GETTING HIGH & SOMETIMES LOW: Humphreys Peak, AZ – 2/26/22 & 6/4/22
This is the second of our Getting High Series where hiker and outdoor enthusiast Michael Putnam aka Putty (our first sponsored adventurer) documents his journey of bagging the highest peak for each of the 50 United States.
When you fail at something, you have a few key choices you can make:
- Give up
- Learn from it and apply it elsewhere
- Go back to what you failed at and do it again…and sometimes again, and again…
On February 26, 2022, my wife, Jayme, and I set out to do a winter ascent of Humphreys Peak, just outside of Flagstaff, AZ. Now, when most people think of Arizona, they think of heat. And they’re not wrong. When we landed in Phoenix the day before our attempt the temps had already begun reaching into the mid-70’s, well short of the 110+ they hit in the summer, though a far cry from what you will experience in the higher elevations in the winter.
In less than 3 hours and about 150 miles later, the temps were hovering in the low 20’s in Flagstaff, ultimately reaching a low of 12 degrees the following early morning. By the time we reached the trail head at the parking lot of Arizona Snowbowl Ski Resort at 5am, the temp was a balmy zero degrees Fahrenheit.
We bundled up and began the 10.4 mile trek that includes nearly 3,500’ in vert, and at this time, snow pack from one foot to six feet in depth. It was a great hike, until I made a dumb decision that would ultimately end our chances of reaching the summit.
When there’s snow on the ground and you still have miles to go, leaving behind gear you think you won’t need isn’t advised. I should have taken my own advice. At about mile 2.5 the snow pack on the trail was decent and our snowshoes, while helpful, weren’t ‘necessary’. Or so I thought.
Within 5 minutes of the decision to leave my snowshoes under a tree, I led us off-trail accidentally, and per my usual, we forged ahead rather than returning to the point we lost the trail.
“If we just keep going this way, we will connect with it in a half mile or so!” Smart.
It took nearly 90 minutes to go less than the next quarter mile. Post-holing up to my chest as my wife rode smoothly across the top of the snow on the snowshoes she continued to have strapped to her boots.
The point at which I really thought the goal was lost (I had felt it might be already) was when a pair strode by us on back country skis and the man said, “You’re burly for doing this without snowshoes.”
The part that solidified it for me was when my wife, who had gone ahead and crossed paths with the same pair, came back and told me of their conversation. Apparently, they told her they’d been on this part of the mountain many times before, there was much to go, and that I would never make it.
End of summit bid. Beginning of regret for decision. Ok, maybe not the beginning of it, though most definitely the high point.
We made our way down and while bummed, it was still an enjoyable time with the person I love the most. And I vowed before we made it to the car that I would return and touch the top, whether it took months or years.
It took exactly 98 days.
In my travels for work, I do my best to schedule a day at the front or back of the trip to do something for me, something I enjoy. Work brought me back to Phoenix June 1-3, 2022 and it was decided that Humphreys Peak would again have me on its trails on June 4.
This time I was joined by my business partner, John May, an active, fit 53 year-old, though one with little hiking experience, at least on a mountain of this size. I’ll forever respect him for committing to the trip and giving it his all. It was inspiring and fun to watch and be a part of.
On the trail at 5am yet again, I couldn’t help but feel a small sense of anxiety. I’ve hiked/climbed bigger, tougher mountains before, though that February memory still resided right in the front of my mind.
The weather and temps were drastically different, as to be expected, this time around. Gone was the snow, sub-freezing temps, and freezing wind. Instead, we had temps in the low-40’s, additional sunlight, and a nice, cool breeze.
The hike from the trailhead to about 11,000’ is moderately difficult at times, with plenty of forest cover, and the occasional view of the valley south of the mountain. We made sure to stop and take it in, as it was John’s first time at this elevation by foot and it’s too easy to forget to appreciate the journey. So we stopped every mile or so and made the most of the moments.
Once you rise above the tree-line the terrain gets markedly more difficult. Steeper, rockier, and a good amount of high-stepping to move through the larger rock sections that become more and more frequent.
The saddle between Humphreys Peak and Agassiz Peak (12,356’) sits at around 11,500’ and provides a perfect resting spot with fantastic views and a decision to make. It’s a popular spot for hikers to stop, eat, drink, and call it good. Anecdotally, about 50% of the people that made it to this spot continued on toward their chosen peak.
After a short break, we continued on. The trail now gets even steeper and you go from Class 2 to Class 2/3, coupled with loose scree and lava rock and talus.
Breaks occurred more often, steps became slower. And just when we thought we were turning the corner for the final push to the top, we realized we were a false summit short and had about .5-.6 miles and 500’ of gain left. That took the wind out of my friend’s sails a bit (and perhaps mine a bit too), though we soldiered on.
Unfortunately, a handful of minutes later, John was forced into making the decision to call his current point as his high point. The energy to go up was just not there, at least not enough to get there and then back to the car in the time needed. Planes don’t wait for hikers and I needed to get home to my family that day. John pushed me to keep going and I took that encouragement and went.
I was able to charge the last .3 miles and make it to the top. I lingered for only a few minutes, met an East Coast adventurer who was traveling across the West and experiencing what it has to offer. A great conversation ensued and we wished each other well after being each other’s photographer for a few pics.
John and I met just below where we had previously parted and began our descent together. Time flew. We made good time.
As we approached the vehicle, I texted my wife a picture of the mountain and a , to which she replied, “Looks like a lot more fun than when we went!” I’m pretty sure our next big hike together will be after the snow melts.
John was down on himself a little. So I reminded him of how much he had just done and that the mountain will be there when he’s ready to give it another go. He vowed to return, just as I had done, and I’m confident he’ll get there. And I’ll be there with him, either physically or in spirit, to celebrate.
Top 3 Hacks for this hike/climb:
1. Winds are oft present at the top, bring something to break them, especially in winter, spring, and late fall
2. Stop at the saddle and enjoy the flat and views!
3. You can camp all the way up to 11,000’ or 11,500’ (there’s a sign), so you could easily tag Humphreys Peak and some of the offshoot trails in two days and have a nice base camp to at mile 4 of the trek
Btw, this was 10 of 50+DC