My peak-bagging had put us behind Steve’s itinerary, leaving us a mostly downhill half-day from Big Caliente hot springs, or a full day from various other possible camps. The hot springs were a side trip of several miles out of our intended loop, but supposedly worth the visit, offering a better experience than neighboring Little Caliente. We decided to at least try the springs, then choose whether or not to continue depending on quality and crowding.
The unfriendly couple were only slightly better in the morning, perhaps still resenting having to share their “private” campground. This complicated our start, as my tissue paper Thermarest had predictably sprung a leak; such is the way of “ultralight” gear. Once the picnic/operating table was available, we set about trying to repair it, following the manual in the repair kit. The preferred way to fix a long tear is to heat an adhesive packet, then quickly spread it around the hole and apply a nylon patch. This supposedly both works in the field and lasts, but the glue would not liquefy after several minutes in boiling water just above sea level. We eventually slapped on an inferior self-adhesive patch, saw that it apparently held, and got on with our day.
We continued down the Santa Ynez River, passing Jameson Lake, the highest of three reservoirs supplying drinking water to Santa Barbara. At the small caretaker house below the dam, the road finally became passable to normal vehicles again, and we made good time to the Pendola Guard Station. This was our most pleasant riding in awhile, descending gentle grades through a sparse oak forest along a broadening river valley. The Station was closed, but in good repair, with intact informational signs outside informing us that, among other things, the area is home to some of California’s condors. These giant vultures became extinct in the wild in 1987, and were subsequently bred in captivity and reintroduced to the wild in 1991; I am old enough to remember hearing about both events on the evening news.
This being a holiday weekend and an accessible backcountry hot spring, we met a number of parties headed in both directions. These included two parties of light bike-packers going in and one coming out, more than I have probably seen in the rest of my travels in the United States. The modern way to camp on a mountain bike is to eschew panniers and load up the frame, bars, forks, and whatever else with small bags of ultralight gear. This allows for probably three days of food without wearing a backpack, and with a decent-handling bike, at the cost of only a few thousand dollars. Though I find it slightly tempting, I do not enjoy singletrack enough to invest beyond my cheap and capacious trailer.
We were concerned that the springs would be crowded, but we met two parties leaving, one consisting of ten or so young women and a bored-looking guy. Arriving at the most-developed pool, we saw the expected “no camping” signs, but hoped that we would have the place to ourselves, and could camp unmolested. It was only slightly after midday, but with hot water in the main pool and drinkable water in the creek nearby, we would probably not find a better place to camp. Not traveling ultralight, we had brought a couple of books apiece, and spent much of the afternoon reading and unconsciously dehydrating in the hot pool.
It turned out to be less than ideal, but still good enough to spend two nights without regretting it. With one more day of holiday weekend remaining, we shared the pool with a couple of other groups in the afternoon, and two more overnight. Fortunately everyone was more or less considerate in maintaining social distancing and not being too loud overnight. Unfortunately, though, the wind picked up in the evening as it had every night, and blew in unpredictable gusts all night. While the others hunkered in their tents, we set up camp in one of the nearby concrete bunkers or changing rooms. This had the advantage of being a large, flat space, but it channeled the wind more than blocking it. That, plus what turned out to be a failed patch job on my TissueRest, made for a long and sleepless night.
Though I spent years on the California coast before Dr. Dirtbag, I never ventured north of Malibu or south of San Jose. That has changed this winter with my spending significant time in the Santa Cruz area. While I have not been peak-bagging, I spent plenty of time outdoors as I normally do in the winter, engaged in shorter local fitness activities. Santa Cruz is about the same size as Santa Fe and, because it is bounded by the ocean and mountains, anywhere in the city is close to the periphery. The local mountains are low and undramatic, but surprisingly good for staying fit, with 2000 or so feet of relief from the ocean.
The climate, while far from tropical, is strongly moderated by the Pacific Ocean, making it possible to get out year-round. It is damp, though, making temperatures feel much colder than they do in the desert. I run in tights and mitts in the low 40s here, while I would normally wear shorts and thin gloves. Cycling is particularly hard on my hands, and I find myself wearing something more like my cross-country ski gear. It is particularly damp and cold in the redwood groves that follow most drainages, and there is a frequent inversion and occasional fog in the San Lorenzo. One can quickly go from being comfortable in short sleeves in the sun, to being deeply chilled in a “majestic” (i.e. dank and drippy) forest.
The local coast is lined by roads and trails above the sea cliff, and frequently by sandy beaches below, all of which make decent flat running. There is also a network of trails in the surrounding hills, connecting local parks to form a defensive green belt. (Santa Cruz, like Boulder, has set aside surrounding undeveloped land in an effort to freeze itself as its current residents prefer and avoid being swallowed by a larger neighboring city. As it is already separated from San Jose and the Bay Area by mountains, and connected by only a single winding freeway, Highway 17, it is better-situated than Boulder, which is naturally separated from Denver by only grass and cows. Both cities have predictably expensive housing and a slightly cartoonish feel.)
I no longer have the speed I did when I last lived near the Pacific in LA and trained for road races, and doubt I will regain it, but it has nevertheless been fun to work on my flat running form at sea level. Both form and fitness should translate to the mountains in limited ways, and higher-intensity running is an efficient way to get my necessary exercise. And in the highly unlikely event that I race another ultra, I will be well on my way to adapting to that type of muscular and joint stress.
I have ridden or raced bikes off and on for most of my life. This has often meant riding a road bike in places where there are only a couple of rides, some of them grim. For example, my normal ride in Houston began with ten straight miles along a busy multi-lane road out of the city, and ended with the same in the opposite direction; at least, on the return, I could judge the day’s pollution by whether or not I could see the skyscrapers. I still rode around 200 miles per week, enough to stay reasonably fit but not to be much good as a racer.
In contrast, Santa Cruz is a road cyclist’s paradise: Highway 1 along the coast has broad bike lanes and bearable traffic, Highland and Summit Roads parallel it along the crest of the hills, and many small residential and rural roads connect them. Thus one can ride loops of various lengths and difficulties, beginning with a climb and ending with a descent to the coast and a return via the coast, usually with a tailwind when headed south. I have so far visited Eureka Canyon, Soquel-San Jose, Mountain Charlie, Hutchinson, Zayante, Bear Creek, and Empire Grade Roads, plus the various roads connecting to Empire including Felton-Empire, Alba, Jamison, and Pine Flat. While a couple of these side roads are popular two-lane highways, many are unmarked and little wider than an asphalt driveway. With generally polite drivers and many fellow roadies, the overall cyclist vibe reminds me a bit of the Alps, though without the high peaks.
There are also both a network of fire roads and extensive single-track in the hills, though I have explored them less on my gravel bike. I have ridden fire roads in Nicene Marks and Henry Cowell, and seen many expensive full-suspension bikes both being ridden and riding on the back of people’s pickup trucks in those places and along Highway 9. One seemingly popular area is a network of bandit trails on the upper UCSC campus, which has been taken over by cyclists in the students’ absence.
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.
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.
[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.
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.
Despite making many trips between the Rockies and Sierra, and even a few to the north rim of the Grand Canyon, I have seldom traveled the route through Shiprock, Page, and Kanab, and have paid little attention to things along the way. While there are some peaks in the area, it is mostly a country of mesas, buttes, and canyons, which have never been my focus. However, when Ted mentioned Buckskin Gulch and the Wave on a recent peak-bagging hike, I decided to pay the area a brief visit. So I assembled a random collection of routes and goals and, after a side-trip for a social hike up Placer Peak near Santa Fe, took off for the Land of Polygamy.
Aside: I am not very familiar with online resources for information on non-peaks. Alltrails.com has a lot of information on everything from Jeep tours to cross-country hikes, wrapped up in a slickly, disgustingly commercial website, but I have no idea of the quality of its information or the nature of its contributors. Hikearizona.com is similar, and at least nominally more local. I suspect such hiking sites are all hopeless. While peak-baggers vary in skill, they all share a simple goal — getting to the top of piles of rocks — so sites like SummitPost, Peakbagger, and ListsofJohn can be focused and useful. The same is true for for climbers and MountainProject. Hikers, however, have too many unrelated goals, many of which they probably cannot articulate. I have sometimes found Strava helpful when looking for run-hikes in unfamiliar areas, probably because it selects for people interested in moving faster than a walk.
I locked my bike to the fence at White House trailhead, then drove around to Wire Pass, which adds several miles to the bike shuttle, but cuts off some hiking miles and possibly offers better scenery. Wire Pass is also the starting point for the Wave, a popular hike to a feature in North Coyote Buttes that requires reservations through a lottery in Kanab. Lottery winners seem to attach large green tags to their packs, making it hard to poach the trail. The trailhead has a large parking lot, regularly filled with day hikers’ cars, but there were only a handful of cars there overnight, so I had a quiet evening.
Utah is on Mountain Daylight Time, so the sun does not rise until after 8:00 this time of year. I could have started by headlamp, but I wanted to actually see things on this hike, so I waited until it was reasonably light, and threw my headlamp in my pack in case I ended up riding back after dark. Different sources listed the route as anywhere from 22 to 30 miles (the former is probably correct), and I did not know what sort of terrain to expect. The first part, descending a well-traveled and -packed wash, was quick and runnable, but most of the rest was slow for various reasons.
Once the canyon narrows, it is impossible to get lost. In the eleven or so miles between there and the Paria River, there is only one way to escape the canyon, a third class scramble leading to the Cobra Arch trailhead. As long as you turn right at Buckskin Gulch, then left at the Paria, you will get to Whitehouse. Though there are a few wider places, most of Buckskin Gulch is twisted and narrow, with only a narrow slit of sky visible, and no direct sunlight this time of year. The gulch appears to follow a natural fissure in the sandstone, between fifty and a few hundred feet deep, that has been widened by millenia of flash floods.
There are a couple of boulder-piles requiring a bit of scrambling, but the route is mostly an easy walk until reaching the Paria. However, both the scenery and the frequent rocky ground make it a poor run. Visiting after the summer rains and before winter’s freezing temperatures, I was lucky to find the wash relatively dry. However, I saw many signs of mud in the canyon, and the one section had to negotiate convinced me that I would not want to try this canyon wet. BLM signs warning that the area’s roads are “impassable when wet” are not exaggerating, and the same applies to slot canyons. I was worried that the viscous clay would steal my shoes, and spent a good half-hour throwing rocks into a short mud bog trying to create steps. Doing the canyon wet would probably require hip waders, or at least galoshes tied tightly to one’s feet.
I met no one before the halfway entrance, one group who had come in that way, and several parties entering via the Paria River. There were a handful of tents about a half-mile from the confluence, where there is dry ground and a small spring. Backpacking the Paria from Whitehouse, either as an out-and-back or a car shuttle to the Colorado, is apparently a popular group activity. However both require a reserved permit (versus a self-issued one for dayhikes), and the latter requires at least one partner. As usual, doing things solo in a day was much easier.
After the mostly-dry Buckskin Gulch, I was momentarily dismayed by the very much not-dry Paria River. But the years have beaten my dislike for wet feet into remission, so I only hesitated for a minute before beginning the slosh. There are probably fifty or more stream crossings between the confluence and the trailhead, the last only a mile from the end. Few were more than ankle-deep this time of year, and there were no extended stretches of walking in the river, but the water is muddy, so its depth is unpredictable. The banks are often either shoe-sucking mud or maddeningly deep sand, so travel is invariably slow. Still, I made it back to my bike by late afternoon, and returned to the car well before dark, for a full but not unreasonable day.
I had orphaned Hayden North on my traverse of the peaks between Red Mountain Pass and Telluride, and wanted to try the Ouray Via Ferrata, so it seemed like a good half-day peak. I found a track on Peakbagger heading straight up a slide path to its east, which I roughly followed. Thanks to plentiful game trails, this worked well, with decent footing on the steep grass, and paths through the occasional willows.
The OVF is on the sunny side of the Ice Park, so it was t-shirt weather in the afternoon. Unlike the ones I had seen in the Dolomites, it was built for tourists rather than WWI mountain troops, so it was both safer and more whimsical, with a cable bridge and ladder. It also had a ranger to make sure that everyone had proper gear; unlike in the Alps, I would not be allowed to scramble the thing. I lucked out by starting just ahead of a large party of newbies, and far enough behind another party that I never caught up with them.
The only sketchy-feeling part of the route was the cable bridge, which tended to resonate. Near the other side, my phone fell through the hole in my right pants pocket and, not tethered by my headphone cord as it usually is, fell into the disgusting yellow Ouray water. I saw it lying in a few inches of water, but not sure what to do with the horde bearing down behind me, I hurried on. I figured it had already either cracked or drowned, and that more time in the water would not cause any further harm. I imagined what a fall would feel like at various points, and there were only a few where one could suffer any real damage.
Being a rule-following person, I stayed clipped in with at least one lanyard, even when the route was just a trail. It was interesting to see the Ice Park without any ice, and recognize the rock underneath the various climbing areas. I wished I had my camera to capture the slot canyon in its fall color, but it was underwater. I finished quickly, then hiked and jogged back to the entrance. The ranger did not object to my scrambling down for my phone, so I went down the first part, hopped across the stream below the cable bridge, and fished what I presumed would be a corpse out of the water. Amazingly the thing came to life, prompting me to listen to the next podcast. I quickly turned it off to dry without frying any components, trying it periodically over the next couple of days, and it amazingly came back to life, with no more than a minor blemish in the screen. I will be sad to see my iPhone SE die, since it is the last good phone that Apple made: small enough to fit comfortably in a pocket, easy to grip with squared-off sides, and having a headphone jack. Hopefully it will survive at least another year or so, and I can pick up a refurbished iPhone 12 Mini once its price drops.
Galena, Peak 13,069
These two thirteeners, on opposite sides of Maggie Gulch, looked like they would make another good bike ‘n’ hike. I was less than enthused to have neighbors at the base of the gulch, but they were quiet in the evening. I took my time getting ready the next morning, since it was cold and shady. As I prepared one of the neighbors came over, a woman with dreadlocks who introduced herself as Brett. She asked if I would be around that afternoon to jump her car, which seemed to have a dying battery. Noticing the ATC clipped to her pocket, I asked what she was climbing in the area, and she turned out to be one of a group highlining across Maggie Gulch.
I eventually started up the road, hiking the steep parts and looking over to spot the line. I eventually did: a thick rope and some tubular webbing stretched across the canyon near some waterfalls, several hundred feet off the ground. It was windy, with the gusts blowing the webbing out sideways from the main line. Amazingly, one of Brett’s friends was trying to balance across, barefoot for better feel and grip. I watched her repeatedly fall on her tether, flip back up to sit on the rope, then cautiously stand and keep walking. I could not imagine enjoying this even if it were warm and calm; it seemed crazy in the cold and wind.
The peaks were pretty standard fare, made a bit more difficult by my phone having a fainting spell, leaving me map-less. This is how I used to bag peaks most of the time, and I still mostly remember how. Riding down the road, I ran into the highliners, and stopped to talk for a bit. I had been puzzling over how they set up the line (bow and arrow? trained bird?), and they told me they hiked down into the gorge and back up the other side, towing a thin line that they then used to drag the main one across. This process took some six hours and sounded a bit sketchy; they were thinking of using a drone next time. We talked a bit more down at the campsite, then they split for home, and I went on to the next gulch.
Verdi (pronounced like “hair dye,” not the requiem composer’s name) is a prominent summit northeast of Lake Tahoe, and a worthy reason to drive all the way north to… ah, who am I kidding? It’s a forested bump with a road to an old fire lookout on top, with enough prominence to give me peak-bagger points. In short, it was a perfect peak to tag with Renee and her not-quite-three-year-old. A few sections of the road were rocky and steep enough to be unpleasant on my touring bike, so we hiked it. The kid did an admirable job and, with steady encouragement and other devious motherly psychological tricks, walked more than his age in miles. The lookout was well-situated, with a clear view of the train tracks and highway along the Truckee River to the south and east, snowy Castle, Basin, and Lola to the west, and the peaks surrounding Lake Tahoe to the south.
Points accomplished, it was time to enjoy some alternatives to my recent Eastern Sierra desert slogs, including road cycling (I am slow), mountain biking (I am bad), and trail running (I can do this one, though my aging body complains). While I could never afford to live there, I am reminded every time I visit that Tahoe has a wonderful backyard. It lacks the major peaks found in the Owens Valley or the Alps, but has acres of forested public land with miles of trails and fire roads, making it a bit like where I grew up. While not a destination, it has everything necessary for day-to-day outdoor activity.
For example, there are several passes over the Nevada side, connected along the top by trails, and the bottom by the lake road. These allow excellent point-to-point runs with a bike shuttle. Renee had mapped out a run from the Brockway road to the Mount Rose road, tagging one fire lookout and a number of minor summits along the way. It would have been a better run the other way, but I convinced her to run it in the net uphill direction, then bike shuttle back. Unlike the lookout on Verdi, which was trashed, the one on Martis was well-kept, with unbroken windows and a silhouette map identifying the peaks on the skyline. Much of the rest of the run was uphill at just the right grade to be frustrating (I should have listened…), but the trail was mostly snow-free and the views were excellent. The return ride along the lake was not pleasant, with narrow shoulders and constant traffic, but both Brockway and Mount Rose roads have good shoulders and pavement, so those parts were fine.
Most Tahoe trails are rocky and “technical,” thus miserable for me with my limited mountain biking skills, but the Incline and Marlette Flume trails are much better. After mistakenly starting off on the Tyrolean trail, a “flow” trail that was more of a survival ride on my touring bike, I enjoyed a long ride on smooth trails and gentle grades. Supposedly the trails follow some old flumes, but I saw no evidence of such. It was a weekday, but the trail was somewhat crowded with both cyclists and pedestrians, making some of its exposed blind corners a bit unnerving, but I was still enjoying myself.
I was hoping to continue all the way to Spooner Lake and Highway 50, but at Marlette Lake’s southern end, I finally figured out why my rear derailleur had been acting up: my derailleur cable snapped. Riding back in my outermost gear would have involved a lot of hike-a-bike, so, thinking a minute, I wedged a small stick into the derailleur to hold it somewhere near the center of its range. I gingerly pedaled back toward home a bit, then bummed duct tape from some Game and Fish employees to secure my stick. With two middle-of-the-range gears, I only had to hike one part of the trail, and could pedal up to a non-pathetic speed on the flats and descents.
After a stop in Carson for a replacement cable and brake pads — bikes are an endless money-pit — I continued around to check out some peaks south of the lake. Most northern Sierra peaks are short climbs, so I tacked on some cycling to give myself a bit of a challenge. I camped at the junction with the Luther Pass road, where it rained overnight, then took my time in the morning, eyeing the fresh snow on the peaks and fixing my bike. When it was finally warm enough for my hands, I made the short ride to Luther Pass, then locked my bike to a tree to hike up Waterhouse. I found no use trail, but there was little underbrush, and neither the fresh nor old snow posed much of a problem. I took in the view south from the summit rocks, then returned to my bike and continued west.
It was a weekend, so I wanted to avoid the highways as much as possible, especially 50, with its traffic from Sacramento and the Bay. For my first dodge, I went through the closed Luther campground, cutting off a bit of 89. I crossed the highway, then took off again down Upper Truckee Road, which starts as steep single-lane pavement, then becomes a quiet residential street. I had hoped to take the Hawley Grade National Historic Trail — “grade” seemed to imply “railroad” and therefore “gentle” — but it was nasty and rocky. Instead, I found the Old Meyers Grade and Johnson Pass roads, thus avoiding the highway climb to Echo Summit. From there, unfortunately, it was pure highway to the Mount Ralston trailhead, with constant traffic boding ill for the uphill return.
I semi-hid my bike near the Ralston trailhead, then took off at a determined walk. This turned out to be a deservedly popular but not overly long hike, with excellent views of Lake Aloha and the Desolation Wilderness from the summit. I took around an hour from trailhead to summit, a respectable time, though far off the course record. The Desolation peaks were still snowy, but Lake Aloha had melted out; on my last visit earlier in the season, I had walked across it to save time while tagging the other peaks. I spent a couple of minutes on the cold summit, then ran back to my bike and retraced my route. The ride up 50 was as miserable as expected, but I’m turning into a roadie again, and getting used to close and constant traffic. The rest of the ride was much more pleasant, and I returned to the car mid-afternoon, satisfied with a full day.
Though the Sosneado valley was the wrong direction from Malargüe, I had several reasons to visit. First, it is home to two ultra-prominence peaks, Cerro Sosneado and Risco Plateado, only a few miles apart on opposite sides of the Rio Atuel. Second, Biggar’s guide describes the valley as scenic and a good spot for wildlife-viewing. Third, the abandoned hotel near some hot springs sounded like a great place to camp for a few days. My visit to the Atuel valley turned out to be rewarding, but not for any of these reasons.
It looked like about 110 kilometers to the hotel, the first fifty on pavement, and the rest on dirt for which, according to Biggar, four-wheel drive was “not really necessary.” Since several of the roads he described as requiring it had been moderate by bike, and since I would be heading west and up-valley, presumably with the afternoon upslope winds, I figured it would be a straightforward ride. I rolled out of the nice Malargüe campground late, making it to the gas station town of El Sosneado for a late lunch. The attached convenience store had WiFi, and the other patrons were eating some nice-looking ham sandwiches. I was not smart enough to realize that they had bought them at the butcher’s next door, so I ended up paying too much for a crappy gas station sandwich, a grapefruit soda, and some “Super Roly” alfajores. These were the kind I had bought way back in Potrerillos, and I wanted to see how they tasted without the mold. They also have a ton of calories.
I took my time over lunch, downloading podcasts and taking care of business before an expected 4-5 days away from civilization, then grabbed some water and headed up the road. I soon found that while four-wheel drive might not be necessary, the road was classic high-traffic Argentinian dirt, badly washboarded everywhere it wasn’t too rocky for people to drive quickly. I saw some compact cars, but the drivers had to be slow, careful, and indifferent to their cars’ suffering. Also, unlike everywhere I had been in the Andes farther north, the afternoon wind came from the west. Things were looking grim.
I had slogged about half the distance, and was sitting on a rock debating what to do, when a pickup stopped and the driver asked if I needed anything. I said I was fine, and we talked for a bit while his wife looked on from the passenger’s seat, and several small children waved from the back. They turned out to be heading back to Buenos Aires after a family vacation that seemed to involve an insane amount of driving. As he was about to leave, he asked if I wanted some water. I was low, and not looking forward to filtering from the silty river a few hundred yards away, so I said yes. From a cooler in the back, he produced not just water, but a 2-liter bottle of ice and a beer. That made my decision easy: I backtracked a hundred yards to a ruined barn that served as a bit of a windbreak and pitched my tent. Hopefully the wind would die down overnight.
It did not. I folded my tent in the wind (I’m getting good at this), then fought another thirty kilometers of washboard and headwind to the hotel and hot springs. Both were disappointments: the “hot” springs were lukewarm at best, the hotel contained an unpleasant amount of trash and graffiti, and both were too crowded for my taste. I found a shady spot outside, where I sat to have a random daytime meal and read a bit on my phone. My leisure was interrupted several times by the wind blowing things off of where I had hung them from my bike into a nearby mud puddle.
I was not loving life at this point, trying to figure out how best to spend the time and food I had invested in this excursion, when an older man approached and asked if I wanted to share his food. If you know me at all, you know that I would never decline such an offer. I then spent most of the afternoon hanging out with a pair of older couples from Malargüe, eating their steak, bread, and home-grown peaches, and exercising my still-pathetic Spanish. As usual, the men did most of the talking, but as they left, one of the women gave me a bag of bread, meat, and cheese for the road.
Biggar mentions a refugio a few kilometers up the road as a base camp for Cerro Sosneado, and I almost passed it by mistake before a group headed downstream clued me in as I was getting water from a stream. The building looked very military, and there were a couple of cars outside, but no one was home, so I threw down my things in one of the rooms and made myself comfortable. While I was in the middle of figuring out how to spend my days in the valley, several vehicles pulled up outside and, a few minutes later, guys in camo opened the door.
This is where things would have started going badly in the States, possibly involving extrajudicial proceedings, but fortunately I am in Argentina, so the soldiers just said “hi” and moved in around me. Representatives of the local mountain regiment were out for a training exercise and, perhaps as a side-hustle, were guiding some tourists to the Uruguayan plain wreck made famous for the subsequent cannibalism by the book (good) and movie (bad) Alive. I had read the book at an impressionable age, so it was exciting to be so close to the events decades later.
These being Argentinians, the first thing they did upon arriving was to make maté. I don’t particularly like the taste, which is something like strong, sour green tea, but I accepted a bit when offered, and have to admit that the system for drinking it is genius. It is sipped through a straw from the bottom of a small cup, so the leaves float on top and do not need to be filtered out. Hot water is poured into the cup a bit at a time from a thermos, so every sip is both hot and freshly brewed. If it gets weak, more leaves can be sprinkled in. I am picky about the temperature of my coffee, so I may have to try this with coffee grounds, though I promise not to be that guy who comes back from Latin America with a maté cup preaching its virtues compared to coffee (caffeine with the other chirality, maybe?).
The Ejercito Argentino are also a bunch of cowboys, so instead of boiling their water over a portable stove as I had done, they gathered wood, built a bonfire, then set a half-dozen old tin cans full of water in it. When one got hot enough, its owner would reach in with a leather glove to pluck it out and pour it into his thermos. A bit later, the really cowboy troops arrived leading a string of mules, which they would take up to the crash site. Not only are they amazingly capable on scree and talus, but mules are much better than humans or vehicles at crossing the area’s treacherous glacial rivers. Talking to one of the troops, I learned that the Rio Atuel crossing on the way to the plane is thigh-deep at mid-morning, the safest time to cross. I was pretty sure I could do it with a stick for balance, but… it was something to think on later.
The tourists seemed to be associated with a Buenos Aires law firm, so they mostly spoke a bit of English. One, a law student, spoke it particularly well and was eager to practice, so I had a translator and English conversation partner for the evening. He invited me to share their meal, which I eagerly accepted, though I was not yet hungry again. At this rate, I would leave the valley with more food than I brought in. Another of the tourists was well-off enough to have taken his daughter skiing at Aspen, which was shocking to me even in pre-inflation Argentina. Apparently I was hanging out with the 1%.
A bit before dark (between 8:00 and 9:00 in this bizarre time zone), the grill-master took over the fire to begin the asado. They had attached a whole lamb (or kid, possibly lost in translation) and a substantial portion of a cow to a large iron grill, which they strung at an angle slightly downwind of the fire next to one corner of the building. With the grill properly hung, they tied an old cardboard box over the meat. With the back-end of the lamb on top and closest to the fire, and the beef on bottom, everything would cook at the proper rate in this arrangement. However it would take several hours, meaning we would eat around midnight. This was good news for my appetite, but bad news for my intended alpine start.
Before the asado, there was a picado, i.e. appetizer, consisting of a large pile of commissary cheese and homemade sausage. There is apparently some rule about when one is allowed to start eating it, so I stared hungrily at it for most of an hour while waiting for others to dig in. Finally, sometime after 11:00, the meat was ready. Rather than grabbing plates and forks, everyone grabbed rolls out of a giant sack, tore them open, and cut off slices of meat with their knives, impressive 5-6″ things sheathed under the belt in the small of the back. Sawing away with my tiny, dull Swiss army knife, I felt even less manly than usual. The meat was delicious, and the supply was regularly refreshed as the grill-master chopped off newly-done parts.
Butchery complete, we wandered off to bed sometime around midnight. The tourists and other soldiers had taken the other rooms, while I was in with the cowboys. They spoke no English, and their Spanish was fast and hard for me to understand, so we did not talk much. While I topped off my increasingly leaky air mattress, they unrolled their blankets, put saddles at one end and boots at the other, and quickly went to sleep. There was no way I would manage the 3000-meter climb of Cerro Sosneado the next day, but fortunately I had other things to do.