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Monday, July 26th, 2021

Wet Enough?

Sunday, July 4th, 2021: Hikes, Mogollon Mountains, Southwest New Mexico, Whitewater.

What is it about this year? First, the summer solstice fell on my hiking day. And now, the 4th of July, the day Americans celebrate the violent founding of their colonial state by blowing things up.

There was no way I could get away from my fellow Americans on this day, they’d be swarming all over the backcountry – except for our wilderness area, which was still closed, despite the big wildfire having been snuffed out by monsoon rains. Almost all of my favorite hiking areas had been off limits for over a month now, and I was getting desperate.

One trail remained open, far to the north, another two hour drive from home. It traversed some of the worst burn scars from the 2012 wildfire, near the crest of the mountains, gradually descending into the headwaters of the longest and most dramatic canyon in the range. The Forest Service listed this trail as “cleared”, but I’d tried it a couple years ago and found it badly eroded and blocked by some nasty deadfall.

However, since then I’d hiked much worse trails, so maybe I should give this one another chance. In general, I prefer peak hikes rather than canyon descents, but the climb back out of this canyon didn’t look too bad on the topo map.

We’d had a week of cool days with light rain – typical monsoon weather, but a little too early. The old timers say “rain in June, poor monsoon”. Sunday was forecast to be warmer and drier, and most of this hike would be exposed on a south-facing slope, so I packed ice in my drinking water reservoir again.

However, when I finally reached the mountains, the air was cool and storm clouds were forming. The access road passes through the little ghost town, and then becomes a very rough, steep dirt track that twists through dense forest and climbs 2,000′ in a few miles. After the first mile or so I was surprised to pass a young woman dressed in a stylish fitness suit, hiking up the road alone, carrying a tiny day pack.

At the trailhead I found three young guys, probably college students, camping and having a party. They’d gotten there in a tiny, 20-year-old Nissan sedan – I’m often amazed by the vehicles people bring on these backcountry roads.

The hike starts at the very edge of the wilderness area, with a super-steep climb through dark fir and aspen forest to the top of a ridge at 9,000′, followed by a long traverse across moonscape burn scar, dipping into remnants of intact forest here and there. Summiting the ridge, you enter a new world that can only be reached on foot: the vast watershed of the range’s biggest and deepest canyon system, with 3,000′ of surface relief between the peaks and the shadowed canyon bottom. That steep-sided canyon system, rising to the peaks and ridges on the skyline, becomes your view as you traverse the burn scar. The fire left big swaths of dark green conifer forest, especially on the lower slopes, but even the burn scars are carpeted now with the brighter green of aspen, Gambel oak, and New Mexico locust.

On my first visit I’d found a big pile of fresh elk scat on the trail at ridgetop, and it was no different this time. I found no human tracks anywhere, but lots of elk tracks and scat, plus scat from numerous small carnivores and the occasional bear. Elk often seem to use man-made trails as highways through the mountains between favorite forage grounds.

Despite being abandoned by humans, the first mile and a half of trail turned out to be easier than I expected. There were clear stretches of a hundred feet or more between fallen logs, and the monsoon wildflowers were lovely. I’d missed strawberry season, but the raspberries were on their way to ripening.

A dark mass of clouds had been forming straight ahead, over the highest part of the range, accompanied by the rumble of distant thunder. When the rain reached me, it started light, and I didn’t pay it much attention because the hike was getting harder – the farther I went, the more deadfall and the more thorny New Mexico locust filling in the burn scars and choking the trail.

But suddenly rain began falling harder, and I had to stop and pull on my waterproof poncho.

Now I was hiking in a downpour, and everything got much harder. The deadfall logs were slippery and the footing underneath – loose dirt and sharp rocks – more treacherous. I had to slow down and use a lot more caution. The trail came to a deep gully containing intact forest, descending hundreds of feet at between 30 and 40 percent grade, then climbing up the other side. I suddenly realized my boots were filling with water – I could feel it sloshing back and forth. They’re made of leather and GoreTex and should be water-resistant – how was the water getting in?

I tried to speed up, but the trail was getting much worse the farther I went, and the storm was really dumping. Locust thorns started tearing my poncho apart, so I tried to stomp them as I walked, but they were just too thick.

These monsoon storms usually only last 20 minutes or so. I was hoping this one would end soon, and I could stop in the canyon bottom, drain the water out of my boots, and put on the spare socks I carry in my pack. They would get wet, but they were wool so they’d still keep my feet warm.

The rain did eventually fade, but shortly afterward, I reached a point where the trail just disappeared into a jungle of thorns and deadfall. If I’d been dry, I might’ve tried to penetrate it, but with my poncho torn up and my feet sloshing in water I was frankly miserable. And my last view of the canyon had shown it to still be hundreds of feet below me. I wasn’t anywhere near my planned destination.

I stopped there in the jungle, used a deadfall log as a bench, and spread out the damaged poncho on the ground underneath. All my clothing was soaked. The only thing I had that was dry was the spare socks and three bandannas in my pack. I dumped the water out of my boots, took off my wet socks and used two bandannas to dry my feet and sop as much water out of the boots as possible. Then I put on the dry socks and had lunch.

I’d really been looking forward to reaching the canyon bottom – there’s supposed to be a nice meadow there where backpackers camp. This spot in the jungle was cramped and uncomfortable and I hated to end my explorations there, but I really had no choice.

As I headed back up the trail, storm clouds were parting, opening up patches of blue sky, and re-forming in the distance to the west. I could see a veil of rain hanging over the mouth of the canyon, a dozen miles away. I knew I should be grateful we were having this rain, but I was just bummed about going home early from another failed hike.

While I was returning up the trail, and watching the weather developing to the west, another mass of clouds was forming behind me. For some reason, I’d assumed I wouldn’t have any more rain today, but I was wrong. Just as I began crossing the deep gully with intact forest, drops began to fall, and as I climbed the steep slope out the other side, the rain fell heavy on me again. I pulled the wet, torn poncho out of my pack and pulled it back over me and my pack. By the time I topped out of that gully, my feet were soaking wet again, and I still had a couple miles to go. I was not a happy hiker.

Between climbing over logs and pushing through locust thorns, I gazed down at my boots, and suddenly realized that the GoreTex on the “tongue” of the boot simply wasn’t working. When the boots are laced, the base of the GoreTex tongue forms a little hollow, and rainwater was funneling into it and directly through the layer of GoreTex straight onto my toes. So much for “water-resistant” GoreTex.

There was nothing to be done about it, so I just kept picking my way carefully through the maze of thorns and deadfall. Lightning was striking all around me, every few minutes, followed by cracking, rolling thunder. And there I was in the midst of a burn scar, totally exposed, high up in the sky.

Under the brighter sky of morning, my eyes were free to enjoy the mottled tapestry of the mountains. Now, negotiating an obstacle course in the midst of a storm, I was mostly staring at the ground in front of my feet, until a flash of lightning or crack of thunder yanked my attention up to the low, dark ceiling of clouds.

Eventually I crested the ridge. I gave no thought to leaving the dark clouds and stark slopes of the big canyon – I was relieved to be dropping back down through the dark forest, returning to my truck and driving home to dry off. The rain faded to a drizzle.

The partying campers had left, but as I approached my truck, a late-model minivan came careening down the steep, rocky road, where it encountered a convoy of three big pickup trucks heading up. The first of the pickups stopped beside my truck, and the passenger window rolled down. There were two teenage guys inside staring at me, and the driver said something – I could only make out the word “truck”, so I stepped around my vehicle and said, “What’d you say?”

Still staring at me, he spoke again, but so quietly it seemed he might be speaking to his companion instead of me. I walked up to their window and repeated “I can’t hear you.”

The driver looked embarrassed. “Sorry, we’re looking for somebody.” He smiled and drove off, the other vehicles following.

I loosened my boots – everything I was wearing was wet, I didn’t have any more dry clothes with me, and I would just have to drive home that way – all two hours of it, including the scary one-lane road from the ghost town.

Fortunately I didn’t encounter anyone on the one-lane road, but I did pass through some apocalyptic rain on the highway – twice. It rained so hard the road was flooded and I had to slow to avoid hydroplaning. Wet as I was, I felt lucky to get home safe.

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Trail of Many Weathers

Tuesday, July 13th, 2021: Hikes, Mogollon Mountains, Rain, Southwest New Mexico.

For more than a month my favorite local trails had been closed due to a wildfire that had simmered in the heart of the wilderness for weeks, only to flare up and rapidly grow during the hottest, driest days at the end of the pre-monsoon. The active edge of the fire was embracing the area I’d just discovered in April, and most wanted to revisit, so I anxiously checked the map for updates throughout each day. I wanted to explore a canyon, deep in the wilderness, that arcs from north to south for about eight miles, from the 10,000′ crest of the range in the north to its junction with a larger creek 4,000′ lower in the south. You approach the canyon from the west, across a high, rolling plateau, facing the canyon’s east slope, a dramatic, precipitous, continuous mountain wall studded with cliffs and giant outcrops of white conglomerate.

The fire, growing from the east, was sending an arm over the rim of that mountain wall in the north, and another around its base at the creek junction in the south. But then humidity increased across the area, and our monsoon rains started early, and the fire burned out just before reaching the canyon. And on Friday morning, after a week with no more wildfire news, I called forest headquarters across town, and was told the wilderness closure would expire at 5 pm.

At that point we were having rain daily, sometimes light, sometimes heavy. Temperatures Sunday were forecast to reach 90, and most of this hike is exposed to full sun. Rain wasn’t predicted until evening, when I’d be driving home, drenched with sweat. But monsoon forecasts are notoriously unreliable, and this forecast was for town. Hopefully the mountains would produce some earlier weather, and in any event I was desperate – I was an addict suffering from weeks of withdrawal.

On the long drive up the flat, overgrazed mesa toward the trailhead, I saw not the faintest wisp of cloud in the pale sky. And when I stepped out of the truck at the trailhead, it was into silence, stillness, and already oppressive heat. The log book showed that someone had beat me here, yesterday, but they’d only hiked a mile down into the first canyon and back. Parties from Arizona and Texas had hiked a little farther back in June, ignoring the closure notices. One of them reported too much blowdown on the trail into the second canyon – the trail I’d hiked in April.

In monsoon season, it’s no longer “a dry heat” – our humidity climbs above 90 percent. I was drenched with sweat within the first quarter mile, and when I finally reached the first canyon bottom, the creek was bone dry. The next stretch is a 1,400′ climb up a precipitous wall on long, steep switchbacks, gaining a dramatic view up a canyon lined with rock ledges and outcrops to the distant crest. The view was hazy from the heat and humidity, and the climb in the still, hot air was exhausting and took almost twice as long as usual. The only thing that kept me going was the belief that there would be water in the destination canyon, and some cloud cover in the afternoon, when during our monsoon, the day’s heat typically generates cumulous clouds that may grow into storms.

At the top of the canyon wall, the climb continues, even steeper at up to a 40 percent grade, to a small peak which is the west end of the rolling plateau that leads to the second canyon. Sweat was dripping off my head on all sides and I had to keep swabbing it out of the way with my already soaked shirtsleeves. I was crossing a high, two-mile-wide divide between two deep canyons, but with no forest cover and without even the hint of a breeze. I kept surveying the skyline in all directions, but never saw even the tiniest cloud. The bleached dome of the sky felt like a giant heat lamp.

The eastern wall of the second canyon beckoned me forward, hazy like a mirage, as I trudged across the high parts of the plateau, with their broken white gravel and scattered shrubs, down into the red sediment and sparse pines of the hollows, and back up again.

Finally I crested the saddle above the descent into the second canyon. It’s a 1,400′ drop – mercifully, with sporadic forest cover – but I was already exhausted from the heat and humidity, and couldn’t imagine climbing back up it at this end of this sweltering day. But I’d have to – I couldn’t come this far, and pass up a dip in the water of the creek far below.

Heading down from the saddle, I first encountered freshly broken branches on trailside shrubs – a standard trail marker from the Arizonans or Texans – and a single bootprint. Then the trail gets so steep you almost have to slide down, and you reach the first deadfall – there’s actually no blowdown on this trail. Any sign of the out-of-state hikers ended – this is where they apparently gave up and turned back. But I knew the deadfall on this trail is actually minimal compared to other trails in the area.

The descent, seemingly endless and almost continuously steep and rocky, divides into several distinct sections, some through dense riparian vegetation, others through chaparral, others through open pine or fir forest. The dramatic eastern wall looms in front of you the whole way, and when you finally emerge into the intact, shady ponderosa forest at the bottom, on an alluvial bench above the creek, it’s like coming home.

I’d been planning to explore the creek trail upstream, but first I had to fight my way through the dense willows lining the creekbed, to reach that cool running water at last.

The descending trail joins the creek trail in a broad grassy meadow at the feet of big ponderosas. I sat there for a while in the shade, snacking and drinking water. All the ice I’d added to my drinking water had long melted and it’d almost warmed to air temperature. So I soon got up and began following the creek trail north.

It hadn’t been cleared since the 2012 fire, but it wasn’t in bad shape. Very little tread remained, but there wasn’t much deadfall. I quickly reached the end of the alluvial bench, and the trail simply began traversing the steep, forested slope, diving into and out of gullies, climbing higher above the creek, which I occasionally got glimpses of, snaking over a bed of white rock dozens of feet below, tinted green with algae.

Rock formations closed the canyon in, and the trail suddenly dove down toward the creek between giant boulders. I’d been eyeing that water, and as I climbed down through the boulders I thought I could spot a swimming hole downstream.

Yes! There was an overhang for shade, and a clear pool that looked to be a couple feet deep. I’d started out hoping to explore much farther – two or three miles up the creek trail. This crossing was less than a mile from the junction, but the heat had really slowed me down. This would be my destination for the day.

The first thing I did was take off my sweat-soaked shirt and rinse it several times in the creek. With my chronic foot injury, it’s hard and risky for me to walk barefoot on rocks, so taking a dip in a rocky pool is complicated, but that doesn’t stop me – I just have to take it slow and easy. The water felt freezing cold, and as soon as I submerged in the pool I stirred up masses of dead algae, so I had to rinse off under the little waterspout that filled the pool. It was only a quick dip, but it felt wonderful.

I soaked my water reservoir in the creek to cool, filled a bottle with creek water to drink during the climb out of the canyon, and dunked my hat so it would keep my head cool on the way back to the junction.

It was during the hike back down the creek trail that I saw the first hazy clouds growing over the eastern wall from the southeast. By the time I reached the junction in the meadow there was an actual cumulus cloud hanging up there.

Still, the air remained incredibly hot and humid, and the steep climb out of the canyon was an ordeal that I could only handle in short stints. I just resigned myself to a very long hike back, and all the benefit of the dip in the stream was gone in the first hundred yards of that climb.

I kept looking up hopefully, measuring the spread of the cloud mass westward toward the sun in degrees of arc. I was probably about 2/3 of the way up before they finally met and I got some sporadic periods of shade, for the first time all day.

When I’d climbed 1,400′ out of the canyon and reached the saddle, the eastern sky had turned a dark blue and I could hear occasional thunder.

Things changed quickly as I started across the rolling plateau. Still air was replaced by blasts of wind, and after descending hundreds of feet into the first red hollow and climbing back up onto the second white shoulder, sporadic drops of rain turned to the sharp impacts of hail. I pulled my damaged poncho over me and my pack, just as I could see hailstones bouncing off the rocky ground between the shrubs.

Suddenly a bigger hailstone fell at my feet, exploding on impact. Then another landed on the trail ahead, 3/4″ in diameter. I knew there was practically no limit on how big they could get, so I started looking for trees to hide under, but there really weren’t any on this exposed plateau. Lightning struck all around, thunder crashed, big hailstones rained down on me, and I kept going. And within ten minutes or so, the storm moved off.

Since I was on a high plateau surrounded by peaks and ridges stretching many miles off into the distance, I could watch the weather moving around for many miles. I could see columns of rain thousands of feet tall. Up in the recent burn scar on a distinctive peak several miles to my south, I could see a patch of what looked like snow in July – a spot where hail had fallen heavily and piled up on ground cleared of vegetation by the wildfire.

I got to a point where I could see north across several outlying canyons and ridges to where lightning had struck high up a distant slope, igniting a small wildfire that raised a narrow stream of smoke.

Finally I reached the little peak at the western end of the plateau and began my grateful descent into the first canyon. Despite the storm, the air was saturated with humidity, and I was still soaked and dripping with sweat.

The downside of this spectacular trail is how steep and rocky it is, and the final stretch, more than a mile of traverse up out of the first canyon, is like adding insult to injury. Slowed by the heat, I’d spent over nine hours on the trail to cover less than 14 miles, but fortunately there was a bottle of ice-cold water waiting for me in the truck.

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Fright on Bald Mountain

Monday, July 19th, 2021: Hikes, Mogollon Mountains, Sacaton, Southwest New Mexico.

We finally get a good monsoon, and it’s wonderful, but it just makes my already high-pressure life more complicated! Rain almost every day, heavy storms in the mountains, and while I’m only hiking twice a week, I spend the intervening days trying to get my muddy, water-logged gear – boots, pants, poncho, and hat – clean and dry. Everything ends up in good shape just in time to get filthy again.

This Sunday I knew it made sense to head over to the newly opened west side of the wilderness, but as usual I was looking for unfamiliar hikes to spice up my routine. After studying the map I settled on two options, each of which had a high likelihood of failing. The first was a super-challenging peak climb that involved an undetermined amount of bushwhacking which I’d already sworn never to do again, and the second involved a canyon hike on a trail abandoned for almost a decade. The hike might fail, but at least I’d be out in nature.

The forecast was for cloud cover throughout the day and rain in the evening, but I’d seen how that played out last Sunday – lightning, thunder, and hail in the afternoon. The canyon hike would be a safer choice – the peak ascent would be scarily exposed – but on the drive up the west side of the mountains I chose the climb instead. When I’d attempted it before, I’d emulated a young woman from Arizona who’d started at the nearby canyon trailhead. That route involved a nasty bushwhack up a steep, brush-clogged side drainage to an old mine. Now that I had my 4wd Sidekick back, I could drive up the old mine road and save myself a mile each of trail and bushwhacking.

From the mine, it wouldn’t be a long hike as the crow flies – I figured about four miles to the peak I was aiming for. But that distance could be almost doubled by bushwhacking and circumventing obstacles, and in the process, I’d be climbing over 4,500′ – half of which I’d have to ascend in less than a mile.

In retrospect, it’s clear that I was still trying to compete with that young woman. It still bugged me that someone half my age could scamper all over our wilderness without needing trails, while I found it so hard and such slow going.

But my first challenge was getting up that mine road. It turned out to be the roughest road I’ve ever driven in this area – not as bad as our Mojave Desert mine roads, but reaching the limit of what my vehicle will do. I was in low-range 4wd the whole way, but hell, that’s what this vehicle was designed for, it’s about time I put it to good use.

From the graded road, the mine road climbs 1,200′ up and over a series of small peaks forested with pinyon, juniper, and oak, finally entering the ponderosa zone. The track is almost entirely rock, either embedded or loose, except for some steep parts that are loose dirt. The mine entrance sits halfway up a small conical peak blanketed by pine forest, but the road continues past it, climbing to a saddle behind the peak. That’s where I was hoping to park and start my hike, but a quarter mile beyond the mine I met my nemesis – a rock outcrop across the trail that I tried to drive around, but lost traction even in low gear and couldn’t get over. There was no place to turn around, so I had to reverse a quarter mile down that narrow, heavily-eroded mountainside track all the way back to the mine. It took about 15 minutes.

In addition to the risks of the hike itself, in the back of my mind was whether I’d be able to drive down this road later, after a rain. There were some steep, deeply eroded stretches that would get muddy, and the rocks themselves would get slick. But I’d just cross that bridge when I got to it – worst come to worst I’d have to spend the night in my vehicle up on the mountain.

On the ledge outside the mine entrance, I got turned around, parked, and loaded up for my ambitious day.

My destination was a 10,700′ peak at the end of a southwest-to-northeast trending ridge, the ridge itself averaging 10,000′. The little peak above the mine lay at the foot of a much lower outlying ridge, and the obvious approach was to traverse up the side of that outlying ridge to the saddle where it connected to the base of the higher ridge. That higher ridge began with a distinctive 9,800′ “bald” peak, so that would be my first goal, and likely my biggest challenge.

On the drive to the mountains I’d seen a broad but shallow cloud mass hanging over the heart of the wilderness, and elsewhere only scattered clouds with lots of blue sky showing. During the approach, clouds drifted back and forth, I had alternating sun and shadow, and it wasn’t hot, but it was humid enough that I was sweating pretty good.

Since I’d first attempted this climb, I’d done a lot more bushwhacking. I knew at least the first mile of this hike would be mostly through dense brush, but at this elevation – between 7,000′ and 8,000′ – it would be scrub oak and I could just push through it. So that’s what I did, aiming for patches of ponderosa forest higher up the ridge where the walking would be easier. It was much slower than hiking a trail, but it wasn’t particularly hard.

Up and up I went, rounding broad slopes and cutting back into drainages, in and out of chaparral and small patches of pine forest, until I finally reached the ridge top that connected to the saddle at the base of the bald peak. This ridge top had a mix of open pine forest and dense oak scrub, so it was intermittently fast and slow. Finally I reached the saddle and gazed up at the daunting bald peak, with long talus slopes radiating downward on all sides. I’d definitely want to avoid those, but I’d also want to minimize my time in the dense chaparral in between the talus. This climb would put me literally between rock and a hard place.

The right-hand (east) side of the peak featured nothing but steep talus and dense scrub. The left-hand, west side was more complex, divided into big rock outcrops and cliffs, smaller talus slopes, patches of brush, and patches of forest. Hanging far above me was a broad cliff that I’d want to avoid, so I planned to wind my way up on the left, between rock outcrops and patches of forest – the way I remembered the young Arizonan had gone – hoping to find a “ramp” on the back side of that cliff that would lead to the top. It would all be very steep, but I figured I could take it at my own pace. After all, I had 7-8 hours to do a hike that at best guess might be 12 miles in actual round-trip distance.

After climbing the first few hundred feet I faced the first major obstacle: a cliff, and blocking my way around it, a narrow talus slope, both sides of which were lined with dense thickets of Gambel oak. I lost some time exploring routes through the oak and across the talus, but finally found a game trail that worked. The other side was much steeper, but the game trail held, eventually taking me to a little forested shoulder with an outcrop that projected dramatically over the big canyon to the north, where I’d done so many hikes in the past three years. Then, I’d always admired this peak from below and wondered if I’d ever climb it.

From there, I could see rain falling over another part of the range, a few miles away to the northeast. This added some urgency to my hike. I wouldn’t want to be descending some of these slopes when they were wet.

This small patch of mountainside forest opened up the next view, around the corner of the mountain, but unfortunately it was not the view I’d hoped for.

At first all I could see was another big, steep thicket of Gambel oak. But as I pushed my way through that, struggling for footing on the broken rock underneath, a much more daunting obstacle appeared. The entire slope ahead of me, as far as I could see, was steep talus, with only isolated strips of trees and brush breaking it into vertical strands. Above me was the sheer cliff, so my only option was to make my way across this talus. And since I was aiming for the peak, unseen somewhere far above, at some point I’d also need to resume climbing.

Real mountain climbers deal with this stuff all the time, but my experience with talus has been fairly limited, and none of it good. I always find it stressful, if not downright scary, to cross loose, sharp rock at the angle of repose, each step threatening to trigger an uncontrollable, potentially fatal rockslide. The only thing worse than traversing or climbing up a talus slope is having to climb down one, which I would definitely have to do on the way back.

It only took the first nerve-wracking traverse of talus to convince me to try climbing instead. A narrow vertical strip of brush and pines divided this from the next rockfall, and I used that vegetation to stabilize my climb. A few dozen feet up I encountered a steep outcrop I could climb on all fours, and that took me to a thicket I pushed up through, eventually reaching a small cliff that I could climb on natural hand-and-footholds. And suddenly I emerged on a tiny ledge at the top of the cliff, with a view over the southern landscape and the next big canyon system below the peak on the east.

That little rock ledge was part of a knife-edge ridge that seemed to climb steeply up toward the bald peak, which was still hidden from my perspective. It would be hard to follow as a route, because the knife edge was formed out of rough, irregular rock outcrops overgrown with brush, juniper, and pine. And it felt totally precarious and exposed – not a place to be stuck in a lightning storm or gale force wind. But getting here felt like a huge accomplishment! I’d managed to avoid most of the talus that had worried me below, and at this point there was nowhere to go but upward.

I slowly made my way up the knife edge, winding back and forth between outcrops, oak thickets, stunted pines and junipers, and occasional deadfall logs. Working my way up a small rock exposure surrounded by dense oak, I suddenly heard a rattlesnake somewhere to my right, but couldn’t see it, so I just kept climbing. A little beyond that, I emerged from a thicket at the base of another big talus slope.

This one was even scarier than the ones I’d found below, because the rocks were bigger, and there was literally nothing else above – I was nearing the top of the peak. But on the right was a dense wall of oaks, so I kept close to that as I precariously ascended the rockfall, and eventually the rounded “bald” top itself loomed ahead of me.

Faint “trails” led upward through the loose rock – impossible to say if they were natural, man-made, or game trails left over eons of time. The whole dome was crisscrossed by them, so I wound my way back and forth up the dome until I finally reached its small, flat top. So small, and so bare – like a stage elevated into the sky. The only feature up there was a tiny stone ring surrounding a Forest Service benchmark.

Looking east I could see the undulating ridge leading to the 10,700′ peak I’d hoped to reach today. That peak was still two miles away and involved descents and ascents of almost another 2,000′. It’d taken me 4 hours to get this far – I figured it would take at least another couple hours to reach that higher peak. The return would be a little quicker, but with storms obviously forming all around, it would still leave me descending a wet, extremely dangerous mountainside well after dark, which was definitely out of the question.

Now I felt really in awe of the girl from Arizona, and humbled by her achievement. But on the other hand, her hike had taken almost 13 hours, and she’d highlighted the slope I’d climbed to get here as the hardest part of the whole day – she’d said her heart was skipping beats and she was praying while climbing that talus.

I have to admit my sense of accomplishment was still tempered by a lot of anxiety – if not outright terror – about descending those steep slopes and re-crossing that talus. It was becoming more obvious how my hiking obsession was getting out of control and exposing me to risks that were totally unnecessary and probably counterproductive. Nobody should be doing hikes like this alone, ever, regardless of age or physical condition…

As it turned out, the down hike wasn’t as bad as I’d expected. I had to be super careful, but I managed to survive the cliffs and the talus and reach the little forested shoulder unscathed. There, I found really fresh bear scat – it seemed I’d just missed the bear. Amazing what climbers these animals are.

At that point I could see rain closing in from all directions, but it didn’t hit me until I’d crossed the saddle at the foot of the peak and began following the lower ridge to the point where I could start descending toward the little mine peak. When the rain did hit, it hit hard, and I soon found myself slipping and falling down a slope of loose dirt and broken rock, getting thoroughly muddy and plastered with leaves and sticks, snagging my poncho on branches that yanked me off balance.

Again I found myself in survival mode, just trying to make it back without injury. But part of my mind was also on the drive down that mine road. Could I even do it in the wet? I’d soon find out.

Then I made a wee mistake. Where the ridge connects to the little peak, I saw a trail that seemed to be a shortcut down to the mine. That trail led through steep pine forest into a drainage that was obviously the drainage the mine road crosses just before you reach the mine. But I’d misjudged the topography. It wasn’t a shortcut – it was at least as far as the route I’d taken on the way up. And eventually the trail disappeared and I had to find a route down a steep slope of loose dirt between more oak scrub, in hard rain with every gully turned into a cascade.

So I wasn’t a happy hiker when I reached the vehicle, filthy and soaked, yet again, from head to toe. Amazingly, the return from the peak had taken only 2-1/2 hours – the steepness and thickets had made it much harder to climb than to descend. But that time savings was offset by the long, slow drive down the wet mine road. Although it was tricky when wet and had to be taken very carefully, the Sidekick’s deluxe all-terrain tires handled it just fine.

Back on the highway, I was filled with an incredible sense of relief. How amazing just to return from something like that, alive!

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Redemption Hike

Monday, July 26th, 2021: Hikes, Holt, Mogollon Mountains, Southwest New Mexico.

Conflicting desires this Sunday. The weather was forecast to be cloudy and cooler – in the 70s. So this was a perfect time for a lower-elevation hike, for example over in Arizona where I could get a burrito and a beer afterward.

But for the past few weeks I’d been frustrated with shorter hikes and less elevation gain, so I felt I really needed a bigger hike today to maintain my conditioning. On paper, I’d been investigating ways to get longer hikes by stringing together multiple trails into loops. However, these loops would have to include include trails that were abandoned or in bad shape. The problem with Arizona is that the longer driving time limits me to shorter hikes on bad trails or longer hikes on good trails. So for today, I decided to try a loop close to home, involving two trails I knew to be in good shape, and one that appeared to be long abandoned, with no info available on its condition. As usual, I was just going to take my chances, hoping I could redeem myself somehow if the first attempt failed.

Driving west of town, I could see clouds literally hugging the low mountains ahead. We’d had a lot of rain the past week, and both air and ground were saturated.

The hike starts with a two-mile stretch on an old familiar trail, dropping into a canyon and following it up to the trail junction. As usual this time of year, the canyon bottom was a green jungle, but the creek was barely running. The branch trail, climbing over a ridge into the next, bigger canyon system, leads ultimately to an old miner’s cabin, and is maintained by the Arizona family of his descendents. The Forest Service reports this trail impassable, and at the junction it’s overgrown to the point of invisibility, but once across the creek, it turns into a good trail.

Entering the monsoon jungle of the first canyon I discovered an unexpected problem: heavy dew on all the vegetation crowding the trail meant that by the time I started climbing toward the ridge, my pants were soaked. This was a northwest slope, mostly in shade, so I was hoping that once I crossed over to the southeast side, sunlight from regular openings between the clouds would dry me off. Despite the cooler temps, it was so humid that my shirt was soon soaked with sweat and I had to keep mopping sweat off my brows as I climbed.

One unexpected benefit of this trail was the different perspective I got on previous hikes, which continued north up the first canyon. As I climbed higher, I could see that canyon was much rockier than is apparent from the trail, which sticks to the densely forested canyon bottom most of the way. Above the forest are numerous huge rock outcrops and cliffs.

The miner’s cabin trail crests the ridge at a low saddle, where I had a great new view into and across the bigger canyon. This canyon is eight miles long and very rocky, and there’s no trail up it from its mouth like there are in every other canyon on this side of the range. You can only drop into it from farther up the sides, as on this trail.

The trail drops into the narrow side canyon of the north fork, which is where I hoped to pick up the abandoned north fork trail that climbed to a ridge, far back in the wilderness, where I would return on the continuation of the trail I’d left in the first canyon. The full loop would be about 15 miles, with nearly 5,000′ of accumulated elevation gain.

The clouds shifting around, covering and uncovering the peaks and ridges across the big canyon, made this a spectacular descent. Most of it had been burned in the 2012 wildfire and was exposed, through oak scrub, but I was relieved to find a little shoulder halfway down, shaded by parklike ponderosa forest. Descending past that, I flushed a white tailed deer.

From there the trail got steeper and rockier. I began to hear a roaring from the canyon bottom – this side must really be draining a lot of rainwater!

As I approached the canyon bottom, I checked my map for details of the junction with the abandoned north fork trail. It seemed to be close to the creek, but when I got to the bottom of the canyon it was very narrow, with steep sides lined with dense jungle. The cabin trail just disappeared – the only way down this canyon was via the flooded creek, through overgrown riparian vegetation. There was no sign of a trail junction, and this was no place to linger.

I double-checked my map, which was a just a low-resolution printout from a trails website. Now I could see that the junction probably lay 40-80 feet above the creek, so I began climbing back up the steep trail, carefully examining the right side for any sign of an old branch. After a quarter mile of climbing, I was about 120′ above the creek and had only seen one faint game trail that might be worth exploring, so I climbed all the way back down and tried it out. It disappeared within a dozen yards, and clearly wasn’t the old trail.

I spent about 45 minutes exploring all along that stretch of the cabin trail, bushwhacking several long side trips, and never found any sign of the old north fork trail. It’s just completely vanished. The only thing I could do was return, back over the ridge, to the first canyon. It was a steep climb and I was feeling exhausted and very sweaty as I headed over the saddle and back down to where I’d started, but at least the sporadic sunlight on the southeast-facing slope had dried the dew off my pants.

Approaching the original trail junction in the first canyon, I decided to make up for my aborted loop hike by walking up the first canyon trail a ways. I was pretty beat, so I’d just see how far I could get. I know this trail well, and figured I’d probably turn around at the base of the switchbacks that lead to the crest. That would give me another mile-and-a-half one-way and a few hundred more feet of elevation.

Not far past the junction in the first canyon, I surprised a rattlesnake at the base of a log alongside the trail. It’s always surprising to find a western rattlesnake in such a lush environment. I carefully sidestepped it and stopped to look back and memorize the configuration of rocks and logs so I could watch out for the snake on my return.

When I reached the base of the switchbacks, a tiny clearing in creekside forest, I wasn’t feeling completely exhausted yet. So I started up the switchbacks, figuring I’d stop at the boulder pile before the long traverse up the other side. There’s a really steep stretch leading to the boulder pile, and I figured that would do me in.

But somehow I was getting a second wind! I breezed up the steep part and past the boulder pile. A trail crew had been up here recently and cut up all the logs that had been blocking the trail for the past couple of years, which made it easier. Now I figured I might make it to the end of the first long traverse, where you get a view out over the big canyon where I’d failed to find the abandoned trail. That would really give me some elevation to compensate for the aborted loop.

As it turned out, I was feeling so good, I not only made it to the end of the first traverse, but I continued onto the much steeper and more difficult second traverse, which brought me to the edge of the final ascent to the crest – as far as I got on my first hike on this trail, 2-1/2 years ago. I now knew this was turning into a respectable hike – true redemption for my failure to find the abandoned north fork trail over in the other canyon. Although the combined hikes would amount to a little less than 13 miles, my accumulated elevation gain for the day was now nearly 5,000′. After being pretty miserable a couple hours earlier, I was now elated.

I descended in late afternoon through a forest made magical by alternating low-angle light and blue shadow. It looked like some weather was coming in the west, toward the mouth of the canyon.

Sure enough, when I reached the rattlesnake’s place, it was still there, in exactly the same position, but now it was asleep. It must’ve eaten recently and was immersed in the long, slow digestive process.

Climbing out of the canyon toward the trailhead, I finally got a glimpse of rain, miles away to the south.

It just kept getting better. Light rain appeared on my windshield as I neared the highway, and when I stopped there to loosen my bootlaces, I saw a half rainbow to the south. Rain and rainbows kept shifting around as I drove south, and all the arroyos were in flood. A big storm hung over the Gila River where it emerges from the mountains, and it was way over its banks at the bridge. What a day!

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