Saguaro cactus in Phoenix
Returning to the Valley of the Sun, Hannah and I come home to where we spent the first ten years of our married life – Tempe, Arizona. It’s a nostalgia tour as we walk by our first home at 542 West 16th Street and our second home at 1206 East LaJolla Drive. Our first house cost $21,000, fully furnished!
Strolling the campus of Arizona State University where we are both proud alums, Hannah and I think of Arizona as an excellent place for us to grow up as twenty-somethings, far from the shadows of our quite successful parents.
Our first night is with our longtime amiga Lorrie who cares for us like long lost friends. Her hubby Lynn set in motion the writer I am and writing teacher that I became. Our second night is with Nan, Hannah’s mentor for her Health Education Masters at ASU. For dinner Nan brings her sister Susie and friend Shirley to what turns out to be a magical night of conversation and friendship, which helps me complete my mission of book sharing.
Morning Hannah with Saguaro cactus in South Mountain Park, Phoenix
On a mission to give away five copies of my book, Sweet Dreams, Robyn, on this nine day hiking vacation, I noted in last week’s blog that I gave one copy to Anahi, a Wildcat Willies waitress in Springdale, Utah, and a second one to Joan and Russell of Idaho whom we met on the Observation Point Trail at Zion. Connecting with these three women tonight, I know right away that they are the ones for copies three, four, and five.
After 24 golden hours with my former teaching mate Diane and her hubby Targe in Phoenix , we drive south on I-10 to Picacho Peak State Park. Known locally as the setting for the one battle of the Civil War in Arizona, Picacho Peak saw a Rebel scouting party get the best of Union soldiers.
Forty miles north of Tucson, Picacho Peak sits by the Interstate taunting me to give it one more try. You see, I also have some history with this bad boy myself. Eight years ago on a blistering hot day in March, we set out on the Sunset Vista Trail for the summit of Picacho Peak.
Earlier that day, I spent the morning catching up with the aforementioned Diane over coffee. By the time I got to the base of the nearly vertical cables, I was wobbly and dizzy from five cups of high test coffee as well as the direct Arizona sunshine. Eventually I sat down and could go no further; Hannah carried the torch and made it to the summit.
Now eight years later, and a veteran of Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park, I am ready to give Picacho Peak one more shot.
Picacho Peak in the distance
Parking at the Hunter’s Trail trailhead on this late February Monday, we stare up at a mountain wall of switchbacks.
Looking back down the Hunter Trail as the trail begins
After a few hundred yards of the gently rising trail, we now begin to take the steep, rocky steps in a direct assault. Meeting an elderly couple who have turned back, we are reminded by them that gloves are recommended for the cables up the mountain. We have heard that before, but Hannah made it without gloves the last time so we think we are fine.
Climbing the Hunter Trail
Grabbing conveniently located cables along the Hunter Trail, I follow Hannah, breathing more heavily, in a steep climb. We pass a young man who has turned back after reaching the Saddle of the mountain; he felt shaky. His situation might have given us pause, but it doesn’t and we press on.
Fortunate on this cloudless mid-80s afternoon, we are soon shaded from the sun by the mountainside and hike on comfortably. The first half of the climb of the Hunter Trail is a workout but not stressful at all.
Climbing down from the Saddle
Arriving at the Saddle of the mountain with a view of forever to the west, we are surprised and I am bummed to see that we now are to descend five hundred feet holding on to mountainside cables that steady our steps over the crumbly rock. Going down to reach the summit is counter intuitive, but we grab the cables hand over hand to make our way down the sunny west side of the mountain.
Without hiking gloves, the cables, which might be hot in the summer, are comfortably cool but slick and require a strong grip. Once to the bottom of the cabled descent, we have a hike up, grasping more cables on the sunny side of the mountain. We stop regularly for water breaks knowing our muscles need the lubricating fuel of H2O in the unshaded 90 degree direct sunshine.
And then my Waterloo appears. The parallel cables rise along the mountainside at an 80 degree angle. I am ready. Without a second thought, I follow Hannah up the steep climb, squeezing the cables and occasionally pausing to calm my heavy panting.
The western slope
More cables protect us from an untimely descent and we are soon within a few hundred yards of the rocky summit. Taking off our boots and socks, we have taken 80 minutes to climb two miles to the top. We have no idea it will take even longer on the way down. With the sun filling the western sky at 4P, we still have two plus hours until sunset.
The descent is a bitch. At my Waterloo, an 80 degree double cable descent, I decide to go backwards pressing my feet against the mountain rock as Hannah does. And then there is an eight foot section that I can’t feel any footholds with either foot. With muscles weakening and five seconds from panicking, I pull myself back up and reassess. Facing forward to the sky, I slide on my butt grabbing on to the cables for dear life. Hiking gloves would have really helped me from slipping so.
Second time is the charm for the Ithaca Bomber
On the way down one of my water bottles is dislodged from my fanny pack and goes bouncing down the steep incline into the mountainside as had one of Hannah’s minutes before.
The mountains of Tucson in the distance from Picacho Peak
The sun is bright on the western side of the mountain and Hannah’s rock scrambling skills keep us on track. Hannah agrees that the descent, grasping cables and bracing each step with our knees, is far more difficult than climbing up. Finding the proper toe hold while holding on to the cables while descending backwards is a challenge for both of us.
Climbing back up to the Saddle
Approaching the final assent to the Saddle, we muster all the strength we have to pull ourselves up the mountain side set of cables. Seated at the Saddle bench, we survey the eastern sky with the final rocky switchbacks still ahead of us. With thirty minutes of knee bracing descent to the trailhead below, we both agree that we will NEVER do this climb again.
The Bad Boy Himself
We are hikers not climbers. Any trail that recommends hiking gloves is not for us. Picacho Peak is a tough, mean, nasty climb. It tested our strength, spirit, and creativity to find the correct footholds.
No doubt Picacho Peak has its advocates, but I am not one of them. The park guide calls it a “difficult but rewarding hike!” Be forewarned that this is one Tough Mudder who takes no prisoners. I escape with Hannah to Tucson with the jailer of a mountain having just missed nabbing one more victim.