Climbing Mount Humphreys, AZ

Climbing Mount Humphreys, AZ

Mount Humphreys

Arizona Highpoint – # 33

10 miles, 12,637 ft.

September 30, 2013

Wes Chapman

Preface:  In 1976 I had the privilege of spending the fall
term doing the Dartmouth College Geology Field Camp – known as the “three-way
stretch” – with four of the greatest teachers I’ve ever known, Dick Stoiber,
Dick Birnie, Noye Johnson and Half Zantop. A large part of the time on that
trip was spent in the American West – specifically Northern Arizona around
Mount Humphreys. Coming back and climbing this Hill brought back a flood of
memories – and even a little bit of still remembered knowledge that these guys
managed to impart 37 years ago. These were terrific educators, first rate
academics – but most importantly great guys. I dedicate this blog to them.

            Mt. Humphreys Lead

Mt. Humphreys AZ – a Beautiful Hill & Pleasant Hike

I first came to Flagstaff AZ in November of 1976 as part of the Dartmouth College Geology Field Camp – the famous “three way stretch” designed and implemented by the late, great Dick Stoiber. This was the first place that Dick could show us eastern geologists real volcanoes – albeit extinct ones. I think that Dick loved volcanoes because they were so deceivingly straight forward, but still enigmatic upon deeper study. Coming out here to see Mt. Humphreys, and the other 600 smaller surficial volcanic expressions in the area, animated him like nothing I’d ever seen before– and this was a guy given to animation. Dick’s enthusiasm was catching for everything that he did – management gurus today call it passion. If that’s what it’s called, I know that Dick must have invented it – or at least have had a patent on his own distinct formula for it. Dick Stoiber taught me to love volcanoes, and it started right here at Mt. Humphreys.

Early Snow on th eadjacent Snow Bowl Ski Area

Early season snow on the Snow Bowl from the Mount Humphreys Trail

Mt. Humphreys (Nuva’tuk-iya-ovi in Hopi Indian) is an extinct strato volcano in the Kachina Peaks Wilderness, located 11-12 miles north of Flagstaff Arizona in the San Francisco Mountains.  The volcano formed between 1 million and 400,000 years ago, when it exploded in an event similar to Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Hood. The other peaks in the area were part of the same volcanic complex. The rock is all basalt and basalt ejecta, and the last known eruption was at local feature called Sunset Crater about 1,000 ago. Because this volcanic complex lies entirely inside the tectonic plate, it is assumed that the volcanic activity is due to a local “hot-spot” in the mantle, probably caused by radioactive heating.

Ridge Walking to the Summit

The Summit Ridge – Home to Land Snails

What makes this place so cool is that it lies within sight (a fabulous view from the summit) of the Grand Canyon. Recent volcanism juxtaposed with the world’s largest pile of flat lying exposed sediments – it makes for a fairly wild field trip. And the bio-diversity on this hill rivals the geological diversity in the area. The Hill has six bio-zones – all defined by altitude and shade. These were originally identified in the work of Clinton Hart Merriam in 1889. I had the pleasure of meeting a local biologist from the Northern Arizona Museum on the hike, and he pointed out six different species living under a rock in the barren zone at 12,000 feet. Perhaps the coolest was a land snail, no bigger than the head of a pin – with a translucent body. You don’t see those every day.

Alamos Changing via Metachromasia

A view of Alamos in full Metachromasia* in the old blast crater

The hike was quick, and the only challenge was the altitude. As I’ve gotten older I find that it takes me more than 6 hours at altitude to prepare for a 12,000 Hill – coming from 500 feet of altitude in Nashville. I got started by 7:00 at the trail head in the Snow Bowl Ski area parking lot. It was surprisingly cool – about 20 degrees and there were remnants of an earlier snow beginning at around 9,500 feet. I heard elk on the way up – but didn’t see any. I guess that the snails are easier to track down. This Hill has bristlecone pines near the top – gnarly old midgets that are the oldest living creatures on earth. For the Hopi Indians this was a sacred place – I’m fully sympathetic with that view.

Happy Success at the Summit

Happy success at the summit

Peak Metachromasia

Peak Metachromasia

I hiked up alone, but was joined at the summit by three young guys, one with an Australian Sheep dog. These guys were in the chip business at Intel, which has a facility locally, and were bemoaning Intel’s lack of foresight to get into mobile processors. Sales suck. I guess that the trend to tablets is accelerating. The trip out was as social as the trip up was solitary – I bumped into a dozen climbers, and two more dogs.

It’s been almost 40 years since I first came here with Dick Stoiber. Arizona has grown enormously, and Flagstaff has gone from a small town to a high tech center for medical products and micro-processors. Miraculously, and wonderfully, Mount Humphreys seems unchanged.

Adios from Mt. Humphreys

Adios, from Mount Humphreys

  • Two years ago in October I was riding my bike to my friend Rick Morse’s house when I realized that I didn’t know the word that is used scientifically to describe the act of leaves changing color in the fall. I was chagrinned at this, and brought the matter up with Rick, certain that he would set me straight. To my surprise (and delight) he didn’t know either, and we spent some time looking for the proper term – in vain. There are plenty of words for parts of the process, but none for the process as a whole. Rick invented the word Metachromasia to describe it – and I’ve been waiting two years to use it in a Blog – and here you have it. If anybody knows the real word, or feels that they have made up a better one, please let me know
Wes Chapman
Written by Wes Chapman

4 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    October 03, 2013

    GREAT report, Wes! Thank you for sharing. Hope all is well in Nashville. The Upper Valley is not the same without you and Martha.


  2. Avatar
    December 25, 2013

    I was told that there was a place on Humphreys where people used to picnic in the winter because it was a part of the caldera and it was warm enough that you could enjoy the time. At some point in the past (50’s) the Forest Service closed it because it was dangerous(?). Do you know anything about that?


    • Avatar
      December 25, 2013

      Wayne, I do not know about that, but it is possible. I’ll dig around a little and see if I can find anything in the geology literature. All the Best, Wes


  3. Avatar
    January 08, 2014

    I lived in AZ for 10 years and never climbed the peak. Later, from Philly I returned seven years in a row and climbed it, usually in the fall for the full “metachromasia” effect. Incidentally, the net seems full of definitions for this term. Beginning with Wikipedia we have, and there are numerous other references especially with respect to biology.