Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Arizona Forest Fire Tour - April 12 and 13

With a conference to attend in southern California on April 18 and 19, I decided to do some peakbagging "in the area," just 500 miles away in Arizona beforehand.  The objective was to get the 4 ultra-prominence peaks in southeastern AZ and whatever else I could fit in.

I landed in Tucson around 9:30 Thursday night.  Pickings were sparse at the rental car company, so I got the police car special, a black Crown Victoria.  After a 90 minute drive, I ended up in Madera Canyon - I had planned to stay in the campground next to the trailhead, but it was full (?!).  No other campgrounds were in the area, and I was tired.  Being a dirtbag, I parked at the trailhead (5,500'), pulled out my sleeping bag and curled up in the spacious back seat.  The Crown Vic was already paying off. 

My objective for the day was Mt. Wrightson (9,453'), considered by some to be "the nicest hike in Arizona."  I woke up at 5:30 with the sunrise.  It was just above freezing outside, so I got ready and hit the Old Baldy quickly to warm up.  The first point of note was the Josephine saddle at about 7,400', with a memorial to three young Boy Scouts who died in a freak storm in November of 1958.
I continued on to the Baldy Saddle, where I emerged from the woods and was treated to the spectacular views.  Unfortunately, I'd also begin to see evidence of a past forest fire, which was a theme for my entire trip. 

Baldy Saddle.  Evidence of the 2005 forest fire is still very evident.
It was also at this saddle (about 8,750') that I began to feel the effects of altitude, something that I always experience in the first couple days of a trip out west.  From here it was a mile hike to the top of Wrightson.

Mt Wrightson from the Baldy Saddle
At the top were the ruins of an old fire tower and some really nice views of the lower peaks of the area.

Views from Mt. Wrightson
From here I descended back to Baldy Saddle, and then north to the unofficially name "Mount Ian" (9,146').  The trail doesn't go to the top, so it involved a little bit of bushwhacking through burned out forest and over some rocks.  At this point it was starting to get hot outside, but I didn't have to worry about rattlesnakes emerging to sun themselves - they are rarely observed above 7,000'. 

"Mount Ian"

One of the many victims of the 2005 forest fire

Mt. Wrightson framed by one of many burned out trees

After a not particularly enjoyable bushwhack back to the trail, I had to decide if I wanted to go for the obscure "88 Mac," (8,853') another unofficially named peak about a mile north of Mount Ian.  At this point I had done about 4,500' of elevation gain, and knew I'd be in for about another 1000'.  It being early yet, I decided to go for it. 

"88 Mac" from the trail to Florida saddle

I took the trail north, and it heartbreakingly lost over 500' to the point where I'd need to depart and bushwhack for the 88 Mac summit. I was not looking forward to making this up on the way back; I was getting a headache from the altitude and/or heat - or so I thought.

I got to do some more off-trail scrambling to the summit of 88 Mac, where I took a 15 minute break and had a snack.  One thing I love about western peaks is the tradition of summit registers, especially on less-traveled ones like 88 Mac.  It's a bit like traveling through a time machine - this one went back to 1992.

"88 Mac" summit register - entry from 1992

85 degrees in nearby Tucson, but still some snow lingering up here!
 From here it was a long walk down.  As it was warming up, I saw more and more wildlife.  I saw dozens of blue-tailed lizards as well as a single horned orange one.  I was too slow with my camera to catch them, but did borrow an image for posting below:

Blue-tailed lizard.  Not my picture, and I lost the reference information.

I began to zone out on the walk down, which was about 6 miles long.  Near the trailhead I saw a bear about 25' from me in the woods, both scaring the hell out of each other.  I was pretty alert the rest of the way down.

I got back to the car at 3pm, with the great feeling of being pretty spent from the day's effort.  Unfortunately the headache didn't subside as my altitude headaches usually do after losing elevation - I was to find out later this was an allergy headache.  All hail Claritin.

Final stats:

15.2 miles, 5500' of elevation gain.  Took me 9 hours, which is longer than I would expect, mostly due to the altitude.

The day's labor (my route in red)

From here, it was a drive to the Parker Canyon Lake trailhead near tomorrow's objective, Miller Peak.

The Santa Rita mountains, including Mt. Wrightson

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