe this route is not quite 11 miles, but I’m convinced Humphreys Peak through all of its switchbacks is longer than 9 miles. Totally cool if someone disproves my gut instinct – I welcome commentary.
Staying in Flagstaff and interested in some fantastic local beer? Try Mother Road – it has a nice brewery feel, the bartenders are awesome, and at night, they serve pizza from the adjacent restaurant. We started out at Mother Road, then walked around Flagstaff sampling other local brews. In the end, we came back to what we agree is the best beer in town and friendly bartenders who remembered our favorite orders. Plus, you may even score some fun stickers.