Saturday, April 28, 2012

Arizona Tour, April 15, 2012 - Chiricahua Peak

I woke up at 5:30 to a gray sun trying to penetrate the icy film on the windows of the car I was sleeping in.  It was cold, and it took me time to gather the will to wiggle out of my sleeping bag and put the key in the ignition.  It was 26 degrees outside.  Not what I would normally associate with Arizona in April.

There was a lot of snow on the ground around me, and I knew I had 10 miles of dirt road to the Rustler Camp Ground trailhead.  I wasn't so worried about getting there, but more worried about the soupy mess the warm sun would turn the road to later in the afternoon.  I could go back to the flooded road for the Mormon Creek approach, but I doubted it would be in much better shape than it was last night.  I decided to go take a look at Mt. Graham where the road is paved to the trailhead, a 2.5 hour drive away.  To make a long story short, I drove to the Graham approach where I found the road was iced over 10 miles from where I needed to start the hike.  Damn it.  There were few guardrails, and steep drop-offs in some places, so I was forced to retreat.  My goal (however silly) of bagging the 4 southeastern Arizona ultra-prominence peaks was a bit in jeopardy if I couldn't get either Chiricahua or Graham today.  I decided to drive back to the Upper Mormon approach to Chiricahua, where even if the road was still flooded I could park there and do an 18 mile hike to the summit.  After retracing the 2.5 hour drive I just made, I found the flooding in the road to be reduced enough to be passable, and had few problems making it to the trailhead at the Sycamore Campground (6,250').  However, I was getting a late start at 11:30.  What a dumbass.

I knew this approach wasn't frequently used, but it was the shortest (and steepest), which I prefer.  After taking a few minutes to find the trail itself (it was an unobvious trail that started after a stream crossing) I started off on the faint, poorly marked trail, observing several patches of snow and wondering what it would be like higher up.  Soon, the trail was clearer and easier to follow.  The first hour was pretty uneventful, at which point I came upon a firefighter for the US Forest Service.  He told me about the devastating forest fire that swept through the area last year, which was the reason the lightly used trail I was on was in such good shape - foliage had been trimmed back to give firefighters direct access to the blaze.  It began as a warming fire set by either illegal immigrants or drug smugglers - we were standing about 20 miles north of the Mexican border.  At this point he also saw fit to tell me "Well, drug smugglers don't like to use this trail much.  But watch out when you get near the top - they like the routes that traverse the summit ridge."  His advice mirrored that of locals I had contacted before my trip - smugglers tend to travel in groups of 4-6 - if I was to encounter them, pretend I don't see them and run like hell continue on my way.

Of course, I never saw anything of the sort.  What I did see was a completely charred landscape once I hit 8000'.  All that remained were the skeleton trunks of badly burned trees, and loose, dark soil.  The devastation was so complete that I completely lost any sign of the trail.  In hindsight, I should have taken pictures, but I was already concerned with routefinding through an essentially featureless landscape.  The going was miserable - I was setting waypoints on my GPS every 100 yards or so, and the loose soil made gaining ground on the very steep incline difficult.  I would estimate it took me about 90 minutes to go just over a half mile with about 1000' of elevation gain.  Soon afterwards I found the trails criss-crossing the summit ridge, and took a direct bushwhack path to the summit.  The rewards were not rich for this one.  The summit was a jigsaw of trees that had perished and survived the recent fire, with no real views to be had.  See underwhelming photo:

A summit only a peakbagger could love
It really warmed up during the course of the day, and there was noticeably less snow on the descent.  Once I dropped below the burn zone, the smell of wildflowers and other flora filled the air, and my allergies flared up on cue.  The nicest area was just near the car, where the snowmelt had given rise to a pretty strong stream:

Stream near the trailhead
Other than a bird or two and a few insects, I saw no wildlife on the hike...except when I returned to the trailhead, where a group of 10 or so parked 4 pick-ups and were blasting country music while ripping their ATVs up and down the forest service road.  Ah, nature.

Hike stats:  8.5 miles, 3600' of elevation gain - took me a whopping 5 hours and 50 minutes.

My day wasn't yet complete - I repeated the 2.5 hour drive to Mt. Graham.  The warm sun had melted the ice on the road, and I was able to make it to the Arcadia campground at dark, where I found one snow-free site and set up my tent.  It was incredibly (and eerily) quiet - I had the campground to myself, or so I thought.  A passing glance of my headlamp reflected the eyes of a spotted owl, who was silently watching me from a nearby tree branch.  I was in bed by 10, and slept well until about 2:30, when I heard a pickup enter the site.  At first I was a bit on guard, but I heard the voices of what sounded like a high school boy and girl.  They were loud as hell, then fell silent for about 5 minutes, then the pickup truck left.  I'll leave you to construct the story.  Let's just say I really wished I had one of these:

A bit scarred, I went back to sleep, with a hike of Mt. Graham on the agenda for the next day.

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