AZT Day 10: a slow, steep climb to an Island in the Sky

April 15, 2019

Miles hiked: 14.4

AZT mile: 179.2

Campsite Elevation: 7,129 ft

Last night there were noises outside my tent. I hate it. It makes my adrenaline surge and my heart pound in the middle of the night. Intuitively I know it is something harmless, the hairs on the back of my neck weren’t standing up or anything. Still, there were noises. They would keep me awake for a little while, but then I’d fall back into a deep sleep.

By the morning when I woke, it was 7:50 am, the lastest I’ve slept this entire hike, including in a hotel room, go figure! Today was a bit of an off kilter day because I knew I had this massive climb to tackle, yet I also needed to leave some miles to hike tomorrow morning into Mount Lemmon/Summerhaven. I tried to dilly dally this morning, but I was eager to walk. I’d camped off trail by about .25 mi and had to bushwhack back over to the trail. Definitely glad this trail is not a cross country route, simply because you are often stepping into long grasses and can’t see what creature may lurk below or what spines are poised to stab you.

The first several miles of the day today reminded me so much of the PCT in the Deep Creek area. I climbed to a low saddle where views of the hillsides covered in Oak, Saguaro and Manzanita revealed themselves in front of me. There are still quite a lot of wildflowers along the hillsides too, in particular some really beautiful purple ones whose names I don’t know. I love the grasses that have appeared too, they also have a purple tint to them and the way they seem to flutter and sway when the wind tossles them is mesmerizing in the same way you see ripples on water, there is something so soothing about it.

From the saddle, I dropped in elevation, weaving through the contours of each hillside, eventually dropping down into Sabino Canyon. There are a couple of trails that lead to other trail heads in this area, but I didn’t realize this until I started seeing day hikers. Unexpectedly I saw a total of six people in this area, but I had thought I was in the middle of nowhere. Ha ha, this happens often!

Sabino Canyon was beautiful though. There was water, that always makes things prettier. There were grasses, wildflowers, lovely Oak trees, Saguaro and Ocotillo, all the vegetation had a healthy glow about it that rendered it magical, a real treat to walk through.

By mid day, I made it to Hutch’s pool just north of Sabino Canyon. Here, the trail begins to meander along the creek before climbing up and away from it. If there were ever a great opportunity to fully immerse oneself in a swimming hole on the AZT, this was it.

I took my lunch break there at a sandy spot in the shade of the shoreline. I decided against swimming because I surprisingly didn’t feel like it, and also didn’t want to get all my KT tape wet. This morning, I taped up my knee, my left ankle and both of my posterior tibial tendons (which always get taped ever since I injured them on the PCT in 2016). The KT tape feels amazing and supportive and I am super thankful for it. The only downside, is that if I get it wet, it is much more likely to slip off and then I loose the benefits. It wasn’t that important to me to swim today, so I enjoyed being near the water and that was good enough.

At lunch, I wasn’t all that hungry because I hadn’t really exerted myself much at this point in the day. I sat in the shade killing time, I looked over all the notes in Guthook to see what I could find out about the water on the climb up, and places to possibly camp. Then, I tried to meditate, but honestly the bugs were bad. They kept distracting me, there were mosquitos landing in my ear holes. Annoying. Not relaxing, hah!

I made myself a tepid coffee and added Swiss Miss Coco to it, and actually had the water been colder, it would have passed for a Starbuck’s frappuccino. Not bad at all! I figured I would use the food and coffee to fuel me up this climb and tackle 8 miles before camp tonight. That would be 8 miles and more than 3,000 feet of climbing. Now, that doesn’t sound all that bad, if that 3,000 ft were evenly dispersed over the 8 miles, but guess what? They certainly were not.

The first 1,000 ft came over the course of about 2 miles, so it was chill. Then I said goodbye to the last water source for a while (unbenounced to me and despite my earlier research). I opted not to fill up because I figured there would be plenty of water where I was headed. Also, maybe I was being lazy and not wanting to haul water up the mountain? I was wrong about the water being plentiful along the climb. That first 1,000 ft was steep and exposed and I was sweating a lot and feeling thirsty, but needing to ration.

The trail did a split at Romero Pass and took a sharp right turn up some steep rocks over an exposed ridge. From there the trail climbed more steeply for the final 2,000 ft. The scenery was pleasant enough though, with increasing conifers and somewhat cooler temperatures, and there were several amazing lookout points. But for some reason, that initial part of the climb was hard for me. Since it was hot and exposed, I had to ration my water and for some reason my left ankle was killing me. I also just felt tired. I probably didn’t eat enough at lunch and maybe I was dehydrated?

View loooking back into Sabino Canyon
View looking into the outskirts of Tucson

It seemed like I was in that 5,000 to 6,000 ft range for a long time, as those little black gnats were present. In case you didn’t know, I hate those gnats so much. But, I will admit I’ve gotten more used to them after they nearly drove me out of my mind on the PCT in 2017 near Castella. Wow, that was insane, I will never forget that day! This was nothing compared to that, but they still annoy me.

I finally reached a spot where I could sit in the shade of a pine tree and take a break. I needed it and I lay there on the ground, flat on my back and propped my feet up on my pack. I stared at the clouds and pine branches bending from the wind and zoned out for a while. It felt wonderful. After about 10 minutes I sat up and did a short meditation, focusing in on my breath, my spine, my head. I drank some water and ate half an energy bar. I think this was all what the trail doctor ordered because after all that I was feeling much more myself.

Freshly applied KT tape on the knee

I looked over my maps and determined I still had about 700-800 ft of climbing to do over the next mile. One last steep push. My aim for the day was to hike about 2 miles beyond this big climb to Lemmon creek where I read there was lovely camping in the pine trees. My favorite! I need to make it there!

I pushed on and despite a brief reprieve of feeling better, the hiking began to hurt again. My ankle was the main culprit, but still, I felt I was just moving so slowly, so sluggish. I think maybe my body went into rest mode with that day off and now this just seems like a lot, I don’t know. I also think the steeper terrain is more exhausting compared to the well graded climbs. Not all climbs are alike that’s for sure. The 6,000 ft climb we did a few days ago felt way easier than this.

There was a reward though. As I neared the 7,000 ft elevation, the terrain definitely switched to Sierra-esque granite boulders and pine trees now dominated the landscape. Suddenly there were beautiful sculpture-like rock formations and the sound of wind wrapping around slim pine needles overtaking my senses. I stopped at a beautiful Ponderosa….I glossed my hands over the rough puzzle-like bark, I wrapped my arms aroud her, hugged her, pressed my cheek against her bark and felt very at home, very nourished.

I hiked on, beginning to relax with the majority of the climbing now complete. Eventually, I came across a small trickle of water so I stopped to fill up on the spot, guzzling the last of the water I’d been rationing. I welcomed the short break, filtered two liters and pushed on. This way, I thought, I can camp anywhere I want from here on because I’ve already got water. For some reason, this is a very freeing feeling.

The temperature was dropping and I slipped on a light jacket. Feeling cooler, fatigued and losing daylight, I started to give up and look for possible campsites. It was a silly war inside my head, as I had no obligation to be anywhere tonight, but I wanted that campsite in the pines! It was only another 1.5 miles, how long could that take? I pushed on but seemed to be moving super slow, The terrain was rather tedius and I wasn’t finding a rhythm, so it took way longer than it needed to. It was sort of a test of my patience, but the scenery was enough to distract me with its beauty. I crossed several more creek beds that had a little water, mostly pools, some had fresh running water. I even walked through a small gorge that was apparently a habitat for frogs that sound exactly like sheep?! It took me a while to figure that one out!

It was well into dusk when I finally made it to Lemmon Creek, and by about 6:50 pm I’d found the idyllic spot to rest for the night. Hooray, I made it! The spot was perfect, just as I had imagined, with the creek flowing nearby and a cushy bed of pine needles. This will be the first night camping by running water on this entire hike so far. I imagine there will be very few of these nights. I need to relish this!

I had cold soaked my dehydrated dinner as I walked so it was ready when I got to camp. On the menu was garlic seasoned brussels sprout leaves with a nut burger and instant mashed potatoes. I added S & P and coconut oil, and tossed in the remainder of my chili-limon potato chip crumbs. Oh my goodnes, this meal was amazing! Then, I remembered the chocolate brick! I was spooning the last few bites of that into my mouth, sitting in my zipped up tent in the dark, feeling really content. I love tucking in at the end of the day! I fell asleep remarkably easy with the soothing rushing water behind me, and the crystal clear night stars shining down. The air was crisp and cool, the most amazing sleeping conditions. I love these mountains, this Sky Island!

3 thoughts on “AZT Day 10: a slow, steep climb to an Island in the Sky

  1. I really enjoyed your article. Are you doing this solo or have a companion with you ? The reason I ask is that 2 would be more safer had that noise you heard on night one turned out to be something nasty. Maybe a can of pepper spray would make me feel more safe. All the best.

    1. Hi Dennis. Thanks for your comment and I’m glad you are enjoying following along. I was solo on this hike, and have hiked and camp solo quite a lot so I’m used to it, nothing bad has ever happened but it’s still something to get used to whenever in new territory!

  2. Saw this last night but didn’t get to reading it ’til today

    Nothing like the luxury of camping by a running water source. 🏕 I had no idea you hadn’t done this before on the entire hike!!! Makes it that much more enjoyable and stress- free knowing you can drink all the water you need and cook too if you so chose. I think I would’ve tried to make it there as well if I could. Long day for you and the pics, as usual, are very clear and enjoyable to view

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