Sierra Estrella Peak (Hayes Peak) • Range Highpoint: Sierra Estrella
• Highpoint: Gila River Indian Reservation
• South-central Maricopa County

Date Climbed
November 21, 2009

Elevation
4,512 feet

Distance
9 miles

Time
11.5 hours

Gain
4,050 feet (gross)

Conditions
Mild, very nice

Prominence
3,212 feet

Click on the thumbnail to see a full-size version


Sierra Estrella Range in January 2007
 

The Estrellas, and the summit, the day before from Rainbow Valley
 

Our simple camp. The summit is partially hidden at left, but the ridge we would walk is plainly shown.
 

Summit first appears about half way up the ridge.
 

About midway up the ridge. This was typical of the terrain
 

The summit as seen from Point 3,660. The ridge is also seen in greater detail
 

Zoom image of the summit
 

The final 200 feet
 

Me at the top.
 

Summit as seen later in the day
 

Descending the steep ridge, late in the day.
 

Route Map

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The Sierra Estrella ("Star Mountains") are the most prominent and visible mountains south of the Phoenix metropolitan area. The mountains run on a southeast-northwest alignment, mostly contained within the Gila River Indian Reservation. Despite its proximity to Phoenix, very few people climb the range highpoint, which for the time being has no official name. Old maps refer to the mountains as the Komatke Range, and there is a grass-roots effort to name the highest peak after Ira Hayes, who was local to the area and one of the flag-raisers captured in the iconic photograph taken on Iwo Jima, during World War II.

There is no convenient "Phoenix-side" access to the range, as the Gila River (and the Indian Reservation) blocks all access. The only plausible access is from Rainbow Valley to the southwest, following a series of remote paved roads, dirt roads and sand tracks. And that's just getting to the range. The actual climb is steep, rocky, brushy and very grueling, with almost 4,000 feet of vertical gain required to gain the summit, when all ups and downs are accounted for. The top features a small shed and solar collector, but workers are ferried to the top via helicopter. It takes a lot of motivation to want to climb this peak.

My first attempt was in January 2007, meeting up with Scott Casterlin, John Hamann and a couple others from Tucson. We met in Maricopa, then took a series of back roads via State Route AZ-238, Komatke Road and long sections of the El Paso Gas Line Road, to get to the trailhead, located at the east end of the Ocotillo Road alignment, where the sand track peters out in the desert below a set of power lines. We made a beeline approach to the top, aiming for a very steep ridge with a short profile. The climbing went well for the first little while, but higher up, the cliffs became steeper and more persistent. In sections, we were scaling 10- to 20-foot class 3/4 rock, and I started to sense this was not going to go well for me. I was lagging, and finally decided to bail at about the 3,800-foot level.

I hiked back to my truck, and noted the lay of the land. A longer ridge descended parallel south of the present ridge I was on, and it looked much friendlier. I wondered why we hadn't taken that ridge, then cut across the main crest to the top. I filed this information away for a possible future attempt. Back at the truck, I felt an obligation to stay until the others were out. John was not far behind me, but the other three guys came out about four hours later, well past dusk. I was seriously going to call the rescue teams if they didn't show up by a set time. They had some real issues with those cliffs. Thus, it was a long day, and for me, not very productive other than working up a sweat.

This opportunity came when Adam Helman desired to climb Estrella, having got lost on the approach roads a few months ago. We were accompanied by Chris Gilsdorf and John Klein. Chris and I drove to Mobile along AZ-238, meeting Adam who had come in from San Diego. We followed the same net of roads as I had in 2007, but found them to be in much worse shape. The City of Goodyear has incorporated almost all of the Rainbow Valley into its city limits, and the Gas Line Road, which cuts a nice diagonal from AZ-238 to the south end of the main roads coming in from the north, was now blocked by a series of sand berms, put up by bulldozers. Maybe the city doesn't want people taking this road. Well, we did, but it required driving through soft sand with low 4-wheel drive. The three of us arrived in the late afternoon, and John arrived a few hours later from Tucson.

We awoke early and started the hike at 6:30 a.m., with enough light so that we did not need flashlights or headlamps. We walked up to the end of the road, then went southeast across open desert toward a lowpoint, elevation 1,970 feet, along the ridge we'd be following up to the main range crest. We crossed a number of arroyos before arriving to this saddle (marked as "A" on the accompanying annotated map). We'd covered about a mile in about 40 minutes, gaining just under 600 feet. Looking up at the rest of the ridge, we could see mostly barrier-free climbing ahead. There were some rock fins and outcrops, but nothing appeaing to be a show-stopper.

The next destination was a knob, elevation 3,660 feet, marked "B" on the map. From A to B, we gained over 1,700 feet. It was steep and brushy, but never impossible. However, we started to string out here, me being the slowpoke (as I expected). I came upon the rest of the crew at the knob around 9:00 a.m. So far, 2,200 feet of climbing in the books. The summit was now visible, "only" 850 feet higher, but requiring a long traverse across the main range crest. We still had a lot of work to do.

We strung out again as we approached our next waypoint, a saddle north of Point 3,795, the saddle itself with an elevation of about 3,460 feet. We should have stayed high, but instead, it "looked" faster to traverse across the west-facing slopes on a straight-line bearing to the next saddle. This was a big mistake. The slopes were loose and brushy, and I was constantly gaining and losing fifteen feet to bypass obstacles. What would have taken twenty minutes had we stayed high took nearly an hour, and I expended a lot of extra energy. I was moving slower than even I would have expected, and growing a little concerned about my pace, too.

John and Adam had already gone ahead, while Chris would stay back for me, although he didn't have to. As we started to ascend the slopes to gain the next ridgepoint, I started to experience charley horses and cramping in my legs. It was painful, and of course, slowed me even more. It was all I could do to get up Point 3,873 and down to the saddle beyond it. I was in excruciating pain. If I sat and rubbed my legs, they'd calm down and I'd feel better again. When I started moving, they'd seize and cramp.

I was now on the saddle below the summit, just 400 feet above. John and Adam ahd already summitted and were on their way down. The four of us had a powwow, about what to do with the slow guy. I felt awful for creating this inconvenience for everyone. However, I was too freaking damn close to not go for the top, and I really didn't want to come back a third time for this peak. It was agreed: John would carry on ahead, Adam could do as he pleased, while Chris would graciously hang with me while I forced my slow ass up the remaining slopes to top out. Six hours after having started, I tagged the top, took a couple photos, marvelled at the view of Phoenix, then started right back down.


Panorama looking south. Quartz Peak is somewhere back there.

The hike down was better in that I didn't need to use the muscle groups that were cramping on me. I was able to keep a consistent pace. We descended to the saddle, up Point 3,873 and down to Saddle 3,440, where Adam was kindly waiting for us. Any uphill movement brought back the cramps. We needed to re-ascend to Point 3,660, the top of the ascent ridge from this morning. I had little choice but to barge uphill and deal with the cramps and pain. I'd sit down and massage my legs, hike a few more yards, repeat, and in time, I hobbled to Point 3,660. It was 3 p.m.

The descent back down to the low saddle at 1,970 feet went slow. I was simply out of gas, exhausted and confounded by my leg cramping. The steep slope made every step a slow one since the rock would often roll out from under me, and I could barely stand as it was. I had to take numerous breaks and yes, I fell flat on my ass a couple times. Finally, back down to the low saddle, we stopped and met up with Adam, then the three of us walked the easy grades across the arroyos back to the road, and from there back to our vehicles, just as the sun was setting. An eleven-and-a-half hour day for me. I was just damn relieved to be done with this ordeal. My legs were absolutely killing me, and I could not figure out why. I was utterly spent, and apologized to the others, and thanked them too, for being patient with me under these circumstances.

John had been back at his truck for hours by now and he was happy to see us. We stood around and talked briefly, but didn't waste too much time. I sucked down some cool drinks from my cooler and massaged my legs, but we decided to get moving as by now it was dark and we wanted to be back on the pavement before too long. John mentioned that his GPS had tracked our gross elevation change for the day to be 4,700 feet, which includes all uphill sections, both on the ascent and descent. That was surprising at first but would explain a lot: 4,700 gross feet is a lot, averaging out to over 1,000 feet per mile. Again, nothing I haven't done before, but this time it just nailed me. Maybe I was out of shape, maybe I rushed at first to keep up. Whatever it was, the cramping was extremely inconvenient and worrisome, especially since I've never had such an occurrence before.

Once back to pavement, we drove north toward Interstate-10, where we split ways. I drove back home, back to my wife and kitties, with two store-bought fruit pies for my wife. I took a bath, ate a whole bag of chips (for the salt?), and slept like a log that night. I was happy to be home.

It felt great to finally climb Sierra Estrella. I no longer have to view the peak every day of my life and let it bug me that I haven't climbed it. The route we chose worked well and was never more technical than brushy class-2. We had no cliffs whatsoever, nothing that couldn't be bypassed. I felt vindicated in a way from my 2007 failure, now knowing there is a better way to the top that avoids cliffs entirely. I appreciate very much the camaraderie of my teammates. I daresay this is the toughest peak I have ever climbed in Arizona. In terms of just pure effort, ruggedness, length, height, steepness, this peak has it in abundance. The views are superb and the Estrellas, as I learned, have a well-earned reputation for their ruggedness. I can't imagine more than a handful of people climb the highpoint per year, and that's being generous. As Chris said, you have to really earn this peak. We most certainly did.

On the descent, I peered down the slopes below Point 3,795 and they looked fairly consistent, no huge cliffs or rocky obstacles. There was a time I was considering descending that way, but the concern of getting stuck prompted us to not try it at this time. It's marked green on the map, and I suggest some brave hikers consider this approach as a possible way to gain the high ridge yet save some distance in the process. As for me, I am never going back to the summit. Once is enough. (Update: since I posted this report and updated the page at Summitpost, a few hikers have followed the "Green" route with success, mentioning that it works very well with virtually no impediments. Thus, I think it has become the default route up this peak. It's still a long grind, but certainly a little easier than what we did.)

Is it "Hayes Peak"? I have come across a few scattered references that call the highpoint Hayes Peak, in honor of Ira Hayes, a Pima Indian and a member of the Gila River Indian Community. He was born in Sacaton and gained fame as one of the flag-raisers in the photograph taken on Iwo Jima, during the second World War. Fame was his curse, and he died early at age 32, in January 1955. As for naming the peak after Ira Hayes: I think it's a splendid idea. It's absurd such a prominent, obvious mountaintop has no official name, and Ira Hayes is arguably the most famous person to come out of Sacaton. The name is unofficial and probably no more than a grass-roots effort for the moment. I hope it gains traction and the name becomes official sometime down the line.

(c) 2009, 2015 Scott Surgent. For entertainment purposes only. This report is not meant to replace maps, compass, gps and other common sense hiking/navigation items. Neither I nor the webhost can be held responsible for unfortunate situations that may arise based on these trip reports. Conditions (physical and legal) change over time! Some of these hikes are major mountaineering or backpacking endeavors that require skill, proper gear, proper fitness and general experience.