09 December 2016

Tanque Verde Peak - A Wonderful Hike and SOTA Activation

Some SOTA peaks are easily accessed, and others are very challenging to reach.  When I plan an activation, I usually start by deciding how much time I have available.  Some of the activations I've done involved only a short car drive and left me with plenty of time for other activities the same day.  On the other hand, the challenging peaks may require a strenuous hike, and they also may leave me sore and tired afterward.  Interestingly, the point value for peaks in Southern Arizona does not always correlate to the level of difficulty in reaching the peak, with some 10-pointers being drive ups.

There are several 8- and 10-point peaks surrounding Tucson, and on December 9th I was able to take a day off from work and decided to look for a peak that might also require a good long hike.  I settled on Tanque Verde Peak in the Rincon Mountains, East of Tucson.  The total hike distance was about 18 miles round trip, and it appeared that adequate trails existed to make summit access likely.  Since Tanque Verde Peak, W7A/AW-023 had never been activated for SOTA before, this would be a "New One" for chasers.

I left the house early enough to enjoy the sunrise over the peak during the drive to the trailhead.

The hike began at the trailhead of the Tanque Verde Ridge Trail inside Saguaro National Park East.

The trail began to climb fairly quickly.  It was typical desert trail - rocky, lots of cacti, with a stark beauty that offsets the dusty dryness.

As I hiked along, my cell phone was buzzing and ringing with business messages, but I chose to ignore them and enjoy my hike.  The freedom of the wide-open desert and the amazing vistas in every direction, the blue sky, and fresh air are what keep me coming back to the trails.

As I reached higher elevations, it was obvious the trail was less traveled.  At some points, the terrain became too rocky for a true trail to exist, and it was necessary to carefully look for rock cairns to follow.

I didn't see any large wildlife on the way up, but at one streambed crossing, I did notice some fresh evidence that I was not the only living creature on the mountain that day!  I'm fairly certain this was a bear print, and it was quite large.  I looked around but didn't linger for too long - maybe he was watching me!

Higher up, after passing the Juniper Basin Campground (which appeared to have no visitors when I passed), I noticed quite a few cactus with bright yellow fruits, which almost looked like candy (but I didn't taste them!)

There were a few sections of rough scrambling before I reached the rocky formations that included the peak, but nothing too bad.

I reached the summit after about 4 hours of hiking and was greeted by some patches of snow!

At the base of the rocks that form the true summit is a Summit Register.  The peak is about 4,000 vertical feet higher than the starting point of the hike, and about 9 miles of hiking distance.  There were not a lot of entries in the Register.

I climbed up the rock and claimed victory!  It was a beautiful view in every direction and I was quite happy to have reached the top by noon.

I quickly set up and made my first QSO with my friend Quinton, NU7Y.  It didn't take long for the pileup to begin and I was really having a lot of fun!  As usual my Elecraft KX2 and Begali Key made the operating a joy.  My antenna is an Aerial 51 OCF Dipole and I've really appreciated how well it works and how nice it is to be able to change bands instantly.

I operated for a little under 2 hours total, making contacts on 5 different bands (7, 10, 14, 21, and 28 MHz), all CW mode.  I worked 63 QSO's total.  A few of my favorites contacts were with my friend Karen, W4KRN, as well as 10 meter contacts with Canada and New Hampshire!

I would have loved to keep going but it was only a few hours to sunset and I had 9 miles of hiking to get back down the mountain.  So I packed it up and started out.  One thing I love about mountains is how the weather and air changes throughout the day.  Hiking in the late afternoon felt very different from hiking mid-day, with a coolness that wasn't there before even though the sun was still up.  About an hour into my downward hike, I was startled by a flash of white, and looking up I realized there was a large young deer next to the trail, who was equally startled by my presence.  He stayed nearby and watched me, and I stopped to watch him.  He was a healthy young buck, curious but remaining at a safe distance.

Watching him brought back fond memories of hiking and observing wildlife as a child with my family, especially my mom who is a wildlife artist and has painted many beautiful deer.

I could not dawdle too long as shadows were lengthening.  (As it turned out, maybe I dawdled just a bit too long).  I continued my hike down, and eventually it was nearing twilight and I still had about 3 miles to go.  I was cruising along at a good pace, but somehow, I managed to walk myself right off the trail.  For a few moments I found my heart rate quickening as fear tried to take over; this was very steep, very dense desert foliage terrain and hiking in the pitch dark through this would be very slow and risky.  I wasn't concerned at all about getting lost, as this is on the East side of the hills and I could easily see down towards the city, and knew exactly where I needed to go.  But scrambling through cactus and sharp rocks is tough enough when it's light, and in the dark could easily become a major problem.  As the sun set in the West, I decided it was simultaneously trying to be both beautiful and terrifying.  The beauty won, and I will never tire of seeing our amazing Arizona sunsets, regardless of the circumstances.

I used my GPS to navigate back towards where I believed the trail might be.  It took me about half an hour, during which the sun had set and darkness was rapidly falling, but fortunately I did manage to eventually get back on trail.  I had packed a small flashlight for emergency purposes, and I put it to good use.

It's an interesting dilemma we face in the desert.  The optimal season for hiking is late fall and winter, yet that is the very time of year when days are shortest.  For hikes of this length, the probability of hiking in the dark is high.  I was fortunate to get back on trail!  I made it out safely and made mental notes to myself to be better prepared for darkness hiking in the future.

This is the downward hike only.  I normally save the up and down portions separately for easier comparison.

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