Wed, Apr 15, 2009
I had been to Organ Pipe Cactus NM earlier in the year, back in February, with intentions of climbing the DPS's Kino Peak. At the Visitor Center Tom and I were told that the entire area around Kino was off-limits to overnight and day-use visitors alike, due to problems with illegal immigrants and smugglers. As far as we could tell, making the whole area a no-man's land had as much to do with making the Border Patrol's job easier as it did with protecting visitors. I didn't like it, but we dared not violate forbidden areas and left the park without visiting the peak. A few months later I was back in the area for a second visit. Over several hours during the descent from Baboquivari the previous day I gave the idea of visiting Kino a good deal more thought, and by the time I had returned to the campground where Matthew and Rick were waiting for me, I had devised a plan to stealthily visit the peak. The others gave favorable reviews to the idea and we decided to give it a try the next day.
The plan was thus: A dirt road runs from near the town of Ajo to Bates Well on the north end of the park and about five miles from Kino Peak. This is the approach provided in the DPS guide. The Park Service had told me that this road was drivable by visitors, but one could not leave a car unattended without drawing the attention of the Border Patrol. My plan would have us climbing the peak in two shifts. Early in the morning three of us would drive in to Bates Well in one car. Rick would drop Matthew and I off, then leave. Matthew and I would have about 7 hours to climb the peak and return in time for Rick to come back for us. Meanwhile, Rick would drive an hour and a half to the Mt. Ajo TH, climb Mt. Ajo, and return to get us around noon. Once reunited, Rick would leave the car to climb Kino in the afternoon, with Matthew and I driving back out. Matthew would leave me at my van (I had already climbed Mt. Ajo), drive out to, and climb Mt. Ajo himself, then return in the evening to pick up Rick. There was a lot of driving involved in the plan, but it would allow us to get both of the Organ Pipe DPS peaks in one day. In order to help make sense of the roads in the dark hours of early morning, I drove out to the start of them the afternoon before, just before sunset. The signs warning about smugglers and illegals I expected, but I was dismayed to find a sign indicating that the dirt roads would be seasonally closed starting April 15 to protect the endangered sonoran pronghorn - the same day we had planned for our visit. I felt robbed, and our plan dissolved. Over dinner we discussed alternate plans, settling on a climb of Montezuma Head in the eastern part of the park that was still open.
The next morning we were up before dawn to drive to the turnout off SR85 described in a TR we had with us. It was growing light around 5:30a as we started heading east across the flat desert enroute to Montezuma Head, easily identified by its silhouette about four miles away. Our talk started with a discussion about Kino Peak. We recognized that it should be perfectly fine to leave our car where it was since the eastern side of the road was open to visitors. So how would the Park Service or Border Patrol know which way we went unless they saw us from the road? What if we turned around and headed for Kino? It would only take a few minutes before our forms were hidden by the high desert brush typical of the Sonoran desert. I had done some research about this route beforehand and found it to be 11-12 miles one-way from SR85 to Kino, easily within the abilities of the three of us for a dayhike. Back in the van I even had a map of the route I had printed out. Rick pointed out that we didn't have much water with us since Montezuma Head was a relatively short distance, and the rest of his and Matthew's water was back in Matthew's car which we'd left outside the park (we only had one NPS park pass so we took the van to the trailhead). No problem, I had at least four more quarts of Gatorade in my cooler. Only ten minutes into the hike we stopped, looked at each other and asked, "Should we do it?" We were all quite eager we realized, and quickly did an about face for the van.
Back at the van we dumped our ropes and other climbing gear, exchanging it for all the Gatorade we could find, keeping our packs about the same weight. Swapping out one printed map for another, we snuck off into the brush and disappeared into the vast desert flats heading west. The sun had just crested the Ajo Mtns to the east, the temperature delightfully in the low 50's, with clear skies overhead. To the west gray clouds hung over Kino Peak and the surrounding mountains, threatening to put a damper on our outing. Fortunately clouds slowly retreated as the day wore on, gradually diminishing the threat. We spent more than three hours crossing the desert, finding it to be less flat than it had appeared on the map. Despite a near absence of contour lines, the terrain was riddled with numerous washes that had to be crossed. Though invariably dry, the washes attracted the greatest concentration of vegetation, sometimes requiring a meandering route to get through the brush unmolested. Still, the terrain generally made for easy cross-country navigation, more closely resembling the drier Mojave deserts of California than the monsoon-fueled, and thus lusher Sonoran deserts we'd previously encountered in Arizona.
Though we came across no banditos, smugglers, or other desperados, there was ample evidence that the region is regularly crossed by illegal immigrants. Discarded food and beverage containers can be found seen from time to time, and at one point we came across a shaded area that had been used for an overnight camp. Towards the end of the walk across the flats, where we started walking up a shallow canyon, a very good use trail was discovered where our route coincided with a migratory route (shown as green on this map). The trail led through the east-west trending canyon directly toward Kino. There were two shallow saddles at the head of the canyon, and like it did at the mouth of the canyon, the trail splintered and became hard to follow. We lost the trail altogether as we gained the southernmost of the two saddles where we had our first closeup view of Kino Peak.
We faced the daunting East Face of Kino which looked like a ring of cliffs composed of crummy volcanic rock, not the sort of feature that looked either inviting or fun, but it was impressive. Between the peak and ourselves was a north-south canyon that had first to be descended for about 300ft. We could see another trail clearly on the west side of the dry wash in the middle of the canyon. Though not shown on any maps, this second trail was not surprising to find since the canyon aligned more readily with the migration direction from Mexico heading north. We carefully dropped down the steeper east side of the canyon, looking for a way across the brushy wash. I went one way that took me through a bit of brush, the others declining and looking for an easier crossing. I was already across to the west side and on the fine use trail when I noticed they hadn't followed me. I spotted them across the wash, sidehilling on steep, loose terrain still looking for a way over. I was a bit nervous because of any spot on our entire route, this seemed the most likely area to find patrolling Border Patrol agents. In dozens of past encounters, I have only once found an agent more than a few feet from his or her vehicle, so I wasn't that worried, but still I was relieved when the others had finally joined me a few minutes later and we moved further west off the use trail.
We chose to climb a dry, steep gully to the northwest, conspicuous by the whitish line worn into the rock by then infrequent water flow. Our route of choice happened to coincide with the DPS route "A", or some variation of it, as we found a scattering of ducks leading up the gully. One section of dry waterfall made for interesting scrambling, but mostly it was a steep class 2 affair. At the top of the gully we reached a small saddle overlooking a small drop on the other side to another gully continuing higher. Rather than drop into this second gully we turned left and followed a rocky ridgeline that avoided any loss in elevation. More ducks seemed to indicate we were on route. It was around 10:30a when we topped out on this ridge where it abruptly ended just short of the impressive East Face of Kino. This unexpected turn had us worried. We saw no more ducks and saw no obvious way off the top of our perch to the connecting saddle far below. Rick searched the most direct way, I looked off the north side, but both of those directions led to cliffs we couldn't possibly downclimb. We read the DPS description but it seemed to be describing something very different. This gave us the sinking feeling that we'd climbed the wrong way, despite the presence of the ducks. We could see another ridgeline and saddle further north with a huge gap of more than 1,000ft in between. Was that where we were supposed to be? We reread the description a second and third time, concluding there ought to be a way off the south side of our ridge. We found no "steep, but easy ledge" as described, but we did find a steep slopes leading to a ledge lower down that brought us around the cliffs on that side. Things began to make more sense as we found the 15-foot wall below a notch and the bypass found to the right of the wall. We reached the notch between Kino and its lower northern neighbor (another bit of confusion because it is really more like a northeastern neighbor) around 11a and took a short break.
Staring at the huge East Face before us we'd have sworn that we'd reached a dead-end as the face appears unclimbable by normal means. Even with ropes, gear, and a great deal more climbing skill than any of us possessed, it looked a dangerous venture with the igneous rock being as crappy and loose up close as it had appeared from afar. But the DPS guide had lured us this far with the promise of a class 3 route and we weren't to be disappointed. A faint use trail leads off from the notch and soon disappears into the rock, but a more consistent set of ducks leads one up and right across the face through a fortunate series of breaks in the cliff that make for an enjoyable if somewhat improbable scramble route. The ducks led us all the way up to the summit ridge north of the highpoint, from where it was an easy hike south to the top of Kino Peak. It was 11:20a when we climbed the last chunk of volcanic rock to the summit. Ever since I had first seen Kino from afar I had wondered why this relatively low, unassuming bit of rock had found its way to the DPS list, and we had all three wondered this until the last hour of the climb. We now were agreed that it was a worthy addition, indeed.
At the top we found a benchmark and a register, the later dating only as far back as 2004. There were a dozen entries until early in 2006, then only a single entry in 2008 and another one in 2009. Somewhere around 2005 or 2006 we guessed that the Park Service began to tell visitors the peak was off limits. A trip report by Daryn Dodge that we read only after our trip, described that the Park Service backed down from calling it illegal when pressed in 2008. They came back a year later and Daryn, Steve Eckert, and a few others were the last group to climb Kino. In any event, the DPS has given the peak a "suspended" status on their list until they can ascertain whether it is legal or not in the future.
Our return was mostly the same route with only minor variation. To reach the east-west canyon leading back to the desert flats I had suggested we take the northernmost saddle because I could see a use trail going up that way. Whether I saw a trail or a natural feature that looked like a trail, or simply made this up as a ruse was never ascertained, but we found no use trail at all and with it being a bit longer and brushier, our original route over the southern saddle was a better choice. Back on the 3hr march across the desert flats we split up from time to time as we took various ways through the brushy washes, usually reuniting on the other side. For the last hour Matthew and I lost track of Rick who was taking a modified line. I had been using Montezuma Head, easily recognized from more than ten miles distance, as a navigational aid, expecting the parking lot to be directly between it and Kino. Rick had used his GPS to check the heading, making the necessary correction away from the course I was following. I too, had a GPS in my pack with a waypoint for the parking lot, but had not taken it out to make things more of a game. When Matthew and I reached the highway around 4:15p, the parking lot and van were nowhere to be seen. The GPS showed us to be a mile to the south. My "game" suddenly didn't seem like much fun.
We resigned ourselves to the extra distance and started walking north along the highway. About ten minutes later a Park Service truck came by, slowed, and the ranger asked what we were doing. We weren't doing anything illegal, he was just very unused to seeing visitors hiking along the road. He seemed satisfied with our response, but before he could drive away I asked if it wouldn't be possible to get a lift back to our car. He agreed. To make room for us, he had to remove a few things from the crowded back seat including a fearsome-looking shotgun. I asked if he would like to check our packs or persons for anything dangerous. Like a ranger not comfortable with his role as a law enforcement officer, he replied, "Yeah, I guess I probably should, huh?" He very cursorly patted us down and just sort of felt our packs for weight and bulkiness before deciding we were OK. Rick was sitting on the curb outside the van when Matthew and I drove up in the custody of the ranger. Surprised by our appearance, his immediate thought must have been that we'd been caught on the wrong side of the highway and were coming for him. The irony was not lost on Matthew and I as we smiled in getting out of the truck. We thanked the ranger for his kindness as he drove away to leave us to our own devices. We celebrated our successfully getting away with a climb that might not even be illegal with some colds beverages from the cooler. Legal or otherwise, it had been a good outing.
As a Border Patrol Agent who likes to hike and climb both on and off duty (very far from his truck, as many other agents, at least in my station, do), I enjoyed reading your accounts of trekking though Arizona and Mexico, especially in the Organ Pipe National Monument, which is where i have the pleasure of working.
I agree with you that it is a shame that 3/4 of the Monument is closed to the public. I'm fortunate enough to be able to explore the park while on duty, but there are several restricted places I'd like to hike off duty and take friends/family. I too think that NPS and the USBP should work to find a way for visitors to safely make day hikes and backcountry visits in the area, although banditos brandishing weapons and robbing groups of aliens is becoming more common - as are the instances of armed drug smugglers. Let's hope that such incidences stay confined to the world of trafficking.
I'm hoping to to visit the Pinacate National Park in the near future - stumbled upon your page while doing some internet research.
Good luck in your future trekking and in dodging the border patrol during your future hikes (as i sometimes did while exploring the borderlands before becoming an agent).
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