I had wanted to climb Mount Turnbull for some time, but I had zero information on it. I didn't know how to access the mountain, and I didn't know how to climb it. The only map I had was a USGS 15 minute topo map, which didn't show much detail. I couldn't find a 7.5 minute topo map of Mount Turnbull at that time. However, I still decided to make an attempt on Turnbull in the early 90's, but I really had no idea what I was doing. So one day, I turned off of Indian Route 3, and started driving towards Turnbull on a dirt road, but never got more than 10 minutes off the highway before the road got too rough and I had to turn around. That was it for my so-called "attempt". I never even got out of the car. I then dismissed Turnbull as being unclimbable, and basically forgot about it.
Several years later, I discovered that the USGS now had a 7.5 minute topo map of Turnbull available, and I decided to take another look at it. I found what appeared to be a feasible route to the top on the topo map, but I wondered about the access. I knew Turnbull was on the indian reservation, and I didn't know if I could access it. However, I found a telephone number to the reservation, and called them about access to Turnbull. The person I spoke with said I had to buy a recreation permit for hiking, and said it was OK to hike in the Mount Turnbull area. She said there were some restricted areas down near the Gila River, but that was it. It sounded like as long as I bought a permit, everything would be OK. For the first time, I began to think that Mount Turnbull might be climbable.
I decided to take another shot at Mount Turnbull, and asked a friend to go with me, and he agreed. So in November 1999, we headed for Mount Turnbull, unsure of what lay ahead of us. Neither one of us knew anyone who had ever climbed Turnbull before. We stopped by the Permits Office, and bought our recreation permits. Once again, they didn't say anything to us about Turnbull being off-limits. In fact, they didn't say anything to us at all. We just paid our money, and they gave us a hiking permit. They didn't even give us a map of the reservation. As long as we had a permit, it sounded like we could go anywhere. So we headed out towards Turnbull on Indian Route 3.
I had scouted out the access route a few weeks earlier, so this time I knew where to turn off the road. We eventually parked at an elevation of 4,160' just before the road got rougher, and started walking from there. A high clearance vehicle can make it further up the mountain, but we decided to stop. We didn't pass by any signs on the way in, nothing that would indicate that this area is restricted.
We started climbing up the road. It took us all the way up to a parking area at 7,200'. The road was good, and it made for easy climbing. On the way up, we could see the rocky pinnacle of Mount Turnbull far above us. Once we got to the parking area, the road ended. We started heading up through the thick brush. The brush was thick, and the going quickly got tough. However, suddenly we hit a good trail. We weren't sure where it went, but it seemed to go in the right direction, so we followed it. We later found out that the trail begins just before you reach the parking area. The trail appeared to receive minimal use, but it was in pretty good condition. We just followed it up through the thick brush. The trail eventually made its way up to a radio tower facility on top of a knob at 8,040', just west of Mount Turnbull itself. Apparently, the trail is used by horses to access the radio facility. The trail ended at the radio facility, and we had a great view of Turnbull from here. It was less than a mile away.
We descended to a 7,960' saddle between the radio tower and Turnbull. The descent was easy, but just past the saddle, the brush got very thick. We literally had to push our way through it to reach the base of Mount Turnbull itself. At first glance, I wasn't sure if we were going to be able to reach the summit. It was surrounded by rocky cliffs, but as we got closer, I could see a crack in the rock. The crack is Class 3, but it's pretty easy. Once we made it up the crack, we turned left and started climbing up the rock pinnacle towards the top. It was like climbing up a big ramp, and it was pretty easy. Suddenly, we arrived at the top. Our descent was uneventful. No one ever bothered to check our permits.