Browns Peak 7657′ and Brother Peak 7642′
Total Time: 5.5 hrs
Roundtrip Mileage: 6.4
Elevation Gain: 2800′
Crux: Class III-IV
Trailhead: Lone Pine TH, no amenities
The Four Peaks are a Phoenix icon. Towering to the east in Tonto National Forest, they are by far the highest peaks in the Phoenix skyline and high enough to consistently see snow every year. The highest peak of the four, Browns Peak, is one of 73 Arizona 2000′ prominence summits, and is also the highest mountain in Maricopa County (1/15 AZ Co. HPs). Difficult class III by it’s easiest route, Browns Peak is on any peakbagger’s short list, even those living out of Arizona. Yet in my first year in Arizona, I had yet to climb the craggy peak, with two previous attempts being abandoned before even leaving Phoenix due to weather. But with options limited for cool summer dayhikes with reasonable drive times from Phoenix, now was the time to finally make it happen. I had been resting my ankle since returning from Colorado, and this would be a good test to see how it had been healing and if I would be ready for more serious summits in California.
Despite the proximity to Phoenix, the drive time is close to 2 hours. The Lone Pine TH can be approached from the east over 20 miles of brutal dirt road with white knuckle driving, or from the west with an equally as long, but significantly better, dirt road. Although the mileage is much longer driving around to the west, the road is in such better condition that it winds up being faster, and was the approach I decided to take. I hooked up the dirt road to the trailhead at a little over 5000′, finding a handful of other cars in the lot. I started out along the trail and was immediately impressed by the large pine trees and rocky outcroppings that reminded me of the Sierras.
The trail switched up hot and dusty switchbacks and I quickly left the shady pines and entered a recovering burn area. The area burned in 1996 by a camper’s fire, yet still had a long way to recovery despite the 20 years of growth. Very few pines had grown back, with bushes and shrubs dominating the landscape. The trail traversed east of 6988′, and after clearing the false summit, I found myself at the saddle at the base of the class III gully.
There were a few groups up ahead at various points in the gully, and I paused to let them ascend a bit further to avoid any rockfall they might inadvertently send my way. The climb of the gully doesn’t actually start at the very base, but instead utilizes some easy class II slabs to the left before passing through a large split rock, entering the gully about 1/4 way up. Although the narrow chute looked very difficult from the base, there was actually a thin use trail that wove up the majority of the way. About halfway up was the first bit of class III, with a chockstone that could be bypassed by some ledges to the left. The crux, about 3/4 of the way up, was a difficult third class move, involving a ~8′ dihedral with good holds to a narrow ledge above. Once past the crux, it was easy class II the remaining distance to the summit. The views were a bit hazy, but were best looking down the Four Peaks ridgeline, and east to Theodore Roosevelt Lake.
I rehydrated and started assessing the ridgeline to the three other summits. It was far too late and too hot to attempt the full traverse, with many trip reports reporting a 10-14 hour day. But the second summit, known as unofficially as Brother Peak, might make for an interesting addition. I still had a 2 liters of water left and plenty of time, so I dropped off the summit along the ridgeline. The routefinding was significantly more complex than it appeared. I initially dropped into a narrow gully that became choked with trees near the base. With a good deal of ducking under branches I emerged on a large rock pile near the first saddle between the two peaks.
A group of teenagers, who had been at the summit of Browns with me, were also attempting Brother Peak but were stuck higher up. I had hoped from there I would find a use trail, but with no such luck. Continuing along the ridge I quickly became cliffed out and had to drop off on the W side of the ridgeline to continuing, again battling brush (I would find the east side to be easier on the return). From below, it looked like my troubles were over with relatively brush free slabs ahead.
I followed these, thinking they would lead directly to the summit. I continued along the slabs and was surprised to find myself cliffed out once more, with a 60′ drop off to a second saddle, completely hidden from view. Some tricky downclimbing brought me to this saddle and the crux of the day, regaining the ridgeline. I hooked around the west side and found some spicy class IV (east side was again easier on the return) and wound up back on the slabs to bring me back to the summit. There were an annoying amount of flying ants near the top, and I hid near a boulder while I signed into the summit register, having only a handful of signatures all year. I examined the ridgeline to the third peak- Sister Peak, which was reportedly the most difficult section of the traverse. Hard to argue with that, with a 500′ gap between the two summits.
After tucking the register back in the ant swarm, I dropped back off the summit keeping on the east side at any difficulties. This involved a tough chimney, but was overall easier and less exposed compared to the west side.
I passed one of the teens that had been on Browns, the rest quitting about halfway to Brother Peak finding it more difficult than they expected. A simplified beta of the traverse would be: from the summit of Browns, drop off a gully on the SE side, keeping right of the first gendarme on the ridgeline to a steep talus field. Once at the first grassy saddle, keep left (east) at any difficulties encountered.
On the return, I didn’t want to reclimb Browns and decided to climb to the notch at the top of the gully via a brushy gully on the opposite side. This may have been the brushiest part of the day and I was again faced with some pretty stiff climbing, likely class IV. But ominous clouds had appeared quickly, and I wanted to get to the relative safety of the gully sooner rather than later.
A bit more thrashing brought me to the notch, and I dropped into the gully, taking a short break just beyond the crux. The skies remained threatening, but the rain held as I finished scrambling down and regained the trail to Lone Pine saddle. From there it was 2.5 miles of straightforward hiking through the burn area and pines to bring me back to my car for the bumpy ride back to Phoenix.