From the parking area of Gates Pass, a hilly area aptly called the Tucson Mountains just east of Tucson, Arizona, dotted with thousands of saguaro cacti, a hike up to a ridgeline about a half-mile away looks like a gradual slope, certainly doable. This so-called minor range has peaks from 2,000 to 4,600 feet. The climb I scope out gets steeper near the top, but that’s to be expected. Only later, after I spent an hour scrambling, often hand over hand to reach the top, and another half-hour sliding mostly on my butt coming down, did I read in Backpacker magazine that “overconfidence” is one of 52 common mistakes hikers make. About 42 percent of rescue calls in Utah national parks are due to fatigue, darkness, and insufficient equipment. The bottom line: foolhardy planning.
Guilty as charged. I came to the pass on the last day of February with no plan, no map, no route, no water bottle, no watch, no compass. It was just a brilliantly blue sky Monday morning, cool, cloudless, with the famous Arizona sun creating a picture postcard. It was early, around nine a.m, and mine was the only car in the lot. I had Gates Pass to myself.
Crimes of fashion
And if I had a plan, it was simply to hike up a slope on the north side of the pass, snapping pictures of the saguaro forest all the way to the rocky top. There was no path, I’d choose my own zig-zagging angle of ascent, which had appeal. Little did I know I was ignorantly committing a “crime of fashion,” according to Backpacker. “Ever notice how many stories about rescued hikers include the line, ‘The missing man was wearing jeans and tennis shoes.’?” Uh, that would be me. The tennis shoes, or sneakers as we call them back east, would be my worst clothing faux pas.
Hiking up the reddish-brown sandstone slope took about an hour. Technically, this was an easy, pedestrian walk in the sun. But my sneakers offered no protection against the saguaro needles. Let me explain: The saguaro is the cacti most often used as an emblem of the southwest in commercials, movies, TV shows and tourist propaganda. These plants are light green columns, large and tree-like, with long vertical rows of needles an inch or more in length. Some saguaro grow arms generally bent upward. Some have as many as 25 arms; others have none. Saguaros can grow, very slowly over decades, to heights of 40-60 feet.
I had no trouble walking my way around these stunning plants, sometimes ducking beneath their arms. To see thousands of them on rolling desert hills on a clear, cloudless morning is to experience the power and glory of nature. But if you are out of fashion in your hiking gear, most importantly footwear, you have obstacles, enemies, that you most often don’t even see. Saguaro are very slow growing cacti. A ten-year-old plant might be only 1.5 inches tall. Time and again I’d feel a sharp pain, look down at my feet, and these damnable pincushions, like prickly green golf balls, would be stuck to my sneakers, with needles piercing through to my skin. “Where the hell did they come from?” I’d curse. They also proved adept at affixing themselves to my jeans and hoodie sweatshirt.
Prying them off was no easy deal. I couldn’t simply grab them and yank them off. I swear the needles had little hooks on the end and extracting them was like pulling teeth. And I couldn’t grab the prickly devils with my bare hands. I needed a strong twig or a rock to scrape them off.
Climbing as a chess match
Still, the hike up was enjoyable - a good test of overall fitness, plus agility, flexibility, balance, strength, endurance, and best of all, the mental concentration. The concentration comes into play trying to figure out your best line, your clearest, most stable path, up through the saguaro, giant sage shrubs, ironwood trees, gullies and chunks of rock. Which rock to grab. Where the footing looks most secure. You also look and listen for any signs of rattlesnakes in particular, under rocks; also maybe gila monsters, horned lizards, squirrels and rabbits. It’s like chess: do I make this move to the right, the left, or straight ahead? You are, as psychologists call it, in the “flow.” In the moment. A painful moment when stung by one of those youthful saguaro. I lounged at the top of the ridge for 20 minutes or so. To the west I could see the Old Tucson movie set. Down below snaked the Gates Pass road. To the east, ten miles away, was downtown Tucson. Homes dotted the hills to the north, and to the south, the Sonora desert stretched into Mexico, some 110 miles off.
Mistake number 41
My descent was more treacherous and unfortunately involved a series of dork moves on my part. Again, there was no beaten path to follow. I quickly learned my sneakers provided no traction on the loose gravel. I should have read the Backpacker article before my trip. Mistake number 41: Stepping carelessly. “About 77 percent of the 306 injuries recorded in Yellowstone in 2003-04 were leg sprains, strains, abrasions and lacerations,” said the article. “Watch your step. Wear high boots and use poles to prevent stumbling.”
I had no boots, no poles, and a sore butt from falling backward. About halfway down I realized the best tactic was to descend side-step fashion, one foot crossing over the other. Better traction, but still it didn’t prevent the biggest tumble, when I completely lost my footing and fell against a saguaro. Must have taken ten minutes to pry the pincushions off my sneaks, jeans, hoodie, fingers and scalp. Some of the most stubborn needles are still embedded in me, I believe, as I write this.
Losing my way
Coming down I also committed mistake number 20 - getting disoriented. I had no compass and did not leave marks on my hike up that I could follow coming back down. I lost sight of the Gates Pass parking lot, and as I got lower, the Gates Pass road itself. Giant saguaros could serve as landmarks, but hiking through thousands of them is like a maze of mirrors. For the most part, they all look the same, that iconic symbol of the west. Finally I found my way to the road, about a half-mile east of where I had started my hike from the parking lot. It was close to noon. Gates Pass was now being challenged by a steady stream of seriously committed cyclists. You know, the ones with zero body fat.
All in all, I considered myself beaten but lucky. I did the hike by my lonesome. The weather was gorgeous. I had no broken bones, twisted ankles, sprained knees or elbows. No snake bites. No encounters with bobcats or mountain lions. No fateful blunder. But honestly, I was foolhardy; a 55-year-old suburban baby boomer imposing another age-defying test on myself. Would I do it again? Not without a lot more foresight. Once pricked, twice shy.