Sunday, February 28, 2021

Rattlesnake Peak, 6,653', via the South Ridge, Pusch Ridge Wilderness

Essence: Rattlesnake Peak is a remote summit on the Catalina Front that has vexed and even defeated hikers for generations. The south ridge is the most direct and common route, though few people make the attempt. It is steep, obstacle-cluttered, and navigation on the complex ridge is not as obvious as you would think. We were fortunate to nail the route on our first attempt. Spoiler alert! My intention is to walk you up the hill so you have a successful climb. We saw no slithering snakes and I wonder if the mountain is named for the stone rattles on its upper slopes. Achieving the peak requires continuous effort but it is more than a conquest. We very much enjoyed the tour of towers, dodging gendarmes, superlative views, and unraveling the mystery of the climb. 
Travel: This hike starts from the overflow parking lot for the Sabino Canyon Recreation Area. From the signal at the corner of Sunrise Drive and Sabino Canyon Road in Tucson, drive north and pass the main entrance for Sabino Canyon, following the sign for overflow parking. Turn right on paved FSR 805 at a sign for Southern Arizona Rescue Association. Drive through an open gate and park in the northwest corner. Fee required, or display your pass. The pay station and privy are located on the east side of the lot. No water! Gate opens at 6 a.m.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 9.0 miles; 4,150 feet of climbing
Total Time: 7:30 to 9:30
Difficulty: Trail (2 miles), off-trail (7 miles); navigation challenging; Class 2+; mild exposure; wear long pants; carry more food and water than you think you will need and hike on a cool day.
Maps: Sabino Canyon, Arizona 7.5' USGS Quad, or Pusch Ridge Wilderness, Coronado National Forest, USDA Forest Service, 1:24,000
Pusch Ridge Wilderness: This hike lies east of the desert bighorn protection area so those restrictions do not apply. Dogs are not allowed in the Pusch Ridge Wilderness.
Date Hiked: February 28, 2021
Quote: We move at perhaps one mile per hour. It hardly matters. The mountains grow big when you step off a trail. Charles Bowden, Frog Mountain Blues

The "Rattler's Tail" is composed of stacked granite disks. It is a navigation marker seen from over 1,000 feet below. Standing rocks festoon the upper mountain. 

Route: The south ridge of Rattlesnake Peak forms the divide between Bird and Rattlesnake canyons. Access the ridge from the Esperero Trail. Ascend northeast on the southwest ridge. Initiate a transfer to the south ridge at 4,100 feet. Then, the standard rule applies--remain on the ridgeline unless forced off by obstacles, returning at first opportunity.

There are two options for accessing the Esperero Trail. The standard trailhead is located 0.7 mile from the Visitor Center at the Sabino Canyon Recreation Area (water, restrooms). This description approaches the Esperero Trail from a footpath frequented by Tucson locals going to Cardiac Gap. It shaves nearly a mile off the hike each way. The path is well established, engineered, and maintained but it doesn't appear on maps and it is not signed. Walk northwest out of the overflow lot, elevation 2,820 feet. The trail materializes on a berm. Below, our quest is drenched in dawn light. (Thomas Hold Ward, photo)

The treadway launches immediately into the Sonoran--saguaro, ocotillo, pricklypear, coral bean, and staghorn, teddybear, and silver cholla. In spring, 2021, the signature flora was seriously stressed from unrelenting drought. There were no wildflowers blooming.

Important! At 0.3 mile, the trail splits. Take the left fork. Climb swiftly on the rock-lined trail over swaths of bedrock. The high point on the access trail is at 0.9 mile, 3,220 feet. You can see a good deal of the route from here. Below, the peak is on the skyline, image-center. To its right, the "Little Monster" juts abruptly from the south ridge. Directly below the peak is the buttress on the southwest ridge, the first challenge of the day.  

Intersect the Esperero Trail at 1.0 mile. We walked west on the trail to where it crosses the southwest ridge. Launching through a wall of brush was unappealing so we returned to the junction. A faint trail leaves the Esperero directly across from the incoming trail. The path fizzles shortly (perhaps we just lost it). Simply hike north up the broad runout of the southwest ridge aiming for the buttress, image-center-right. 

Brush is an impediment in places but never oppressive. The pitch steepens as you approach the buttress. We decided to center punch it to the right of the initial rock wall. Occasional cairns guide up the steep scramble. You will find sporadic cairns throughout this hike. While some are quite helpful there are not nearly enough to count on. Crest the buttress at 1.6 miles, 3,840 feet. If this effort tested your mettle, you may want to consider turning around here.

The next segment offers a delightful reprieve as the terrain graduates. The divide narrows at 1.8 miles, 4,000 feet, and crosses a bridge with Rattlesnake Canyon entrenched on the east. The southeast wall of Bird Canyon has developed a chink in its armor. (THW, photo)

Enter the burn scar left from the Bighorn Fire on a sweet little flat at 4,140 feet. In June, 2020, a lightning strike ignited the fire on Pusch Ridge. By July, it had incinerated 119,987 acres. This flat is your signal that the transfer to the south ridge is imminent. 

Give up 40 feet and climb 300 feet to the south ridge. Any number of routes will work. We went up the slight depression, image-center, and then did a rising traverse to meet the ridge just left of the outcrop, image-right. 

Wander up the ridgetop. A couple of trip reports suggest boulder hopping is a strong component of this climb. That was not my experience. These slabs were exceptional and welcome.

Encounter the first set of gendarmes at 2.4 miles, 4,640 feet. Bypass effectively and swiftly on the west, returning promptly to the ridgetop. This image looks back on those structures and the go-around. As you can see already, the striking visuals on this hike are never-ending. (THW, photo) 

We have great admiration for the stalwart hikers who claimed Rattlesnake Peak by clambering up the canyon. We were grateful to be 1,500 feet above the canyon floor looking out over ridge beyond ridge to the Rincon Mountains.  

An earthen ramp with boulders on either side streams from Point 5,085'. Go straight up this crazy, perfect incline. Bypass the summit stacks on the west. 

After the third short go-around on the west enter the domain of standing fins. You will find many curious features in this small space. 

Just beyond the fins, at 3.1 miles, 5,140 feet, we cut off a kink in the ridge. To do so, take a faint trail due north, back over to the ridgetop. Fearing we may have missed something, and we did, on our return we adhered to the ridge. You can actually see the very top of the peak from the lookout at 5,320 feet.

Next up is the "Little Monster," image-left. This beast is steeper than anything on this entire route. You know it is steep when you are climbing on your toes. Go around the summit stack on the east side. 

On the top of the Little Monster is a flat granite slab at 5,660 feet. The mountain looked intimidating to me from here. Looking at the image below, the ridge swings northwest before resuming its true-north tack. The Rattler's Tail, seen below on top of the dome, is 200 vertical feet below the summit. From the slab, divert again just a bit to the west and then weave through boulders. 

Contact the final saddle at 3.8 miles, 5,620 feet. The last segment pitches up 1,000 feet over 0.7 mile. Footing is good on soft dirt and crushed granite. Anticipate excellent plunge stepping on the down-climb. The fire, as tragic as it was, cleared out much of the brush and torched the shindaggers. Climb just to the east of the standing rocks, pictured.  

At 6,120 feet, you will have to divert to the east. On our up-climb, we stayed off the ridgeline too long and encountered unpleasant thrashing and huge boulders. It was taxing and time-consuming. Instead, return to the ridgetop at first opportunity and work your way right up the centerline. We nailed this more favorable route on our return. 

You will pass by plenty of rattles on your way to the unmistakable Rattler's Tail at 6,460 feet. (Shown in the feature photo.) Not knowing how long the final stretch would take, we saved this highly exposed scrambler's delight for our return. From here, the upper mountain looks insane, if not impossible. Looks often deceive when determined boots hit the ground. We decided to stick to the ridge and attempt to weave our way through the towers. In 12 minutes we were on top. (THW, photo)

Geological Note: Curious about how on earth the rattles were formed I consulted, "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. The range is an uplifted and highly eroded dome of sedimentary, igneous, and metamorphic rock. Rattlesnake Peak is composed of Catalina Granite. It originated 26 million years ago as a rising mass of molten magma that deformed older overlying rocks and cooled miles below the surface. Prolonged cooling allowed crystals to form giving the granite its sparkles and pegmatitic texture.

The stone rattles are boulder inselbergs, resistant remnants of bedrock left on the surface as erosion wears back the mountain front. Weathering and erosion have enlarged sets of vertical and horizontal joints, dividing the bedrock into individual blocks. Weathering widens and deepens the joints and rounds the corners and edges of the blocks. 

This boulder inselberg rests on the west side of the ridge above the Rattler's Tail. (THW, photo)

Pass through the center of the "Snake Pit." 

This mountain has turned back seasoned hikers decidedly more capable than me. I had slim hope of reaching the top. When we crested at 4.5 miles after four hours of steadily plodding along, I was incredulous and elated. I attribute this victory to no serious go-backs or troublesome obstacles. This mountain wants to be climbed. For reference, the return trip was half an hour faster. Climb the summit stack where you will find the register in an ammo box. Sky-cleaving Cathedral Rock rises assertively in the northwest. (THW, photo)

Five years prior, we climbed Rattlesnake from McFall Crags, image-center. While the east ridge of Rattlesnake presented little difficulty, the overall hike was decidedly more arduous than the south ridge approach. 

Ironically, at the time we took one look at the tower-laced south ridge, shown, and dismissed it as impossible. Turns out, the south ridge earned the ultimate praise--it went down in my field notes as a hike to repeat. (THW, photo)

1 comment:

  1. This is a lovely hike, though we did not even get as far as the monster. The route through the Buttress is well cairned at the moment and you'll start to see them as you take the obvious route toward the Buttress weakness on the right. Once you get up it and then a couple hundred feet further elevation, expect thick grass but the brush is not an issue. Brush was not bad down lower, though not a walk in the park. Beautiful ridge!