It’s been a busy past few weeks for ol’ Southwest Trekking. Big guides going out daily, little groups filling the gaps, and all the best weather in the world has made the last couple weeks fly by. After working all these guides, I started to get the itch for an adventure of my own. In no way was I expecting to lose my spot in the food chain.
The epic journey started a few weeks prior, with a friend of mine asking me if I wanted to join him and a buddy on Table Mountain (Santa Catalina Mountains) and do some back country climbing. Unfortunately I had to work some of the days they were planning to go and would have to hike up there (about 4 hours) by myself to meet them. To give us enough time to climb the route and get back to the cars before dark, I would have to start my hike at 4 am. Always a sucker for punishment, I agreed to meet them up on Table Mountain on Friday.
So right on time, at 4:00am, I place my headlamp over my hat, adjust the trekking poles and take off from the Pima Canyon parking lot. It being totally dark, with no moon, navigating was tricky. To make matters worse, the GPS unit I was planning on using wouldn’t work, so I had to rely on memory and luck to get started on the right ridge. After about a good half hour, I head off the trail and start working my way up a ridge (bushwhacking) trying to avoid cholla and loose rocks. About 20 minutes later something unusual caught my eye.
As I had picked my head up to plan my next 5 feet of hiking, my headlamp illuminated what looked like two big reflectors. I stopped for a moment, trying to figure out who would be crazy enough to scramble up this crappy hill to put up some reflectors, when suddenly they “blinked”. Once that happened a chill ran down my spine, the hair on my neck stood straight up, and I froze. I don’t think I was even breathing. I knew exactly what was looking at me – a Mountain Lion.
In that moment, after leaving the security of town and my car and all of those creature comforts, I had jumped down the food chain a few steps, and was now in danger of actually being eaten. It was a stand off of epic proportions.
I stood my ground, fearing that if I turned my head for an instant, the puma would jump on me. The cat was about 150 to 200 feet away from me up the same ridge I was walking, and it was staring at me staring at it. The hiking had been difficult to that point, and the only way I would be able to retreat would be to turn around, and start scrambling down the steep rocky hill. Fearing that would trigger the chase instinct in the Mountain Lion, I felt my best chance of not getting attacked would be to stand my ground.
As I’m anxiously waiting for the sun to rise, the puma is walking around. For a moment, and they would be terrifying moments, I would loose the ‘reflectors’ in my head lamp, only to have them suddenly appear to my left. Sometimes I would be able to follow those reflectors walking back and forth as it would traverse the ridge. During all of this movement, the puma has closed the gap between us by about 50 feet. And to make matters more interesting than they already were, my headlamps low battery indicator start to blink. I was running out of light.
Luckily the sun had started to creep up the Rincon Mountains, and that pre sunrise twilight started to illuminate the ground. It was then that I got a good view of the cat in front of me. It was definitely a Mountain Lion, and it was big (the same size as the one at the Sonoran Desert Museum). With the new found courage that the sunlight was giving me, I started yelling at the cat, whacking my hiking polls together and throwing rocks. Still never taking my eyes off the puma, I would crouch down and pick up a few rocks, slowly stand up, and throw them. That was the best I could do, and thankfully it was enough to get the Mountain Lion to go off the ridge and leave me alone.
The best part of this story, besides me not getting eaten, is that I had gotten on the wrong ridge in the dark and ended up hiking for 4.5 hours to find that I was on the wrong summit. Table Mountain was a whole canyon to the east! Another 4.5 hours of heading back to my car left me a little jaded.