January 2, 2014. 4 pm. Sunset 5:30. Approximately 6 miles from Pima Canyon trailhead, Tucson, Arizona.
“We are in trouble. We need help. We need to speak with someone who knows the trail.”
The total hike is a pretty steep up and down of 12.1 miles. Climbing 4,000 Vertical feet. (Assuming you don’t get lost.) Last time we started at 11:00 am, which is cutting it very close, but I was a lot quicker, then. I could do a 30 minute up hill mile, and a 20 minute down hill. (So that would be about 2.5 hours up….a big break of 30 minutes for lunch…and about 2.5 hours down. Total 5.5 hours, hauling young ass.) We got lost half way down the Pima Canyon side, using the wash, chest high in brush…and came down the last mile in the dark. Fortunately, no snakes were disturbed, and there was a very bright crescent moon to light up the trail. And it was in February, where the sunset was later than on Jan 2. But I was familiar enough with the trail to tackle it again…and test my…age.
This time, the plan was to drag my 53 year old ass to the trailhead at 9:00 am. Surely 8 hours was a very conservative calculation to complete the hike, with stops. And a half-hour cushion until sunset. And it’s even light enough, 30 minutes after that.
We got started a wee bit later…9:30, because we had to stop and pick up bagels. I knew a nice flat rock about 1 hour up, (which I’m guessing is about 2 miles…and nearly half way to the split in the trail.)
We were also equiped with a couple of layers, hats, matches, sunblock, 1 flash light, 2 iphones, binoculars, enough water for the hike, curried tuna, potato chips, 3 granola bars, 4 cutie oranges, 2 apples, and 2 mini bags of m&m’s.
At the beginning, we snapped a shot of the map, and a “before” photo of us eager and energetic. You can make out finger rock, way up in the photo above. Our pace was pretty good. We made it to “Bagel Butte” in 55 minutes, and took our planned 20 minutes to have breakfast.
Then it was time for some steep stuff. Boy, it seemed like we were going a really long way before the first split in the trail. We have a tracking app on Scott’s 5S phone, but it sucks up a lot of battery, so we opted not to use it.
Now what would have been very, very helpful? How about some fucking trail markers? How about every 2 miles, someone in charge of this HUGE tourist attraction, goes out and hammers in a stake that tells you how far you have gone, and how far you have to go?
Other trails in Tucson are very well-marked. Wasson Peak, Catalina State Park, and Sabino Canyon for example. (Although the very popular trail to 7 Falls was not clearly marked near the beginning of the trail. I requested they put in better signs…and they were put in around 2 months ago. I’m sure others had made the same suggestion.) Finger Rock trailhead parking lot is always full. This is a popular hike, although I don’t know how many people go all the way to Pima.
We were making progress, and finger rock was getting closer!
We passed a group with 2 guides from Canyon Ranch on our way up. They were already on their way down. The leader, with walking poles, was a little bloodied. He had taken a little spill, but he was all right. I asked him if the trail was clearly marked. He said they just went to the finger rock point, but it was marked. I asked, “Does it say to Mount Kimball? Or to Pima Canyon?” He wasn’t sure.
Earlier this week I had walked to Bagel Butte, passing a Park Ranger. I told him I was planning a hike from the top of Sabino, down to the bottom of Finger Rock. Then I asked, “do you know if the trail is clearly marked?” He answered, I guess it is. I’ve never done it.”
We got to what we were hoping was “the split”. We reached a plateau with 3 kerns, and 2 trails. On the map, it indicates that at the first split, we have to go to the left to go to Mount Kimball. But this left, was going down hill. It just didn’t seem right…or should I say correct?
(A kern is a bunch of stacked rocks that are used as markers on a trail)
We stood there and shrugged our shoulders. Then some hikers came along. “Hey, do you guys know which way is towards Mount Kimball?”
They answered, “It’s this way”. This was the trail continuing to the right. The one to the left wasn’t really an official trail. And they said, you’ve got a long way before the split!
SUGGESTION # 1. Install a sign at that first major point. Call it Finger Rock View, or something. Have the distance from there to trailhead; to split; and to Mount Kimball.
SUGGESTION # 2. Install a sign at “Bagel Butte”. There actually is a little unofficial, but well broken in trail that goes to the left, where we ate. Have the distance to Finger Rock View, and to Finger Rock Trailhead.
I’ve hiked in many third world countries, like Chile, Argentina, and China, where tourist attracted trails are VERY well marked. One does not go 2 miles without indications. And I am not an inexperienced hiker. (Although I thought downhill hikers had right of way. It seems to make sense. It is much harder to put on the breaks when gravity is not your friend on foot….plus, uphill folks can have a great excuse to stop!) But I have hiked all around the West, and specifically Arizona for 18 years. The only time I ever got lost…was going down Pima Canyon.
We finally got to the split, which is at 4. 5 miles. And there was the first official marker. Hallelujah! All it said was Trail 62, with an arrow to the left, and the other route pointing to the right. Nothing mentioning Mount Kimball. No distance markers of any kind.
At least we knew from the trailhead map, which we had snapped in the shot, that we had to go left, and had only a half of a mile to the summit of Mount Kimball. I have to admit, I am not built the way I used to. And I was huffing and puffing. But another half mile to the top, was doable!
We ran into 2 girls, who had passed us on the trail.
‘What time did you guys start?” I asked. They answered, “11:00.”
Eleven o’clock?! We started at 9:30. It was now 1:30! It had taken us 4 hours to go 4.5!! Hey,hey, Boo Boo, this old bear is getting too old for this shit!
We forged onward, crossing snow, and made the Summit in 15 minutes! I had a burst of energy, knowing it was down hill from there….and we would break for lunch!
SUGGESTION #3 – INSTALL A DAMN SIGN THAT YOU HAVE REACHED THE SUMMIT OF MOUNT KIMBALL, and show which way to continue on #62 to Pima Canyon!
There were 2 trails. Which one is correct? No indication.
We ate like pigs, from our pin-i-nic basket, taking a good 30 minutes. It’s now 2:15. We have to go 7 miles in 3 hours to get down before sunset. That’s doable…
From the top, I continued on what seemed to be the trail. I left a minute before Scott. He was taking some pictures. I came to a cliff with a spectacular view! I ran into 2 hikers. They were going down the same way they came up. (Finger Rock.) I asked them, where does this continue to go down Pima?
“Oh, you passed that already”.
“Yeah, where you were having your lunch. It’s not really marked. But, you’ll see it. My buddy, who is a very experienced hiker, got lost on Pima recently…good luck.”
Okay. And now I can’t find Scott. I assumed he was right behind me. I turned around going back to where we had lunch, and ran into him. He was pissed off at me. He thought I had continued on the other trail! I thought he saw me go the other way, towards the cliff. I felt badly, because we didn’t have time for him to see that spectacular view, which really was the the money shot…but it was time to haul ass! 2:30.
At a quick pace we started down a very unclear, not blatantly obvious trail, with lots of spots of snow. But there were dirty foot prints to see where to go.
After about an hour, we ran into sheer ice, on rock, with a pitch. So walking on it was not an option. You would go bye-bye. And no way around it. Scott chipped away at the ice, so to expose enough rock to make it safe to step from A to B. And a little butt sliding, to boot.
He used his heel to break the ice. It wasn’t super thick. Only about an inch. But it was very difficult without the use of a sharp tool. (Note to self…bring some sort of pick next time….oh, wait…there will not be a next time…other note to self.)
Legs at less than 100%, we traversed the saddle. We had a beautiful view of the back hand of finger rock.
Then we came to a…drum roll….MARKER! It was a big metal sign that said “PIMA SADDLE”. That’s it. No distance markers. No arrows pointing which way to Pima Canyon trailhead. (I wish I had taken a photo…but we were no longer on a leisurely hike. We were scared. And saving battery.)
And no obvious trail, anywhere! If we continued straight, it was not safe. We had just come from behind…which was….not too safe, but safer than straight ahead. Then there was a fairly obvious, but very steep trail….going….up.
This was a major crossroads moment. It was 3:45 in the afternoon. I am guessing we had about 5 miles to go. It would have been nice if that sign had distance.
We had a phone signal, and decided to call the closest State/National Park Visitor Center. Sabino Canyon.
“Hello?” The Forrest Ranger answered.
“We are in trouble. We need help. We need to speak to someone who knows the Pima Canyon Trail. Are you familiar with it?”
“I’ve never been up there”.
“Can you please put us in touch with a ranger familiar with the trail? We are at a very well-marked point. (Pima Saddle.) We just need to know which direction to go.”
“Well…I…I…I don’t know. You should call 911.”
“No, we don’t want to call 911. We just need to know where to go. Isn’t there anyone there who is familiar?!
“Hey Ethyl, you know the trail at Pima….”
Woman gets on. (Yogi, what will the ranger say?) Nothing. Advises us to call 911.
Nuts and Berries!
“Can you get us a number of anyone who knows the trail, the park service!?”
“Well, we have google here, and I could try and look up a number of….hold on….”
(tick tock…a few minutes…wasting battery….)
“Hello?!” I say.
“Yes. We are trying to look up a number.”
“What number?” I ask, a bit agitated.
“Well, be patient.”
“Well, I’m in a compromised, precarious position, with ice, and not much daylight. What number are you looking for?”
“I have a friend that has hiked there. If I can get to him, I can have him call you. Give me your number and I’ll have him call you back.”
I gave him Scott’s cell. Mine was down to 25%. The 4S is 2 years old, and the battery sucks ass. I had not been abusing it. I posted maybe 4 shots to facebook of our hike, but was not using the phone. I had been turning it off, in between. But I had called my Dad from the top. He was picking us up at the end. Originally I had told him 5:30. At the top, I said, better make it 6:00.
I hung up, with Mr. Ranger, Sir. The visitor center folks were….quite frankly, useless.
What kind of credentials does one need to become a “Forest Ranger?” I’m not saying it was the gentleman’s fault, or the woman’s, but they were both clueless.
The powers that be, who are in charge of the entire operation, should have a back-up plan….emergency line….someone with knowledge of this popular trail. A single number to call with knowledge. A training session for all employees manning the phones. I thought our decision to call Sabino was logical.
Well…the only trail that was clear, was going…up. I tried calling Canyon Ranch to see if there might be a guide around to talk to. I was on hold with that annoying recorded infomercial, and no human for a few minutes, and I hung up. Time was a’waistin.
I did not remember going up last time, 17 years ago, but it seemed like our only option. We scrambled up a pretty steep obvious trail, and ended up after 15 minutes at a dead end with a kern. It was the top of some peak. Great view. Whoopie. Scott starts swearing. I don’t blame him. We have to fly down again to the crossroads. On our way down, I hear something rustling in the woods! This is Mountain Lion country..and even bears. I ask Scott to stick very close to me. Safety in numbers. No Simba or Yogi appeared.
Now I am practically in tears. That last uphill, with my old bones, had drained most of the strength I had left. I feared we were going to have to sleep up here for the night. I didn’t know if my legs would make it. They. were. weak. I was glad to still have some water, and a bit of food. I was anticipating needing our pic-i-nic basket for the evening, possibly.
Phone rings. Scott is talking. He hands me the phone, and continues down.
I say, “So, we are at the Pima Saddle sign. Which way do we go to get down Pima Canyon trailhead?”
“I don’t know!” An annoyed familiar voice answers. (Kind of a “get off of my lawn!”)
It’s the same guy. Mr. Ranger, Sir. Are you kidding? He called back to let us know he could not get in touch with anyone.
Just at that moment I hear Scott shout…”I found it! I found the trail!’
I said, thanks, I have to hang up now.
I went down about 10 yards from the sign. We zigged, when we should have zagged BEFORE that stupid sign. But at least after the very icy area.
WHY WAS THERE NO SIGN WHEN WE WERE SUPPOSED TO ZAG??!!!
SUGGESTION #4, 5 & 6. Put in a few permanent markers for them zigs and zags.
SUGGESTION #7. Have ONE phone number with a Rolodex of stand-by experts of the trails where tourists and locals go. Keep it posted at all park visitor centers. Might save a life or two.
I took a deep breath, and called my Dad. I tried to speak as if I was not worried, but very direct.
“Hi Daddy. Listen, we are going to be a little later than we thought. We are O.K. No need to worry. It has just taken us a little longer than we thought. We are not lost. But we will be coming down in the dark. I’m guessing around 6:30 – 6:45. Gotta save the battery. But we are fine.”
I think the worst thing would be if my parents had no clue where we were. I did not want them to panic….or wait 2 hours in a parking lot. Phone off again….onward.
Our legs are more wobbly than weebles…but we can’t fall down, or we are fucked.
A few trips, and slides. Mud, snow, more ice….but at least no wipe outs and twisted ankles. (We stopped snapping pictures at the ice.)
Gotta get down below this shit fast! Gotta get to friendlier terrain. I know this trail well….farther down. Just let me get to that tree with the carved chair, and I will know exactly where I am.
The sun is now down. 5:30. I have still not reached the tree. But we passed what looked like a damn. Scott had found a link while I was wasting my time with Mr. Ranger, Sir. It’s called “Hikearizona.com.” It indicates the damn at 3.2 damn miles from the trailhead!
We are going as quickly as we can. But our legs can’t move as fast, or support our weight well going down large rocks. I whack my knee on one. Now I am limping.
But we race on. 6:15.
Where is that fucking carved tree?!! I keep repeating. Once I see that, I know the trail…and we are close enough.
I need a rest! Anytime I stop, I get dizzy. I lost my balance a couple of times, and grabbed the closest thing…branches with prickers. My hands have a couple of cuts, and my arms are scratched.
Finally we pass the tree! (Suggestion #8 – distance marker at tree.) Now flashlights on. Pitch black out. Crescent moon is yellow and providing zero light. Scott has 50% battery on his phone…which is my flashlight. It works well. One last photo. We know we will make it back.
I call Dad again.
“Umm, Dad. We are okay. We both have flashlights, but we aren’t at the Big Rock yet.”
There is a big rock, about a mile or so from the beginning of the trail. (Suggestion #9 – distance marker at big rock.) My Dad has been there. Once we hit that, I know we are on the last leg….literally!
7:30, we pass the Big Rock.
I have no idea how my legs are moving, but we are flying. The 5S battery is down to 17%. But it has saved me, and worked well for an hour and 15 minutes! If it can just last til the end!!
It does. We make it in a flat 15 minutes to the car, without falling. Still with about 2 ounces of water, 2 apples, and 2 granola bars.
The moral of this story? Don’t hike if you are over 50.
That is not it.
I take responsibility for having to gage what I am physically capable of doing. 12.1 miles is certainly my limit. And allocating enough time is also the responsibility of the hiker.
I feel it is negligent of the department in Arizona that is responsible for maintaining these trails. How difficult would it be to to install distance and direction markers? It would not be.
This is clearly a Boo Boo.
And when you hear or read in the News about some bonehead hiker getting lost…missing…or dying, one usually jumps to the judgemental conclusion that the “hiker” didn’t know what they were doing.
I can assure you that we knew what we were doing, and where we were going. And there would have been NO issues, if these trails were clearly marked.
Can we do better to welcome more tourists and hikers to Tucson?
My objective of this blog is not to complain. It is to easily improve the system. Who can I call?
Although my body was beat to shit, it sure felt great to be in my own bed that night. The next day I celebrated surviving, with a 1.5 hour massage, and a pig out at Costco, including a foot massager. And I’m still sore!
One last note….while climbing down, I couldn’t help but think about those who suffer, like refugees having to walk long distances, and even those who try to cross into the U.S. via a desert. It is inhumane to deny these people water. And it is despicable to charge someone with a crime for having mercy.