It was November 25, 1988 – it started off as a normal Thanksgiving weekend, minus the turkey. Susan and I thought it would be fun to drive up into the high country and climb some peaks before winter set in once and for all. We threw a bunch of camping gear into the back of the old Toyota 4×4 and drove for three hours to arrive up at the top of things in the Pinaleño Mountains.
A paved road leaves the highway near Safford, Arizona and lures you up high. By the time the pavement ends and the dirt begins, you are up at around 9,000′. We were pleased to see that there were quite a few other fun-seekers there. A light snow was falling and people were having a good time, making snowmen and having snowball fights. It was heavily overcast, and visibility was maybe half a mile.
The first thing on our agenda was a small bump called Grant Hill, elevation 9,477′. Not much to it, we walked an old road through the forest to within a hundred feet of the top. From there, it was the work of a few minutes to gain the summit. I remember looking down towards the main road, called Swift Trail, and seeing other vehicles coming and going. It was very peaceful, actually, as the falling snow muted the sounds around us.
We walked back down to the pickup and drove several miles farther west along Swift Trail, then found a turnoff. Parking there, we started walking up the gentle road. The snow was coming down a bit harder by now, but it was still very pleasant as we covered the distance, almost two miles, to the top of Webb Peak. There was a forestry lookout tower sitting there to greet us at 10,030′. The silence was profound up there, as if the whole world were wearing a muffler. After a quick lunch from our pack, we started back down. It wasn’t hard to notice that a few more inches of snow had fallen by the time we got back to the truck, so that there was now maybe a foot of it sitting on the road.
The day was wearing on, and it was probably two o’clock by now. Hey, one more peak couldn’t hurt, right? A few miles farther down the road stood Grand View Peak. It was close to Swift Trail, so shouldn’t take much time. As we made our way west, it was really easy to see that the snow sitting on the road was getting deeper and the snow was falling harder. There were tire tracks in the middle of the road, but they were filling in with the blowing snow. Maybe one vehicle came by as we drove the three miles to Grand View, and they were having a time getting up the gentle slope of the road. By the time we parked, it was really coming down. The climb to the summit was in knee-deep snow, and it was coming down faster all the time. Grand View Peak sits at 9,618′ and we topped out in a swirling mass of snow with very little visibility. Turning around right away, we half-slid down the slope to the waiting truck. I think this was the first time all day we felt that the snow was falling so fast that we’d better beat a hasty retreat and get the hell out of there.
The truck was in four-wheel-drive, and the tires had a pretty aggressive tread, but as we made our way back out, I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. More snow had accumulated and we were now in a raging blizzard. Visibility was near-zero. My heart was pounding as we made it up the last bit of a grade and entered a long flat stretch of road. Here, at least, I felt we could build up a good head of steam. Alas, it was not meant to be. By now, the snow was so deep that it was up to the bumper. We were pushing a bow wave of snow in front of us. I felt sick to my stomach as our forward progress ground to a halt. There we were, stuck! This couldn’t be happening. I put it in reverse, backing up in our tracks, then hit it hard and plowed ahead. When we hit the point of our farthest progress, our momentum only carried us another few feet before we stopped dead.
There was no trace of any tracks left from those who had driven out before us. The swirling snow had filled them in completely. Now I’m not saying I’m the world’s best off-road driver, but I have driven my share of both rough and snow-covered roads. I played with different gears and the transfer case, but nothing helped. We simply couldn’t make any forward progress through the 20-inch-deep snow. We sat there in the cab, heater blowing nice warm air, and watched the storm rage outside all around us. Stunned silence.
It was almost dark by now. We were surprisingly calm as we took stock of things, warm and comfortable inside the truck. The magnitude of our situation was settling in, though. Here we were, at 9,400′ elevation in the mountains in a severe winter storm. We already knew the truck wasn’t going anywhere, and the snow continued to accumulate all around us. We gathered what we needed from the cab and moved outside and back to the rear of the truck, piled into the shell and closed the hatch. It was a dry and safe refuge from the blizzard. We had warm sleeping bags, food and water and excellent foul-weather clothing. Better yet, we had good maps and time to make a plan. Here is how our thinking went.
What did we know for sure? Well, the road out the way we came in was a pretty sure thing. It was 28 miles back out to the bottom of the mountain, but with the ferocity of this storm, the road could be snow-covered every single one of those miles. By morning, the snow would no doubt be deeper – it would take a herculean effort to walk that far through it, and probably couldn’t be done in one day. People have died trying to walk fewer miles than that through deep snow. So that was Plan A.
Plan B was to try to get down off the mountain to civilization by some route other than the road. I knew that if we just kept going in a northeasterly direction from the truck, eventually we would reach the town of Thatcher. That would be a trek of 21 miles, but most of it would be through the bush and would involve intense route-finding over unknown ground (unknown to us, at least). It would also involve an elevation loss of 6,500 vertical feet, not counting all the extra ups and downs that would no doubt be encountered on the way. The things we didn’t like about this plan were: we didn’t have maps to cover the entire distance, and it was all unfamiliar ground. Plenty of opportunity to get into trouble, and almost certainly couldn’t be done in a single day, given the depth of the snow. And we didn’t have a tent.
Plan C would be a true mountaineering adventure – here’s how we thought it would work. If we were to walk about a mile to the south, it would then be all downhill to the flatlands of the Sulphur Springs Valley where people lived and we would be saved. It would involve a drop of a mere 4,600 vertical feet. We did have maps to cover all of that ground, and it was the shortest distance of all, but some of it looked steep, and that could present some real challenges in deep snow.
Lying there in our sleeping bags, we made a decision before drifting off to sleep – it would be plan C. It offered the least chance of dying, and that seemed like a good thing. That was one long night, one of the quietest imaginable. Before dawn, we got busy loading up a full-sized backpack with one sleeping bag, some food and water, extra clothing and a good first-aid kit. Full gore-tex suits with hoods, plus gaiters and long mittens pretty much covered us from head to foot. Good thing, too, because by the time daylight arrived, it was still snowing. Morning revealed that the snow had accumulated to a depth of 28 inches on level ground, very disheartening.
The truck was smack-dab in the middle of the road, but that didn’t seem to matter much. I didn’t think anybody would be trying to drive around us. It felt odd, walking away from it, looking back and seeing it disappear in the blowing snow. Although the ground here was flat, it took a real effort to move forward through the almost-crotch-deep snow. I went first, breaking trail, as Susan gamely followed in the trench I made. In a short distance, we turned south off the main road into what a sign said was Soldier Creek Campground. This area too was flat and open, and we plowed on. The campground seemed to come to an end, and we made the first of many stops to get our bearings.
We were carrying a 1:24,000-scale USGS topographic map with 40-foot contours, carefully sealed inside a large ziploc bag. The only other aids we had were a watch, a compass and an altimeter (this was long before I owned a GPS unit). It was crucial to make the right start, because there was one particular ridge we wanted to descend. That made it imperative to know precisely where we were at any moment. We contoured around a small bump with an elevation of 9,411′, and headed due south along the ridge. The mountain dropped off steeply up ahead, but you couldn’t prove it by us. It was snowing hard, and the wind was whipping all of that snow through the air in every direction so that visibility was near-zero. I took my sweet time with map and compass, getting us lined up to go in the right direction, so we wouldn’t make a mistake we’d really regret.
Nothing to do but go for it, so we forged ahead. We crossed over a couple of small bumps and continued down and along a flat bit on a narrow part of the ridge, then climbed up another bump which took us back up to almost 8,900′ again. It was tiring, and a real full-body workout. Often, we would hang on to tree branches to steady ourselves as we went down, but this inevitably dumped a bunch of snow on us, as they were all heavily-laden.
The next section involved a drop of nearly 600 vertical feet. Because we had no visibility out ahead of us in the blizzard, we got into trouble a couple of times and got cliffed out. That means that we arrived at the top of a cliff which we couldn’t climb down, so we had to climb back up once again to get to a better spot from which we could safely descend. That was heartbreaking, as the effort was almost more than we could bear. If you’ve ever tried to climb up a steep slope deep with snow and you’re not wearing skis or snowshoes, you know what I mean. There were places on these slopes where the wind had piled the snow chest-deep. I can’t recall, these many years later, if I swore much on these uphill struggles, but if Susan were to tell me I had, I wouldn’t doubt her.
In spite of the breathable rain-gear, we were soaked to the skin. The snow crept up our arms and legs and into our boots. I don’t think it was especially cold, probably in the twenties, just cold enough for it to create endless snow to fall out of the sky upon us. Once down that 600-foot stretch, we were treated to another long flattish stretch, which in and of itself gave us a bit of a breather if you don’t count the four bumps we had to climb over. By now, hours had passed and we were still at 8,300′.
There was still so much blowing snow, we couldn’t see squat. I remember stopping once to have a bite of I-don’t-know-what, then continuing on. It wasn’t really comfortable to stop, as then the cold and wet would set in, so we rested as seldom as possible. Our next goal was to make it to a hill at 6,767′. To get there, we’d have to navigate through several changes of direction and go over a few more bumps, but, that done, we’d have lost another 1,600 vertical feet in our flight to freedom. The hours passed, and still we made our way down the mountain through the snow. Finally reaching that hill I spoke of, we climbed up and over it and, without skipping a beat, kept on going. Imagine two automatons, albeit very wet ones, slipping and striding down the mountainside. The afternoon was wearing on, and the snow was falling more slowly, when, a thousand feet below the hill, the slope felt noticeably less steep. Maybe we were finally going to catch a break.
As we lost the final two hundred vertical feet to the canyon of Grant Creek, we dropped below the solid overcast and we could see! All the clouds were above us, and it had stopped snowing. Hell, there was nothing they could throw at us now that was going to stop us – nothing! We were overjoyed, but cautiously. By now it was late afternoon – the day had run its course, and it was almost dark. We were no longer walking on snow. Through the deepening gloom, we could see, down in the valley below, some lights. We’d shoot for those. The creek bed wasn’t too bad, and we had followed it for a mile when we came upon what looked like an old road. Things were definitely looking up. Walking the road was even easier, and we were mighty pleased to be following it. It gradually lost elevation, and we finally dropped below the 5,000-foot level.
The night was inky black – the cloud cover didn’t afford us any moon or stars. I don’t recall even using our headlamps – maybe we were saving them, just in case we ran into something unexpected. We plodded along the road for maybe half an hour until we came to what seemed like a fence across our path. Turning on the light, we saw that it was. All these years later, I’m not sure if it was barbed wire or something else. In any case, we climbed over it and stood on another road. Turning off the light once again, we started walking along this road, which was very flat and extremely smooth, like walking on a newly-made dirt road. The going was getting better all the time. All of a sudden, out of the darkness came such a racket that it scared the daylights out of us. It was a bunch of dogs, barking and howling at full volume. Once again we turned on the light, and saw that they were confined to a pen. Thank God for that, or they would’ve ripped out lungs out.
We just kept going, thinking that this long day couldn’t get any more eventful, when lights ahead came into sharp focus and we saw the outline of buildings. It was the work of but a few minutes to get there, and we found ourselves in front of a large structure, brightly lit. There seemed to be a front entrance with large glass doors, so up to it we went. Inside, we saw a young woman, uniformed, sitting inside a glass-walled enclosure. What was this place? As we pounded on the door to get her attention, she looked up. Upon seeing us, her jaw dropped.
Hesitantly, she approached the door. I remember shouting to her something to the effect that we had “Just come down from Mt. Graham, in a storm”. She said she wasn’t allowed to unlock the door, but would go get her boss right away. Very quickly, she returned with a serious-looking man who acted like her superior. He unlocked the door to talk to us, but I don’t recall that he let us in. We explained where we had come from, and he seemed incredulous. He then explained that this was a state prison, and that we shouldn’t even be there. Next, he asked how we had even gotten there, and we said “Simple, we just climbed over the fence and walked the road, past the dogs, around to your front door”. He then informed us that we had just walked all along his perimeter road which they dragged regularly so that escaping inmates’ footsteps could be easily seen.
We apologized, then told him we really needed his help. Once we explained what had happened, he seemed a little bit more sympathetic. Explaining that he needed to get us off the property, he offered to give us a ride (again, breaking some rule or another) in a state vehicle to where he thought somebody might be able to help us. As we drove, savoring the warmth the truck cab offered, he told us that once an inmate had escaped from the prison in the middle of winter and fled up the mountain the way we had come down. They found his frozen body months later.
Four miles later, he pulled up to a seedy-looking bar at a blip on the map called Bonita. “This is as far as I can take you folks – good luck”. He seemed relieved to be rid of us. In we went to the smoke-filled joint. In the dim light, we saw that there was only one patron drowning his sorrows. He was so far-gone that, when we asked him for a ride, he didn’t even hesitate, even when we told him that we needed to get to Willcox, 35 or so miles away. He slammed down the rest of his beer and away we went.
Mercifully, he didn’t smoke in the truck. Unmercifully, he crawled along at 15 to 20 miles an hour on the paved road whose speed limit was 55. I kept offering to drive, not only to speed things up but also because he was really drunk and was all over the road. He’d have none of it, so on we plodded. I swear to God, that drive turned out to be worse than the climb down the mountain. Two hours later, we pulled into the town of Willcox, Arizona on Interstate 10. Our driver, whose name I’ve totally forgotten, said he’d hang out with us for a while if we’d like. Sorry to say, we couldn’t bear it, so we made up some cockamamie excuse as to why that couldn’t happen, forced some cash on him for the ride, and, much relieved, watched him weave his way back north into the night.
There we were, standing outside the Pizza Hut in the cool rainy night. The odor of warm pizza wafting outside seemed like manna from heaven. In we went, still wearing our soiled raingear and no doubt looking somewhat the worse for wear. Once we had ordered the biggest pie they made, and of course a pitcher of beer, I had the gall to place a collect call to our friends Mary Beth and Wade in Tucson. Awakened from a sound sleep, they listened to the very short version of our sad tale, got dressed and drove for two hours to reach us. By then, we had closed the place down and were waiting outside for our friends when they arrived. Our saviors, they drove us all the way to our home, a much longer drive than just to theirs. We felt more dead than alive by the time we collapsed into bed.
I guess this story had a happy ending. My truck was gone, but we didn’t die, right? They say a picture is worth a thousand words. If any pictures had survived this epic, maybe I wouldn’t have needed the 3,400 words it took to tell, but, alas, there are none. But, there is one more thing I should tell you – this story has a sequel. Stay tuned.
To be continued…………………………………….
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