August 27, 2016

Mt. Graham: Ash Creek Loop

Shannon's email was short and to the point, 'Do you want to do some riding and camping up on Mt. Graham? There's not a ton of trails, so we could ride all of them on Saturday, ride a dirt road out to the lake on Sunday and drive home. There's also a short hike up Heliograph Peak we could do on Friday, so there will be plenty of time at camp for relaxing'. At least that's what I remembered.

I had never been up to Mt. Graham, hadn't really heard much about it whatsoever. It's one of Southern Arizona's Sky Islands at over 10,000', not a bad place to be in late August. This weekend was hatched almost two months in advance and a few others from Tucson would be joining in for a small, but fun group, Wendi, Katie and Neil would round everything out.
Our campground for the weekend, oddly enough named Shannon...hmmm.
As the departure date grew near I had questions about what exactly we'd be riding up there. Shannon filled me in on the details, then lobbed a softball at me. 'We could also do the epic Ash Creek trail?' She had to know I would say 'yes' to that, it didn't take much convincing to ride 10+ miles of singletrack off the top of the mountain while descending some 6000'. We could set up a shuttle so we wouldn't have to climb all the way back around and up the mountain to camp. Let's do it!! What could go wrong?

I departed the Valley around noon on Friday and made my way east towards Safford. I wasn't certain which mountain was Graham as I approached, but then I saw the dark clouds hanging over one peak in the distance. That's it!! Katie was already up there reporting torrential downpours. Great. My car only saw a few sprinkles as I drove through town and circled around to the summit road. I kept a keen eye on the odometer both from Safford and the summit road turnoff. I wanted to know just how far it was from the valley floor to our campground. It ended up being 14 miles of flat riding at the bottom, then a 21 mile climb up the summit road on tight switchbacks with no shoulder. No way I'm riding that!!!

Shannon arrived a few minutes before I did and informed me that Neil couldn't make it due to car troubles. Wendi would arrive in the morning. In the meantime the three of us set out to hike up to Heliograph Peak before sunset. The rain had stopped, but the huge pine trees were dripping all over us. It was strange to see so much moss in the forest. Arizona is an arid desert, right? Yet another reason I love this place...err, I mean 'Arizona sucks, too hot, stay away.'
Whoa!! That's a dinnerplate sized fungus that looks like bacon!!
Clearing skies brought spectacular views to the west.
Heliograph Cabin, built in 1933 and still in use by the Forest Service for the fire lookout tower.
10,028' in southern Arizona qualifies this as a Sky Island.
We started the two mile trek back down to our campsite soaking in the fading rays. 'Did anyone bring lights?' Good thing we're experienced backcountry adventurers as we had one working light between the three of us!! Oops.
Mist thickens in the valleys below.
The first mile wasn't too bad as we could still see well enough. I was bringing up the rear and minute by minute became more of a bumbling fool in the encroaching darkness. All my missteps were merely practice for my over-the-bars (OTB) exits!! I think we were about 1/4 mile from camp when I realized I could use my phone for light, brilliant. I could now see, but my shadow was throwing Shannon off a bit. This would be an appropriate start to the weekend.

The following morning started slowly, we were in no rush since Shannon and I had calculated precisely how long it would take us to ride down Ash Creek. It's 10 miles long, almost all downhill with some HAB thrown in. Our typical pace on these outings is somewhere around 5 mph, so we figured with some extra stops & photos we'd get down the trail in 3 - 3 1/2 hours at the latest. Then we could connect over to a jeep road, ride it up until it deadends and probably HAB up a couple miles to the top. Again, what could go wrong?

Wendi arrived as promised and almost instantly the maps came out as we verified what we had chatted about the night before.
Bike riding is serious business, gotta have a plan!!
This was rapidly turning into the type of ride I LOVE, something new, challenging and stoopid. The best part was it was all Shannon's idea!! She's one of my few riding buds I can blindly suggest a ride/route to and without hesitation, she's game. No questions asked, well, maybe a few basic ones like 'How many days?, Is there water? or Can we get food on route?

We took off under the threat of rain just before 9:30a fully expecting to get drenched before the skies cleared in the afternoon.
Series of waterfalls on Post Creek.
The air was thick and the layers came off quickly.
As dismal as it looked, the rain held off and we only felt a few drops.
8 mile forest road warmup complete, it's time for some singletrack.
The spur road led quickly to a cul-de-sac and the beginning of the Ash Creek trail. We were all anxious to see what this was all about.
The cast of characters.
Katie ripping through the rubble field.
I think this was the first spill of the day!!
The damp dirt made the rocks slippery, but it was good fun!
Some real nice singletrack up top.
You never know what you'll come across out on a ride!!
Somewhere near here I mentioned to Shannon that we needed some kind of name for this sort of ride. The ones that make you question your sanity a little bit. Shannon sent me a text a couple weeks prior asking if I thought the flowers would look pretty along the AZT between Tiger Mine & Freeman August since it's so brown other times of the year. I replied, 'Are you asking me to go on a ride?' It never happened due to scheduling, but the seeds were planted, perhaps for this outing? Our friend, Jerry, referred to us as a  'little off' when he heard of our plans. Jerry just shook his head at the thought of riding that section during the summer.

We initially came up with the Little Off Cycling Club, but Wendi was quick to suggest 'Organization' and LOCO was born! Or in this day & age #loco or #locorides. I guess crazy fits too!!
The first sign you may be on a #loco ride. Photo by Shannon.
The deluge from the previous day left piles of hail all over the top of the trail.
The trail forked, we initially stayed low, but then backtracked to the higher route. Good choice.
A couple short grunt climbs led to some sweet contouring trail. Photo by Shannon.
So far Ash Creek was delivering the goods!!
Eventually we had to drop off the high line and drop we did. Downhill HAB!! Photo by Wendi.
A solid downhill HAB sesh will put a smile on anyone's face!
Or perhaps it was the payoff view? The Voodoo was smiling.
We doubled down on the DH HAB payoff, big views and a flowing waterfall after a scramble down to these rocks.
The trail kept a fairly relentless downhill slope after our waterfall pitstop. It was almost all rideable, some extra loose chunk on the steep grades made me think twice about trying to stay on the bike. Then Mother Nature ground me to a halt...
Not sure how something that large got wedged in front of my rear wheel!!
Thankfully, it avoided all spokes, but took some maneuvering to dislodge it. Photo by Shannon.
Clearing skies and a look at how far down we've dropped.
Katie leading the way down into the Ash Creek drainage.
Shannon coming in hot on a sketchy switchback....
...sketchy indeed. We pushed a lot through here.
One of the few downed trees the entire way. Thank goodness, there were plenty of other obstacles to hop over.
One of the rideable bits through this section.
Still a long way to go down.
This HAB train brought to you by an OTB from Shannon. I had just avoided near disaster moments earlier as I leaped over my handlebars through some chunky downhill to Shannon & Wendi's amazement. Stuck the landing. There's a fine art to crashing well.
I wanted to get action shots as we rode by another waterfall, but the trail was so steep & eroded it was hard enough to walk down!!
By this time, we had all crashed at least once. Nothing major unlike this fella.
Still smiling after the umpteenth crossing of Ash Creek. There's a trail in there somewhere. Photo by Shannon.
We exited the jungle to a short steep HAB up to the large rock on the left. Good thing we filtered water here as we were now about to leave Ash Creek for good.
It was funny how we went from the humid, cool, shaded confines of the Ash Creek drainage up into the arid, no shade, desert singletrack we're all familiar with around here. It was an instantaneous life zone change.
A little more climbing before the final descent.
That expression says it all!! Woohoo!! Photo by Shannon.
It was looking like we'd have great singletrack to finish up.
What's not to like?
Contouring the hillsides.
Of course, one last downhill HAB greeted us before a short final rollout to the open jeep roads.
We survived!! Now what? No car was waiting, no one to come get us....
We simply had to get back up THERE ^^^
Remember that conservative time estimate of 3 - 3 1/2 hours to ride down Ash Creek? about 5 hours!! With all the HAB we did, we opted to not try and find the unknown trail back to the top. Talk quickly turned to hitchhiking a ride up from Safford...after some ice cream.
I wish Shannon enjoyed the ride more. 
Cruising the flat easy miles into Safford.
Turned out to be a glorious day.
Sonic break for some treats. Photo by Shannon.
By this point of the ride we had all bought in to the idea of hitching a ride back up to camp. We didn't all have to go, just needed someone to get a vehicle and save us from a pending 6000' climb!!

Shannon & Katie were the natural ones to secure a ride. I thought they snagged one from an older fella outside the AutoZone, he genuinely felt concern for us making it up the mountain!! That didn't pan out and we thought we'd have better odds over at the general store on the Mt. Graham access road, it's the only way up!

A day earlier I had spotted a paved bike path through Safford, we stumbled on its beginning and zoomed through town not having to worry about traffic for a bit.
Going my way?
The clerk inside the general store at the bottom of the Graham summit road informed us there was a large wedding up on the mountain, but more than likely everyone was already up top. It was getting late, sometime around 4:30p and there wasn't a ton of daylight left. We needed a ride!! We refueled on ice cream while a few vehicles came and went, but no one was heading up the mountain.
Hello? Uber? No dice. Photo by Shannon.
A bit later a pickup pulled in with a couple of guys in the cab, the truck was a bit beat up and I believe Katie said something along the lines of 'What are you boys doing tonight?' Ha! That grabbed their attention and after they touched base with their ladies, we had a ride up to camp!! Well, Katie & Shannon did. We huddled up, gave them a SPOT and knife, well, just in case. (Only to find out after the fact that the SPOT batteries were dead and the switchblade was jammed!! Good thing it wasn't needed)

I had mentioned to Shannon that I kind of wanted to climb all the way back to camp, just to finish the loop. I also wanted to be done. So, Wendi & I began mashing the pedals up the highway waiting to get plucked off the road upon Shannon's return.
Starting to gain elevation in the waning light.
Making my way back towards the trees.
Wendi fell back on the climb as I pushed onward. Shannon waved as they drove by me and I started my mental clock of when I thought they'd return. Meanwhile, the miles slowly ticked by.

I crossed by the 5000' sign fairly quick, then arrived at the 6000' sign as darkness fell. I figured I would have seen the truck return down the mountain by now, but nothing. I had a signal, so I sent Shannon a text asking how it was going. Nothing.
Heliograph Peak gave me an inkling of where I still needed to go.
Somewhere near the 5000' mark.
As I pedaled on I became more concerned as I never saw the truck come back down the mountain. By the time I reached the 7000' sign 2 1/2 hours had passed and still no sign of the girls. I sent Wendi a text to see if she heard anything and she put my fears to rest by letting me know the truck ran out of gas 12 miles from the top!! Shannon and Katie ended up having to ride those final miles up to camp. Wendi said she saw the truck go by her, but somehow I missed it. That sure would've helped my mindset!!

A few minutes later Shannon's text arrived that they were finally at camp!! I kept cranking the pedals up the road and as soon as I passed by the 8000' sign she pulled up and asked if I wanted a lift? 'No fuckin' way, I'm finishing this thing off!!' She drove down to pick up Wendi and checked on me one more time as I crept up to 8800'.
Still going!! About 2-3 miles from the top. Photo by Wendi.
I had a couple of cramp twinges in my quads and quickly addressed them. The road sort of tops out at 9000' then undulates for a couple of miles before reaching the turnoff for Shannon CG.

By the time I finally arrived the girls were getting set to crash out. Wendi poked her head out of her car and gave me a congrats, g'night! Katie had whipped up some food on the grill, but I was a bit too spent to eat it, but thanks a ton!! Shannon and I exchanged high-fives officially putting a cap on our first 'official' #loco ride!!

What a nutty day. It sure had a bit of everything. I'd love to explore more up on Mt. Graham as there are other trails, probably in worse condition than Ash Creek, but there's only one way to find out, right? I mean, what could go wrong? (sensing a theme here?)

Thanks for the invite and suggesting the 'epic' route Shannon, you're the best!!
Adios Mt. Graham. Photo by Wendi.
It wasn't until a day or two later that I realized I was the victim of a classic bait & switch by Shannon. I was promised a relaxing ride and plenty of camp time!! She clearly preyed on my weakness by offering up an 'epic' route after I committed to going knowing full well I couldn't say no. I'm such a sucker, should've seen this coming, but Shannon's so nice, no way she'd dupe me like that!! Everyone should be on guard when she floats a ride idea your way, she's obviously taking good notes as any student of the game would do!! Hehe, well done, Shannon. Can't wait to see what the next outing looks like...sign me up. flyover

All the pics here


1 comment:

  1. It certainly does sound epic and a bit loco, but what a great place! We just got back from there last weekend. We loved it and can't wait to go back and explore some more. We stayed and Shannon and hiked Heliograph too. And just like you, I came into camp with just enough light to see my way to a waiting campfire. I had no lamp either but a solid knife just in case. It gets a little eerie under those pines at night.