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Somewhere around midnight I awoke to the realization that my face was being poked. After falling asleep under a starry sky I was awaken to the soft patter of fine drizzle on my cheeks. I put a hand out to check the outside of the sleeping bag to find it was already quite damp. I quickly got up and slid the pad and bag into the bivy sack I was using for a ground cloth. After that I walked around the car, tucking underneath the boots and other gear that had been left outside. I looked inside to see Tom sound asleep, snug and dry. So much for my commune with nature. Back in the sleeping bag I went.
Tom awoke about half an hour later with the sound of light rain tapping on the roof. He was surprised to see the stuff already stowed under the car and that I had gotten inside the bivy sack. He was happy he didn't have to make room inside his car for me as he expected he might. That might have been a bit too cozy for two grown men in the back of his Honda Element.
It was still drizzling lightly when 6a and first light rolled around. I could hear Tom jostling around inside the car as he got up for the morning. I said hello when he opened the car door, but I didn't yet get out of my sleeping bag. I wanted to wait for a break in the drizzle before getting up. It came after fifteen or twenty minutes, enough time to get dressed and toss all the gear in the car. We weren't going to be able to dry stuff out in this weather, but we could worry about that later. We'd paid $12 (with our US Parks Pass) for the campsite upon exiting (the camp hosts are up early here to catch scofflaws such as ourselves), before heading out for our peak.
Digression here. Organ Pipe NM is a large square area about 25mi on a side right up against the border with Mexico. Illegal traffic through the area has been an ongoing problem for many years. A strong fence was built along much of the border to stop illegal motor vehicle traffic through the monument. The flat desert areas are fairly conducive to cross-country travel and the illegal traffic was making a mess of the landscape. The fence has successfully stopped the vehicle flow, but not the human traffic. Kino Peak, from the DPS list, is located in the left half of the monument, accessible from dirt roads to the north and south. These roads were closed to the public by the Border Patrol in the interest of "public safety." The official NP website is ambiguous to what the threat is. A ranger at the Visitor Center told us it was to protect us from illegal drug traffickers. This made absolutely no sense. Why would a guy or group of guys who are smuggling quantities of valuable drugs want to risk detection by messing with tourists and their vehicles? They wouldn't last long in the business. On the otherhand, it is conceivable that illegal immigrants might be interested in water, food, and clothing that might be found in a parked car on these remote roads, and in fact Ron Hudson had reported this happening to him some eleven years earlier. It seems likely that the Border Patrol wanted all access closed so that it would be easier to tell friend from foe when viewed from the air or binoculars (all would now be foe). It would be a waste of their time if they had to hike out a few miles to question a couple DPS climbers. And one thing I've learned about the Border Patrol - they rarely roam far from their vehicles. In dozens of encounters with them, only once did it involve an officer on foot, and that was on a stretch of the PCT. Still, you'd think it would be easy to set up a registration system with the park service to relay the whereabouts of a few park visitors in the area. Afterall, no overnight camping is allowed in the backcountry, so it would be straightforward to check in/out with the Park Service or the Border Patrol, and I would have been happy to do so. But there is another advantage to keeping out the public and that would be to keep us from abetting the illegals in their quest to gain access to our fair country. And this I suspect is the real reason. It's nicer to say they are doing it for our own safety rather than because they don't trust us. Fair enough. The net result is that fully 3/4 of the National Monument is closed to public access. It has been closed since 2003 and from all indications will remain so well into the future. The DPS has recently given Kino "Suspended" status, but they might as well excise it from the list completely. Fear-mongering seems to have won this round. Digression over.
Fortunately one the of the most scenic parts of the park is still open, the 21-mile dirt road loop on the east side. This is the lusher part of the monument among colorfully banded cliffs with Mt. Ajo being the highpoint of both the range and the monument. Clouds enveloped the summit areas and mist hung down around the cliffs. Most everything outside was wet and it looked like a common scene on Kauai or one of the other Hawaiian Islands. By the time we got to the parking area for the hike to Estes Canyon and Mt. Ajo, a steady drizzle had set in, keeping us in the car. Though we had rain gear, neither of us particularly wanted to hike in the rain. Tom didn't really care if we climbed it at all since he isn't really chasing the DPS list anyway. He would probably have been happy if we just drove to somewhere else with better weather. I was more determined, and so we sat in the car reading books and maps for the better part of the next hour. About 8:15a the drizzle stopped and we immediately got out as much to stretch our legs as in a belief that it had stopped for good.
In fact, that was about all we saw of the precipitation for the rest of the trip. The clouds still hung low over the cliffs, obscuring our peak, and Tom had a rain jacket on at the start in distrust of the rain gods, but it got better as we went on. The rain jacket lasted only a few minutes before Tom was too warm to hike with it. It had not rained hard at any time during the night or morning, so there was no water running in the lower streambeds, but the cactus and other plants were dripping wet with the nourishing water, making it all seem a bit lusher and greener than it usually would. Saguaro and Organ Pipe cacti were the largest varieties, but there were a number of other smaller types as well scattered about the hillsides. Among a sampling of flowering plants were California poppies that were only beginning to bloom. We followed the shortest of two trails to Bull Pasture. Estes Canyon, on the west side of Ajo, is particularly beautiful with lush vegetation lining the canyon, surrounded by cliff walls on three sides. The peak itself made occasional appearances, but for most of the morning it remained steeped in the cloudy mists. Bull Pasture wasn't the wide, flat area I expected at the bottom of a canyon, more of a small, flatish area on a ridgeline west of Estes Canyon (where there was a register placed by the Park Service).
When we reached Bull Pasture we could see the weathered pinnacles to the right described in the DPS guide. The guide directions describe leaving the trail shortly after a descent from Bull Pasture, but as Tom had gleaned from more recent trip reports, this is entirely unnecessary. One has only to continue on the trail and it will take you all the way to the summit, all class 1 with a few class 2 sections up on the summit ridge. Though the path deteriorates a bit, it is still a good use trail, well-ducked in many places, the whole way.
It took us little more than two hours to reach the clouded summit. A very large ammo box held the summit register, a fairly popular peak judging by the number of entries. It did not date back more than a few years. A USGS benchmark from 1920 was stamped "Sierra de Ajo". The register and benchmark were on the westernmost point, but there looked to be other points nearby to the east that could be higher. We scrambled over these rocky summits in turn to the last one that held a large solar-powered tower. Below the tower were perhaps a hundred fresh bottles of water with "God Bless America" on the label. We had no clue what that was all about. We stayed at the summit almost half an hour hoping for the clouds to part. They did so only partially, giving a view off one side and then the other, but always there was at least half the view still obscured by the swift moving clouds. Naturally they had parted almost completely after we were well off the mountain.
We took the same route down, stopping to explore an interesting hole in the rock that had escaped our attention on the way up. We first climbed to the center of the hole over slightly exposed class 3, then to the top of the rocky structure as a last bit of scrambling before heading down. We ran across another party out on the trail, an older couple out on a leisurely walk. When they asked us how far the trail goes, Tom pointed up to Mt. Ajo. "Oh, I don't think we'll be going that far..." We all laughed.
It was 12:45p when we got back to the trailhead, not exactly a full day's effort and I was feeling rather wimpy. But we had a lot of driving to do as a way to rationalize the short day. After taking some time to dry my wet sleeping gear in the welcome sun, we headed back out the dirt road towards the paved highway, stopping at the Visitor Center (where I picked up some of the information related in the digression above) before heading north for Interstate 8. We stopped in the quaint town of Why, AZ for gas, reached the interstate and headed west. We stopped in Yuma for dinner and more gas, then drove out to the nearby Cargo Muchacho Mtns to spend the night. It had been a toss-up for Tom as to whether we would simply drive home or spend another day out hiking. I was all for the extra day, but left it to Tom to make the call. I was happy he relented. In his words, he was tossing me a bone in payment against future outings that he might have to cancel on. Seemed like a good deal to me.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Mt. Ajo
This page last updated: Sat Feb 28 12:48:02 2009
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