Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Spending a Night on the Spine

One of my annual New Years Resolutions is to keep up with the blog, and there's no reason for 2013 to be any exception...

"The Spine" is one of a number of unique geological formations in the Mineral Mountains south of Superior, Arizona.   This group of low, volcanic hills is crisscrossed with old mine roads, deep canyons and lonely ridges which recall an old west that is forgotten in the big city mess of Phoenix and Tucson.  Here, it's easy to get lost in the boulder fields and saguaro stands, and the best landmarks are rugged buttes with names like The Battleaxe, The Rincon and Ajax Peak.  It's the perfect place for an off trail adventure of any size.

From our hike in 2012
Sirena (of Sirena's Wanderings fame) and I spent New Year's day last year backpacking along the newly completed Arizona Trail passage through the Minerals.  It was such a fantastic time to enjoy the Sonoran desert that we decided to make it a tradition.  Unfortunately, the weather was not on our side in 2013, with sub-freezing temperatures and 20 mph winds forecast for the area (after all, with so many beautiful hiking days in a year, why go out when you know you're going to be uncomfortable?).  It took almost a week for the conditions to be right, a week of feeling wimpy for not backpacking and alternately thanking our good sense that we were avoiding some icky hiking conditions. 

Finally, we had a window of perfect weather: sunny, temps just above freezing at night and reasonable wind speeds.  Sonoran winter at it's finest!  Still, with me still on antibiotics for a sinus infection and Sirena not at the top of her game, we decided against a 3-4 day adventure like we undertook last New Year, and instead narrowed our focus for a shorter trip, one with 'just the right amount of adventure'.  The Spine fit the bill.  

Sirena had spent the night on what she calls "The Patio" of The Spine a couple of years ago, and touted it as one of the best camp sites ever.  It's only 1.6 miles from where we would park the car, but who's counting miles when the terrain is this spectacular?

We parked the car in a wide wash at the base of the mountain (and might I add that my Subaru, Bu, totally rocked the rough ranch road) just off of Battle Axe Road.  Just one more night for poor Bu with no company other than cattle and starry skies...

Saguaro studded hills

After a short walk up the larger wash, we turned up a small, rocky drainage.  No trails here, other than those made by enterprising cattle and deer.  We were surprised to find a trickle of water at the base of the drainage, which is obviously dry most of the year.  No wonder the cattle wander up this way.

Sirena climbs the slick rock near the head of the drainage
Though there were some brushy areas with mesquites and even catclaw acacias to dodge, most of our walking here was clear and beautiful, with sections of 'slick rock' (if you can call volcanic tuff slick) and short scrambles up dry waterfalls.  

Near the top of the short wash, we turned again and began up the slope of the spine itself.  In technical trail-talk we call this bushwhacking, though some are trying to change the name of the activity to brush-busting or brush-stomping to get away from the confusion that could arise from the proper use of bushwhack, meaning 'to ambush'.  By whatever name, it can be literally a bloody nightmare in the Sonoran desert - surrounded by thorns, spines and spikes.  However, this particular hill was unusually open, with a stable (if steep) walking surface and plenty of space between the pokey things for our feet and legs to move unmolested. 

Sirena moving up the slope of the Spine, dodging bushwhacks from bushes and cacti. 

By about half-way up the slope,  we could look back at where we'd started. 
We climbed fairly slowly, even for slowish hikers like us.  Although we'd set for ourselves the ambitious goal of exploring the two 'arms' of the spine after dropping our packs, we'd agreed early into the hike that it was a very real possibility that we were going to fall quite short of that.  There are days and conditions under which ambition is best tempered by a touch of laziness, and this was definitely feeling like one of those days - a feeling which only grew as we continued up the steep mountain. 

Looking back down the side of The Spine.  Isolation like this is one of the things that make the Sonoran Desert so magical!
Finally, we made it to the crest - a rocky ridge of boulders and cacti with mind-bending views in every direction.  Our aim up the slope had been perfect, we came up right above The Patio, so we would only need to boulder hop a short distance along the ridge to find a good spot to descend. 

Sirena on the crest overlooking the Patio.  
The Patio is a hidden valley just below the crest of The Spine.  From most directions, it's completely invisible, and it's really not until you're standing on the ridgeline that you can really appreciate it's unique character.  Like a highly exclusive resort or that little corner cafe with great food that no one else knows about, only this one requires a little more work to get to...

Boulder hopping along the Spine, looking roughly north
Check out my mad-CAD skills (at least grad school was good for something).
Cross-section of the Spine at the Patio - not to scale

The southern edge of the patio from the ridge.  Our camping spot was on that end, with sweeping views to the west. 

Our original plan, as I mentioned earlier, had been to drop our packs at The Patio, then go and explore the arms of The Spine.  The scramble down to the patio, however, was actually the hardest bit of the whole hike.  Once we were down there, the area was so intriguing and different, so deserving of exploration we decided to stay.  

Yup, we were feeling that lazy.

We did explore the "mini spine" on the far side of the patio.  This would likely be the ridge visible from the north and east, rather than the higher ridge behind it.

Along the mini spine.  We decided that calling it the "baby spine" was kinda morbid. 

Says Realtor Wendy: "The best feature of this property is the private patio with excellent sunset views. Of course, the exclusivity of the neighborhood also adds to the home's value."
Laziness aside, there really were some cool things to be seen from The Patio and the Mini Spine - and I know that many times I get in such a hurry to 'bag the peak' as it were, that we miss some of the more subtle nuances of the desert.  It's these little things which can make for hours of entertainment without going more than a few hundred yards. 

This saguaro had an arm which looked like a whole new saguaro... 

There were some big cacti on this slope...I assume that the protection of The Patio makes a good microclimate for them.

Looking along The Spine from the west end of the patio

Fun with black and white...and...
Sign of previous visitors...survey?

So we kicked back for a little while, and waited for the sunset.  Though it wasn't as spectacular as we'd anticipated, it was still definitely worth the effort!

Looking west toward sunset over North and South Buttes (the Gila River runs between them)
Sunset panorama of the Mineral Mountains: rugged Arizona at its best!

Fun with HDR...

Dinner was a special treat, one we've been making something of a tradition of on our bushwhack backpacks... Cheese fondue with apples, bread and broccoli.  Uber yum.  How can  you go wrong with a bowl of hot  cheese on a cool night?

All evening, we could see the twinkling lights of Superior and Florence, and the glow in the northwest from Phoenix.  Still, it felt like we'd left the world far behind us  as we snuggled into warm sleeping bags and watched the stars.  

The next morning, we decided to wait until the rays of the sun hit our camp before we began moving about.  However, once the sun did arrive, so did a vicious wind.  Gust near 20mph were freezing cold, and were making taking our camps down even more interesting than usual.  Thank goodness we'd skipped tents, or it might have been really entertaining!

View from my sleep spot - not a bad thing to wake up to!

Battleaxe Butte casts its shadow in the morning sun

Super Sirena, queen of the desert winds!

The wonderful pack mom got me for Christmas...sadly it's too tall for short girls like me. Going to have to go back to the folks at Golite.

Sirena begins the climb back to the ridge.  The footing is more stable than it appears. 

Panorama from the Spine. 
We made even shorter work of heading down than we did heading up.  Not only is it less cardio-effort to go down, but wayfinding is much easier when you're heading downslope.  We took a great line and in no time, we were relaxing in the warm sun in the protection of the wash again.  

Looking down the drainage with Battleaxe Butte framed in the distance. 

Avoiding a pour-off by thinking like a cow.  

Back in the main wash, below stark cliffs and leafless cottonwoods. 
Though we were thrilled to see the car again, we were also not quite finished adventuring...we'd just do so mounted rather than on foot.  Sirena wanted to show me the artesian well not far away, along the alignment of the Grand Enchantment Trail.  It was a short drive, then a short walk, and seeing the water gushing out of the ground so unexpectedly was certainly a treat. 

The 'backside' of Battleaxe Butte.  Sirena wants to sleep on top of that, too. That might be one she does without me ;)

The Artesian well

Walking among the towering cliffs so prevalent in this area. 

Then we drove out of the wilderness and back to highway 177, headed for Cocheran.  This old mine site is directly across the Gila River from the Arizona Trail, where I planned to do another backpacking trip with a group in a few weeks.  I wanted to check out the conditions of the river and stash some water in advance, just in case the river ended up dry.  Luckily, it wasn't.  Instead, we ended up having a whole mini-adventure just there!
An interesting saguaro along the Florence-Kelvin Highway. 

Not a very good picture of the coke ovens at Cocheran, but the best I got... Guess it's a good excuse to go back!
Though they'd turned the flow off from the Coolidge Dam upstream, there was still enough water from recent rains to have a good flow in the river - and it was clean!
 While stashing my water on the far side of the river (crossed in sandals and rolled-up pants), a 4x4 club came by.  About 20 vehicles of all makes and sizes came through, about half crossing the river and the other half continuing along the far bank.  The road in this spot is truly gnarly, with an unavoidable 5' hole right off the bank of the river.  A couple of cars hit their undercarriage hard, and a couple others actually got stuck - high sided on a rock.  While other drivers came out of their cars and watched from a safe distance, Sirena and I walked back across the river.  These folks - many of them from out of state - all thought we were completely off our rocker for walking through that frigid water.  

Of course, we thought they were pretty nuts for punishing their perfectly good cars by making them cross the river.  But, well, to each their own.  We got back into the safety and security of our car, parked in a safe spot, and drove out.  We left the rest of the mad automobile adventures to them.

What a way to spend a couple days: good friends, good food and great scenery.  What a lucky girl I truly am!