Passage 11 – Santa Catalina Mountains

April 28-29, 2017

We had our annual maintenance event on Passage 11b (Wilderness of Rocks) on 4/28 and 4/29. We had scouted out 37 deadfalls across the trail beyond what we had cleared out on April 8th. Of those, 15 were on the western end of the passage between Romero Pass and the Wilderness of Rocks trail junction. This is a very steep remote section of trail with southern exposure and full sun. Our original intent was to clear this section on 4/8 but those plans were scrambled due to the Shovel fire. In fact, it seemed as if the planning for this event this year was a moving target. First the total deadfalls were so numerous this winter to warrant the extra outing on 4/8 and 9. The fire made us change that to a one day outing clearing the eastern end of the trail instead of a 2-day event on the west end.
Next, I had to head to the east coast to take care of my parents for a few days unsure of when I would return. I did get back on the 27th; just in time to find out that we had lost one volunteer to injury and another to a death in the family. After the April 8th work our revised plan was to hike in from Marshall Gulch 3.2 miles, set up camp and then work west to east on the Wilderness of Rocks trail. I had given up on attempting to clear down to Romero pass because the end of April is normally too hot and with this year’s record warmth it would be crazy. But finally, we caught a break. A cold front swept through the 28th giving us cool temps and overcast skies. Romero was back on. But from Marshall Gulch all the way to Romero and then back to camp would be too far. So, another new plan. Tom Kimmel and Lee Allen volunteered to shuttle us up to the Lemmon Rock Lookout trail’s trailhead. From there it is a steep (1,500′), but downhill, 2 miles to the AZT. That’s quicker and easier than the 3 miles of up and down from Marshall Gulch.

With the latest plan in place we assembled at Tom’s house at 6:30am on the 28th. 6 backpackers and 2 support crew. We gathered our tools, filled out the latest paperwork and headed up the mountain. It was cool and very windy on top of Mt. Lemmon but the mountain blocked much of the wind once we descended about 500′ on the Lemmon Rock Lookout trail. That trail had recently been cleared of deadfall by a surprise USFS work event. Even then, we came across a nasty 14 incher where the trail crosses a creek about ½ way down. Perpendicular to the trail, directly over the creek and 4′ in the air the Forest Service either left it or it was new. Either way, we couldn’t leave it. Even though it was not on the AZT, Shawn (Trail Director) Redfield couldn’t just stand by and watch that log hanging there. So, add one to the tally. We cut it out and muscled it off the trail.

From there, a quick hike to camp where we arrived around 10:30am. Just a few minutes to set up our tents and empty our packs and off we went. With the cool weather, we had decided to split into two groups. Chris Michalowski, Scott Casterlin and Rick Mick agreed to do the killer trip out to Romero and back. Shawn Redfield, Steve Chaffee and I took the Wilderness of Rocks section west of camp. We all headed west on the WOR trail towards the Mt. Lemmon Trail Junction. The WOR group stopped around 0.2 miles from the junction at the last tree and worked back. The Romero group continued down to Romero and worked up from there.

For those of us on the WOR section, our second tree was a 12″ two cutter hovering about 4′ above the trail. Odd that there was a similar tree that was taken out a few years back just a few feet up the trail from this one. Anyway, we ripped into it with my new antique 6.5′ Simonds Royal Chinook #513 saw. It went through that first cut so fast that Shawn nicknamed it the chain saw.

After that, we had a mix of small trees with a couple of big heavy logs that were all that a 3-man crew could handle. But with the magic aluminum pole and a yeoman’s effort, we got everything cleared. Add to that a half dozen or so cairns and water diversions and we were back in camp at 4:30pm.

Now, the Romero group had an extra 3.6 miles of hiking plus the climb up from the pass but overall, less cutting and no tread work to do. So, we figured that they should be back between 6 and 6:30 but no later than 7. The WOR group settled in to camp on a chilly, breezy, afternoon. Our camp, by the way, was in a beautiful pine grove just west of the Lemmon Rock Lookout trail junction. There is water in the creek just across the trail to the north and to the south, if you are so inclined, you can climb out on the rocks and look down into Tucson.

By 5:30 we were hungry and ate dinner. As expected, no sign yet of the Romero group. By 6:30, we are trying to stay warm as the sun had dropped behind the ridge but ok, we did figure that they could be as late as 7. 6:55, the sun was down, and the Romero crew staggered into camp. (Except for Rick who is a marathon runner. He was smiling and full of energy). All was well. In the end, the Romero crew cleared 13 of the 15 trees leaving only 2 unobtrusive pines near the top of the trail. In addition, Rick hiked all the way to the pass, below the last tree, to get a new GPS track for the trail since we discovered earlier this year that the current “official” track is not in the right place.

I can’t praise the Romero crew enough. They went above and beyond the call of duty on a long grueling day. We were all tired and made an early evening of it. Overnight was windy and cold with temps dropping down to the low 30’s.

With pretty much everything west of us done, we were going to finish on Saturday and wouldn’t need the second night’s stay. That worked out well for a group of 12 backpackers and their dogs who wanted our campsite. We had only 8 deadfalls left to cut and Tom and Lee were joining us from Marshall Gulch in the morning. 8 trees and 8 people, no sweat, right? Shawn and I tackled a couple of medium size logs while the rest of the crew followed with loppers brushing. Then we came to a spot in the trail where two boulders up against a small tree impinged on the trail which is up against a steep bank on the other side. This spot has been a pain for as long as I can remember. With Tom and Lee coming towards us we figured that there were only a couple more trees for us to do and it was still early in the morning. So, Shawn decided that he wanted to move the boulders. I would have bet against it. Boulder #1 maybe 60/40 but boulder #2 was huge. No way. All we had was the aluminum pole. No rock bars. I would have lost the bet. Some digging out with a pick, the pole, a lot of muscle and about ½ hour and viola, the trail was cleared.

By now, we could hear Tom and Lee about 100 yards down the trail. I knew that there was a big nasty coming up but didn’t realize how close it was. We met up with Lee and he said that they had a plan. The situation was as follows. Several years ago, a 24″ tree fell across the trail. The root ball was resting on a huge bolder about 5′ above the trail and the top of the tree was resting about 150′ across the drainage on the far bank. Two routes had developed over time. One was to climb up and around the boulder and the other was to duck under the tree. It has been listed on the app as the “24 inch uncuttable overhead” tree for years. Well, over the winter, a second 24″ tree fell straight across the original tree. This one started about 30′ up the hill from previous bypass trail and across the original tree right on top of the original trail. Huge 6″ limbs were everywhere. Some broken off others still needing to be cut. In landing on the 1st tree, the 2nd tree also splintered the bottom of the 1st tree and broke it free from the root ball. Amazingly a 6″ square piece of the trunk stayed intact and was wedged up against the bolder holding the tree up about a foot in the air. Between the two trees hanging in the air, there was a 5′ wall of trees across the original trail rendering it impassable. With the far end of the tree all the way across the drainage and the 2nd tree lying on top of the 1st, that 6″ piece of log was under a huge amount of compression. No way to cut down and cutting up was too dangerous since the whole mess would drop on you when it broke free.

So, Lee’s plan was to start by reopening the bypass over the boulder. That required one cut on the 2nd tree, a lot of rebuilding of tread over the boulder and clearing away a bunch of limbs. That was the easy part. We made the cut and rolled the top part of the log down the slope and across the trail. No easy feat for a log of that size but we carefully maneuvered it down and into place.

But the original trail still had two 24″ logs stacked on top of it. This piece of trail is a pretty neat spot as it winds through a small gap between boulders to the spot where the logs blocked it. We really wanted to open that back up again. If we could at least get rid of the 2nd log, we could probably get things to where one could climb over the 1st tree and stay on the original trail. Fortunately, the 2nd tree was supported by the first and not under compression. But it was a 24″ cut and the only way to reach it was to stand on the 1st tree. Before we could start we had a dozen or so limbs to cut. We went into a modified demented termite mode and with sawyers standing on trees, rocks or whatever else they could find one by one the limbs disappeared. We cut the bottom off tree #2 and rolled it off the trail. We now had a gap between the boulder and 2nd tree where you just had to climb over the 1st tree to use the original trail. But that just wasn’t good enough. Little by little, we started chipping away at that 1st tree. We used every tool that we had: Crosscut saw, D saw, bow saw, hatchet, pick mattock and wedges, and every member of the crew. We sawed and chiseled and chopped and sawed and chiseled and wedged and… 2½ hours later we had a usable gap between the boulder and tree, new tread and the original trail open for business. These guys and gal are good!

It was a great finale for the day. Exhausted, we trudged up and over Marshall Saddle and back to the Gulch to are awaiting vehicles and civilization.

Thanks to all my volunteers.