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Climbing the Spire

Monday, October 7th, 2019: Trips.

Local Landmark

I live on the southern edge of a vast mountainous zone extending at least 250 miles from east to west. But the peaks of this zone are uniformly rounded and undifferentiated. Our horizon consists of nothing but long ridges and gentle humps – nothing like the craggy, dramatic peaks we associate with the Rockies, the Sierra, the Tetons, the Alps, or the Andes. With one exception.

The landmark peak of our region features a dramatic granodiorite spire, dominating its small mountain range, which stands isolated in the midst of a high-desert plain southeast of here.

Conflicting Information

One of the first locals I met said he’d climbed it with friends in his youth. I had mountain-climbing aspirations in my own youth, but my focus had shifted, and now I was more interested in wildlife, watersheds, habitats, and ecosystems. My hikes usually led me to the top of a peak, but only to gain the views that would put my ecological knowledge in the context of the surrounding landscape.

Still, I’d read up on this peak when I first arrived, and the hike sounded daunting. I got it in my head that you should never try it alone. I’d heard it was something like a 12-mile round-trip with thousands of feet of elevation gain and technical rock climbing skills needed to get to the top, and if you started at dawn, you still might not make it back down by sunset.

However, despite its prominence as a local landmark, it wasn’t really that tall. The mountains I normally climb range from 8,000′ to 10,000′ – this was on the low end at 8,400′, and it wasn’t forested, so it didn’t have the habitat diversity of the taller peaks.

But it’s less than 40 miles away as the crow flies, and it was hard to ignore as I continued to look for new weekend challenges, so eventually I resumed my online research. The range wasn’t part of a national forest – it was managed by the BLM – and although there was a long record of people climbing the peak, the trail was not formally maintained, and both maps and directions differed widely from source to source. The only thing they all agreed on was the main access road. This county-maintained gravel road led in from the south, which would add a half hour or so to my drive.

Regarding the granitic spire at the top, sources said it requires either a Class 2+ or Class 3+ “scramble” to ascend, and everyone recommended not looking down, to avoid vertigo. Sources differed widely on the hiking distance – from 5 miles to 12 miles round trip – but they agreed roughly on the elevation gain: 2,600′ to 3,000′ cumulative. The differences apparently had to do with how close you could drive to the trailhead, on a newly-created BLM dirt road that was very bad and absolutely requires high clearance and 4wd.

The mountaineering class system is Greek to me – I’ve been climbing rocks and peaks for over 40 years without using it. Apparently Class 2 means scrambling up a steep incline, using your hands from time to time. Class 3 involves “moderate exposure” to a fall, carrying a rope for backup, and using your hands full-time. Hiking alone in the sandstone canyons of Utah, I often run into situations that I know I could handle, but don’t feel comfortable trying without other people to back me up. All of these situations involve using my hands full-time, but I have no idea where they rate on the Class system, nor am I interested. I just figured I would make a judgement call when I got up there, and if I didn’t feel comfortable climbing the last hundred feet or so to the top, so be it. Thank God my self-esteem doesn’t depend on things like that.

I got a reasonably early start for a Sunday, finishing my domestic chores and leaving home before 10am, but because I had to drive 10 miles past the mountain range and loop around east and north again, it ended up being a late start to the hike. The sky was fairly clear and the air was warming back toward the 80s in the high desert foothills where I would start the hike, and it was very windy when I arrived in the range. I mainly worried about high winds on the peak blowing my precious straw hat to kingdom come. If it came to that I’d just have to stow it in my pack.

The roads got more confusing the farther back I went, passing occasional cattle and isolated stock tanks in broad grassy basins that narrowed into shallow canyons embraced by the foothills. I didn’t see a house anywhere, but I eventually came to a corral and a locked gate. I’d brought the conflicting directions with me and compared them with what I encountered on the ground, and finally figured out which turn to take onto the BLM road.

That road provided the first serious test of my 4wd Sidekick. It was exceedingly rocky and deeply eroded, with patches of loose sand between the rocks – very slow going – but the Sidekick was more than up to it.

Online sources seemed to agree that you could cut up to 3 miles off your round-trip distance by driving this road to the “4wd trailhead,” but by 12 noon, more than two hours from home, I was well past where this trailhead should’ve been. I came to a stock tank with a disabled windmill and solar pump, and pulled off the road. I figured I might’ve passed the “trailhead,” but in any event it was time to stop driving and start walking. It turned out the trailhead, unmarked but obvious, was another half mile up the road.

Cairns and Cowpies

The trail begins as an abandoned mining road, eroded into a shallow gully, that leads from the more recent BLM road straight up an alluvial fan to the foothills. It’s marked by hundreds of cairns – one disgruntled online peakbagger said it was “over-cairned” – and in general this amateur trail is much better than most of the government-maintained trails I hike. Entering the foothills, it ascends a steep, narrow canyon, through dense brush, juniper, gambel oak, and pinyon pine, toward the left shoulder of the spire. The canyon bottom and surrounding slopes are very rocky, with many sheer cliffs that make bushwhacking off the trail virtually impossible.

There was a little water draining from the peak most of the way down the canyon – the higher I got, the more water I found seeping out of the rock cliffs – but there was also a lot of cowshit all the way to the crest of the range. BLM: Bureau of Livestock and Mining. Despite how wild it looks in the pictures, it felt less like wildlife habitat than most places I hike, and more like a big hilly ranch.

It was a steep, steady climb, with fewer switchbacks than most agency-designed trails, but it was such a high-quality trail that I was able to make pretty good time anyway. With the spire looming high above me most of the way, eventually I came into the grassy meadow of a saddle below the peak. Here, an old barbed-wire fence, mostly intact, delineated the rangeland on the east and west sides of the mountains. And here the trail failed me, at least temporarily. Cattle had made tracks in all directions across this saddle, and cairns were few and far between. By scouting around as usual, I was finally able to pick up the trail again. I was a little concerned about finding my way back, but as it turned out, I wasn’t concerned enough.

Scramble in the Sky

Getting closer to the peak, I was wondering more and more if I’d be able to handle the classified “scramble” up the rock face. Looking up from the high saddle, I thought I could guess what would be the easiest place to scale the bare rock. But it was still farther away than I thought.

From the saddle, the trail got much steeper, rockier, and more precarious. Midway to the spire there was a fifty-foot rock face I crossed, using a narrow crack, and halfway across, clinging to the bare rock, I encountered a baby rattlesnake hiding in a fissure. It got really upset and I had to find a way around it.

If I had looked down at times like this, I could’ve easily freaked myself out. After all, I was clinging to bare rock 3,500′ above the desert floor. But that never turned out to be a problem. I’ve always been a good climber and my concentration up there was as solid as ever.

Finally I got to the penultimate scramble. The cairns leading me up from the saddle had been plentiful, and I could see they continued up this slanting crack in the side of the spire. It definitely required both hands and feet, and I decided to leave my pack at the base of the rock, so I wouldn’t have to worry as much about balance. Then I started up.

It’s funny – like I said, while I was climbing, I didn’t look down. But I can see from the photo I took while climbing that despite the putative classification of 2 or 3, you are totally exposed to risk of death while climbing this spire! If you fall, you are not just injured – you die, bouncing down hundreds of feet before your battered carcass gets stopped by some bush.

But for me, the climb itself was easy, and I didn’t feel like I was taking unnecessary risk. And at the top, there are gentle talus slopes to cross, again marked by cairns, to get to the actual peaks. There are two, a lower south peak and the higher north peak, which has the only actual 360 degree view in our region.

The wind had died down and the weather was perfect up there. I spent a half hour or so soaking it all in. I signed the log, and discovered I was the first person up there in the past ten days. Then I scrambled carefully back down to the grassy saddle. Which is where the day started going horribly wrong.

Descent Into Perdition

I thought I had a pretty good idea of how the trail crossed the grassy saddle. But after easily following the cairns down from the peak, I suddenly found myself at the old fence, with no more trail and no more cairns.

I scouted around briefly, then crossed the fence at a low point and continued down a gentle slope toward the ridge I thought I had come up earlier. Still no more cairns and no more trail. I kept going down because I was sure I would cross the trail before I got to the ridge.

I spotted something that looked like a trail off to the left. I followed it farther down the ridge, and soon encountered a cairn. Great! I kept going, and the “trail” petered out. There were no more cairns.

I was on a steep knife-edge ridge above a deep, dark canyon, which I assumed was the canyon I’d followed to get up here in the first place. I found narrow trails with no cairns, and followed them for short distances, but they all turned out to be cattle or game trails, ending in thick brush.

The sun was going down, I had a 3 or 4 mile down-hike ahead of me, and even after I reached my vehicle, I would still be two hours from home. I was literally at the head of the canyon I believed I had come up, and although I wasn’t crazy about bushwhacking down a steep, rocky slope through dense scrub, I was sure that sooner or later I would encounter the trail. So I started down.

Emotionally, it was a little like jumping off a cornice on skis. You know you should be scared shitless, but you give in to the voice inside you that just says “Jump!” But here, instead of landing on snow, I was trying to maintain my balance on sharp rocks and boulders piled randomly and hidden under a maze of branches and foliage. I could at least console myself that I was wearing new boots with something called an “Ankle Bone Support System.”

I had to stay constantly focused, using both hands and struggling with the balance of my pack, as the canyon became more and more canyon-like the farther down I went. Oaks and junipers closed in and were joined by riparian trees and shrubs, and I had to shimmy under and between low branches, while constantly watching out for hidden rocks and boulders underfoot. Surprisingly, no matter how steep and rocky the slope, no matter how thick and trackless the vegetation, cattle had always been there before me. Down and down I went, but whenever I peered out through the vegetation I seemed just as high above the valley where my vehicle was parked. And there was still no sign of a trail.

I often wondered if I wouldn’t be better off getting out of this narrow, tree-choked gully and traversing the sides of the canyon. But the canyon itself was the fastest way downhill; traversing the slopes would slow my descent. What really worried me was that I’d get caught between sheer cliffs and a pour-off, a dropoff that I wouldn’t easily be able to get around.

I never did. But likewise, I never found the trail. I didn’t seem to be getting any closer to the bottom, and the sun was still going down. It was really dark in that congested canyon. A year ago, when injuries and disabilities had eroded my confidence, I might’ve panicked at some point during that desperate descent. But I’ve been testing myself on difficult all-day solo hikes in remote places on a weekly basis for the past year, and I knew that panic was not an option. I briefly considered the possibility of having to spend the night in that nasty place. There were occasional ledges with tiny clearings. But I’d have to build a fire and spend the whole night sitting in front of it, shivering. I just kept going.

In one particularly challenging passage, I was climbing down a pile of sharp boulders and working my way through a maze of branches when my knee hit the point of a big rock and both hands reached out in opposite directions for something to steady myself on. I felt my left hamstring tweaking and my palms abraded by bark as my torso twisted in place, burdened by my pack. My thigh cramped up and the space was too tight to straighten my leg. It took me a few minutes to get out of that position, my whole leg throbbing. I thought I’d injured myself, but I knew that wasn’t an option. I had to keep going. So I ignored my burning hands and got my leg stretched out over a low limb, and took as many deep breaths as it required to relieve the cramping. And then I kept going downhill, through more mazes, taking big deep breaths and trying to concentrate even harder on where I was stepping.

After more than an hour of this, the canyon began to open out. I could see more of the valley below, and I looked up over my left shoulder for the distinctive spire. It wasn’t there! I suddenly realized that the canyon I’d climbed down was not the canyon I’d started up. The trail was a half mile away, in a completely different drainage. But in my favor, although I still had a long distance to bushwhack down this canyon, it should actually come out closer to my vehicle.

Eventually the slope alongside the canyon was gentle enough that I left the canyon bottom to hike down the open slope. But it wasn’t much easier – it looked grassy from a distance but was actually made up of randomly embedded rocks that I had to constantly watch for and step over or around. It was very slow walking.

I followed this slope down toward the valley for what seemed like ages. I still couldn’t see either the road or my vehicle. But finally, after crossing through a small pinyon-juniper forest, I spotted a segment of the road that I remembered. It was still far away, on the other side of the valley, but it was something.

I reached a heavily grazed part of the slope that was deeply eroded by gullies I had to cross, one by one, while swerving back and forth to avoid clumps of thorny mesquite. I lost sight of the road, but I suddenly spotted my vehicle, far off to the east. There seemed to be a deep canyon between us, so I tried to avoid it, veering to the left, but that just led me into more eroded gullies. Up and down, around and around. I was about to give up on finding the road when Voila! it appeared right in front of me.

I only had another half mile of road now before I’d reach my vehicle. The sun was just dropping behind the spire, on the western ridge, when I finally got there. Now all that remained was the perilous drive down the 4wd road – my Sidekick bottomed out once on a jutting boulder – and the long drive out the county road to the highway, and to the nearest town, where I hoped to get dinner sometime after dark.

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