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Thunder Canyon

Monday, July 1st, 2024: Hikes, Mogollon Mountains, Southwest New Mexico, Whitewater.

Today’s hike would be another experiment with knee pain, so I was looking for something with gentle grades. But it was forecast to be a hot day, and the only way to mitigate the heat is to hike a shady canyon or a high-elevation crest. All the canyon hikes involve steep grades, and most of the crest hikes involve a long drive. I’d initially decided to bite the bullet and do the boring crest hike near town, but on a last-minute impulse I headed west instead, to take the “short” trail down into the big, spectacular west-side canyon, hoping to explore the newly-opened tributary that had intrigued me on my last visit, in February.

I was so anxious to explore a new trail that I conveniently forgot that this route involves dozens of steep grades, with big rocks to climb over, all of which would be hell on my knee.

Plus, it’s lower-elevation – below 6,000 feet, lower and hence hotter than home, and mostly exposed. My heart sank when I got out at the trailhead – it was already sweltering at 9:30 am, with not a cloud anywhere in the sky.

I hoped for monsoon storms in the afternoon, but until then I would just be sweating through my clothes.

Since I wasn’t wearing a knee brace, it was all about using my left leg to raise or lower myself at every step so I could avoid bending and putting weight on the right knee. I was really strict about that, so I went slow, and it worked. But it meant my left leg was being overworked from the beginning, and it took longer to reach the shade of the canyon bottom.

Once past the big side canyon, it got even harder – I’d completely forgotten how steep and rugged this trail is. I was thinking how this was perfect snake weather, and sure enough, encountered a medium-sized rattler as soon as I reached the canyon bottom.

This is one of those canyons that’s full of house-sized boulders – fallen down from the cliffs above – so the trail constantly has to climb steeply around them, sometimes with points where you need to make bouldering moves, which was hard on both my knee and my shoulders, which are in much worse shape. It ended up taking me three hours to reach the creek crossing that marks the junction with the tributary canyon – a hike of little more than three miles.

On the way, I spotted a single tiny cloud, far up the canyon, and prayed for more.

Whereas the creek had been flooded by snowmelt in February, now it was shallow enough to stagger across on barely submerged rocks in my waterproof boots. On the far side, there was no sign that anyone else had been this way since a crew had cleared the trail nine months ago. It made sense – the winter flood had blocked the crossing until late spring.

I was really excited to be exploring a new canyon! It turned out to be a narrower version of the main canyon – full of house-sized boulders and choked with dense riparian vegetation.

But struggling up and down those steep grades, working to protect my knee, ended up being worth it when I reached the “swimming hole”! This is only the second bedrock pool I’ve found in six years of exploring our local wilderness. Unfortunately the rock pool was lined with algae from the recent dry season – hopefully that would get scoured out in the next monsoon flood – so although I was literally dripping with sweat I wasn’t anxious to take a dip here. But it was a beautiful spot.

Past the swimming hole the trail entered a stretch of canyon that had been filled with debris from catastrophic post-wildfire floods, then filled in by thickets of riparian trees – primarily ash and alder. Here, the trail had little tread per se, being mostly just a vague route over the debris, further challenging my knee and shoulders as I often had to reach out for balance. And those thickets made for claustrophobia.

This canyon drains parts of the crest – 4,000 feet above where I was today –  that I’ve hiked many times from other directions. So I was hoping today’s hike would add to my knowledge of the range. But too often my view of the slopes above was blocked by dense riparian vegetation.

Storm clouds had been building overhead, and I was getting some shade now, but it remained hot down there.

I entered a narrows with a sheer 1,000-foot-tall cliff on my right, and here, the trail finally climbed out of the canyon bottom and traversed the left slope through mixed-conifer forest. I’d reached my turn-around time, but through gaps in the forest ahead I thought I could see more light, possibly the end of the dark narrows and a wide place in the canyon. I wanted some sort of milestone to mark the end of my hike, but that dark, towering cliff on my right never seemed to end.

Finally I reached an open talus slope and decided to turn back. But my GPS device failed to find a satellite – the cliffs were blocking the sky – so I decided to keep going, and a quarter mile later the canyon began to emerge from the shadow of the cliff, and I was able to connect with a satellite and record my location.

Trying to protect the knee, I hadn’t been able to go as far as I’d hoped. I need to do something about all three of my bad joints – hiking like this is just not sustainable.

Lightning was now striking nearby, and one thunderclap was so loud it shook the whole canyon. Soon it began raining in earnest, and I took shelter under a spreading oak to pull on my poncho. Despite being in a narrow, steep canyon, there’s no danger of flash flood in storms like this – the cells are just too small and short-lived. As usual, this one lasted about twenty minutes.

Back at the big creek crossing, I was still hot and sweat-soaked, so I stripped down, rinsed my hat and shirt, and laid down in the creek. This in itself was really difficult and painful, because it required bending the bad knee and straining the bad shoulders, but it was bliss to lie in that cold water and rinse off the sweat.

Wearing the wet hat and shirt on the way back kept me from overheating, but all the steep grades, up and down, over and over again around those house-sized boulders, wore me out to the point where I almost doubted that I could make it. Those mini-grades amount to hundreds of vertical feet in a mile of distance, but none of them register in the GPS routes because GPS averages at longer intervals.

I was also running low on drinking water, and had to stop twice with bad cramps. The fact is, we just don’t have easy trails – all of our trails are too challenging for someone with my joint problems.

But with a final Clif bar and judicious use of my water and electrolytes, I made it back to the vehicle. It had taken me 7-1/2 hours to walk ten miles. Walking slowly and carefully had minimized the damage to my knee, but my shoulders were aching from being triggered several times. I could see a broad, heavy storm darkening the sky southwards toward town.

I’d left a liter of water on ice in the vehicle, and I used that to hydrate before hitting the road. But within ten minutes of driving I developed cramps so bad I had to pull over, get out, and stagger around for fifteen minutes until they finally began to subside. And sure enough, I drove into the storm farther south – some of the heaviest rain I’ve ever driven through.

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