Sunday, April 26, 2020

Table Tower, Peak 6,020', Pusch Ridge Wilderness

Essence: Table Tower is the informal name for Peak 6,020', the airy slice of stone northeast of Table Mountain and west of the Wolf's Teeth spires. The Pima Canyon Trail provides speedy access to within one mile of the summit. Off-trail, progress slows but the climb is so entertaining and consuming, time flies. Navigation through cliff bands is challenging and slopes are steep. On the summit ridge, there is a Class 5 wall and plenty of Class 3 scrambling. Exposure is grave; a slip could be fatal. Table Tower is within the Pusch Ridge Wilderness managed by Coronado National Forest.
Travel: From Tucson, drive north on Oracle Road, AZ-77. Pass Ina Road and turn right on Magee Road. Go 1.5 miles to the Iris O. Dewhirst Pima Canyon Trailhead. Or, from Ina Road take Christie Drive north for 1.4 miles and turn right on Magee. The generous, paved lot is on the right. Donʼt overshoot the entrance in the dark; exit spikes will flatten your tires. There is a drinking faucet but no other facilities.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 9.6 miles; 3,320 feet of climbing
Total Time: 8:00 to 11:00
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail; navigation challenging; low Class 5; serious exposure; Carry all the water you will need and hike on a cool day.
Maps: Tucson North; Oro Valley, AZ 7.5' Quads; or, Pusch Ridge Wilderness, Coronado National Forest, USDA Forest Service, 1:24,000
Date Hiked: December 3, 2019
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. Table Tower is off-limits during that time period. No dogs, ever.
Quote: I have been traveling the southwestern wilderness, coming out to places that open my life like a knife slipping the seam of an envelope. Craig Childs

Table Tower appears as Table Mountain's companion spire from Oro Valley. On the approach it looks like a barrier wall. From the razorback summit ridge you see it for what it is, a lengthy granitic blade. (Thomas Holt Ward, photo)

Route: My partner climbed with a friend in 2018 with little route information. They experimented with several approaches and consumed 11.5 hours. On this climb we honed an expeditious route and it took 8:45, including plenty of top time. Hike northeast on the Pima Canyon Trail. Leave the trail at 4,380 feet and pitch up a north tributary and then a series of slopes to the east ridge. Scramble west to the summit.

This is a detail map of our off-trail route north of the Pima Canyon Trail.

Pima Canyon Trail
From the trailhead, elevation 2,920 feet, make quick progress up the exquisitely beautiful Pima Canyon Trail. A lovely cristate saguaro lives above the path at 0.5 mile. It is often overlooked. For elaboration on this segment of the hike, please refer to Pima Canyon to Finger Rock Canyon via Mount Kimball.  Below, The Cleaver exhibits ceaseless appeal at 1.5 miles.

The cascading call of a canyon wren was an auspicious sign. At 3.0 miles, the footpath crosses a sheet of Catalina Gneiss with a series of metates, stone bowls used for grinding corn.
 

A few steps further on, walk onto a slab to locate a dam constructed in the 1960s by Arizona Game and Fish. It was intended as a water source for bighorn sheep and other wildlife. Below, the dam is image-left. The east escarpment of Table Mountain is image-center, and Peak 5,985' and the Wolf's Teeth are on the right.
 

To East Ridge of Table Tower
At 3.7 miles, the trail descends to the Pima Canyon wash, crosses it, and climbs above the canyon floor. Leave the trail at the streamway, elevation 4,380 feet, shown. The summit is only 1.1 miles afar but allow three to five hours roundtrip. Boulders are big and slick, and there's a mix of canyon clutter and swaths of gneiss. In less than 0.1 mile the canyon splits; stay in the main canyon on the right.

In 0.2 mile, leave Pima Canyon and bear left into a north tributary. Looking at the photo below, the route goes into the side canyon left of the outcrop, image-center.

This secondary draw sheds water from the saddle between Table Mountain and Table Tower. The drainage splits again shortly. Imagine where the saddle would be and aim for it. (THW, photo)

This image was shot from the drainageway. Table Tower is on the skyline at the left. The goal of this segment is to hit the east ridge at the saddle to the right of the summit. The terrain is riddled with cliff bands so navigation is critical. This route avoids all impediments.

At approximately 4,740 feet, watch carefully for a stacked black boulder with a white vein, shown here on the right above my partner. Leave the dry wash and climb to the right of the boulder cluster.
 

Pass the next much larger outcrop on its left.
 

This photo looks back on the second outcrop. Climbers were beginning the grassy slope section. The magnificent stone bastion across Pima Canyon is Prominent Point West, one of the most monumental hikes in the Pusch Ridge Wilderness. (THW, photo)
 

As Pusch Ridge slopes go this one is amazingly accommodating. It is free of obstacles and steep but never too steep. (If you cliff out look around for another route.) Resurrection plant makes stepping platforms and the ground sparkles with mica and quartz crystals. In 2018, my partner climbed to the Table Mountain saddle, image-center, and made an unsuccessful attempt from there before coming around to the east ridge.

This time we avoided the saddle and headed directly for the east ridge. At 5,400 feet, bear due north and aim for a break in a north-south ridgelet. Hit it to the right of the rock wedge, image-center at skyline.

If you are on track and lucky you will pass by this miner's hoe at 5,520 feet. Please leave this historical marker in its place for future climbers to enjoy.

At about 5,700 feet, gain the ridgelet; it is on par with the Table Mountain saddle. Below, Table Mountain is on the left and the south wall of Tower is on the right.
 

Climb another 100 feet to reach the east ridge. The saddle is just beyond this tree.
 

Arrive on the summit ridge west of this outcrop at 4.6 miles, 5,820 feet. The crest is 0.2 mile west. The vertical cliffs, nearby pinnacles, and the knife edge that awaits are composed of Wilderness Suite Granite and Gneiss. The rock is characterized by widely spaced vertical joints. Fractures serve as channels for weathering and erosion. Rock shattered, ravines were cut, and the vertical formations found on the southern end of Pusch Ridge were created. Way back in geologic time Table Mountain and Table Tower were one rock. ("A Guide to the Geology of the Santa Catalina Mountains, Arizona: The geology and life zones of a Madrean Sky Island." Arizona Geological Survey, Down-to-Earth, #22, by John V. Bezy, 2016.)
 

East Ridge to Summit
The east ridge at the saddle presents as a shaft of slanted rocks. Work west along the north side of the backbone, right where the stone wall meets the dirt. We saw faint signs of use.
 

In 0.1 mile, the passage ends where walls to the north and south pinch at an apex with a tree, image-left. The crux is the wall on the north side.
 

Exposure from here to the summit is significant so be steady and methodical. Go behind the tree and then make one Z turn up the lower wall: right, left, right. The ledges vary from a few inches to a foot wide. The last turn puts you on a flat ledge about four feet long and about 12 inches wide to start, then tapering.
 

The Class 5 move launches from this narrow landing. A bulge in the eight foot pitch makes it more difficult. Skilled climbers only! In 2018, my partner free climbed the pitch and then placed (and left) webbing with overhand loops tied around a tree at the top. We used the old webbing going up but placed new webbing in 2020 for our descent and left it there.


The next two images are a pretty good indication of the exposure and difficulty. My friend on the wall has nearly completed climbing all 689 peaks over 13,000 feet in Colorado.

She was more comfortable free climbing than relying on two-year-old webbing.
 
 
We heard that other climbers discovered a go-around for the crux. We explored but did not find a pitch we were comfortable with. It is quite possible that they are simply better climbers (than me, at least). I found the downclimb easier. I rolled onto my belly, found a couple of solid holds in the rock and then used the webbing to drop the last six inches to the ledge.

Once you are at the top of the crux there are two choices. The more difficult is a Class 4 pitch up the immediate wall. We walked a couple of steps around the corner to the east and did a more protected scramble up onto the spine, shown.
 

The reef is seriously airy but the rock is beautiful--clean, solid slabs. The ridge presents itself in sections. There are limited choices. Pick a course that is most comfortable for you. The scariest move for me was going on the left side of the boulder my partner is approaching.
 

This photo shot on the return illustrates that place well. My friend is about to turn and face the rock. I shuffled along with my hands hooked over the boulder. My feet were on a slant and the ground just fell off into space. The north side of the ridge is even more vertical and the drop is deeper.

Raw desire built up over the years and just enough courage propelled me onward. I reveled in this climb but I won't be testing my fate with a repeat. Often I contemplate with gratitude the goodwill of a mountain that allows me safe passage. (THW, photo)
 

This shot of the "Staircase" was taken on our return. Go around the boulder at the top of the stairs on its right side and arrive on the small but comfortable summit spire. (THW, photo)

This image looks back from the top boulder. It highlights the ridge segment below the staircase.

Table Mountain completely mesmerizes climbers on the Tower. The two are so close you could have a casual conversation with someone standing on the parent mountain. The peak register was placed in 1977. One or two parties have signed in most years since. 

Look northeast to conoidal Samaniego Peak, the Mount Lemmon dome, and mythical Cathedral Rock. (THW, photo)

Creamcups provide a lively and sweet contrast with all that granite. They are in the poppy family and grow along canyon bottoms. (THW, photo)
 

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Mitchell Lakes Trail, Pinkerton-Flagstaff Trail to Point 9,564'; North to Peak 9,661'; South to Point 9,117'

Essence: This hike explores "Hermosa Ridge", the divide between the Animas River and Hermosa Creek watersheds. Views extend to the La Plata Mountains, the San Juans, and Missionary Ridge. Begin on the Mitchell Lakes Trail, segue to the Pinkerton-Flagstaff Trail (PFT), and climb Point 9,564'. From there either walk north on the PFT to Peak 9,661', or hike south off-trail to Point 9,117' for a head-on view of the Animas River Valley. Casual hikers may explore Mitchell Lakes. The 416 Fire in 2018 swept through the entire region but destruction was spotty. Many ponderosa and aspen groves survived. The hike is within the San Juan National Forest and enters the Hermosa Creek Special Management Area. Be aware, both trails are open to dirt bikes and OHVs. This post is the synthesis of two ridge hikes done in April, 2020 during the Coronavirus Pandemic. Local recreation was encouraged; this is a hometown hike.
Travel: From the town of Hermosa travel north on US 550. Drive over four rollers known as the Four Sisters. Pinkerton Hot Springs (a.k.a. Bubbling Rock) is at the top of the Fourth Sister. Continue for 0.2 mile and turn right on La Plata CR 250. The road makes a sharp hairpin to the right then hooks back left. It splits just before the KOA, 0.2 mile from the highway. Make a sharp left (while watching for bicyclists!) onto "Old Shalona Hill" and in 0.1 mile park in a wide turnout on the left. The Mitchell Lakes Trail goes west up FSR 740, a technical track suitable for dirt bikes and OHVs but not 4WD vehicles.
Distance and Elevation Gain Round Trip:
Point 9,564', 8.2 miles, 2,800 feet of vertical
North to Peak 9,661', 11.8 miles, 3,400 feet
South to Point 9,117', 12.8 miles; 4,000 feet
Mitchell Lakes, 7.4 miles, 1,900 feet 
Total Time: 5:30 to 7:30 for either of the ridge hikes
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail (south on ridge); navigation easy; no exposure; Caution! Standing dead--do not hike on a high wind day.
Map: Hermosa, Colorado 7.5' USGS Quad
Latest Date Hiked: April 25, 2020
Historical Note: James Harvey Pinkerton, Ann Eliza, and their seven children (no relation with the Pinkerton Detective Agency) homesteaded in the area now known as Pinkerton Hot Springs in 1875. The family raised dairy cows and sold butter to Silverton miners. James Pinkerton became a La Plata County judge in the late 1870s.
Quote: One of the hardest lessons we have to learn in this life, and one that many persons never learn, is to see the divine, the celestial, the pure, in the common, the near at hand—to see that heaven lies about us here in this world. John Burroughs, 1908

Two large benches break the fall line of the Hermosa Cliffs as they plummet 2,700 feet to the Animas River Valley. Mitchell Lakes rest on the upper terrace. The Pinkerton-Flagstaff Trail threads its way up a south-facing slope and the San Juan Mountains preside over the whole scene.

Route: Begin on the Mitchell Lakes Trail and ascend westward. For the shortest hike follow the trail onto the Mitchell Lakes bench and explore the three lakes. Or, transition to the Pinkerton-Flagstaff Trail and climb to Hermosa Ridge. Hike north to Peak 9,661', or south to Point 9,117'. The blue-line route is a shortcut option from Hermosa Ridge to Mitchell Lakes. 

Mitchell Lakes Trail
There is no trailhead sign for Mitchell Lakes at the parking pullout, elevation 6,780 feet. Forest Service Road 740 is labeled on a post. Private land surrounds the road for the first 0.4 mile. Pass through a tunnel under US 550 and arrive at the Fume Wall, a technical climbing area, shown.

The cement fortresses you see are intended to protect homes from floods and debris flows emanating from the 416 Fire burn scar. The fire started on June 1, 2018 just up the tracks from this crossing. It was contained on July 31 after burning 52,778 acres. After an extended investigation, Federal officials claim that embers from a D&SNG coal locomotive started the blaze. Cross the tracks, hop across a creek, and enter the San Juan National Forest.
 

The road degenerates and the grade varies from nearly flat to super steep. Almost a mile up the initial northwest traverse, a spur takes off to the left. Turns out, it's not much of a shortcut. The main road makes a sharp hairpin to the southwest at 1.1 miles. Below, look through the burned hillside to some Hermosa Cliff structure blazing in morning sun. Between the town of Hermosa and Purgatory three trails penetrate the cliffs: Mitchell Lakes, Goulding Creek Trail (north of Glacier Club), and Elbert Creek Trail at Needles.
 

Cross a series of shallow ravines scoured out from the fire. The sandstone seen below is part of the Hermosa Group found on this east-facing slope. The repetition of sandstone, limestone, shale, and siltstone record sea level rise and fall, and glaciation in the Pennsylvanian epoch 300 million years ago.

At 1.8 miles, 8,000 feet, the track strikes north across a broad bench. It is a pleasant interlude through a woodland of Rocky Mountain and Utah juniper, ponderosa, and gambel oak. In April, the mahonia (Oregon grape) was blooming bright yellow.
 

At 2.5 miles, the two-track approaches the base of the east ridge of Point 9,564'. It swings left and ascends the south flank of the ridge. This explains why the trail was clear of snow in mid-April after an average winter.
 

Pinkerton-Flagstaff Trail to Point 9,564'
At 2.7 miles, 8,560 feet, arrive at the signed junction with the south end of the Pinkerton-Flagstaff Trail #522. The Mitchell Lakes Trail continues as a two-track to the lakes. To reach Hermosa Ridge, transition onto the PFT. It is a multi-use singletrack open to hikers, horses, mountain bikes, dirt bikes and quads.
 

The trail climbs swiftly. Old growth Ponderosa survived the conflagration, aspen groves are living, and three very different lakes rest on the bench below. One lake has almost completed the age-old Earth process of turning into a grassy meadow. (Thomas Holt Ward, photo)
 

The Hermosa Cliffs are eroded here but as the treadway makes a couple of switchbacks it goes through a lens of gray limestone. A gorgeous slab of blue polka dot shale rests on the trail. Climb constructed sandstone steps and alight on an eastward lateral ridge at 9,120 feet. The track curves south under Point 9,564', shown. The transition between the Hermosa Group and red Cutler Formation occurs as you near the divide. You can't miss it.
 

Intersect north-south-running Hermosa Ridge at 3.9 miles, elevation 9,420 feet. The field of vision from the divide is as big as you would expect. Below, Peak 10,562' is mid-way along Missionary Ridge.
 

West, the East Block of the La Plata Mountains rises substantially above Barnes Mountain and Cape Horn.
 

To climb Point 9,564', stay on the PFT as it turns north. Enter the Hermosa Creek Special Management Area located on the east side of the watershed between US 550 and the Hermosa Creek Wilderness. The Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection legislation, passed by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama in December, 2014, created both the 37,236-acre Hermosa Creek Wilderness and the SMA. 
 

Follow the PFT for less than 0.1 mile. As it swings west of the prominence watch for a social trail that ascends on the ridgeline to the crest.
 

Top out on Point 9,564' at 4.1 miles. A great view doesn't make a legal summit. For that you need 300 feet of relief on both sides and this knob only drops 224 feet to the north. But still, a few people have signed the register tucked in the branches of a juniper tree. North are Engineer Mountain, Spud Mountain, Snowdon Peak, and the Twilights in the West Needle Mountains.
 

Northeast is Mountain View Crest, Shalona Lake, Old Shalona Hill, and US 550.

North from Point 9,564' to Peak 9,661'
Peak 9,661' is 1.8 miles north on the PFT. In this image, it is the nondescript brown roller low and to the right of Engineer Mountain. In April, we needed microspikes to get down the north ridge. Below, you can see the PFT just off the ridgeline on the west.
 

The trail stays on top of the divide most of the way to Peak 9,661'. We walked on patches of snow for most of our journey, lost the trail at times, and went right over the top of the roller, Point 9,436'.

Arrive on Peak 9,661' at 5.9 miles, shown. If you weren't going for it deliberately, you might not even notice this one for what it is, a ranked summit on Hermosa Ridge. There are a few signatures in the register. Views are obscured by trees.

While this hike turns around here, other exit strategies exist provided you set up a short shuttle. I have not trail-tested the following mileages. Continue north on the PFT and intersect the Jones Creek Trail in 0.6 mile. The lower Hermosa Creek Trailhead is about five miles south. Or, continue north for about 3.2 miles on the PFT to the Goulding Creek Trail and descend three miles east to the trailhead off US 550. A standard 19-mile-loop for mountain bikers begins at the lower Hermosa Creek Trailhead and climbs on the Jones Creek Trail to the PFT. It serves as a "rough and ugly" connector (sections of hike-a-bike) with the Dutch Creek Trail. Be ready for a stiff climb back to the Hermosa Creek Trail. (THW, photo)
 

South from Point 9,564' to Point 9,117'
Hike to the south end of the ridge for an astounding lookout over the Animas River Valley. Point 9,564' provides the best vista to all other compass points so this description begins there with 4.1 miles behind you. It is 2.5 miles to Point 9,117'. The ridge is loaded with rollers so be psyched for repeated up and down.

There is a faint social trial to Point 9,304'. Arrive on the prominence, shown, at 5.8 miles. While it is the highest point on the south end of the ridge, it is not a legal summit. And yet, there is a peak register tucked into three placed stones. It is a good hangout and most people turn around here. Find Pigeon and Turret Peaks poking above Mountain View Crest.
 

Continuing south, the wildcat trail disappears and the oak brush thickens. We found fresh elk scat all along the ridge. There's a fascinating cluster of exposed sandstone boulders and stacks.
 

Heft up the southernmost hill at 6.6 miles and walk a few steps further out Point 9,117' for an uncommon view of the Animas River Valley. Runoff from every low hill, every high mountain seen on this hike contributes to the Animas, creator of an extensive, flat-floored bottomland. Yes, it is our hometown river, but strip away all the trappings of humanity and envision its timeless, ever-flowing force. (THW, photo)

This image looks up at the south end of Hermosa Ridge from La Plata CR 202 on Hermosa Creek.

If you are comfortable descending a steep slope off-trail, you can cut your return effort by taking the blue-line route down to Mitchell Lakes. From the second roller north of Point 9,304', descend about 400 feet on the northeast ridge. Get a visual on the lakes and plunge 200 feet north to the bench. We actually came up that way on one of our exploratory hikes. The fire cleared out almost all the underbrush and footing was good. 
 
Mitchell Lakes
For a more leisurely hike, explore the three lakes. When the PFT takes off at 2.7 miles, veer left, staying on the Mitchell Lakes Trail. Big green trees, a pocket of aspen, grasses, it is pretty and peaceful. Follow the two-track up and over a low ridge and onto the lake terrace. (THW, photo)
 

The first lake is mostly grass.
 

The next lake is hidden from view to the northwest. Find it over a low rise. This lake is mostly frogs. The cheerful cacophony in April was downright deafening, especially to Walnut, pictured. (THW, photo)
 

Walk south to find the third lake which is mostly water. The image below shows the ridge we climbed to link with Hermosa Ridge.
 

Pinkerton Hot Springs is on the east side of the highway just before the turnoff for La Plata CR 250. (THW, photo)