By: Gary Schenk
We met Saturday morning, Aug. 14, 2004, at the hiker parking lot at North Lake. Judy Rittenhouse, Patty Rambert, Mary Jo Dungfelder and I were going to give Mt. Humphreys the old college try. All we needed was a little help from the weatherman. A series of afternoon thunderstorms had been plaguing the High Sierra, but were scheduled to clear out Sunday, our summit day. However, the last forecast had the system hanging around for one more day. We decided to bike in, even if just to lounge in the tents.
After the usual pack shuttle to the trailhead, we set off for Humpbreys Basin. Our destination was the highest lake in the basin, a small tarn at the base of Mt. Humphreys at an elevation of just over 12,000 feet. 1:30 PM found us diving into a rocky lean-to, avoiding some rain. It soon passed, and we pressed on to the top. It took us five hours at a moderate pace. When the next rain hit, we were ensconced in our tents, listening to the thunder.
While making dinner, we decided on a plan. We’d leave at 6 AM, which would give us plenty of time to reach the peak and return before the afternoon storm.
The next morning, we left just slightly behind schedule. Taking Judy’s suggestion, we headed for a conspicuous triangular boulder on the scree slope. From this boulder, we went up and left. Following obvious scree ramps, we soon reached the main ramp to the notch. This ramp soon had us at the notch.
We considered the clouds on the westerly horizon, but decided that we had plenty of time, yet. After all, we were almost there. We ignored the cloud coming from Owens Valley that rose all the way to the notch. We changed into climbing shoes and took off.
Humphreys has some beautiful golden rock. The cool weather made for great friction, and the third class climbing was marvelous. We soon reached the wall where the fourth class climbing began. Mary Jo soloed onward, while the rest of us broke out the ropes. Just as they say, when you break out the ropes, progress slows to a crawl. Judy led efficiently to the next belay, and we followed. Still, it took a lot of time. One more roped pitch to go. With two ropes and four climbers, Mary Jo and I simul-climbed on one rope, while Patty followed and cleaned on the other.
From the last belay station Mary Jo and I quickly scrambled to the small summit, while Judy belayed Patty. At 10:40, we had just signed in when I felt the first drop. “We’ve got to go now!” It was starting to hail. We passed Judy and Patty on the way down. By the time they returned from the summit, I had Mary Jo on belay and she was downclimbing to the first rap station. The hail was already filling the cracks and coating the slabs. There was to be no easy downclimbing of third class rock today. Mary Jo soon reached the slings, yet an impressive amount of hail had already fallen, along with the temperature.
At Judy’s urging, we rigged for rapell, and soon, but not soon enough, joined Mary Jo.
And so began our long retreat off Humphreys. Judy was quite the trooper, and was the first on rapell at each station. While waiting to rap, I received an undue amount of squeezing and hugging from Mary Jo and Patty, however under the circumstances it wasn’t quite as much fun as it should have been. Maybe because of the thunder? One bolt in particular seemed a little close.
It seemed like six inches of hail had fallen by the time it let up. However, the wind kept howling, making our last rap station particularly miserable. As cold as it was, the accumulated hail was already starting to melt, creating small water falls on the rock.
After what seemed an eternity, we reached the notch and the end of our ordeal. We started down the ramp into the lee of the storm. A slight rest and some food, and we wondered what all the bother had been about!
Our tents were a welcome sight. We waited out the afternoon storm in our bags, much nicer than being perched on exposed rock.
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