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Monday, May 17th, 2021

Requiem for Andy’s Hat

Monday, May 3rd, 2021: Big Dry, Hikes, Mogollon Mountains, Southwest New Mexico.

The past week had been maddening, and I’d missed my midweek hike. Friday was incredibly stressful and hard on my back, and Saturday I’d barely had a chance to recover. I expected Monday to be another stressful and physically difficult day, so I needed to keep this Sunday’s hike relatively close to home.

After reviewing my options I decided to revisit the hike I’d unsuccessfully attempted 3 weeks earlier, on an abandoned trail into the head of a remote canyon system where there were supposed to be slot canyons, cascades and waterfalls. It featured a high concentration of exposed rock – cliffs and outcrops hundreds of feet tall – and some serious backcountry hikers called it the most beautiful part of the entire range.

There was a late-model Prius at the trailhead, which surprised me, because the road in is long, steep, and rocky – really hard on street tires. The trailhead log showed a party of 2 had started a five-day backpack yesterday, into the very area I was heading for.

Temperatures were in the 60s when I started out, and quickly settled into the 70s. The approach to the abandoned trail drops into the mouth of a canyon, follows it upstream for a few miles, then climbs 2,000′ to a saddle overlooking the next canyon. The modest stream was still mostly running, and the spring season was in full force, with brilliant new foliage glowing in the morning sunlight of the canyon bottom and the first riparian wildflowers opening. Unfortunately there was heavy cattle sign in the first couple of miles from the trailhead – including the biggest cowpies I’d ever seen. Then I encountered the bull. He was resting in the shade of a small meadow beside the trail, and watched me with only mild interest as I walked past.

The climb to the saddle always seems harder than I remember, varying between 15% and 30% grades. GPS on this section of trail shows 4 miles, but ignores the dozens of S-curves in the canyon, so I rate the actual distance at 5 miles – it takes longer than most 5-mile hikes I’ve done.

Finally I topped out at the saddle and could resume the unfinished business of a few weeks ago.

I watched the abandoned trail for the footprints of the backpacking party, but didn’t see any at first. Then I began to notice fresh, bright yellow plastic ribbons on trailside branches, in addition to the older, sun-bleached pink ribbons I’d followed before. These backpackers had flagged the trail themselves – hopefully they’d laid out a route I could follow beyond where the pink ribbons ended.

Now that I knew the trail, it was smooth going until I reached the “needle rock” where I’d bushwhacked off established tread 3 weeks ago. There, the new yellow ribbons followed the same route I’d taken, down and around a couple of outlying ridges, into the final side canyon that led to the bottom of the main canyon.

From my previous attempt, and a cursory glance at topo maps, I’d assumed it was an easy bushwhack down this shallow side canyon, with about 350′ of vertical drop. Boy was I wrong.

The new yellow ribbons ended and were replaced by new pink ribbons, but they didn’t mark out a trail – they just marked out a “route” – which led through thorn thickets pretty much straight down a slope that featured not only thorns but cliffs consisting of loose rock and long stretches of loose dirt at the angle of repose, finally reaching the log-and-boulder-choked gully at the low point of the side canyon – after dropping at least 300 feet and seemingly no closer to the main canyon. I knew this dangerous stretch was going to be super hard to climb on the way back, but once started I was committed.

The next stretch of descent wasn’t flagged – or at least not at first. I lost a lot of time scouting for non-existent ribbons, then tried making my way down the congested gully. That only worked for about a hundred feet. Then I had to re-enter the thorn thickets on the slope above.

Finally, nearing the bottom, I found more pink ribbons – again, with no trail, and leading directly through dense thorn thickets. Then a hundred feet above the main canyon bottom I entered dark conifer forest atop a section of cliffs and boulders that required some technical down-climbing. After that I came upon the stream, in a bend choked with logs. A cliff towered above, and I could barely see the entrance to the “slot canyon” a little ways upstream.

This stream was one of the most robust I’d ever seen in these mountains. It drains a huge area of the crest combining two main tributaries, each of which runs for 4-5 miles before reaching this junction. As in the divide hike I’d done a couple weeks ago, it felt incredibly remote, especially after that grueling hike down the side canyon, which had turned out to be twice as deep as I’d expected.

After all that hard work, I was already running about an hour later than planned. I should turn back immediately, but this place was really beautiful, especially in the dappled shade of the riparian canopy and those towering cliffs, with all that clear, cold water rushing down from the 10,000′ crest.

All the maps showed 4 trails converging here, but none of them had survived the 2012 wildfire. I tried scouting up the opposite bank but found nothing. So I started picking my way upstream using rocks as stepping-stones. Eventually I spotted a game trail on the opposite side that seemed to lead toward the “slot” canyon. I entered it – nearly as big as the main stream – and picked my way through thorn thickets and over stepping stones until I reached an overhanging cliff where I knew I’d have to turn back. I figured at this point I wouldn’t get home until dark, and would end up with a late dinner, quick shower, and bed.

But the bushwhack up the side canyon was probably the most brutal hike I’ve ever done. Overhanging brush kept pushing me back, thorns kept grabbing me, hidden branches kept tripping me, and I often slipped backward trying to climb steep slopes of loose dirt. It took me an hour and a half to go less than half a mile, and at the saddle where I rejoined the actual trail, I was essentially out of water and still had over 6 miles to go, including a climb of almost a thousand feet. I’d brought 3 liters of water as usual in warm weather, plus electrolyte supplement that was supposed to triple the hydration, and the temperature was still only in the 70s. Yikes!

Dehydrated from the climb, I had only enough water for the 2 doses of electrolytes in my pack. During the 2 miles of ascent to the divide saddle, I rationed the first dose of enhanced water, and was really thirsty by the time I reached that saddle. But at least I knew that after a mile of descending the steep trail into the next canyon, there would be a running stream.

I raced down the trail, and as soon as I reached the stream I filled my water bottle, and dug the SteriPen ultraviolet water purifier from my pack. I hadn’t used it for years, but I kept the batteries separate and they were still good. After a few minutes of stirring I had a liter of drinking water.

I drank it slowly to keep from getting sick. A mile down the trail I added the second dose of electrolytes. But I was still dehydrated. I realized that as hard as I’d had to work in that steep bushwhack, I’d end the day having needed almost 6 liters of water. Fortunately I’d brought an extra bottle in the vehicle for the drive home.

2-1/2 miles before the trailhead the cramps hit, in both thighs. I was immobilized with pain for about 5 minutes, then was able to continue stiff-legged until it mostly faded. The canyon was now dark, with only a rim of gold on the highest ridges.

I encountered the bull again, grazing only a couple feet off the trail. I tried to shoo him away but he just stared, so I walked right past him.

After another half mile the cramps hit again, just as I needed to cross a precarious washout at a narrow talus slope. Raising a leg to climb is what triggers these cramps, and that was the move I needed to cross the washout. I ended up stuck there on loose rock, with certain injury if I froze and slipped. I managed to lever myself up with my arms, but then collapsed in pain on the other side.

Finally I got moving again and gradually loosened up. I’d experienced some strong wind gusts at midday, and amazingly, I encountered three big trees that had blown down across the trail while I was hiking in and out of that other canyon: a maple, ponderosa pine, and alligator juniper. The sun was setting as I climbed out of the canyon toward the trailhead, and a large flock of swallows swooped overhead in the dusk, harvesting insects.

I reached the vehicle and drank all the water there. I figured I’d walked at least 14 miles and climbed a total of over 4,200′, which on trails would be a routine 6-7 hour hike. But because of that bushwhacking it’d taken me almost 10 hours. This was one of the hardest hikes of my entire life, and one I was not likely to try again, even as a backpack. At least until I forget how bad it was….

While unpacking at the vehicle, I discovered I’d lost my hat in the final climb out of the canyon to the trailhead. In recent years I’d taken to wearing a bandanna under it to protect it from sweat, but with the bandanna on it was harder to tell whether the hat was actually on my head.

That hat has been precious to me for 35 years, but I felt just about dead and there was no way I was going back. The hat was pretty much worn out anyway. I often wondered who would go first, me or the hat.

It was made in West Africa, and I inherited it in 1985 from Katie, who inherited it from her friend Andy, a filmmaker in Los Angeles. Having lost most its natural oils, it was stiff and tight, and the brim had to be moistened before wearing, in order to fit on my head. I went for years without wearing it, but kept going back to it, treasuring it more and more as I shared more history with it. Where will I find a replacement?

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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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