Desierto de Altar

16-Jan-98 (Private Trip)

By: Mark Adrian


In a continued pursuit to satisfy curiosity, our small group once again decided to head towards Mexico's Sonoran panhandle to explore and climb several satellite ranges west of the Sierra el Pinacate. Extensive map research revealed an ample selection of various Sierra and having seen these ranges from distant Cabeza Prieta range highpoints, this area seemed ripe for exploration. Since we had previously climbed the range highpoints of both the nearby Sierra el Rosario and Sierra Tinajas Altas, this venture seemed only "natural".

Departing the US via San Luis, AZ, we headed east on Mexico Highway two, a somewhat rough road that passes through a bleak area of sand before winding through several Sierra. About fifty miles east of San Luis is where the landscape begins to change. Here we had a beautiful selection of Sierra at our disposal. I will submit a second report that details the drive and climbs of the various peaks and elaborate more here on the aesthetics. Our first "stop" was the highpoint of the Sierra Los Alacranes (aka BM Puerto). This was, as expected, a rugged "little" climb with a pronounced low-third class summit block atop which, unexpectedly, we found a Mexican benchmark (not shown on their map). Looking across the spine of this range, small though it is, one is impressed with the relief and tremendous views across the Desierto all the way to the blue ribbon of the Gulf of California. In fact, all of the Sierra we climbed offered spectacular views of Cerro Pinacate and my GPS revealed we could even see the distinct profile of Picacho del Diablo, 125 miles distant. This is Sonoran desert at its finest. Then, as if that weren't reward enough, as we returned on descent out onto the alluvial, we were greeted by a herd of twelve big horn sheep. At first, they darted and bolted away, but, standing stationary, they meandered towards us seemingly unconcerned about our presence. This was indeed, a rare sighting. With several hours of daylight remaining, we continued east on Mexican Highway two to setup for the highpoint of the Sierra el Choclo Duro.

Although an elusive drive in, we found a great campsite away from the paved road in a secluded wash and enjoyed a spectacular sunset, one of many during the trip. The next morning, in good position, we had a comfortable climb of the highpoint despite a cholla garden near the summit. Unique to this peak however, are the views north into Cabeza Prieta where we had made many journeys before. Landmarks were recognizable and recollections of their climbs recalled fond memories.

Conveniently located nearby the Choclo Duro is the Sierra Aguilla, which although a short climb, more than compensates with its ruggedness and third class summit. We determined ours was a first ascent. Afterwards, we continued east, again, on Mexico Highway two, to descend south to explore several ranges that flank the western drainages of the Sierra el Pinacate. Our first climb in the area was the highpoint of the Sienita el Temporal (aka Sierra Hornaday) composed of 570 million year old pre-Cambrian rock. This range was allegedly climbed by Father Kino where he viewed the mile-wide MacDougal Crater only several miles south of the highpoint. This geologic formation is definitely a unique spectacle when viewed from the highpoint.

Continuing south, sometimes groping for roads (poor maps in this area), we found a lush campsite in a sandy wash near the western base of the Sierra Blanca. This Sierra high-point is about sixteen miles south of the highway, so there is a tremendous sense of remoteness. Again, a pretty short climb complemented with stunning views, especially Cerro Pinacate to the immediate east. To the west, we could see the next day's objective, the highpoint of the Sierrita Enterrada, some four miles distant from camp. More intriguing though, were the fields of purple "carpet" (flowers) that ''paved" most of the route. That evening, we had one of the most color-saturated sunsets I've ever witnessed.

Up early the next morning, we were serenaded by a din of birds as if though in an aviary. Then, shortly after departure, we were surprised by an enormous amount of wildflowers as we walked for nearly four miles across rolling "dunes" towards the Sierrita. Dominating the flower "garden" were purple Sand verbena, then, where there was "room" dune "desert primroses, desert mallow, datura (which I call lilies"), budding ajo lilies, encilia or bush sunflower and what was thought to be desert marigold. The final portion of the climb proved trivial, nonetheless, we claimed the summit as a first ascent. This was the most remote range we climbed and gave perhaps the best overview of the vastness of the Desierto's sand-strewn isolation. Thanks to Richard Carey, Shelley Rogers (resident flower expert), Ken Olson and his dog Buster for an enjoyable trip.


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