Driving up to Lone Pine Saddle hasn't gotten any more fun since the last visit. It's been almost two years and the long haul up AZ-87, boring swing down 188, and then bumpy drive up El Oso wasn't missed. At least I had my sister and her boyfriend as company on the drive. We were going to meet another two hikers at the trailhead and attempt the Mother Lode, the daunting ridgeline hike over Four Peaks, that has already foiled me three times.
We met up and started hiking in the dark, making introductions and small talk along the relatively easy trail to Brown's Peak. The trail is steep yet passable, climbing over a thousand feet in less than two miles, and some recent trail maintenance made the walk enjoyable. The sky began to slowly lighten before we made the saddle and my sister got her first good look of the chute - and she was not thrilled. The rest of our group seemed okay so we continued on.
It's never as simple as it looks. Getting to the chute meant switchbacks over a cold, exposed hillside, which is much steeper than our journey so far. Entering the chute is almost a drop down from the hill onto loose scree. The first half continues over the shifting, crumbling rock, and the second is at least class four scrambling. Our group of five spread out like an accordion on this section, swinging far apart at times and then closing back up at the bottlenecks.
We reached the top of the chute about thirty minutes after the sunrise. Looking over at the other three peaks from here is always vertigo-inspiring, especially with the knowledge that we were aiming to summit each one. A few hops later we made the summit of Brown's Peak, the first of the four, and took the chance to huddle down out of the wind and eat a quick second (or third) breakfast. I was fortunate to be carrying a light windbreaker with me - one of our group was clad in shorts and she looked pretty cold. I offered her my jacket and wasn't upset when she declined.
Too soon it was decided to continue on to the next peak. I remembered this route well and picked an easy crack to descend. There was only one or two spots with annoying drop-offs that we had to work through, either by leveraging a tree or spotting each other down. We reached a saddle and navigated a boulder slope through the brush, and then made another saddle, and then I got confused.
There was a divot, a little peak, somewhere on this saddle, I just wasn't sure where it was. Seeing as how we were on our second saddle it only made sense that it was passed us, so we started climbing, and fifteen minutes later we had cliffed out. There were two divots. With no other option we backtracked, the mistake weighing heavily on our morale, and swung around the second divot.
The next section couldn't have gone better. There was one tough climb that was maybe thirty feet, and then easy scrambling to a knife-edge ridge that led straight to the top of Brother's Peak. I was the first one up and sat and watched the others dance along the ridge, little ants perched above a cliff hundreds of feet high, minuscule compared to the giant peaks around us. The view was a little humbling.
Our break was longer here, with the temperatures warming, and we got some good views over to the next peak. It looked scary. The drop between the second and third peaks is massive, six hundred feet or more. I did remember one tip from past hikers, though. Instead of heading straight down towards the saddle we turned east and followed that face down, sliding over rock faces and hugging outcroppings. Frequent cliff-outs and cacti slowed our progress immensely. I began to scout ahead, looking for a clean way forward, and circling back to the group, all in hopes to keep everyone moving steadily.
Once we had descended I turned us back south, towards the saddle, and we followed a partial route along the side of the mountain. This was surprisingly easy. Still, the descent had taken a lot of motivation out of the group. When we trudged onto the saddle everyone was feeling burnt out and tired. I even had taken a nasty fall during the descent and had some half-bruise, half-abrasions along my leg that I nursed in the shade.
My sister was the first to voice mutiny. She was going to head down from the saddle onto a well-known path below and loop back to the car. Her boyfriend quickly followed suit, and the other two in the party began to be swayed. Seeing that I was about to chalk up a fourth Mother Lode failure I decided to hog my summit brews, which I had been saving for the last peak, and get a little tipsy. The sour ale helped temper my disappointment when I agreed to come with and together, we all descended down the saddle.
The drop from the saddle to Amethyst Trail was shockingly easy. Soon we were on a well-worn, and mostly flat, trail, and I cracked open my third ale for the walk back to the cars. Along the way we saw another group of hikers turn back from their attempt (they were doing the same route, only in reverse), though we never caught up to them. Turns out that I actually knew two of them, one of whom had done the Pacific Crest Trail last year.
As we hiked down to the trailhead and eventually separated ways I couldn't help but wonder when I'd be back up here. I mean, I kinda have to finish this damn hike one of these days. It's just getting tiring to do the drive and dedicate the time for something I've tried so many times. Maybe during the heat of the summer, when the heights of Four Peaks is more appealing than heat of the Superstitions. The one thing I know for sure, though, is that I'll be finishing it alone.