Mount Humphreys, Mount Agassiz, Mount Fremont


By: Weldon F. Heald


Arizona's Tip Top

There is a queer urge in some people-to see a mountain is to want to get to the top of it. I am one of these eccentrics with a bad case of mountainitis. The only known cure is a diet of high camps, vast panorama and lofty summits against the blue sky. That is the best reason I can give for spending five days atop northern Arizona's San Francisco Peaks. There I played Zeus upon Olympus, far above the busy world of men, and came down satisfied- until the next mountain rose skyward before me, beckoning.

But the San Francisco Peaks excerpt a special allure to mountain addicts like me, for they rise abrupt and isolated more than a mile above piney Coconino Plateau and they look down upon everything else in the state. Wherever one goes into the Canyon Country each sweeping view includes the stately outline of this huge, old, peak-topped volcano, it's summit snows often appearing to float in the sky like a silver cloud. It was inevitable. I had to go.

So I started from Flagstaff one early morning in July and drove the winding road which climbs through pine, fir and aspen forests to the Arizona Snow Bowl, winter sports center, 9,300 feet up on the western flank of the peaks. Now it was a long, green, aspen-fringed meadow slanting down the mountainside to the plateau below. Butterflies were busy among the blue lupines and rock squirrels frisked about collecting groceries for a long, hard winter. As I parked the car a cool mountain-scented breeze stirred the aspen leaves in an excited whisper. I took a deep breath, shouldered my thirty pound pack, and faced the barren summit of Agassiz peak looming three thousand feet above.

It was a pleasant walk up the sloping sunny meadow in the fresh morning air. But near its head I cut up through a somber spruce forest to the west ridge of Agassiz Peak. It was hear I began to realize this was going to be a long, tough pull and I went into low gear, plodding slowly up the ever-steepening ridge. After an hr I stopped in an opening at about 10,500 feet to rest and enjoy the tremendous view westward of the plateau below. Sudden I heard a loud scratching sound behind me. I looked around and saw what I first thought was a porcupine high in a dead spruce. But it wasn't. It was a bear's head peaking at me around a tree trunk. The bear had a startled expression and I expect I did too. We looked at each other a few minutes. Then the bear decided to leave and he slid down the tree with the speed of a fireman man on a brass pole, chunks of dead bark flying in all directions. At the bottom he took to the woods and lumbered off at top speed, grunting like an enormous pig. He was a big fellow with a light Cinnamon coat, weighing maybe 350 pounds, and as I plodded along upwards I was just as pleased that he had voted to leave this part of the mountain to me. But I hadn't gone a quarter of a mile when I was brought up sharply by a sound like a baby crying. I cautiously moved forward and soon spotted a little bear cub far up in a spiny alpine fir. He was wailing piteously in a voice so human it was startling. Below stood Momma Bear looking up and giving encouraging grunts. Neither of them saw me, but apparently Papa had warned his family that a dread human was in the offing and to get going. Having heard at my mother's knee and everywhere that it is wisest to let mama bears and their cubs transact the business of living undisturbed, I stayed perfectly quiet. Little by little the cub made his perilous descent crying all the while, until he finally reached the ground and hastily followed mama into the heavy spruce thickets. It looked as if my sojourn on the San Francisco would be far from lonely.

At 11,000 feet the heavy spruce-fir-forests began to thin, the trees became stunted, and five hundred feet higher the final treeless, chocolate-brown cone of Agassiz Peak rose into the deep blue sky. To mountain enthusiasts timberline is an exhilarating no-mans -land between the familiar world of vegetation below and the fascinating and mysterious arctic realm of rock, snow and ice of the high peaks. My spirits rose as I slowly tracked past the last wind-blown spruces, some of them bent almost flat among the bare lava blocks.

But the regions above timberline are by no means as desolate as they first seem, and I came upon many diminutive gardens of bright alpine flowers, grasses and ferns in the lee of sheltering rocks. They grew only four to six inches high and the largest covered a few square feet, but they were as lush and verdant as if they were daily cared-for and irrigated. Among the flowers, I was particularly surprised to find the light-blue, cup-like clustered blossoms of the sticky Polemonium, or Sky Pilot. This is a far-distant southern outpost for this hardy inhabitant of the high Rockies.

At last the grade slacked off and a few easy steps brought me to the barren, stony summit of Agassiz, 12,340 feet elevation, second highest of the San Francisco Peaks. The bear family had beaten me to the top that morning, for rocks had been overturned and the cinders dug into for whatever rarified mice or insects live in that lofty spot. Here I ate my lunch as if perched in an observation balloon.

The panorama was utterly magnificent, sweeping in every direction over mountains, forests and deserts to the rim of the world 150 miles away. South was busy Flagstaff, like a toy village, 5,400 feet below, and beyond stretched the vast pine woods and prairies of the Coconino Plateau. The Santa Fe Railroad and Highway 66 were thin lines lightly stretched across the country. Far to the north the Grand Canyon showed as a great gash, and further east the round, blue hump of Navajo Mountain dominated the varicolored buttes, mesas, and plateaus of the Indian country. Eastward lay the entire expanse of the fiery-lined Painted Desert, backed by New Mexico's distant Chusco Mountains. Roundabout swept the semicircle of the San Francisco Peaks, with soaring Humphreys Peak 12,611 feet, Arizona's highest point, rising a mile about a half to the north, and Fremont Peak, 11,940 feet, the third of the trio below to the east. But the previous winter had been exceptionally dry and the usual extensive July snowfields were completely lacking. Only a few tiny snow patches lingered under shady, north-facing cliffs. The San Francisco Peaks form a climatic island in the sky differing greatly from the semiarid region below. Here are animals. birds, plants and flowers typical of northern Alaska or Greenland and from Agassiz summit I could look down over five of western North Americas seven life zones, compressed into the space of a few miles. The weather up top is truly arctic-alpine, with deep winter snows and freezing nights throughout the summer.

The immense, isolated mountain is a dead volcano which probably once rose 3,000 feet higher than now. Countless centuries of erosion have scored its slopes with ravines and gouged out a deep valley into the heart of the old cone from the east. Round the valley's head the volcano's rim has cut into a horseshoe of ragged summits which form the present San Francisco Peaks. In the depths of this great gash is Core Ridge, consisting of the four former volcanic vents that built the mighty mountain. During the Pleistocene Ice Age a small glacier flowed eastward down the valley from the rim of peaks, and its moraines can still be seen for a distance of four miles. The last event to disturb the serenity of this secluded valley was a disastrous fire which destroyed a magnificent stand of Engelmann spruce in 1876. A new forest is beginning to clothe the slopes with aspen thickets and thousands of pointed-topped young spruces.

A couple of Cassin's purple finches-I think they were- visited me and hopped about chittering a lively song, and over the summit. Otherwise I had the mountaintop to myself. Just by chance I spied Papa, Mama and Baby Bear, looking little bigger than brown ants, crossing the rocky saddle under Humphreys Peak. They were probably returning home after a day-long, cafeteria-style meal on the west side of the mountain. I don't know how many hours I lingered there watching the kaleidoscopic change of colors over mountain and plateau, while little cotton-white puffy clouds floated overhead and cast their polka-dot shadows on the land beneath. But it was late afternoon when I dropped down into Doyle Saddle and made camp.

I couldn't have picked a more delightful spot. Here, between Agassiz and Fremont, at an elevation of 11,250 feet, were the greenest of meadows spread with wildflowers and dotted with groves of spruce and fir. The mountain dropped steeply on both sides, giving tree-framed vistas of peaks, valleys and the wide-spreading plateau far beneath. The only thing this high-perched Elyssium lacked was water, but I soon found a frozen supply in a lingering snowbank a couple of hundred feet below.

For four days this was home, and I slept under the stars, cooked my meals, and sat by my evening campfire in that perfect peace that is found only in Nature's unspoiled places. At such tunes we mountain addicts experience a sort of sustained, disembodied elation that is perhaps akin to the effect of a drug. Our senses and immental perceptions become keener and infinitely more pleasurable than in the heavy, humanity-charged atmosphere below. Possibly this explains mountainitis, possibly it doesn't, but all lovers of the high places will know what I mean.

Each day I explored the summits and wandered the lofty ridges of time grand semicircle of peaks, and dropped down through the forest to inspect the once-fiery heart of the mountain at Core Ridge. One night, too, I sat atop Fremont Peak in the frosty, crystal-clear air and watched the moon rise and flood the world with a spectral silver radiance. Three times I met my bear friends, and they came to accept me as a harmless fellow mammal-inspecting me calmly going unhurriedly going about their business.

The last morning, as I was packing my knapsack, I heard a call, and a little dark-skinned man approached the Camp. He carried a shiny 30-06 high-powered rifle almost as long as he was. He broke into a torrent of Spanish, patted his gun proudly, and pointed into the woods. My Spanish is of the California real estate variety, mostly consisting of such phrases as Mui Vista and Lagnua Alta, but I did catch the words oso and muerto as they flew by. I gathered that he was a Mexican sheepherder out to get a bear that had been bothering his woolly charges. That my mountain bears had done any such thing I didn't believe for a moment, and I suspected the little man simply wanted to have some sport with his new rifle, for which he must have paid six months wages.

Had I seen any bears. he demanded.

Yes. I admitted. I had.

Where had I seen them? he asked excitedly.

I saw them on the east slope of Fremont Peak. And I carefully pointed to the spot.

"Gracias," he grinned. showing all his teeth. He started up the ridge, then turned and held up his rifle. "Boom! Boom!" he shouted. "Oso muerto!" The little man laughed heartily and disappeared.

I shouldered my pack and started down the mountain. Sure, I saw my friends, the bears, over on Fremont Peak. But that was three days ago. I knew they were now on the north side of Humphreys Peak in the opposite direction.

Dead bear! I should say not! I thought as I dropped rapidly down from the high places back to civilization.

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