Humphreys Peak is a 12,633-foot (3,851-meter) peak located in the San Francisco Volcanic Field of northern Arizona. It is the highest point on the scoured remains of the now-extinct San Francisco volcano. It also carries the distinction of being the highest point in Arizona, as well as the southernmost mountain rising above 12,000 feet in the United States.
The summit of Humphreys Peak is easily reached by its namesake trail on the west flank of the mountain, but this route is rather pedestrian. Approaches from alternate sides typically require cross-country travel across a surprisingly extensive realm of alpine terrain. In this sense, the most prized mountaineering goal in the San Francisco Peaks is the full traverse of all six major peaks along the crest. This excursion begins and ends at Lockett Meadow in the Inner Basin, passing over the summit of Humphreys Peak at roughly the midway point along the ridge.
SUMMARY: I climbed this mountain with Giselle in early October of the year 2015. We had been waiting for a free day to attempt the San Francisco Peaks traverse; when that day came, the weather was less than favorable. Starting just past dawn at Lockett Meadow, we hiked for two miles into the Inner Basin before turning north to scramble up to the main ridge. Under rapidly deteriorating weather conditions, the two of us followed the windswept crest over Rees Peak and Aubineau Peak. By the time we reached Humphreys Peak, steady gale-force winds were bombarding our poor faces with pellets of ice. The sight of snow accumulating on the ground caused us to make the decision to abandon the traverse mission. We descended back to the trailhead by the 4-mile Inner Basin trail.
4 October, 2015
Giselle and I awake just before dawn to gather our things and drive twenty minutes from our home in Flagstaff to the Inner Basin of the San Francisco Peaks. The air feels surprisingly brisk at Lockett Meadow trailhead, and we instantly come to the realization that we have failed to bring appropriate clothing for this autumn excursion.
Later in the day, this area is likely to be infested with Arizonans coming to take family photos with the aspen trees, whose leaves transform to a brilliant golden color during this time of year. But at this early hour, it feels like we have the whole magical kingdom to ourselves. The slopes of the Inner Basin are positively bursting with intense hues of yellow and green.
Following the Inner Basin trail for two miles brings us to the junction with Bear Jaw Canyon dirt road. We turn north along this road and continue until we find a suitable spot to start scrambling up to the main crest.
Rees Peak is our first objective on the traverse. Its rounded, pine-covered summit looms 2,000 vertical feet above us.
Eventually we locate a faint climbers’ trail that ascends the southwest slopes of Rees Peak in most direct fashion. We clamber up the steep mountainside, grasping roots and boulders in order to pull higher. Giselle coins the phrase “the never-ending hill” to describe our ascent of Rees Peak.
In reality it takes us a little over an hour to reach the 11,474-foot summit of Rees Peak. In doing so, we gain our first full aerial view of the San Francisco Peaks… and it does not look promising. Thick rainclouds swirl and dip almost right down to the depths of the Inner Basin, completely obscuring even the slightest hint of the taller peaks before us.
Thankfully we are able duck beneath the grey ceiling and look north out to the Colorado Plateau, dotted with volcanic cinder cones and red-rock outcrops.
As we’re standing on the 11,474′ summit of Rees Peak, the clouds clear just enough to reveal the pointed top of Aubineau Peak. The summit is guarded by vertical cliffs on the south side (a sight which is rather impressive from the bottom of the Inner Basin), but by a much milder slope on the east aspect.
We descend 300 vertical feet to Rees Saddle (11,200′), bringing us face-to-face with the dreaded 500 foot climb up the east slope of Aubineau Peak.
The climb of Aubineau Peak is not as grueling as anticipated, but when we get above the treeline, the full brunt of the rainstorm slams into us. It takes a great deal of effort to not allow ourselves to be blown clear off the exposed peak, and even more effort to continue forward motion along the ridge.
The entire ridge from Aubineau Peak to Humphreys Peak is decidedly alpine in nature, lacking tall trees to block the wind, and thus exposing our bodies to the fierce elements. As the temperature drops to near-freezing, pellets of hail begin to bombard the left sides of our faces. There is no relief from the storm on such an exposed crest.
We march along the crest with our heads tucked deep into our jackets, trying desperately to save our poor faces from the damp, frigid wind. Occasionally we are forced to stop and bury ourselves into crevices between boulders in order to catch our breath.
The final portion of ascent up to the summit of Humphreys Peak constitutes some 900 vertical feet of class-2 talus scrambling. This is arguably the most difficult section of the traverse, made absolutely torturous by the relentless storm pounding our left sides.
The two of us literally collapse upon reaching the 12,633-foot summit of Humphreys Peak. The celebration of reaching the roof of Arizona is dampened (pun intended) by our near-hypothermic states. Besides being soaked to the bone, we can barely manage to stand ourselves up against the sideways-gone snow flurries.
Our time at the summit of Humphreys Peak amounts to somewhat of a blur because we are so determined to get down. The upcoming section of the ridge is the only section of the Peaks traverse that utilizes a trail, so we take advantage of the speedy mode of descent. The storm ramps up to a total blizzard, coating the ground with a dusting of white flurries. Conditions are so miserable that we rarely stop to even lift our heads.
We momentarily dip below the snowline at the 12,000′ saddle between Humphreys Peak and Agassiz Peak. The wind howls as strongly as ever, tearing my cheap poncho to shreds and pummeling our bodies with bullets of sharp ice.
Here at the saddle is our best option to escape the ridge; we take inventory of our mental and physical states. Despite being more motivated than ever to complete the traverse, the ugly truth is that our hands are frozen beyond the point of functioning. I stubbornly insist upon continuing the traverse, but Giselle makes the prudent decision for us to escape from the ridge and thus abandon the mission. No reason to argue there; we scramble around the north slopes of Agassiz Peak and join the usually-scenic Weatherford Trail to the junction with the Inner Basin Trail.
The Inner Basin trail leads us steeply down 2,000 vertical feet to the floor of the Inner Basin, where heavy raindrops pelt the fragile aspen leaves.
A much-needed refreshment presents itself in the form of a small wooden shelter at 9,792-feet in the Inner Basin. Protected from the storm, we try to warm our bones with a pot of hot tea.
Peeking our heads out of the shelter, we see that the storm is nowhere near finished with the upper peaks. We commend ourselves in making the wise decision to abort the traverse.
It’s a mere 2 miles along the main trail from the shelter back to the Lockett Meadow trailhead. Rainfall has served to saturate the magnificent coloration given by the aspen forest.
We make it back to the vehicle at 4:00pm, closing out a 10-hour saga on the mountain. We strip off our sopping wet clothes and crank the seat heaters. It takes almost half an hour for our hands to thaw out and resume their functioning capabilities again.
We can’t help but shudder when glancing up at the peaks from Lockett Meadow. The high country is totally obscured by dark grey clouds, which doubtlessly continue to bombard the alpine terrain with the season’s first snowfall.