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Crossing Icewater

Monday, January 9th, 2023: Hikes, Mogollon Mountains, Rain, Southwest New Mexico.

Severe back pain had forced me to skip last Sunday’s hike, so I was eager to make up for it. But we’d also had more snow, and I knew the high elevations would have from one to two feet. In addition, warming temperatures would be adding a lot of snowmelt to the creeks, making crossings difficult or impossible.

I decided to return to my old favorite on the west side, the hike that crosses a canyon and a plateau before dropping into the second, bigger canyon. It tops out at about 7,200′, so any snow that hadn’t already melted should be manageable.

I knew the long ranch road up the mesa would be slow, with deep ruts, mud, and puddles in low spots. When it’s dry and graded you can get up to 50mph, but in winter or the monsoon it can be undriveable without 4WD. As I headed up in early morning the mud was mostly frozen, but it was the roughest and slowest I’d ever seen.

Still, the snow-covered crest of the range, ahead, drew me forward.

Approaching the trailhead, I spotted something red through the branches of a juniper, and a pickup truck appeared, with a tall guy loading some gear in the back. I got out and wished him a good morning while shouldering my pack. It was warm in the sun but I knew the canyon bottom would be shaded and below freezing, so I was wearing thermal bottoms and kept my storm shell on.

According to the trail log no one had been here for more than two weeks. Most visitors only venture a little over a mile to the first creek crossing. A few try the canyon trail beyond that, and even fewer continue up the switchbacks like I do.

On the way down into the first canyon I could hear the creek roaring, far below, but the sound of water is exaggerated in canyons, so I didn’t worry until I got a glimpse down into a bend, and involuntarily exclaimed. It looked flooded.

I always stop a half mile in to stretch, using that first half mile as a warmup. That’s where the other hiker caught up with me. He was in his early 20s and loaded for backpacking. I asked and he said he was planning to be out 3 or 4 nights, and as I guessed, he was headed for the big creek, the third canyon along this trail. We chatted a bit but he was anxious to move on.

Shortly after that, I got overheated and had to pack up my jacket.

When I reached the crossing, it was higher than I’d ever seen it – at least a foot deep, too high for my boots. But a trail crew had built a dam upstream, with flat rocks the ice-cold water was rushing over – a sort of submerged walkway for hikers. Without that, I would’ve had to give up on this hike.

When researching my waterproof boots and gaiters, I’d read a review by a hunting guide who said they’d kept his feet dry after months of running through creeks. I couldn’t run across this creek – it was at least 12 feet wide and the bottom was lined with big loose rocks. But I’d find out how good my gear was at keeping my feet dry across that dam.

The rock dam was loose and precarious, but steadying myself with a couple of sticks from along the bank, I made it across. The current had driven the water inside the gaiters and about 5 inches up my boots – another couple inches and they would’ve been swamped. But my feet remained dry inside.

It was really cold in that dark canyon bottom, but I knew climbing the switchbacks would warm me up and dry out my boots.

Past the crossing there’s a branch trail that goes up the canyon, requiring many more creek crossings. Continuing on the main trail I followed the young backpacker’s tracks onto the switchbacks, noticing another large footprint that was over a week old. The climb to the plateau is in two main parts – the switchbacks out of the first canyon that gain about a thousand feet, then beyond the ridgetop, the very steep, rocky section that climbs the remaining 400′ to the little peak at the western edge of the plateau. That’s where I found the first snow, and the backpacker’s tracks disappeared.

What the hell? I backtracked and tried to find where he’d turned off, but the ground was too rocky to hold sign. So I continued onto untracked snow, and wondered what he was up to. There’s really no place to go from that peak, other than on the trail. It’s atop a band of rimrock, the uppermost of several layers that continue all the way down to the third canyon. If he was trying a shortcut to the third canyon, he’d have to circumvent cliffs a hundred feet tall, ending up stuck in a maze of box canyons and brush all day, and be lucky to even reach the creek by nightfall, with the trail another mile or two upstream past several more flooded crossings.

Crossing the plateau in the sun, I had to stop yet again to take off my thermal bottoms, and eventually my sweater. I saw the two-week-old footprint there in thawing patches of dirt, but by the time I’d crossed the valley at the east end of the plateau and climbed to the saddle above the second canyon, his footprints had disappeared. I was the first hiker in a long time to enter that second canyon, and as expected, the initial descent held the deepest snow I would find all day, so I had to put my gaiters back on. This was turning into a day with a lot of stops!

Despite the initial snow, the steep descent went quickly. I kept my gaiters on because I was hoping to use them to cross the next creek. But I should’ve known better.

The second creek drains a much bigger watershed, and was running at twice the volume of the first creek. I scouted upstream, where it gets rockier, but couldn’t find anyplace to cross without swamping at least one boot in ice-cold water.

Still, it was great to see and hear so much snowmelt barreling down! I climbed back up the bank and continued on the canyon trail, hoping to find a way across at the next crossing, a half mile upstream. But of course that was just as flooded.

Despite being stopped by the second creek, I was feeling pretty good. It was a beautiful day. I’d had to stop so many times, I wasn’t even trying to push myself – I was just enjoying my remote, wild surroundings. I wasn’t even daunted by the long, difficult climb back out of the canyon – I would just take it slow.

And a few hundred feet above the floodplain, I was relieved to meet the backpacker on his way down. “Where the hell did you go?” I exclaimed.

He laughed, looking a little embarrassed. “I just stopped on that little peak, to hang out for a while.” I cautioned him about the flooded creek, but he said he had sandals and didn’t mind getting wet. Again, he seemed anxious to keep going.

I continued to wonder why he would start a backpack by stopping for three hours, only two miles in. But when I reached that peak myself, and my phone suddenly registered a voicemail, I realized that he’d probably stopped because that was the only place in the area where he had a signal. He was probably doing business on his phone, or catching up with his girlfriend.

His nonchalance about crossing ice-cold creeks up to his knees was what really made me think. I realized that with my Reynaud’s syndrome I’ve become paranoid about getting my fingers and toes wet in cold weather. But my problem with creek crossings goes back farther, because with my chronic foot inflammation, I can no longer go barefoot, and need to use custom orthotics at all times. And sandals and water shoes are not made to accomodate orthotics.

I thought back to the primitive skills course I’d taken in my late 30s. We students all wore serious hiking boots on that 2-week backpack covering about 120 miles, but the three young instructors all wore sandals the whole time, while walking farther and carrying much more weight than we did. Ben, the youngest, wore flat leather “Jesus sandals” with no arch support, and I tried to emulate him afterward. That may have been what injured my foot to begin with and set off this condition.

Cody, another intern on that course, went on to become a prominent aboriginal skills instructor, and became famous for trekking all over northern Arizona, all year ’round, in a t-shirt, shorts, and bare feet. You people whose feet remain strong, and who can endure river crossings in snowmelt, don’t know how lucky you are!

That young backpacker became the hero of my day, setting out in January, embracing multiple crossings of the third snowmelt creek, which would be four times as big as the first. I wished I could do that, and gave serious thought to the waterproof, insulated socks that are now available. Surely my foot could tolerate short episodes in sandals with good arch support. Sure, it would mean a lot slower hikes, with all the changes of footwear and drying out of gear, but I might get over my fear of cold water.

My back pain had been on the edge of triggering all day – I’d had to maintain perfect posture, squatting instead of bending at the waist, being scrupulously mindful of the angle of my lower spine. And when I reached that little peak and began descending from the plateau, I developed a sharp pain in my right knee. It was the same knee I’d had trouble with a couple months ago, but this was different pain, probably sciatica from my back episode. I strapped on my knee brace, but that barely helped so I took a pain pill.

I could handle gentle slopes, but at every steep section I cried out involuntarily. I had to go really slow and keep my leg as stiff as possible. I was not looking forward to the creek crossing, but needed to get there before dark, and the sun was definitely setting.

Finally I reached the frigid canyon bottom and the creek crossing, which was even more flooded from the day’s snowmelt. To prepare for the possibility of slipping and falling in the water, I packed my warmest clothes and camera in a plastic bag inside my pack. I pulled on my lined Goretex ski gloves and gripped two stout sticks, and crossed the flooded rock dam with no problems.

But my problems weren’t over. Starting up the rocky trail, I simultaneously developed cramps in my left foot, right quad, and left hamstring, and it was all I could do to keep from falling over. After the cramps subsided a little, I dug a packet of electrolyte supplement out of my pack and mixed it with the last of my drinking water.

My knees were really tired at this point and I couldn’t keep the sharp pain from being triggered, even on this ascent, so from time to time I cried out involuntarily – it was like someone was pounding a nail into my knee. What a mess!

But the pain meds were doing their job – the pain had moved into my backbrain, and my forebrain believed it had been a wonderful hike. It was dark by the time I reached the vehicle, and I had to drive slow all the way down the chewed up mud of the ranch road.

I stopped at one point to retrieve a spare water bottle, and when I got out of the vehicle both legs cramped up again. What a day! After waiting another five or ten minutes for the cramps to subside, I finished off my water, resumed driving, got up to 40 mph, and then suddenly there were two huge cows right in front of me in the road. I slammed on the brakes, went into a skid, and they finally reacted, heaving awkwardly out of the way at the last minute in typical cow fashion.

Sound of first creek from about 700′ above:

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