Sunday, December 4, 2016

Pontatoc Ridge to Point 7,123', Mt. Kimball Loop

Essence: Gain Pontatoc Ridge at Saddle 5,140' and proceed to its terminus at Point 7,123' ("Pontatoc Peak"). Create a loop by returning on the Finger Rock Trail, pivoting at Kimball Saddle or Mt. Kimball. This hike features exceptional Point 5,783', the "Towers of Hercules," unique views of Window Rock while ascending a sequence of rollers, and Kimball's twin, Point 7,123'. Off-trail walking is accommodating in middle-altitude grasses rising to piñon-juniper, and finally, large-girth ponderosa. This hike completes Pontatoc Ridge; it is intended as a companion piece to lower Pontatoc Ridge. This description and hike will appeal particularly to Pusch Ridge regulars.
Travel: From Tucson's Skyline Drive, go north one mile on Alvernon Way to the Richard McKee Finger Rock Trailhead. Park in a large lot on the left. There is a drinking faucet but no other facilities.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 11.5 miles; 4,850 feet of climbing
Time: 7:30 to 9:00
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail; navigation challenging; Class 2+, no exposure
Maps: Tucson North; Sabino Canyon, AZ 7.5 Quads, or Pusch Ridge Wilderness, Coronado National Forest, USDA Forest Service, 1:24,000
Latest Date Hiked: December 4, 2016
Pusch Ridge Wilderness Bighorn Sheep Closure: It is prohibited to travel more than 400 feet off designated Forest Service trails from January 1 through April 30, bighorn sheep lambing season. Pontatoc Ridge is off-limits during that time period.
Quote: I may not know who I am but I know where I am from. Wallace Stegner

Free-standing Towers of Hercules armor Pontatoc Ridge as it approaches Point 7,123', image-right.

Route: From the Finger Rock Trailhead, elevation 3,060 feet, segue onto the Pontatoc Canyon Trail and walk to trail's end. Gain Pontatoc Ridge at Saddle 5,140'. Climb Point 5,783' and proceed through the Towers of Hercules to Pontatoc Peak, Point 7,123'. Descend to the Kimball Saddle. Take the optional spur to Mt. Kimball before returning on the Finger Rock Trail. 

The first 3.2 miles of this journey on the Pontatoc Canyon Trail to Saddle 5,140' is described in detail in Pontatoc Loop Route: Canyon and Ridge Trail Connector. If you are not familiar with this trail, please consult the link.

There are two essential intersections. In 0.1 mile, Finger Rock Trail #42 branches left. Proceed straight on Pontatoc Trail #410. At 0.9 mile, Pontatoc Ridge Trail #411 hangs a hard right. Stay on Pontatoc (Canyon) Trail to the End Of Pontatoc Trail sign at 3.1 miles, elevation 4,960 feet. Be advised that the last mile of trail has degenerated into a route, depicted accurately on the map above. To gain Pontatoc Ridge from here, cross the wash and head northeast for 0.1 mile. The image below looks back on Saddle 5,140' and Point 5,391', the gendarme marking the upper bounds of lower Pontatoc Ridge.

From the saddle, Point 5,783' is 0.3 mile away and 600 feet up. This is the steepest gradient of the entire hike. Walking is pleasant on the boulder strewn grassy slope. It is pretty easy to dodge sotol, beargrass, shindaggers, beefy green agave, and Arizona oak. Bear northeast, holding to the rounded ridge.

Point 5,783' has a small rocky crest with sitting stones. There is something so homey and comfortable about this little prominence that it would be a nice destination. A tiny notebook sits in a glass jar with a rusty lid. The continuous register spans 46 years. The first entry reads, "This register placed here Feb. 21, 1970 by the SAHC." The outcrop doesn't see a lot of visitors; the most recent name was four years ago. Judging from the commentary, a favorite loop back in the day was Pontatoc Canyon trail onto an interior Pontatoc ridge to Point 6,820', and looping to this very place. The old timers informally called Point 6,820', Gorp Peak. I've given it an unofficial place name, Linda Vista Peak. Inside the jar is a metal film canister with a single entry shown below. From the Southern Arizona Hiking Club Bulletin, Vol. 50, #11:

A hiker named Harry Von B.
Would roam through the desert with glee.
He'd glide through the cactus
With the east of long practice
But "why?" is what no one could see.


Pontatoc Ridge is clearly displayed from Point 5,783'. Point 7,123' is image-center. (THW, photo)

Drop to 5,660 feet and then center line a series of rollers. The ascent to the next knoll is gentle on a grassy hill with alligator juniper and chunky nuggets of milky white quartz embedded with crystals. Mexican piñon begin at 6,000 feet. From the promontory at 6,200 feet, 4.2 miles, look across Ventana Canyon and directly through Window Rock.  Window Peak is image-center.

The divide between Pontatoc and Ventana Canyons narrows. Work around the vegetation, mostly piñon-juniper with big patches of resurrection moss. Pictured below is the 6,500 foot hillock.

The south ridge of Linda Vista Peak is clearly visible from 6,500 feet.

On the east side of the ridge, pillars rise overhead and march up the side of the precipice from below. The first series of towers begins with playful Class 2+ scrambling.

At 4.9 miles, 6,800 feet, intersect the ridge to Linda Vista Peak (Point 6,820'). The prominence is only 0.3 mile distant. We decide to defer so we can reprise the hike described in the peak register on Point 5,783'. Judging from this image shot from Point 5,730' on Linda Vista Ridge, the peak can also be climbed from Linda Vista Saddle.

Enter the Towers of Hercules, granitic monoliths. In 2013, we stayed on the rock as much as possible, climbing everything we could. This was great fun but time-consuming. Inevitably you will get towered-out. Bypassing to the east is not an option so this time we skirted the towers on the west, staying right at the base of the rock. It is a pretty quick passage plowing through vegetation.

Pass by the Guardian of Pontatoc, a venerable alligator juniper. (THW, photo)

Summit Point 7,123' at 5.3 miles. While we gave it the unofficial name, Pontatoc Peak, it stands just shy of 300 feet above Kimball Saddle and thus, is not a legal summit. Locate the peak register in a ten-foot circular clearing. Living in obscurity under the shadow of Mt. Kimball, the last visitor to this admittedly unremarkable crest was three years prior. The view is compromised by tree cover but you can see Mt. Kimball, so similar in vegetation and elevation. Cumulative elevation gain to this point is a hefty 4,400 feet.  

Descend easily 0.4 mile on the broad northwest ridge to Kimball Saddle, elevation 6,860 feet. This is the all-important signed junction for the Finger Rock Trail and Pima Canyon Trail #62. If you've had enough, simply return to the trailhead by going left on the Finger Rock Trail.

Note: In 2013, we returned via Ventana Canyon because we had not been on the two mile connector between Finger Rock and Ventana Canyons. Turn right on the Finger Rock Trail and in one hour you will intersect the Ventana Trail down in the canyon. This secondary trail is well marked with cairns. It is a convoluted landscape and you will go over, around, and under towering cliffs. This option is truly exciting but it does require a shuttle between the Ventana and Finger Rock Trailheads.

To visit Mt. Kimball (so close!), turn right onto the Pima Canyon Trail. The peak is just half a mile away with 400 additional feel of elevation gain. Walk through a stately ponderosa forest. Watch for the signed 0.1 mile spur to Mt. Kimball. Pass a small view opening at 7,240 feet, a false summit. Keep going! The path descends slightly and then rises gently to the true summit, elevation 7,258 feet, 6.2 miles.

While Kimball is the most wooded of all the Pusch Ridge peaks, its crest is pure, bare rock protruding like the prow of a ship. The lookout is precipitous. The broad swing view is jolting, framing peaks the full length of Pusch Ridge. More towers (they're everywhere!) soar above treetops below the standing perch.

Kimball affords the best view of Pontatoc Peak. For those who climb Kimball by way of Pontatoc Ridge, there is a strong sense of completion.

Mt. Kimball is the first peak I climbed years ago in the Santa Catalina Mountains. It is pure magic, a euphoria generator. (THW, photo)

Return to Kimball Saddle and turn right on the Finger Rock Trail. I have described this trail in a previous post: Mount Kimball, 7,258': Pima Canyon to Finger Rock Canyon. If you are unfamiliar with this beautiful pathway, please consult the link. You can trim the mileage by 0.2 and elevation gain by 50 feet if you do not visit Linda Vista Saddle on your way home. The lighting is superb every evening on the Finger Rock Trail. This is the golden hour when delicate grasses are backlit and the massive ridge ablaze.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Linda Vista Ridge to Point 5,730': The Divide Between Finger Rock and Pontatoc Canyons

Essence: Climb along the divide between Finger Rock Canyon and the two canyons of Pontatoc. The steep, off-trail ridge features continuous views, three gendarmes with unusual bypasses, and one final obstacle with a narrow access corridor. Ascend the golden ramp seen from Tucson to spectacular Point 5,730' before down-climbing to Linda Vista Saddle. Chose to return on the Finger Rock Trail or off-trail on an interior Pontatoc Canyon ridge.  
Travel: From Tucson's Skyline Drive, go north one mile on Alvernon Way to the Richard McKee Finger Rock Trailhead. Park in a large lot on the left. There is a drinking faucet but no other facilities.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 6.4 miles: 3.1 miles to Linda Vista Saddle, plus 3.3 miles down Finger Rock or Pontatoc Canyon trails; 3,000 feet of climbing
Time: 4:00 to 6:00
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail; navigation challenging; Class 2+; no exposure unless you go looking for it; carry all the water you will need.
Map: Tucson North, Arizona 7.5 Quad, or Pusch Ridge Wilderness, Coronado National Forest, USDA Forest Service, 1:24,000
Date Hiked: December 1, 2016
Pusch Ridge Wilderness Bighorn Sheep Closure: It is prohibited to travel more than 400 feet off designated Forest Service trails from January 1 through April 30, bighorn sheep lambing season. Linda Vista Ridge is off-limits during that time period.
Quote: Every ridge has its day. Thomas Holt Ward

Morning light illumines Linda Vista Ridge and Point 5,730' as seen from the first roller at 3,580 feet. From the left, this image captures The Tombstone, Prominent Point, Finger Rock and its Guard, Mt. Kimball, Point 5,730', "Linda Vista Peak," our interior return ridge, and Pontatoc Ridge. (THW, photo)

Route: Divert from the Finger Rock Trail onto an abandoned path to gain Linda Vista Ridge at 3,580 feet. Ascend the ridge to Point 5,730'. Downclimb to Linda Vista Saddle. From here, most hikers will want to descend on the Finger Rock Trail, the red-line route. Alternatively, return off-trail on a ridge straddling the two canyons of Pontatoc. Use the blue-line route to connect with the Pontatoc Canyon Trail.

Exhilaration begins with the first steps from the Finger Rock Trailhead, elevation 3,060 feet. Walk through a Sonoran garden on a natural bedrock incline. At the signed junction in 0.1 mile, Finger Rock Trail #42 branches left. Proceed straight on Pontatoc Trail #410. This image shows the first roller and Point 5,730' from the junction.

Drop 30 feet into a shallow depression before climbing gently. Eight to ten minutes into the hike, at 0.4 mile, on top of a rise at 3,180 feet, come to a wide spot in trail, shown below. Look carefully for a faint path veering north; there are no other markers. This neglected and unmaintained trail is disappearing but there are rock boundary remnants and occasional cairns. Follow intuitively the path of least resistance wandering between Sonoran plants, aiming for the top of the first knoll. Thus, we were able to stay on or close to the old track the whole way.

Crest the roller at 0.8 mile, 3,580 feet. This humble hilltop affords stellar views of the region and would be a pleasant goal in itself. The route is off-trail from here. Unable to locate any information on this ridge, we had the intense pleasure of walking into the mystery. We didn't know if the route would be blocked by impassable gendarmes or the final obstacle. Shindagger and boulder dodging slow the pace but are not a serious impediment. Mesquite, palo verde, saguaro, teddybear cholla, and ocotillo give way to sotol, bear grass, and Arizona oak.  Friction climb a slab with good texture.

Gain a rocky knob at 4,120 feet, 1.4 miles, with a good view of the highpoint. Scramble down the left side of the nose. A series of risers direct to three gendarmes, shown, each separated by a tenth of a mile. (THW, photo)

At 1.7 miles, 4,200 feet, confront the first gendarme. Scoot around on the right at the base of the wall. The northface is a 30 foot vertical cliff. A shredding shrub prohibits going over the top of the second gendarme at 4,360 feet. Bypass on the Pontatoc side. The third rampart at 4,500 feet is the trickiest. Bypass right/east once more, staying snug against the wall where exposure is mild. Pass an overhang at ground level. There is a Class 2+ scramble and a 75 foot climb back to the ridgetop.

This image looks back on the third obstacle.

At 4,700 feet, get a revealing look at the final obstruction which is startling in its beauty. The broad, blocky escarpment possesses, thankfully, a center access chute. Massive cliffs bar a work-around. (THW, photo)

The approach is over at 4,880 feet. Rock stacks frame the narrow corridor. Class 2+ climbing is steep and loose in places but not exposed.

After 200 feet the constriction broadens but remains pitched. Ascend the grassy, golden ramp seen from afar. Reach the highpoint of Linda Vista Ridge, Point 5,730', at 2.7 miles after 2,770 feet of vertical. The divide doubles as the southeast wall of Finger Rock Canyon. It renders a unique perspective on Prominent Point and Finger Rock Guard. (THW, photo)

In the north are Mt. Kimball and "Linda Vista Peak", elevation 6,820 feet. To the wide-open south is the whole sweep of everything out in front of Pusch Ridge fading into the null distance.

Anticipating the final ridge escarpment between Point 5,730' and Linda Vista Saddle, we didn't know whether we'd find a suitable bypass or be forced to retrace our steps. From the highpoint, step down the first two knobs, Class 2+. Climb the final challenge easily. At 5,700 feet, it is a super sweet completion promontory. (THW, photo)

A 100 foot east face cliff requires a short retreat, almost to the first saddle. Staying as high as possible on sneak routes, bypass on the northwest side, returning to the ridge briefly before reaching Linda Vista Saddle. This image, taken from the Finger Rock Trail, indicates the final work-around.

Linda Vista Saddle, at 3.1 miles and 5,580 feet is the conclusion of the lower ridge, though it carries on to Linda Vista Peak. From here, there are two choices for the return. Most hikers will want to descend on the Finger Rock Trail, the red-line route above, back to the start. It is 0.4 mile to Linda Vista overlook and 2.8 miles from there to the trailhead.

For those who wish to explore the ridge dividing the two Pontatoc drainages, stay on the black-line route. The transition to the southwest-running ridge is straight-forward. From Linda Vista Saddle, take the minor ridge southeast down a grassy hillside free of shindaggers, shown.

Drop left into the near canyon, crossing it at about 5,280 feet, above a significant pouroff.  The bedrock is Catalina Gneiss, a prize-winning Pusch Ridge formation. (THW, photo)

Contour to the ridge, hitting it at about 5,300 feet. We penetrated a tower cluster straight on but got pushed out of the maze. Bypass on the left/southeast and regain the ridge, Class 2+.

The exquisite, classic Sonoran ridge features rock islands in a sea of grass. There are wild views of Linda Vista Ridge and its imposing wall.

The ridge splits at 5,000 feet. Veer left on the blue-line route. It intersects the Pontatoc Canyon Trail at about 4,400 feet. The trail is obscure on the grassy hillside. Watch for orange flagging and occasional cairns marking the underutilized track. Presumably, if you are doing this hike, you are already familiar with this trail and are aware that it has degenerated into a route. Once you've secured the trail, stay on it to the trailhead.

We kept going to explore the principal ridge but I do not recommend it. There is nothing spectacular on the ridge that you would not want to miss. Shindaggers (mosquitoes of the plant world) are hideous, practically taking over the entire domain. We did find a place of peace at 4,740 feet which we named Resurrection Camp after the lovely thick moss, protective rocks, and gracefully spaced ocotillo and sotol.

Below the camp, the threat of getting speared was present with every step. However, we were determined to remain on the ridge until we reached the insurmountable fins shown below at 3,830 feet. From there, we bailed to the canyon floor (while parrying with blades) and climbed 100 feet up the opposite bank to the Pontatoc Canyon Trail. Close the loop 0.4 mile in advance of the trailhead.