The unofficial second annual Christmas highpointing trip saw the addition of two new members this year, Kevin Sweeney and Andy Brown, in addition to ďveteransĒ Andy Coppola and yours truly, Olivier Kozlowski. This yearís goal: 12,637' Humphreys Peak, Arizona.
Air travel delays resulted in a late arrival into Phoenix on Tuesday, January 6, and despite fellow highpointer Ken Akermanís wonderfully accurate door-to-door directions to the Peaks District Ranger Station in Flagstaff, we made it there about 20 minutes too late to pick up permits that afternoon. The weather forecast, confirmed by Flagstaff resident and climber Bob Packard, told us that Wednesday would be mostly cloudy and Thursday would be mostly sunny. After some deliberation, we opted to spend Wednesday getting our permits, scoping out access to the trailhead and eventually making our way to the Grand Canyon, setting up Thursday for the climb. This turned out to be a good decision.
After securing our permits at the Peaks District Ranger Station Wednesday morning, we drove to the Snow Bowl Road in light snow flurries. We made it about halfway up the road before we were stopped at a roadblock manned by a Snow Bowl employee. He had been instructed not to let anyone up, not even with permits, unless the ranger spoke to them first. After about five minutes, this was overruled by the Snow Bowl manager who himself passed through the roadblock. We proceeded to the lower parking lot, right on top of GPS waypoint 1 provided by sam_hiker from arizonahikers.com. Donning our hiking boots, we decided to cross the ski area to find where exactly in the trees the trail continued. By the time we found waypoint 2 and made our way back to the parking lot, we had trudged through 1-2 foot snow and more was now coming down in windblown form, heavier than before. Probably not much fun up on the ridge, three thousand feet up. At any rate, after a quick interview by a reporter from the local NBC affiliate who undoubtedly hoped we were snow-starved Arizonans anticipating Fridayís opening of the Snow Bowl, (we ended up on the cutting room floor), we made our way back down the road.
The more pressing issue, however, was access. Suffice it to say that we got different responses from different Snow Bowl and Park Service personnel about when the gate might open in the morning and when it would again close on Thursday. Iím still not sure who controls the road: the Park Service, the Snow Bowl or the Secret Order of Arizona Skiers.
As we headed northwest to the Grand Canyon it became clear that the San Francisco Peaks were ripping into the clouds, producing the weather we experienced at the Snow Bowl. The tops of the peaks remained obscured from our view from the Grand Canyon Airlines Twin Otter and didnít break out until late afternoon as we headed back towards Flagstaff. We were happy we chose to postpone the climb until Thursday.
Thursday morning was perfectly clear, just below freezing with a full moon getting ready to set as we began our climb. Three of us donned our snowshoes immediately (Kevin opted to go without, and paid for it). We were fortunate to find that the single set of footprints we spotted in the woods on Wednesday remained and continued well up the trail, guiding our way. According to the trail register, the last person on the trail passed by on January 4th, some four days earlier. Conditions varied somewhat in the woods, but for the most part we encountered 2-3 feet of powdery snow. Eventually our predecessor quit, and the route beyond was deep powder for us to break trail through. The GPS waypoints provided by sam_hiker now took over from the footprints as confirmation that we remained on trail. We were not making the kind of progress we had hoped for. In the back of our minds was the fact that just about everybody we spoke to the day before estimated that the Snow Bowl Road would re-close at 4:30 p.m.
As we gained elevation, the switchbacks got shorter and the route steeper. By now the trees had become shorter and more spread out. Conditions varied, with 6 inches - 1 foot of powder on top of icy crust in the sunny areas and the deep powder we had become accustomed to in the shady areas.
Finally we came to a short series of switchbacks along a particularly steep slope. The GPS confirmed that we were cutting a switchback, and I watched as Andy Brown slid about 5-10 feet sideways down the slope before catching himself. Doubling back and trying the actual route proved no better. This was difficult terrain in that crampons would have been advisable for this particular stretch (and presumably others like it), but a poor choice once the route reverted to deep powder in the shade again.
We considered our options. We were not yet to the saddle. Although we were all carrying headlamps, we didnít care for the possibility of the road being closed with our rental inside the parking lot. The conditions we were on were not great. And yes, for some reason we were not making good progress. We decided to turn around. Not that we needed an excuse to come back to Arizona someday.
Being one of the faster downhillers in the group, it was decided that I should forge on ahead of the others to, at the very least, get our rental car outside the gate in time. I meet two others on the way up as I was heading down. The first was a snowboarder making his way to get a ride down the slopes ahead of the Snow Bowlís opening the next day. He had been told the gate would be closed at 4. Later on, I met Zack from Flagstaff, who had just secured his permit that afternoon and was checking out how far he could get before turning around. We made our way down together. He, too, had been told that the gate would be closed at 4.
We all made it out without having to spend the night in the Snow Bowl parking lot. Disappointed? Absolutely. My 27th state highpoint would have to wait. Yet we still felt we made the right decision to turn around, especially after re-examining our turnaround location from the parking lot.
Iíd like to take a few moments to thank several people, in no particular order. Fellow highpointers Ken Akerman and Bob Packard provided excellent information. The members at arizonahikers.com, in particular sam_hikes, whose GPS waypoints proved invaluable, were extremely helpful. We did a partial payback with a phone call to the Peaks District Ranger Station updating them on conditions we found as we returned from Meteor Crater the next morning, en route to Phoenix for our flight home.