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Day of Clouds

Monday, December 28th, 2020: Hikes, Pinalenos, Southeast Arizona.

One of those days when I wasn’t motivated. It was freezing outside, I had trouble deciding where to go, and the hike I finally chose was a long drive away. Fortunately, preparing for an all-day hike in the mountains is a complicated routine, so I just submitted to it, and the routine eventually got me out the door on time.

Funny, the sky was’t particularly interesting during the drive across the big empty basins of the Southwest. But once I arrived and started walking, something drew my eyes upwards, and the spectacle began.

No wind at ground level, but the clouds were churning constantly, all day long. Still, I had to keep my eyes on the ground while walking, and I was surprised to find a crowd of footprints – big, medium, and small, both coming and going – lining the trail from the beginning. I hadn’t thought this was such a popular trail.

However, the human prints disappeared after the first mile or so in the foothills. As usual, they were only up for a short stroll and had turned back. From there on, I had virgin trail – looked like no one else but animals had set foot on it since my last visit, seven weeks ago.

This is probably the most consistently steep hike I do. I’d forgotten how relentless it is. Southern exposure most of the way up, sweating. Then at the top, a knife edge ridge scoured by icy wind, legs aching, trudging in the chill shadow of towering firs up ground altering between crusty patches of snow and a pillowy sea of oak leaves.

Taking it easier on the way down. Love this Sky Island habitat – much more interesting than what we have back home. Especially in this canyon, where a maze of rock outcrops and cliffs forces vegetation into patches, alternating between dense chaparral and mixed-conifer forest, often interpenetrating. So much diversity! I kept exlaiming out loud, “What a great trail!”

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Frosty Ridge

Sunday, February 14th, 2021: Hikes, Pinalenos, Southeast Arizona.

The forecast called for up to 4 inches of snow, beginning in early morning, so I was looking forward to today’s hike. But 4 inches in town, at 6,000′, could translate to a foot in the mountains. So I’d decided to try one of my favorite hikes, over in Arizona, which starts over a thousand feet lower and climbs to a little below 9,000′. I didn’t know if I’d make it to the top, but I’d try.

However, I wasn’t thinking about the long drive over there. When I got up in the morning there was an inch of snow in town. By the time I was ready to go, it was snowing again. The Sidekick has the best all-terrain tires you can get, and I shifted it into 4 wheel drive. As I drove south out of town, rising toward the Continental Divide, more and more snow was coating the highway.

I’d never tried the Sidekick on a snowy road before. My 2wd truck would’ve just slid off into a ditch immediately, so I was quite apprehensive. There was nobody else on the road.

The Sidekick did fine, and I figured the snow would end where the highway drops out of the mountains into the basin, below 5,500′. But it didn’t – it turned into a blizzard there. Snow was piling up in Lordsburg, below 4,500′. Crazy!

If Lordsburg had inches of snow, I wasn’t even sure I could get to the trailhead over in the Pinalenos. Maybe I should skip that climb, head south to the Chiricahuas instead, and do a low-elevation loop. I wouldn’t get much of a workout, but it’d be better than nothing.

But I finally emerged from the snow, crossing the playa on I-10, and saw blue sky ahead. I decided to keep going. And it turned out that the storm hadn’t dumped as much in Arizona as it was dumping in New Mexico.

The forecast had called for more snow throughout the day, so I dressed warm before heading up the trail. It’s really hard to change socks or pull on long johns when you’re already standing in snow.

It was windy, and clouds kept breaking up the sunlight, so I kept going from warm to cold while climbing. I couldn’t see much snow on the slope ahead, but I could see frost on the pines and firs up on the ridge. It can get really cold up there.

I hit snow on the trail at about the halfway point.

Fortunately the morning wind didn’t follow me onto the ridge top. The snow depth varied from 3 inches to a foot in steep, shady spots. It was beautiful fresh powder, and there was a little more coming down, despite the blue skies overhead. I was moving pretty well, but I didn’t have much time left by the time I got up there. I had to stop and turn back a half mile from the end, in order to get home at a reasonable hour. I was okay with that because the snow was getting deeper!

Snow on the upper trail made the descent much easier – I just sort of skipped down until I ran out of snow.

I really had to fight a crosswind to stay on the Interstate. It was dark by the time I reached Lordsburg. All the snow had melted, but there was a gale-force wind with brutal wind chill when I got out to pump gas.

The highway home was also snow-free until it rose into the low Burro mountains. There, I immediately hit ice and the vehicle started to fishtail. I was able to pull over and switch into 4wd, but still had only marginal grip. I switched on the emergency flasher and proceeded at about 35 mph. Within a few minutes a car came up behind me and tailgated me dangerously close for another 5 minutes until finally passing. It was a cheap little Japanese car, and it immediately speeded out of sight in the icy snow.

I expected to find it in a ditch ahead, but somehow the driver made it. And I found that I could actually drive faster now I was in 4wd. Still, it took me about twice as long as usual to get through the mountains. A long, exciting day!

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Bushwhacking Another Abandoned Trail

Monday, May 17th, 2021: Hikes, Pinalenos, Southeast Arizona.

I’d taken the previous Sunday off after an injury and minor surgery, so today I wanted a long hike with a lot of elevation to make up. I decided to drive over to Arizona to hit one of my favorite trails in a range with a lot of exposed rock, but this time, instead of taking it to the peak, I wanted to explore an apparently abandoned trail that branched off from the crest and dropped along an outlying ridge into a distant canyon.

Air over the Southwest was very hazy today, but there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and I expected temperatures at the trailhead, below 5,000′, to approach 90 at midday. But it would be cooler as I started out this morning, and hopefully I’d get breezes as I climbed higher.

I love this trail because of the golden granite boulders in the foothills and the white cliffs and pinnacles along the crest, but I always forget how steep it is. It climbs 3,400′ to a saddle on the ridge top in less than 5 miles – significantly steeper than the steepest trail near home. As a result, I’d never seen much sign of traffic – usually hikers went a mile or two at most before turning back. It’s a south-facing slope and most of the climb is fully exposed, so it felt much hotter than it was. I’d been missing sleep for several nights in a row so my energy was low, and unusually for me, I had to stop many times to catch my breath after the first three miles or so.

Near the top, you enter mixed-conifer forest, and the abandoned trail starts at the high saddle, in a small clearing. The only online trip report I could find from the last 10 years started at the other end, more than 6 miles away and 4,000′ lower. As I recalled, they’d given up about 3/4 of the way. But I’d be starting from the top, and on previous visits I’d glimpsed invitingly clear tread at the junction.

I hadn’t brought a map, but in my memory from the day before, the trail headed down a shallow ridgetop for a couple of miles before switchbacking down into the canyon. Setting off, I soon encountered some deadfall, but it wasn’t bad, and the good tread continued for a few hundred yards.

I was on a north slope well outside the burn areas farther west, and this forest of tall firs and Gambel oak was dense and lush with undergrowth. Instead of following a gentle ridgetop, the trail plunged down a very steep slope that was heavily eroded due to a lot of deadfall and rockfall. The good tread ended and I had to sort out a route through heavily disturbed ground showing only game tracks. But after finding a way through these stretches, I kept rejoining short sections of old trail that had built-up rock berms to protect them on the steep slope.

Eventually my route dropped into a deep side canyon with huge boulders and old-growth firs, where the trail was blocked by massive deadfall I had to climb through. In the middle of the drainage I found an old cairn, so I just kept going.

From here the trail climbed steeply. I saw dramatic rock outcrops far above and knew I’d misread the map the day before. This was nothing like what I’d expected. I almost thought I might be on the wrong trail, but I knew there were no other historical trails in this area, and I kept finding cairns, and even occasionally an old bleached ribbon on a branch. But definitely no human footprints, and no sign anyone had come this way in at least a decade.

This trail wound its way over and under rock formations that formed impassable cliffs, through what was basically a jungle of Gambel oak and thorny locust. It was all very impressive but not much fun, and there wasn’t enough wind to keep me from overheating and depleting my drinking water.

Checking my watch as I approached the bottom of yet another side drainage, I realized I’d more than used up my available time and would have to turn back.

It’s impossible to determine distances on a trail like this. It’s shown on the GPS-based, crowdsourced sites as about 6 miles end to end, but the routes plotted on those sites omit the dozens of meanders and switchbacks I encountered in my short exploration, not to mention whatever might lie beyond that. The direct distance from the junction to my turning point was about 1/2 mile, so I’m guessing I explored 3/4 mile one-way, which took me an hour in the slow conditions. Including the climb to the saddle, I achieved close to 4,000′ of accumulated elevation gain.

Now that I knew the route, the fight back to the trail junction at the saddle wasn’t too bad. And a breeze was picking up, so even though the air temperature was much higher than in the morning, it wasn’t as bad as I’d expected. Exposed on the crest in still air, it felt like 90, but in the shade of the forest it was clearly still in the 60s.

Unfortunately, on the way down I began to notice the trash. First, one of those giant plastic “big gulp” tumblers you get soft drinks in at fast food joints. I tried to reach it but it was embedded in dense brush down a steep slope of loose gravel.

About halfway down I found a spot where hikers had recently sat above the trail for a snack. They’d left orange peels and two plastic water bottles. About a mile beyond that I found another, older water bottle.

In the past I’ve very seldom had to pack out trash from other hikers – this was the most I’d ever seen, on a single remote, difficult trail that gets little use. I attribute it to Arizona – Arizonans are in general just more irresponsible than New Mexicans – and the fact that most hikers here come from Phoenix, which has a culture of irresponsibility.

I was really looking forward to the extra bottle of drinking water in my vehicle, until I found that it’d been heated to about 100 degrees. Guess I need to start bringing a cooler full of ice on these all-day hikes.

And on the interstate, I ran over a big snake that raced in front of me before I could react. That bummed me out almost all the way home.

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