I have been a physically active person my entire life. Neighborhood games til dusk in elementary school. Swim team and basketball in high school. Crew (rowing team) in college. Powerlifting in my 30’s. Mountaineering in my 40’s. And hiking with Ajax over the past 8 years. On April 23, 2023, I hiked to the top of Mt. Wrightson with a good friend, Pam, as part of her video series for female hikers over 50. When we started, I never expected we’d hike the entire Old Baldy Trail.
A Visit to SE Arizona
A month before my husband and I traveled to SE Arizona for a week of birding, I sent Pam a message letting her know we’d be south of Tucson in a few weeks. The last time we’d seen each other was during the summer in 2021 when she and her kids joined us for dinner in Seattle.
“Is there anything you feel is a must-see while we’re there?” I asked.
“Me!” she replied emphatically. We agreed to hike part of the Old Baldy Trail on Mt. Wrightson,
Our goal was to shoot a video combining my birding and physical preparation knowledge, with her expertise in filming and her familiarity with the region. I wanted to start early enough to avoid the worst of the mid-day heat. If you’ve followed my blog over the past two years, you already know I absolutely adore snow. The more, the better.
Starting Up Mt. Wrightson on Old Baldy Trail
At the parking lot on Sunday, April 23, 2023, following our first full day of birding, we hit our first snag. Pam had borrowed a day pack from a friend, but when she tried it on, the lumbar stays poked her awkwardly in the back. Without a thought, I offered to carry two of her liters of water to make it more comfortable.
I avoid applying sunscreen until it’s absolutely necessary, preferring to absorb as much natural vitamin D as I can. I also try to stay covered with long lightweight pants or tights and breathable long-sleeved shirts. Sunburn on the ears, neck, or stripes behind the knees (where I’ve missed spots) is NOT my idea of a fun way to kick off our birding vacation.
A little before 8 a.m. Walt and Zach headed up the Old Baldy Trail together, leaving the two of us to enjoy girl talk as though the 20 months between visits was more like 20 days.
Stops Along the Ascent
As we walked and talked, we took our time, stopping to check out birds and views. I shared my binoculars whenever any birds appeared. We used the Merlin Bird ID app to identify songbirds that got approached the trail. And I tried to provide a few tips for the beginning birder.
Whenever I explore unfamiliar trails, I lose track of time. Especially if I’m deep in conversation with good company.
I found myself rewriting preconceived notions of SE Arizona (limited to the Grand Canyon and Sonoran Desert Museum) as mainly desert. Pam described the various mountain ranges in the region as “Sky Islands” with unique microhabitats and slight variants of all the flora and fauna.
We shot a number of video recordings along the way, our collaborative project growing step by step. Before we knew it, we reached Josephine Saddle (1670′ gain / 2.4 miles) where we spotted a sign remembering three young teenage boys who perished in a snowstorm in the Santa Rita Mountains on November 15, 1958.
A little farther along the trail, we found Walt stretched out, snoozing in a patch of sun. His back was still bothering him from their backpacking trip to Horseshoe Mesa in the Grand Canyon the week before, so he was taking his time. He graciously agreed to shoot some video of us doing some hamstring stretches for Pam’s project before we continued.
Early Lunch on Mt. Wrightson
Not too much farther along, we chose a shaded spot with a view for lunch. I ate two oranges and some trail mix and soaked in the sights.
I spotted a turquoise body of water that stood out from all the rest. “Copper mining tailings,” Pam explained. A reclamation pond. It may be wastewater, but boy, what an amazing view of it!
Snow at Bellows Spring
Once we resumed hiking, it wasn’t long before we reached what has become one of my favorite spots (why will become more apparent in Part II): Bellows Spring, at 8,153′.
Man with a Tourniquet
Once we reached the baking-hot switchbacks leading up to the Old Baldy Saddle, a mile from the summit but the most elevation gain yet to climb, we encountered an elderly man with blood streaks all up and down his arm. Out of respect for his privacy, I did not shoot any photos although the image is burned in my mind.
The five people he was hiking with remained buoyant and positive, trying to keep his spirits up so he wouldn’t go into shock. One woman mentioned the time they’d started the tourniquet. A tourniquet! Holy moly, surely not — anything I’ve read about tourniquets indicates likely loss of limb afterward. Poor guy! We asked if there was anything we could do to help but aside from carrying out his broken, discarded pole we found on the way down, they insisted they would be okay.
I found a bandana and propped it up on a bush; it was gone by the time we came back. We also found where the gentleman must have slipped on some steeper jagged rock that was the source of his injury.
Successful Summit of Mt. Wrightson
By the time we reached the summit around 1:30, I had a slight headache. “It’s the altitude,” I told myself. I hadn’t been over 9,000 feet elevation since my eighth summit of Rainier in 2017. But headaches at that altitude are pretty common, especially after gaining 4,000 feet.
I’d consumed most of my 3 liters of electrolyte-dowsed water, thanks to the recommendation by my naturopath. Zach had been hanging out at the summit for some time; the breezes at the top and the thermals the ravens were cruising felt wonderful.
But as you may know, whenever you reach the summit, you’re only halfway. “When the student is ready, the teacher appears” is spot on. Don’t miss next week’s blog post on Part II: The Descent.