Mount Humphreys

August 1927 (Courtesy: American Alphine Club)

By: Norman Clyde


It was on the evening of the third of July that the writer, accompanied by two friends from San Francisco wound up the steep eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada to Piute Pass, an elevation of 11,409 feet above sea level. The objective of the trip was an ascent of Mount Humphreys, a lofty peak that rises to an altitude of 13,972 feet a short distance to the north of the pass. It is a unique and isolated mountain that projects several thousand feet above a broad rolling, desolate basin, above timber line in most places, and dotted with a number of lakes, the largest of which has been appropriately called Desolation Lake.

Desolate although the basin may be, it possesses a strong fascination. It has an air of elevated and spacious aloofness somewhat different from anything else in the Sierra. It is so high that although almost surrounded by mountains, only Mount Humphreys rises to any great elevation above it, giving to it an atmosphere of expansiveness and openness of outlook not common even in the high regions of the Sierra Nevada. To the west the view commands the long, gradually sloping and heavily timbered western flank of the Sierra. Although apparently barren, its rocky slopes and grassy depressions, during the summer months, contain in places a profusion of purple bryanthus and laurel, blue penstemon, graceful columbines with lovely flowers ringed orange and scarlet, while in the boggy spots one is occasionally delighted at the sight of the exquisite, white drooping bells of the cassiope.

After pausing for a short time on the pass we proceeded in a southwesterly direction over a rather rough terrain strewn with boulders, to the margin of a lake about a mile from the pass. Here, on a projecting point about 50 yards above the former, we made camp. Dwarfed and matted thickets of white bark pine afforded an ample supply of wood and snug, sheltered sleeping quarters, while the elevated position of the point commanded an inspiring outlook over lake and basin and especially toward the towering spire of Mount Humphreys several miles to the north. Soon we kindled a fire in a protected nook, prepared an evening meal of mountaineering fare, after which we lounged for a while about the cheerful blaze and then retired to our cozy sleeping quarters beneath the albicanlis pines. The wind blew rather strongly; the atmosphere was cold and crisp; the sky was spangled with myriads of stars that glowed with astonishing brilliance. The matted pines formed snug apartments protected from the chill breeze and canopied by a living roof of densely growing branches through which there were glints ofthe starry sky.

Early the following morning we were on our way northward toward the base of the mountain. Light of wonderful clarity and brightness glowed on its summit and rapidly descending, quickly dispelled the dark shadows from the undulating basin which we were traversing. Just beyond Piute Pass we were joined by two other men who had failed to reach our camp during the preceding evening. Together we advanced over the broken, rocky stretch of country between the pass and Mount Humphreys. Eventually we rounded a small lake and reached the foot of the peak.

As the writer had ascended it on a previous occasion, there was no doubt as to the route to be followed. After crossing a stretch of loose talus we came to solid rock consisting mostly of dark, contorted schists. Although steep, the rough, broken rock afforded interesting but not difficult climbing. Eventually we surmounted the belt of dark schist, reached the granite of the upper portion of the mountain and gained the comb of the ridge to the west of the peak-a sharp pinnacle rising some 500 feet on the opposite side of a deep notch. At first sight it seems to have impressed all the fifteen or more who have climbed it, as being unscalable. However, formidable as it may appear, under favorable conditions any experienced rock climber who knows the route can surmount it without incurring any very great difficulty or hazard. But snow or inclement weather may render such an attempt a hazardous feat.

After stopping for a few minutes, we dropped down into the notch and began to ascend a steep, narrow chute that extends about half-way up the pinnacle and then terminates abruptly in a sheer wall. At this point we swung to the right and were soon scrambling up a precipitous knife-edge a few feet in width that dropped away on either side almost vertically for hundreds of feet. This we jestingly called "Jacob's Ladder" as we hoisted ourselves up from one hand and foot hold to another. Finally we pulled ourselves up to the summit-a point of fractured rock several yards in diameter.

The view from this aerie perch was sublime. The peak rises in an isolated grandeur unique in the Sierra, and commands one of the finest views in the range. From the Yosemite Park to Mount Whitney the great array of the Sierra is seen in all its rugged sublimity. Although a few clouds hung in the sky, the vision was almost perfect. To the east, across the Owens Valley some 9,000 feet below, rise the White Mountains, a limited range that rivals the Sierra in elevation but not in the glacier-carved peaks and canyons that render the Sierra Nevada so beautiful and sublime, for wherever one stands within it, on every hand there is mute evidence of the former occupation of the range by numerous glaciers that carved and fluted mountain and gorge into rounded lines or jagged peaks, according to the character of the action, or the nature of the rock with which they came into contact. Here on the summit of Mount Humphreys it was interesting to scan the great array of peaks and observe the erosion resulting sometimes in a flat-topped mountain with vertical walls; sometimes in sharp furrowed peaks; at others, in rounded domes.

Glaciers have eroded away much of the original mass of Mount Humphreys, particularly on the northern and eastern flanks which present almost vertical faces below which are cirques in which small residual glaciers still linger. The summit, as are most of the loftier ones of the Sierra, is a remnant of an ancient landscape untouched by glacial action, calling to mind a time when huge glaciers wound gradually down the canyons of the western slope, and precipitous ones filled every gorge to the east, to such an extent that only the higher peaks and ridges protruded like islands above a waste of snow and ice. On this particular day the sun shone so warm that it was pleasant to loiter on the narrow summit visualizing perhaps, that far away polar time, as the eye roamed from jagged peak, and gazed down the profound canyons that furrow the western flank of the range or down the great gorges that cut deeply into its eastern scarp.

However, we soon realized that we should prepare to return down the steep mountain, as heavy clouds were gathering in the west and coming slowly toward us. We reached the base of the mountain without incident worthy of note and made our way over the undulating stretch of country between us and camp on the rocky promontory overlooking Muriel Lake and Humphreys Basin with a superb view of Mount Humphreys itself. As we looked back at the latter, we observed that its summit, so warm and sunny a few hours earlier in the day, was enveloped in a dense thunder cloud.


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