Mt. Humphreys P2K SPS / WSC / PD / CS

Aug 8, 2001
Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 3

Sierra Emblem Challenge 2001 - Day 5


It was nearly pitch black when the alarm went off save for a bit of light from the parking lot that diffused around the heavy drapes. It was 4:30a, but I got up quickly, having gone to bed early the night before. I left David sleeping (or at least trying to sleep), as I got my stuff together and ate breakfast by the bathroom light. David planned to go at his own pace today and had no thoughts of climbing the summit, so there was no reason for him to get up as early as myself. Just before 5a I was packed, out the door, and driving up CA168 towards North Lake.

I was excited to go climbing today, for this was the first of the Emblem peaks that I had not climbed previously, and a new adventure always makes for an even more enjoyable outing for me. Mt. Humphreys is just shy of 14,000ft, and towers well above everything around it. I had seen the peak often from US395, where it appears to take a back seat to Mt. Tom in the foreground. I had seen it from the vicinity of Piute Pass and from the Little Lakes area, and from all sides it is impressive. On the first ascent a group of the climbers stopped at a place that they dubbed "Married Mens' Point," while the more determined of the group continued to the summit. With a story like that, I just had to climb this peak at some point!

I had been up this road just a month earlier when I climbed Mt. Agassiz out of the trailhead at South Lake. That day the weather had been quite poor, with drizzle, snow, and almost no visibility at the summit. Today the weather was much better, or at least gave all indications of being much better. I parked my car in the lot at North Lake near the stables, and headed out at 5:20a. As on Mt. Lyell a few days earlier, I needed my headlamp to make my way in the dark. The trail begins at the far end of the campground, marked by a large sign courtesy of the Forest Service, and I think I managed to find the start without waking the sleeping campers nearby. The Piute Pass Trail climbs steeply most of the way, the beginning part tunnelling through the forest found in the lower reaches. Within 20 minutes the sky lightened enough to let me turn off my headlamp, and the forest soon gave way to rocky hillsides and expanding views. Shortly after 6a the crags lining the south side of the trail began to glow orange-brown with the rising sun. Loch Leven, the first lake in a series in the upper reaches of the canyon, was quiet in the early morning shadows. It marks the easing of the trail's tough grade, and provides the first views ahead to Piute Pass.

Piute Crags line the north side of the trail, Mt. Emerson towering high above, reaching over 13,000ft. Together they blocked the sun from the trail for much of the morning, and I imagined that I might make it to the pass before the sun. Alas, I fall about 15 minutes short as I climbed past Piute Lake and reached the pass at 7:30a. Mt. Humpreys can be seen rising to the north, though still a good distance away. Looking west I am greeted with a gorgeous view into Humphreys Basin and Summit Lake. I can see the trail winding down through the flat, rocky region on its way down to Piute Canyon on the west side of the Sierra Crest. As I turned to head cross-country towards Mt. Humphreys, a low buzzing grows to a roar as a small helicopter comes whizzing in from the west, and flies down the canyon toward North Lake, about 1,000ft overhead. Ten minutes later it comes back in the other direction and disappears out to the west. The white, yellow, and green helicopter is simply marked "PATROL" on the bottom side, but otherwise no indication as to its purpose. It served to shatter my illusion of being all alone in the Wilderness, miles from civilization, and I was happy to see it disappear, hoping it would not return.

The cross-country climb across the upper reaches of Humphreys Basin was quite interesting, rolling terrain heavily covered in boulder debris and expanses of granite slabs. Were it not for Humphreys itself acting as a homing beacon, it would have been difficult to walk a straight course without a compass. The terrain required constant adjustments to climb around obstacles, avoiding local high spots and the worst of the boulder piles. I made sure to note that Mt. Lamarck behind me could serve as a similar beacon on the way back, seeing that I was too lazy to bother taking a compass reading.

As I neared the rise before reaching Humphreys Lake, I was greeted by the strange yapping of a small mountain mammal perched on a boulder 20 yards ahead of me. As I approached, the small animal repositioned itself and adjusted its demeanor to a more serious growling and snarling, teeth flashing under trembling lips. What a small dog was doing out here I hadn't guessed, but I found it rather comical. I continued to approach and the dog continued to retreat, though it made efforts to retrench and warn me off again. I called out to the dog in a friendly manner, but it wanted nothing to do with me, and continued barking and doing its utmost to appear fearsome and menacing. As I reached the knoll where I could see down the other side, I found the nearly circular Humphreys Lake with a few tents pitched at its eastern end. There were three people about, one of them calling to the dog to stand down as we approached. The dog decided that I was either friendly or unbeatable as it ran off ahead and gave up the protective ruse.

I followed the dog to the woman who was away from the other two, and struck up a short conversation. She appeared to be around my age, 40 or so, and was on a 10-day backpacking trip with her husband and 9-year old son. Even more impressive, the three of them had climbed Humphreys the day before, quite a feat with one so young on a class 4 peak. Humphreys rocky massif was only a quarter mile behind us, and I asked directions for negotiating the lower half of the summit. My own research had been a bit sketchy - I knew that I wanted to end up on a left-sloping ramp leading to the notch on the left side, but nowhere had I found very specific directions for the lower half. She offered advice on how to follow the water stains in the middle part of the west face, and we talked another 5 minutes or so. I left thankful for her advice and somewhat envious of her husband who had a wife that would join him on such an extended adventure.

The west face of Humpheys is quite wide, with a number of small chutes punctuating what is otherwise an amorphous flank of very steep and loose rock. The chutes aren't really chutes, but small ravines carved by the seasonal trickles of water that funnel down in several places. Theses water streams have polished the rock smooth and make for difficult climbing, but on either side there appears to be loose rock that can be climbed to gain access to the upper reaches. Following the directions I was given, I soon found myself 100 feet up some very steep terrain which quickly became more than the expected class 3. I cautiously made my way up further until I had to admit I was no longer comfortable on the rock and felt myself in jeopardy of getting into some scary climbing. There had to be an easier way. Frustrated, I gingerly traversed to the left looking for a better opportunity to make headway above. Finding nothing, I eventually came to the end my traverse and could make no further progress up or across. I was looking down on what appeared to be a wide chute (a real one, this time) that seemed to run from the lowest reaches all the way up to the left-sloping ramp. It seemed too obvious to miss, but why would she have sent me up the middle of the face (they had used this chute for descent I found later but failed to mention it)? I resigned myself to a retreat, slowly making my way down off this accident-waiting-to-happen slope that I had spent the last 20 minutes flailing about on.

It was 9:30a when I finally reached the base of the chute, located on the west-most side of the Southwest Face (I would highly recommend that others go find this chute and not waste time as I did). The chute was filled with much loose material, but it was wide and straightforward class 2 climbing for most of the way. A third of the way up there is a huge chockstone blocking the chute, but with several ways to surmount it. The easiest way is on the left side where some thin ledges can be used climb the chockstone directly (I found this on the way down). I climbed up to the chockstone and with a very long stretch of the legs (it helps to be 6' at times like this) managed to pull myself up starting on the right side and standing on a friction slope in the middle of the chockstone. Later I found that it is also possible to climb out of the main chute from below the chockstone taking a side chute up to the left where class 2 climbing can take you all the way to the ramp. (This is the view looking down from the top of the chockstone.) Once past the chockstone the route continues class 2 but I was quickly finding that Humphreys is little more than a big pile of tedious loose rock, at least on the Southwest Face.

I reached the ramp and headed left towards the prominent notch below the Northwest Face. The "ramp" is yet another wide gulley full of nothing but loose scree and sand. The climbing is very slow and tedious here, though technically it is easy. After some time I finally reached the notch. Ah, the end of the loose rock. From here on the rock is quite solid, and there is very little loose stuff to bother with. I took a well-deserved break for water and a snack. I peered down the North Couloir Direct on the other side, still filled with snow/ice all the way to the lower reaches on the northeast side. Basin Mountain and Mt. Tom can be seen to the north from this point, along with the glacier-green Longley Reservoir that sits at the toe of the rubble pile on Humphrey's northeast side. Looking up, storm clouds were beginning to make themselves at home above Humphreys summit, though it was only 10:30a. I didn't dally long at the notch, as I wanted to be off the summit before any thunderstorms started.

The Northwest Face isn't much of a face, really. Closer to a ridge, but there is a very convenient trough that runs two-thirds of the way to the summit. This involves some class 3 climbing, but the rock is very clean, and the climbing is enjoyable. In fact, after being convinced that the whole mountain was really a loose pile of rubble, I was glad to see that there were some clean, solid surfaces in the upper reaches. I followed the trough up, climbing some low-angle cracks (wide enough to put your feet in) and some friction slabs as well. At the end of the trough a headwall is encountered, and easy progress is no longer possible. I found a rappel sling here as a reminder that this peak isn't an easy walk-up. I paused for a few moments to consider my surroundings, and decided that the walls in front of me and to the left were much too steep and difficult to be considered alternatives. Fortunately there is a fourth class exit to the right (west) that proves to be the key to reaching the summit. It is a very short stretch of maybe 15 feet. The most difficult part is climbing out of the small cul-de-sac, up about four feet. I took advantage of a small foot hold and lifted myself onto the sloping slab above me. A little disconcerting at first due to the exposure, my boots were easily up to the challenge of holding the friction. For good measure I kept my feet placed over the thin horizontal cracks that ran lengthwise as I traversed over this short section and made for the easier class 3 rocks on the other side. These I followed up a short ways around to the Southwest Face where I was greeted by another roadblock. This was the second 4th class section, but like before I looked around at my alternatives to make sure I didn't miss something more obvious. Nope, this was the only reasonable route up. This second tough section climbs a wide crack system on a pillar between the two faces, almost straight up, but with excellent holds. The exposure is exhilarating, scary really, but I know I am less than a hundred feet below the summit. At the top of this climb of maybe 20 feet there is another rappel sling, a second reminder to be very careful.

Past this section the climbing is very easy class 3, and I quickly scrambled to the summit. I was estatic. This had been the toughest solo climb I had ever done (which was to be outdone the following day), and my confidence was bolstered considerably. As one might expect, the views are quite fine from the summit: the Palisades to the southeast, Mt. Darwin and Kings Canyon NP to the south, Humphreys Basin to the west, and the region around Little Lakes Valley to the northwest. I was on the summit less than a minute before I heard the loud crack of thunder. My victory smile took on a more somber look as I quickly scanned the skies. Not yet building up to a serious threat, the clouds didn't look that threatening. But there to the southeast was the biggest of the bunch, and I could see rain falling from its underside, what looked to be only a few miles away. And coming my way! Aside from the obvious dangers of being hit by lightning, I was most concerned that the rock climbing would be less fun and more scary if the rain came along to wet them. I hurriedly made an entry in the summit register, and only briefly flipped through the other entries (spotting this one from Galen Rowell and Peter Croft).

I retraced my steps taking extra caution at the class 4 sections. I was particularly happy that I was able to climb down these sections with even more confidence than I had climbed up them. It had helped to pay attention to the foot placements on the way up and reuse these on the way down when it is more difficult to spot them. I then scrambled down the class 3 trough, pausing to take an experimental photo of the view looking down beneath me. Once I reached the notch on the shoulder, signalling the end of the tricky climbing, I was able to relax. As though on cue, raindrops started to dot the boulders, but I wasn't much concerned. There hadn't been any additional lightning or thunder since the initial one, and what rain might fall now wouldn't be significant since the clouds had yet to build sufficiently. I didn't have much in the way of rain gear since I had left my regular rain pants and jacket in the car to save the weight and allow me to carry just a fanny pack. I had a 99 cent rain poncho with me, but had no need to break it out. The raindrops stopped within 10 minutes. I paused at the notch long enough to take a photo of one of the few hardy survivors at these altitudes. What might not even catch the eye in a more lush environment, looks absolutely stunning in such stark surroundings.

I headed down the slanting ramp, now taking full advantage of all the sand I could find to make easy downward progress. I turned off at the top of the wide chute I had taken on the way up, and headed down. It was steeper than I had remembered, probably because the loose rock required me to be more careful on the way down than I had been on the way up. About a third of the way down the chute I was taken by surprise by the sound of human voices. I stopped suddenly to listen, and scanned high on the sides of the chute looking for the source. Had I heard voices that weren't there? It wouldn't be the first time. But no, again I heard a man's voice calmly speaking to someone else, coming from lower in the chute. The view was blocked, but I called out that I was above them, to let them be on their guard for loose rock coming down. I stepped much more cautiously now to avoid dislodging the rocks like I had been doing earlier, and soon joined the voice from below. It was the husband of the women I had spoken with earlier from the camp below, along with his 9yr old son. They had climbed the chute looking for the ballcap that the son had dropped the day before on their way down from Humphreys. I offered that I had not seen any cap the whole way down (or up), but as it was brown colored, it would have been easy to miss. It seemed like a lot of trouble to go to to retrieve a hat, and I suggested that they could always get another one.

"Well, it wasn't his, it was his mother's," the young father replied, suggesting it was a bigger deal than it first appeared. He was coiling a 7mm rope that he'd used to belay his son past the chockstone that was just below us.

It was said in a tone that suggested losing his mother's hat was a bad mistake. They continued looking about, I wished them luck, and headed down. Coming to the chockstone, I decided it would be a bit tricky to reverse the move I used on the way up and looked for an alternative. I found it by climbing down the aforementioned thin ledges on the opposite side, that had nicely reassuring handholds. As I climbed lower down the chute I could see that the two had given up their search and were beginning down themselves. I continued down the chute and the lower part of the mountain, slower than I would have liked due to the almost unbelievable amount of loose rock, scree, and similar progress-hindering detritus.

Just before reaching Humphreys Lake, I found an old black sack that still had some food inside. The part facing the sun had been faded to a white-gray, and there were tears in the side, presumeably from the weakening of the nylon fabric in the sun. I guessed the food cache had been lost or forgotten by a party from a few years back. I tossed the small bag in my pack, figuring I could do my part to clean up a bit of the Wilderness. I then strolled along the lake shore where I came upon the family campsite and the woman I had spoken with previously. I let her know that her husband and son were safe, and returning from their search for the lost hat in the gully. When I described where they were last searching above the the chockstone, she got rather upset, insisting that they had to climb up to the ramp to find it. Then she went on a mini-tirade about how she told her son to be careful with the hat, but her husband had told her to stop nagging, so she stopped warning him. But of course they lost the hat anyway, and why they can't remember simple things was beyond her, etc, etc. I changed the subject by producing the little bag of food. She had a better explanation for it than I did, suggesting marmots had carried it away from camp but found the food not to their liking. I offered to let her have the food; some pasta, power bars, some powdered drink mix. She looked it over, and decided to take it all if I wasn't going to use it myself. I told her I was going to throw anything she didn't want in the trash, which seemed to convince her I really didn't want the stuff. Then she started telling me how she only eats 1/5 of the food but has to carrry 1/3 of it, how her husband simply eats too much, and similar things that didn't seem like such a big deal to me. Rather than envying the family as I had done on the way up, I was thinking this idyllic arrangement was some sort of bad nightmare. I could no longer imagine spending 10 days backpacking with this lady, thinking that these last 10 minutes were enough for me. I bid her goodbye and headed on my way.

I used Mt. Lamarck to navigate by, following over the hills, rocks, and bumps again in the upper basin here. I came across a large bird, either a grouse or ptarmigan (I'm not much of a birder) amongst the rocks, only the second I had seen in the Sierra. He seemed less surprised to see me, but took off shortly after allowing me a photograph. As I neared Piute Pass, I began to angle east, deciding to take a shortcut down that would bypass Piute Pass. This turned out to be a nice downclimb, which gave me a great view of the high meadow east of Piute Pass, much better than can be obtained from the pass itself.

I reached the trail at 1:30p and picked up speed as I headed down the canyon. There were a surprising number of backpackers coming up the trail, all struggling to varying degrees to get their loads up the steep canyon. The cloud cover had grown more consistent overhead, and their were several episodes of heavy sprinkles (if that makes any sense), but nothing requiring me to go for the rain poncho. Some of the backpackers on the way up thought otherwise, and one group had cached all their gear under a makeshift tarp in order to wait out the weather. It seemed overly cautious to me, but then I didn't really care if I got a little wet since I wasn't beginning a multi-day trek into the Wilderness. Others just sort of huddled together when the drops started, and still others just kept hiking on as if they didn't feel a thing.

I somewhat expected I might see David on my way back, as I thought I was making pretty good time coming down. I had scanned the route up to the pass when I was looking down on it earlier, and had kept an eye out for a returning dayhiker. No luck. An hour and a half later I was back at the trailhead, only a short half mile to return to the parking lot. I'd run out of water on the way down the trail, but found a refresher at a spigot in the campground. I walked down the dusty road towards the lot, and just as my car came into view, I heard a cheerful voice come up from behind me. David! What a surprise to see him just as I'd finished. He was dressed simply in tshirt, shorts, and running shoes, and had evidently just finished running back down the trail. He had gone nearly to the base of Mt. Humphreys, just missing Humphreys Lake. We figured our paths must have crossed in the upper basin, where the bumps and hills did not allow line of sight for more than a few hundred yards at a time. David was looking rather perky considering the run, much better than I had seen him the previous days while we hiked together. Apparently the running suits David just fine, better than hiking boots and a pack full of gear.

We drove back to Bishop and our motel, where we refreshed ourselves with a shower and clean clothes. Afterwards we revisited Jakes for dinner, where we recounted the day's adventures together. Again, David decided to forgo the mountaineering adventure to Darwin planned for the next day, preferring to go for a trail run like today rather than attempt a class 4 route. It had worked out quite well for me as well, so with our plan set, we headed back to get some sleep before another early alarm call.


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