Thursday, March 17, 2016

Gibbon Mountain, 5,801', From Bear Canyon Trailhead, Pusch Ridge Wilderness

Essence: Unusual approach to Gibbon Mountain on one of Santa Catalina's prominent westward divides. Classic and gorgeous ridgecrest thru-hike overlooking Bear Canyon and paralleling the compelling Blackett's-Saddleback-Thimble Peak ridge. Approach over, the final 800 feet is a steep scamper on stone to the summit. Relatively quick descent to the finish at the Hirabayashi Trailhead.
Travel: Shuttle required from Hirabayashi Trailhead to Bear Canyon. In Tucson, drive east on Tanque Verde Road and turn left on the Catalina Highway. Drive past Molino Basin and turn left in 11.7 miles at the sign for Gordon Hirabayashi Recreation Area. Drive through the campground (tables, fire grates, food boxes, pit toilets, trash, no water) and drop a vehicle at the trailhead in 0.3 mile. Zero-out your trip meter. Turn right on the Catalina Highway (aka General Hitchcock Highway) in 0.3 mile. At 8.3 miles, turn right/west onto Snyder Road, the first stop sign. In 11.0 miles, turn right on Bear Canyon Road. Make a 90 degree left turn onto a dirt road at 11.4 miles. The road can be lumpy but driven carefully, most vehicles should reach the Bear Canyon Trailhead in 11.5 miles.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 8.1 miles; 3,840 feet of climbing
Time: 6:00 - 7:30
Difficulty: Almost entirely off-trail; navigation challenging; Class 2+ with no exposure except for the precipitous edge which can be avoided; no dogs; carry all the water you will need
Maps: Sabino Canyon; Agua Caliente Hill, AZ 7.5 Quads, or Pusch Ridge Wilderness, Coronado National Forest, USDA Forest Service, 1:24,000
Date Hiked: March 17, 2016
Quote: For bighorns, topography is memory, enhanced by acute vision. They can anticipate the land's every contour--when to leap, where to climb, when to turn, which footholds will support their muscular bodies. To survive, this is what the band would have too do: make this perfect match of flesh to earth. Ellen Meloy

The southwest ridge of Gibbon Mountain from Saddleback Ridge. (THW, photo)

Route: From Bear Canyon Trailhead at 2,660 feet, enter Sabino Canyon Recreation Area and then locate the base of Gibbon's southwest ridge. Stay on or near the ridgeline to the summit. Descend east to meet the Arizona Trail and take it to the Hirabayashi Trailhead, 4,840 feet.

From the trailhead, walk up an old dirt road and hop across Bear Creek at 0.2 mile. During run-off it can be a difficult, even dangerous crossing. The stony road easement is enclosed by fence lines on either side. Catch a glimpse of Gibbon Mountain, image-center, looking very far away.

Pass into the Coronado National Forest and Sabino Canyon Recreation Area at 0.5 mile.

Turn right on the paved road walking toward the mountain. Stay on the road where it meets the Seven Falls Trail. This is the last opportunity for bathrooms and water. While walking up the road, devise a plan for getting onto the ridge; there is no perfect or cairned way. We left the main road at 0.9 mile and turned right onto a secondary dirt road. Cross Bear Creek and bash through brush to the run-out of the cliff formation. At 1.1 miles start up the ridge, a spur that avoids private property on the main. The two join shortly and seamlessly.

Gibbon's ridge is immediately captivating for its ease of travel and perspective. Walk on rimrock; plant annoyance is minimal all the way to the summit. The divide slopes off on the right into a deep unnamed drainage, and cliffs out on the left. The best walking is along the edge overlooking Bear Canyon. The voices of hikers on the Seven Falls Trail are easily heard as is Bear Creek.

Just before Pt. 3,250' on the topo, at 1.4 miles, look directly through a hard-rock, rectangular buttress arch.

The barbed wire fence that was an impediment has been clipped and is lying on the ground so watch for it. Climb directly over a series of small ridgetop spikes. Twin protrusions look unaccommodating but nothing is gained and much pleasure is lost by going around them. These are followed by a series of rollers and saddles. Just hold to the rim.

By 4,300 feet, saguaros are replaced by grassland cast in a purple haze from flowering dyebush. The ridge bends east at a promontory at 4,570 feet before resuming its northeasterly trajectory. Take in a unique vista of the iconic Santa Catalina divide originating at the base of Blackett's and terminating in Sabino Basin. Saddleback Ridge to Point 5,001' is compelling and rightly so.

Further along, the precipice affords an extraordinary perspective on Seven Falls, upper Bear Canyon, and Thimble Peak.

The next goal is Pt. 4,892', image-center, where we will plot our summit course through this somewhat convoluted landscape. The companion crest of Gibbon Mountain is left of center.

Along the way we find a gigantic, golden Mariposa lily and an uncommon purple twining snapdragon. (THW, photo)

At 4.4 miles, reach Pt. 4,892', the first opportunity to study the mountain. We decide on an approach that we had not tried--to hold our bearing right up the spine. This proved to be delightful and expeditious.

Lose 150 feet then gradually climb to 5,000 feet. The approach is over. The last 800 feet is troubled with cliffs and gendarmes. However, these may all be bypassed on the right/southeast. The first set of cliffrock looks imposing so contour to the right into an excellent climbing declivity. It is steep but not ridiculous and there are plenty of big leverage rocks.

Return to the ridgeline at 5,200 feet. Go directly up the spine; skirt the next gendarme on the right and then pitch up a very steep slope regaining the backbone at 5,480 feet.

Repeat this pattern and then come to the last rock face, starkly beautiful and lichen covered. Scale it directly for some distance before detouring to the right one last time, pictured.

Top out on Gibbon's false summit at 5.7 miles, 5,780 feet. After the long and lovely approach, the obstacles on the 800 foot high-angled incline added a sense of sparkle and genuine pleasure. It is so satisfying to remain true to the ridge. The image below was shot from the subsidiary summit. It shows the Bear Canyon trench flowing into Tucson and the ascent ridge stepping down.

From this vantage point, it's hard to tell which crown is higher but the eastern crest, labeled 5,801' on the topo, wins out by 21 feet.

Stroll over to the true summit, reaching it at 6.1 miles. Gibbon Mountain is double-humped; the first/west projection is slightly higher. Weathered granite provides good seating. This is one of the few high forward peaks in the Pusch Ridge Wilderness and the vantage point is far-and-wide. East is the Catalina Highway. Swing around clockwise to see Agua Caliente Hill (looking like a real mountain), the Rincon Mountains, Santa Rita Mountains, Elephant Head, Baboquivari Peak, Tucson Mountains, then Mount Kimball, Window Peak, Cathedral Rock, and Mount Lemmon.

Total climbing to this point is 3,740 feet. If you did not shuttle a vehicle, return as you came, or drop to Shreve Saddle and go back via Sycamore Reservoir and Bear Canyon trails, a long haul. I advise against dropping directly from the mountain into Bear Canyon. My climbing partner did that and barrier walls are dangerous and present navigational challenges.

It's pretty amazing to have a car parked two miles from the summit. Downclimb off the double summit block then ascend a delightful, rocky ridge to the next promontory at 5,620 feet, shown image-center. There is a hint of a social trail near twin standing-up rocks but the route is too bouldery to encourage a path.

The mountain shows little sign of visitors. However, of those who do climb, most start from the Hirabayashi Trailhead. While there is no standard route, there are some wonderful descent alternatives described on the internet. Our route hits the Arizona Trail at first opportunity, Shreve Saddle and the wilderness boundary. From the promontory at 5,620 feet, head southeast on the ridge and then do a steep downclimb east to the saddle, hitting it at 7.1 miles. Turn right/southeast on the Arizona Trail, a two track. The image below looks back to the final knob above Shreve Saddle, just off-image to the right. A shallower descent comes off to the southeast.

Arrive at the Gordon Hirabayashi Trailhead at 8.1 miles, 4,840 feet. Along the Arizona Trail, this is Passage #11, The Santa Catalina Mountains, covering Hirabayashi to Romero Pass in 11.7 miles.

The parking area is on the other side of a corral.

We identified 23 flowering plants, a fraction of the bloomers out there in March. Desert sand verbena is a common plant in the Sonoran. On this trip I discovered that if you put your nose into the plant its fragrance will alter your state of consciousness...for the better!

I wish to credit my companion who pioneered this route up Gibbon Mountain.

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