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Arizona August 2004

Humphreys Peak

Humphreys Peak is the highest mountain in Arizona, at 12,633 feet (3,850m). Dee tried to climb it several times on his training hikes before Kilimanjaro, but always had to turn back before the summit because of thunder storms. This time, Dee and I were determined to reach it.

Up before sunrise we get a first glimpse of the mountain from the house we rented near the Grand Canyon. The weather is perfectly clear. Only a little bit of foggy mist is lingering at the top of Kendrick Peak, on the right of the picture. It is 2,000 feet lower than Humphreys but appears almost as tall because it is closer to us.

We get to Flagstaff in about an hour and have a view of the peak from the other side. The mountain has 2 summits of almost the same height: Humphreys Peak and Agassiz Peak, which is the one we see from this perspective. From there the road climbs to the trail head at about 9,000 feet, at the base of the Snowbowl ski area.

The trail crosses a large meadow, which is the bottom of a ski slope, then enters a dense forest of aspen, ponderosa and spruce, still dark in the early morning. The ground is littered with a jumble of fallen trees, but the trail is good and easy to follow.

At one point the trail switches back just before a steep scree of basaltic boulders. When you see that you know that you are on an old volcano. Looking west we have a nice view of Kendrick Peak We continue through the now mainly spruce forest, accompanied by the chatter of squirrels and the loud banging of woodpeckers. As we climb we encounter, more and more frequently, ghostly victims of lightning strikes. Higher up the forest becomes sparser and cut by rock slides, to finally give way to a rocky landscape as we approach the saddle between the two peaks.

At the saddle we have a beautiful view toward the East. What we see below us is the remains of the crater that was created when Humphreys Peak exploded a few million years ago. One of the peaks in the background is Sunset Crater, which erupted only 1,000 years ago. For more information on the vulcanology of this region, click here.

To our left the bare ridge climbs higher. We begin to feel the altitude, and it is very slowly that we continue the ascent, with a lot of stops to rest. So far the weather has been perfect for the hike: cool and dry. Now we are exposed to the wind, which must be blowing at 30 knots. Time for the sweaters and wind breakers! Here only a few brittlecone pines still cling to the rocky slope. They are among the oldest trees on earth, some as old as 4,000 years: true natural bonsais, mainly in the "wind blown" style.

We keep looking back towards Agassiz Peak because we know that, when its summit coincides with the horizon, then we are almost at the top. Still a ways to go! The ravens accompany us, and seem to mock us by playing with the wind and rising hundreds of feet effortlessly in a few seconds!

We pass the last of the pines. Here only lichen and a few alpine flowers survive between the rocks. One of them, the San Francisco Peaks groundsel, is unique to this area. Is it the summit we see now? We are not sure but we hope so! How can flowers not only survive, but apparently thrive in this harsh environment?

Finally: the summit. We have made it! We feel on top of the world and the view is magnificent, although too hazy (due to smoke from fires in the Williams area) to take any decent pictures. You will have to go see for yourself!