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Danger and Discovery

Monday, February 12th, 2024: Hikes, Southwest New Mexico, Summit Mountains.

Even before Saturday, all the high elevation trails had been blocked by deep snow. But on Saturday it snowed lightly on and off for about 16 hours, leaving up to four inches here in town, at 6,000 feet. Yet daily highs were ranging from the 40s to the 50s throughout the region, meaning creeks would be flooded with runoff and most low-elevation trails would be muddy.

Before going to bed Saturday night, I finally decided to explore a mountainous area over on the Arizona border that I’d been eyeing from a distance for years. It ranges from 4,000 to a little below 7,000 feet, but it features dramatic rocky peaks, with no hiking trails but a network of old mining and ranching roads. It’s more than an hour and a half drive to get there, and it would be a shot in the dark – I didn’t know what kind of surface to expect, and the roads and the ground might be too muddy now.

The only info I could find online was a trip report on Peakbagger from a guy who tried to climb two of the most dramatic peaks. He failed, but dropped his phone near the top of one peak and had to return the next day to retrieve it. His report mainly consists of complaining about the lost phone, but it includes a GPS route from the nearest road that might be useful.

But getting out of town turned out to be the biggest challenge of the day. Both driver- and passenger-side door locks were frozen, and the de-icer I’d bought earlier didn’t work. I had to climb through from the rear hatch to start the engine and the heater, and it took 35 minutes to warm up the interior enough to free the locks and melt the frost off the windows.

I anticipated ice on the highway, and sure enough, immediately outside of town the surface turned to pure ice. I switched into high-range 4wd, but was still limited to 35 mph – at that speed I could feel my all-terrain tires begin to slip. Big pickups and tractor-trailer rigs passed me going 45 – I guess the extra weight and tire surface helps. The ice lasted half the distance south through the low mountains, and it was a tense drive.

By the time I left the mountains for the vast alluvial plain, dropping below 6,000 feet, I was running so late I knew this would be more of a road trip than a hike. But as I drove north toward the new country, the rocky peaks emerged from the horizon, tantalizing me.

The dirt road that led to them was the first surprise. The first part of it leads north up a rough wash and clearly floods and washes out after a heavy monsoon rain. It’s only after the first couple of miles that the road climbs out of the wash and spends the rest of its time up on ridges, on surfaces that range from gravel to packed dirt. This is lonely country; I was the only driver on this road, all day.

My second surprise came when I checked the map again and discovered this area lies within my county. The longest route across the county I grew up in in Indiana takes less than a half hour; that this remote area is an hour and a half from my hometown, which is in the middle of the county, is pretty crazy.

Approaching the first peak, the road reached the edge of a bluff with a dramatic view. To take the peakbagger’s route I would continue on the road until it reaches the foot of the peak. But below me was some country that looked interesting in itself, and would yield more mileage and elevation in my hike. There was a high-clearance 4wd road leading down into this country – it turned out to be very sketchy, but by stopping regularly and scouting lines I managed to make it all the way down to a corral, windmill, and stock tank on the bank of the big wash. Cattle were milling about there, so I drove back up and parked on a ledge.

I had an amazing vista: it appeared that I could follow the wash upstream, through a dramatic gap in low bluffs, and from there, up alluvial slopes to the foot of the cliffs. My map showed that the hidden north side is gentler; I hoped to circle around and climb it from the back.

It had been a long time since I’d bushwhacked off-trail, but I was motivated by having new country to explore. The main obstacle seemed to be waist-high thorny mesquite, which blankets heavily grazed land throughout the Southwest. I would just have to wind my way through it.

This is very dry country. I could see snow on northwest slopes down to about 5,400 feet, but I was surprised to meet running water in the wash – bedrock was close to the surface, and when it emerged, there were interesting water-sculpted features and cascades.

The gap in the rock bluffs turned out to be a slot canyon that involved some creative scrambling. I’d forgotten how much fun hiking without a trail can be!

Past the bluffs I emerged in a sort of overgrazed bajada, a rocky expanse of cactus, grass and mesquite that was at first like a superhighway leading toward the base of the peaks. Farther up, it was divided into ridges and gullies so I had to pick a route, but I came upon a well-marked cattle trail that led me up to an old fence and gate that divided this from the grazing on the north side of the peaks. The gate clearly hadn’t been opened for years and took all my strength to re-close.

Now I was nearing the saddle between the two peaks, and needed to start traversing up the slope of the right-hand peak. I didn’t know what I would find on the north side and I wanted to start gaining some elevation while I could. It was a 20-degree slope, and I began encountering snow, but had thankfully left the mesquite behind.

I was intrigued by a narrow gap in the cliffs above, a slot that appeared to contain a steep chute that might be a shortcut to the crest. But I could see snow in there, and I had no idea how technical it would get up close, so I filed it away and kept traversing.

As I rounded the corner toward the north side, I could see a towering fin of reddish rock blocking my way ahead. Between me and the fin lay a steep snow-covered slope heavily forested with pinyon pine – this would be my only route to the crest. The grade was more than 30 percent, and the trees appeared to get thicker toward the top.

That forest lay mostly in the shade, so I didn’t mind the effort of climbing – it kept me warm! But the ground beneath the 4-inch-deep snow consisted of loose gravel or scree so there was a lot of slipping. The steep grade required me to sidestep most of the way, zigzagging between trees.

The slope narrowed as I climbed, with a cliff closing in on my right and outcrops emerging on my left. The cliff on the right eventually forced me to cross the outcrops on the left, where I found myself on an even steeper east slope strewn with deadfall, scrub, and bare scree.

After finding my way across that final slope, I emerged on the north end of the crest. I’d never actually believed I would make it up there, especially while climbing that forest slope, so I was inclined to just savor the moment and call it a day.

But after checking my watch and calculating how much time I had left – assuming the ice would’ve either melted or been cleared off the highway home – I realized there was no reason why I couldn’t continue and try to reach the peak, which loomed another 200 feet above the ridge south of me.

First I had to climb another steep, forested, snow-blanketed slope. But when I did, I found myself standing on the rim of a great stone funnel, facing the slot in the cliff I’d wondered about from below. Vertical cliff walls towered on both sides of the slot, and when I shouted, it came echoing back. A chute of scree fell vertiginously away below me. It appeared that you might be able to climb it from below, but going down would be terrifying and probably suicidal.

I’d been excited to reach the lower edge of the crest, but now I was ecstatic. This was the most spectacular rock formation I’d ever reached in all my years in this region.

And the peak appeared to be only a short climb above.

I kept climbing up a slope of bare rock with a thin coating of snow, and reached a wall of stone, with the summit looming behind it. The only gap lay at my right, a window at head height, its sill a 45-degree ramp cascading to a drop of hundreds of feet, with no hand or footholds I could see.

I took off my pack and tried edging toward the window. But I soon ran out of holds. If I was roped and anchored, with a partner, I probably would’ve tried it. But gripping the last available hold, I reached my camera up over the sill, and it didn’t look like there was a non-technical route to the summit on the other side.

I estimated I’d gone between three and four miles in 3-1/2 hours – about what you’d expect while routefinding and bushwhacking new terrain. The alluvial slopes had gone quickly, but the slot canyon and snow-covered upper slopes had gone very slow. I expected the descent to be treacherous.

But the descent of that snow-covered scree actually turned out to be both easy and fun – probably because there were plenty of trees and branches so I wasn’t worried about falling. And my landscape memory served me well on the alluvial slopes – I only strayed once, finding myself across a deep gully from the cattle trail, but that was easily remedied. On the way up, I’d regularly looked over my shoulder at memorable features on the skyline behind me, because the bajada is a maze of shallow washes, and those distant features would keep me oriented on my return. And sure enough, I was able to find the stone gap and slot canyon even though they were hidden from the bajada.

I reached the stream and the slot canyon sooner than expected, and not long after, the windmill appeared above the trees of the big wash. After climbing the road to my vehicle on its ledge, I suddenly realized the shrubs surrounding it were creosote bush! My favorite desert plant, after a day of the kind of hiking I treasure in the desert. And I was left with plenty of time to get home before dark.

I’d only gone 6-1/2 miles and climbed a little over 1,600 feet – I would normally consider that a failed day trip. But how can I forget standing on the crest of that great stone rampart, overlooking more than fifty miles of wild country? And a little farther down the crest, standing in that echoing amphitheater of stone with its narrow gateway over the same country, its perilous cascade of scree falling away at my feet. Fortunately, there’s more to explore in that area.

I encountered a final mystery on the way out – where the road runs down the wash, the bank was lined with half-buried old cars. I couldn’t tell whether it was by design or by accident – some trailer-trash rancher upstream might’ve had a junkyard that was washed down in a flood?

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