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A Year’s Weather in a Day

Monday, April 19th, 2021: Hikes, Mogollon Mountains, Rain, Southwest New Mexico.

Another tough choice over where to hike! Last Sunday I’d experienced an extremely painful strain of my Achilles tendon. I couldn’t use my left foot if the angle between the foot and the leg was less than 90 degrees. But in order to keep the foot at a 90 degree angle while climbing, I had to use my calf muscle and push off with the ball of my foot, which is the vulnerable part of my foot. I can do that at the beginning of a hike, but as the day wears on, the bones get inflamed and can no longer bear my weight.

I’d taken the intervening week off, resting my heel and doing gentle stretches 4 times a day. My second COVID shot was coming up – I expected to miss a hike or two afterward, and wanted to maintain my conditioning with a longer hike before. But we don’t have any long hikes that don’t involve climbing.

So in the end, I picked a hike I’d never done before – one that had been recommended to me by someone I’d hiked with in the past, someone who knew what I liked. It was a 14-mile round-trip that crossed two divides between three creeks, so it had some climbs, but I didn’t know how steep they were. It was definitely the wrong hike to pick for my heel problem, but I figured if it was too hard, I could just skip the climbs and explore at creek level.

We’d had unseasonably warm weather for a couple of weeks, but now there was an area-wide warning of a cold front that could bring thunderstorms. It was mostly focused to the east, but I always hope for weather.

The trailhead is harder to reach than most – it requires a 20-mile drive across a rolling plateau on dirt ranch roads. I’d avoided this trail in the past because it traverses a lower part of the mountains between 6,300′ and 7,300′, so I didn’t expect it to give me the elevation gain I normally seek, and I didn’t expect any spectacular views. But from a distance the terrain looked fairly rugged. Maybe it would surprise me.

The approach was fairly typical for trails on the western front: dropping from the plateau at the foot of the mountains into a deep canyon, through pinyon, juniper, and oak. It started with a “Trail Unmaintained” sign, but I’d heard that it had been mostly cleared in recent years, and the tread was good, besides consisting mostly of loose rock. Traversing farther up the canyon, I began to see cliffs and rock outcrops ahead. It was mostly sunny but cool. The cold front had cleared the air and I was feeling good and optimistic.

Past the creek, the trail began switchbacking up a very steep slope. I was conscientiously pushing off with my left foot, keeping the foot at 90 degrees, and the vulnerable ball of my foot felt fine. Taking a week off had seemingly helped. The view up the canyon kept getting better and better. This was definitely an area worth checking out – despite starting out lower, it was the most spectacular canyon I’d ever seen in these mountains!

About a thousand feet above the creek, I reached the first summit of the divide between the first and second creeks. This rolling divide is about three miles wide, and is split into several sections, each of which requires short ascents and descents. Most of it burned in the 2012 wildfire, so there are a lot of exposed, brushy sections. It looked like a long trudge, and it was. But as I moved across it, my view of the higher and more distant peaks kept changing, as did the cloud cover.

After the morning cool, the climb to the divide had been hot, and it was warm up there. I could see clouds touching the far peaks, above 10,000′, but it didn’t look like I was going to get any weather.

Straight ahead of me, in the east, was a spectacular wall of cliffs with a top like a straightedge. I knew that had to be the east wall of the canyon of the second creek. My plan was to drop into that canyon and climb the other side to the top of the divide facing the third canyon. That would give me at least 7 miles one-way, and a view into the third canyon.

I lost the trail a couple of times crossing that rolling divide, wasting up to a half hour. It meandered continually back and forth through the dense scrub, marked only by frequent cairns. Climbing over the final hump, I encountered a stretch where the “trail” consisted only of deeply eroded gullies and steep slopes of loose dirt, blocked occasionally by deadfall, and there were no cairns for a hundred yards or more. But taking my time, I figured out the route.

Finally I reached the rim of the second canyon. It was still mostly sunny and warm, and I was really stoked because of that spectacular wall of cliffs in front of me. It looked like another thousand-foot descent to the creek, and it started out so steep, it was one of those descents where once you start, you can’t stop. But my foot and heel were still feeling fine, so I started sliding down.

What seemed like hundreds of super-steep, rocky switchbacks later, I emerged in intact, parklike, fairly level ponderosa pine forest on the bank of the creek, with the cliffs dimly visible high above on the opposite slope. Screens of willows lined both sides of the creek. After pushing through the first, I stood on rocks mid-creek and looked upstream. This was an amazing canyon that stretched all the way up to the crest of the range.

This location, deep in the wilderness area, was completely hidden from the outside world. The trail I’d taken was the only route in. Another trail started here and followed the canyon all the way to the crest, but the Forest Service claimed it had been destroyed in the wildfire. I was so excited – it really felt like I’d finally penetrated into the mystery of the range. There were spectacular cliffs and rock outcrops all over this area. I was in heaven.

The trail up the east slope of this canyon was in worse shape, and I’d lost time scouting for trail across the first divide. Partway up I began finding old sun-bleached ribbons on branches, and I used those as well as sporadic cairns to find my way. Still there were sections where I had to spend time scouting, so when I had a clear trail, I moved fast.

Finally, after a mile and a half and nearly 500 vertical feet of climbing, I reached the saddle between the two creeks. It felt super remote, but as a destination it was a letdown. I’d reached my goal, but the next canyon didn’t look nearly as spectacular as the previous, and further shoulders of the outlying ridge blocked my view into it.

I was running late, so I sped back toward the second creek. Nearing the bottom of the east slope, I came upon fairly fresh mountain lion scat that I didn’t remember from the ascent. Then, after crossing the creek, I found a lion track superimposed on my own tracks, so I started looking over my shoulder.

Cloud cover had been increasing. When I got a view up the canyon, I could see precipitation veiling the crest of the range, several miles away.

The climb out of this canyon was brutal! Surprisingly, my foot and heel were still holding up, but I knew that even after reaching the top, I still had at least a thousand feet of climbing left crossing the rolling divide and climbing out of the original canyon.

About 300′ below the top there’s a little shelf with intact forest, and there I lost the trail yet again. I knew it eventually crossed a small drainage, so I just dropped into the drainage and fought my way up it, eventually reconnecting with the trail. But that lost me more time.

Cloud cover was now complete, it was raining lightly and getting cold. When I reached the top it turned to snow, so I packed away my shade hat and pulled on both my sweater and my hooded shell jacket.

After the steep, rough descent into the first depression of this long divide, the snow turned to sleet, and when I reached the next rise, it turned to heavy rain, so I had to break out my poncho. My hands were freezing – I’d put on wool glove liners, but once my hands get cold, it takes up to an hour for them to warm up again, so I was flexing them constantly to maintain feeling. I could hear thunder over the crest of the range. A year’s weather in a day!

Precipitation stopped by the time I reached the opposite end of the divide, but clouds still obscured many of the high peaks. The down climb seemed to take forever, and by the time I crossed the first creek and began the final ascent to the trailhead, my foot, heel, and calf were exhausted. That final climb, which is only a little over a mile and less than 500′ of elevation, seemed endless. I was literally cursing after about halfway. And then it began to rain again.

All in all, that was one of the hardest hikes I’ve done in this area, but also one of the most rewarding. I hope to return and explore up the second canyon, and maybe turn it into a backpacking trip. You could do a loop up this canyon, across the crest, and back down the first canyon, although much of it would probably be bushwhacking.

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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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My Favorite Trail?

Monday, August 30th, 2021: Hikes, Mogollon Mountains, Rain, Southwest New Mexico.

I was hankering to get back to my favorite trail, the rollercoaster hike that takes me across two rocky canyons and the rolling plateau in between, with spectacular views at almost every point. The weather was forecast to be warm but not hot, with the potential for some afternoon cloud cover, if not a bit of rain.

Descending into the first canyon, the first thing I noticed was the flies. They were everywhere today, not just in the humid canyon bottom. I decided to try ignoring them at first.

Halfway down I came upon one of the most beautiful snakes I’ve ever seen, lounging right on the trail. I grew up obsessed with snakes, and despite decades of forgetfullness I figured it for a kingsnake or milk snake. Back home I would identify it as an Arizona/Sonoran Mountain Kingsnake – my first.

The creek had been dry on my last visit, three weeks into the monsoon. Now it was roaring, and I had to find a stick to stabilize my crossing over flooded steppingstones. One of my boots got wet, but I figured it would dry out soon. The crossing was precarious enough that as I continued the hike I scouted for a pair of sticks to use on my return, and left them along the trail where I could easily spot them later.

There had been two city vehicles at the trailhead –  first time I’d seen anyone else there – and only a mile into the trail I saw two men about my age camping on the bank of the creek. Now I knew I had the rest of the trail to myself.

Despite the mild temperature and the steep north slope being in shade, it was humid enough that I was drenched with sweat on the long climb out of the canyon, and the flies gave me no peace. After one had flown up my nose and another down my throat, I finally gave up and pulled on my head net. It was hard wearing it while sweating so much, and I still hoped the flies would fade away at higher elevations, but no such luck – they stayed with me all day.

I was trying to maintain a steady, relentless pace, because I wanted to go farther than before, to the bottom of the third canyon. The only place where it’s possible to go fast is the middle rise of the plateau between first and second canyons. I hadn’t seen any human tracks on the climb up, but suddenly on that middle rise I found a recently trampled annual plant. After that I looked closely for tracks but could only spot animal sign, until I finally neared the far edge of the plateau, climbing out of the last deep hollow toward the saddle above the West Fork. There I found a track that at first looked like a boot print, but which I eventually realized was from a big bear.

I started down into the deep canyon of the West Fork, with the long, talus-striped wall of Lookout Mountain towering above on the opposite side. It was slower going than before due to additional deadfall, and the steep, rocky trail was as treacherous as ever.

One of the points you most look forward to on this hike is after that brutal descent, entering the parklike ponderosa pine forest at the bottom of the trail, above the west bank of the West Fork. I’d been a little worried about crossing the West Fork, but easily found two sticks and adequate steppingstones. As before, I left the sticks where I could find them on my return.

After all our recent rain, the less-maintained trail beyond the creek turned out to be densely overgrown. Clearly nobody but me was using this trail. Most people only walked the first mile, to the first creek, and no one except me had climbed to the plateau this summer, let alone penetrated all the way to the West Fork.

As I fought my way up the steep traverse across the base of Lookout Mountain, it was starting to dawn on me that despite this being my favorite trail, it was damn hard, and damn slow going. I’d been imagining the extension to the third creek just in terms of miles and elevation, but what with the steep and rocky trail, the humidity, the flies, and the chance of rain, it became an excessively long, slow ordeal.

Eventually I reached the farthest point I’d hiked to in the past – the saddle where the traverse begins descending into the third canyon. I was pretty much spent, but I just had to go a little farther, to make this day’s hike worthwhile.

In the end, I descended far enough to see into the third canyon. There was a storm building over it, and the canyon itself turned out to be rockier and a little prettier than I’d expected. I got to a point where the trail skirted a cliff edge that gave a good view both upstream and down. It was time to turn back, but I was glad I’d achieved that new view.

The rain caught me on the way back, just as I reached the saddle below Lookout Mountain. It came down pretty hard, but huddling under a small juniper, it took me 15 minutes to change into my new rain pants, by which time the rain had ended. Such is our weather. However, I was glad I had those pants on while pushing through the wet vegetation that overgrew the trail.

As I returned toward and across the West Fork, the storm spread north and west over the second canyon. I always want to stop and hang out in the parklike forest on the west bank, but I’d had to make so many stops I was now behind schedule.

It started to rain again just as I was starting to climb that brutal slope out of the canyon. So I switched hats and prepared to don my poncho, only for the rain to stop again. But the flies were relentless.

I was so worn out, and sweating so bad, it seemed to take forever to climb that slope. I was literally stopping about every hundred feet to catch my breath. What an incredible relief to reach the saddle and start back across the plateau!

The storm dispersed as I headed west. I was now moving as fast as I could, and continuing to work up a sweat even when going downhill. The long switchbacks into the first canyon seemed interminable, and I had to keep wiping sweat out of my eyes, through the head net, which drove the flies nuts.

Nearing the first creek, I grabbed the two sticks I’d left in the morning. But after the day’s rain over the head of the canyon, the creek had risen over all the stepping stones. I tried to add more but the creek was just too wide and deep now. I’d simply have to try crossing barefoot – something really dangerous for my foot condition.

Using the sticks to stabilize myself, I stepped across very slowly through the rushing flood waters, across the rocky creek bottom, feeling carefully with each step for footing that wouldn’t put weight on the ball of my left foot. I finally made it across and immediately sat down on the rough rocks of the bank to dry my feet and pull my boots back on. The whole process had taken another 15 minutes – I calculated that over an hour of my hike had been used up in stops like this. It was turning into a 9-1/2 hour hike, almost as long as my “longest hike”, despite only being 14 miles total.

The blister on my little toe had returned, slowing me down even more. The sun was just setting as I reached the vehicle. I wouldn’t get home until 8:30. Fortunately I had a frozen burrito left, to warm up in the microwave…

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