Mile 179, Lemmon Creek

This trail is a hard mistress indeed. Today I got both a monster climb AND a snowstorm.

The early going through the E Fk Sabino was a delight. The canyon was filled with birdsong and then by the sound of water pushing over rocks.

I paused at the main branch of the Sabino. This was a favorite spot of my parents, and we came here often. I wished I had thought to bring their ashes here. I ripped off a piece of map paper, wrote a note to them and sent it sailing downstream. I paused for a while, trying not to think, to still my mind and let this place slip out of time, to let us be together, to sense the imprint they had made here. I played an old hymn on my uke – Wayfaring Stranger – and then walked on. Butterflies rose on the trail before me — skippers of every color: yellow, gray, green, blue and black. The earth itself was coming to life, coming to greet me and walk with me and give me its blessing. I knew where I was and knew I was loved.

From the bottom of Sabino canyon to the Catalina crest is a 4000-foot climb. It rises as many as 1000 feet per mile, more rock scramble than trail. The trail is minimally maintained, overgrown and with numerous deadfalls. It is a very hard trail.

Storm and snow in the Wilderness of Rocks

The skies had been clouding up all day and it began snowing as I reached Romero Pass, a good 1500 ft below the high point. The trail became even steeper as I proceeded through the aptly named Wilderness of Rocks.

Not long after making the crest I spotted a stand of tall pines – a sign of dry ground – down on Lemmon Creek and determined to camp there, being pretty well played out at that point.

On arrival, the camp was already occupied by two guys working on lighting a campfire in the snowstorm.
I asked if I could camp nearby and they said OK without enthusiasm, then asked where I had hiked from. “Near Hirabayashi campground “ I replied.

“Today? In one day you hiked that?”
“Yeah, and it was hard.”
“Then hell yes you can camp here. I’ve always taken two days to hike that trail. There’s a good spot right over there. Go set up your tent and come back to the fire, we’ve got some whiskey and some weed.”

They were locals who had been hiking the Catalinas together since high school. We built up the fire, drank branch water and bourbon. It stopped snowing and the sun came out right before sunset. When I began looking for dry twigs (I had run out of fuel alcohol) they insisted I use their stove.

After dinner I broke out my ukulele and played a few tunes and was even able to play a request (Fire on the Mountain). We had a fine time of it and turned what had promised to be a cold wet camp into a lively and cheerful one.