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Cookes Range

Climbing the Spire

Monday, October 7th, 2019: Cookes Range, Hikes, Southwest New Mexico.

First Visit: October

Local Landmark

I live on the southern edge of a vast mountainous zone extending at least 250 miles from east to west. But the peaks of this zone are uniformly rounded and undifferentiated. Our horizon consists of nothing but long ridges and gentle humps – nothing like the craggy, dramatic peaks we associate with the Rockies, the Sierra, the Tetons, the Alps, or the Andes. With one exception.

The landmark peak of our region features a dramatic granodiorite spire, dominating its small mountain range, which stands isolated in the midst of a high-desert plain southeast of here.

Conflicting Information

One of the first locals I met said he’d climbed it with friends in his youth. I had mountain-climbing aspirations in my own youth, but my focus had shifted, and now I was more interested in wildlife, watersheds, habitats, and ecosystems. My hikes usually led me to the top of a peak, but only to gain the views that would put my ecological knowledge in the context of the surrounding landscape.

Still, I’d read up on this peak when I first arrived, and the hike sounded daunting. I got it in my head that you should never try it alone. I’d heard it was something like a 12-mile round-trip with thousands of feet of elevation gain and technical rock climbing skills needed to get to the top, and if you started at dawn, you still might not make it back down by sunset.

However, despite its prominence as a local landmark, it wasn’t really that tall. The mountains I normally climb range from 8,000′ to 10,000′ – this was on the low end at 8,400′, and it wasn’t forested, so it didn’t have the habitat diversity of the taller peaks.

But it’s less than 40 miles away as the crow flies, and it was hard to ignore as I continued to look for new weekend challenges, so eventually I resumed my online research. The range wasn’t part of a national forest – it was managed by the BLM – and although there was a long record of people climbing the peak, the trail was not formally maintained, and both maps and directions differed widely from source to source. The only thing they all agreed on was the main access road. This county-maintained gravel road led in from the south, which would add a half hour or so to my drive.

Regarding the granitic spire at the top, sources said it requires either a Class 2+ or Class 3+ “scramble” to ascend, and everyone recommended not looking down, to avoid vertigo. Sources differed widely on the hiking distance – from 5 miles to 12 miles round trip – but they agreed roughly on the elevation gain: 2,600′ to 3,000′ cumulative. The differences apparently had to do with how close you could drive to the trailhead, on a newly-created BLM dirt road that was very bad and absolutely requires high clearance and 4wd.

The mountaineering class system is Greek to me – I’ve been climbing rocks and peaks for over 40 years without using it. Apparently Class 2 means scrambling up a steep incline, using your hands from time to time. Class 3 involves “moderate exposure” to a fall, carrying a rope for backup, and using your hands full-time. Hiking alone in the sandstone canyons of Utah, I often run into situations that I know I could handle, but don’t feel comfortable trying without other people to back me up. All of these situations involve using my hands full-time, but I have no idea where they rate on the Class system, nor am I interested. I just figured I would make a judgement call when I got up there, and if I didn’t feel comfortable climbing the last hundred feet or so to the top, so be it. Thank God my self-esteem doesn’t depend on things like that.

I got a reasonably early start for a Sunday, finishing my domestic chores and leaving home before 10am, but because I had to drive 10 miles past the mountain range and loop around east and north again, it ended up being a late start to the hike. The sky was fairly clear and the air was warming back toward the 80s in the high desert foothills where I would start the hike, and it was very windy when I arrived in the range. I mainly worried about high winds on the peak blowing my precious straw hat to kingdom come. If it came to that I’d just have to stow it in my pack.

The roads got more confusing the farther back I went, passing occasional cattle and isolated stock tanks in broad grassy basins that narrowed into shallow canyons embraced by the foothills. I didn’t see a house anywhere, but I eventually came to a corral and a locked gate. I’d brought the conflicting directions with me and compared them with what I encountered on the ground, and finally figured out which turn to take onto the BLM road.

That road provided the first serious test of my 4wd Sidekick. It was exceedingly rocky and deeply eroded, with patches of loose sand between the rocks – very slow going – but the Sidekick was more than up to it.

Online sources seemed to agree that you could cut up to 3 miles off your round-trip distance by driving this road to the “4wd trailhead,” but by 12 noon, more than two hours from home, I was well past where this trailhead should’ve been. I came to a stock tank with a disabled windmill and solar pump, and pulled off the road. I figured I might’ve passed the “trailhead,” but in any event it was time to stop driving and start walking. It turned out the trailhead, unmarked but obvious, was another half mile up the road.

Cairns and Cowpies

The trail begins as an abandoned mining road, eroded into a shallow gully, that leads from the more recent BLM road straight up an alluvial fan to the foothills. It’s marked by hundreds of cairns – one disgruntled online peakbagger said it was “over-cairned” – and in general this amateur trail is much better than most of the government-maintained trails I hike. Entering the foothills, it ascends a steep, narrow canyon, through dense brush, juniper, gambel oak, and pinyon pine, toward the left shoulder of the spire. The canyon bottom and surrounding slopes are very rocky, with many sheer cliffs that make bushwhacking off the trail virtually impossible.

There was a little water draining from the peak most of the way down the canyon – the higher I got, the more water I found seeping out of the rock cliffs – but there was also a lot of cowshit all the way to the crest of the range. BLM: Bureau of Livestock and Mining. Despite how wild it looks in the pictures, it felt less like wildlife habitat than most places I hike, and more like a big hilly ranch.

It was a steep, steady climb, with fewer switchbacks than most agency-designed trails, but it was such a high-quality trail that I was able to make pretty good time anyway. With the spire looming high above me most of the way, eventually I came into the grassy meadow of a saddle below the peak. Here, an old barbed-wire fence, mostly intact, delineated the rangeland on the east and west sides of the mountains. And here the trail failed me, at least temporarily. Cattle had made tracks in all directions across this saddle, and cairns were few and far between. By scouting around as usual, I was finally able to pick up the trail again. I was a little concerned about finding my way back, but as it turned out, I wasn’t concerned enough.

Scramble in the Sky

Getting closer to the peak, I was wondering more and more if I’d be able to handle the classified “scramble” up the rock face. Looking up from the high saddle, I thought I could guess what would be the easiest place to scale the bare rock. But it was still farther away than I thought.

From the saddle, the trail got much steeper, rockier, and more precarious. Midway to the spire there was a fifty-foot rock face I crossed, using a narrow crack, and halfway across, clinging to the bare rock, I encountered a baby rattlesnake hiding in a fissure. It got really upset and I had to find a way around it.

If I had looked down at times like this, I could’ve easily freaked myself out. After all, I was clinging to bare rock 3,500′ above the desert floor. But that never turned out to be a problem. I’ve always been a good climber and my concentration up there was as solid as ever.

Finally I got to the penultimate scramble. The cairns leading me up from the saddle had been plentiful, and I could see they continued up this slanting crack in the side of the spire. It definitely required both hands and feet, and I decided to leave my pack at the base of the rock, so I wouldn’t have to worry as much about balance. Then I started up.

It’s funny – like I said, while I was climbing, I didn’t look down. But I can see from the photo I took while climbing that despite the putative classification of 2 or 3, you are totally exposed to risk of death while climbing this spire! If you fall, you are not just injured – you die, bouncing down hundreds of feet before your battered carcass gets stopped by some bush.

But for me, the climb itself was easy, and I didn’t feel like I was taking unnecessary risk. And at the top, there are gentle talus slopes to cross, again marked by cairns, to get to the actual peaks. There are two, a lower south peak and the higher north peak, which has the only actual 360 degree view in our region.

The wind had died down and the weather was perfect up there. I spent a half hour or so soaking it all in. I signed the log, and discovered I was the first person up there in the past ten days. Then I scrambled carefully back down to the grassy saddle. Which is where the day started going horribly wrong.

Descent Into Perdition

I thought I had a pretty good idea of how the trail crossed the grassy saddle. But after easily following the cairns down from the peak, I suddenly found myself at the old fence, with no more trail and no more cairns.

I scouted around briefly, then crossed the fence at a low point and continued down a gentle slope toward the ridge I thought I had come up earlier. Still no more cairns and no more trail. I kept going down because I was sure I would cross the trail before I got to the ridge.

I spotted something that looked like a trail off to the left. I followed it farther down the ridge, and soon encountered a cairn. Great! I kept going, and the “trail” petered out. There were no more cairns.

I was on a steep knife-edge ridge above a deep, dark canyon, which I assumed was the canyon I’d followed to get up here in the first place. I found narrow trails with no cairns, and followed them for short distances, but they all turned out to be cattle or game trails, ending in thick brush.

The sun was going down, I had a 3 or 4 mile down-hike ahead of me, and even after I reached my vehicle, I would still be two hours from home. I was literally at the head of the canyon I believed I had come up, and although I wasn’t crazy about bushwhacking down a steep, rocky slope through dense scrub, I was sure that sooner or later I would encounter the trail. So I started down.

Emotionally, it was a little like jumping off a cornice on skis. You know you should be scared shitless, but you give in to the voice inside you that just says “Jump!” But here, instead of landing on snow, I was trying to maintain my balance on sharp rocks and boulders piled randomly and hidden under a maze of branches and foliage. I could at least console myself that I was wearing new boots with something called an “Ankle Bone Support System.”

I had to stay constantly focused, using both hands and struggling with the balance of my pack, as the canyon became more and more canyon-like the farther down I went. Oaks and junipers closed in and were joined by riparian trees and shrubs, and I had to shimmy under and between low branches, while constantly watching out for hidden rocks and boulders underfoot. Surprisingly, no matter how steep and rocky the slope, no matter how thick and trackless the vegetation, cattle had always been there before me. Down and down I went, but whenever I peered out through the vegetation I seemed just as high above the valley where my vehicle was parked. And there was still no sign of a trail.

I often wondered if I wouldn’t be better off getting out of this narrow, tree-choked gully and traversing the sides of the canyon. But the canyon itself was the fastest way downhill; traversing the slopes would slow my descent. What really worried me was that I’d get caught between sheer cliffs and a pour-off, a dropoff that I wouldn’t easily be able to get around.

I never did. But likewise, I never found the trail. I didn’t seem to be getting any closer to the bottom, and the sun was still going down. It was really dark in that congested canyon. A year ago, when injuries and disabilities had eroded my confidence, I might’ve panicked at some point during that desperate descent. But I’ve been testing myself on difficult all-day solo hikes in remote places on a weekly basis for the past year, and I knew that panic was not an option. I briefly considered the possibility of having to spend the night in that nasty place. There were occasional ledges with tiny clearings. But I’d have to build a fire and spend the whole night sitting in front of it, shivering. I just kept going.

In one particularly challenging passage, I was climbing down a pile of sharp boulders and working my way through a maze of branches when my knee hit the point of a big rock and both hands reached out in opposite directions for something to steady myself on. I felt my left hamstring tweaking and my palms abraded by bark as my torso twisted in place, burdened by my pack. My thigh cramped up and the space was too tight to straighten my leg. It took me a few minutes to get out of that position, my whole leg throbbing. I thought I’d injured myself, but I knew that wasn’t an option. I had to keep going. So I ignored my burning hands and got my leg stretched out over a low limb, and took as many deep breaths as it required to relieve the cramping. And then I kept going downhill, through more mazes, taking big deep breaths and trying to concentrate even harder on where I was stepping.

After more than an hour of this, the canyon began to open out. I could see more of the valley below, and I looked up over my left shoulder for the distinctive spire. It wasn’t there! I suddenly realized that the canyon I’d climbed down was not the canyon I’d started up. The trail was a half mile away, in a completely different drainage. But in my favor, although I still had a long distance to bushwhack down this canyon, it should actually come out closer to my vehicle.

Eventually the slope alongside the canyon was gentle enough that I left the canyon bottom to hike down the open slope. But it wasn’t much easier – it looked grassy from a distance but was actually made up of randomly embedded rocks that I had to constantly watch for and step over or around. It was very slow walking.

I followed this slope down toward the valley for what seemed like ages. I still couldn’t see either the road or my vehicle. But finally, after crossing through a small pinyon-juniper forest, I spotted a segment of the road that I remembered. It was still far away, on the other side of the valley, but it was something.

I reached a heavily grazed part of the slope that was deeply eroded by gullies I had to cross, one by one, while swerving back and forth to avoid clumps of thorny mesquite. I lost sight of the road, but I suddenly spotted my vehicle, far off to the east. There seemed to be a deep canyon between us, so I tried to avoid it, veering to the left, but that just led me into more eroded gullies. Up and down, around and around. I was about to give up on finding the road when Voila! it appeared right in front of me.

I only had another half mile of road now before I’d reach my vehicle. The sun was just dropping behind the spire, on the western ridge, when I finally got there. Now all that remained was the perilous drive down the 4wd road – my Sidekick bottomed out once on a jutting boulder – and the long drive out the county road to the highway, and to the nearest town, where I hoped to get dinner sometime after dark.

Second Visit: April

Haunted By Bulls

Since my weekly hiking program hit the 20-mile, 6,000′ threshold, I’ve had to expand the radius in which I search for long weekend hikes to meet the goal. Hikes with at least 3,000′ of cumulative elevation gain are the target, and they’re all at least an hour’s drive from home.

On Sunday morning, when I considered my options, there were really only three that were reasonably close. One I had hiked last weekend, and I avoid hiking the same trail two weeks in a row. Another exceeds 9,000′ elevation, where deep snow could still be a problem. The only one left was the Spire, which tops out at 8,400′, an hour and a half away.

My only real concerns with this hike would be the presence of cattle, and the lack of clear trail across the high saddle. I didn’t want to repeat my desperate thrash down that steep ravine when I lost the trail on my first visit. It’s weird that this social trail has such a gap there, while all the rest of the trail is over-marked. And I’m never really excited about hiking in overgrazed terrain trampled and shat on by beeves. But I figured I could mark my way across the saddle with sticks or cairns or something clear enough to find my way back. And the cattle I’d just have to put up with.

The sky was mostly clear, and mid-day temperatures in the canyon bottom would be in the 70s. I arrived in the canyon earlier than expected, so I parked my vehicle near the start of the rough 4wd road and began walking the road itself, in order to increase my overall hiking distance and elevation gain.

The first thing I noticed was a couple of black cattle on the side of a hill, a couple hundred feet off to my left. One was lying down, but it immediately stood up when it saw me, and they both stood staring at me with great interest. They were both clearly males, and I interpreted this as bull behavior; cows or steers will usually either ignore you or start moving away. I’m paranoid about bulls because I’ve been charged or pursued by bulls in remote places, three different times during the past 30 years.

But that was always either solitary bulls, or bulls defending a herd. These guys were hanging out together, away from the herd, and may have just been young buddies. I kept walking, which gradually took me farther away from them, and they stayed put, while remaining vigilant. I passed the herd of cows and calves farther up the road. I knew they’d move around during the day, while I was up there hiking, and I hoped I didn’t return later to find the bulls blocking my way to the vehicle. But I’d deal with that when the time came.

Tower of Wind

I trudged up the 4wd road, winding around, down into, and up out of deep gullies. Picking my way over and around loose boulders and sharp ledges in the rough roadway, I finally reached the abandoned windmill where I’d parked the last time. A trickle of water was leaking out of the big stock tank and draining down into the ruts of the dirt road. I continued another 1/2 mile to the fork, and from there to the deeply eroded beginning of the trail to the Spire. My shirt and pants were coated with tiny winged insects that I brushed off from time to time.

Where the trail entered the mountains, there was a stream, running heavier than last time, and thick with algae and moss. I hadn’t seen any human tracks, but cattle had been up, maybe a week ago, pounding deep pits in the trail and shitting in the creek as usual.

The trail up to the ridge was much harder than I remembered it. It just seemed to be a steady 20-30% grade, exhausting, requiring regular stops to catch my breath. As with other recent Sunday hikes, I wondered if I’d give up and turn back before reaching the top.

There were butterflies and birds everywhere, but I was working too hard to pay much attention. Finally I reached the ridgetop, but that just led to another difficult traverse that I’d forgotten about.

When I reached the high saddle, and the trail disappeared as before, I started leaving sticks as markers to find my way back. It took me a while to find my way to the base of the super-steep hill that leads to the base of the Spire.

The wind, which had been gusty all the way up, was howling up there, and bitterly cold. I pulled my shell jacket out of the pack, put it on, and cinched down the hood. And then I started up.

This part feels like something out of the Lord of the Rings – you’re up in the sky, hoisting your way over tall, narrow steps of stone, between the piercing spines of cacti and yucca, feeling like an insect up there with the rest of the world laid out far below you.

It gets steeper and rockier as you go, until finally you face a rock wall that’s about 30 feet tall, with a zigzagging crack you have to climb. And that leads to the second wall, about 5 times as tall, with its own crack, ending at the talus slopes that surround the actual Spire.

I braced myself against that wind on the peak. Cliff swallows zoomed right past my head as I looked back down at the path I’d taken. I thought I could spot my vehicle, more than 2 miles away as the crow flies. And I could see a big white truck, parked farther up the 4wd road, a more recent arrival. I thought about the bulls and wondered what was waiting for me. I had a long hike back.

I pulled the log out of its jar in the summit cairn, and was surprised by the number of visitors in the past month. Especially since the only prints I’d seen on the trail had been from cattle, and none of them were recent.

Stuck in the Mud

From the Spire, the way down looks much more perilous than it really is. But it’s still a long, steep trail with a million loose rocks, and the piercing blades and spines of yucca and cactus.

I finally reached the 4wd road, and rounding a bend, saw the big white truck up ahead, and a couple of people doing something around it. It turned out they were stuck, with their big truck set exactly at 90 degrees blocking the road, and their back tires in a rut, in a little patch of mud from the leaking stock tank. They’d taken an ATV off the truck bed and it was parked on the bank above the road, just behind the open tailgate.

There was a man, maybe in his early 50s, and what I initially took for his daughter. But on a closer look, she might’ve been his younger wife. They were arguing about what to do, and neither one of them seemed to have any experience with this kind of situation. It was a 2wd truck and the tires were nearly bald. The guy said he’d been trying to turn around, but he’d clearly picked a terrible spot to do that, with a steep bank behind and a steep slope ahead of the truck. He said he’d let some air out of the rear tires, and I said not to let out any more or the tires could puncture. The woman was just standing there watching and looking worried.

“There’s some boards and other junk up around that old windmill,” I said, pointing up the slope.

The guy shook his head. “I don’t know what to do!”

I took a closer look at the tire, then glanced around at the disturbed ground below the stock tank. The rut wasn’t deep, nor was the mud, and the ground was rock hard all around. The rear tires weren’t even dug in – they were just sitting there in the little puddle. The only problem was the steepness of the bank behind the tires.

“What you need is a bunch of smaller rocks, laid out both in front and behind the rear tires. Just something to give you enough traction to get out of that rut, without destroying your tires.” I started gathering up little rocks and laying them in front and behind the tires. They just stood there watching me, seemingly clueless.

I knew it wouldn’t take much. After gathering and laying out a couple of small patches of rocks, I said, “That should do it. Just gun the engine. Once you’re out of that mud, you’re okay.”

He climbed in the cab and revved the engine, looking out the passenger window at me. But his tires weren’t even turning. “Are you in gear?” I asked. He looked down and blushed, reaching to disengage the emergency brake.

Then he gunned the engine, the tires immediately found traction on my rocks, and the truck took off out of the mud and up the dry dirt slope, where he parked it and got out.

“Yay!” cried the woman. “Thanks!” said the guy. “I’d give you a big hug if it wasn’t for this damn virus.”

“What’s up there?” he asked, looking up the road the way I’d come.

“I was just climbing the peak,” I said, pointing to the Spire.

“No, what about caves, and mines? That’s what we’re looking for.”

“I don’t know about caves. I’m sure there’s mines. This road seems to go all the way over the mountains, but I don’t think you should be driving it with that truck and those tires.”

I wished them luck and continued on my way. The little herd of cattle were grazing nearer to the road, but they ignored me, and there was no sign of bulls.