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By All Signs - How Not to Select a Hiking Guide

Peralta Trailhead, Superstition Mountains, Arizona

Peralta Trailhead, Superstition Mountains, Arizona

By all signs, the day had promised to be a good one. Weather in the Superstition Mountains was promising to be warm by mid-day, but pleasant in the early morning hours.  The alien and mysterious scenery was full of promising wonder from the photographs viewed online months before. And our guide for the day had promised to lead us through some unfamiliar territory with skill and experience.

But some promises are easier to keep than others. Some signs are more difficult to read than others and when it comes to people, it’s wise to read those signs carefully.

Hoodoos Sups.jpg

The Superstition Mountains located east of Phoenix, Arizona had held a particular fascination for me when I first heard their ominous name as a young man. Native American legends of caves leading to the underworld, stories of miner Jacob Waitz’s “Lost Dutchman Mine,” and the otherworldly nature of the place stoked my imagination and dreams of adventure that lingered well into adulthood. Years later, the thought of hiking among the monoliths, erosional remnant spires and twisting canyons were now reawakened when I met, well, let’s call him “Sam.”

I met Sam at a conference in Arizona where I was a guest speaker. He was a trade association representative attending the conference and while standing in line for the conference buffet lunch, he praised my presentation as we talked shop for a while. Eventually, my conversations drift into one of a handful of topics, including hiking. Being an avid hiker himself and a resident of the area he offered to show me around “The Supers” the next time I was in town. During the conversation I mentioned that I had done a little reading about the place lately and was strongly hoping to photograph the “Weaver’s Needle” a giant monolith located in a high valley in the mountains.

Supers Hoodoos.jpg

Sam explained that he had hiked the area many times and was familiar with the hike that I referenced in the guidebook I pulled out from my briefcase. “Oh yeah, been there dozens of times,” he explained. When I continued to show him the guidebook’s suggested route of starting at the Peralta Canyon trailhead up to the Freemont Saddle and then traversing slightly east cross-country to drop down to a parallel canyon back to the trailhead, he nodded knowingly.

“That’s the most popular route to view the needle, great photo ops there,” he explained. “The cross-country stuff is pretty easy and there are goat trails all over the saddle that drop down into Boulder Canyon,” he continued, “not much scrambling…a little, but I’m sure it’ll be no problem…no problem at all.”

rockfall - Sups.jpg

The word, “scrambling” caught my attention. I couldn’t recall any mention of scrambling in any of the hike descriptions. But, here was an Arizona hiker with seemingly years of experience and knowledge of the area, who was I to question first hand trail information for an area I had only read and dreamt about? Warning Sign #1: If someone describes a hike in very different terms than maps and guidebooks indicate, it’s best to question and explore their information a bit further to make sure all parties are in agreement as to which damn hike we’re talking about.  

A month later and after a few telephone conversations about rendezvous points, we met at the Peralta trailhead well before first light. The Arizona season for desert hiking was nearing its end as mid-day temperatures were predicted to be in the high 90’s. But since the hike was supposed to last only for about 4 hours, maybe 5 with stops made to take photos and water, we’d be back in the cars no later than 11:00 AM. Good plan, I reasoned and Sam agreed.

As I had explained earlier to Sam, I would be bringing my hiking companion, let’s call her “Betty,” who was a new but determined hiker, willing to tackle just about anything as long as the pace wasn’t too swift and the climb too aggressive. I asked Sam many times, “the cross-country and scrambling stuff isn’t too difficult for her?”

“Oh no, I hike with the ladies aallll the time, I’m sure Betty will do fine..” he smiled.

Warning Sign #2: If your guide refers to female hiking companions as “the ladies” and evaluates their hiking prowess based on their gender and not their actual abilities, find another guide. He doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about.

Betty bristled a little from the condescending comment, but let it go. She was there to hike and not argue sexual politics. She quickly offered to bring up the rear so that “you boys” can chat” during the hike.

As dawn began to brighten the landscape, Betty and I were dumbstruck. The Superstition Mountains certainly lived up to the imaginings of a young boy as more of the volcanic formations revealed themselves with each passing minute. It was hard to keep my eyes on the trail as I continued to look up at the stoic hoodoos lining Peralta Canyon.  Their silent and almost watchful presence filled the surroundings with an almost spiritual presence. I knew that the first humans who gazed up at them likely felt that same presence as well. We were in the presence of quiet grandeur that is rare to find in our modern life.

The quiet grandeur however was repeatedly broken by Sam’s ongoing commentary. With the very first step we took until we reached the saddle an hour later, the man would not stop talking. Even when I asked him to listen carefully to the birds and soft sounds in the canyon, the welcome silence lasted perhaps 30 seconds. It wasn’t a conversation we were having; it was a monologue, an unending prattle of his dangerous experiences in the wild.

Weaver's Needle

Weaver's Needle

Though increasingly annoying, it was the subject matter that was most disturbing. I became aware that each story he told was of some near-death experience he or his hiking companions had survived. The tales were increasing in their severity as he explained how he had robbed death of another customer.

We heard about the time that he and his hiking party got caught in a blizzard in Colorado, only to escape with severe frostbite that took a portion of his toes. There was the hike across a rocky terrain during which his wife, now ex-wife, lost most of the soles of her boots due to the terrain only to be saved by repeated repairs with a large roll of duct tape. And how he was lost a few times and had to await daybreak to find his way back to the trail.

Warning Sign #3: If your hiking partner/guide overtly revels in the near catastrophic situations he’s been through rather than the exciting vistas, good times or accomplishing a difficult hike through training, careful planning and will power, he’s likely going to court disaster with you as well.

As we crested the saddle, the Weaver’s Needle revealed itself in its entire natural splendor, fortunately without having to lose footwear or run out of water. Our respite there was quickly ended as he and I began discussing the way back. I showed him the map and guidebook with it’s directions to head easterly across the adjoining mesa and then down into the adjacent canyon. Though faint, the path to the dropdown point was visible in the disturbed desert soil.

“That way is a yawner, I know a more exciting way back to the cars,” he offered, “there’s just a little scrambling, a little down climbing, but nothing too extreme.” I explained that Betty was a relative novice hiker and may not be able to handle it. “Naw, she’s good, I’ll make sure she makes it fine,” Sam assured me.

He then began to look for this exciting detour by searching the ground for the “goat trails” that headed across the canyon’s ridgeline. Betty spotted it first and he congratulated her for her good pathfinding skills. “I’m going to call you Eagle-Eyed Betty,” he said laughingly.

It wouldn’t be the last time Eagle Eye and I found the path when he continually lost sight of it.

Warning Sign #4: When your guide repeatedly gets lost, ignores the map and decides that his way is “more exciting,” its time to turn around.

Weavers Needle, Superstition Mountains, Arizona

Weavers Needle, Superstition Mountains, Arizona

The “little scrambling” and “little down-climbing” soon became near-technical in scope and size. On more than one occasion, I was nervous as we looked for handholds and purchase as we descended ancient, slick water chutes or jumped dangerously across yawning gaps between broken, unconsolidated boulders. Betty was petrified but her determination kept her moving despite her fear.  As I watched Sam, he too, was concerned about the taken route since much of the trail was likely new to him. Again, he had lost the trail.

The four-hour hike stretched into five and then six. The rising sun did not disappoint as the temperature rose to the predicted high 90+ degree weather with miles to go yet.

Finally, Betty and I had experienced enough of this “guide.” Taking out the map again, I was able to determine where we were and where we needed to go to get back to the trailhead. By then, Betty also began to suffer from heat exhaustion that was quickly remedied with cool water poured over her head and clothing and into her thirsty body as we rested in the shade.  I told Sam, “We’re going to wait here for a while to recoup. We’ll be just a few minutes.”

“Nooo problem, if you think you know the way, I think I’ll continue on” he said. As he turned away, I advised him to turn south. I pointed out that if you look carefully enough, you could actually see the parking lot at the trailhead which had apparently escaped his notice.

“Hey, you’re just as eagle-eyed as Betty!” he proclaimed, “thanks, I’ll see you there!”

Warning Sign #5: Ah, you don’t need me to point it out by now, Ray Charles could read this sign.

After I was sure he was headed in the right direction, I collected Betty and told her to stay ahead of me so I could keep an eye on her. She quickly spied the path we were to take and proceeded ahead. It was then I noticed that the seat of her pants had suffered from a wardrobe malfunction.  Down-climbing and scooting across the terrain had resulted in half of her hiking shorts tearing away.  She laughed and said, “The perfect way to end this perfect day with our perfect guide,” as she tucked her neckerchief into her belt, covering her rear, Tonto-style.

Just as the temperature rose above 100, we reached the parking lot. Sam was nowhere to be seen, but I could hear his chatter among the many vehicles in the lot. Betty was deposited into the car, AC blasting and a cool drink retrieved from the cooler stored in the trunk and I sought out Sam.  Following his distinctive call, I found him surrounded by a group of unsuspecting hiking types, listening raptly to every word.

Walking up to him, I shook his hand, told him to take care and “be safe out there.” Turning to the assembled listeners, I said, “This is Sam. He’s got lots of stories to tell about his survival from the very jaws of outdoor death. He’s had many a close call, probably too many for one lifetime. Listen carefully and learn from his numerous mistakes. I just learned from one of mine today.”

Rejoining Betty, we headed west back to Phoenix, wiser and hungrier than expected. Betty performed the miracle of changing clothes inside a car that only women can execute properly. We exchanged thoughts about Sam, the hike and the rest of the experience over tacos and beers just outside of town.

“Think you’ll be hiking with him again?” she asked, looking down at her food.

“No, I don’t suppose I will. I don’t want to carry that much duct tape with me on a day hike,” I said.