Western Provocation – Part 1 of 3
On the gorgeous drive from sun bathed Phoenix up I-17 north, still about 40 minutes from Flagstaff, our inadequate rental Ford Taurus rounded yet another bend in the highway and there, unmistakable on the horizon, lay the hulking snow-covered shoulders of the San Francisco Mountains.
Approaching the San Francisco Mountains from the south
Primarily comprised of a series of five 10,000+ foot peaks, the San Francisco Mountains aren’t too much to get excited about or nervous over. In the scheme of real mountaineering - that of far off glacier-laden, perpetually snow-covered, and unfathomably treacherous 8,000 meter (26,000+ feet) peaks - the San Francisco Mountains of northern Arizona are but a hiccup, mites on a plum, a laughable and leisurely day-hiker’s destination. So if you’re a seasoned mountaineer with a satchel of credible summits under your belt, stop reading now lest you be doubled over with laughter and pity. Humphrey’s Peak, my intended quarry, is after all only the 12th highest of the U.S. high points at a meager 12,633 feet.
On a typical Arizona summer day the trek to the top is a strenuous day hike at best; done by adults, kids, dogs, grandparents and the like with only a modicum of difficulty. On February 19th, however, I found it to be a slightly different experience.
The San Francisco Mountains rise abruptly
above the Coconino plateau just an hour’s drive southeast from
the Grand Canyon and mighty Colorado River. From the east the range
presents itself with similar starkness, broken only by the giant Sunset
Crater and its innumerable associated volcanic craters and calderas,
left behind by the same ancient deep crust outbursts that created the
mountains themselves. Besides providing spectacular scenery both on
the peaks and in their shadows, the abruptness and relative isolation
of the San Francisco Mountains makes for famously howling and unabating
winds. The closest mountain ranges of any comparable size are hundreds
of miles away, and to the east and northwest at that - leaving little
to nothing in the way of the strong high altitude westerly winds blowing
in from the California coast. Even in the calm of the aforementioned
‘typical Arizona summer day’ at 9,000 feet elevation, with
temps usually hovering in the mid eighties, the summit’s weather
will typically be characterized by 40+ mph winds and sub-freezing temperatures.
A stark contrast indeed, and an even more intimidating prospect on a
typical Arizona winter day.
Despite some clueless Snowbowl employees, from whom we were attempting to glean our backcountry permits, we set off across the slopes more or less on schedule. We never actually got said permits due to the aforementioned helpless-to-anything-but-skiing-questions quality of the kids working the lodge for free slope time, but the permits there are really a formality that serve two purposes; to inform hikers of the potential danger posed by regional avalanches, and to inform the ski area of your itinerary in case of emergency. So we parked, checked the readiness and contents of our packs for the millionth time, and gladly left the crappy rental Taurus behind.
Through an interesting mix of curious, envious, and bewildered looks we hiked across the lower bunny slopes of the Snowbowl, towards the border and entrance to the Kachina Peaks Wilderness. A few of the ski instructors interrupted to excitedly query us about our agenda, but after twenty minutes or so we crossed under the ski lifts, then the boundary ropes, and left the swirling society of skiers behind.
This is where the real hiking, although more accurately described as trudging, began. A multi-tiered hodge-podge of snowshoe, cross-country ski, and boot tracks made up the trail from the wilderness boundary onward and progress was tedious to say the least.
I tried a number of tactics to combat the inconsistency of the snow; step on the boot tracks, step between the boot tracks, step on the snowshoe tracks, step off, etc. This did nothing for consistency or steadiness of pace and instead seemed to only serve to identify a surprising variety of ways to stumble, trip, and sink in up to the knee or higher in snow. Aimee had trekking poles to her advantage and still fared no better than I. The best was when, after stepping into a hole up to the knee, we’d go to take a high step with the other foot to extricate ourselves and sink in to the knee with that leg too. Fun stuff let me tell you. For my part this was the essence of what I’d come for, a challenge. Not just the challenge of a summit but to appreciate the beauty of the winter forest in the face of its difficult if not inhospitable conditions. Whenever I’d stop to catch my breath or regain composure after a useless fit of frustration with the snow I’d look up and around, and listen, and quickly find an abundance of calm in the breathless indifference of the unflinching forest.
We hiked on this way, largely in silence (save for the occasional explicit outburst), for a couple hours. After we rounded a large and prominent switchback that, according to the map and my estimations, was well enough along the trail for our purposes for the day, we decided to make camp at around 9,400 feet. This could have taken all day in itself, searching in vain for the perfect almost-already-flat small clearing, but I instinctively knew that this would be a misuse of time. Better to pick a mediocre spot and use the remaining daylight to make the most of it with a little elbow grease. And elbow grease it took, more than a little at that. I set to clearing a flat-ish area large enough to hold the tent plus a little wiggle room, needing it to be a foot or two deep to suffice.
Then we made a trail to the tent from the main trail, an area to place packs, cook, and make fire - also with a trail, and so on. Long story short lots of digging, scraping, clearing and bitching resulted in a suitably tolerable pseudo-bivouac for us to weather the night.
Around 5pm I was up the main trail a bit doing a cheap reconnoiter when I thought I heard something, a dog’s bark perhaps. Asked Aimee when I got back to camp and she hadn’t heard anything. Ten minutes later again, a bark, this time doubtless. Sure enough after another fifteen we saw a couple guys headed up the trail. I yelled and gave a wave to let them know we were about, and they quickly scrambled up the last bit of the trail to our camp. From the looks of them they were quite prepared for what they were doing on the mountain, backcountry snowboarding. First of all they had a dog, excellent trail companions for their keen senses, not to mention in the undesirable event of a buried man in an avalanche. In that regard I also noticed the two boarders, one a middle aged scruffy looking local on cross-country skis and the other a younger version of the same but on snowshoes, had the added protection of shovels, avalanche probes, and even avalanche beacons. In the event of an avalanche this device would send out a radio beacon to quicken the potential rescue of a victim and drastically increase the likelihood of survival. I’d mulled getting one, but in the end the cost was too prohibitive. Now I found myself feeling a little naked headed into the next days solo climb. As we chatted I picked up a couple tips about the climb ahead of me, as they’d hiked up to 11,500 feet earlier in the day and boarded down, and were now trekking their way back to the lodge. Avalanche conditions were good, that is they were unlikely due to lack of snow for a couple days and there had been plentiful sunshine to melt and harden the snow-packed layers. The young snowshoer warned me to stay sharp once up on the high ridge and keep to the side of the cornices (windblown snow cakes on to the ridges and can form an overhanging cornice which, if unstable enough and walked on, can break away and send you tumbling down the whole way) on the summit ridge. I was also told that the tracks ahead that made up the trail would eventually peter out and diverge numerous times into the woods, and so, as I’d planned on, I’d be doing my own route finding. I was keenly aware of the myriad potential dangers, but the older fella made mention of a glade, Dutchman’s Glade, to which the main grouping of tracks would lead, which was news to me. It was clear enough on the map but it was unnamed, another reason I surmised they were local. I thanked them for the tips as they headed off to beat the sunset back to the lodge. We went back to our chores which to this point in the day’s adventure had succeeded in occupying all of my energy and attention, and I realized how little I’d thought about the next day, about the climb.