Fri, Mar 23, 2018
The steep dirt road leading up from Old Hwy 80 has been recently improved, though on a tight budget. Asphalt has been used to fill in ruts and create water bars with new drainage culverts installed, allowing any car with even modest clearance to make it up the first mile of road. Leaving the van at the TH, we drove Matt's Subaru up to the top of the road and parked in a small clearing. The road forks here with the better road going up to service an SDE tower installation and the other options quickly becoming manageable by only the beefiest of 4WD vehicles. Others have reported driving these backroads on the edge of the Wilderness at about the same pace one can walk. We walked the road only a short distance before dropping into the first drainage heading east, on a good trail that leads to Smugglers Cave in less than 10min. There is a fire pit outside and some sparse furnishings inside, a semi-popular camp spot. Though it seems unlikely that illegals would use this obvious location, there is much evidence of their passing through the area with discarded items that range from soda cans to deodorant to clothing. There were half a dozen gallon jugs of water left out in the open on that short hike to Smugglers Cave, clearly left by well-intentioned citizens. Past the cave, the trail disappeared as we dropped several hundred feet towards the east on our way to our first stop, Peak 3,865ft.
Peak 3,865ft was only 3/4mi from where we'd parked, halfway to Wes Shelberg Peak further east. It seemed an easy bonus, so we made our way to its southwest side where we began to explore options for reaching the top. About halfway up, the difficulties began to increase significantly as our options became more limited. Matt went up to the right to explore one path while I chose to traverse left, thinking the NE side would offer up an easier route. For half an hour I explored what I could on the northwest side without any reasonable way up and no easy way to get around to the northeast side without dropping back down to the bottom. I explored all manner of tunnels and hidden caves, finding them all interesting but decided dead-ends. Figuring maybe Matt had more luck, I then moved back to explore the route he'd gone up on the southwest side, finding a few of his footprints but not him, and no way up from that angle as well after more exploring. Calling out brought back only echos as I pondered what had become of Matt. We had no plan for getting separated, especially so early in the day. Meeting back at the car would be a last resort, but an utter failure at this point. I left a register somewhere in the back recesses of the caves I was exploring for future adventurers to stumble upon, then retraced much of my route to extricate myself from Peak 3,865ft.
Without knowing where Matt had gone, I circled around Peak 3,865ft in a counter-clockwise direction to reach a saddle on its south side. My intention was to continue to Wes Shelberg Peak if I couldn't find Matt, figuring he'd either gone there, or, giving up, had gone back to the car. It was now after 9:30a, almost a full hour and a half since I'd last seen him. I gave a loud shout out towards the peak one last time, and was almost surprised to hear Matt shout back. We couldn't see each other immediately, but with a few more shouts we zeroed in on the other's location. Matt was high the NE side of Peak 3,865ft, but still looked to be several rather large blocks of granite from getting to the top. He reported having nearly exhausted his options and said he was coming back down. I thought it might take maybe 15min to get back down, but that came and went, then 30min, and finally a full 45min before I spotted him below me in the canyon to the east. Again, the problem is that there's just so much scrambling to get from point A to B around here. I went down to join him and together we made our way to Wes Shelberg Peak, only a mile away but another hour yet. The good news on this one is that there were no enormous summit blocks at the top and getting there was pretty straightforward albeit slow. It was 11:30a by the time we finally topped out. I'd thought we'd be back at the car by now, but so it goes - at least we were having fun. Wes Shelberg had left the register here back in 1982, no great surprise there. The limited pages were rather full so we had to make due with some unused space on one of them, not exactly keeping it in chronological order. The summit has nice views of the surrounding Wilderness with views into Mexico and far to the east across the lower deserts to Arizona.
We decided to try another bonus peak on the way back, Peak 4,020ft, because like the first, it was "on the way". Once again, it turned into something more than we bargained for. It more closely resembled the first peak we tried with very large rocks all over the place. We followed a drainage up heading southwest that leads to the east side of the peak. Matt chose to exit the drainage earlier, while I went up it further before turning towards the peak. A series of zigzags found me about halfway up when I spotted Matt below me about 100ft. I waited on a rock to watch his progress, curious if he would notice me sitting there. It didn't take long, as he periodically looked up to survey the route ahead and saw me after climbing out from under an oak tree. I briefly explained that I had come up via a route off to his left, but it was too involved to try and give any meaningful detail. While he went off in search of a way up, I decided to continue up to see if the summit was even reachable. There was lots of class 3-4 scrambling to make my way up through more zigs and zags before finally finding myself near the summit about 20min after seeing Matt. There were four large summit blocks along the summit ridge vying to be the highest, none of them easy to climb. I guessed (correctly) that the northern one was the highest, but finding it a tough nut, I went over to check out the others, thinking (hoping) I might get lucky and find one of them the highest. The southernmost one proved the easiest, a short class 4 affair that took a few tries. Once atop it, I could look over the tops of the other blocks, but I was clearly not on the highest. I took a few pictures and decided the proper thing to do was go back to the northern block for another look. It was more like class 4-5 slab climbing, the hardest part being the intial step off from the supporting block. Failing a few times, I decided to take off my pack and gloves and as I did so, watched my GPSr go bouncing down a 20-foot drop into a crack between the underlying rocks. I had moved it from the safer position of my belt to the chest strap on the pack to keep it from getting scratched up during the scrambling. It looked like that choice was going to cost me a few hundred bucks. I shrugged and returned to the more important task (ok, it's not really that important, in fact it's almost ludicrous to think it has any importance at all, but that's how my brain works once it sets itself to reaching a summit) of getting on the highest block. With the extra weight removed, I was able to make the high step more easily and balance myself on one foot as I pulled up on thin holds. I was happy to find I could not only reach the top but there was an easier way down where I could make a short jump to avoid retracing the ascent. I took a few photos looking north and south, but otherwise spent almost no time atop the rock. I wasn't sure if Matt could make the same moves, but I figured I'd help him get as far as he could manage safely.
Once off the block, I first crawled down a few boulders to the sandy bottom at the base of the crack where I found the GPSr. I hadn't expected to be able to retrieve it and even better, was happy to find it still working but with a few more dents and scratches. I reversed a whole lot of terrain that had gotten me to the top, eventually returning to where I'd last seen Matt. Only there was no sign of him and calling out brought no reply. I looked around briefly before deciding to search elsewhere. I descended to the north, then around to the base of the peak on the northwest side, but still no sign of Matt. I figured there were three possibilities - he'd gone back to the car; he was still up there, looking around somewhere out of sight and sound; he was hurt or dead. Gruesome, but the latter seemed unlikely. I decided to head back to the car to see if he was there.
It would take me until 3p to find my way back through the rock maze to the trail past Smugglers Cave and then to the car. No sign of Matt. Not knowing how long I might be waiting, I decided to walk back down the road to the van, another half hour's effort, but not before leaving a note on the windshield. Back at the van, I had my cell phone and laptop and could occupy myself for a few hours until I would begin to really worry and need to take further action. I had little time to ponder this as Matt came driving back down to the van not ten minutes after I'd arrived.
Back at our original TH where we'd left the van, we mapped out a place to camp nearby, then went off separately to shower before reconvening a few miles down the road off Old Hwy 80. We were only half a mile from the border, so it was no surprise when a white truck came by before sunset to check up on us. All is well in the Wild West...
This page last updated: Thu Feb 6 18:07:56 2020
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