Sunday, April 7, 2013

Did I mention there were waterfalls?

To set the scene quickly: another hiking adventure with my good friend and partner in crime Sirena (check out her blog if you haven't already - she's kinda famous).  We wanted an off trail adventure close to home, and Sirena found a very intriguing write-up about a bushwhack loop in the Catalinas using 2 forks of Upper Molino Creek and hitting a rocky peak in the front range known as Airmen Peak.  The write-up on Summit Hut Trail Talk Blog was brief but seemed to give us enough of an idea that we could tackle the trip without GPS data or someone familiar with the area. While sometimes this "ignorance is bliss" approach to hiking is deliberate, this time we thought we knew what we were getting into... We expected to be gone 4-5 hours and be home in time to kick our feet up and eat some good pizza. 

Quick note to self: never, ever underestimate the Santa Catalina Mountains.

Second note to self: if you're going strictly on someone's written description, be sure you know that person or at least how thorough they are (or are not) in their logs.  It'll save you heartache at the end of the day.

We started out in great spirits climbing the east fork of Molino creek (or the main fork, I'm not sure which to call it).  We had a firm mind to enjoy every waterfall and mini-pool we encountered.  We encountered quite a few.  In other words, we were dawdling up the creek, big time. We figured we'd have plenty of time to do a 6 mile loop without having to hurry.  Besides, who wants to rush the Catalinas in the glory of spring?

First waterfall encountered in the East Fork of the Creek - a common day-hike destination.

The bypass for the first falls is a well-worn use trail probably started by climbers

Not really thinking that Sirena's going to be able to chuck this one at me...

Boulder-strewn stream bed
Past waterfalls and beyond piles of massive boulders we climbed.  We wove our way up the creek bed littered with the remnants of massive floods of the past, snapping photos and rinsing our heads off in the water. We really drew it out. 

Another smallish waterfall

Climbing past yet one more waterfall

By the time we were a little more than half way up to the saddle below Airmen Peak, it was already mid-afternoon and we were really feeling the work of the climb. I for one was getting tired and though I had no doubts that I could push on to the peak, I also had no idea what awaited us on the other end of the loop (our description said that the west fork was "more rugged" than the east).  The climb on the shoulders of Airmen Peak was much more time consuming than I'd anticipated, and I really did not want to do any of the hike in the dark. 

Looking back at the Rincon Mountains, still draped in snow, from the saddle below Airmen Peak (the rocky face on the right in the photo)
We decided to put off bagging the peak for another day (preferably one where we hadn't wasted half our time lollygagging) and instead head straight down into the West Fork of Molino. At first, we couldn't see why this was considered the 'more rugged' canyon of the two.  The top was quite lovely, sandy and well mannered - much easier than the climb up that brushy, steep slope on the other side of the pass.  Then, as abrupt as mountain streams can be, the canyon revealed it's rugged side. We realized that saying that the West for was more rugged was like saying that Tucson is warmer than Gnome.  Sometimes 'understatement' doesn't do justice to what you're looking at.  While the author had mentioned a number of specific (and rather minor) obstacles on the way up, there were none mentioned on the way down.**
That is in my opinion a glaring error. 150' waterfalls (yes, plural) are not minor obstacles, and steep, loose slopes used to bypass said waterfalls seem much more dangerous when you're not really sure that you're on the right path.  In fact, when you're already tired and daylight is disappearing in a remote mountain canyon, it all can be more than a little scary.

The slick granite narrows - no walking down this puppy!
One of the friendlier, kinder obstacles on the West Fork.

A smaller waterfall on the West Fork

After some brief trepidation, however, we found it easier than we expected to get past the without any real danger. Admittedly, many of our fears were a result of 'psyching' ourselves out...but, well, we're girls.  That may not mean we're in greater danger in the wilds, but it does mean that sometimes we over-communicate and send each other into a tailspin in our wake.  In the end, we did manage to make it out (with nothing more than bruised egos and sore feet) before the sun fell below the horizon.  That's all that really matters. That and the fact that we still got pizza and spinach dip at Renee's. 

The final big falls - nearly 200'!

As a way to spend a Friday, it really hardly sucked at all.

Next time, though, I'm going to be a little more mentally prepared, especially when I'm not familiar with the source of my beta. It was just a little more adventure than I was ready for...

 **(I want to note here that the author of the write-up, Charles Miles, heard of our troubles on the mountain later and apologized to us both.  He went back to the canyons to revise his write-up to be more accurate and include better photos of the obstacles faced.  This sort of responsible efforts bring gladness and joy to my heart.  Thanks for the original idea and the revised beta, Charles!)