2020 was a hard and uncertain year for many of us, though my year was challenging and unstable in different ways from most people’s. In previous years I have been most successful in the mountains during the summer, generally from June through September, and less active in the winter and spring. This year was almost the opposite, with my best months in the winter and fall, for various external and internal reasons.
The year’s defining event, the novel coronavirus pandemic, scrambled my plans from March onward, and impacted my life less than most people’s but more than I anticipated. I had originally planned to return to the Alps this summer to climb the 4000-meter peaks as fast as possible under human power (i.e. biking between trailheads and not riding lifts). I was hoping to fund this expensive endeavor by writing a book and promoting it with slideshows during my spring travels. Both the trip and presentations things became increasingly unlikely and then impossible as the pandemic spread, leaving me without a main project for the summer. While I scrambled to put together some alternative goals, I was never truly inspired as I have been in the past.
Another defining event for some people was the California wildfires. They destroyed homes, torched beautiful wilderness areas (including the Huntington Lake area where I passed on my first bike tour), and filled the Owens Valley with smoke for most of the late summer and early Fall. The smoke, and the dry heat that preceded it, scuttled my backup plan to make something of the season, driving me east to the San Juans and southern Utah. This proved fortunate both athletically and socially, leaving me starting 2021 in a different and in many ways better place than I had anticipated. Unusually for me, I enter 2021 with a partner, a place to live, and plans for the winter and spring. I hope the new year is a similar time of reassessment and growth for you too, dear reader.
My trip to the High Andes was the year’s mountaineering highlight. Between mid-December and mid-March I visited two new countries, rode over 3000 miles, and summited 21 peaks, including a dozen 6000-meter peaks (nine over 20,000 feet). The low number of peaks per day compared to e.g. my trip to the Alps can be excused by the facts that I was cycling between peaks, and that one often has to gain 15,000 feet to summit peaks from town in the high Andes. The peaks were only part of the journey, though, and I equally enjoyed the outgoing and laid-back people of rural Argentina. Both it and Chile are huge countries, ranging from the southern hemisphere equivalents of central Mexico (in the Atacama) to northern Canada (in the Tierra del Fuego). I saw only their central regions on this trip — roughly 25 to 42 degrees latitude, or north-central Mexico to southern Wyoming — so I hope to return to see both ends.
Puna de Atacama: Though it tested the limits of my endurance and sort of broke me, my two week crossing of the Puna de Atacama by bike, summiting seven 6000-meter peaks, was the unforgettable pinnacle of my trip. With only two natural water sources other than snow in the 300 miles between Fiambala and Copiapo, and nowhere to buy food, it is the harshest and most remote place I have traveled to climb, and peak-bagging there required maximum effort.
Mercedario: This was the first big Andean peak I did town-to-town, and the second-highest. I was still learning about how best to trade off between hiking and hike-a-bike, and met the only other bike mountaineer of my trip along the way. The climb was unremarkable, but typical of the high Andes for, among other things, its barren dryness.
Nevado de Famatina: This is a high and prominent peak seldom climbed by foreigners because it stands by itself, far from other 6000-meter peaks. Climbing it was less a mountaineering than a cultural experience, as I spent time before and after in the tiny town of Famatina, and got a ride with Argentinian tourists up to the remarkable La Mejicana mine near 14,000 feet on the peak’s side.
Since 2012’s California Fourteener record, I have tried to set a few Fastest Known Times (FKTs) each year, and this year was no exception. I set new FKTs for the White Mountains Traverse and Buckskin to Paria Gulch, though the former was more of an “Only Known Time,” and the latter was soon crushed by an actual runner. However, I recognize that my advancing age makes these “records” increasingly meaningless and absurd. I am a decade past my peak athletic potential, and while mountaineering’s skill-heavy nature allows older athletes to remain competitive, I am more or less past that point. Rather than setting times on increasingly obscure and meaningless objectives, I should consider moving on.
My most rewarding FKT experience this year was probably helping my friend Renee set a record for the Sierra High Route in late August. She is a competent and driven all-around athlete, meticulously prepared, and a thoroughly decent person, so I was happy to see her both accomplish a personal goal and receive some recognition. The High Route is not my kind of objective — I tried backpacking it back in 2013 and wandered off-route on the second day — but it is a great route, and an impressive accomplishment to cover so much cross-country distance in 50-mile headlamp-to-headlamp days.
San Juan trip
The San Juans are my favorite Colorado mountains: they are far from Denver’s hordes, beautiful in the fall with their turning aspens, and widely varying in character, ranging from the almost drive-up peaks around Silverton to the rugged and remote Weminuche. After being forced out of the Sierra, I spent most of a month there, tagging 88 peaks and visiting regions both familiar and new.
Cimmarons: I had seen these peaks many times while driving through Ridgway, but never visited until this fall. Though their rock is mostly rotten, they have some spectacular cliffs, vast aspen groves, and a few good scrambles, including Coxcomb.
Beartown: After years of chipping away at the remote Weminuche 13ers via dayhikes from pavement, I finally had the opportunity to tag many of the more mundane summits via an overnight from the northern Beartown trailhead. Thanks to Dan for providing both the vehicle to reach it, the motivation to lug in a tent, and the quick thinking to punch a mouse to death.
Vestal Basin: I normally think of Vestal Basin as a once-a-year approach, but I ended up doing it three times this summer: for an overnight with Ted, to tag the peaks between Tenmile and Noname Creeks, and to connect the Grenadiers from Arrow through Storm King. I am therefore probably done with this beautiful area for a few years, but I realized that, at only a few hours of easy headlamp, the approach is not something to dread.
Though I had visited Zion on family trips growing up, I first scrambled there in 2013, doing the Guardian Angels and Tabernacle Dome. Coming from Red Rocks at the time, I was disappointed by the gritty sandstone and did not take much time to explore. Buzz Burrell clued me into the park’s scrambling potential this year, and I was not disappointed on my belated return visit. Coming a bit late in the season, my efforts were frustrated and cut short by cold mornings, short days, and snow, but I saw enough to make me want to return.
Cowboy Ridge to West Temple: This is a classic and fairly challenging linkup. I had previously done the standard route on Kinesava, but adding Cowboy Ridge and West Temple significantly upped the length and difficulty. The hand-crack crux on Cowboy was unavoidable and challenging, but secure, while the crux on West Temple was shorter and scrappier. Connecting the two involved some unexpected difficulties descending from Kinesava along the ridge.
East Temple: This one was a bit scary, in part thanks to some lingering snow and wetness on the crux upper slabs. Though the route is improbable, bighorn sheep apparently use it to visit the summit, keeping it much freer of nasty desert shrubbery than West Temple.
Lady Mountain: Tourism was a lot more fun in the 1920s and 1930s, when women in full skirts could climb 4000 feet from the Zion Lodge to the summit of Lady Mountain via an improbable route consisting of natural climbing up to class 3, steel handlines, chipped steps, and a couple of ladders. This grownup version of Angels Landing, now long decommissioned, is still a fun low fifth class route, for which I want to return to Zion and attempt an FKT. Maybe next fall…
Our time was growing short, but we still had a long drive back to the coast, which we chose to break up with a visit to the Mojave Preserve. I had visited before to bag some desert peaks in 2012 or 2013, which I remember mostly for thrashing through oak-brush and getting a tick embedded in my armpit. It is also a step down, desert-wise, from the Sonora, with all of the nasty spiny things and none of the towering saguaros or organ pipe cacti. But the Preserve is a large and varied place; I think of it as occupying the triangle between Interstates 10 and 40 east of their junction Barstow, extending to Highway 95, but it is in fact an uneven blob lying mostly between the Interstates, between Zzyzx and the Nevada border. It is harsh country with only a handful of roads, but for some reason both east-west Interstates, and the Union Pacific and BNSF Railroads, all pass through nearby.
Leonie is more of a desert person than I, having scrambled and backpacked in the Mojave on multiple occasions, and suggested visiting the Kelso Dunes and some granite blobs at the south end of the park, which we eventually figured out were called the Sheep Corral. After a tedious drive up 95 to Quartzite and along 40, we got off at the Kelbaker Road near the Granite Mountains, and found the Sheep Corral road with only a bit of exploration. The area is a field of batholiths similar to Joshua Tree, which start off above ground near mountains, but are mostly below the surface down in the plain, exposed in a maze of washes. The best camp spot was occupied by someone who seemed to be there for the long term, with gallons of water and a large propane tank, so we parked just outside, then set out to explore.
We were hoping to find scrambling like in the Buttermilks or rock-piles near Twentynine Palms, in which one can make up a class 3-5.easy route. However, much of the “rock” we found could barely be called such, decomposing and exfoliating granite desperately wanting to become kitty litter. We found a bit of sketchy scrambling on some of the darker orange blobs, which had been weathered or baked into climbable condition, but were mostly disappointed and frustrated. At one point Leonie took out her frustration by pulling plate-sized pieces off an exfoliating blob and throwing them to the ground, where they completely disintegrated.
Toward the end of the day we finally found some decent rock where we should have known to look all along: next to the washes, where sporadic flooding had dug out the sand and, of course, cleaned off the loose rock. We lacked the daylight to explore, but now knew where to go if we returned. The long-term resident turned out to be a climbing steward at Joshua Tree who was quarantining after a close Coronavirus contact, who was familiar enough with the Sheep Corral to know its potential. I wanted to stay and talk to him longer, as he had lived out of his car and traveled the Mountain West for several years, but it quickly became unpleasantly cold once the sun set. After dinner, we dragged some bedding down to a sheltered place in a wash to look at the stars. Though there is some light pollution from I-40, Barstow, and probably Las Vegas, this is still a relatively good place from which to observe the night sky.
The next day we set out to climb the Kelso Dunes, which collect north of the Granite Mountains. Though they are not as high as Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes (650 vs. 750 feet), and are no longer growing, they are still impressive and, more importantly, have an entry in the Peakbagger database, so I get points for them. We got to the trailhead before all but one other party, so we had the “trail” mostly to ourselves. The sand was just warm enough to hike barefoot, and the climb is not too long or tedious if one follows the ridges. Along the way we experimented with the “singing sand”, a type of resonance that occurs on the leeward side of Kelso and some other dunes. One necessary component seems to be large areas of sand sitting right at the angle of repose, where one can trigger expansive sand “slab avalanches” by stomping on the edge of the dune or, sometimes, up to a foot or so back. This only works once on a slope, until the sand reaccumulates for an unknown period, so we were lucky that it worked along a ridge on the standard route.
We lucked out and had the summit to ourselves for ten minutes before others started straggling up from the trailhead and campground. Most people only go to the highest dune, but the Kelso Dunes are expansive, with dunes nearly as high extending east, and lesser ones to the north. We made a loop over the eastern dunes, despoiling more virgin slopes to enjoy the resonance and jumping off their edges. One other interesting feature of the Kelso Dunes is their magnetite deposits. This iron oxide is heavier than silica sand, and collects to create striking black highlights on the surface of some dune aspects. We eventually wandered back to the car, then spent a bit more time in the Sheep Corral before continuing toward home.
[Thanks again to Leonie for an early draft of parts of this. — ed.]
The Kofa Mountains are a remote desert range east of Highway 95 in southwest Arizona, surrounded by an eponymous BLM wilderness area created to protect bighorn sheep, and a proving ground created to blow stuff up. “Kofa” is not a native word, but a contraction of “King of Arizona,” the name of a briefly successful gold mine. The area is mainly a popular refuge for winter RVers, but it also includes two of the better summits on the DPS list, Signal and Castle Dome Peaks. Since it is roughly on the way between Organ Pipe and the Owens Valley, we decided to pay it a visit.
The original plan was to put in several hours’ drive, visit the mining museum, then camp at the Castle Dome trailhead before climbing it the next morning. We drove a mix of desert roads and Interstate 8, then turned north before Yuma on 95, which rivals 50 for the title of “Loneliest Road in the US.” Upon turning toward Castle Dome, we were met with signs saying “NO STOPPING NEXT 5 MILES,” with the clear but unstated implication that those who stop might end up on the wrong end of a live fire exercise. The road was as washboarded as expected, but otherwise fine, and the ten miles to the museum passed painlessly.
Land ownership is unfortunately complicated in the valley: in addition to the Yuma Proving Ground in the south, there are many private parcels within the BLM land, including the mining museum and its environs. Going back as far as the 1990, and as recently as early 2019, one could drive past the museum on a good dirt road to Castle Dome’s base, through three unlocked gates. However sometime between February 2019 and January 2020, the unfriendly owners of the mining museum blocked this access route, locking the gates, rolling large rocks across the road, and adding signs threatening even pedestrians. Their stated reason is that people were stealing mining junk from the abandoned claims. It was not clear to me whether it was legal to block this access to federal land, or whether the road should have remained a right-of-way, but I am not a lawyer, and the lady at the museum office talked about calling the nearby feds on people. Given that said feds have both serious guns and a surveillance blimp, it seemed like a bad idea to try poaching the peak. (I later found a trip report describing the new, longer, and rougher access route.) So instead we went for a walk until it got dark, then went to sleep under the blimp’s watchful gaze.
With our late and messed-up start, we salvaged the day by heading over to Signal, the Kofa Range’s other DPS peak. Both it and Castle Dome are impressive, as are a number of the peaks in between, though the latter is both more dramatic and less difficult, at least from the west. There is an easier trail up Signal’s east side, but it involves more dirt road driving, so we followed Bob and took the west route via Palm Canyon. This requires a small amount of low-fifth-class climbing, though much less than one would expect given the peak’s sheer aspect. The canyon is named for its small grove of California fan palms, the only one in Arizona.
Though we started late around 10:00, it was still cold and shady for our approach, so I was hiking in my down jacket. We met three guys hanging out near the palms, which are nestled a couple hundred yards up a side-canyon, but decided to see them on the way down, since we had an unknown amount of climbing and desert thorn-whacking ahead of us, and standing on top of piles of rock is always more important than seeing unique flora. The official trail gradually fades into a faint and intermittently-cairned use trail, then further decays into braided game trails made by the apparently abundant but shy sheep.
The canyon is filled with all manner of unpleasant desert plants; in addition to the usual cacti and yuccas, there are woody and prickly oak-brush, and some other plant, much greener, with actual spines on its leaves. Clearly neither plant wants to be eaten, and both go to extravagant lengths to make this desire clear — such is the desert. The trail climbs one ravine to where it ends at the peak’s west cliffs, then climbs into its neighbor to the right. Where the second ravine is choked with impenetrable brush, a fourth class wash leads out to the left. I scrambled up, unsure whether this was the correct route, and Leonie leerily followed. Where this branch ends, I spotted a thin and slabby traverse leading right around the difficulties, which felt low fifth class to me. I pulled out the rope in a frigid alcove, then trailed it around the corner and up 30 feet to an old anchor, from which I belayed Leonie. A few minutes higher, we finally reached our first sun of the day and were able to stop for a sort-of lunch.
From our lunch spot, we followed a mixture of class 2-3 rock and desert thrashing up what turned out to be a side-ridge, then descended to a narrow saddle before climbing again to the summit plateau. The Kofa Range seems to have confusing topography, with confusing branching gullies and unexpected cliffs, so I was glad to have a clear track to follow, and to be doing this part during the day. We summited at 2:50, painfully aware of the limited remaining daylight, but still took some time to enjoy our surroundings. Castle Dome looked every bit as impressive from this direction, and the rest of the range looked interesting as well. Nearby Ten Ewe seemed straightforward from its saddle with Signal, with its high east face suggesting long technical routes. A dramatic pinnacle to the south turned out to be Squaw Peak, about which I could find nothing online, and which looks technical from all sides.
But we were running out of daylight, and soon deployed into hustle mode — in the wrong direction. Heading east following Bob’s route, we hoped to skirt the cliffs of the summit block and return to the car via Four Palms Canyon, sparing us tedious rope-work on the descent. After a decent trail devolved into chossy steep slopes we abandoned this plan, retracing our steps, forfeiting 45 minutes of precious daylight and dooming ourselves to some hard headlamp hours. The return trip involved scrambling, loose slopes, circuitous route finding, encounters with spiky shrubbery, a rappel, lowering Leonie down a sketchy clifflet and ferocious wind. We stumbled like drunken teens as fatigue set in hours after our headlamps came out. Despite a 20 pound rock rolling into her calf and a yucca drawing blood below her knee, Leonie maintained good humor, reciting poetry, telling jokes and singing an improvised song to the tune of “Both Hands” by Ani DiFranco:
I am ‘shwacking all through the night
And I am crawling over boulders by a very dim head light
And I am getting no closer to the car
I keep on moving, but it seems so far….
After I offered her my brighter headlamp I led the way by her fading one and the flashlight from my phone. Intermittent GPS and occasional cairns guided us down the boulder strewn wash sprinkled with bloodthirsty desert flora. After a reckless backtrack and the determined application of my will and cellular data, I found a trail whose quality improved as we moved closer to the trailhead. We consumed our last calories and rejoiced in our ability to walk unhindered for the final hundred yards, reaching our twin Honda Elements at 8:30, thoroughly exhausted.
I mashed canned chicken into stale sandwich bread for dinner, while Leonie chewed on a red bell pepper and listened to Nordic folk music. We squirmed into bed in Leonie’s pop-top camper at 9:30 and were tormented by the wind until dawn. Aaah, Signal mountain… winter desert peaks with a start time after 11 AM. We sure ain’t never gonna learn.
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is about as far south and down as Arizona goes, so it was perhaps inevitable that we would end up there eventually. It was established during Prohibition, when the state donated the land to the federal government so they would pave the road, making it easier for bootleggers to smuggle booze up from Mexico. Since then, it has gone on to protect the far northern reaches of the Sonoran desert, which lies mostly in eastern Baja and north-central Mexico. Though the most distinctive species is the organ pipe cactus, a bundle of five- to fifteen-foot-tall stalks several inches in diameter, the park’s lowlands are most notable for their dense forests of saguaros. Most of the park lacks roads and trails, but there are two scenic loops on either side of Highway 85, each with several short tourist trails, a few well-worn use trails to some landmarks, and some migrant trails with the usual detritus of Mexican tuna cans and candy wrappers.
Organ Pipe is known among peak-baggers for its two DPS peaks, Ajo and Kino, both of which seem to be the typical desert fare: a long march across an alluvial plain followed by a slog up rotten volcanic rock covered in spiky plants. Fortunately there are other things to see, including the flora and fauna (e.g. javelinas, occasional desert bighorns), some cool volcanic features and, arguably, an interesting visitor center. We checked out the latter, then headed across the street to the eastern scenic loop, intending to tag Ajo Peak.
Partway around the loop, we were distracted by a striking pair of natural arches, one on top of the other. Unlike those in Arches National Park, which are carved from sandstone by wind erosion, these seem have formed from volcanic rhyolite and breccia (a.k.a. “choss”) via the universe’s natural trend toward greater entropy. The lower arch is around twenty feet high and fifty long, while the upper is twenty long, less than ten high, and only a foot or so thick at its thinnest point. Given the nature of the rock, this may become a single arch within my lifetime, but fortunately the upper arch is too difficult for most tourists to reach. There is an official trail up the wash toward the two, then a well-used social trail to the base of the lower one.
Since the sign said that the lower arch was only a mile or so away, we left our packs in the car in anticipation of a quick hike. We followed the official trail to its end at a sign warning about illegal immigrants, with graffiti urging people to “give them water!” There is a tension along this part of the border between enforcement — two checkpoints along Highway 85, and 500 Border Patrol agents since a ranger was killed in 2003 — and aid — official emergency call boxes topped by flashing blue lights, water stations, and no doubt volunteer water caches. With summer air temperatures well over 110 degrees, rugged terrain, and a long hike to civilization at Ajo, the crossing near Sonoyta seems dangerous, but it also seems popular judging by the empty water jugs and camp remnants.
The arch trail was steep but easy to follow, and we met another couple on their way down. The trail climbs abruptly to the ridge, then traverses and descends to the arch’s base, but peak-bagger that I am, I of course wanted to stand on top. We briefly explored the near end, but could not tell where the main arch began or ended from there, so after draining a fresh tinaja, we continued to the inside of the arch, then took a look at the far end. The south side looked unwise to climb, even with rock shoes, so I went around to explore the north side, sparing Leonie a probable waste of time.
After a false start, I continued around to find a route that was no more than class four, and seemed to reach the top. I scrambled up to an intermediate plateau, then called for Leonie to join me, assuming with my usual optimism that the rest of the way would be no harder. One more slightly exposed traverse and scramble got us to the top of the main arch, where we found a sidewalk in the sky leading to the tiny upper one. I was tempted to walk across the mini-arch, but it was only a bit over a foot wide and less than that deep; it had probaly held for thousands of years, but it likely saw little foot traffic, and I would have been crushed (and possibly injured) if it collapsed under my weight. Instead we took turns hanging from it, then completed the loop by scrambling back to the trail side, passing an old piton along the way. The area appears to have a lot of climbing potential, and seeing hardware on such a minor and not-too-difficult route made me think that someone from nearby Tucson had explored it.
Organ Pipe is far away from anything else, so it made sense to spend multiple days there. The natural thing for me to do would be to climb Ajo, which we had not had time to do after the unexpected arch diversion, but that would involve repeating the same 20-mile dirt “scenic” drive, so we looked around for something else and settled on Pinkley Peak, in the opposite direction from the visitor center. The friendly ranger there had suggested a loop up the peak and along the ridge to Dripping Springs, returning along another one-way scenic road, advice that seemed to reflect her enthusiasm, overconfidence in our abilities, and lack of experience.
Pinkley rises like a constellation of spiny plants in the firmament of volcanic choss northwest of the visitor center. While a few dedicated peak-baggers climb it from the end of the two-way dirt road, not enough do so to create a use trail or even a line of cairns, so we parked at the picnic area, then took off on what seemed like a plausible line up a wash toward its summit ridge. The ranger had noted correctly that cross-country travel in the Sonoran desert is easy across flat ground, and rough in the washes, but all parts of the hillsides seem similarly difficult. The ravines are still brush-choked, but the ridges are often rotten, sometimes cliffy, and frequently covered in dense cholla and catclaw. They are also confusing, since the slow erosion seems to create complex and unintuitive topography.
Passing some interesting geode-like rocks embedded in breccia, we eventually reached the summit ridge, where we were met with more solid rock and some difficulties. We passed one step via class 3 terrain to the right, another via an angled chimney-ramp, then traversed left to avoid a false summit. In returning to the summit ridge, we found the day’s only solid rock, some dark class 3-4 slabs. To my surprise, we had continued to find occasional Mexican tuna cans along the way, and found a camping cave just below the summit, with some foul bedding, a solar panel, and an antenna attached to a yucca. With a clear line of sight to Sonoyta, and probably somewhere in Arizona, this peak seems to have at one point been an observation post for smugglers of people or contraband. There was of course no register, and no comfortable seat amidst the volcanic choss and desert flora, so we stayed only long enough to eat an avocado before descending.
I had downloaded a GPX track with my summit cell service, hoping it would lead us to a better route, but sadly this was not the case. The descent route was different in its particulars, but essentially the same as the ascent, a mixture of choss, short cliffs, and spiny plants. All sensible routes on Pinkley seem to be moderately unpleasant, and will remain so until the peak-baggers and smugglers get together to make a trail. Until then, this peak will never become a desert classic.
As winter advanced, we continued to retreat south and down. After finding that sport climbing in the Superstitions is limited, bad, and hard to reach, we continued to Queen Creek, an area between Superior and Globe along Highway 60 suggested by Leonie’s friend Liz. I had never heard of the place, but it turned out to have multiple areas with short approaches and plentiful sport routes on welded tuff and some granite. There is also — rarity of rarities! — free camping with pit toilets on nearby Forest Service land at Oak Flats. Most of the climbing is on Queen Mine land, and requires a liability waiver from the mine company, but this is a free and easy formality that can be taken care of online at the Queen Creek Coalition site. We ended up climbing there for three days, and could have stayed longer had the weather not turned.
We spent our first day in Atlantis, a five-minute walk down a steep slope from the highway. Most of the climbs in this area are on either side of a slot canyon below a concrete check dam, and are too hard for me to lead. However there are enough moderate routes to stay busy for a day, and I even managed to lead a 5.10b by mistake. We arrived to find a family with a dog climbing on one of the easier crags below the main area, locals who helpfully oriented us in the confusion of crags and bolts. We started with Ali Cat, a long 5.7 going up a steep face with positive holds. It was a good place to become familiar with the area’s rock, with ample bolts and low-consequence falls. It was windy, and the guidebook recommended Atlantis for such days, but that suggestion seemed way off base, as the wind was fierce higher up on west-facing Ali Cat, and the main area was a wind tunnel.
After cleaning the first route, we dithered for a bit, then headed into Atlantis proper for First Born, a varied 5.8 involving face, crack, and chimney climbing. One of the other climbers came over to watch, remarking that it was her favorite moderate and that she had never seen anyone do the final chimney facing the way I was. Little did she know that I only faced that way because I had no idea where the anchors were, but fortunately there were plenty of holds to turn around and top out.
Next we moved slightly downstream to attempt one of a couple of 5.9s. The guidebook and Mountain Project were both somewhat confusing, though, as the former is outdated, the latter lacks diagrams, and there has been continuous modern route development. I ended up by mistake climbing KGB, a 5.10b on which I had no business and which I had wanted to avoid. Though it felt more serious than the 5.9 I was expecting, I amazingly managed to climb it without falls, and was inordinately pleased with myself for pulling it off. We finished with some short moderates on a small west-facing section downstream, then hiked back to the car and took a spot at the popular but spacious Oak Flat campground.
The next day we hiked over to Upper Devil Canyon to check out the climbing there. We spent most of the day on a few climbs on Lost Wall, the only memorable one being Projectile, a 5.7 following an open book. We finished with a fun route that might have been Spanish Omelette (5.8) on Universe Wall, which pulled several well-protected bulges. It was fun climbing, and grippier rock than the stuff at Atlantis, but after being spoiled by five-minute approaches, it was somewhat of a disappointment.
For our final day before the rain, we headed back to the roadside area to explore the Pond, an area around what is, in the Spring, a pleasant waterfall and swimming hole. Now it is a slimy mosquito breeding facility, but the climbing remains high-quality, and the approach under an overpass and up some rebar rungs is quick and fun. We started with three routes near the pool, Deadpool (5.8) and two others to its left, both supposedly rated 5.7. I led the middle one first, which felt unreasonably hard for its grade; later I learned that some holds had broken, making it closer to the 5.9 it felt. Leonie was not feeling particularly well or motivated, so she mostly hung out and did yoga, sometimes doing both in the middle of a climb.
A few other parties joined us as we climbed, starting from the left and working their way right as we did the opposite. There was plenty of room to keep socially distant, and even mostly out of earshot, so it never felt crowded. I eventually made it up Weak Sister (5.10a) after falling a few times on the well-protected crux bulge; my limited forearm strength was showing on this steep, crimpy climbing. Sufficiently humbled, we did a mediocre neighboring 5.8, then found a 5.6 far to the left. I led it, then Leonie toproped it a couple of times before leading it herself. Despite having climbed for many years, it was her first time on sport lead, and she handled it calmly.
Too late in the day, I decided to try Pocket Puzzle, a vertical west-facing 5.10a. Such a pumpy route would have been a stretch for me even when fresh, and it proved far too much for me at the end of the day. I made it a bit past the first bolt before admitting that I would never be able to top out, then managed to clean it and downclimb before scampering up neighboring Adventure Quest, a mediocre moderate involving brush and yucca, to finish the day. We both left feeling that we had left a lot of unfinished business at Queen Creek, but with two days of cold and rain in the forecast, it was time to once again move on.
After Leonie and I took care of things in opposite directions — me closer to her home, and she closer to mine, ironically — we needed to meet somewhere in between, and chose Prescott because it was a roughly equal drive for both of us, not too far out of the way, and south-er, lower, and presumably warmer than the now-frigid southern Utah deserts. We met off I-40, then found a… perfectly adequate place to camp along Highway 89, in a National Forest mattress-dumping area. It reminded me a bit of the start of my 2016 road trip with Renee, though with only a handful of clean-picked cow carcasses in place of the dead sheep.
In the morning we drove into town and stopped at the first likely climbing spot, Granite Gardens, an improbable collection of granite blobs nestled in a neighborhood north of downtown. Though we had come to central Arizona for warmth, it was too cold for climbing, so we decided to take a hike/scramble first to get an overview of the area. We were immediately surprised by the visitor-friendly signs at the trailhead and at intersections, which had both numbers and small maps. Unlike most places, where climbers are at most tolerated by the surrounding communities, they seem to be almost welcomed here, though one crazy neighbor lady apparently objects.
We started off along the outermost trails, then left to scramble up one of the easier formations to get a view. Though houses encroach in all directions, the granite formations hide enough to offer a pleasant view, and Granite Mountain and Thumb Butte, a basalt volcanic plug, beckoning to the west. We rejoined the loop with a bit of down-scrambling, and were making our way around the far side when I noticed some bolts on a wall. As I checked out the start of the route, which felt hard, a man with a limping dog hailed us and eventually introduced himself as Jared. He turned out to be not only a local climber, but one of the people active in local route development. He named the routes on the wall (including “Full Metal Corndog” and, of course, “Corndog Millionaire”), then took off for home to get his climbing gear while we returned to the parking lot for ours.
We spent some time climbing a few progressively harder routes on the short Corndog Wall, then moved on to climb “Hop, Skip and a Jump,” a moderate but improbable route ascending a fin or arete with a gap crossed by a large and committing step or a short jump. I always enjoy jumping things, so I found the move fun, but Leonie did not especially enjoy it, taking five minutes or so to prepare herself and/or psych herself out before making what, with her flexibility and balance, was a straightforward move. Shenanigans complete, we finished up with some harder but more normal routes nearby, leading a 5.8 and toproping a 5.10d. The 5.8 felt reasonably serious to me, but I led it cleanly, and more-or-less cleanly toproped the 10d after Jared spent quite a bit of time working out the crux sequence.
We had planned to camp in some National Forest outside town, preferably somewhere with fewer shot-out TVs, but Jared kindly invited us for dinner and to use his spare bedroom and, crucially, shower. I do not expect such hospitality from strangers, even less now in our pandemic times, but traveling with an attractive and sociable woman does have its advantages. Jared turned out to be a fascinating guy, with interests ranging from Mary Oliver’s poetry, to guitar, to deer hunting with native bows he makes himself. We finally turned in after a folk sing-along, with plans to climb with Jared the next day.
The next morning we piled into Jared’s Honda Element — the only one with enough room for three people — and drove back up Highway 89 to near where we had camped to visit some “secret” limestone sport crags. We drove an obscure dirt “road,” followed a faint cairned trail to a canyon, and descended through a band of basalt to the bottom. There limestone bluffs intermittently emerged from the otherwise volcanic walls, some hopelessly rotten, but others solid enough to climb, though apparently only after significant cleaning with a pry-bar.
Jared kindly allowed me to do the leading, while he and Leonie took turns following and belaying. Limestone is much different from the previous day’s granite or the sandstone I had climbed with Renee in Sedona. Because it features sharp-edged slots and pockets, and is rough and grippy, routes are steep for their grades. This means that falls at grades I can hope to climb are safer, but also that the rock tears up one’s fingertips, and that it is easy to exhaust one’s forearms. Proper technique requires using small footholds, subtly shifting one’s weight, and strategizing about how and when to spend limited forearm strength.
I had climbed limestone before in the Dolomites and crags around the Tetons, so I took to it quickly and enjoyed the different style of movement. Leonie, just getting back into climbing and used to Sierra granite, was less comfortable, and took awhile to learn the best technique. For once her flexibility worked against her, as it is often best to make small upward movements with one’s hands and feet instead of big reaches and high steps. I led two routes on a wall downstream, then two more on one just across from the approach trail. On the second-to-last, I realized partway up that I had two too few draws, forcing me to choose a couple of bolts to skip and run it out. It was all thoroughly enjoyable climbing, and we were lucky to have met a local willing to share it.
We had only planned to stay for one night, but Jared insisted upon making curry for us, and it was hard to refuse another night of running water and heated space. We stayed up “late” again (where “late” for a winter dirtbag means several hours after dark), talking about life and even some politics, then turned in to enjoy a last night of civilization. Jared had to take off early the next morning, but kindly allowed us to depart at our leisure, so we enjoyed a final hike and shower before heading down and south in search of warmth.
[Thanks again to Leonie for significant contributions and help writing this quickly and promptly, and for photographic help. — ed.]
I had already climbed Weavers Needle, but a sunny mellow southern Arizona peak is just the ticket for taking a new girlfriend for a test climb. After a leisurely breakfast of bean tacos and avocado we hit the trail at the crack of nine. The parking lot was a snarl of shiny SUVs and the trail was infested with families and groups no doubt spraying Coronavirus on us as we passed.
Less than a mile in we found Bob, a 70 year old Forest Service volunteer, and Leonie paused to pick his brain about possible backpacking loops. We devoted the next hour to Bob’s recounting of feral apples at the Reavis Ranch and his extensive journeys into the back country of the Superstition wilderness. He and his family had seemingly lived in the area for decades, and I wanted to learn more from before Phoenix exploded, but we had a peak to climb.
Onward, up to the pass where the crowds thinned and we had the trail to ourselves. We cruised down to the use trail towards the Needle and I watched as Leonie picked her way up loose scrabble terrain. A fire since Mike and I had climbed the Needle in 2014 had greatly improved the area, eliminating the catclaw while leaving the cacti and yuccas intact, and simplifying the approach. We continued up the third and fourth class scrambling to a new intermediate anchor, replacing the old pipe, where we roped up. I trailed a rope as I stemmed up the steepening gully and thrashed around the crux chockstone; Leonie groveled even more and somehow landed on top sideways. Rumor has it that tunneling underneath is 5.1, while the lefthand side is around 5.4, but the tunnel looks awfully narrow.
More fourth and fifth class scrambling interspersed with gravelly steep slopes brought us to the summit, where we explored our underwear modeling careers before returning the way we had come. Leonie kept it together while the down climb challenged her preference for facing out (why do people do this?), and we returned to the chockstone and a mildly sickening overhanging rappel.
One of us managed to wedge the rope firmly into the pinch between the chockstone and the right wall, forcing me to climb back up to free it. While I was muttering and flailing the rope, we saw the first two people since leaving the pass — two guys planning to sleep on top. As I was rappelling the second pitch, two Frenchmen from the Bay Area showed up to join the summit sausage party. Leonie down climbed as I completed my rappel, then we flaked the rope and set off to race the fading daylight.
Down we went over more steep and unstable loose slopes through the burn area, flakes of burned cactus leaves and a saguaro bark remnant that resembled plastic corrugated roofing. I chose a different line of cairns, which left us thrashing through thorns and rounded boulders until we stumbled upon the trail. Clearly the work of fire here is not complete. Two hours or so of headlamp time later, we were back at the now mostly empty trailhead. I would have been faster without Leonie on the rocky trail, since headlamp jogging is what I do, but she kept me entertained with jokes and tales of bartering two silver rings for the use of a horse in rural Tibet many years ago. We whipped up some couscous-based nutrient glop back at the car and were sleeping by 9 PM.
[This is longer than my usual reports because I camped out for a change, and if it feels a bit more polished and researched, that is because my co-conspirator Leonie is a Real Writer, and kindly offered to collaborate. — ed.]
Grand Gulch drains most of the west side of Cedar Mesa, a wooded plateau southeast of Moab about 6500 feet above sea level. Running roughly east to west for 50 miles, from Kane Gulch to the San Juan River, the canyon floor ranges from 5500 to 5100 feet and is often wide, sandy and boulder-strewn. Leonie and I hiked from Bullet Canyon to Collins Spring, a distance of about 30 miles, though her Fitbit reckoned we covered almost double that navigating the twists of the canyon floor and scrambling up cliffs to sit with every ruin and pictograph we could find.
The central part of the gulch features sheer 800-foot cliffs of Cedar Mesa sandstone, the remnants of beach from the Permian era. Fossils from the sea floor during this era, about 250 million years ago, display a diverse and thriving marine system, then a swath of corpses. The planet’s third and most catastrophic mass extinction wiped out over 95% of marine life and 70% of terrestrial life; land-based ecosystems took 30 million years to recover. No one is sure what caused this mass extinction, but global warming and ocean acidification certainly contributed. We are currently in the midst of the planet’s sixth mass extinction, but this time we know exactly whom to blame.
I wanted to tell her that her tears were wasted water, but neither of us could stop laughing. Our second “reliable water source” in three days was a seven-foot-deep pool of black sludge, its oily surface occasionally disturbed by bubbles from the chemical reactions in its depths. Once the laughter faded, we agreed that we had enough water to last the rest of the trip. This water could be saved for someone more desperate.
Grand Gulch was not on my agenda when I left California to escape the fires and smoke. I am a mountain person, drawn to open views and sharp, easily-catalogued summits, and the Gulch is a uniformly narrow and shallow canyon in a piñon-and-juniper desert plain. However it was conveniently located, and while my previous visit made planning easy, much of it was still new to me. Leonie and I drove over to Collins Gulch to set up a car shuttle, threw a couple gallons of water and what seemed like a few days’ food in our packs, and returned to Bullet Canyon to begin the hike. Ten minutes in, we reached the first spring, a patch of moss under an overhang with an icicle and a thin trickle of water. This did not bode well for the supposedly reliable water sources farther in, so late in a dry year. We dropped our packs, returned to the car to chug as much as we could, then resumed where we had left off.
This first part was familiar from my previous trip, when Renee and I had used Bullet Canyon to visit the northeast part of Grand Gulch on a long run. It is also popular, as the first ruins are close enough to the trailhead for most people to visit them in a day. But the terrain is largely slickrock and sand, where trails do not form, so I still had to pay attention as we alternately followed the wash and bypassed steeper sections to one side or the other. The ruins are also well-hidden on shelves above the valley floor, so despite my having visited both before, we barely found Jailhose Ruin, and I wasted plenty of time and energy failing to find Perfect Kiva.
Where most people turn right at the Grand Gulch junction, we turned left, heading downstream toward the San Juan River. We were just over seven miles from our other car, but covering that distance would take a good part of three days. A seasonal stream has cut the Gulch into a nearly-flat sandstone plateau, so it meanders constantly, and its sides are mostly sheer. Once you enter, you are committed to following its twists and turns, either through deep sand in the wash, or cactus and tamarisk on either side. I could not decide which was least bad, and every time I changed my mind we were forced to slog up and down high banks of loose dirt. As the sun set in our narrow strip of sky, the cold abruptly set in, and we found a sandstone bench above the brush and pooling frigid air to camp. I always struggle with the cold, short days this time of year, particularly while backpacking, and the canyon only made them colder and shorter. On the bright side, we had barely touched our water, so we could survive the next two days with no springs and only a bit of thirst.
Grand Gulch probably has some of the best stargazing in the country. Though it is not particularly high at only around 5000 feet, the air is dry and unpolluted. The nearest town, Mexican Hat, is over twenty miles away, barely inhabited, and hidden in the San Juan River canyon. We were visiting at a particularly opportune time, near both the new moon and the peak of the Leonid meteor showers. Anticipating this, I had brought my “real” camera to practice my night photography, so I was disappointed and annoyed at myself when I found that the cold had drained the battery. So much for my plan to while away the long hours between when it is too dark to hike and a socially-acceptable bedtime. Fortunately we had shooting stars to watch, and Leonie shares my insomnia and is an endless source of crazy stories, so I did not waste my evening with dark thoughts and depressing political podcasts.
While our campsite was mostly well-chosen, on a flat, clean sandstone bench above the pool of cold air in the wash, it faced north, so the morning routine of hot breakfast wrapped in down took longer than usual. I would ordinarily chafe at wasting any portion of a short November day, but despite the previous day’s battles with sand and shrubbery, I remained confident that we had only a modest distance to cover in the next two days. We hoped to find water at Green Canyon, but thanks to our decision to tank up at the car, I thought we could finish with only mild dehydration.
Grand Gulch can be frustrating, but is never boring. The best route alternates between the central channel and the banks to either side, with each transition requiring a minor battle with a steep dirt-bank. In the channel, one’s search for pictographs, ruins, and water sources is hampered by the ten-foot-tall banks; on the sides, by the need to dodge cacti wriggle through brush. Thus the mind stays occupied, even while the route is dictated by the canyon walls.
Leonie’s map mentioned a “Totem Pole” ruin in this stretch, but we were focused on making forward progress, and my failure to find the Perfect Kiva the day before had accustomed me to the disappointment of not finding ruins. It therefore cheered me and gave me a bit of confidence to spot, though the head-high brush, a two-story building on a south-facing ledge. We dropped packs, thrashed up brush and dirt, then scrambled some easy slabs to reach the ledge’s accessible east side.
The building was in a strong defensive position, with sheer cliffs above and below and the ledge tapering away to the west. The eastern approach was guarded by a thick wall with a low door and five apparent arrow slits, suggesting frequent vicious and petty wars between the canyon’s settlements. The building itself was solidly-built, with regular layers of larger rocks alternating with mud and smaller stones. While enough of the second story’s floor had collapsed to allow one to look inside, most of the vegas were intact, blackened by smoke. The ceilings were low for us modern tall folk — everything from doors to handprints to corncobs is small — leading me to believe that the Basketweavers were stunted by their sere environment.
As we turned to head back to our packs, I was surprised to see a man making his way up to the eastern side of the ledge. He patiently waited outside the defensive wall until we exited, and I probably would have just said a few words and moved on, but Leonie is more outgoing, and the man proved more talkative than I had expected. Dana had been visiting the Gulch for forty years, and was paradoxically documenting it online while trying to protect it from the rising tourist tide. He also had a long and wide-ranging mountaineering career, but he was reticent like most such people, and we all had miles to cover.
Before parting, Dana gave us a map pointing out some archaeological features that did not appear on ours, and suggested a possible water source up Step Canyon. We quickly found the nearby Quail Panel, small but more colorful than most in the Canyon. I took some photos, learned the Quail Panel Dance, then took off up-canyon in search of the fabled water source. This side-trip turned out to be a discouraging waste of time. Perhaps there is no water, but more likely I am simply bad at finding it. After an hour or so spent looking under overhangs and below discolorations, the best I found was some vile moss-mud hybrid that I could perhaps drink from by pressing my t-shirt against it and wringing a few drops into my mouth.
Leonie ran into Dana while gawking at the panel and waiting for my fruitless water expedition. He told her that the blocky rectangular figures are over 2000 years old, painted by people well-intentioned whites call Basketmaker. The oldest remnants Europeans found in the canyon are intricately woven watertight brackets which date from that era. The stick figures are from a later group often called Pueblo, who lived in the canyon from about 1000 AD to the 12th or 13th or 14th century, depending on whose account you trust. Most of the structures we passed date from this period.
There are five modern native tribes that trace their ancestors to Grand Gulch and Cedar Mesa- the Zuni, Hopi, Navajo and two groups of Ute. When Obama designated Bear’s Ears National Monument in 2016, he created a historic management partnership between federal and tribal agencies. Registers at some of the better known structures and panels offer tips on how to appreciate the sites with respect.
It turns out that hanging out by the panel was a better way to find water. Three NOLS instructors came by, and told us of a “good” pothole farther down-canyon. In typical NOLS fashion, they were on a ridiculously long backpack out-of-season through harsh terrain, descending another gulch to the San Juan, then somehow following that to the mouth of Grand Gulch before exiting via Bullet. Unusually, though, the instructors were keeping some distance from the students, who were supposed to figure things out for themselves. I am not sure how this worked, but imagined it involved spotting scopes and tranquilizer darts. Continuing on our way, we passed a couple groups of the students, instantly recognizable by their haggard young faces and absurdly large packs. As much as I respect NOLS, it is frustrating to watch it corrupt the minds of our youth with its slow-and-heavy style.
The promised oasis turned out to be a pool of stagnant water, roughly three by eight feet and a foot deep, sitting fifty feet above the canyon floor on the south side. Other than a few algae and some floating debris, it looked drinkable, though little like a “water source” to my mountaineer’s eyes, and nothing like a “spring.” We took turns forcing some water through my filter, mostly clogged by Chilean glacial silt, and boiling some for tea, a frustrating process for those used to dipping in alpine streams. However it was worth the effort, as it alleviated the persistent water anxiety and even gave us the option of taking another day. I had packed my food expecting to cover normal summer-length days, but since caloric needs are mostly a function of miles traveled, I could easily last another day.
By the end of two days in the canyon, I was developing a sense for where to find ruins and pictographs. The natives were smart, locating their dwellings and paintings on south- or east-facing ledges with overhangs, which would catch morning and winter sun, and be somewhat shaded in the summer. Thus I correctly predicted that another ledge was likely to contain something, and found some more pictographs not labeled on either map. Their ledge had partly collapsed though, so getting close required a bit of fourth class climbing — a bonus to me. My inner peak-bagger was frustrated by the constrained hike through a canyon, and each ruin was like a summit, this one requiring an interesting scramble.
A hurried search for a campsite before dark left us on a slightly worse ledge, west-facing and sloped toward the wash. Between the slow terrain and my fruitless side-trip for water, we had not covered much ground, but I was getting better at spotting ruins, and learning to lower my expectations about water. I ate my curry-flavored nutrient paste, then settled in for another night of conversation and insomnia beneath innumerable stars.
Water anxiety was no longer a problem: thanks to the friendly NOLS instructors, we had found usable water the day before, and knew of a reliable source ahead at the Big Pouroff. Thus we were in no hurry to get started, and felt free to stop and explore at our leisure. This included both normal tourist visits to ruins and pictographs, and sillier delays like chimneying up behind a giant sandstone flake just because it was there. Like Zion and Red Rocks, parts of Grand Gulch can feel like an adult jungle gym for those inclined to scramble.
Dana had marked some pictographs near our camp, but after failing to find them in a few minutes’ search, we headed on down the wash. As we imperceptibly descended toward the San Juan River, and more tributaries fed into the main Gulch. The greater seasonal flow manifested itself indirectly: the channel widened and became less brushy, its deep sand replaced by compacted gravel, cracked mud, and worn sandstone, and occasional wet patches began to appear. Leonie found some water in the form of calf-deep, shoe-sucking mud hidden under leaves, and shortly thereafter found a vile pothole in which to wash it off.
After two days of scrabbling up and down dirt-banks, thrashing through tamarisk, and plodding in sand, easy walking in the broad ravine was its own attraction. Our pace increased so much that we almost missed the “Big Man” panel featured on the tourist signs, had we not met an older couple hiking in to see it from the opposite direction. Rather than backpacking the canyon as we were, they were wisely dayhiking it from its tributaries to the east: Kane, Bullet, Government, and so on. We talked for awhile — as fellow travelers in the Western United States, we had seen many of the same places — then took off through the brush toward the indicated coordinates. I spotted a likely location for pictographs, a north-facing bench under a smooth overhang, and took off to investigate while the others waited.
My thrashy, slabby route was unsurprisingly the wrong way, and I discovered a well-traveled path just below the ledge. I had guessed correctly, finding the two large red figures, with the usual Basketweaver blocky bodies and spindly limbs, along with a few cruder white figures, many handprints, and either some fat abstract rodent or the severed head of a white girl with a ponytail. Leonie and the couple soon joined me, and we alternated posing for photos and signing the summit register (yay, I get points for this!). When the conversation stumbled into politics, I was relieved to learn that they were the kind of Montanans with whom I tend to agree. The northern Rockies states have a conservative and redneck reputation, but especially in Montana, I have found a strong current of wilderness conservation and defense of access to public lands. While the political divisions may be just as bitter as elsewhere, they are drawn on different lines than elsewhere, with hunters more closely allied with hikers and climbers.
We took a side trip near Polly’s Island to visit some handprints Dana had mentioned, but I was starting to succumb to archaeology fatigue. When I spotted a short wall on a ledge farther down-gulch, Leonie was content to hang out in the streambed while I thrashed up to take a closer look. A collapsed canyon wall on the right seemed to offer the most likely access, but while I found trails in the flat below, and an old cut branch higher up, the route did not seem to see much traffic. A final squeeze and exposed step landed me on the ledge. The walls were not much more impressive close up, and there were no pictographs, so I took a few quick photos and almost turned back.
Fortunately I decided to take a peek around the corner to the southwest, and saw that the ledge extended another couple hundred yards, sheltering a few more structures before disappearing into the blank canyon wall. I shouted to my companion that the side-trip was worth the effort, then waited for her to join me before exploring further. Though it was probably the largest settlement we saw, and seems easy to spot from below, the ruin did not appear on the map and lacked the usual BLM “please stay out” signs, and I found no recent footprints in the dirt along the ledge. We passed a well-preserved stick-and-mud wall and two- and three-unit “apartment complexes,” then stopped at the final round structure to absorb our surroundings.
Pictographs are worth recording, but I find it hard to relate to them. The stick figures and handprints show little skill, and the abstract paintings mean nothing unmoored from their culture. Buildings are another matter: the need for shelter is universal, and with limited labor and building materials, the ancient natives constructed structures I would find difficult to recreate myself. Sitting on that ledge, I could imagine the austere and circumscribed lives of an extended family living there, waking each morning to the same restricted view I saw. They would tend and gather their crops below, carefully manage their limited water, and trade or war with similar people a few miles up- or down-canyon.
Back in the present, it was time we looked to our own water, shelter, and forward progress. We dropped packs near the point of the Big Pouroff, a supposedly good water source, and I spent a half-hour following various game- and human-trails around a flat bend, peering under every discolored overhang and behind every cluster of greenish vegetation. I was expecting a mossy little oasis with a dripping seep, but instead found only more desert. Returning to our packs and the watercourse, we worked our way around a dryfall and found… well, the name “Big Pouroff” was accurate. Though dry now, the wide chute had once flowed into the largest pothole we had seen, still brimming with fetid scunge. While I tried to measure its depth without falling in and drowning, Leonie sat down to laugh uncontrollably.
This time we were determined to find a good camp-spot, flat and east-facing. We passed several other potholes, smaller and less vile than the Big Pouroff, but none seemed worth the effort given our adequate water. Toward dusk, I spotted a possible camping area high above the streambed inside a westward bend. Reaching it required some engaging class 4 sandstone slabs, and it was not entirely flat, but we would spend the night well out of the cold pool in the gulch, and feel the first sun after our last night.
Our unplanned fourth day was short, and the travel likely to remain easy, so we took our time packing up and scrambling back into the wash. The lower wash remained broad and smooth as expected, while the canyon walls twisted into sharper goosenecks, on their way toward wearing through and forming buttes, like Polly’s Island from the previous day. We passed one more ruin, with an intact kiva, a summit register, and dwellings on an inaccessible-looking shelf above. The information in the register box noted that using technical rock-climbing gear to reach ruins was illegal, which I of course took as a challenge to my scrambling ability. Reaching the shelf was no more than class 3, but the traverse to the buildings, on outward-sloping sandstone with little headroom, was more than I wanted to risk. I suspect that either the ledge has eroded, or the natives reached the dwelling via a ladder or the roofs of buildings below.
It was not even noon when we reached the junction with Collins Gulch, and the route back to Leonie’s car, so we dropped our packs to explore “The Narrows,” a feature labeled on our map. This turned out not to be a slot canyon like the Zion Narrows, but something more unusual, a gooseneck that had “recently” worn through to form an island. The new watercourse led through a gap no more than a dozen feet wide, with two logs jammed ten feet up. Being who I am, my first thought after “that’s cool” was “how do I stand on top of those?” I found two ways: a fourth class traverse from a side-canyon along a ledge on the right, and a more direct fifth class route up the right wall from below, mantling onto the log. Balancing across the lower log was heady but easy, since it was broad and stable. I posed for some photos on the summit block, then downclimbed back to the wash.
After failing to climb to the rim above the constriction, we returned to our packs and picked up the well-used trail up Collins. This was one of the settlers’ original routes into Grand Gulch, probably because it has a permanent spring at the top (though based on our experience, I am skeptical of both its permanence and its springiness). The route therefore follows an old developed trail, with spiked retaining walls in places and one section blasted into the cliff wall near the top. Despite its development and semi-regular use, the trail remains hard to follow in places, as it sensibly follows the wash where possible. This misled us into one dead-end, where we briefly wondered how mules had climbed a fifth-class sandstone step. The answer was that we had passed the point where an obvious trail left the wash.
Back on track, we climbed a ramp carved in the sandstone wall, passed through an old gate, and reemerged on Cedar Mesa, into a suddenly open sky and 360-degree distant horizon. The gulch where we had spent the past three days quickly disappeared in the undulating sandstone and spotted junipers. Unlike my familiar mountains, landmarks visible for tens of miles, Grand Gulch is a surprise, hidden in mere hundreds of yards. It must have been a cruel shock for early explorers, who had easily avoided the high and compact La Sals, Henries, and Abajos, to stumble upon this sprawling impasse. But in our modern world all terrain is known and mapped, all paths graded and paved. In only a couple of hours we had drive back around to Bullet Canyon to retrieve the other car, then down off the Mesa via the improbable Moki Dugway to spend a warmer night among the sandstone monuments to the south.
The Inyo Range parallels the Sierra Nevada across the Owens Valley between highways 168 and 190. Along with the Panamint and Sierra Nevada, it is one of three neighboring ranges rising about 10,000 feet from the valley to its east. Unlike the other ranges, the Inyos do not have a paved road or civilization on their east side. The Saline Valley contains only a dirt road and some hot springs, now closed due to the Coronavirus; the miners that once lived on that side of the range built their cabins several thousand feet above the valley floor, near the springs in nearly every canyon. Since many of the canyons narrow to slots near the valley floor, these cabins were difficult to access, sometimes even requiring sketchy hand-built ladders.
Crossing from the Owens Valley to the Inyo and back again was not my idea: it involves too few peaks and too much desert suffering. However Kim is drawn to such things, and as I age, I find fewer ridiculous projects in the western States that motivate me. There are several ways to cross the Inyos on “trails,” one of them being via Forgotten Pass and Beveridge Canyon. We had attempted this from the Saline side this spring, but were too late in the year, and gave up after reaching Forgotten Pass, tagging Voon Meng Leow Peak as a consolation prize before returning to the roasting desert. This time we came from the Owens side. The sun would be against us, as we would reach the Saline Valley around mid-day, but the Owens side of Forgotten Pass is easier to negotiate by headlamp, a necessity so late in the year.
I met Kim at the 2WD trailhead along the graded Owenyo Road, where we slept until 2:00 AM before taking Kim’s 4Runner up the “road” — some faint tire tracks dodging boulders and creosote up an alluvial fan — to the “trailhead” — the place where the 10-foot-deep main gully has made vehicular travel utterly impossible. From there we followed the “trail” — occasional footprints and cairns leading up and along the wash — to a trail register and some built-up switchbacks. Welcome to the Inyos! Fortunately Kim had both familiarity and a GPX track from previous forays, and it was close to the full moon, so we had no trouble following the path to the pass, or descending the other side to Frenchy’s Cabin, our water source for the crossing. Temperatures stayed more or less in the upper 20s or 30s, though the air was somewhat colder in the vicious Owens Valley inversion at the 2WD trailhead, and at the pass itself.
I had anticipated a 20-hour day, and was therefore surprised to reach Frenchy’s at the end of headlamp time. Someone had clipped back the bush and repaired the waterspout since we had visited in the spring, but there was a noticeable pool of cold air at the cabin, so we did not linger. Whoever had worked on the cabin had also done sporadic work on the trail down to Beveridge, so the previous brush-fest went quickly and painfully by Inyo standards.
The mental crux of the route is a long, rolling traverse out of Beveridge Canyon. The bottom is brush-choked and possibly steep and narrow below the “town” of Beveridge, so the trail traverses up and out to the ridge to its north before descending to the Saline Valley. This section, through scrub, decaying granite, and sand, has mostly collapsed over the years, and is frequently nearly useless or invisible. While it is easier than going cross-country over the surrounding terrain, it would hardly be called a trail anywhere other than the Inyos, and is a prime example of how I have badly underestimated travel times on previous trips to the range.
The trail improves once it reaches the ridge north of Beveridge, then gets even worse as the ridge narrows and it leaves the crest. It perhaps used to switchback down this slope, but there is no longer anything resembling a trail for much of the route between the crest and some washed-out mine roads far below. Though it must have once been passable by the mules that dragged the heavy materials up to Beveridge, the route now includes short sections easy class 3 rock and dirt. Struggling to get at my Pop-Tarts on the way down the easy part, I managed to superman onto the trail’s sharp limestone, though I got away with only a couple of cuts and blood blisters on my palms. I was therefore more cautious than usual on the steeper part. We jogged the badly-eroded mine road down to its junction with the Keynot Ridge “trail,” then deemed that we had reached the valley floor.
Though it is only 14 straight-line miles from Lone Pine, the mouth of Beveridge Canyon is a much longer drive around via the Saline Valley Road. The horizons in both directions are completely different from those in the Owens Valley, with the Inyos’ larger and more dramatic east side to one side, and the similarly hostile desert ranges of Death Valley to the other. I therefore felt more remote than I would have on the Sierra Crest, a similar distance in the opposite direction from town, or on summits deeper into the Sierra Nevada. It is not even such a long way by trail — 32 miles and 16,000 feet of climbing round-trip — but it felt like a day trip between two disconnected lands.
The midday climb back out of the Saline Valley could be crushing, with brutal heat, no shade, and a parody of a trail climbing thousands of feet. However it was much cooler than when we had visited in May, with mostly comfortable t-shirt conditions on our hike back up the road. The trail was no easier to find going up than down, following sporadic cairns and footprints. Because this section of “trail” would be nearly impossible to follow at night, late fall seems like the only reasonable time to do the Inyo crossing, despite the short days and cold temperatures up high. Like similar desert routes with ten thousand feet or so of elevation change, like White Mountain’s west ridge and the L2H route from Badwater to Whitney, this route has a narrow window of opportunity.
The long grind from the valley back to Frenchy’s is more tolerable when broken up into four stages: the headwall out of the valley, the climb up Beveridge Ridge, the sidehill traverse, and the bushwhack from Beveridge to the cabin. The whole thing is overwhelmingly grim, but each part by itself is small enough to be tolerable. We reached Frenchy’s by late afternoon, feeling more positive than I had expected, and on track to finish much earlier than the 10:00 PM or so that I had feared. However it was already unpleasantly cold: cold air pools in the canyon and the sun apparently does not reach the cabin this time of year, so there was still ice on the ground next to the spring. We filled our water, Kim stepped in the stream, I froze my hands, and we started off again as quickly as possible to warm up.
We reached the pass right at dusk, watching the moon rise over the Last Chance Range as the sun silhouetted the Sierra. We checked our phones (pathetic online creatures that we all now are), put on our headlamps, and took off jogging toward the car. I still felt surprisingly good, but the fact that I had more trouble following the trail than I had on the way out suggested that fatigue was catching up. As always when returning from the Inyo crest, the descent dragged on longer than it seemed it should. I was feeling impatient toward the bottom, where the route crosses the wash and climbs around a constriction, and apparently so was Kim, who began jogging the downhills and even flats. I probably would have walked, as conditions were pleasant and I had plenty of food and water, but I gamely picked up my pace, and was glad to have someone younger and more motivated to push me a bit.
We returned to the car in about 15.5 hours, much better than the 20 I had feared, and I felt that we could have done more. After losing the road in the wash, we eventually followed the correct set of tire tracks, returning to my car in time for dinner and a full night’s sleep. I am not driven to additional super-long days in the Inyos, but there are many more potential routes, including other crossings and loops from either side. I look forward to seeing what others do.
Climbing with Renee was one of the fixed points in my evolving winter plan, so I rallied down from southeast Utah to the kitschy little town of Sedona, south of Flagstaff. Despite countless trips through Flagstaff, I had never taken the thirty-mile side-trip south off the Kaibab Plateau, and while I was impressed by the abrupt drop from ponderosa forest to sandstone desert, the “no camping next N miles” sign hinted that I was entering a place incompatible with my dirtbag essence. According to Wikipedia,
In the mid-1950s, the first telephone directory listed 155 names. Some parts of the Sedona area were not electrified until the 1960s. Sedona began to develop as a tourist destination, vacation-home and retirement center in the 1950s. Most of the development seen today was constructed in the 1980s and 1990s. As of 2007, there are no large tracts of undeveloped land remaining.
In other words, the place has almost no history, what little history it does have is bad, and it has been overpopulated for the last decade. Be that as it may, I drove through the tourist schlock emporia among the pink jeeps, and found a place to park along the road below the overflowing trailhead for Capitol Butte.
Whatever its flaws, Sedona is surrounded by interesting sandstone buttes, and Capitol, being one of the most prominent, seemed likely to have a good sunset view. It is also reachable by a short, steep trail, so I could get a quick workout after my long drive and make it back to the car without headlamp time. Being used to the cold Utah desert, I was surprised at how warm Sedona was, given that it is at the same elevation as Grand Gulch and Mexican Hat. Even standing still in the shade, I was comfortable in shorts and a t-shirt. I found the correct trail and the unsigned but well-used turnoff to Capitol, and had little trouble following the route on the way up. There are several braided paths, and while I may not have chosen the best, I did not lose much time. The route had a few runnable sections, but was mostly either too steep, or involved brush and rock steps, with several third class sections. If for some reason I ended up living in Sedona, it would make a fun workout peak. I reached the summit in time to enjoy the evening light on the sandstone north and east of town, then made it back to the car around dusk. The correct trail was harder to follow on the descent, and I wandered off-route several times before using my Strava track to correct my error.
Once back at the car, I panned around the map for awhile looking for likely sleeping spots, and eventually settled on Boynton Pass Road. I have been doing this for awhile, so I was not surprised to have chosen correctly. However, I was surprised at both how far out I had to drive, and how crowded it was, hosting a mixture of the ubiquitous Sprinters with California plates, rental camper-vans, RVs, and trailers. I was tired and it was dark, so I settled into the first spot with a faint cell signal and a bit of privacy, ate my usual dinner glop, and turned in.
I woke well before dawn, then met Renee at a more civilized hour to climb a multi-pitch sport route I had found on Mountain Project, Motorboating. Given the distances and parking difficulties, it seemed easiest to approach by bike, so we rode the “moderate” trail to the base. Renee, being a competent mountain biker on a capable bike, probably enjoyed the rocky trail more than I did, but it was still an interesting challenge to negotiate as much as I could on my gravel bike with a heavy pack. We locked our bikes together off the trail, then scrambled toward a likely-looking starting point, getting ready to climb, and walking our gear along a ledge when we realized we were at the wrong place.
The route was somewhat disappointing in a couple of ways. Have the pitches were easy enough to barely require a rope, and it was necessary to walk the rope between belays. Worse, the sport route did not top out on the formation, so I did not get points for a summit. I was glad to be climbing with Renee, who both knows me and is patient, because I was a bumbling and incompetent partner after two or more years without climbing on a rope. On top of that, I managed to drop my long-suffering phone while leading the last pitch. Fortunately the case absorbed the first blow, and it landed through a bush onto sloping dirt. It has been a tough year for the poor little thing, which needs to last until Apple’s new “mini” (i.e. “normal-sized”) phones are available for cheap.
Renee was on child care duty for the afternoon, but we had just enough time to toprope the first two pitches of the route, which we had skipped with our mistaken approach. Lowering in from the top, I failed to bring any gear to redirect the rope, and was forced to climb the 5.10a variation. I flailed and fell and hung on the thin feet and crimps, but struggled through rather than giving up and untying at the bottom. Renee did a much better job, climbing it patiently and cleanly. We packed up, then rode back to town, finding the trail much more rideable in the slightly downhill direction. I killed some time internetting, then drove back out toward Boynton Pass to camp. It was even more crowded than the last time, so after a fruitless foray farther, I settled into my previous spot with a few more neighbors. It was almost like “camping” in an RV park, and soured me further on Sedona.
Renee was on Tyler duty on our final day, so we found a crag with some moderates and a very short approach, curious whether he would have the agility and motivation to play on a 5.7. I thought he might do well, since climbing the slabby routes we had found the previous day would be a bit like crawling. Unfortunately this area was steeper, so the 5.7s were relatively steep with big steps and handholds, too far apart to be doable for a three-year-old. The first route we climbed was dirty, with lots of rubble perched on ledges and ready to bombard the belayer while lowering. The second was at least clean and fun, and a little more kid-friendly, but by that time he had exhausted his motivation, and preferred to snack and play with dirt. He helpfully brushed off some of the lower holds, which Renee and I hoped would lead to actual climbing, but it was not to be. I doubt I would enjoy being a parent, but I do enjoy observing my friends’ kids’ development. My brother and I were both capable of a variety of outdoor activities by the age of five, but two years makes an enormous difference around that age. Even a four-year-old we saw on the way back to the car was quite a bit more capable, though apparently not enough so be motivated to climb.
Fortunately Renee had some more time later in the day to climb, so we were able to get on some more challenging routes. We both cleanly led a 5.8 and 5.9, with the latter feeling close to my limit these days. This was a pleasant surprise, since even when I was eight years younger and climbing more regularly, I never led more than about 5.9-5.10a. I suppose years of scrambling experience and my current leanness make up for my lack of practice and approaching decrepitude. In any case, it was a pleasant way to end the day. We toproped a couple of made-up and chossier routes nearby while talking to another pair of climbers, then went our separate ways. I was anxious to escape Sedona before being sucked into a vortex of yuppitude.