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North Summit of Pass Mountain
Usery Mountain Regional Park
March 5, 2000
by Jeffrey Cook
Peak3205
Poppies brighten the eastern slopes of Peak 3205.

The plan for this hike didn’t solidify until 3 PM on Friday, March 3, so it wasn’t surprising that only a few people showed any interest in going along. To make matters worse, the skies turned ugly Saturday afternoon, and the weather forecast was calling for intermittent rain on Sunday becoming more steady towards evening. And so at the scheduled 8am starting time on Sunday, Matt Martin and I stood alone at the Wind Cave Trailhead.

The sky at the time really didn’t look too bad; there were heavy gray clouds about, but there was clearing to the West, and the cloud ceiling appeared to be about 4000 feet with no rain visible. It looked like conditions would continue to improve for a while, at least long enough for us to wind our way up the trail and traverse the ridge to the little-visited North Summit. At the same time, we made sure we were adequately prepared if things turned runny.

The temperature was a slightly chilly 46°F as we hit the trail, with a 10 to 15 mph wind blowing. The granite gravel of the trail surface was wet, but firm and clear, and we made excellent progress, reaching Wind Cave without stopping to rest. As we paralleled the dacite cliff bands below the cave, we could see that the clouds were moving at about 20 knots from SE to NW, contrary to the general westerly flow of the passing storm system. This meant that the weather atop the ridge would be determined by whatever was blowing over Apache Junction between the Usury and the Superstition ranges – which, of course, we wouldn’t be able to see until we reached the top of the ridge.

usury2b
Ocotillo blooms on the approach to the pass.
    We continued after a short break, and reached the top of the ridge just below the South Summit at about 8:45. We glanced over toward Apache Junction to see – just as a matter of curiosity, of course – what the approaching weather was like on that side of the mountain. A dense cloud bank hugged the towering West face of the Superstitions, completely erasing any sign of it down to about 3000 feet. Closer to our little ridge, a light to moderate rain fell on Apache Junction from clouds of about the same height. The local winds drove them broadside against Pass Mountain, whose higher ridge points to the North were just starting to fade away behind the rising clots of gray.

We continued after a short break, and reached the top of the ridge just below the South Summit at about 8:45. We glanced over toward Apache Junction to see – just as a matter of curiosity, of course – what the approaching weather was like on that side of the mountain. A dense cloud bank hugged the towering West face of the Superstitions, completely erasing any sign of it down to about 3000 feet. Closer to our little ridge, a light to moderate rain fell on Apache Junction from clouds of about the same height. The local winds drove them broadside against Pass Mountain, whose higher ridge points to the North were just starting to fade away behind the rising clots of gray.

Fortunately we had both been to the North Summit before, so we knew we’d be able to find it in poor visibility. We started the boulder hop across the ridge. As we scrambled around the steep outcrops near the low point of the ridge, a light rain began to fall – sideways, mind you – and we took a brief break behind one outcrop to don our raingear. In the whipping winds, my 99 cent emergency rain poncho proved to be worth at least a good deal of its retail cost; after fighting with it for several minutes, at Matt’s suggestion I decided to sacrifice my fanny pack to the elements and strapped it around the outside of the poncho to hold the bloody thing down.

We continued along the ridge, reaching the 3250-foot middle summit with little difficulty except for the 10-yard visibility that obscured from view all but the nearest residents of this normally desert environment. The North Summit, which should have been clearly visible from here, was nowhere to be seen, and in fact we couldn’t even see the normally obvious saddle in between. We therefore had to make a best guess as to the exact angle of descent, hoping to catch a glimpse of either the saddle or the North Summit through the clouds before we hit the Salt River.

As we made our way down the rocky slope, we were fortunate enough to catch a brief glimpse of the North Summit through a small hole in the clouds. It was enough to confirm that we were headed in the right direction, and a few minutes later we caught sight of the distinctive, moss-covered slabs of the saddle. The North Summit was still locked in thick cloud, but we knew we had to make a gradually ascending traverse of its southern buttress for a certain distance, then head straight up the steep slope to the summit. We did this without trouble, the wind now at our backs, and in fact the footing in the gravelly soil that filled the slope between talus and boulders was better in the wet than in dry conditions.

Soon we could make out the upright boulders of the summit, and at 9:30 we arrived on top. My indisputably precise zipper thermometer read a nice round 40°F, and we found little cause to dispute that figure. I immediately opened my summit register box to see who else had been up there since my last visit on November 26. It had been signed by about 8 people since then, including a party of 2 on February 5 and two more the following day. Both pen and pencil were still in good condition and functional, and the log sheets were still crisp, dry, and relatively unmutilated. There were even some comments of appreciation on the front sheet for having installed the register. This was a pleasant surprise, though of course it could hardly make up for the absence of monetary contributions to offset the cost of providing and maintaining such a luxury.

We remained on the summit for about 15 minutes with our backs to the wind and, for the moment, light rain – long enough to sign the register ourselves, have some breakfast, try out our cell phones, and enjoy the lush scenery provided by the uniform mass of colorless slop that firmly entombed the mountain. We then zipped up and strapped on our soggy packs and headed back down the way we came.

The wind and rain now in our faces, we picked out way back down to the saddle and up onto the middle summit, and then again made our best guess as to the exact direction of the ridge below. As we descended into the bowl-shaped drainage between peaks, by this time more or less soaked from neck up and mid- thigh down, we found ourselves a good 30 degrees off route, having descended a good 60 or 80 feet below the preferred line. We bore right and climbed back up toward the top of the ridge, now looming just visible through the murk, and were quickly back on target. While not the best route, I believe our path to be well- marked for future visitors by shreds of my yellow rain poncho, which left pieces of itself on the prickly Sonoran vegetation at more or less regular intervals.

We scrambled and hopped our way back across the near knife-edge of the southern third of the ridge into a clearing in the clouds, and were rewarded for our timing by a beautiful view of the conical South Summit. For the dozenth time on the hike, we wished one of us had brought a camera; then again, neither of us had been willing to risk his camera in the face of the damp weather expected. We completed the traverse and, as the rain continued, again stepped onto the trail where it meets the ridge. Having made good time and with ample energy, and being as it was such fine Scottish weather, we quickly hopped up the remaining 50 yards to the South Summit to complete the traverse of the main ridge.

After a ten minute rest on top, we turned back down the trail, passing by a group of 3 poncho-protected ladies just below the summit. We continued down the trail. By the time we passed by the Wind Cave again, the rain had slacked off to a moderate drizzle. There were at least a dozen other hikers standing around under the overhanging rock of the cave, most of them in shorts or equally unprepared for the cold, wet weather. The hike out had by that time turned a bit muddy in spots, but was easy and uneventful.

The rain stopped about 3/4 mile from the trailhead, which we reached at about 11:30. We pulled off our rain gear and threw our gear into the back of my Jeep. While rather more moist and a bit cooler than your typical Phoenix-area outing, we both agreed that it had been a satisfying and enjoyable hike.

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updated September 10, 2012