Premonitions and the Road to Glory: Solo on the East Arete of Mt. Humphreys

As Nate and I drove from Indian Creek to Vegas, information pills we talked about, pregnancy guess what...climbing! (and religion, medicine girls, mountains, but mostly climbing and mountains). I was telling Nate about my upcoming solo time in the Sierra, and his first suggestion was that I solo the East arete of Mt. Humphreys. "Too serious," I told him, "I think I am going to keep it 3rd and 4th class." 3 weeks and many hours of staring at the mountains later, I had formulated a plan. I would solo the "Bishop Skyline Classics" (BSC). Those are the three mountains that dominate the western skyline as seen from Bishop: Mt. Tom, Basin Mountain, and Mt. Humphreys.

After a glorious summit/snowboard descent of Mt. Tom (Apples and Oranges: A weekend in the Eastern Sieera), It was time to move south to the next peak, Basin Mountain. But I had already been most of the way up that mountain and my time on the East Side was coming to a close, so I decided to skip right to Humphreys. My goal was to splitboard up the North Culoir, summit via 4th class, and ride gloriously back to the car.

It was a Tuesday night, and I was reading Backcountry Skiing California's High Sierra. I was camped in the Buttermilks, sitting in my car while the tail end of a windy weather system blew its way out of the mountains. In the pale half-moon light, I saw something moving outside. I got out of my car to have a closer look. At first it looked like a large sagebrush blowing in the wind, but as I got closer it looked more and more like a man. Within 10 feet of this "thing," I started to wonder if I was hallucinating. This figure had the shape of a man, but seemed to be pure light, a ghost, a premonition. It seemed to be eating something. Suddenly it turned around and said, "what up mang." Holy moly, it was The Jesus! Not the actual The Jesus, but a ghost-The Jesus, much like Obe-Won Kenobe from Star Wars after he dies and comes back to give Luke advice. The Jesus ghost (TJG) was eating a ghost apple.

"I hear you're going to do the North Culoir of Humphreys, mang" said TGJ.

"yeah mang," I said, still not completely believing what was going on.

"Solo the East Arete mang," said TGJ.

"I'm scared," I said, "what if its too hard, what if can't do it?"

TGJ looked at me and took a bite of his surprisingly crunchy ghost apple and siad,

"Pull Harder mang!"

Then a strong breeze picked up and TGJ disappeared before my eyes. For a minute I wondered if I had imagined it all, and then as if TGJ could read my mind (which he very likely can), an apple core rolled against my foot. The East Arete it would be! It has been said that the road to glory is paved with punishment. Truth be told, the road to Sierra glory is never paved, always bumpy, often blocked by a gate, stream, and sometimes livestock. The road through the Buttermilks starts out pretty casual and soon turns into a gnarly, boulder strewn shit-show. Nothing El Subaru/Organic Lightning (ES/OL) can't handle. What is a couple thousand dollars in resale value anyway? "Drive Harder!" About 4 miles after the main Buttermilk parking area, the road crosses McGee Creek. ES/OL crossed it with biblical authority, and for a moment, I fealt a boost in my manliness...what many Americans who don't exercise must feel when thier gas-guzzling "toys" do something a normal car cannot. That moment was short lived. 200 feet later, I hit a snowbank and the left front tire careened off the bank, leaving the front left side of my car hanging off the side of the road. After a couple attempts at rocking the car out of the situation, I had succeeded in bottoming out the chassis on the bank of the road, grinding my front right tire into the mud, and lifting my back right tire clear off the ground. I figured at the least, this meant the end of my plan, which was to drive really far up the "road," boot pack my snowboarding gear up to snowline and start skinning up to the East Arete the next morning. I also figured it would cost me almost the amount of the rent I was not paying to have my car towed out of this situation. As Homer Simpson would say...D'OH!

I sat there in the late-afternoon light, staring at Humphreys with a defeated longing, thinking about how stupid I was for thinking that I could avoid some punishing approach time by driving. Then I saw 3 skiers coming down the road, visibly wiped out from a long day of what they told me was a ride down Mt. Locke. They offered to help, and while I jacked the base of the car of the ground, we introduced ourselves. Turns out they went to college with Alex Lowe, and we soon had established a single degree of separation. After half an our of jacking up the car and them sitting on the back right corner to get the wheel back on the ground, ES/OL was free, and I was able to drive the car in reverse down the road and back through the creek. I gave them $20 for their trip into town so they could pick up some beer and celebrate when they got back to the spot where they were camping and I would camp as well, which was right before the creek, about 100 yards before I got stuck. After they took off on thier run, I sat there staring at Humphreys in the twilight, feeling discouraged, but happy not to have to go through the expensive ordeal of getting my car towed. Then TGJ appeared again. this time just his head, looming like a giant Sierra wave cloud over the summit of Humphreys.

"What up mang," he said, "what are you waiting for?"

"Its too dark," I said, "I'm just going to go back and climb Basin Mountain instead."

"too Dark, mang?" he said.

And with a wink, he nodded to the East. I looked where he had nodded, and sure enough, a bright 3/4 moon began climbing over the White Mountains. 2.5 hours later I had booted my snow gear up to snow line, and was back at the car just in time to enjoy a beer with my new saviors and eat a scrumptious meal of pasta with canned veggies, butter sauce, and roast beef hash...as Homer Simpson would say, "mmmmm, dinner from a can."

I got moving the next morning at 7am, while my 3 saviors were still in a drunken slumber. I had stashed my splitboard about where McGee creek enters the broad basin below the east side of Peaklett. It took me about 40 min of hiking to get there and another 2 hours of skinning to circumvent Peaklett on its north side into the enormous cirque below Humphreys' east side.

The monstrous cirque is walled in by Peaklett to the east, the saddle between Peaklett and Humphreys to the South, Humphreys' East face to the West and Basin Mountain's Southern slopes to the North. I ditched my board below some 4th/5th class section on the North side of Humphrey's East arete. The climbing to gain the arete proper was spotted with snow and ice. As soon as I reached the ridge, sunlight warmed my freezing bones, and began to thaw my soaking wet climbign shoes. The view to the South was dominated by a huge bowl below Mt. Emerson's East side, and 2 prominent snow-filled culoirs which dropped from its summit ridge like static white waterfalls into a sea of satin.

The climbing on the arete was phenomenal. At many points, the ridge is so razor thin, that you can have your torso and legs on one side of the ridge and have your arms draped over the other side. Headwalls can be skirted by dropping low on either side of the ridge, but snow and the fact that staying on the ridge is freakin' awesome, made doing so unnecessary. The climbing is low 5th class, but harder options are plentiful and became increasingly attractive as my adrenaline soared. This was my frist real long 5th class solo, and the feeling is unmatched. When a fall means death, the mind and body attain a certain synergy and climbing moves become second nature, flowing like steps on a sidewalk. I had to remind myself to stop and take some pictures and drink some water.

View down the arete from Married Man's Point. The arete leads down to the saddle and back up the west arete of Peaklett

View back down the ridge from Married Man's point

The end of my climb was bittersweet. After about 1.5 hours on the ridge, I came to what had looked like the summit from down below. When I reached the pinnacle (Married Man's Point), I quickly realized I was not on the summit, and in fact i thought I was not even on the East Arete. The real Humphreys was to the Northwest, several hundred feet higher than the point I was on. I had read on Summitpost.org that the climb was grade III, but the distance to the summit along the rest of the Aast Arete appeared to be at least another 2-3 hours of soloing and rappelling away. It was 130pm. I considered going to the summit, but did not have any food left, nor did I want to be coming down on a snowboard in the dark. I did not feel defeated though, because mountaineering is not about summiting, but about being in the mountains, and I was positively in the mountains. I was also elated that I had soloed so much rock and fealt so comfortable doing it. I would later be told that the section of the East arete that I had climbed was the most fun, and now I have something to come back and try in the future...to measure myself by.

Anxious to get back to my snowboard, I down-climbed and rappelled (I had a 30 meter rope and harness) into the top of the gully where I had cached my board. Bad idea. The snow was still hard and I spent the next 45 min facing into the steep gully, painfully kicking steps in nev with my rock shoes and then using those steps for my bare hands as well. By the time I reached my board, both my feet and hands were numb and my toes were bruised. I strapped into my board and began the mellow ride back to my car. I was able to ride all the way around Peaklett, staying high on its slopes, but was stopped on its east side, by flat and uphill ground. After 45 min of riding, I packed my board up and hiked for 2 hours back to my car, arriving at dusk.

Back at my camp, there were 2 guys and a girl, who had just gotten back from a day of skiing on some lower peaks. They watched me slog toward my car and offered me a beer. We talked for a long time while they made burritos which they kindly invited me to share, along with plenty more beer. All in all, it was a great climb and ride. Later that night, I drove south to Independence to meet up with Nate and Scotty for what proved to be a failed foray into George Creek. But that's another story, mang.