Guest Commentary

Monsoon season offers hikers in the Catalinas extra adventure

Just another day of hiking high up in the Santa Catalina Mountains ...

12:17 p.m.: A late start on the Oracle Ridge Trail. Nuked by fire a few years ago, it now shows vigorous regrowth. Many charred oaks are bushing out again, along with thickets of young aspens and acres of penstemon, their brilliant red blossoms buzzing with bugs and dozens of overactive hummingbirds.

1:55 p.m.: Boy Scouts, going the other direction, are drenched with sweat from the climb. With the monsoon humidity beginning to build into thunderheads above us, I can't help but joke that the Scouts are a bad sign, since they always seem to get caught in various natural disasters.

2:47 p.m.: Thunder. We cease dawdling and hustle down off the ridge to Catalina Camp, a couple of abandoned shacks and an old wellhead. When we arrive, the lightning is within a mile--close enough to hear the unnerving, papery sound of voltage tearing sky. A gentle shower tumbles into the basin. We eat our lunches inside the musty shadows as my partner frets over the tin roof. I offer a half-assed explanation of how the electricity will be conducted around the skin of the tiny shack and not into us, but it doesn't do much good.

4:08 p.m.: The storm has darkened to a deep blue-gray, but is moving to the east. We march on, past a pretty little creek that feeds the headwaters of Cañada del Oro, and then up the Red Ridge Trail, which will take us 2,000 feet up and 3 miles back to the Ski Run road. We try to set a good pace, not at all convinced that we've seen the last exciting weather for the day.

5:10 p.m.: Clearly, our pace is inadequate. More thunderpuffer action approaches from the north and west.

5:25 p.m.: Alarm. A cloud wall has swallowed the landscape less than a mile behind and below us. Big chunks of it leap ahead of the dark mass and race toward us at a surreal speed, obliterating ridges and hills as they come. In a minute, the cloud is upon us, and the late afternoon light fades to a foggy gloom.

5:37 p.m.: Repentance. I think: Silly hikers who should know better but insist on hiking ridge trails on a humid monsoon day will get exactly what they deserve. Strange, though--in a way, it feels safer within the cloud, now that we can't see how vulnerable we are.

5:55 p.m.: Thunder erupts over Samaniego Ridge a couple of miles west of us, close enough to make us wonder where the next bolt will hit. We're badly exposed and having trouble following the burned-over trail, madly stomping up the ridge through thorny shrubs and fallen trees. Dripping sweat, shins bloodied, we begin watching our flanks for likely places to hide should the next bolt crackle right overhead.

6:07 p.m.: Mental note: there's a reason they call these ridge trails! This one is leading us straight up the crest of the ridgeline with very little cover, making us prime candidates for the latest Southern Arizona episode of Death From Above.

6:27 p.m.: We stumble onto the Ski Run road, exhausted and giddy with fear and exhilaration. Nary a drop nor a spark has touched our dizzy heads, but the cloud is still close and thick, and thunder's not far off. Unfortunately, we're still a mile from our car. We try thumbing down a pickup, but the fog is too dense. Suddenly, the cloud lifts a little, and large raindrops begin to spatter. There's nothing left to do but run for it. Our packs jump off our backs with each heavy, loping stride, as the lightning closes to point-blank range. The storm explodes into a furious downpour as we sprint the last 100 yards to the car. Safely inside, we whoop with the temporary insanity of people who have run for their lives and beaten Death to the finish line.

Somehow we managed to dodge, elude and outrun every roiling chubasco that brewed up, and yet still experienced them in all of their violent glory. To hell with all those monsoon warnings! You ain't really livin' unless you run for your life once in a while. My advice is to get out and do so at your earliest convenience. It's a pretty good workout, for body, mind and soul.

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