Humphrey’s Peak (12,633ft) Highest Point in AZ

Matthew approaching the summit

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Mounaineers: Matthew and Eric Gilbertson

If you’ve ever been on Mount Washington in the middle of January, then you have a good idea of the weather atop Humphrey’s peak. During this trip, our impressions of Arizona drastically changed.

We camped at the Arizona Snow Bowl ski resort at the base of the mountain and got an Alpine start at 2:30am. Even though it was already late May, Humphrey’s peak and adjacent mountains were still heavily snow-capped. We navigated by headlamp, but it was very difficult to stay on the trail, for it was buried under five feet of snow and there were no tracks to follow. So we were constantly studying all of the trees, looking for any sign of a cut branch or missing bark. It was very slow going and eventually around 5am we reached a dead end. We could no longer find any sign of a trail at all, so we retraced our steps and finally got back on track.

At the base of Humphrey’s Peak

Soon a few rays of sunlight hit the tops of the evergreens and we could finally see where we were going. At that point, we decided to completely abandon our search for the trail and instead we headed straight up the mountain. Temps were still in the mid 20s, so we had a tough time ascending the icy slope without crampons. At about 8am, we finally reached the edge of the trees and stepped onto the ridge. I’ve never experienced wind like that before. As soon as we stepped onto the crest, we were blasted by gale force winds, blowing from the east at over 50mph. We started following a vaguely-defined user trail through the talus, but decided to duck below the ridge to avoid the brunt of the wind. But the worst was yet to come.

We continued our ascent via the southeast ridge and soon suited up in our serious above treeline gear:

Cresting the ridge

windproof pants, fleece, shell, balaclava and goggles. We never expected we’d need this gear in May, least of all in Arizona, but without one of these articles I don’t think we could have made it. We took one step onto the crest of the ridge and it felt like we were stepping into a wall. The wind was so fierce that we could barely keep our balance. A couple of times just for fun we jumped straight up into the air and landed two feet away. I could feel the straps on my pack slapping me in the face and all of my loose clothing flapped violently like a flag in the breeze. I shivered as the frigid wind pierced through my “windproof” rainjacket and three other layers of synthetic clothing.

Just when we thought that the wind couldn’t get any stronger, we were literally knocked to our feet by a tremendous gust. On our final approach to the summit I experienced the strongest wind I’ve ever seen in my life. We couldn’t even stay on the trail anymore. The raging wind forced us to the west and finally, just 50ft from the summit, we could no longer stay on our feet. I will never forget that final climb to the top. We actually had to crawl on our hands and knees

Matthew at the summit

to avoid being knocked over. At the risk of being blown off the mountain, I used one hand to hold the camera as I recorded Eric trying to crawl up the snow on the final ascent (see movie). I could feel the wind being ripped from my lungs as it blew across my bare face and a few times my ears popped from the pressure difference.

The general rule of thumb is that a wind gust (in mph) that is half of your weight (in lbs) can knock you over. Just below the summit we were completely unable to stand up, so we calculated that the wind must have been sustained at over 80mph. The gusts were near 100mph.

If we couldn’t have seen the top, we might very well have turned back. We faced a thousand foot vertical

Eric at the summit

drop to the west and the wind was threatening to blow us over the edge. But we pushed on–or rather crawled on–to the summit. Thankfully previous generations of hikers had built a pretty large rock wall at the top to provide shelter from the wind and we took full advantage of it. We hunkered down inside the structure and enjoyed a quick reprieve from the hurricane-force winds. Then I decided to reenact the famed Mount Washington experiment, except I had a Nalgene full of water instead of milk and Wheaties. Eric recorded with the camera as I emptied the Nalgene into the air. The wind drove the water horizontally and it vanished into a cloud of spray before it ever reached the ground (see movie). Good times.

Heading down

It was amazing to look north into the Arizona desert, 8,000 feet below, where it was perhaps already 80 degrees, and at the same time we were standing in snow with wind chills well below zero. We quickly cooled off and started our hike down the mountain at about 10am. It was almost too dangerous to glissade, as the snow was still frozen solid and you could lose control easily. But we made it down safely and certainly had quite a story to tell.

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