Friday, March 29, 2024

Pinnacle Ridge, 7,550', Santa Teresa Mountains

Essence: This climb possesses all the criteria necessary to qualify as one of the finest desert adventures detailed in this blog. As a point of confusion for many, the peak "Pinnacle Ridge" is the highest point on "extended Pinnacle Ridge" which runs southwest to northeast for many miles in the Santa Teresa Mountains. While the summit is an unconsolidated assemblage of massive boulders, with a prominence of 2,490 feet the peak is visually striking from great distances. Hike among weather-sculpted granite spheres, towers, buttresses, gendarmes, slabs, and outcrops scattered throughout the chaotic landscape. The trailhead is remote and the 4WD track is a test for any vehicle. Navigation is challenging. Finish with a series of seriously exposed Class 4 moves tempered by a rock surface with sticky, crystalline features. The peak is seldom visited and suggested for desert mountaineers--the mountain has defeated many competent hikers. The hike is within the Santa Teresa Wilderness managed by the Coronado National Forest.
Travel: From the corner of Klondyke Road and Bonita-Klondyke Road, drive east on well-graded Klondyke Road for 5.4 miles. Turn left at the sign for "Sand Tank, 4 Miles" and measure distance from there. The spur to Sand Tank on FSR 677 requires a serious 4WD vehicle with high clearance and good approach and departure angles. There are deep ruts and steep pitches in the dirt road. There is a generous pullout at the beginning of FSR 677. We parked one vehicle there and piled into two Forerunners. Both bottomed out several times. At the branch at 1.7 miles, turn right. At 2.3 miles, stay straight. Open and close two gates. Park in a turnaround at 3.9 miles by a yellow warning sign, "Entering burned area..." Park on Arizona State Trust Land. Note: Some people have initiated the climb from Devil's Hole but a quick examination of the road via satellite implies it is considerably longer and truly horrible.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 6.8 miles; 2,900 feet
Total Time: 6:00 to 8:00
Difficulty: Off-trail; navigation challenging; Class 4 with serious exposure; rope recommended; avoid sizzling heat in summer and snow and ice in winter. 
Map: Buford Hill, AZ 7.5' USGS Quad
Date Hiked: March 29, 2024
Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.
--Mary Oliver
The 26,780-acre Santa Teresa Wilderness was set aside in 1984 to celebrate the weathering forces of nature. This wilderness is so remote it is rarely witnessed by humans. And yet wind, water, and time have sculpted formations so beautiful the stone itself rejoices. Pinnacle Ridge is the highest and rightmost point in this image. 
(Thomas Holt Ward, photo)

Route: Walk north up Cottonwood Canyon. Leave the wash and ascend northwest to Point 6,161'. Hike over the top of Point 6,420' (blue-line) or flank it on the west. Bear northwest along the relatively flat divide between Limestone Canyon and Devil's Hole. Do an ascending sidehill traverse to gain extended Pinnacle Ridge west of the saddle and east of the peak. Hike west, staying as close to the ridge as possible. Pitch up a broad passageway. Squeeze through a crack in boulders and arrive in a grotto on the north side of the peak. From there it is Class 4 to the summit.  
Pinnacle Ridge is visible from the parking circle at elevation 5,300 feet and throughout the approach. The incoming road continues briefly to the boundary with Coronado National Forest. Open and close the gate.

Just past the gate is a trailhead sign on the banks of Cottonwood Canyon creek. In times gone by there was a functioning trail system on routes kept open by cowboys driving stock. We learned from hikers who have climbed Cottonwood Mountain that the trails have fallen into disuse and have almost entirely disappeared. Looking at our track, apparently we walked right past Sand Tank but did not see it.

We made our way up the flowing creek, stone hopping across a couple of times. We enjoyed a sweet interlude through a sycamore forest.
The first route objective is the saddle between points 6,161' and 6,420'. We made an attempt on Pinnacle Ridge with the Southern Arizona Hiking Club (SAHC) a year earlier. Their route started up Limestone Canyon and then broke for the saddle. Although the drainage was pretty easy initially, it got worse as we clawed our way up to the saddle in a boulder-choked gully infested with catclaw. Determined to improve on that route, we left Cottonwood Canyon at 0.45 mile and headed northwest up the first gentle ridge that comes down on your left, the southeast ridge of Point 6,161'. It's going to cost you about 180 feet each way but it avoids serious annoyance. 

The ascent is pleasant, the grade moderate, the footing good, and foliage is never an issue. Below, climbers are approaching Point 6,161'. You may cut the corners on the rollers and prominence if you wish.
Arrive on Blue Ridge at 1.3 miles. From there, get a good look at what's ahead. Point 6,420' is a little hard to make out in this image because it is sitting in front of spire-topped extended Pinnacle Ridge. You may either climb Point 6,420' or contour on its west side. Either way, you need to achieve the soft shoulder northwest of the prominence at about 6,300 feet.
Drop into the saddle between points 6,161' and 6,420' at 1.5 miles, 5,980 feet. Devil Tank in Devil's Hole is visible to the southwest. While this is a viable starting location for this hike, I can't vouch for the integrity of the 4WD track into the Hole.
From the saddle, ascend the southeast slope of Point 6,420'. Our group in 2024 had no interest in topping the little bonus hill.

Point 6,420' qualifies as a "Club Peak" for SAHC. They regard it as the "high point of Blue Ridge." This image was shot from the prominence in 2023. From my field notes, the top yielded an "...astounding view of massive granite structures, great clumps of stone, spheres, and towers."  From there, the route goes over the divide in the center of this image. Then it pitches up to extended Pinnacle Ridge hitting it just left of the tower seen below, west of the saddle. 

On that day in 2023 the group turned around at 6,500 feet because one member wasn't up for continuing. That was a major disappointment given the four hour drive from Tucson and camping in sub-freezing conditions in Klondyke. So we returned with four veteran desert and high mountain climbers from Colorado.
For those skirting Point 6,420', at about 6,300 feet cross over a barbed wire fence and start contouring, tracking along the fence line. You want to just head a gully coming up from Devil's Hole. Of note, you will cross a geological contact line on the southeast slope of Point 6,420'. The hike begins in metasedimentary gneiss and schist. The rock from here on is composed of intrusive, igneous granite.

Assuming you did the contour, arrive on the shoulder of Point 6,420' at 1.9 miles. Look ahead to the most chaotic and difficult section of the route to navigate. The next half mile is relatively level on a low divide running north-northwest with a significant drop into Limestone Canyon on the east and Devil's Hole on the west. Little rivulets run here and there. The objective is to stay near the middle of the divide. Walk to the east of the first major stone mass, pictured.
The Desert Mountaineer climbed Pinnacle Ridge in 2013 under infinitely more punishing conditions. Every step was encumbered with manzanita and other foliage. Please link to the website for an excellent story and images. What a difference a fire makes. In June, 2021, the Pinnacle Fire burned 34,417 acres. On our hike we walked through scorched terrain, barging easily through Arizona rosewood. We could see and enjoy the creatures in the stone world.
As we walked, we didn't know exactly which feature on the peak was the highpoint. We had to get up there and sort it out.

Walk across a flat on the west side of a buttress with a gigantic slab of stone that broke loose from its mother rock and is now sliding forever further away.

Here's another view of that orientation landmark and erosion in action.

We made a gentle, slight descent and crossed a creek running southwest into Devil's Hole at 2.4 miles, 6,260 feet. Below, the saddle east of the peak is image-right. There is no reason to go there. Rather, we did a pitched side hill climb toward the two pinnacles west of the low point, shown. The pinnacle on the right is on the ridgeline, the other slightly lower.
We stopped shy of the saddle and cut west between the two pinnacles. (THW, photo)
This hiker is hefting up the rising traverse into the space between the pinnacles. (THW, photo)

We took a break between the pinnacles at 2.8 miles, 6,780 feet. 

This photo was taken of the climb to come from there. It looks complicated and it is.

We arrived on the ridge at 2.9 miles, 6,860 feet, just west of a massive stone block, image-left. (THW, photo)

The ridge itself is disorganized. Moving west there are a lot of obstacles. Stay as close to the ridgetop as possible, bypassing on the south when necessary.

The route to the peak goes up through a passageway, a broad chute, between two massive buttresses. (THW, photo)

The passage is preceded by another friction pitch on bedrock. This image shows off the rough texture on the granite that is an assist in the climbing to come. (THW, photo)

We went up the center of the chute. The passage is very steep. Moist soil worked to our advantage. (THW, photo)

Emerging from the chute we were greeted by this enchanting outlier. How does the Earth sculpt these anomalies? (THW, photo) 

We paused to reconnoiter. We were at an inflection point with the summit block above our heads to the north. 
(THW, photo)

The outcrop to the south seen from this same location is the decorative top of the extended buttress on the south side of the passageway.
Turn north and continue climbing for a short bit. The peak was visible above our heads but we still hadn't parsed that.

Squeeze through a crack. (THW, photo)

Step into a grotto immediately below the peak to the northwest. In this image we are taking a lunch break after we mounted the summit. (THW, photo)

Where is the peak in this jumble of massive boulders? We knew we were practically on top of it for we were in compact terrain. Our group paused in the grotto while one member went off searching for the way upward. He intuitively nailed it. His head is in the photo directly above my camera. 

To reach the summit, cross the grotto and start ascending at the only place you can climb higher. My partner with the red backpack is where you want to be.

The first move is a Class 3 friction pitch with a couple of options for mounting. This is followed by a series of exposed Class 4 moves.
Turn right and stem a lengthy crack.

The crack is much more airy than these images let on. There is a sense of infinite air under the butt-feet stem my friend is doing. The snow-filled slot that followed was a safe reprieve. (THW, photo)
The crux is the final pitch up a 1.5 foot-wide ribbon of rock. It is so steep we were working the limit of our ability to stick to the rock. This last move is in a very exposed place. If you fumble, you're gone. 
Mount the high point of Pinnacle Ridge at 3.4 miles. The top is three feet wide and ten feet long with vertical drops to the north and south. There was just room enough for the six of us to sit in the order of our arrival. It was flat and comfortable. The peak register was placed in 2,000. We were the first visitors in 2024. (THW, photo)

As expected, the field of vision rippled off into the blue distance. Looking westward, snow capped Mount Lemmon is on the horizon beyond the Galiuro Mountains.

Pictured below, my partner is descending the crux. He was at the limit of traction and risked loosing his grip on the rib. Even at 5' 10" he couldn't quite stretch to the safety boulder without a hop. By the way, Mount Turnbull, the highpoint of the Santa Teresa Mountains and the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation is seen in the north.

Feeling a rope taut around my waist made all the difference. 

On the return we made almost no route changes and basically unwound ourselves. Below, we are plunge-stepping back down through the passageway. (THW, photo)

We enjoyed walking upon rock lying down.

We concluded our hike in desert grassland with Mount Graham in the Pinaleño Mountains framing the backdrop. 
(THW, photo)

We saw one little patch of redmaids, some verbena, and bajada (or scarlet) lupine. (THW, photo)

Reportedly, black bear, mountain lion, mule deer, coatimundi, and javelina live in the Santa Teresa Mountains. We did not see any wildlife other than birds on our hike. However, on our drive back to Tucson that evening we saw a herd of pronghorn in the Aravaipa Valley just off the Bonita-Klondyke Road.

Friday, March 22, 2024

Grayback, 3,570', and South Butte, 2,848'; Gila River

Essence: These two remote peaks may be climbed reasonably in one day from separate start points. The drive is a commitment so plan to combine them while you are in there. Located just south of the Gila River, Grayback is composed of weathered intrusive igneous granite and South Butte is volcanic. They each have fascinating features typical of their rock composition and navigation challenges. Cairns are nonexistent on Grayback and sparse on South Butte. Class 3 scrambling and exposure can be avoided. The views north across the Gila River and into the White Canyon Wilderness are superlative. We climbed Grayback first and the descriptions below reflect that. The hikes are on public land administered by the Bureau of Land Management.
Travel: Both hikes are accessed from the Florence-Kelvin Highway. In Florence (AZ 79), turn east on Butte Avenue and measure distance from there. It soon transitions to the Florence-Kelvin Highway. Upon leaving the pavement, 4WD with high clearance is required for both hikes. At 14.3 miles cross a very wide wash on a cement casement. (The left turn on Cochran Road to South Butte at The Boulders is at mile marker 15.6). For Grayback continue on the highway. The road turns to wide, graded dirt at mile marker 18.8. Pass under transmission lines and swing north at mile marker 22.0. Turn left at mile marker 23.1 and reset your odometer. Turn left at 0.6 mile and drive over a cattle guard. The track is prone to big ruts and potholes. At the Tea Cup Substation, 1.4 miles, there is a chaotic intersection and two gates, one locked. Open and close the barbed wire gate and turn right. The road bears northwest and further deteriorates. At 1.8 miles stay straight at a right branch. (Take this road if you want to approach Grayback from the east.) Pass a windmill with only the rudder in place (on topo). Park at 3.85 on the right just past a band of boulders. Allow one hour from Florence. Your mileage will likely vary. For South Butte, return to the Florence-Kelvin Highway and go west. Pass the locked gate for The Boulders and turn right at mile marker 15.6. Measure distance from there. Pass a large parking lot for OHVs. The road branches--stay on the main track. At 5.7 miles turn left into Donnelly Wash. Your vehicle must be capable of driving through six inches of sand. Park off to either side of the wash at 9.1 miles.
Distance and Elevation Gain: Grayback, 2.0 miles, 1,100 feet; South Butte, 2.4 miles, 1,200 feet
Total Time: 2:30 to 3:30 each
Difficulty: Off-trail; navigation challenging; Class 2+ with mild exposure (Plenty of Class 3 and cliffs if you go looking for it.); brushy, wear long pants; hike in winter months and carry all the water you will need.
Maps: Grayback (for Grayback), North Butte (for South Butte) AZ 7.5' USGS Quads
Date Hiked: March 22, 2024
Quote: The colours of things rise up from the roots of the earth. Paul Cézanne
The Gila River flows from its headwaters in New Mexico clear across the state of Arizona to its confluence with the Colorado River in Yuma. As seen from Grayback, under an azure sky the river wends lazily between South Butte and North Butte. (Thomas Holt Ward, photo)
Grayback, 3,570'
There are multiple approaches to the isolated Grayback summit. The route described below is designed to maximize exposure to the extraordinary weathered granite structures found on the southern slopes of the mountain.

Route: Hike northeast to the southeast ridge of Grayback. We left the ridge to bypass a major outcrop. For a Class 2+ finish, return to the southeast ridge and ascend to the summit ridge (black-line route). The blue-line route explores the granite shelf on the south side of the mountain and concludes with a Class 3 scramble on the summit ridge. Note: The Grayback quad has 20-foot contour intervals.

We determined the best parking location on our return. Originally, we parked 0.05 mile sooner and started up an old two-track. We soon were trapped in a mumble jumble boulder squeeze. We backed up and clambered up and over a bank of boulders. The image below was shot from the preferred parking area just beyond the row of boulders at elevation 2,520 feet.

There are plenty of serviceable routes to the summit so you may create your own adventure. Our first objective was to contact the southeast ridge. To follow that line, head northeast and climb the roller image-center.

Walk on crushed granite, weaving between boulders and cactus. We were intrigued by black basalt boulders of volcanic origin scattered on the surface. The mountain is primarily composed of crystalline granite. We passed by a dike made from the more typical stone. (THW, photo)

The landscape was awash in typical Sonoran flora--ocotillo, saguaro, barrel cactus, silver cholla, pricklypear, mammillaria, and paloverde. We saw a profuse display of over-sized, pure white desert chicory blossoms. Most notable was the blooming desert chia, shown. The intoxicating smell of mint was so pervasive it was almost too intense. 
(THW, photo) 

Purple flowers were featured on our hike--lupine, scorpion weed, and prairie spiderwort, shown. (THW, photo) 

The steep climb up the roller is ball bearing slick. (THW, photo) 
Gain the southeast ridge at 3,130 feet, 0.6 mile. It is a concentrated landscape on this side of the mountain with several approach choices. Looking at the image below, the easier of our two routes mounts the ridgeline on image-right. We bypassed the outcrop midway up the ridge. The more difficult route leaves the ridge and works over to the granite shelf, image-left. It then cuts back up to the summit ridge, hitting it to the right of the stone tines depicted. (THW, photo) 

At 3,220 feet we were up against the formidable outcrop. We bypassed on the left which worked fine. If I had it to do over, I'd see if I could scramble on or close to the ridgeline.

On our bypass we walked past a slab with solution cavities covering its south face. The most outstanding and memorable feature of this hike were the massive and flowing weathered granite boulders.

At 3,320 feet the routes split. For the easiest route to the summit, return to the southeast ridge. Instead, we went northwest toward the granite shelf, shown (the blue-line route). This was a highlight, but it did set up a much more difficult summit approach.
The granite platform offers ample opportunity to scamper around. (THW, photo) 

Turning back toward the mountain we were met with an impassible wall of piled stone. We bypassed on the south. (THW, photo)

From there, it might make sense to side hill back to the southeast ridge. Instead, we cut straight up to the south ridge and contacted it just north of the tines. It was ridiculously steep and impeded with brush. The difficult bit of climbing was followed by Class 3 bouldering. 

The final push was mellow. (THW, photo) 

Below, my partner is topping out on Grayback.

Both routes reach the summit in just one mile. The benchmark is unlabeled, absent both name and year. The earliest readable entry in the peak register was 1989 and it was written on crumpled, disintegrating paper. (THW, photo)

Grayback has a prominence of 660 feet. Walk out the summit ridge for unobstructed views to the north. The ridgecrest was enhanced by Mexican gold poppies and white butterflies.

Look across the Gila River and the mountains in the White Canyon Wilderness are discombobulated and painted in swirls of fluid pigment. (THW, photo)

We nailed the most direct and friendliest route on our descent. It took just one hour to return to parking. The vegetation is less dense and there is no Class 3 but it is still quite steep. From the summit we went south a few steps and turned down the southeast running ridge. 
We stayed on the ridge until we were even with the granite shelf. (THW, photo) 
We left the ridge to avoid the large outcrop we dodged on our way up. We rejoined the southeast ridge once we passed by the slab with the solution cavities, at about 3,400. We retraced our steps down the roller and back to the parking area.
South Butte, 2,848'
As seen from the drive up Donnelly Wash the barrier wall encompassing South Butte is formidable for the hiker. We are so fortunate that there is a break in the escarpment on the northeast that allows access to the backslope of this captivating butte.
Route: From parking in Donnelly Wash, hike off-trail to the saddle northeast of the butte. Head generally west-southwest, threading through weaknesses in cliffbands. Walk southwest up the backslope to the highpoint on the butte. Note: The North Butte quad has 20-foot contour intervals.

Seen from parking at 1,680 feet, the cliff profile of the east wall of South Butte thwarts the hiker. (THW, photo) 

Our instructions were simple. "Hike to the saddle and follow cairns up to the summit." To start, we entered the drainage emanating from the saddle.

The waterway was choked so right away we got up onto the slope to its east heading north. There were some very faint signs of a social trail. Caution: We encountered barbed wire in a couple of places about half way to the saddle. I got my boot snarled up in the wire and had to sit down and take my boot off to free it from the pesky barbs.

Iridescent desert globemallow contrasted with the earth-toned chromatic field. (Thomas Holt Ward, photo)

Our pathway was yet to be revealed. 

Arrive on the saddle at 0.3 mile, 1,930 feet. A meander in the Gila River is only 0.3 mile away on the other side of the cliff-tiered prominence northeast of the saddle. (THW, photo)
Begin climbing southwest on welded tuff and breccia. The open rock is great fun. However, the volcanic topography gets complicated in a hurry and it would be easy to get into trouble. Follow your intuition while searching out openings in the cliff. Cairns are sporadic. When you do find them, follow their advice.

The route goes past a twelve-foot breccia tower. There's magic in the air. 

The next two images were shot in the vicinity of the tower. Look down on a train trestle over the Gila River and afar to the convoluted peaks in the White Canyon Wilderness. (THW, photo)

North Butte tempts from the other side of the Gila River. Another day, perhaps. (THW, photo) 

We headed a trough at 1.4 miles, 2,140 feet. Make a mental note of this crucial location for your return trip. The route is trickier to unravel than it appears. In March, 2024, the Sonoran floor was cloaked in vibrant green.

Once past the gully we climbed northwest for 100 feet and then turned south until we could penetrate the upper gray-colored cliff band. 
Emerge onto the backslope at 0.6 mile, 2,360 feet. The butte is more voluminous and complicated than it appears from afar. We headed naturally to the ridge south of Point 2,532', shown image-right. We were in the land of flat rocks and they made for a delightful stroll.
We made a pleasant arc to the west edge of the butte, hitting it just north of the highpoint. Nurtured by boulders, the wildflowers were spilling color.

We walked south along the precipitous, no nonsense west scarp. (THW, photo)

Look down on the railroad tracks running parallel to the muddy Gila River.

If your idea of a good time does not involve dancing beside a cliff that essentially resolves into thin air, you can play it safe in the interior.

The high point of the butte is unmistakable. At 1.2 miles you will be in the company of a seven-foot-tall stone boy with a foundation of massive stones. (THW, photo)

The benchmark was placed in 1958. Please see the comment below for a possible interpretation of "ET3" and "WTB" etched on the disk. (THW, photo) 

We walked along the top of the butte. With a rise of 958 feet, the views were splendid. This image looks over the appealing stone platform flowing south from the base of the butte. We had planned to explore this flat feature but it was already a two-mountain day and we had a long drive home in front of us. (THW, photo)
In retrospect, I wish we'd followed the edge east and north on our return.
Instead, we returned to the stone boy and essentially retraced our steps down the backslope.  

Below, Grayback is positioned between magnificent saguaros.

Barrel cactus bruisers were plentiful on the butte top. 

It is important to locate precisely the start zone for the descent through the gray cliffband. A large cairn served to reassure us. 

Here's another perspective on that location. Thick, tall grasses made it difficult to see our feet and holes.

Be sure to avoid what looks like a potentially dangerous plunge down the throat of the trough. As before, we crossed above it at 2,140 feet.

The breccia tower is a more reliable navigation aid than a cairn. (THW, photo)

The desert onion is an ephemeral study in delicacy. Look ultra closely and you will see a host of tiny, brilliant red spiders feasting on the blossoms. (THW, photo)

Back in the saddle, three midnight-black vultures circled through a luminous cerulean sky above an opaque, multi-hued overcliff. (THW, photo)