San Juan Mountains

San Juan Mountains
San Juan Mountains: Grenadier Range

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Tanque Verde Peak

If you have read the last two posts to this blog you are aware that I spent last week in Phoenix.  The early part of the week was dedicated to getting out into the local mountains and the highlight of the trip was my attempt at Tanque Verde Peak.  I would like to tell you about that trip today.
Tanque Verde Peak dominates the southeast skyline of Tucson.  Its long SW ridge gently rises from the desert floor, eventually topping out at a little over 7,000 feet in elevation.  The peak is in the eastern branch of the Saguaro National Park and there is an excellent trail to the top. I first made a run at the peak last May but failed to summit due to poor conditioning and lack of desire.  Although technically a simple hike the trail does require 18 miles of walking with about 4,500 vertical feet of elevation gain over the course of those 18 miles.  Even for a strong hiker it is a full-day trip.
My partners in crime on this hike were a Mad Russian of about 35 years and two retirees, each in excess of 70 years of age, from the Tucson area.  They are pictured below.  The crazy Russian is in red on the left.  The man squatting below the trail sign is a long time friend and sharer of many mountain summits over the decades.  He was with me when I failed last year and was willing to come along while I gave it one more try.  The man in the middle is a snowbird who I had never hiked with before.  He ended up being a powerful hiker, just like my friend.  We were on our way up the trail at 7:15 in the morning after stashing a car at another trailhead, thus giving us the option of coming down another, longer, way. 

From the trailhead we proceeded steeply for about a mile up to the ridge itself, which we would then follow about 8 miles to the high point, which is Tanque Verde peak.   By the time we got to the ridge line I was already panting and soaked in sweat, while my companions were walking along causally discussing the local flora and whatever else might pop into their fruitful minds.  I think I heard discussions about various operas and nuclear physics over my heavy breathing.  The day was sunny and warm, peaking at over 80 degrees by the time we returned to the car that afternoon.  Once on the ridge it is a simple walk to the summit, which is not visible in the shot below because of a number of steps that must be negotiated prior to getting to the high point.

The gently rolling ridge creates opportunities for fantastic views, both north into Tucson and the Santa Catalina mountains (which were resplendent in the morning sunshine) and to the south towards the Santa Ritas and the infamous Mt. Wrightson.  If you are not familiar with Wrightson, "Google" Wrightson + Boy Scouts for one of the most tragic and downright sad stories you will ever read.  It chokes me up just thinking about what happened on that mountain.  The photo below shows the upper portion of the ridge just starting to come into view.  The summit is not yet visible but a national park campground (for backpackers) is in the flat off to the right in the picture below.  It is called Juniper Campground and in my two trips to it I have not seen anyone camped there.  Although well made and easily followed the trail is relatively sparsely traveled, I suspect because of its length and elevation gain.  We did meet two fellows coming down the trail as we went up carrying backpacks.  I would guess they had overnighted at Juniper.

We took a short rest at Juniper Campground and regrouped.  The remaining two miles to the summit would be new to me as I had turned around at the campground the previous trip.  I had an image of where the trail would go and where the summit would be but, as usual, my image and reality were starkly different.  Shortly after leaving the campground we came across this chain-fruit cholla.  Or at least that is what I think it is.  It was in full spring bloom.

The final two miles were neither as long nor as steep as I had anticipated.  Before long we were within striking distance of the summit.  It was difficult to determine where the actual summit was since there were numerous piles of rocks on the ridge above us and any of them could have been the actual summit.  As it turns out the Russian was correct when he pointed to the proper pile of rocks as seen in the photograph below.

Several minutes later we had climbed the short 3rd class stretch that leads to the summit and we were standing on Tanque Verde Peak.  Views in all directions were spectacular.  The photo below captures the view due east, into the heart of the park and into the heart of the Rincon mountains.  It is a special place to visit. I hope to come back and do Rincon peak at some point in the future.  It is out of view to the right/south in the picture below.

A couple of minutes behind us were the two older folks.  Pictured below is my long time friend climbing the last pitch to the summit.  Like a mountain goat he was on top in mere seconds. 

Last year I posted a piece to this blog describing my adventure on Culebra Peak, in the Sangre de Cristo range of southern Colorado.  That peak was my 60th, and final, fourteen thousand foot peak.  I also shared that summit with the man in the above photograph.  Tanque Verde peak is a special peak for me also because it constituted the 500th peak that I have successfully climbed over the past 40+ years.  I had hoped for a nice physical challenge for my 500th peak, as well as great views and superb companions.  The day could not have been any better. Here I am on the summit, using my amazing miming skills to indicate that this peak was my 500th.

We ended up parting company for the descent.  The Mad Russian, who had developed a nice case of blisters, and I elected to return via the up route and our two older, and presumably weaker, partners elected to take the longer loop route back down.  That added an additional 2 miles to their trip, making it a 20 mile day.  Like I said, those guys are amazing.  I can only hope to still be doing, more than a decade from now, what I am doing today.

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