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August 1999

The Best U.S. Summits: Top Of The World

Who needs Everest when you can have these eight summits, all hikeable, all close to home, no sherpas or yaks required.

You seem nervous. I don’t blame you, because this will be an extraordinary day. We’ll push ourselves hard. We’ll peer dizzily down at thousands of feet of nothingness beneath our boot soles. Later, there’s a slight chance we might feel our hair sizzle and have to turn around quickly before lightning strikes. But it will be a great day.

I don’t need to tell you how magical mountains are. You’ve witnessed them from below. You’ve watched the first light of morning kiss the highest summit, then caress ever lower the mountain’s flanks until the whole world shares its warmth. By the time valley folk feel the sun’s embrace, the ethereal light is gone. Watching from beneath, you miss out on something only the heavens-and mountain climbers-know. Today we hope to find it.

Yes, the heights are calling. But you seem unsure about the climbing. Don’t worry. We’re going to experience the mountain through the sheer joy of hiking. As we scramble upward, we’ll sense the mountain gliding under our hands and feet as if she’s there for us and we for her. Sound corny? Then think of yourself as a kid climbing carefree in the well-rubbed branches of a favorite tree. You’ll remember that feeling later today.

Yes, that oft-maligned word “challenge” will be a big part of our day. But we’re not brutes wrestling the summit to the ground. How absurd. Nevertheless, at some point we’ll venture deep inside ourselves to pull out extra reserves of energy, courage, or mere tenacity. This will lend an air of “victory” to our climax-not victory over the mountain, but over our own weaknesses. If the weather permits and we reach the top, we’ll find an alchemy in that win. Because the scramble was so meaningful, so too becomes the summit-the golden crown on an exhausting journey.

But enough talk. Let’s grab our packs and go.

Snowmass Mountain

“This is one of the truly classic places in Colorado,” says Gerry Roach, author of Colorado’s Fourteeners (see Guidebook below). “I love how the summit, which lies in the heart of a wilderness, isn’t visible from any road.” One of the most rugged of Colorado’s famous Fourteeners also is one of its most remote-a marvelous combination for backpackers, especially when the mountain’s east side offers stupendous scampering up a ridge that’s “always interesting but never desperate,” according to Roach.

Route: From the trailhead, 10 miles west of Aspen, it’s a lovely 8-mile hike up Snowmass Creek. Camp near Snowmass Lake (at least 200 feet from the water), then ascend a nasty scree slope to the mountain’s large namesake snowfield, which you’ll climb to a rounded protrusion below Snowmass Mountain’s southeast ridge. Continue to the summit ridge at 13,700 feet. The most exciting part comes in the final quarter mile of climbing when you have to scramble to the summit using hand- and footholds.

Challenge factor: Moderately high. There’s some exposure along the summit ridge. Bring trekking poles (or an ice axe) to traverse the lower snowfield. Beware that the snow can turn icy in September and can freeze solid during cold spring mornings, requiring crampons and an ice axe.

Guidebook: Colorado’s Fourteeners: From Hikes to Climbs, 2nd edition, by Gerry Roach (1999; Fulcrum Publishing, Golden, CO; 800-992-2908; $18.95).

Contact: No permits required. White River National Forest, Aspen Ranger District: (970) 925-3445.

Humphreys Peak

“I’ve been up this peak probably 100 times,” says Bruce Grubbs, author of Hiking Northern Arizona (see Guidebook below). “For me, the highlights are the distinct life zones you climb through on the way-the theory of life zones was coined here back in the 1880s-and the last mile you walk along the rim of the collapsed volcano. Up there you can see well beyond 100 miles. It’s like looking out the window of an airplane.” So strikingly does this highest peak in Arizona rise from the surrounding desert that the Navajo considered this one of the “pillars of the sky.” For an experienced backpacker, the ascent makes an exciting climax to a two- to three-day circuit around lower mountains and along the rim of the exquisite Interior Valley.

Route: Humphreys rises a vertical mile from the plateau, but the road from Flagstaff to the trailhead cuts the elevation gain in half. Complete the circuit of the Kachina, Weatherford, and Humphreys Peak Trails plus summiting in18 miles total. An overnight is best in early summer when snow can be melted for drinking; otherwise carry water. Camping in the Interior Valley and off-trail hiking above 11,400 feet are prohibited to protect vegetation.

Challenge factor: Moderately low.

The trail is steep and covered with sharp, baseball-size lava rocks. Packed snow and ice can make the trek slippery, and the wind can be fierce. Avoid the summit on midsummer afternoons when thunderstorms can rage.

Guidebook: Hiking Northern Arizona, by Bruce Grubbs (1996; Falcon Publishing Co., Helena, MT; 800-582-2665; $12.95).

Contact: No permits required. Peaks Ranger District, Coconino National Forest: (520) 556-7400.

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