Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Picacho Peak

I've fallen way behind on posting; here's the next installment of our Southwestern trip.

Halfway through our stay in Marana, Jessica and I set out to climb Picacho Peak—yes, the name means "peak peak"—which rises about 1500 feet above the Sonoran desert floor. It's best known as the site of a Civil War skirmish and for spectacular profusions of Mexican poppy, both of which we were too late for.

We took the Hunter Trail, which the state park brochure describes as a "difficult" 2 mile hike. That's splitting the difference, in my opinion. The first half, to "the saddle" at 2960 feet, is a moderate hike; the second half, from the saddle to the peak at 3374 feet, is plenty difficult, more a legitimate climb than a hike. Permanent cables (vie ferrate) have been affixed in several places that would otherwise require technical equipment and the skill to use it. (I've since seen the route rated as a YDS Class 3: "Scrambling with increased exposure. A rope can be carried but is usually not required. Falls are not always fatal," which of course leaves open the possibility that they may be. And while I free-handed one or two of the cabled sections, the rest were not in any way optional.)

Jessica wrecked her knee several years ago playing volleyball, and has a well-developed fear of heights, so had never continued beyond the saddle. This time, though, she made it through a couple of via ferrata sections before throwing in the towel about halfway between the saddle and the summit. I was enormously proud of her for getting that far, and by the time I summitted and returned to her, immensely glad she had stopped when she did. Our descent (which actually involved another ascent from the back side to the saddle) was agonizingly slow as it was, and there were a few moments when I feared she wouldn't be able to make it on her own. (Visions of helicopter bills and a certain amount of native stubbornness kept her going.)

[One of the easier via ferrata sections]

[View from the summit, off toward Marana]

[Another view from the summit, this time looking southward. All the little drainages remind me of this piece by Jessica, though it was written about New Mexico.]

[This pickaxe was just off the trail, very near the summit. I have no idea why anyone would have carried it up this far—it certainly couldn't have been easy.]

Physical aspects of the climb aside, Picacho was fascinating from a naturalist's point of view. In addition to lots of lichen, we saw Yuma antelope squirrels and Abert's tassel-eared squirrels, long-tailed brush lizards and chuckwallas.

[Chuckwallas: female (top) and male]

Avian highlights included gila woodpeckers, gilded flickers, and lark buntings in the saguaro lowlands, rock wrens and canyon wrens on the cliffs, and broad-tailed hummingbirds feeding along the trail. White-throated swifts tumbled toward the desert floor as they mated in mid-air, and one rocketed past Jessica's head as she waited for me to return from the peak. Ravens, turkey vultures, and black vultures (I had forgotten their range extends into southern Arizona) soared above and below us, but the best birds of the day in my opinion were prairie falcons and peregrines, both of which were nesting on Picacho—prairies on the main peak, peregrines on the secondary peak.

[A raven traverses the cliffs]

[Peregrine (left) and prairie interacting]

[That little triangle at the center is the tail of a prairie falcon, going in for a landing at the eyrie; click to embiggen.]

[Saguaro marching up the mountain]

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