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Destroyer of Knees

Monday, December 4th, 2023: Hikes, Mogollon Mountains, Nabours, Southwest New Mexico.

For the past three months, foot trouble had prevented me from doing the high-elevation-gain hikes I crave. But after last Sunday’s successful test, I felt I was ready to up my game. I scanned my eight-page list of hikes but couldn’t find anything exciting within an hour of town – until it struck me that the brutal trail that’d defeated me during our summer heat wave might’ve been cleared during this fall’s season of trail work.

Back then, I’d only been able to hike about three miles of the five-and-a-half miles to a high saddle and major junction. This is a fairly obscure hike I’ve been craving since I recently discovered it on the map, but it’d been a low priority for trail crews, and twelve years of post-fire erosion and regrowth had mostly blocked it and obliterated the old tread, especially in the upper part that traverses steep slopes.

It took me a while to track down reports of recent trail work, but I finally learned that an additional two miles of the trail had been cleared in October. Now the only potential obstacle was runoff – we’d had two storms in the past two weeks, and the high-clearance forest road to the trailhead crosses a creek draining the biggest and highest watershed on the west side of the range. Even if I could cross it early in the morning, by late afternoon it might be a raging flood.

I decided not to take the chance, and instead turn off the highway earlier for a closer, much less interesting hike I’d done many times before and wasn’t excited about today. But all the smaller creeks crossed by the highway on the way up turned out to be dry, so in the event, I kept driving, and when I got to the big creek crossing, it was bone dry – it normally flows underground at this point, and not even the highest afternoon temperatures on previous days had melted enough snow to flood it. Yay!

The first snowfall in these mountains had been two weeks ago, during my road trip to Arizona. And the second had been during the past few days. The temperature in town was just below freezing when I left home, the sky was blue to the horizon in all directions, and as I drove north I could see the snow line on the mountains lay at about 8,000 feet.

But the climb to the top of the long ridge is steep enough that I shed my storm shell, knit cap, and lined gloves on the way. And as I remembered, the climb up the ridge toward the foot of the mountains, mostly exposed through sparse scrub and open pinyon-juniper-oak woodland, is one of the steepest sustained climbs in our region. But I was motivated to see the newly cleared trail ahead. What attracted me to this trail on the map is that it doesn’t mess around – it climbs directly from the lowest to the highest elevations of this most dramatic western side of the range, crossing watersheds at the end, promising spectacular views both west and east.

In the dirt of the ridgetop trail, I found the hoofprints of the equestrian trail crew, two or three bootprints, and tracks I at first thought were from cattle, but soon realized were a bull elk and one or more cows. Like I’ve found elsewhere, they’d used this man-made trail as a quick and easy path to the crest.

The moment of truth came when the previously cleared ridgetop trail entered a maze of deadfall and regrowth near the foot of a steep, rocky upper slope. This is where I’d wasted the better part of an hour unsuccessfully trying to find a route last summer. And sure enough, deadfall logs had been cut, a wide swath of brush had been cleared, and a path lined with loose rock led up the mountain.

Trail workers had cleared a winding path across a couple of steep drainages that had been filled with post-fire debris flows and dense brush, and I knew that path would be washed out again in the next heavy rain. But for now, it led me almost a half mile north across the western slope of the rocky peak above, which temporarily hid the higher peaks from sight. It wasn’t until later, looking up from below, that I discovered the canyon below the long ridge is blocked on the other side of this peak by a sheer rock wall that extends from side to side like a high dam, with only a narrow slot for the creek to drain through. This, and the rock bluffs surrounding the lower peak, is why the trail had to be routed far to the north.

But eventually, the trail took me around a corner into a drainage that would lead, via many switchbacks, back toward the crest. This drainage is in shadow all winter, so the snow from both storms still covered the trail. I’d already climbed 2,500 vertical feet and had amazing views west, across the valley of the San Francisco River, to the rim of the alpine plateau I’d visited on my Arizona trip, and even to the now-snow-covered range ninety miles to the southwest that I’d last climbed in mid-September. This is what excites me about these crest hikes, climbing through a view that encompasses a vast landscape I’ve explored on foot and gotten to know up close as well as from far away.

The trail climbed steeply up this first drainage and reached a broad saddle where there had been a big blowdown – dozens of mature ponderosa pines snapped off at the base or uprooted, all toppling eastward. But the trail snaked its way through them, logs cut by the trail crew where necessary.

Past the blowdown saddle at 8,000 feet, the snow cover became continuous – at first an inch deep, then two. The trail switchbacked up into another steep, north-trending drainage, even darker than before, where snow had accumulated from four to five inches deep, and I was daunted to see the continuation of my trail towering above, cutting clearly through burn scar and talus slope. I’d forgotten to bring my storm pants and gaiters, and snow was soaking into the cuffs of my canvas pants.

It was here, in the deeper snow, that I discovered one previous hiker, a bigger man, had hiked this far in the past two weeks, between snowfalls, because his tracks had been filled in by last week’s storm but were still faintly visible. But his tracks ended at the last talus slope, which I had to cross very carefully because the snow hid the deep cracks between rocks. And past that, in an eroded gully, the rebuilt tread ended.

This is a situation I’ve learned from several different mountain ranges and national forests – initially, trail crews scout far ahead, flagging a route, and even doing cursory clearing of brush and cutting of smaller logs. Then during a formal work party, they return with more people and gear to clear everything and rebuild tread, but only up to a shorter distance. A hiker can continue beyond the rebuilt trail, as long as you can find the pink ribbons, which can be far apart and hard to see.

Beyond that gully, the route switchbacked and traversed a sunny, snow-free slope up a shallower drainage, then, on a short stretch of surviving, snow-covered tread partly blocked by deadfall logs, ascended what appeared to be the last slope to the crest. At this point I was beside myself with anticipation of a never-before-seen view.

Pink ribbons led me into a thicket on the crest, where I found myself with a view across the head of the canyon I’d started out in today, nearly five miles and 4,000 vertical feet below. I could see the peak whose shoulder I’ve climbed many times on one of my other favorite hikes, but I couldn’t seen the interior summit crest of the range, which is what I’d been hoping for.

East of the thicket I stood in lay a steep, rocky, trackless slope covered with stubby scrub oak and deadfall. I could see another pink ribbon in the distance, and it appeared that by traversing that slope for a few hundred yards, I might round another corner and get a view toward the heart of the range.

There was no trail left, but I found the fresh prints of the elk, so I just followed them from ribbon to ribbon. They led to a rock outcrop which was almost too good to be true: it was like a viewing platform for the highest peaks of the range, laid out before me in their fire-scoured, snow-blanketed majesty.

About three hundred feet below I glimpsed another red ribbon, in the saddle which led to the trail junction. And at my feet were piles of elk scat, which was so fresh – still moist – they had to have been there earlier today. Due to the steep grade and the snow, it had taken me more than four hours to go five miles. But this was already one of my favorite hikes.

In fact, with a nearly fifteen percent average grade, this is the steepest major trail in any of the mountain ranges in my region. That became painfully clear on the descent, when I struggled to walk slow enough to protect my foot and knees.

But in stretches where the grade decreased, I was able to study the view to the west, trying to identify peaks I’d climbed or driven past. The landscape was all laid out for me, but much of it remained a puzzle until later, when I could study a large-scale topo map.

The final traverse of the newly cleared trail took place in the full light of the setting sun, and I had to stop to take off my sweater and thermal bottoms. In the process of taking off my snow-soaked pants, I got my socks wet and had to change into the spare pair I always carry. I’d developed a sharp pain in my right knee and wondered how bad it would get – I still had over 2,000 vertical feet to descend.

The answer is, pretty bad. Halfway down the long ridge I strapped on the knee brace – my heavy pack is permanently loaded with first aid and other emergency gear for situations like this. That ridge always seems to go on forever, but with the brace, I was able to reach the vehicle about fifteen minutes after the sun sank behind the western horizon of the river valley. Ending hikes in pain is a fact of life now, but in this case, I guess it was worth it.

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Close, But No Cigar

Monday, November 27th, 2023: Hikes, Pinos Altos Range, Southwest New Mexico.

My problem foot had turned out okay after last Sunday’s hike – probably because I was wearing the stiffer winter boots – but I still wanted to work my way gradually up to longer and steeper walks. So this Sunday I was looking for something more than 12 miles but with less than 2,500 feet of elevation gain, and no prolonged steep grades. That’s a big ask around here – all the level ground within an hour of town is private land, hence all the nearby trails climb mountains.

There was really only one option – the boring north-south segment of the national trail I’d done twice before. I was still hoping to link it with the segment I hike from the opposite direction, but wasn’t optimistic – it would involve more than 20 miles out and back. No way would I accomplish that today.

Especially when I discovered my driver’s side door lock had frozen overnight. I had to let myself in the passenger side, then clamber over the center console and shift lever in my big winter boots, start the vehicle and run the heater for 20 minutes before the lock would operate. And while waiting, clamber back out and scrape frost off the windows.

Then on the drive, I had so much on my mind that I passed the turnoff and drove up into the eastern mountains for another 10 miles until I realized my mistake. After turning around, I finally reached the trailhead 45 minutes later than usual.

The climb to the ridgetop was scenic as usual. The sky was mostly clear, with bands of clouds hanging over the horizon, and although the temperature was in the 20s, the climb generated a lot of heat and I kept shedding layers.

Once you reach the ridgetop, it’s just a trudge through forest, with occasional boring views, about 7 miles to a little-used forest road. Birds were active, but I only recognized jays, flickers, quail, and juncos. I did find smallish bear tracks in snow that had fallen the day before.

I was giving myself 8 hours, and I reached the forest road with an hour to spare. And my foot seemed to be doing okay, so I would continue and see how close I could get to linking the two segments of trail.

Past the road, the trail began climbing steadily. I knew from the topo map that it was approaching a ridge that curved around the watershed of a creek – the other side being the segment I’d hiked from the opposite direction. Eventually I reached the ridgetop, and was rewarded with an unexpected 180 degree view, from the 9,000 foot high point of the range I was in, to 9,300 foot Black Mountain, 55 miles north, and the 10,200 foot crest of the eastern range, 35 miles east. My time was up, but despite not closing the chain, I’d reached a worthy destination. I figured I’d gone more than 8 miles, and felt pretty damn good.

But as usual, the descent of that long ridge seemed endless, and before the halfway point my entire lower body was aching. About three miles from the trailhead I encountered a couple about my age, with a dog, just starting up the trail. The sun was setting, and they were only carrying day packs, so I asked how far they planned to go. “We’ll turn around soon,” the man said. “We’re just trying to work off that Thanksgiving dinner.”

I was able to reach the vehicle before full dark without using my headlamp, but I worried about them. The lower half mile of the trail is like a maze. A full moon was rising but only sporadically penetrated the tall ponderosa pines.

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Escape to Winter, Part 2

Tuesday, November 21st, 2023: 2023 Trips, Baldy, Hikes, Mogollon Rim, Regions, Road Trips, Southeast Arizona, Whites.

Previous: Part 1

I woke up Monday to dense fog and a dusting of snow here at 8,400′. The temperature was 27 and forecast to reach 37. I hadn’t hiked yesterday – in fact, I hadn’t had a good hike in three weeks, partly because my foot condition had returned after five years pain-free. Despite the weather, I was determined to get out into this spectacular alpine landscape.

I knew there’d be more snow at higher elevations – my favorite hike reaches 11,200′. The highway to the trailhead is closed in winter, and the shortcut from town to the highway is a steep and narrow dirt road. I decided to do a lower-elevation canyon hike I’d started once but never finished.

But I packed my winter gear, and shortly after leaving the motel, I saw the turnoff for the dirt shortcut, and swerved into it. I’d never hiked in these mountains in snow before, so I just had to try it!

I found an untracked inch of snow on the dirt road, up to 9,000′, where the highway had 2 inches. Snow was falling lightly, and the direction I was going had been plowed earlier. I was in 4wd and braked to test the traction before continuing.

When I reached the trailhead parking lot, it was untracked, but as I pulled on my pack and insulated Goretex gloves and started off, I heard an engine. It was the snowplow, returning to clear the highway in the opposite direction.

The trailhead is 9,400′, so I knew the temperature had to be in the low 20s. The only tracks in this fresh snow were from animals – elk, fox, cottontail, squirrel, something smaller.

The first mile and a half skirts the long meadows and bogs that cover the level ground on this volcanic plateau, passing in and out of small stands of spruce-fir forest. This was the first time I could remember seeing the meadows in their winter colors.

The first couple of miles of this trail see a lot of traffic in warmer weather, and I stumbled a lot because the snow hid irregularities like rocks, erosional ruts, and footprints in frozen mud. It would be even worse in deeper snow at higher elevations. My goal was at least to reach the spectacular viewpoint on the ridgetop. I was moving slow and making a lot of stops to enjoy a landscape renewed by snow.

When I reached the last clear stretch before entering the main forest, I could see what the snow was doing to the rock formations. I was in for a real treat!

The trail climbs about 3/4 mile through magical old-growth alpine forest before reaching the cliffs. Almost every aspen I passed had someone’s initials in its bark, but in this snow, silence, and solitude I was truly a pioneer.

Many of these photos appear to be black-and-white – but they were all taken in color!

At the foot of the cliffs, the trail switches back to traverse to the ridgetop. This is one of the most spectacular stretches of forest I’ve ever found, and as with everything else, the snow made it new.

I knew the overlook would be socked in with fog, but who cared? The snow up here at 10,200′ ranged from 3-5 inches deep, easily walkable without needing my gaiters. But the undulating bedrock surfaces had been smoothed over by snow, so I had to take special care in climbing to the edge of the cliff.

Having made it this far, I wanted to at least reach the second mass of exposed rock, about a mile farther up the ridge. That turned out to be a slow mile, with traverses of steep slopes where I could easily lose my footing and slide hundreds of feet down the mountain.

After arriving, I was especially wary of crossing this outcrop, since the route is unclear and the footing precarious even when clear of snow. But I carefully made it across, and with most of the day left, decided to keep going.

Past that last outcrop, it’s all alpine forest to the crest of the mountain. I would just keep going until I figured it was time to turn back.

But shortly after entering the forest I came to blowdown across the trail. I knew some of it had been there on my last visit, two years ago in August, and at first it was easy to step over. But I ran into more, and much worse, ahead. To avoid sliding off snow-covered logs, I ended up having to make long zigzagging detours.

After bypassing dozens of these fallen logs, I finally reached the edge of a burn scar. My time was almost up, and the burn scar would allow me to log a GPS waypoint so I would know how far I’d gone.

I hadn’t reached the crest, but I knew I’d gone almost five miles. In snow, that’s worth 50% more! And what a place! I can think of few places that would be as magical in snow.

The fog was lifting, so when I reached the viewpoint I could see past the cloud cover to the center of the plateau, with a sliver of blue sky.

I was wearing my winter boots, which offer maximum support. But on the way down, I could tell I’d done more damage to my foot. Only time will tell if I’ll be able to resume hiking this winter.

When I checked the map back in the room, I found I’d reached 10,600′. And by morning the weather had cleared, so while taking the long way home east across the plateau, I stopped for a view of the mountain I’d partially climbed.

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Escape to Winter, Part 1

Sunday, November 19th, 2023: 2023 Trips, Mogollon Rim, Regions, Road Trips.

Suffering from burnout, I needed to get away from the problems that surround me at home. My favorite mountain getaway over in Arizona would be cold, but as a result, the cheap motel would have vacancies. I could hike in the daytime, and in the evenings I could get restaurant meals – something I never get at home since we lost all our decent restaurants during COVID. Normally the only time I eat out is during my semi-annual visits with family back east.

The weather up there was forecast to be dry. But as I drove north the sky was full of towering cumulus clouds, past the halfway point it got positively threatening, and I hit rain in the high passes. It was cold enough that I switched into 4wd to keep from spinning off into a cliff or a canyon.

By the time I reached the motel, it was almost full dark and the office was closed. My room was unlocked, but when I opened the door a heavy wave of artificial fragrance poured out. Entering, I sniffed the bed, but it smelled fine. The odor simply filled the air, and I couldn’t tell where it was coming from. It was too cold to air out the room, so I drove to the restaurant for dinner – which included one of the best malbecs I’ve ever had.

When I returned, my allergies were triggered by the odor, and I discovered I’d forgotten my antihistamine and nasal spray – something I can’t remember ever doing before. I faced a night of no relief in this very remote place.

Adding insult to injury, I soon had a headache, and the normally complete and peaceful silence was disturbed by a rhythmic screeching noise, like an unoiled pump. I couldn’t figure out where that was coming from, either. I was exhausted enough to fall asleep, but I woke a few hours later and spent the rest of the night tossing and turning.

In the morning, the sky was perfectly blue and everything outside was covered in a thick layer of frost. I walked over to the office and found they open an hour later in winter. In the meantime, I would drive the 20 minutes to the nearest supermarket for antihistamine.

But by the time I got dressed for the drive, the sky was completely covered by low clouds and it was snowing!

The drive wasn’t wasted, though. I was rewarded with multiple rainbows and sightings of the bighorn sheep that were introduced here decades ago, frequenting the shallow canyons that wind through this volcanic alpine plateau.

When I returned to the motel office I met the new owners. The couple looked and sounded like urban hipsters in their late 40s or early 50s, and I guessed they’d seen this place on visits from Phoenix over the years, and decided to relocate and invest in a modest resort, planning to renovate and increase the rates for more profit.

In any event, they seemed shocked when I told them the fragrance was a problem. They said they’d installed devices in all the rooms that emit fragrance continually. I know I’m not the only person bothered by artificial fragrance – every supermarket carries fragrance-free and hypoallergenic products – but we seem to be an aberration in Arizona. They were anxious to help, though – they said I could simply search the electrical outlets to find the device, unplug it and air out the room. They said the screeching sound was probably the well pump, in a shed outside the motel, and I suggested it might need lubricating.

Next: Part 2

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Lonely Tower

Monday, October 23rd, 2023: Chiricahuas, Hikes, Silver, Southeast Arizona.

I started this Sunday with a conflict between need and desire. I needed to go easier on my problem foot, but I desired to see some fall color, which would most likely occur at higher elevation – entailing lot of climbing. None of my options were good, so my departure was delayed 90 minutes while I tried to make up my mind. Fortunately, the hike I settled on was in Arizona, where I would get an hour back crossing the state line. And although it involves a strenuous climb, it’s shorter than my usual Sunday hikes. I told myself I could take it slow to protect my foot.

The sky was clear, and the high was forecast to be in the mid-80s at the bottom. It was in the 70s when I set out, but it already felt like the 80s in the sun, and the first mile is exposed, as you climb above the northeast valley. The only tracks I saw were from the small herd of equines that grazes the lower slope, which surprised me, since this is the most popular trail in the area and fall is peak hiking season.

This trail, which I’ve hiked four times before, ascends the northeast and north slopes of a massif that stands alone surrounded by valleys, which are themselves surrounded by higher ridges. The top is essentially a lookout post for the entire northeast part of the mountain range, and in the past, a fire lookout was built and used up there. It’s a pretty hike with a lot of exposed rock and dramatic transitions between habitats.

Finally, as I left the foothills to traverse the northeast slope of the mountain, I got a little intermittent breeze and my mood improved.

After climbing over 1,200 vertical feet, you turn a corner away from the northeast valley and into a big ravine that runs down between the twin peaks of the mountain. From here you view the northwest skyline of the range. And here I found my fall color, tucked into a corner of the steep ravine. You can also see your destination from here, high above to the southwest.

Long traverses and many switchbacks take you up into the cleft of the ravine, where you pass through a small stand of firs. The outer slopes are lined with oaks and pinyon pine, but these firs survive in the narrow ravine that channels cool air to lower elevations.

Past the ravine you traverse higher up the north slope until you enter the small fir forest that clings to the steep north slope of the peak, which tops out just over 8,000 feet. There, the trail passes behind towers of stone and begins a series of ten switchbacks that take you to the crest. I always find this stretch challenging, regardless of my conditioning.

The summit ridge is like a knife edge, making for a dramatic climax to all those switchbacks. The big basin south of this mountain is suddenly laid out for you. And at the west end of the ridge are the vertiginous stairs that lead to the abandoned foundation of the lookout.

The weather was perfect up there. I really hated to leave, and procrastinated as much as I could. Interestingly, the summit register showed a lot of visitors, even during the hottest days of our summer heat wave, up until ten days ago. Despite being perfect weather, this was the first time I’d made this climb without running into other people.

On the descent, just as I left the fir forest something small and dark flitted out of the low grass and annuals on the slope next to the trail – I first thought it was a butterfly. But it dove into a clump of bunchgrass, and kept hopping about, clinging for less than a second to the dead stalk of an annual then hopping to the ground. And so forth. I was some kind of tiny bird, barely bigger than a hummingbird, keeping within less than a foot of the ground, moving so often I couldn’t focus the camera on it. I stood there trying to snap pictures as it hopped to and fro only four or five feet away, completely ignoring me.

After descending the other three series of switchbacks and traversing out of the steep ravine, I found myself back in the northeast valley, with the sun casting long shadows. Here, I’m always dazzled by the colors of dying agaves.

At the base of the foothills, nearing the trailhead, I came upon the horses and mules. My foot was sore, but not as bad as on other hikes since I started changing my gait. I sure wish my podiatrist hadn’t retired!

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