Dispatches Tagline
Big Dry

Close But No Cigar

Monday, April 12th, 2021: Big Dry, Hikes, Mogollon Mountains, Southwest New Mexico.

Spring had sprung – this would be my first warm-weather hike of the year, so I’d have to start carrying more water. My goal was to try a minor, apparently long-abandoned branch trail into the big canyon system in between two of my regular hikes, in hopes of exploring some spectacular rock formations.

The branch trail starts at a saddle, 4 miles and 2,000′ above the main trailhead. I’d hiked the main trail half a dozen times during the past 2 years, and seen the start of the branch trail, but avoided it because it was listed as impassable. But since then, I’d gotten used to climbing over deadfall and bushwhacking through thickets. And I’d found a website that claimed to have used it three years ago to reach some waterfalls. It was one of only two ways into that big, obviously spectacular canyon system, so it seemed worth trying.

The stream was running briskly on the approach – there was still a little snow on higher slopes – but this would probably be peak flow until the monsoon. Drought has been pretty severe, but in the canyon bottom, flowers were starting and butterflies were abundant. I distinguished at least 4 species.

About midway up the canyon I surprised a young man with a dog. He was in his early-to-mid 20s and was carrying a pack smaller than mine, but he said he’d backpacked over from the opposite side of the mountains – a journey of close to 40 miles. I wanted to ask him how he’d made it so far, carrying supplies for himself and the dog in such a small pack. But he was anxious to discourage me from going farther – he’d had to climb over the deadfall I’ve encountered in the past up on the crest. I think he assumed I was backpacking and I didn’t get a chance to correct him. We wished each other well and parted ways.

At the saddle, I crossed over into the big canyon system – a whole new unexplored world with abundant outcrops of volcanic conglomerate, ranging from white to black. I was immediately surprised to find the old trail abundantly “flagged” with pink ribbon every 50 feet or so. There was good tread, and somebody bigger than me had hiked it recently. But it hadn’t really been cleared – there was still plenty of deadfall and brush growing up in the trail itself.

Still, it was a pretty trail, crossing steep talus slopes, passing in and out of patches of forest that had survived the 2012 wildfire, yielding dramatic views of hoodoos and prominent outcrops.

After more than a mile, the pink ribbons suddenly stopped. I reached a point where deadfall obscured the tread, and the steep ground had been chewed up by elk going both up and down. I consulted the topo map I’d printed off the internet, but it wasn’t detailed enough to help.

I spent a half hour exploring in different directions until I finally found a cairn at the foot of a “needle” rock, 50 feet below the last ribbon. From there, what looked more like a game trail proceeded up canyon. But halfway to the next saddle I saw one more of the big bootprints, so I must be on the right track.

I followed switchbacks down and across the slope until I reached the next saddle, where I found another cairn. Past the cairn, what appeared to be a trail led steeply down to the left, along an outlying ridge. Slipping and sliding down that trail and climbing over a lot of deadfall, I had a view into the head of the canyon system, but the topography was complex and I couldn’t figure it out.

A couple hundred feet below the saddle, the trail was again obscured by deadfall. I spent another half hour exploring in all directions but couldn’t find a way to proceed. I checked the map again but couldn’t figure out where I was. I climbed back to the saddle, but couldn’t see anything better there. My time was up and I had to turn back.

Hindsight is wonderful. By the time I reached the main trail, I’d figured out the topography in the head of the big canyon. At that farthest saddle, where I couldn’t find a way forward, I’d been really close to my destination. If I hadn’t lost so much time scouting for tread, and if I’d done a better job of map-reading, I could’ve easily bushwhacked into the canyon bottom, where two creeks branch off into spectacular slot canyons with numerous waterfalls.

So at least I know what to do next time!

Somewhere in that trail-scouting I managed to strain my left Achilles tendon, so on the 5-plus-miles back to the truck, every uphill stretch had to be done one-legged. And all the loose rock in the trail had be negotiated very, very carefully. And if I forgot, there was severe pain.

1 Comment

Requiem for Andy’s Hat

Monday, May 3rd, 2021: Big Dry, Hikes, Mogollon Mountains, Southwest New Mexico.

The past week had been maddening, and I’d missed my midweek hike. Friday was incredibly stressful and hard on my back, and Saturday I’d barely had a chance to recover. I expected Monday to be another stressful and physically difficult day, so I needed to keep this Sunday’s hike relatively close to home.

After reviewing my options I decided to revisit the hike I’d unsuccessfully attempted 3 weeks earlier, on an abandoned trail into the head of a remote canyon system where there were supposed to be slot canyons, cascades and waterfalls. It featured a high concentration of exposed rock – cliffs and outcrops hundreds of feet tall – and some serious backcountry hikers called it the most beautiful part of the entire range.

There was a late-model Prius at the trailhead, which surprised me, because the road in is long, steep, and rocky – really hard on street tires. The trailhead log showed a party of 2 had started a five-day backpack yesterday, into the very area I was heading for.

Temperatures were in the 60s when I started out, and quickly settled into the 70s. The approach to the abandoned trail drops into the mouth of a canyon, follows it upstream for a few miles, then climbs 2,000′ to a saddle overlooking the next canyon. The modest stream was still mostly running, and the spring season was in full force, with brilliant new foliage glowing in the morning sunlight of the canyon bottom and the first riparian wildflowers opening. Unfortunately there was heavy cattle sign in the first couple of miles from the trailhead – including the biggest cowpies I’d ever seen. Then I encountered the bull. He was resting in the shade of a small meadow beside the trail, and watched me with only mild interest as I walked past.

The climb to the saddle always seems harder than I remember, varying between 15% and 30% grades. GPS on this section of trail shows 4 miles, but ignores the dozens of S-curves in the canyon, so I rate the actual distance at 5 miles – it takes longer than most 5-mile hikes I’ve done.

Finally I topped out at the saddle and could resume the unfinished business of a few weeks ago.

I watched the abandoned trail for the footprints of the backpacking party, but didn’t see any at first. Then I began to notice fresh, bright yellow plastic ribbons on trailside branches, in addition to the older, sun-bleached pink ribbons I’d followed before. These backpackers had flagged the trail themselves – hopefully they’d laid out a route I could follow beyond where the pink ribbons ended.

Now that I knew the trail, it was smooth going until I reached the “needle rock” where I’d bushwhacked off established tread 3 weeks ago. There, the new yellow ribbons followed the same route I’d taken, down and around a couple of outlying ridges, into the final side canyon that led to the bottom of the main canyon.

From my previous attempt, and a cursory glance at topo maps, I’d assumed it was an easy bushwhack down this shallow side canyon, with about 350′ of vertical drop. Boy was I wrong.

The new yellow ribbons ended and were replaced by new pink ribbons, but they didn’t mark out a trail – they just marked out a “route” – which led through thorn thickets pretty much straight down a slope that featured not only thorns but cliffs consisting of loose rock and long stretches of loose dirt at the angle of repose, finally reaching the log-and-boulder-choked gully at the low point of the side canyon – after dropping at least 300 feet and seemingly no closer to the main canyon. I knew this dangerous stretch was going to be super hard to climb on the way back, but once started I was committed.

The next stretch of descent wasn’t flagged – or at least not at first. I lost a lot of time scouting for non-existent ribbons, then tried making my way down the congested gully. That only worked for about a hundred feet. Then I had to re-enter the thorn thickets on the slope above.

Finally, nearing the bottom, I found more pink ribbons – again, with no trail, and leading directly through dense thorn thickets. Then a hundred feet above the main canyon bottom I entered dark conifer forest atop a section of cliffs and boulders that required some technical down-climbing. After that I came upon the stream, in a bend choked with logs. A cliff towered above, and I could barely see the entrance to the “slot canyon” a little ways upstream.

This stream was one of the most robust I’d ever seen in these mountains. It drains a huge area of the crest combining two main tributaries, each of which runs for 4-5 miles before reaching this junction. As in the divide hike I’d done a couple weeks ago, it felt incredibly remote, especially after that grueling hike down the side canyon, which had turned out to be twice as deep as I’d expected.

After all that hard work, I was already running about an hour later than planned. I should turn back immediately, but this place was really beautiful, especially in the dappled shade of the riparian canopy and those towering cliffs, with all that clear, cold water rushing down from the 10,000′ crest.

All the maps showed 4 trails converging here, but none of them had survived the 2012 wildfire. I tried scouting up the opposite bank but found nothing. So I started picking my way upstream using rocks as stepping-stones. Eventually I spotted a game trail on the opposite side that seemed to lead toward the “slot” canyon. I entered it – nearly as big as the main stream – and picked my way through thorn thickets and over stepping stones until I reached an overhanging cliff where I knew I’d have to turn back. I figured at this point I wouldn’t get home until dark, and would end up with a late dinner, quick shower, and bed.

But the bushwhack up the side canyon was probably the most brutal hike I’ve ever done. Overhanging brush kept pushing me back, thorns kept grabbing me, hidden branches kept tripping me, and I often slipped backward trying to climb steep slopes of loose dirt. It took me an hour and a half to go less than half a mile, and at the saddle where I rejoined the actual trail, I was essentially out of water and still had over 6 miles to go, including a climb of almost a thousand feet. I’d brought 3 liters of water as usual in warm weather, plus electrolyte supplement that was supposed to triple the hydration, and the temperature was still only in the 70s. Yikes!

Dehydrated from the climb, I had only enough water for the 2 doses of electrolytes in my pack. During the 2 miles of ascent to the divide saddle, I rationed the first dose of enhanced water, and was really thirsty by the time I reached that saddle. But at least I knew that after a mile of descending the steep trail into the next canyon, there would be a running stream.

I raced down the trail, and as soon as I reached the stream I filled my water bottle, and dug the SteriPen ultraviolet water purifier from my pack. I hadn’t used it for years, but I kept the batteries separate and they were still good. After a few minutes of stirring I had a liter of drinking water.

I drank it slowly to keep from getting sick. A mile down the trail I added the second dose of electrolytes. But I was still dehydrated. I realized that as hard as I’d had to work in that steep bushwhack, I’d end the day having needed almost 6 liters of water. Fortunately I’d brought an extra bottle in the vehicle for the drive home.

2-1/2 miles before the trailhead the cramps hit, in both thighs. I was immobilized with pain for about 5 minutes, then was able to continue stiff-legged until it mostly faded. The canyon was now dark, with only a rim of gold on the highest ridges.

I encountered the bull again, grazing only a couple feet off the trail. I tried to shoo him away but he just stared, so I walked right past him.

After another half mile the cramps hit again, just as I needed to cross a precarious washout at a narrow talus slope. Raising a leg to climb is what triggers these cramps, and that was the move I needed to cross the washout. I ended up stuck there on loose rock, with certain injury if I froze and slipped. I managed to lever myself up with my arms, but then collapsed in pain on the other side.

Finally I got moving again and gradually loosened up. I’d experienced some strong wind gusts at midday, and amazingly, I encountered three big trees that had blown down across the trail while I was hiking in and out of that other canyon: a maple, ponderosa pine, and alligator juniper. The sun was setting as I climbed out of the canyon toward the trailhead, and a large flock of swallows swooped overhead in the dusk, harvesting insects.

I reached the vehicle and drank all the water there. I figured I’d walked at least 14 miles and climbed a total of over 4,200′, which on trails would be a routine 6-7 hour hike. But because of that bushwhacking it’d taken me almost 10 hours. This was one of the hardest hikes of my entire life, and one I was not likely to try again, even as a backpack. At least until I forget how bad it was….

While unpacking at the vehicle, I discovered I’d lost my hat in the final climb out of the canyon to the trailhead. In recent years I’d taken to wearing a bandanna under it to protect it from sweat, but with the bandanna on it was harder to tell whether the hat was actually on my head.

That hat has been precious to me for 35 years, but I felt just about dead and there was no way I was going back. The hat was pretty much worn out anyway. I often wondered who would go first, me or the hat.

It was made in West Africa, and I inherited it in 1985 from Katie, who inherited it from her friend Andy, a filmmaker in Los Angeles. Having lost most its natural oils, it was stiff and tight, and the brim had to be moistened before wearing, in order to fit on my head. I went for years without wearing it, but kept going back to it, treasuring it more and more as I shared more history with it. Where will I find a replacement?

No Comments