Whitewater Baldy (New Mexico), Center Baldy (New Mexico), Mogollon Maintains (New Mexico)

1-May-99

By: Bob Michael


About twenty years ago, I wrote up my solo climb of 8,441' Big Hatchet Peak, a magnificent chunk of block-faulted limestone In the remote "bootheel" of far southwest New Mexico. What most struck me about that forgotten country was the sense of having fallen out of time, of having driven from busy 1-10 right out of the late twentieth century. In May, I returned to a different part of southwest New Mexico. Although it is not awesomely desolate like the Bootheel country, the Gila Wilderness and the tiny settlements on its fringe still feel like the untrammeled mythical West that so captivated me as a young boy. Far from population centers or "developers", Catron County, New Mexico has so far escaped the "Wal-Martization" of America, (Remember when St. George, Utah, was a quaint little Mormon town in the red-rock wilderness, and a drive to Barstow felt like a desert adventure rather than bumper-to-bumper traffic past factory outlet malls? I date myself.)

My Phoenix climbing buddy George Horn picked me up at Sky Harbor Airport, and we headed east past Globe, Show Low and Springerville, up through the gorgeous White Mountain forest at Alpine, crossing the state line into Luna, N. M. We turned south on US 180, following the San Francisco River valley to the pleasant and friendly little settlement of Glenwood. Although little more than a wide spot in the road, Glenwood boasts a world-class New Mexican restaurant, the Blue Front Tavern (-tender flat enchiladas with shredded beef and fried egg on top, in a red chile sauce with a complexity of flavor that would tax a wine snob's vocabulary - as far as you can get from hamburger taco filling oozing fluorescent orange oil).

Next day, we drove 5 miles north of Glenwood on US 180 to state highway 78, which heads east into the north end of the Mogollon Mountains, hugging a spectacular canyon wall before descending into the old semi-ghost mining town of Mogollon. The pavement ends, and the excellent graded road (still a state highway) climbs east out of the townsite into the high mountains. About 10 miles out of town, we parked at a large trailhead parking lot at 9,132' Sandy Point and began hiking south into the Gila Wilderness, the world's first designated wilderness area (1924), on the excellent Crest Trail. No fee; no quota; no permit; no "Adventure Pass". Just a sign-in sheet. The West as it used to be.

The Mogollon Mountains are a long way from Virgin Peak or Cedar City, Utah, but they are in the exact same fascinating geologic setting; the transition zone between the Basin and Range and the Colorado Plateau. Southwest-central New Mexico is the southernmost extent of the Plateau, which is here at its greatest dimension - stretching all the way north to the Uinta Mountains. A typical Plateau-margin structure is Basin and Range extensional faulting "chewing" its way into the flat-lying Plateau rocks, resulting in downdropped valleys (grabens) bordered by uplifted ranges. Structurally, the Mogollon Mountains are rather like the mountains west of Cedar City, bordered on the west by a huge normal (up/down) fault, and on the east grading into the flat-lying stack of sediments that make up the Plateau' Similarly, the Mogollons rise out of the San Francisco River valley graben along a massive normal fault. on their plateau (east) side, the mountains descend much more gradually to rolling Ponderosa-forested country and eventually to high and plains, the Plains of San Augustin. These latter are the site of the Very Large Array of radiotelescopes precisely because they are vast, open, and about as far as you can get from nearby radio frequency pollution in the Lower 48. They had their 15 minutes of fame in the movie "Contact" when Jodie Foster as radio-astronomer-in-residence picked up that "E.T." noise that made my flesh crawl.

Although you're on the edge of the Plateau here, you'll look in vain for any trace of familiar red rocks or slickrock sandstones. If they were ever here, they were buried by many cubic miles of rhyolitic and andesitic (light-colored) volcanic rocks that were erupted here in the Tertiary period and which comprise the Mogollon Mountains. Mount Saint Helens would be a mere firecracker in comparison to the vast outpouring that took place here.

The Crest Trail leads up past -10, 00.0 feet through an old-growth cold rain forest of mostly subalpine fir and Englemann spruce. Normally, these mountains receive much winter snowfall along with almost daily rain during the summer monsoon, However, after the profound Southwest drought last winter, the forest was mostly dry and there was little snow even on northfacing slopes over 10,000' in May. The forest is quite impressive, but it is so dense that it limits the views; especially in the first few miles, you walk a long time before there are any views of the surrounding countryside. As you approach Humming-bird Saddle at 10,400', the forest opens up some and views improve. The look of the high country here reminded me of nothing so much as a much bigger version of the Appalachians! The Mogollons are rough and cliffy in their lower stretches, but the high country is mostly rounded, all below timberline with no Ice Age glaciation to put an edge on things, draped in greenish-black forest with little bare rock.

At Hummingbird Saddle (which really was vibrant with the shrill twitter of hummingbirds), George waited for me (held done the peak) while I went up the north side of 10,895' Whitewater Baldy, a lovely name for a peak and the highest in the range. A big elk and I startled each other near the top. Baldy is not bald and doesn't have much of a view from the summit although there is a good view from a ]edge just to the south. I placed a register in the summit cairn and started down where I thought I'd come up, but the forest was so thick that I got disoriented and descended well to the east (see map). That awful lost feeling began to rise in me, but I knew from the map that I had to intersect the trail. Nonetheless, it was a chilling example of how easy it would be - even with good navigation skills - to get turned around and hopelessly, maybe fatally, lost in this vast wilderness.

After re-uniting, we continued south past glades of giant aspen trees just beginning to leaf out on the southeast flank of Whitewater Baldy to a lunch stop in the 10,100' saddle to its south. A 1.5 mile jog to the south took us to 10,535' Center Baldy, not far off the top end of the Holt-Apache Trail, which really is bald and gave the best views of the day, far to the west into Arizona's Blue Range.

Then, the long trudge home, enlivened by a few minutes of graupel, rain and blue lightning between Hummingbird Saddle and Willow Mountain. We got to the Blue Front 15 minutes before closing, and New Mexican food never tasted better.


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