S is for Strenuous

May 7, 2013

Have a bucket travel list? Add Sedona, Arizona hiking to that list! I had already fallen off my mountain bike more than once in previous days so I was much happier to be on my two feet. I learned there is literally one beginner mountain bike trail and the rest were intermediate to advanced. My bike pals (Jim and Theresa) and me, we learned a new technique, called hike-a-bike on our two-wheeled misadventures. I pushed my bike up a lot of steep sections and un-rideable terrain and only occasionally pedaled. I was perplexed how even seasoned riders could navigate red rock steps and dry riverbeds littered with boulders. After two days in a row of hike-a-biking, a bruised thumb, and a sore ass from the bumpy ride…it was time to move on!

On a brilliantly sunny Friday, Theresa and I set off from the Bear Mountain Wilderness trailhead at about 12:30 p.m. armed with water, sandwiches and salty chips. The trail sign at the beginning promised a challenge. It read: Warning! Be prepared to meet the wilderness challenge. Do not put yourself or others at risk and do not be a lost or injured visitor. Plan a minimum of 5 hours for the round trip.

After reading that pep talk, I smiled and strode off. In the first section of trail we passed another hiker who was returning back from his hike. He looked gassed, dusty and sweaty. I nodded hello and smiled. He returned with a tired smile and as he passed us he said, “That one was definitely an S!” It took me a few moments to realize what he meant. S = Strenuous, referring to the trail rating system on the Forest Service maps. E, as in easy or M, as in moderate did not apply to The Bear Mountain Trail. It featured a 2000-foot elevation gain on mostly sun-exposed terrain and no less than three false peaks before the actual top. Theresa and I found the ascent challenging and steep and we were careful of staying away from the trail-crowding prickly pear cactus. Theresa already had several run-ins with cactus and generally thorny shrubbery so she fared much better in her hiking shoes vs. the saddle. The trail was innocuous and flat enough at the start but an imposing red rock spire that looked like a giant thimble rose up in front of us as we approached the first steep section. Most other hikers we encountered were coming back down, having chosen to tackle The Bear not in the heat of the day as we did. Several hikers gave us advice as we strode up the trail. One couple said, “You are about a quarter of the way up, but it’s worth it.” “Watch out for loose rocks and the false peaks, but the view is worth the climb,” exclaimed a group of four women.

We both smiled and continued. I heard my breathing loud in my ear as I leaned in to the angle of the climb. Thankfully, the steep rock scramble sections gave way to flatter sections for a few strides before angling back up. That pattern continued and about an hour in, Theresa and I decided we should fuel up with our turkey sandwich and chips. There was a lone shade tree on the first large plateau and we looked out over the valley below and spotted the now tiny parking lot where we had started. I devoured the salty chips and turkey on sourdough and sipped water from my Camelback hose. We did not linger figuring we needed plenty of time make the top. I let Theresa lead and decided I would take a series of video clips to document the terrain and level of difficulty. We scooted around ledges and scrambled up narrow rock steps. We pushed out the bad air when the grade lessened in fleeting moments. I gawked at impressive views at two false peaks and peered down into a 1000-foot gorge below the trail. At the third false peak, I was disgruntled to find the trail went up yet again. It had been shrouded by some foliage so I yelled to Theresa who was enjoying what she thought was the tippy top. “This is not the frickin’ top!” I yelled. The climb required one final push. My “weird Laura feelings” (vertigo) notched up near the real top because I had to walk within two-feet of the edge of a canyon wall to make the summit. I looked the opposite direction and leaned into the hill on instinct for my final steps. Theresa immediately held her hand up for a congratulatory high-five. I straightened up and took a deep breath in and scanned my panoramic vista of snow-capped mountain peaks to the north and then Sedona’s famous formations like Bell Rock, Courthouse Butte and Castle Rock to the southeast. It was indeed worth it just as the other hikers had promised. I took a quick personal inventory before the descent and confirmed I had some water left, my legs were wobbly, my shoes and shins were caked with a fine red dust and my shoulders had gotten quite sunburnt. A good day of hiking, I decided as I began the thigh-burning walk back down. We made it back down to complete our wilderness experience in 4 ½ hours by the way!

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