Exercise NORTHERN APACHE was a 32 Signal Regiment, Level 3 Adventure Training expedition to Arizona, USA, over the period 01 – 15 Nov 14. The aim of the exercise was to summit Arizona’s Ultra Prominent Peaks (each with a topographic prominence of 1,500 metres or more), culminating in a summit of Humphreys Peak at 3,852 metres. The exercise concept was developed by Warrant Officer Chris Powell who made several visits to the United States prior to the commencement of the expedition. The ascended peaks (Chiricahua, Humphreys and Mount Lemmon) are steeped in Native American history and culture, as well as forming part of a unique ecosystem known as the Madrean Sky Islands. Isolated from one another by expansive desert valleys, these mountain ranges receive sufficient rainfall to support a wide diversity of flora and fauna. Unable to migrate between ranges due to the intervening desert, many species have evolved in comparative isolation.
On arrival in Phoenix, the expedition moved south to the Sonora Desert Museum and conducted an extremely valuable, hands on, ecosystem familiarisation that was part of the risk assessment. Warrant Officer Powell had arranged for the leading experts within their field to deliver a bespoke presentation to the group. After a short customary tour of the other exhibits, the expedition travelled to the Catalina State Park and established the first basecamp. The state park is at the base of Mount Lemmon (2,791 metres); it is renowned for being the most southerly skiing resort in the United States. However, the trailhead starts in the desert and in order to beat the anticipated high temperatures the ascent began at first light. On route the group conducted a number of important Summer Mountain Foundation (SMF) lessons, including water-crossing techniques, utilising the Romero Pools that were once prized by the Apache.
The following morning, the expedition conducted a short road move to the next objective. The Chiricahua National Monument, located close to the Mexican border, is an area of outstanding natural beauty and the Bonita Canyon campground is located at the heart of the area. On arrival there was a noticeable increase in vigour and the camp was rapidly established. The effort paid off and a hike through Echo Canyon was conducted, during which the group proceeded to navigate its way through the thousands of “hoodoos” that the area is synonymous with. At dawn the following day the group started the ascent of Chiricahua Peak (2,975 metres). The mountain range is renowned for having the cleanest air in the United States and the views into the Mexican state of Sonora are breathtakingly beautiful.
After a well deserved sleep, basecamp was disassembled and the expedition travelled towards the small town of Tombstone, where a short cultural visit was conducted. Tombstone is an historic western town in Cochise County, Arizona. It was one of the last frontier boomtowns in the American Old West and is most famous for the gunfight at the OK Corral. Once complete the group moved towards the Dragoon Mountains and the Cochise Stronghold Campground. During a 30-year period in the 19th Century the chief of the Chiricahua Apache hid his people within the stronghold. Today the area has cultural significance and after a hike to the summit, it was a great experience to watch the sunset and sunrise from within its defences.
The desert phase of the expedition was now complete and the expedition moved north towards the Colorado Plateau, where the San Francisco Peaks would be summited. The ascent to Humphreys Peak (3,852 metres) started at the Arizona Snow Bowl. The route chosen provided the most direct route through the Coconino National Forest. After numerous switchbacks the route ascends through exposed volcanic rock on to a ridge that has a number of false summits, there were also considerable patches of ice and snow. The peak itself provides exceptional views and the Grand Canyon North Rim can be seen in the distance. There was a noticeable drop in temperature at the top and after a short stop the group began the descent.
Exercise NORTHERN APACHE was a great success; the memories and experiences the group have taken away from the expedition are invaluable. Activities involving controlled exposure to risk in an austere and demanding environment have developed skills vital to operational capability.
Warrant Officer Powell
Yeoman of Signals