Cargo Muchacho Mountains HP P1K
Carrizo Mountain P1K

Wed, Feb 18, 2009

With: Tom Becht

Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 Profiles: 1 2


The Cargo Muchacho Mtns lie in the far southeast corner of California near Yuma, Arizona. The desert landscape around Yuma is the driest in all the United States. If it were not for the Colorado River, it might have almost no permanent residents. But each year thousands of "snow birds" flock to this region in their RVs, parking and living rent-free on BLM and other public lands. A very low-spend sort of winter vacation with what is generally fine weather at this time of year. Some bring ATVs for recreation around the nearby sand dunes, but most seem content to sit outside under covered tarps, or inside if it gets too warm. They do not seem to be a very active bunch from what I've seen of them. There were several RVs in the area around the abandoned Tumco mine site when we pulled in after dark. We found a place to park away from the others, and while Tom made a bed for himself in the car, I found a flat, sandy spot outside to sleep for the night. Like the previous night, I fell asleep with a sky full of stars and not a cloud in sight. Unlike the previous night, no clouds moved in and it remained clear overhead when I woke up for our 5a call. Condensation had left the outside of my bag rather wet, but it would dry in the morning hours while we were off hiking. It wasn't until almost 5:30a that we had dressed and packed up our stuff and were ready to head out.

Cargo Muchacho is a small range by any measure, of little interest to most peakbaggers. It does not get mention in Zdon's book, nor does it get representation on the DPS list, the prominence list and almost every other consideration. But as a self-contained range with a given name listed by the BGN, it was brought to my attention by Evan Rasmussen who is systematically going after the highpoints of every named range in the state. He isn't the first to have done so, and not the only one pursuing this somewhat obscure goal, but there are very few ascents of these lesser-known range highpoints. Cargo Muchacho's highpoint is simply shown with only an elevation on USGS maps, no official name given. Evan had used the Tumco Mine site as a starting point, and it was with his online description that we were armed and attempting to recreate.

We were starting off in the dark for no better reason than I wanted to get two different peaks in today and still get us home before sunset. This worked out fine since the first 45 minutes or so were on old gravelly roads and with a half moon overhead we hardly needed the headlamps at all. In the darkness we misjudged the route, wandering into a small wash to the west of the larger drainage we were supposed to follow. A low saddle connecting the two made it easy for us to correct this minor mistake, and by 6a we had left the last of the old roads and trails behind as we climbed up the dry streambed heading northeast.

There wasn't much vegetation to get in the way but the rocky streambed was a bit loose and uneven. This improved as we got higher, finding the streambed more solid and polished, much of the gravel crud washed out of the main channel. As it got steeper we found the scrambling even enjoyable, a bit unexpectedly. There really isn't any route-finding challenge to the outing, most likely almost any route choice would have worked out. The false summit that Evan warned about could have been scrambled to directly had we wanted - the downclimb on the other side isn't all that much. But we followed his directions, keeping to the right and landing ourselves on the shoulder ridge to the right of the false summit.

From the shoulder we had our first view of Cargo Muchacho Peak, looming above us to the north a short distance across an intervening canyon. It looks further than it really is - in actuality we were but fifteen minutes away. We traversed the NE side of the false summit to reach a saddle on its north side and the final short distance along the SW Ridge to the highpoint. We reached the summit just after 7a in the warming sunlight. Up until a short while ago we'd been confined to the shade. The USGS marker atop the highpoint was small, perhaps in accordance with the diminutive size of the range. The register, dating back to 1983 was another remote classic placed by the duo of MacLeod and Lilley. There were very few entries, notably Smatko and party in 1992. Evan's was the last name in the book, nearly two years earlier. The best views would probably have been to the east with the Colorado River, but the sun was squarely in our eyes off in that direction and a picture would have been futile.

One of Tom's most endearing traits is that it isn't hard to talk him into taking a different route off the summit. He'll give me a funny sort of look, but almost always says simply, "Ok." The suggested alternative was up and over the false summit and down the jagged SW Ridge to a saddle we could see off in the distance. The map indicated we could pick up an old road just below the saddle and take it back to our car to make a loop out of the outing.

This alternate route turned out to be a fine choice. Most of the ridgeline is navigable directly, with only one detour about halfway down the ridge where we had to bypass a small cliff area by going around it to the north. It took about 45min to reach the saddle at which point Tom commented that the ridge had been the best scrambling of the day. I had to agree. This isn't to say it was great scrambling, just the best we found in the Cargo Muchachos. We were happy to find an old trail crossing over the saddle, making the descent of our canyon a cinch. It led us down to a small clearing with two mine shafts and the expected road leading lower. Just before reaching the mine Tom found a small, rusty tin inside a cairn. Inside the tine was a single sheet of paper with some notations marking out the extent of a mining claim. There was no date on the paper, and no way to date the unexpected find. We signed our names to the paper and put it back where we found it for the next person to find in thirty years or so. Down at the clearing we explored one of the horizontal shafts, finding a dead end after about 50ft into it - looks like they gave up after finding nothing. The second shaft was in poorer condition with a partial cave-in at the entrance and several busted braces. We weren't brave enough to try that one.

We followed the road out towards our starting point. The upper portion was definitely 4WD only, but much of the rest looks like it could have been navigated by a standard vehicle. Nearer to our car there were a handful of large RVs parked in a flat area, looking like they had set up camp for the winter time. It was just before 9a when we got back to the car.

My sleeping gear was already dry when we opened the car, the day was already warming up nicely. I should have packed up the gear in their stuff sacks for the coming adventure, but left it spread out in the back. Driving back out to the freeway and through El Centro, we found a Border Patrol checkpoint, a serious affair with a dozen official cars, officers all about, and several large tents looking like a bazaar along the highway. An officer with a german shepard on leash was standing on the left side of the lane, his dog dutifully sniffing the body panels of the cars as they slowly drove by. When we got up to the front of the line we were asked to pull over to the side for further inspection. Oh fun...

The same officer and dog, along with a second officer, came over to join us. We were asked to get out of the car and stand to the side with the second officer while the dog and his trainer went to the car. Before proceeding the first officer said to us, "My dog is trained to sniff out drugs and illegal aliens, do you have anything to tell us before we begin?" Tom politely mentioned that he had some Ibuprofen (or some other over-the-counter medicine), but that was about it. What I really wanted to say was, "Maybe your dog needs more training," but of course I wasn't about to give them a reason to tear Tom's car apart. Aside from that being a nasty thing to provoke, I'm quite chicken and will gladly suck up to any law enforcement officers that get in my face. There was no Good Cop / Bad Cop with these two - they were both business. The trainer let the dog loose inside the car while Tom looked on helplessly, boldly exclaiming, "Hey, I don't even let my dog do that!" No reply. I was not happy with the dog bounding over my bivy sack, sleeping bag, and pad, wondering how many puncture wounds it might inflict. The dog was only inside for a few seconds, making a leaping bound into the back, turning around, and leaping back out. The officers questioned where we'd come from, asked us to empty our pockets, and again asked if we had any drugs, while they began to make a cursory search. Not only did we have nothing illegal, we didn't even have any alcohol as we normally would. The officer looked under the seats, in the glove box, and a few other places, but seemed loathe to empty the pile of gear in the back of the car for a really thorough search. After about ten minutes of this, they gave up and let us go with a "Drive safely, now."

Back in the car Tom commented, "Wow, now I have an idea what it's like living in a police state." "Did you feel violated back there?" I replied with a smile. "Yeah, a little." We pondered how one trains a dog to sniff out illegal aliens. Perhaps a couple of guys out camping and in need of showers might have set the dog off?

Our second destination was the Coyote Mountains, another small range, this one west of El Centro. It took us about an hour and a half to cover the distance on freeway, an old paved road through Plaster City, and then several miles of excellent dirt road to the entrance of Painted Gorge, on the southeast side of the range. Again we followed Evan's directions which proved more than adequate.

We might have been able to drive almost the whole way to the summit had we come a few months earlier. The BLM locks a gate at the entrance to the gorge for six months starting Jan 1 to protect bighorn sheep lambing. It was here that we parked the car and started off on foot.

As its name suggests, Painted Gorge is a narrow canyon with colorful rock walls, though not that colorful that I'd go out of the way for a sightseeing tour. The sandy wash at the bottom of the gorge was flat and easy to follow. There was very little vegetation though we did encounter several small displays of California poppies, all a very bright yellow without a hint of orange. We hadn't gone far, maybe half a mile when we encountered a fork in the canyon. A host of footprints led off to a side canyon and we somewhat casually decided to follow them, thinking the peak was so easy that it would be hard to make a mistake which we proceeded to do quite easily. Somehow we convinced ourselves we were further up the main canyon than we were, and the map doesn't do justice to the very fractured nature of the landscape on the east side of the range, looking like almost any ridge or canyon would lead to the summit. Not so.

We followed the twisty side canyon north for a ways until we reached its terminus on a small ridgeline that seemed to lead nowhere in particular. We had to admit we were somewhat lost. We found an old mining trail along the ridge that led us northwest to a second Jeep road cutting through the mountains. We decided to cut our losses and follow it back down to the main road in Painted Gorge. Though somewhat painful with the ups and downs, we were happy to find it connected with the main road after it had climbed out of the Painted Gorge, saving us some elevation loss. Our little detour ended up costing us about 40 minutes, we figured.

Once back on the main road, we followed it ever upwards. There are several forks to be negotiated, and all of them were correctly chosen (one of them against Tom's alternative judgement) by keeping a steady eye on the highpoint to the NW. The true highpoint is actually not visible until near the very top, but the peaks blocking the view give the correct heading. The gravelly road seemed to go interminably, twisting and turning around ridges and local highpoints, taking its good time to reach towards the summit. At several looping switchbacks we chose to cut some time off by ascending the hillsides more directly. The outing had been more than we bargained for. It wasn't hard in the scheme of things, but we had expected it to be easier than Cargo Muchacho. Tom would have been happy to turn back after we'd been at it for an hour and a half, probably thinking getting home to his wife had more reward than following me to some insignificant summit. I don't know how he could be so blinded to the True Path, but by now I was fairly determined and it would have taken some serious pleading on his part to get me to turn back. No pleading ensued, thankfully, and we eventually did find our way to the top.

The road stops at a leveled saddle a few hundred feet below the summit. We found a use trail winding its way up between the two summits (from below it may be hard to tell the highpoint, but the west summit is quite a bit higher than the east one). The last stretch was over trailless, broken rock, and shortly before 12:30p we were on Carrizo Mtn, the undisputed highpoint of the Coyote Mtns. There was a register placed by MacLeod and Lilley in 1985 inside a red cookie tin, but there was an even older one dating to 1979. The USGS benchmark was generic, without identifying stamps for a name or date. We looked around, we snapped a few pictures, we went down.

Without the navigational error we'd had on the way up, it took us only an hour and a quarter to return back down the road to the car. On our way back to San Diego via Interstate 8 we were stopped at a second checkpoint set up by the Border Patrol. This time there was no canine unit and the officer waved us through without saying a word. And off we went to San Diego where Tom dropped me off at my inlaw's, before he continued on alone to Los Angeles, ending our five day affair. It might be some time before I go back to Mexico for climbing, but I'm sure I'll see more of the Border Patrol in the coming years...

Dan Baxter comments on 02/15/21:
Border patrol has no right to have a dog enter your car without probable cause.
From the document you cite: Agents can obtain probable cause for a search if a drug-sniffing dog legitimately 'alerts' to the presence of drugs. Let's face it, there's almost no way to prove the dog didn't alert since we're not trained dog handlers and the Border Patrol are. Arguing that he had no right to search the vehicle would likely only piss them off more.
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