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Monday, November 29th, 2021

Modest Marathon

Monday, November 1st, 2021: Uncategorized.

Like so many other recent nights, the night before today’s hike was largely sleepless, so as the sun finally came up I knew I wasn’t likely to drive a long distance and do a marathon hike. As it was, I got such a late start that the only option was the trail near town that connected with the Continental Divide Trail and was in such good shape that I could get some decent distance and elevation in a shorter time than usual.

What surprised me, when I started up the “primitive” road that constitutes the first two miles of the hike, was the amount of water coming down that canyon, a month after our last rainfall. But that’s the way this canyon is – relatively long so it drains a large area, deep so it drains from 9,000′ to less than 7,000′, rock-walled so there are lots of fracture zones to store water and release it slowly, and with an impermeable bedrock floor so the creek runs mostly on the surface.

I climbed steadily at my fairly aggressive “good trail” rate, up the canyon to the CDT junction in a ponderosa-forest saddle, traversing and switchbacking through mixed-conifer forest up the south slope of the 9,000′ peak, crossing the peak into the burn scar of the 2014 Signal Fire, descending to the lower ridge and traversing its south slope to the farthest point I’d reached earlier this year.

That was 8 miles one-way, so if I’d just turned around and headed back I’d get a respectable hike. But since I’d been able to walk fast, it was still early, and since the trailhead was so close to town, I could spend more time on the trail before it got dark. So I kept going.

Past the outlying shoulder where I’d stopped before, the trail made a sharp left turn and began a gentle descent around the head of a large drainage I’d never seen before, and I soon got a view east, toward the next mountain range, that was also new. Immediate payoff for small effort! The trail had now left the burn scar and was leading through intact forest. I checked my map and saw that somewhere up ahead, the trail crossed to the north side of the ridge, so if I could make it that far, I’d get even more new views.

The timing turned out to be just right. Just before my planned turn-around time, the trail crossed the ridge and began descending steeply on the previously unseen north slope. It wasn’t spectacular, nor was it a true wilderness experience – I could see a dirt road a few hundred feet below – but this had turned into a marathon accomplishment without a marathon effort. By the time I got back I would cover almost 20 miles and over 4,000′ of elevation gain in less than 8 hours.

Just before the descent of the north slope I crossed a large flat area on the ridgetop – what in Arizona they call a “park”. I’ve encountered so many of these anomalous landscape features that I began to ponder their formation.

They’re all almost completely surrounded by a gentle ring of higher ground, usually of varying height, and although they all support some conifers around the edges, they all have a grassy meadow near the center. This one was classic because its surrounding wall was uniformly low. I began to imagine how, over a very long time, the upper slopes of a shallow natural bowl would erode and fill the bottom with sediment washing off the slopes, maybe creating a temporary dam downstream, gradually filling the center so that it flattened out. The center would flood occasionally, preventing growth of conifer trees, which need well-drained soil, and supporting the establishment of grasses. In the end, you’d get this flat expanse high up on a ridge, completely natural but looking just like a man-made park.

On the walk back to the peak, I had the sun lowering ahead of me, backlighting the fall foliage, which in this case consisted not of tree leaves but of the seed heads and dried leaves of annuals. It was a more subtle, golden beauty that you’d ignore in the company of more colorful aspens, maples, cottonwoods, or oaks.

Crossing the peak I was surprised by the glittering of sunlight off the windows and roofs of my hometown, straight ahead and 3,000′ below in the southwest. Guess I should consider myself lucky I have such places so near home.

Although I’d seen recent mountain bike tracks on the trail, I didn’t see another human all day, which is pretty amazing considering this is one of our most popular trails, only 20 minutes from town, it was beautiful, mild fall weather, and it was a weekend. What was everybody doing?

Oh, yeah, it was Halloween, our society’s favorite secular holiday – they were all preparing their costumes!

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Haystack Bushwhack

Monday, November 29th, 2021: Hikes, Rain, Southwest New Mexico.

Lord, how I needed this hike! After the last venture into our local mountains, I’d flown to the flatlands of Indiana where I was able to do one 14-mile out-and-back in modest hills before succumbing to, in succession, severe hip pain and a recurrence of my chronic foot problem. I’d had to suspend strength training a month earlier while moving back into my fire-damaged house, and I was hoping that explained the hip trouble – maintaining my mobility requires a lot of bodywork “behind the scenes” and between hikes.

So now I was icing the foot and lifting weights and doing core exercises again, and I was determined that this return to hiking would be fairly easy, without extreme distance or elevation gain.

However, when reviewing my options, I found myself drawn to a new idea – starting at the trailhead for my favorite hike, and bushwhacking up what looked like a gentle ridge through open pinyon-juniper-oak woodland toward Haystack Mountain, a distinctive but only moderately high peak. The ridge continued all the way to one of the highest peaks of the range, so this would be a scouting trip to see if it was a feasible route to the top.

The temperature at home was in the mid-30s, but it was forecast to reach 60 by midday.

I only found out how badly I needed this trip when I crested a divide on the highway and got my first view of these mountains, and involuntarily broke out in a big smile, feeling my heart lift.

From the trailhead at the back of the mesa, the foot of the ridge appeared as a low, broad, gentle rise. I followed a vague cattle track up the slope of dried grass to the tree line, where I found a well-traveled but very rocky trail that traversed left across the rise. Very tough to walk, but it led me through fairly dense and steep forest to a barbed wire fence with a closed gate, and along the way I noticed fragments of a strange footprint featuring what appeared to be football cleats. The print was roughly round and didn’t have the outline of a shoe, and I kept watching for it all the way up the ridge. It was the only track I found that wasn’t from a recognizable animal.

Past the gate I crossed a broad, gently rising meadow that turned out to be lined with sharp embedded volcanic rock which was very difficult and slow to negotiate safely. It was probably still in the low 50s, but I took off my sweater while laboring across that sunny ledge. Then the slope steepened through more low forest, and I began finding more cattle trails that allowed me to walk faster. The cattle trails got better and better and I found more of the strange cleat marks, still without a clear footprint. Like cattle trails I’d found recently in the Blue Range, long stretches looked man-made but clearly couldn’t have been. This was inside the wilderness area, but there were cowpies of all ages, from decades old to within the past week. I was also finding a bobcat track, deer tracks, and lots of javalina prints.

The narrow ridge rose in steps, revealing deeper and deeper views into the wilderness on both sides, until I lost the cattle trail and the ridge ended suddenly in a drop-off. I checked my map and saw that I was at a major dogleg – I had to turn right and find my way through dense forest and scrub to the next left turn, where the ridge descended toward the foot of the peak.

At the left turn, I found another cattle trail leading down, but it ended in a grassy saddle, and from there on it was hard bushwhacking.

Finally I reached the last grassy rise before the base of the peak, where I could start scouting my route. There, I found elk scat that was so warm and moist the animal had to have been there earlier today.

From the south, the peak had looked sharply triangular, but from here it was rounded. My ridge led down to a saddle densely forested with ponderosa pine, the first I’d encountered today, and then directly up an outlying toe of the peak. The map showed that the upper few hundred feet of the peak were quite steep, but the lower slopes looked gentle. Vegetation was patchy – dense forest at the bottom, grass and rocks in some places, and dense scrub in others. It looked like I could climb the first rise to get past the deep ravines surrounding the base, and from there, traverse through scrub to the next outlying shoulder, where I could see a line of tall ponderosa.

My goal was not to climb the peak, but to traverse around it, ending up at the level of the next saddle. My plan was to see how far I could get – I still had enough time to explore the next part of the ridge, where it climbed over 800′ higher, to the 9,000′ level, which would be really rewarding.

Unfortunately, past the tall pines of the saddle the forest of the lower slope turned out to be steep and so dense as to be near impassable. I kept pushing and zigzagging and finally broke out into the grassy upper part, but it was equally steep and very rocky. It seemed to take forever to reach the point where this shoulder merged with the upper slope, and there I found my traverse to the next shoulder blocked by dense chaparral.

Nevertheless, I forced my way through it, taking advantage of game tracks wherever possible. Way up there like a fly on the wall of the vast western landscape, I was clinging to a 40 degree slope with a lot of loose dirt, so it was dangerous going and hard on my vulnerable foot.

But worse was coming. When I reached the next sharp outlying shoulder and made a sharp right turn to the back side of the peak, I found a seemingly endless, deeply shadowed talus slope at the same 40 degree angle, that had been densely colonized by oaks of various ages and blocked often by pine deadfall. To cross it involved contorting my body and achieving a delicate four-point balance with every limb at nearly every step. The traverse was only a few hundred yards but it took about an hour.

Fortunately, the view I got at the end, back on the main ridge, was almost worth it.

After emerging from the oak-infested talus slope, I found myself a couple hundred feet higher than I’d intended – and what a view was opened up! Northeast over the upper canyon of my favorite trail – a canyon that had impressed me from the opposite direction, for its rocky majesty. But from here it was even rockier – the descending slope into the canyon was just a series of white promontories, cliffs and hoodoos. In the moment, this felt like the most spectacular hike I’d ever done in my home region. In the far center of the view was the 10,771′ peak with the fire lookout, and arrayed to its south were the ridges and peaks I’d either hiked to or admired from months of previous hikes.

Below me on the continuing ridgeline was a series of rounded white conglomerate outcrops. I’d had to put off lunch and could already see where I wanted to eat it – in a saddle of solid stone between two taller formations, with a full view into the rocky canyon.

I don’t usually stop for lunch – I just snack regularly while walking, so I can cover more distance. But after that traverse from hell, my body deserved a break. While resting, I could visualize a route up to the next peak of the ridge, but that would have to wait – I’d used up my time for the day.

Although I wouldn’t go any farther up this ridge, I might as well at least climb the peak I’d traversed – it was only about 400′ above this rocky saddle, and the lower slope looked fairly gentle. But starting up it, I was reminded that it lay within the burn scar so it was crisscrossed with dozens of charred logs in every direction. Shortly after starting up I found my way blocked by an odd white tree branch that I suddenly realized was a huge elk half-rack. I stood there staring at it in amazement for a while, then wondered if I should take it with me. I bent to lift it – it would add at least ten pounds to my pack, but at this point I was carrying about 6 pounds less water than I carried at the start of a summer hike. And I suddenly remembered thirty years ago when I found an entire massive bighorn ram skull in the desert, with horns about as big as they get, returning from a backpacking trip, and carried it down the mountain tied to an even smaller pack than I was carrying today. That sheep skull and horns had been destroyed in my house fire, so taking this antler rack was some form of restitution.

I carry an adustable nylon strap for situations like this, but this thing was four feet long and stuck out in every direction. It took me a couple tries to find a way to hang it on the back of my pack so it didn’t hit me in the head, and I’d have to be careful not to get it hung up on passing branches. I tried not to think about what would happen when I had to force my way through scrub, or how I might be injured if I fell backwards on that thing. Carrying it home seemed like a fairly stupid idea, but these hiking Dispatches are nothing if not a record of my bullheadedness.

With elk antlers strapped to my back, the climb to the peak was short but slow and grueling. I literally used oak seedlings to pull myself up at every step of the 40+ degree slope. The view at the top was 360 degrees, but really no more spectacular than the view from the saddle below. Still, I was glad I’d done it.

There was no way I was crossing that talus slope again on the way back – I was planning to work my way down the sharp shoulder with the line of ponderosas, and then traverse back through the dense scrub to the lower, more open shoulder.

But less than a hundred feet down that steep shoulder, I noticed that the slope to my left, leading directly to the lower shoulder, was no steeper, and there seemed to be paths through the scrub. So I began working my way straight down the side of the peak, and immediately found game tracks that I could follow back and forth between the dense scrub. It was still really steep, and the only open paths were in loose rocks and dirt – very dangerous with that antler rack on my back to throw off my balance – but I somehow avoided falling and eventually made it to the top of the lower shoulder. From there I could see the rest of my path down the main ridge laid out below me.

On the way up, I had the impression it was much easier than previous off-trail hikes – because I’d been able to use cattle trails for much of the way. But on the way back, the cattle trails seemed harder to find – they only followed part of the ridge – and I had to do a lot more hard bushwhacking. Much of my route involved forcing my way through dense, nearly impassable low forest or scrub with sharp rocks underfoot, and before I even made it halfway back I was swearing never to do this again. The sun was steadily setting and I was worried about getting lost if I couldn’t reach the vehicle before dark. My headlamp wouldn’t help because I was in an unfamiliar, mostly forested landscape with no trail.

Finally I reached the edge of the slope above the broad, grassy, and rocky meadow I’d crossed when passing through the gate in the barbed wire fence, 7 hours earlier. And it hit me that I had no idea where in that half-mile expanse the gate was. On my ascent, I’d failed to look back and memorize it, like I usually do when the way isn’t clear.

The lower edge of that sloping meadow was a solid, continous low forest, and the meadow itself was dotted randomly with old junipers. How the hell was I supposed to find the gate? I could see the lower part of the dirt road way off in the distance, but the part of it that led to the trailhead and my vehicle was out of sight below the ridge. I had no way to orient myself. The only thing I could do was head down the middle and hope that something would occur to me on the way.

Nothing did. It was perilous walking over those sharp stones, most of them hidden among the grass and annuals, and the sun kept getting lower ahead of me in the west, causing a glare. Finally I got to the edge where forest resumed and the final slope to the mesa began. A short way down that steep slope I saw the fence. There was no way I could climb over it – the barbed wire was loosely tied to steel posts at long intervals and I’d get hung up and cut up trying to cross. I had to find the gate.

I turned right and began laboriously following the fence through rocks and scrub along the top of the slope. I wasn’t sure I was going in the right direction, but eventually I’d hit the end of the grassy bench and would have to turn back.

Suddenly I came to a gate. This gate was open, so it couldn’t be the right one. But I could at least get through the fence and backtrack. I tried to reclose the gate, but the posts had resettled and it wouldn’t fit. No wonder cattle had been getting through.

Traversing the slope back, to where I could descend to my vehicle, was another form of hell. I discovered that this lowest slope was deeply dissected by gullies that were often too steep to cross, so I had to climb higher to go around them. It seemed to take forever, the antler rack wobbling on my back, narrowly avoiding falling as I stumbled on rocks or slid in loose dirt. In gaps through the trees I saw black cattle grazing around my vehicle, still far below.

When I reached my vehicle, the sun was literally just setting. Close to 9 miles out and back, with nearly 3,000′ of accumulated elevation gain, this was the most extreme bushwhack I’d ever done – a far cry from the easy hike I’d promised myself…

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