Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Thunderbird, Point 4,625', from Finger Rock Canyon, Pusch Ridge Wilderness

Essence: Point 4,625' forms the perpendicular sidewall at the northwest entrance to Finger Rock Canyon. Rock has exfoliated from the cliff façade leaving the image of a Thunderbird, the informal name for the unranked prominence. The escarpment features prominently when observed from Linda Vista and Pontatoc Ridge. The short but challenging hike is best suited for desert mountaineers well adapted to off-trail travel, nuanced navigation, thorny brush, and Class 3 scrambling. Familiarity with the Catalina Front is recommended. This hike is within the Pusch Ridge Wilderness, managed by the Coronado National Forest.
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: 4.4 miles; 1,700 feet
Total Time: 4:00 to 5:00
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail; navigation challenging; Class 3; mild exposure; wear long pants; carry all the water you will need; hike in winter months to avoid scorching temperatures and rattlesnakes.
Map: Tucson North, AZ 7.5' USGS Quad
Dates Hiked: December 18 and December 27, 2023
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. Thunderbird is off-limits during that time period. No dogs!
Quote: I belong in this canyon. I am truly a part of it. If I miss a week, I miss it. It's good old human curiosity. There's always something different. It's absolutely amazing. David Bertelsen
Solstice dawnlight illuminates Thunderbird (image-center) and its higher brethren, Prominent Point, Finger Rock and Finder Rock Guard. Mount Kimball is the tree-covered bastion at the head of the canyon.

Route: Hike north and northeast on the Finger Rock Trail. When the trail begins climbing out of the canyon on the southeast wall, leave the footpath and scramble up Finger Rock Canyon. Divert northwest into a side canyon at 3,700 feet. Go left when the canyon splits two more times. Leave the drainage at 4,300 feet and climb southwest to a small interior eastward ridge. Ascend to the north ridge of Thunderbird. Scramble to the summit. To return, the sure bet is to retrace your steps. The southwest ridge is delightful but impeded by private land at the wilderness boundary. I don't recommend either the red-line or blue-line routes back to the Finger Rock Trail.

Having seen Thunderbird time and again from Linda Vista I've long considered it to be the entrance gate to some of the most wondrous features in the Pusch Ridge Wilderness. I contemplated approaching it from the lower end on the southwest ridge. Thank you Mike and Gregg for the suggestion to come at it from the north ridge and for crediting the name "Thunderbird" to field botanist David Bertelsen. (THW, photo)
Finger Rock Trailhead, elevation 3,060 feet, is one block up Alvernon Way from the parking lot. Our quest was visible even before we hit the trail. 
At 0.1 mile the Pontatoc Trail branches off to the right. Stay on Finger Rock Trail No. 42 and enter the Pusch Ridge Wilderness. Now plants are free to be themselves and they exemplify the Sonoran Desert at its finest.
Cross the wash in Finger Rock Canyon at 0.9 mile. For a few steps the world goes gray and white. The stone is a mix of Catalina Granite and Catalina Gneiss. While there was no water flowing in December of 2023, the watercourse is capable of carrying torrents. In 2021, the streamway was expanded, denuded, and blown out by monsoonal floods. 
The Finger Rock Trail starts climbing the southeast wall at 1.2 miles. Step over a row of rocks designed to keep the general public on track and make your way into the channel.
There is a superb view of Thunderbird from this location. This post is dedicated to David Bertelsen who has done infinitely more than bestowing Point 4,625' with its beguiling and fitting name. Bertelsen hiked the Finger Rock Trail to the top of Mount Kimball 1,627 times between 1981 and 2017, and he's still making laps. He has documented numerous observations of 615 species of flowering plants (and counting). His work is remarkable because of the span of time it covers, the number of species recorded, and the significant elevation range of his observations. His longitudinal study serves as an important record of how plant communities in this portion of the Santa Catalina Mountains have changed over four decades. (Bertelsen, C. David, "Thirty-Seven Years on a Mountain Trail," Desert Plants, vol. 34, nos. 1 and 2, 2018, Boyce Thompson Arboretum, Superior, AZ)
(Thomas Holt Ward, composite photo)
The scramble starts immediately on water polished boulders. This scene is characteristic of all the principal canyons in the lower reaches of the Santa Catalina Mountains. It's at once slick as ice and totally enrapturing.
We couldn't find any evidence of Finger Rock Spring as we flew up the rough and tumble streamway.

Be on the lookout for the brown wall pictured below. The drainage splits just beyond it.

At 1.5 miles, 3,700 feet, cut left into a side canyon, image-left. This tributary of Finger Rock is obvious on the Tucson North quad.
Scamper up the boulders in the open channel. It is a pleasurable, big-step scramble. Everything checks out just fine on the ground but if you look up, all routes up and out of there look intimidating if not impossible.
Pass a stocky ancient coralbean growing right in the channel. Coralbean is rare in the United States. In Arizona it is native only to Pima and Santa Cruz counties. It prefers dry rocky slopes, washes, and canyons.
Coralbean has striking red tubular flowers. The fruit is a brown pod with toxic, showy, orange-red seeds. (THW, photo)

On our second hike (to find a better departure route from the southwest ridge) water had pooled. This canyon-bottom route would be troublesome if water was flowing. At 1.6 miles, 3,940 feet, a short wall spans the wash. There's a Class 3 move with great holds under the overhanging boulder on the right.
Bypass a pouroff and get back into the drainage. Continue upcanyon passing an amphitheater on the west, shown. The arc on the left is actually the east ridge of Thunderbird. Brush impairs as the wash pinches and steepens. (THW, photo) 
At 1.8 miles, 4,040 feet, watch carefully for a split in the drainage, shown. Take the left branch. Catclaw and hackberry annoy--patience and tolerance are required. You might be better off on the hillside west of the wash. 
At about 4,200 feet, go left once again at another very subtle split. I just assumed we'd continue on this trajectory to a saddle at the head of the canyon. But the ravine pinches down tight and even if you made it to the ridge, a gendarme blocks passage to Thunderbird. Therefore, at 1.85 miles, 4,300 feet, climb out of the drainage on the west. The first time we hiked this we fumbled around at other possible exit points but they all failed. This one works beautifully.
The bearing turns sharply from northwest to southwest. Footing is difficult at first beside a wall. There's not a lot of wiggle room.
The steepness of the hillside moderates. The goal is to alight on the small eastward ridge above the outcrop, image-left.

Gain the interior ridge at 1.95 miles, 4,440 feet. The outcrop is too tantalizing to deny. 

From there it's a short, mellow climb west to the north ridge of Thunderbird.  

Intersect the north ridge at 2.0 miles, 4,500 feet. This image looks down on the playful outcrop.
The Thunderbird summit is just 0.2 mile upridge. (THW, photo) 
We wondered if this could be an alternate route to Prominent Point West (image-right) but discarded that idea. There appears to be a lot of interference, it's probably not a short cut, and the standard route is a guaranteed pleasure.

From the saddle we worked both sides of the ridge. Catclaw and other assorted thorny plants are vicious. Protect yourself. At the gendarme pictured, we went into the gap between two large boulders and then climbed up through the rocks on the east side.

It is a light scramble with mild exposure. (THW, photo)  

The summit ridge rounds off for a delightful finish. (THW, photo)

The crest is broad but the highpoint is just a small cluster of stones. 
From the top there are incomparable views of Linda Vista Ridge, and Gorp Peak.
Standing on the edge it's a 1,000-foot drop to the floor of Finger Rock Canyon. The Finger Rock Trail, a marvel of engineering, cuts across the opposing slope.

Thunderbird is captivating from the top of Pontatoc Ridge. It was rewarding to return the gaze.

The vista stretching out from the home front is sweeping and spectacular. We wanted to see more of the mountain so we descended on the southwest ridge but it is advisable to return the way you came. We blissed out on the southwest side of the mountain, that is, until we left the ridge. Private land butts up against the wilderness boundary. If you have a connection on the other side you're golden. Otherwise, you have to cut back to the trail and I can't recommend either of our routes. (THW, photo) 

Heading southwest along the cliff edge the grasses are trampled by game. We saw what must have been bighorn sheep tracks. (THW, photo) 

The initial 400-foot mellow descent is as good as it gets in the Pusch Ridge Wilderness. Walk along the edge of the world on slabs of bedrock, weaving between boulders.
Arrive at the top of a 50-foot cliff at 4,280 feet. As shown below, the ridge cuts sharply down to a 4,220-foot saddle and then goes up and over a spicy roller. On our first hike we left the ridge at the saddle and made our way south to the Finger Rock Trail, the red-line route. We were so unhappy with that, on our second hike we went over the roller before cutting back to the trail, the blue-line route. That was a great improvement...until we left the ridgeline. (THW, photo)

As for negotiating the cliffband, there's not a lot of room to work with but we found an enjoyable Class 3 downclimb with solid holds and minimal exposure.

This image looks back up at the cliff. (THW, photo) 

We were in the saddle at 2.4 miles. The reason I put the red-line route on the map above is to suggest you avoid this aggressive bushwhack. It will indeed get you back to the trail but it drops 860 feet in under half a mile. It's super steep, prickly plants include carnivorous catclaw, and footing is sketchy with boulders buried in deep grass. Not fun.

This image was shot from the trail looking back up at our descent route. Note, we bypassed the throat of the swale on the west.
We returned a week later to scope out a better descent route. The ridge was insanely cool. Below, my partner is standing at the bottom of the roller mentioned previously. We stair-stepped up on the south side of the ridgeline. It's a good scramble with mild exposure.
The stone knob tops out at 4,300 feet. There's a fabulous perspective on the rolling, delightful summit ridge of Thunderbird and its 50-foot cliff. (THW, photo) 
The gradual, unobstructed descent on the ridge is ideal.

Even the rock stacks are wondrous. We were in heaven.

The wilderness boundary is just before the knoll with the building, shown. In retrospect, I wish we'd stayed on the ridge to 3,400 feet and then cut east just shy of private property to the trail. I do not know what terrain challenges that option presents.
Instead, we left the ridge at 3,900 feet and dropped to the southeast. It seemed reasonable but it was a most unpleasant sidehill replete with deep grass, holes, rolling rocks, and brush. We rotated repeatedly between swales and ridges until we hit the trail 0.6 mile from the trailhead. If you discover a good bailout from the southwest ridge that avoids private property please leave a comment. This mountain deserves a pleasant finish.

Monday, December 25, 2023

Sheepshead, 6,545'; Point 5,441'; Point 5,437', Dragoon Mountains

Essence: The Dragoon Mountains are a 25-mile-long range trending northwest-southeast. They are bordered on the east by the Sulphur Springs Valley and on the west by the San Pedro Valley. The mountains are named for the 3rd U.S. Cavalry Dragoons, mounted infantry armed with short musket dragoons (mid-1800s). Sheepshead is the most prominent and aesthetic dome in the western Dragoons. For the technical climber there are over 40 multi-pitch routes up the fabled 650-foot granite wall. For the hiker, the base of the summit dome is achievable via a Class 2+ trail. Approach over, cairns guide up a charmed route for a low Class 3 finish with essentially no exposure. With a rise of 285 feet, Sheepshead is not a ranked peak. However, the expansive and sublime summit dome is unparalleled in Arizona. This is a half-day hike. Extend your day by climbing one or two other prominences on your return to the trailhead. The hike is within the Coronado National Forest.
Travel: Exit I-10 in Benson and drive south on AZ 80 toward Tombstone. Roll through Saint David. Just before mile marker 314, AZ 82 splits to the right toward Nogales. Stay on AZ 80 toward Douglas and Tombstone. Go up a rise and at the top of the hill, just past mile marker 315 (The post is on the east side of the highway.) turn left/east on Middlemarch Road. This is about 22 miles south of Benson and two miles north of Tombstone. Measure distance from the turnoff. Pavement ends at one mile. The wide graded road passes scattered residences. Drive over cattle guards and cross shallow washes. There is a clear view of Sheepshead. At 9.6 miles, at a cattle guard turn left on FSR 687 and enter the Coronado National Forest. Our odometer tends to be a little conservative. Remeasure from there. The road narrows. Turn right on FSR 4806 at 0.3 mile. It may not be signed. Pass a windmill at Tenneco Well with three water tanks. (On the Haberstock Hill topo.) At 0.7 mile, the road splits. Go left to generous parking at the trailhead in front of a green gate, or right for camping with a community of climbers. No facilities, no water.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 3.6 miles; 1,450 feet. Add two prominences for a total of 4.1, 1,800 feet.
Total Time: 3:15 to 4:00; the two points add less than one hour.
Difficulty: Trail; navigation moderate; low Class 3 with mild exposure; hike during winter months and carry all the water you will need.
Maps: Haberstock Hill; Black Diamond Peak, AZ 7.5' USGS Quads
Date Hiked: December 25, 2023
I cannot tell you
How the light comes.
What I know
Is that it is more ancient
Than imagining.
That it travels
Across an astounding expanse
To reach us.

Jan Richardson
The chill light of dawn awakens Sheepshead on Christmas Day. (Thomas Holt Ward, photo)

Route: Bear north-northeast on-trail to the base of Sheepshead. Ascend through a break in the escarpment to a saddle on the ridgeline. Climb the north face of the dome to the crown. Mount points 5,441' and 5,437' on the return if you wish. Note: The Haberstock Hill quad has 20-foot contour intervals and Black Diamond Peak has 40-foot intervals.
The Dragoons are a two hour drive from our home in Tucson. When we arrived on Christmas morning, it was a frosty 30 degrees and climbers in a dozen vans were just beginning to stir. Open and close the trailhead gate, elevation 5,140 feet. (THW, photo)
The trail penetrates a mesquite bosque residing in a vast field of pale straw. Horizontal light plays among unspeakably beautiful sculpted and weathered granite features--boulders, domes, pillars, and walls. The early morning earth is still. It is wondrous to walk among the rock beings.
The Late Cretaceous to Early Tertiary rock was emplaced during the Laramide Orogeny (70 to 55 million years ago), a time of mountain building in western North America. The equigranular intrusive igneous rock is composed of medium-grained granodiorite. 
The trail arcs to the northeast between unranked points 5,441' and 5,437'. The footpath was engineered with wood and stone steps presumably some time ago given the trenching of the track. Vegetation diversifies with Arizona oak, beargrass, sotol, yucca, and manzanita. The trail skirts to the southeast of a disorganized ridge topped with globular nubbins. (THW, photo)
Cross the Sheepshead drainageway at 0.75 mile. On our frigid hike the foliage was dripping with glistening icicles. At one mile the trail swings into the draw to the west of Sheepshead. The image below was shot on our return to capture mid-day lighting. The trail works up through boulders exfoliated from the monolith, brushes up against the wall, and then mounts the treed chute, just as you no doubt suspected. The final pitch to the summit is around the back and out of sight.
The climb begins on stone step-ups. The shaded forest wafts piñon. Open and close the barbed wire gate. We were tempted to play around on the discombobulated ridge to the west. (THW, photo)

The trail is a mix of dirt, boulders, and bedrock. Watch for cairns on stone surfaces. Be aware that they sometimes lead off-route to climbing pitches. Ocotillo, resurrection moss, agave, and rainbow mammillaria enhance the stony terrain. This photo was shot on our return. (THW, photo) 
Trail builders didn't use explosives. They just found natural pathways on and through the granite. The track wiggles all around. It's very cool. (THW, photo) 

There is even some fingers and toes scaling. Over too soon!

We didn't see climbers on our way up the mountain but on our return we passed below groups all over the big wall. (THW, photo) 

The path presses against the west wall magnifying the powerful presence of stone. 

Reach out and touch a madrone tree so ancient it surely witnessed Chief Cochise hiding out from his pursuers before surrendering at nearby Council Rocks in 1872. (THW, photo)

Skim along the smooth cliff front. (THW, photo)
The Too Tough To Die is a 5.10, six-pitch route. The name references gunslinger Wyatt Earp and Tombstone, the town too tough to die.
At 1.4 miles, 5,920 feet, turn up into the chute between the cliff walls. The path is braided. Search for it if you lose it. When in doubt, don't follow lateral paths, rather, keep it pointed uphill. Footing is good, rock is solid, vegetation is heavy but not hindering. 
Near the top of the break, the wall on the left has a streak of lime-green lichen on a seep path. It's hard to see in this image (This was a Winter Solstice hike; shadows linger long.) but to its left, a monster boulder is clinging with all its might to the parent rock. What's holding it there defying the law of gravity? After all, gravity never sleeps.

Gain the top of the chute at 1.6 miles, 6,260 feet. I felt the comforting sensation of being embraced by granite, walls swooping down. Were it not for the break, hikers wouldn't be able to summit Sheepshead and I was grateful. This image was taken on our return and the suspended boulder is visible image-right. (THW, photo)
At first glance the route to the peak looks impossible from the saddle but it reveals itself as you go. I have a deep fondness for routes that look unlikely--it feels magical as they dash up one crack and wander over to another. The scrambling never exceeds low Class 3. Holds are solid, exposure is minimal. To get started, back down the trail a few steps so you can move over next to the wall. Turn east briefly and then mount south on the north face of the dome. The route is well cairned. If you lose the rock piles, relocate. (THW, photo)
Go up a thin chute with well seated stones. There was a big reassurance cairn at the top of the slot. 
As you top the chute, hang a sharp left. (THW, photo)

There is a short bit of trodden soil but mostly the route is on solid rock. (Makes my heart sing.)
Take baby steps up this short friction pitch. (Not as scary as it looks.)

There's a little Class 3 bouldering.

Emergence! As you crest, the surface of the granite dome is covered in waterpockets. It had rained recently turning the potholes into disks of ice. (THW, photo)
The route tops out on a subsidiary dome. We were completely blown away. Divine is not too strong a descriptor. Having grown up on granite in the Sierra Nevada Mountains I was on home rock. (THW, photo)
Sheepshead has a surprisingly large surface area. The highpoint is toward the south end of the roundoff. 
 There's only one way to get there. Sticky soles help.
Arrive on Sheepshead at 1.8 miles. Below, I am floating across a dreamscape. (THW, photo)
The surrounding landscape is complicated. This image looks north to Point 6,848'. The highest point in the Dragoon Mountains is Mount Glenn, 7,519 feet, a ways off in the north.
Northeast is Peak 6,977'. (THW, photo)

The trailhead and approach route is visible below. We decided on a whim to climb the two little bumps on the western fringe of the Dragoons (image-center). They are not terribly impressive but they afford nice views.

The Whetstone Mountains are due west across the San Pedro Valley. While achieving Apache Peak and its companion French Joe is arduous, treasures all along the way more than compensate.

It was easy to unwind from the crown back to the saddle. Most hikers will simply retrace steps to the trailhead. If you'd like to check out the little prominences, start with Point 5,441'. It is a small commitment and yields a stunning perspective on Sheepshead. It's just 0.15 mile and takes fewer than ten minutes to reach the top. Leave the trail at 3.0 miles and walk southwest across a grassy flat.
The climb is mellow and pleasant with negligible brush and stone steps. Boulders and bedrock are covered in thick blue lichen. 
The crest is an unexpectedly narrow rocky ridge running north-south. Looking quite impressive to the southeast are Black Diamond Peak and Peak 7,155' with almost 1,300 feet of prominence. The Desert Mountaineer has a compelling and thorough description of the hike to both peaks. (THW, photo)

The virtue of Point 5,441' is its unparalleled perspective on Sheepshead.

We walked down the northwest slope back to the trail. Point 5,437' is seen below, image-left.
For the second bump we left the trail at 3.3 miles, crossed a dry creek and stepped over a barbed wire fence. We were lacerated by thorny plants near the drainage but it was a nice climb once we were clear of the waterway. This image looks back on Point 5,441'.

We crested the prominence at 3.5 miles  
We were adjacent to the west face of the ridge we scooted around earlier on our way to Sheepshead.

We angled southeast off the crest back to the trail. While no serious obstacles stood in our way, the slope was thick with shindaggers. 

We have climbed to the highest point in the Dragoon Mountains. We have explored on and off-trail in the Cochise Stronghold. We've entered mazeways only to be bounced back out by the impenetrable. We are enthralled with the weathered and spheroidal stone and look forward to turning our attention to the Council Rocks region.