Humphreys Winter Ascent, 2004

Mt. Humphreys, the highest point in Arizona at 12,633 feet, is a popular summer destination for hikers all around the state. Even in the summer, the climb is strenuous with a 3100' elevation gain over 4+ miles. A winter ascent is somewhat more difficult due to snow conditions and the need to haul the additional weight of equipment and clothing needed for safety and snow travel.

Jeff Novacek and I (Dave Wyant) decided to give it a try. The mountain had received some new snow over the last few weeks so we knew that there would be powder, however, snow accumulation was not abundant and we did not expect unmanageable conditions. We arrived at the Arizona SnowBowl parking lot at 7:00am on a clear, 15 degree morning. The wind was light and the weather was generally mild in spite of the chill. In 15 minutes we were loaded up and on our way.

Our route would take us directly up the main ski run on Mt. Agassiz as high as feasible before diving off on a cross-country route toward the mountain's ridgeline. The ski run was the best way to make time since the slope was groomed and, although steep, provided easy walking. We knew from past experience that attempting to make the summit by following the main hiking trail through the forest would likely result in exhaustion and defeat. Snow conditions along the trail could be deep and incredibly tiring, even with snowshoes. And the trail could easily be lost. The ski run was the easy way to go and provided the best chance of success.

Up the ski run

A frosty morning

Sunshine and snow

Within 1-1/2 hours, we were high on the ski run and ready to head cross-country toward the mountain's main ridge. This would be the most difficult part of the climb since it is very steep and can include deep snow and hard going. Although the slope was indeed steep and laborious, the snow conditions were not severe on this day. Nevertheless, it took us longer than expected to finally gain the ridge due to the need for frequent rest stops. Once on the ridge, a short easy stroll brought us to the familiar landmark of "the saddle" that separates the prominent peaks of Agassiz and Humphreys.

The hard work was not yet over. The mile from the saddle to the summit is well known to be the hardest part of a summer climb. We knew that it would be equally difficult in winter conditions, if not more so. A typical saddle-to-summit time in the summer can be 30 minutes or less, but today this portion of the journey would take over 3 times that long. Being already tired, we stopped many times along the way to give our weary legs a rest. Finally, at 1pm we arrived at our goal... the summit of Mt. Humphreys.

The upper bowl

Along the ridgeline

Windblown sign

Weather conditions were surprisingly mild for winter at 12,633'. It was almost balmy when we arrived. The temperature was somewhere between 15-25 degrees and the wind was light. The sun was out and we were warm. Life at the top never seemed so good. After photos, food, drink and a much needed rest, we were ready to head back down. A light snow cloud moved in, filtering the sun and robbing us of some of the warmth. We were ready to move again.


Summit views

Life at the top

The trip down was much easier and faster. After following the ridgeline back almost to the saddle, we opted to make a beeline straight down a steep slope toward the ski run. Snow conditions were good for most of the way, but became quite deep in places. Eventually we reached the ski run and enjoyed an easy 30 minute stroll back to the Agassiz Lodge and our vehicle. We were tired and it felt good to be done... and it felt good to have made it to the summit when that is never guaranteed. Although the effort was high, the rewards of a winter ascent are equally high.

Snow cloud

The descent

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