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Cave Climbing

Monday, March 29th, 2021: Hikes, Mogollon Mountains, Sacaton, Southwest New Mexico.

I’d had my first COVID shot on Friday, suffering only a sore arm. Online research suggested a hike on Sunday would be fine. We’d had snow, sleet, and rain in the past few days, so I was anxious to check out the 300′ waterfall I’d read about, up the canyon with the cave and arch I’d seen from a distance on my first bushwhack. I was afraid if I waited much longer, the last snow would melt and the waterfall would dry up.

It was supposed to be a six mile one-way with 2,000′ of elevation gain, which normally wouldn’t be enough to challenge me, but with my immune system off balance I should probably take it easy anyway. And I had no idea what I’d find in that canyon. There had originally been a trail, but after the 2012 wildfire it hadn’t been cleared. If it turned out to be an easy hike, I might be able to bushwhack up to the 10,000′ ridge above. It the canyon turned out to be blocked with debris and deadfall, I might not even reach the waterfall. In any event, there was the cave and the arch, halfway up. I was sure I could reach those at minimum.

The turnoff from the highway is at a ranch gate – the biggest and fanciest ranch gate in this area, with an expensive sign advertising their rodeo wins. The ranch itself is one of the biggest private properties in the state – 40,000 acres or 62.5 square miles. The road cuts straight up through the middle of it toward the mountains where they get their water, still rimmed with snow. Along the way you pass the sprawling ranch headquarters, big corrals and an auction yard, and a series of large stock ponds at different levels of the vast plateau.

Toward the head of the plateau, the gravel road joins a narrow irrigation ditch, made of four-foot pre-cast concrete sections, and enters the pinyon-juniper-oak forest. Water was flowing briskly down the ditch. The gravel road ends at the mouth of the canyon, where a dam feeds the ditch. A 4wd road leads onward into the riparian forest, but I could tell it wasn’t likely to be drivable so I parked in the clearing outside.

This riparian forest was pretty impressive – it’d mostly escaped the wildfire, and tall old-growth ponderosas shaded the floodplain. The 4wd road had been cleared in places, but was blocked by deadfall or erosion at intervals. As it crossed back and forth across the creek, I could sometimes see all-terrain tire tracks but couldn’t tell how old they were.

The creek was flowing strong, and the rocks were covered with brilliant green algae. I reached a cattle gate, beyond which the road had been completely washed out. But it continued on the other side, until eventually it became a single track trail, still in the shaded floodplain. It crossed the creek again and I came to the cabin. Unlike the other cabins I’ve encountered in these canyons, this one used absolutely no milled lumber – it was made entirely out of rough-cut native timber, with shake siding. It looks like it could fall down any minute, but from experience I know it could keep standing for decades.

Past the cabin, the trail disappears in thorny thickets with lots of deadfall. I saw the cave rock looming ahead through the trees and crossed the creek, traversing a little ways up the north slope to avoid the floodplain thickets. From where I’d first seen the cave, it looked like the best approach would be from the left side, where I might be able to skirt the bottom of the cliff all the way to the cave. But that way might just as likely be blocked by boulders. The base of the cliff was almost 400′ above me, and there were intervening gullies that might slow me down a lot. So I kept going until I was almost directly under the cave. Then I started climbing the slope, which was at least 30 degrees, alternating between grass, bare rock, and thickets.

It was slow going – I had to zigzag back and forth to avoid obstacles and maintain traction. I could see pines above and hoped for more open ground, but it was a struggle all the way up.

The cave itself was protected by a lower skirt of vertical cliffs, but I eventually saw a narrow crack through the cliffs, directly below the cave, that appeared to have trees growing out of it. I was hoping that would be my way up, but I would need a lot of luck.

Finally, forcing my way past thickets that choked the base of the cliffs, I reached the crack. It was narrow and lined with oaks, but I couldn’t see the end of it, so I just started climbing.

That crack was really an amazing formation. It got narrower toward the top, but the ground was firm so it was fairly easy climbing. Then it curved to the left and the way was blocked with boulders, with only a tiny space between them.

I found that the gap between the boulders was big enough for my body, but I had to take my pack off and push it through first. Then I was able to lever myself up through the gap, using a small branch below as a foothold.

I emerged in a small patch of gravel at the base of the final cliff that led to the cave. There was a vertical crack leading up the cliff, and on its left was a near-vertical rock surface uneven enough to provide holds. I liked the look of the cliff better than the crack, so I tried to climb it, but found the rock too crumbly.

I discovered that these rocks, which look like sandstone from a distance, are the “Gila conglomerate” – the same rock that formed the cliff dwellings north of town. After the ancient volcanism that created these mountains, this rock formed when clasts of harder country rock became embedded in the relatively soft white tuff from the eruptions – kind of like “rocky road” ice cream.

Unlike most conglomerate, it fractures along spherical planes, forming the vaulted arches and caves prehistoric people used as shelter. But it’s really unstable rock, not good for climbing.

I stood there, my spine tingling as I realized I would have to find a way up. I couldn’t get this far and turn back. But I hadn’t done a climb this dangerous in 20 years, my skills were super rusty, and all the recent disabilities had sapped my confidence and made me feel vulnerable. And I knew the climb down would be MUCH harder and scarier.

I took a deep breath and started up the crack, using it for footholds and exploring the rough rock of the cliff on my left for handholds. About half the ones I tried immediately broke off, but I kept breathing and stayed calm until I could find one that seemed solid.

Eventually the convex surface of the cliff ensured that the slope became less vertical, and I emerged onto a surface I could stand on. The cave arched above me, and at its back, the dark, raised alcove I’d seen from a distance.

I looked down and immediately saw a prehistoric corn cob! I couldn’t see any evidence of stone construction inside the arch, but the ancient Mimbrenos must’ve had a secret granary up here.

My spine was still tingling – where the rock was bare, it sloped downwards, and the inside of the arch was littered with slabs fallen from above. It was an exposed place I didn’t feel comfortable spending much time in. I saw that the raised alcove was actually open to the sky on the other side of the giant formation. I shouted and a clear echo came back.

I looked around and realized the way I’d come, through that steep, narrow crack in the cliff, was the only way up here. I’d been very lucky with my routefinding and guessing. If I’d tried to climb earlier and traverse the base of the cliffs I’d have had to backtrack a long distance on very rough ground to reach this point.

I found a relatively level spot in the sun and sat down on the bare rock for a snack and a drink of water. Then, of course, a canyon wren began calling from somewhere above. The arch returned sound so effectively it was impossible to tell where the bird was, but another responded immediately.

Facing me across the canyon and a little farther upstream was the other arch. I could see a natural stone bridge at its right, with forest underneath. I figured that could be explored another day – the scary climb to this cave was enough for now.

I was starting to feel a little queasy, probably from the strenuous climb and lingering effects of the vaccine. I was frankly not sure about the climb back down the crack, and wanted to get it over with. A fall would either kill me or injure me severely. The longer I put it off, the more likely I would just succumb to panic and freeze up.

The only option was to back down, reversing the moves I’d made coming up. I just kept breathing and took it slow, and it turned out to be not as hard as I’d expected. All the same holds worked going down, and it was over before I knew it.

I was hoping to keep hiking up the canyon, so I looked for ways to traverse that direction on the descent. But that slope was too steep and choked with scrub, so I had to go straight down, forcing my way through to the more open ponderosa forest of the floodplain.

The canyon bottom was still choked with thorns and deadfall, and there was no sign of a trail, but I found abundant elk scat and cattle sign and began following segments of game trails that led upward along the north slope. I wasn’t sure I should be climbing, but the canyon bottom just didn’t look like a viable path.

I was also starting to feel sick. I’d felt a sore throat starting, up in the cave, and now I just felt unwell – a little dizzy, a little queasy. But I kept going.

Ahead, the canyon was blocked by boulders the size of apartment buildings. It was obvious why the game trails were climbing – they had to get around the boulders. In places I came upon remnants of the original hiking trail, but these were short and scarce.

Using the game trails – one time I was grateful for the presence of cattle – I got around the boulder blockage, and the trails led back into the canyon bottom. I was now below the opposing arch.

I kept following game trails, and again they led up the slope. It was really hard going with a lot of loose ground, thickets, and deadfall. And after another mile or so, I suddenly found myself at the edge of a cliff. It was like a big bite had been taken out of the canyon side. Above the bite was dense undergrowth – to get around it I’d have to climb down into the canyon. I was feeling pretty bad, so I decided to turn back. Farther ahead I could see the canyon narrowing and curving out of sight to the north. Above in the distance was the high snowy ridge, lined with aspens, banded with talus. I could see a huge outcrop of cliffs where I figured the waterfall might be.

Working my way back down the canyon, I began to notice tall alders standing up from the floodplain. But I’d seen no sycamores – I wondered why?

Despite the many obstacles, due to my landscape memory I was able to nearly retrace my steps. When I reached the canyon bottom, below the opposing arch, I was feeling a little better. I looked up, and thought I could see a direct path up the steep slope, between boulders and deadfall. I decided to try it.

It turned out to be much steeper than the climb to the cave, in loose dirt still wet from yesterday’s rain. But I took it slow, and eventually discovered it was a much longer climb than expected. About halfway I found game trails that switchbacked, making it an easier climb. Then I reached a dense forest of oak below the arch that was tough going.

Finally I emerged from the oak thicket at the base of the arch.

This arch was shallower, longer, and deeper than the other, and north-facing so it was almost entirely in shade. I found nothing prehistoric, but because this arch was much easier to climb to, there was plenty of historical graffiti.

I climbed down the same way I’d climbed up, and resumed my retreat down the canyon.

I was feeling really good by the time I reached the vehicle. It’d turned into a warm spring day, but I’d had the sound of rushing water around me all through it, and the frequent sight of snow high above. I’d done a couple of serious climbs, one of them that I’d never forget. And on the way out, I noticed this enigmatic old adobe standing off to the side of the irrigation ditch.

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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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