On the 1st of October a team from 37th Signal Regiment headed out to Arizona, USA to take part in Exercise Dragon Phoenix, an expedition with the primary aim of summiting four ‘Ultra-Peaks’ across the state. An ‘ultra-peak’ is defined as a mountain summit with over 1500m (4921 ft) of prominence. In addition, the expedition included two days of walking in one of the seven wonders of the natural world, the Grand Canyon. At the end of the expedition, those taking part completed an additional test to gain the ‘Summer Mountain Foundation’ qualification, the first qualification on the road to becoming a Mountain Leader.
Heading from Phoenix to Tucson, first stop was the Sonora Desert Museum to acclimatise and see some of the more dangerous local wildlife. Continuing up the spectacular Catalina highway from desert plains through cactus forests to alpine forests the exped arrived at the first campground, Rose Canyon high in the Catalina Mountains. Feeling the altitude as camp was set up, we had time for a BBQ in the dark before all food was carefully placed in bear-boxes. Early the following day the team set off to summit Mt Lemmon. A tough first day with hot dry conditions and steep rocky ground, all were happy to reach the summit just above the appropriately named ‘Signal Ridge’.
Next to tick off was Chiricahua Peak, the most remote of the summits which had to be tackled as a two day trek. Detouring on route to base camp to visit Cochise Stronghold, famous for Chief Cochise’s final stand we saw the first, and only, rattle snake of the expedition. Setting off from Turkey Creek Campsite carrying tents, cooking equipment and over three litres of water each, the team started the grueling two day trek. The steep trail was difficult going, made harder by the 20Kg on our backs and bad weather. Camping on a col short of the summit, windchill and altitude significantly lowered the temperature forcing us into tents soon after the spectacular sunset. Finally hitting the peak before breakfast to escape the winds the team was soon back in Turkey Creek and down on the plain drying out and watching lightning strikes in the surrounding mountains.
A cultural day in the historical Wild West town of Tombstone followed to let the legs recover before attempting Miller Peak. A nerve-wracking road move along a steep narrow mountain track put us at the trailhead with a 10 mile trek to the peak and stunning 360o views into Arizona and as far as Mexico. After Millers Peak we moved up to Flagstaff in Northern Arizona, on the historical route 66 to climb the snow-capped Humphreys Peak. At 3,851metres of elevation this is the highest point in Arizona and was a significant challenge met by the whole team.
The final phase of the Exped was spent in the Grand Canyon. The team had to acclimatize to even higher temperatures and remember that what goes down must come up! The first initial 800m of steep descent became a major challenge returning to the rim in the afternoon. An early start the next day allowed us to be deep in the Canyon to see the sun rise, before completing over 10 miles inside the Canyon, a stunning and challenging walk to end the expedition.
The value of this trip to the soldiers involved has been tremendous, and the skills developed will help all in their future career both in civilian life and in the military. Physical fitness, determination, teamwork and leadership were some of the vital skills developed on the exped. The challenges of conducting training in the extreme weather and environmental conditions of Arizona added much to the experience, giving a once in a life time training opportunity for all. The stories from the trip have been passed on and have inspired both old sweats and newer members of the Regiment to work towards the Summer Mountain Leader qualification.
We are extremely grateful to the funding grant donated by the Ulysses Trust to allow this expedition to go ahead. Without funding, the cost of a trip such as this would be out of reach for some individuals, restricting their ability to partake in such amazing personal development opportunity.