Tuesday, December 21, 2010

3 Mountain Ranges Takes 11 Hours

Yesterday, I attempted a comprehensive hike through the nation's largest city park, South Mountain Park, Phoenix Arizona.  My plan was simple.  Drop off my car at the main entrance near Central early in the morning, hike a mile out to Central, and then have Dr Desert Flower take me to the East Side of the park at the Beverly Canyon entrance near 46th Street.  Then,
- hike to the SW, along the Guadalupe Range, finding the 15 mile National trail
- Detour through "Hidden Valley" and "Fat Man's Pass"
- Circle Around the mass of telecommunications towers on Mount Suddoa
- Cross Over Telegraph Pass, where the Eastern National Trail meets the Western National Trail
- Climb the ridge line of the Gila Range that overlooks the suburb of Ahwatukee and the Gila River Indian Reservation
- Head to the SW corner of the park, Descend out of the Gila Range, and head north to the San Juan lookout, near 43rd Avenue, where the 15 mile National Trail ends.
- Check the time, weather, food supply, water supply (carried in, no water supplied through the trail), general health & fatigue, and then decide whether to
a) take the low land Bajada Trail back (boring, and full of washes) for 4 miles to my parked car.
b) take the Alta Trail, which rises up the Ma Ha Tauk Range, which is crowned with Maricopa Peak at 2502 feet - nearly 1/2 a mile up, and is rated as "Extreme / Severe"
(this is illustrated by the green highlighted route below, which I carried in my Kelty pack)
Altogether, it was to be about 23 miles (3 Beverly + 15 National + 4.8 Alta + 3.2 various to the car), and I figured, at 3 mph average walking speed, should take me about 8 hours, in 72F partly cloudy skies with a light breeze weather.  Dr Desert Flower dropped me off behind the over-staffed BAE plant that hogs the 46th street eastern car park at 8:15am.  "No problem" I thought, "I'll be done by mid afternoon".  LOL!

I carried with me, four 300ml plastic water bottles, two 800ml Kelty refillable water bottles with very weak Gatorade solutions mixed inside, one 2 liter Camelback back-pack, one 70 gram bag of Trader Joe's freeze dried banana slices (ingredients: bananas), one 170 gram bag of Trader Joe's dried baby pineapple (ingredients: pineapple), a ziplock baggie with a handful of dried granny smith Bare Fruit apples, a ziplock baggie of 2 handfuls of Marcona almonds, and 2 plastic bags to collect garage that I'd find along the trail.  The plan was to consume the plastic bottles first, dropping off the bottles near the parking area recycling bins I knew I'd be passing, and eat as I walked. 

I did not stop for lunch.  I did stop to take frequent photos, and to answer text messages from a worried Dr Desert Flower, who knew I was hiking alone.  Starting from the top left in the photo, I headed to the bottom right, and made it to the page split around noon.  "No Problem, right on schedule" - I erroneously thought.  I even jogged on level ground and while going down hill, to "guarantee" I'd be back before dusk solidly fell.

The Guadalupe Range borders South Phoenix, Tempe and Ahwatukee, and there's ample road access, so there were many hikers: 
  • Female couples, 
  • a few groups of moms and their kids, 
  • a few well dressed gay male couples walking their tiny (yet fashionable) doggies, 
  • a few lone mountain bikers, who were overtly courteous
  • a group chest-puffing-lycra-wearing-EXTREME-sport-fraternity-brothers trying to impress each other
  • some dads with kids and dogs, 
  • a few other lone hikers like myself, but headed in the opposite direction and invariably wearing shorts (while I had denim jeans and long sleeves on, since it was in the 50s when I started my journey)
But as I ascended the Gila Range, there was only one dad and his elementary aged son about a 1/8th mile ahead of me.  And for the rest of the day, they were the only other humans I saw.  As we neared Goat Hill (elevation 2504 ft) they stopped to survey the slopes to the south, towards Ahwatukee.  I caught up to them, and asked them how they were doing on water (as each carried less than 1 liter of water).  The dad reassured me they were fine, and asked if I knew were the southern trail was that connected to the houses 2 miles (horizontally) away.  I showed them the map, which I downloaded the night before, and refuted the existence of any southern passage.  "Oh, there's a new area, most people don't know about it" the dad responded "we'll have to bushwack it".  I never saw them again... I hope they made it.  The slopes were pretty steep to get down into the valley below as the National Trail hugs the ridge line of the Gila Range. 
Beyond the ocotillo flower in the foreground, is the Estrella Range to the west, most of which sits on the Gila River Indian reservation.  At this point, the mountain bike tracks stopped, and there were very very few human foot prints.  The sun was still high in the sky, and I'd only consumed 2 bottles of water and the bag of banana chips, so I munched the dried apples, and downed one of the Kelty Gatorade bottles as I descended the Gilas. 

The wildlife of the Western end of the park, is alive and well.  Up to this point, I'd see jack rabbits, chipmunks, red tailed hawks, and loads of scat along the trail from bob cat (Big kitty), javelina (lots of seeds), , and lots of hair balls.  Where trails crossed each other, or approached washes, it seemed to be the most prized real estate for olfactory advertising for animals of every sort - which I found very very strange initially, but common-place by the end of the hike.

Along the Western Gila range are several abandoned miles.  I did not go into any of them, but these were not natural caves, as there were tailings all around and the holes were at least 100 years old, from the crude nature of the excavations, about 2 meters in diameter.  Turns out, before WWI, there were several operating gold mines in what is now South Mountain (link here).  Most of them have been dynamited shut, to keep people from getting lost or trapped.

So I reached San Juan look out at 4pm.  I KNEW the sun was setting at 5:25pm yesterday.  And I knew I had either a 4 mile low land walk through the valley ahead, or a 4.8 mile return along the Alta trail on the green line over the Ma Ha Tauk Range. Over-estimating my ability to ascend 1/2 a mile vertically, go 4 miles, and descend 1/2 a mile vertically, I chose "b".
Going up the Ma Ha Tauk, was the easy part.  Yes, it steep, but the Alta trail was well marked, and mercifully had NO Horse traffic (and horse droppings) on it, so I didn't have to avoid stepping into anything of equine origin.  There were also no mountain bike tracks on the trail.  Albeit it was very rocky, and tracks would not show up well, but even in the sandy gradual areas, there were still no tracks.  I was completely alone.
The Alta Trail has 10 marking posts (compared to the 54 that the National Trail had).  The marking posts are not really placed at "mile intervals", but more as "sign posts" where turns are needed.  Near San Juan point was the "10" post, and as I nearly crested the 1800 foot mark, I passed #9.  Sun was still up, no worries.  As I neared Maricopa Peak, marker 8 indicated a sharp turn back to the west.  West?  No way, I wanted to go East.  East is where my car is, map shows no westward turn, marker must be wrong.  So East I continued, Upwards. Very Bad Idea.  The photo below shows how the shadows were nearly covering the Ma Ha Tauk, night was falling very fast, and I still had 3 miles to go.
I continued on what "looked like" a path, along the ridge line.  It quickly evaporated into a series of boulders with severe drop offs to both North and South sides of the mountain range. I remembered Frank Herbert's Dune and the Bene Gesserit litany against fear: "Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration", and I forged on, focusing my efforts on finding sure footing in the lengthening shadows.

As I passed Maricopa Peak, I spotted the Alta trail again down below to the north side of the range.  I headed down to it, and once back on the trail, called Dr Desert Flower to reassure her I was still hiking, yes it was after 530pm, but I am back on the trail now, and heading down the mountain.  I told her how I had surprised a trio of javelina as I crested a ridge, and they quickly scattered down the south side of the ridge thinking I was some sort of clumsy bipedal predator.  I am glad it was not mating season with a male javelina ready to challenge me, and I am even more glad I didn't surprise a hungry female mountain lion with her cubs - who mainly hunt at dusk, and who would have had no problem taking down a lone fatigue hiker, more than 3 miles from the nearest human.  With a 35mph run, a 30 foot bound, and the ability to drop down 50 feet without being injured, I was just a sweaty hairless ape for such an awesome feline.

By the time I got to marker 7,  the sun had set.  The sky over Estrella was dark orange and purple, and I would have taken a picture, but my hands were a little shaky and the light so incredibly low, it would have blurred.  The full moon had risen, and the residential Christmas lights of  Phoenix were reflecting off the clouds.  Commercial airlines were lined up from the Midwest and East Coast to the north east of town (where I could see 5 planes, stacked up, with landing lights on).  Jogging was not an option, unless I wanted to twist an ankle in the dark, so it was a slow trudge to the end of the Alta Trail - also, I remembered that mountain lions, like all kitties, love an active moving target, and their feline brain is wired for motion.

It was 7pm when I got to my car, and 7:05pm when I exited the park (after downing another liter of cold water I had in a cooler in the trunk).  One mountain range too far, for the 2nd shortest day of the year - though I would not have wanted to try this on the longest day of the year in Phoenix, as the ambient temperatures would have been in the triple digits. 

Casualties of hike were:
1) a crushed empty water bottle that fell out of my Kelty bag somewhere in Hidden Valley
2) a swatted honey bee, who decided to try and drink the sweat off the back of my neck, near Goat Hill, and who was killed in the process - barely stinging my pinkie (3rd sting of my life)
3) my pride in being able to accurately and reliably estimate hiking distances and times
4) my theory that South Mountain was just one large "bump" or "blob" as it looks like from the I-10, with smooth edges, and boring contours - it is very jagged and irregular
5) two Naproxin Sodium NSAIDs

I took too much food, most of which low carb JoeP didn't eat or need, and not enough water.  I wandered off the trail when I should have payed attention to the solidly grounded marking posts, but I did see some incredibly beautiful sites, and hiked longer in one day than I have in the last 25 years. 

Sweetly, after the hike, I watched MNF as da Bears beat the Vikings, and (perhaps) permanently decommissioned Favre by spiking him into the permafrost of the University of Minnesota's outdoor stadium.  This was ironic justice, after Charles Martin body slammed Jim McMahon in 1986 ending his QB career and the Bear's chances of successfully returning to a Superbowl. While I do not wish anyone permanent physical harm, it was nice to see "fate" deal a hand to the Cajun who brought Chicago so much misery throughout his professional career, while I watched and consumed enough beer to get a Jr HS marching band drunk.

All in all, December 20th 2010 was a very good day.


  1. ...and I lost 5 lbs over the course of the day, getting below 200 again fro the first time this season. A grilled organic grass fed ribeye and 7 beers later, I was back up to 202 =)

  2. Impressively epic! Have you ever considered a camelbak variant to carry your water? I've never used one, have no recommendation one way or another.

  3. "Epic" was how a mountain biking colleague of Dr Desert Flower verbally described it as well. =) I was expecting to feel like a truck ran over me yesterday, but I felt better Wednesday than Tuesday, and I am fine today. I think yoga has helped a great deal.

    This hike was my maiden trail of the camelbak that I bought last Winter with a Cabela's gift card. It holds only 70oz (2 liters), and it takes some practice to get the valve-suck-swallow-close-valve technique to work. I also need to clean it out, before bacteria decide to grow in it, post hike. Had it held 4 liters, it would have been more useful, and I would not have needed the recyclable plastic bottles.

    For cleaning, I think I am going to try this... but without the cleaning tabs.

  4. Whoops, not sure how I missed that detail, you mention that clearly in the original post. Huh.

    They should come up with a way to make the water thing cleanable in a dishwasher.

  5. The bottle appears to be medical grade polyurethane. 5 or 6 mil thick, durable. I am hoping the natural low humidity here will dry out the washed and rinsed bottle very well. Il faut voir. The Camelbak site sows they have 3 liter packs... I highly recommend, if you're going to do serious hiking in the desert (or in alpine climes), to get the largest one possible.


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