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The Tucson High Five




Overview and Inception

On March 23rd, my dear friend Kent Warlick and I completed the Tucson High Five. What is the Tucson High Five? It is an original endurance challenge to summit the 5 tallest peaks in the mountain ranges surrounding Tucson : Mt. Wrightson, Mt Lemmon, Mica Mountain, Rincon Peak, and Wasson Peak. The challenge can be done in many iterations or formats. It is our hope that others will be interested in taking on the challenge. The High Five can be done as a fastpack, a multiple day hike, or weekend picnic in the mountains.

The story of the Tucson High Five begins with two close friends who dream big. The idea originated from Kent who I asked to share some details about where he got the idea for the five summit challenge. Here is what he shared.

During Thanksgiving last year, my partner in climb from Colorado, Daniel Covelli, and I made a trip to Southern California to hike one of the hardest day hikes in America.  San Jacinto (San Jack), also known as Cactus to Clouds, features over 10,000 feet of elevation gain in under 16 miles eventually topping out at an elevation of 10,834’. While planning this trip, a Southern California friend we met on a Colorado 14er told us we should do the Southern California Triple Crown. In addition to San Jacinto, it includes San Antonio (Mt. Baldy) which tops out at an elevation of 10,064’ and San Gorgonio (Old Greyback) which tops out at an elevation of 11,502’. For ascents and descents of all 3 peaks, the total mileage is close to 60 while the elevation gain is over 23,000’. Businesses in the LA area have capitalized on the 3 saints and created the 8000m Challenge (42 miles w/ 14,000’ gain over the shortest routes up the mountains & not necessarily down them). After easily completing the 3 peaks in 3 days, my mind began wondering: Why doesn’t Tucson have a similar challenge? Why shouldn’t I help create one?
The idea was then presented to the Tucson Trail Runners in an online discussion. Since 1977, Tucson has been the home of the Tucson Trail Runners (TTR). TTR was born out of the love for trail running and ultra-marathon running. The group has produced some of the nation’s best athletes, trail runners, and human beings. For over 40 years, the group has helped foster a more active outdoor lifestyle and encouraged the greater southern Arizona community to get out on the trails. TTR has utilized the surrounding mountain ranges in the greater Tucson area to facilitate organized training runs  and in turn has produced some of the nation’s best and most accomplished ultra-runners . Over the generations, others paved the way by attempting to traverse and connect mountain ranges and summit the various peaks in the area. However, nobody has attempted to summit all five of Tucson’s prominent peaks. Kent and I are indebted to TTR, those who came before us, and those who have inspired us to pursue our crazy vision.

After receiving feedback from TTR, Kent determined that the peaks of interest for this adventure would be Rincon Peak, Mica Mountain, Mt. Lemmon, Wasson Peak, and Mt Wrightson. Kent and I spent the next few months discussing the logistics and coming up with our official route over various training runs.  During one of these runs up Rincon Peak, Kent and I were discussing some potential monikers for our adventure. After a number of different ideas were exchanged, I blurted out “The Tucson High Five”.  It immediately stuck. Our adventure and vision was set and our routes were finalized. 






The Experience

Miller Creek trail head our starting point credit: Julie Henk

We started at 12am with a full moon lighting our way. Within 30 seconds, Kent shouts “Shit” and turns around and shouts to Julie Henk (one of our trail angels) “Where are my hiking poles?” Oh boy, I thought as I double checked to make sure I had all my gear intact. The poles were quickly located; we were now on our way. In the first mile alone, Kent and I crossed five water crossings and what seemed like a forest of downed trees. As we navigated to Happy Valley, the water flows from snow melt and downed trees made navigating the trail difficult.  We wasted valuable time. I remember thinking the trail is a river.  You’re supposed to swim in water, not run. We fell behind, and we were not even at the most difficult parts of our first peak. While the adversity weighed on us, we did not once speak of it. Kent and I have forged a bond over the past two years through many adventures. We ran the epic traverses of Grand Canyon National Park (R2R2R) and Zion National Park (48 miles). Kent was also the one offering me much needed guiding light when I was riddled with a staph infection during the 100 mile Mogollon Monster. Having shared these experiences with Kent, I knew we would successfully navigate whatever adversity we faced. “We all encounter difficulties; it is what we do next that defines us.”-Bob Goff. We were relentless and yielded control, focusing on mitigating fatigue and maintaining a pace that would allow us to me our goal – Five peaks in under 24 hours.

We pressed on arriving at the summit of Rincon 2 minutes behind our ideal time. We had a good clip on wet rocky trail as we headed down to Heartbreak Ridge.  I attempted to stay athletic and agile, but as I secured my footing on the trail to avoid a rock, a large heavy branch from a fallen tree bludgeoned my left thigh. I screeched in pain, looked down, and then saw a gnarly looking hole in my quad with blood flowing from it. After all the planning and debating about what gear to bring, neither of us had thought about having any first aid on hand. I took my buff and tightened it around my quad to try and restrict the blood that was now covering my shorts.  We then pushed on. Judging by the scar the hole had left, I probably should have went to the hospital and got it stitched up.  Who has time for that? We were less than 10 miles in and had many miles to go. Three hours after summiting Rincon, we had arrived at the top of Mica Mountain 5 minutes behind our conservative time that had us finishing all five peaks in 23 hours.

Coming down Mica towards Cowhead Saddle
The sun rose as we descended Mica Mountain. It was one of those moments where time stood still. We were wrapped up in the calming, peaceful, and invigorating beauty of it all. The florescent pink, oranges, and red hues were saturating and lifting our spirits. I do not venture to guess what heaven is like, but it would come to no surprise to me if it had mountains and sun rises. We survived the night and had an amazing day in store for us. On our way down to the Douglas Spring trailhead, we again had our spirits filled as we passed some of our trail running community members that cheered us on.

About 5 miles from the trailhead, my often serious and stern disposition lightened as Julie was there with smiles and positive energy. My quad ached a bit less and my mental frame improved. I was feeling a lot of gratitude. We got to the car having completed the 32 mile traverse of the Rincon mountain range.  With Julie driving, we headed off to Catalina State Park slightly ahead of our conservative time split.

Finishing the descent from Mica Mountain

As we started up towards Mt. Lemmon at 9am, the fatigue was real.  Our bodies felt like cold rubber bands from sitting in a vehicle for an hour. I made a mental note to myself, don’t spend an hour in an aid station sitting down. We were stiff as a board! We were also not thinking coherently as we left the vehicle with not enough water in our packs. Just before Romero Pass, we debated on whether or not to filter water.  We were moving much slower than anticipated (due to more down trees) as well as not drinking as much water as we should have been. After realizing the filter didn’t screw into the flask, we decided to just ration our water. The steep climb after Romero kicked our ass. We were fatigued from so much elevation gain and dehydrated from not taking in enough water. We were at the point where we couldn’t digest or really swallow food because of it. We tried to eat and suck down gels, but it just made us thirstier. The food seemed to sit in our cotton filled mouths.  The time at altitude, the fatigue from the Rincons, and our need to ration water all took its toll on us.  Our heart rates were too high. We could feel it pounding on our chest walls and hear the sound of it ringing in our ears. Doubt crept in forcing us to consider whether or not we were putting ourselves at risk to serious consequences. After this steep climb above Romero pass on the Lemmon trail, we sat on the rock of despair taking a break to try to get our heart rates down. We still had over 4 miles of rough climb to the summit which we knew would include ice and snow. We didn’t say a whole lot during this break. It was more of a come to Jesus moment. The struggle was real. I looked at Kent, gave him a pat on the back, and said “we’re going to do this”.  We got back up and pushed on.

Not too much later, we found a good clean patch of snow where we tried to scoop the snow into soft flasks in an effort to increase our water supply. We were both struggling and knew it. While it seems like a good idea to pack snow into a bladder or flask, the fact of the matter is, a flask full of snow takes a long time to melt. It also doesn’t yield the quantity of water one would think. Further, because we had soft flasks, it took us an egregious amount of time to pack snow into the small bottle openings. This necessary break had caused us to fall even more behind that conservative time goal for the summit.

We were beat to holy hell and very concerned. About two miles from the summit, I presented the idea of having Carleigh High (our other trail angel) pick us up in Summerhaven. Our original plan was to run back down to Catalina State Park. My heart sunk when I made the suggestion; I was not really sure I could live with myself for even suggesting it. However, we had two goals: 1) Summit all five peaks 2) be done in under 24hrs including drive time. Frustrated and full of self-doubt, I could still see us accomplishing those goals without doing the run back down to Catalina State Park.  Initially, Kent was not a fan of this idea either. However, we knew we were so far behind schedule that we would not finish the 5 peaks in less than 24 hours.  The risk of safety, our own welfare, and finishing the run down Lemmon at all was just too high to attempt as  we had no way to get water once at the summit. Those final two miles were slow as the now deep snow had made staying upright a challenge. Not running back down to Catalina State Park would enable us to get the hydration and nutrition we needed to finish the other peaks. Reluctantly, we called the audible.

The struggle was real. Credit Kent Warlick

This is so much like life. Unplanned difficulties force us to make tough decisions that lead us to believe we are compromising our journey towards reaching our goals.  We must remember this process is adaptable; there are many ways or paths that we can take to accomplish our goals. Enmeshed into every good adventure is a hard life lesson.  Life is the toughest teacher because it usually always tests before it teaches.

The relief of knowing Carleigh would meet us in Ski Valley was such a mental boost. We summited the winter wonderland of Mt Lemmon at 2:10pm and then met up with Carleigh 16 minutes later.
As we bungled our way into the car to head to Wasson Peak, I decided it would be a great idea to put on a clean set of shorts, socks, and switch my shoes and pack. So there I was eating bacon and sucking down fizzy water while sitting in the back seat and doing my best impression of Hansel’s “walk off” finale (necessary Zoolander reference). Alas, just under 2 hours later, we felt completely revived as we pulled into the Wasson Peak trailhead.  The plan to rehydrate and take in much needed food for energy had worked. 

As we set off for Wasson Peak, I realized something didn’t feel quite right in my shoe.  My underwear seemed to be riding up in ways that I have never experienced before as well. I hollered at Kent, “uhh ohh!, we have to call Carleigh”. Kent had a befuddled look on his face. I reluctantly told him, “I forgot to put one of my shoe inserts in and I put my underwear on backwards.” Kent’s silence communicated his wonder with me.  He called Carleigh who booked it back to the trailhead so I could get my other insert in and put my underwear on correctly. I must say I have a new found respect for the females who run with a thong.  There was nothing comfortable about the backwards underwear thong approach that I had just experienced. 

Gearing up for Wasson Peak I have not yet figured out my underwear is on backwards and I am missing a shoe insert Credit: Carleigh High

We set off for the second and final time for the summit of Wasson Peak. We both felt completely revived. The blooming flowers enthralled and motivated us as we quickly ascended and descended Wasson in under 2 hours successfully completing another National Park Traverse for Kent and me. This time it was Saguaro East and West. Our spirits were revived.  We had finished that split a few minutes behind our ideal time for that segment; better yet, we were just ahead of the conservative time splits that had us finishing in 23 hours. This was comforting as we knew we would encounter snow, potentially deep snow, on the tallest of the 5 peaks, Mt. Wrightson.

Recharged after completing Wasson Peak Credit: Carleigh High
We started Wrightson at 7:41pm with plenty of food and water. Our packs weren’t particularly light as we had microspikes to help us trek over any consolidated snow or ice we would encounter. We simply hiked hard uphill as the altitude and fatigue settled in. Carleigh joining us was a huge boost. The positive attitude and great conversation she provided distracted us as we rumbled up the mountain. The quarter mile before Bellows Spring was completely covered with snow/ice. Since it was so late in the day, it was frozen over; we could traverse on top of it easily with the microspikes. As we made it over Baldy Saddle, we were awestruck with the gigantic orange moon just above the horizon and partially concealed by clouds. We gifted this incredible moon to light our way the last 0.9 miles to the summit of Wrightson which possessed similar snow/ice conditions as that by Bellows Spring. I will never forget hiking over the saddle, lifting my head up, and seeing that incredible moon. It was as if it was put there just for us. This was one of those moments where everyone stops talking mid-sentence and the sound of silence sets in as we took in that breathtaking moon in front of us. The four wheel drive capability provided by the microspikes enabled us to reach the summit at 10:18pm despite some of the sketchy terrain that we had to cross. At this point, we both knew we would be able to break 24 hours with some light jogging down the Old Baldy trail. We did just that less than an hour and a half later successfully completing the Tucson High Five in under 24 hours.


Starting up Old Baldy Credit: Carleigh High
Completing our Final Ascent Credit Carleigh High

 Reflection and Meditation

We move in time and space. We are a collection of our experiences, good and bad. The Tucson High Five was unlike any experience I’ve had in life or ultra-running.  There are elements to this kind of adventure that one can never capture in the controlled environment of a race. There’s nobody out there tracking you, on call if something goes wrong, and certainly no aid station party waiting for you. This brought a different element to this experience. It did not make it any better or worse than a race; however, it made it different and enriching in an unfamiliar but welcomed way. The lessons learned travel well. How can one accomplish their goals when unexpected circumstances present themselves? How well can one adapt? And how can one find the inner strength to make circumstances a starting point and not an ending point. The power of human resilience, human connection forces itself into solutions.  The faith that something bigger than any of us is providing us with all the necessary components emerges so long as we are present for this experience. In so many ways, it is just running; yet, in so many other ways, it is far more than just running – it is about togetherness, faith, resolve, and optimizing the human experience.  It is part of the process of becoming our authentic selves. We can think deeply on it or we can allow it to sit with us on the surface and sink in. This experience and the outcome can be found not only in ultra-running, but also in all our endeavors no matter how big or how small. Kent and I started this with an idea, our friendship, and time spent in preparation. This journey turned our idea into a life changing experience. I could not have done this without him. It is our deepest hope and desire that others will take this challenge on, embrace the process, wonder in awe by the beauty of Tucson’s surrounding mountains and the experience the Tucson High Five offers. If anyone would have asked me 10 years ago if this was something I would be capable of doing, the answer would have been a hands down “NO”. Therefore, it is my belief that anyone can find in themselves the capacity to do whatever it is they choose even if they once believed they couldn’t do something so crazy. The process is always worth it when the outcome of desire is achieved.

A Special Thanks!

Under no uncertain terms do we take 100% credit for that which we accomplished. We are indebted to Julie Henk and Carleigh High for their unwavering positive energy, belief in us, encouragement, and necessary tactical and logistical support. I would also like to say thank you to Jeff Ladderud for allowing me to borrow his microspikes so I did not plummet on my fatigued llegs off the side of Mount Wrightson. Lastly, we would like to give a special thank you to all those that have come before us and stood beside us in the Tucson running community and Tucson Trail Runners.  The support, encouragement, guidance, and positive community support is irreplaceable and worth its weight in gold.  Everyone who contributed a lot or even just an encouraging comment played an important role. We invite you to dream big, dig deep within, find your adventure, and offer our unyielding support as you take on the journey to which you are called.


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