The walk up to Paiute Pass was pleasant and easy with a cool breze that kept the mosquitoes away and by late afternoon we had found a place to camp at a small lake that is just due west of the larger Humphreys Lake. The alpine glow lit up the sheer walls of Humphreys as we cooked our meals and plotted our assault on this magnificient mountain.
We got rolling at 6.30 am on Saturday, the first of August. After climbing up to a small ridge above camp we came to another small ridge from where we could see the large frozen Humphreys Lake that is right at the base of the summit massif. We hiked down and then traversed the bowl of this frozen lake till we were at the base of a large snowfield that led directly into a couloir that creeps almost stealthily into a cleft in the massif, like a break in its impregnable walls. There was a lot of snow here and it was very hard in the morning but the angle comfortable to climb and the snow pitted, so we cramponed up to the cleft and then into it till we came to a snowbridge over some boulders. We all walked over it with some trepidation but it held. Across from it, in the rock wall were some slings and a biner where someone had used protection at an earlier time to get across.
As we took crampons off, we pondered the next move that would get us past a huge chockstone that was blocking our way. Humphreys wasnt going to yield easily. Rick found a way over it and effortlessly went up and then setup a belay. There is one tricky move to get over, use the small protrusion for the right foot and then you are up. Then begins the class-2 walk up over some crummy and loose talus and we were glad that there was no party above us. It is easy to knock down rocks here and care must be taken to climb tightly and in small parties. Helmets are recommended in this section.
Then we came upon a large snow field that we partly avoided by staying on the rocks on the right but soon discovered that we would have to traverse left to go behind the big peaklet that blocked the way to the notch (we were attempting the 'standard' northwest face route). Boldly, we went for the snow route. Here the angle was much higher and the snow harder and devoid of features unlike the pitted snow below. This is definitely the no-fall-zone. We cautiously went up, using the pick of the axe to dig in, sometimes even using the axe in an overhand swing to dig the pick in and jug ourselves up. We had to move slowly here, but finally, even this field was climbed and we hit loose scree once again and breathed a little easy. How many more chinks in the armour of this beast had we to find before it fell?
After some more slipping and slithering on scree, we were at the notch. Rick walked over to look down at the steep north couloir. That is one fast way to get to McGee Lakes, he remarked. Here, Rick and Scott put on their Five-Tens. We left our crampons and ice axes behind and climbed straight up the class-3 trough till we came to a wall whereon the class-4 section begins. As usual, Rick climbed up with ease setting up protection as he went. I followed, and then Scott came up, towing the second rope and then Dee came up on the second rope. Yet another defence felled.
Now for the next, as we stared at the arete above us. Yet again Rick breezed up this route and we followed on the rope that he had set up for us and the belay he gave. The top of this pitch is a scenic setting indeed. We tower over the basin that is still so snowbound that it looks like it is still in early spring. Only now it seemed to us that we could achieve the summit, and a few short class-3 moves later we stood at the summit, seven and half hours after we had started from camp. Despite the clear skies, the mild warmth of the sun, the splendour of the vista around us, our elation at bagging the summit was muted as we still had to descend. Nobody was going to hand us Humphreys on a platter.
We down climbed to the top of the arete and rapelled down this pitch. Then we decided to down climb the first pitch instead of rapelling as this is a diagonal route. Rick belayed as we down climbed and then he free climbed down. As I came down to the notch, I saw a marmot run away. I was amused to find a marmot so high but soon that amusement turned to dismay at discovering that the cuff of Rick's boot had been chewed away down to the foam. One of Scott's boot was a few feet away from the other and it's cuff too had been chewed out. Needless to say, Scott and Rick were even less amused. If you see a marmot on Humphreys, throwing up some pieces of leather, let them know. I think they have a contract out on it!
More slithering and slipping later, we came back to the steep snow field which was still hard. The poor runout had us convinced not to down climb it and we choose to descend the rock on the right instead. There is a lot of loose scree on the rock which makes footing a little suspect but this too was finally over and so also the loose class-2 stuff till we were back to the top of the chockstone. Again, Rick set up for a rapell and very soon we were all down, almost to the snowbridge. One final defence to be breached and that would be it! The snowbridge looked very unstable now. Scott, who was in the front took a leap over it and landed safely on the other side. I too did the same thing, the snow on the other side soft enough for a safe but inelegant landing. Rick and Dee skirted the bridge, stepped down and climbed over on the other side, a safer move. It was only here that the snow was soft enough for us to loosen our guard as we plunge-stepped down and then about half hour later got back to camp, just as the alpine glow left the massive walls of the mountain. It was 8.20, almost a fourteen hour day.
What an awesome peak, and such a hard and challenging climb! There is nothing easy on this peak. It has everything that the Sierra has to offer to mountain climbers, alpine rock climbing, steep snow, sheer walls, terrifying salt-addicted marmots and even the ugly and loose scree and talus that is the bane of all climbers.
Rick did a great job as the lead, setting up perfect anchors and guiding us thru the hard parts.
Sunday, we hiked out to the cars in four hours, oblivious to the mosquitoes and the heat and the almost endless stream of hikers and backpackers that passed us by, with only one over-riding thought in our minds...., the Pizza Factory in downtown Bishop!