Sometimes risk

Maricopa Peak atop the Ma Ha Tauk range.
Maricopa Peak atop the Ma Ha Tauk range.

I am not big on taking chances when I hike.  But I took a few last weekend in getting up to isolated Maricopa Peak.

You do not have to go up lofty K-2 in the Himalayas to find danger on the trail.  Maricopa Peak rises only about 2,500 feet just southwest of downtown Phoenix.  But the summit is flat, rocky and small with steep cliffs on three sides.  A misstep and away you go.  Your parachute had better open quickly.  And getting up to the summit is no pie à la mode either.

To make matters worse I was hiking solo in the most lonesome part of South Mountain Park.  At 3 o’clock in the afternoon, as I stopped on the eastern ridgeline, still a long way from my goal, a young couple with a dog came up to take in the great views, and moments later a shirtless man in tattoos passed me going in the opposite direction.  Those three people would be the last I saw for the next five hours.

It is already wildflower season here, and I made the mistake of dawdling along, shooting photos of the yellow bladder-pods gathered in large fields.  And, up higher, I found an abundance of yellow poppies growing on the north slopes of the Alta Trail.  I knew I was flirting with trouble, coming back along this high trail in darkness.  Maybe I have, if not a death wish, then some sort of wish to punish myself.

Summit trail looking east.
Summit trail looking east.

At 4:07, I halted at a sunny spot on the Alta.  Maricopa Peak now loomed above me on the east.  Sitting down I made a few notes and reconnoitered.  I checked the GPS.  Sunset was at 6:05.  I fished out my binoculars from my backpack that weighs in at about 10 pounds.  I trained the binos on a high ridge, searching for Post #8 where the Maricopa Peak summit trail began.  Amidst the outline of  brush and cactus, I thought I saw a straight object, the metal post I was looking for.  I gauged it to be another half mile ahead of up and down, twisting trail along steep drop-offs on the right.  As I debated whether to push on, howls and yips came rising up from a nearby valley.  Coyotes.  I had seen a lot of their dark, dog-like scat on the trail.

Thinking I was so close to the peak’s summit and that it might be a long time before I got back here, I moseyed on up the Alta.  In 23 minutes I stood before Post #8, and soon set off to the east on a faint spur trail that would lead up to Maricopa Peak.

The high north peak.  Climbers have written on the cliff face.
The high north peak. Climbers have written on the cliff face.
Summit view to the north with downtown Phoenix far below.
Summit view to the north with downtown Phoenix far below.

The trail was pretty much as advertised.  Short, only a quarter-mile in distance.  And not too steep, only about 150 feet in elevation gain.  But . . . .

The trail was hard to follow, as ascending trails often are.  At every alternative route I chose to go up over small rises rather than around them.  I was wearing long pants for once and glad of it.  The path was over-grown with brush and the unforgiving spines of buckhorn and cholla cactus.  Not to mention sharp outcroppings of rock.

As I approached the rocky pinnacle from the west, I could see that Maricopa Peak was really two peaks separated by a very small saddle.   Also the spine I was traversing was getting narrower with deep drops on both sides.  On a cliff face nearby, I saw the weathered writings of climbers.  They had roped down the precipice to scratch in barely legible letters.  I clearly made out “Jeff” and “2500 ft,” and thought I read the date, “1-19-74.”  If so that was 40 years ago.

It was at the saddle I almost gave up for a second time.  There were three short routes to the summit.  None seemed safe.  The route on the west was composed of dirt and loose rock.  It reminded me of a playground slippery slide.   One misstep, and downward you go, dumped out into space and a long fall.  The east side was better but still chancy.  I chose to try the 8-foot slab of near-vertical rock in front of me.  If I fell off of that I would only be injured.

Finding some good hand-holds in crevices, I pulled myself up, first testing each hold before putting my weight on it.  In no time, it seemed, I had eased up to the top of Maricopa Peak on all fours and then walked out to the highest point of this 25-yards long flattish rise, the rock cold.  And no doubt millions of years old.

The sun was getting low and I could not see well to the hazy south.  Yet, to the north, a fantastic, unobstructed view emerged.  The Salt River Valley stretched out to the Bradshaw Mountains and downtown Phoenix’s highrises appeared a long way off.  Directly below, thousands of feet, was the suburb of Laveen, but no longer could I hear the occasional shouts come from residences there.  I was alone up there in a soundless world so close and yet so very far removed from the millions of Arizonans who lived beneath my feet.  The feeling was over-whelming, and invaded my soul for those few precious moments with a sense of victory over my fear of high, precarious places.

I made quick work of coming down the summit trail to Post #8, so buoyant that I hardly noticed the blister that had been growing on the fourth toe of my right foot.  At one point I happened to look down at my hand to see blood running from a small gouge wound.  I had no idea how or where it happened.

It was well after sunset when I came down out of the mountains of the Ma Ha Tauk range.  I still had four miles to walk along the paved San Juan Road, all in darkness.  There would be no traffic to worry about since the road’s gate was closed at the other end, as it is for all but one weekend a month.  It was almost 8 o’clock when I got back to the Civic coupe and finally began munching on a sandwich I had packed but refused to eat.  It dawned on me, I had  hiked this 10 miles in six hours on a stomach filled only with a long-ago breakfast of oatmeal and blueberries.

Was it worth it? Would I do it again? I don’t know. But it was a thrill to be up there alone on a small piece of high rock, no sounds, nothing.  Not even a bird.  Every person is different.  Gaining the summit of Maricopa Peak may sound like small stuff.  But for me, I’ll never forget this hike.  That’s for sure.

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