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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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