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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Humboldt - a formidable winter foe

Date:   February 9, 2013
Mission: Summit Humboldt Peak (elevation 14,064 ft.) in winter.
Who:  Solo
Length: Estimated  11 miles from where I parked the Jeep on the 4x4 trail
Elevation gain: 4700 ft.
Forecast:  Snow likely, high of 14, wind chills between -10 and -20.  60% chance of snow, 2-4 inches  of snow expected.  Winds between 25 - 40 mph with gusts as high as 50mph.

Humboldt's east ridge doesn't look too hard.  - As seen from the tree line on Crestone Needle on 9/22/2012


Prior to this climb, I referred to Humboldt Peak as my nemisis mountain.  It definitely lived up to this title.  This would be my 3rd attempt of Humboldt Peak, all in the winter.  My previous two attempts were in December of 2011 starting way down at the winter road closure.  Today, I would be able to drive the Jeep up the 4x4 trail a bit to within about 1.5 miles of the Rainbow trail where the east ridge trail begins.  This was encouraging to me about my chances of a summit.

My previous two attempts can be read about too if you care:

First attempt - 12/24/2011

Second attempt - 12/29/2011

Getting there

I set my alarm for 11:45pm and went to sleep at 9:45pm.  I awoke about two minutes before my alarm went off and was out of the house by midnight.  I drove the 3+ hours to Westcliffe and before I knew it I had the Jeep up  I was gearing up and starting my hike at 3:45am. 

The Hike

I quickly knocked off the 1.5 miles from the Jeep to the Rainbow trail in just hiking boots on top of packed snow  I then found myself in a previously established snowshoe trench and from the east ridge to the tree line I would be in snowshoes because the snow was at least thigh high without snow shoes. 

First daylight on Humboldt's east ridge
The trench that was established was not completely on the east ridge route, and consequently was a bit more of a bushwhack in sections, and had some steeper sections than I remember from the last two times through here.  The steep sections were slow going for me, and one of the bush whack sections proved to be rather humorous when I tried to take a step and my right snow shoe got caught on a baby pine tree and caused me to do a face plant into the snow. 

The sunrise is a motivator.
It was a slow and tiring pace up this steep terrain and soft snow, but I started to see daylight as the trees were thinning, indicating I was at about 11,500 ft.  I'd gained 2000 ft. in elevation before the sun had even come up, and the wind was only moderate and it looked like partly cloudy skies rather than the snow I expected. 

Everything was going great thus far.

This beautiful sunrise would be one of the last times I would see the sun today.

At the tree line, I began the long ridge walk to the summit.  It's still over 2000 ft. in elevation from here.  As I began my ascent up the ridge, Humboldt Peak was awoken by this beautiful sunrise and it was clearly not happy being awoken so early on a Saturday morning.

Clouds rolled faster than rednecks to a NASCAR race serving free fried chicken.  The wind went from manageable (20-25 mph) to uncomfortable (35-40 mph) and gusts that would stop me in my tracks balancing myself on three points of contact to the ground so I would not get blown over.  Light snow began falling, but the blowing snow was worse, not to mention the bone chilling wind chill factor that accompanied all this.

I tried to keep moving to stay warm, and twice I tried to take pictures only to discover my camera, which had been in a mostly zipped pocket, now had a thin layer of ice covering it from the blowing snow.  I did take a couple pics once I removed the ice from my camera.

I swear the summit is that way...

High winds made for some wind chills around -20

I got to a false summit around 13,600 and finally got a view of the real summit.  The was discouraging to say the least, mostly because the conditions were worsening.  I now was cursing myself for such an early start, because I'm sure around noon it'd be warmer at this elevation.  Right now it was frigid at barely 10am. 

I pushed on, and as I did, I began to feel fingers on both hands going numb.  I finally made the decision to stop and grab some hand warmers from my backpack. Stopping when you are cold, just makes you colder, but I knew my hands were getting to a dangerous zone and hand warmers were a necessity.  I did this excercise of pulling off mitts, opening hand warmer packages (with gloves on), as quick as a guy with numb hands in 40+ mph winds can do. 

I quickly began my ascent again and my hands were worsening still.  I now had no feeling in both of my hands, except for one finger on my right hand.  I felt like I had rocks at the end of my arms.  Humboldt was winning this 3rd battle, and I knew it.  I

t was at this point with no end in sight to the weather, and with the summit maybe only 250ft in elevation from me, that I turned around and hauled ass for a warmer elevation.  I wouldn't admit this till later, but I think, somewhere deep down inside, I felt almost "good" about turning around.  Almost like I did it just to spite Humboldt. 

I almost felt like that guy that spends months trying to get a particular girl and she never even gives him the time of day because she's playing hard to get.  Then one day, she has a change of heart and tries to kiss him and he just ignores her and walks away. 

Turning around with the summit in view is not an easy thing to do.

Anyway, as I descended Humboldt got the last laugh.  Right around 13,000 ft. when my hands had mostly thawed, the sun came out and the wind calmed for 30 or 40 minutes.  I cursed Humboldt when this happened.

From the treeline back to the Jeep was a slog.  Clouds came back and light snow fell on me the entire way. 

Back at the Jeep at 2pm, I bolted down the trail starving for some food. 

I stopped to snap a parting shot knowing I will be back sometime soon for attempt # 4.

Clouds hiding Humboldt's evil grin.