Cold Spring Canyon Ruins - Part II
By Matt Marine, with Scott Duecker and Steve Krohn
Click here to read Part I of the story (Hiking up Big Buck Uranium Mine Road)
Into the Mud
Hand on my .357 revolver, I peered into the darkness and moved nothing but my eyes. I looked for movement and listened for unnatural sounds. Nothing. My dog Cammie sniffed the air. She smelled something not quite right. I feared a mountain lion hiding in the shadows.
Seconds ticked by. A light breeze rustled the trees. A pesky fly buzzed past my ear.
Scott grew tired of waiting and moved forward. His advance broke the moment and whatever had caused Cammie to be so anxious seemed to evaporate. She trotted forward, ready to join Scott as he edged closer to the mud.
Wait! Not in the mud! Stop! This could get messy.
We were about half way to the Cold Spring CanyonIndian ruins in the Sierra Ancha Wilderness north of Globe, Arizona. Click here to read Part I of the story and how we got to this point. In our party were two friends, Scott and Steve, and my faithful Cat-dog, Cammie. Immediately ahead of us was a little spring that had created a large marshy area along the trail. The dark canopy of foliage around the water had caused Cammie a great deal of concern, but she was now heading straight for the mud without a care in the world.
But I cared. The mud looked deep and full of cow manure. And it smelled. Bad.
"Cammie would be sleeping tonight in my tent and I really didn’t want it to be cow manure scented."
Scott grabbed Cammie by her harness as I put the safety strap back on my revolver. Then Scott and Steve surveyed the muddy spring. There was no way around it. We were on an old mining shelf road with one side a steep drop off to the canyon below, the other an unclimbable wall of rock, trees and prickly things.
The only saving grace was that someone had placed a few rocks to serve as a makeshift path along one side of the mud. We could step from stone to stone without getting our boots all muddy. But not Cammie.
There was only one way to do this and I was glad that Cammie is a small dog. I picked her up (much to her dismay) and carefully carried her across the mud/manure pit. Surprisingly, I made it through without falling or sliding off one of these precarious steps, not an easy task as the rocks were small and shifted under my weight. This would also not be the case on the way back.
The next section of the trail was some of my favorite while hiking on the old mining road. We came to a sharp ravine angled down the mountain. Gorgeous fall colored trees lined the road and shed their golden leaves along the path at our feet. Portions of the trail were extremely overgrown with Manzanita and other small bushes. I was able to push my way through without any problems, thankful for my long pants and long sleeved shirt. Steve was not as lucky as he was wearing shorts and came out of the gauntlet with a more than a few scratches on his legs.
Quick Video: Hiking in the Trees and Through Dense Overgrowth
"Next time I think I'll wear long pants."
It was along this section that we got our first view of the Cold Spring CanyonIndian Ruins. We could see the rectangular doorway in a rock wall that was constructed in the crevice of one of the rock spires. It was a beautiful sight that renewed my determination to make it.
Since leaving the petroglyph rock, most of the trail was inclined down toward Cold Spring Canyon some 500 feet below us. The trail really began to disintegrate here, but we kept on what was left of the mining road. The Hike Arizona directions stated that we would have to climb up a rock scree (rockslide) to get to the ruins. Although the directions stated this might be difficult to find, I was imagining something completely different than what was there.
“I think this is it,” Scott said as we came up to a small tumble of rocks that had come down a very steep incline. It didn’t seem more than a couple feet wide and after 10-15 feet appeared to get lost in a tangle of impenetrable vegetation. Steve and I shook our heads.
“If this is the trail,” I said, “No way I can make it up that.”
I looked at my GPS, the ruins were still a ways from us and I envisioned climbing directly up from beneath them. That would be the second (but not the last) mistake I’d make on this hike. But, unfortunately, Steve agreed with me. In hindsight, I should have trusted Scott. He’s the most experienced hiker of the three of us and usually has great instincts about these things.
But we all failed to miss a few key features. One was that just before the tangle of thorny branches, the trail veered off the rockslide (we were under the impression we needed to take the rockslide all the way up to the ruins). The other was the small, partially collapsed cairn and rock arrow pointing up the scree (we would only discover these on the way out).
We decided to go down the road a little more to see if we could find the correct rockslide. The road continued to head down into the canyon and although we seemed to be getting closer horizontally, we were going in the wrong direction vertically.
After less than a ¼ mile we found what we thought was the correct rockslide directly below the ruins. It looked promising and we decided to give it a go.
The Wrong (Very Wrong) Trail
Let me take a moment to set the stage for you. The mining road we were standing on wasn’t much of a road. It was only about half a car width wide, the high side having been filled in by rockslides and the low side having long been eroded away. The hillside fell away sharply into the canyon about 250 feet below, while you had to crane your neck to look up the steep section we were about to climb. The area was thick with vegetation, loose rocks and cactus. It appeared impenetrable save for the tumble of rocks we stood in front of. This was both good and bad. Good because I could not see too far in either direction and for someone who is afraid of heights like me, this fooled my brain into thinking I’m wasn’t as high as I actually was. The vegetation could also serve as a last ditch safety net. A slip and fall could be stopped by a tree without tumbling hundreds of feet to my death. The bad: it left us with limited options and made bushwhacking extremely difficult if not impossible.
"You want me to go up that?"
I angled my neck as far as it would go and looked up the rockslide. The ruins were about 300 feet above us. This was going to be tough. I revised my chances at making it to about 50-50 again.
I gave Cammie another drink of water and took a deep breath. Nothing would be gained by waiting and wondering, so we sent Scott up for a quick scout. After he’d climbed about 30 feet he called down to give us the green light. Cammie engaged her four-paw drive and climbed up after him. I followed her with Steve taking the tail gunner position (and currently in first place at having to make dinner for us). After we caught up with Scott, we stayed fairly close to each other as we climbed up the mountain. This turned out to be a bad idea. Scott’s foot dislodged a soccer ball sized rock and it tumbled down toward the rest of us. All I could do was hold my breath and hope it would be stopped by another larger rock or shrub before it reached me. Thankfully, it did.
After that, we spread out, giving each other a 20-30 foot buffer zone. We would also call out if we thought there might be another rockslide and point out potentially loose rocks to the person below us. This information was relayed from Scott, to me, to Steve. Cammie was on her own and was doing awesome.
It was tough going. Every step had to be thought out and planned like a chess game. That rock looks stable, I’ll put my right foot there while I grab this tree branch with my left arm. Watch out for that cactus. Go under that tree while on all fours.
It involved every portion of my body, hands, feet, legs, back, abdominal core. Exhausting.
My cheap Walmart hiking pole came in very handy during the climb, functioning as an extra limb and stability point. I don’t know if I would have been able to do it without it. We would rest every 50 feet or so, each of us trying to catch our breath.
Unfortunately, I could not take many pictures of videos during this portion of the hike. There were only a few areas in which I felt safe enough to let go of my hiking pole or natural anchor to grab my camera from my pocket. This may sound ridiculous, but I also was unwilling to “waste” the small amount of energy get the camera and take a picture. I needed every last drop of it to get up that damn mountain side. Besides, I knew that a picture here in the brush would never do what we were climbing justice.
Quick Video: Looking Down at Steve as he Climbed up the Rockslide
We climbed about 200 feet up the rockslide and things seemed to be going well until we came to a large section of nothing but rock. There was a nice 3 foot flat ledge under some shady trees below the rock face we rested on while we analyzed our situation.
"To walk these trails, I am just amazed how these people lived under these conditions. Closest water source was 3 miles away. Hauling water and food to these cliff dwellings was beyond any daily chore. It would have been pure punishment. A life sentence."
I brought out my GPS. It showed we were only about 100 feet away from the ruins. Unfortunately, this was the horizontal “as the crow flies” distance. My guess is that we were still about 100 feet below them also.
And there was this huge rock face between us that we had to climb. We could only see about 50 feet up the rock before it disappeared into the unknown. Massive rock formations loomed hundreds of feet above us. The ruins were somewhere between what we could see and the rock formations above.
Scott shook his head, “I don’t think we’re on the right trail.”
Steve and I finally agreed. We had gone up the wrong rockslide. Too late now. The thought of going back down what we had just climbed, hiking back to the original slide and climbing this again was beyond our ability.
Scott studied the rock face in front of us. It was nearly vertical, but had numerous small ledges that made perfect places for feet and hands to hold onto. Still, it was extremely intimidating. I guess if we weren’t a few hundred feet above the canyon, it wouldn’t have seemed so bad, but we couldn’t change that.
“Let me go have a look,” Scott said.
Two hours earlier I made arguably my best contribution to the hike when I suggested we bring two FRS radios along with us. “Turn on your radio so we can stay in contact,” I told Scott. He did and we verified our ability to communicate.
Rock of Defeat
Scott scrambled up the rock face like a mountain goat. Within a few minutes he disappeared from our view. Steve pulled out his bird identification book and got as comfortable as he could on the rock. Cammie whimpered softly at my side (she doesn’t like it when her “herd” is split up) and kept a look out on the canyon below for any unwelcome visitors.
Quick Video: Scrambling Up the Rock Face
Scott and I would make contact every few minutes to check his progress.
“How’s it look?” I asked.
“It’s even steeper up here,” Scott radioed back.
“Can you see the ruins?”
“Have you found the right trail?”
This last question was critical because even if somehow Cammie made it up the rock face, I knew she couldn’t make it down. I didn’t want to get her in a situation where she would be trapped.
Time went by. Five minutes. Ten. Fifteen.
Finally, Scott radioed success. “I’ve made it to the ruins!” he said between gasps of air. “And the real trail! It looks a little easier than what we came up.”
"When I exited 'the bowl', I had to grab onto anything I could to hold onto (bushes, trees, clumps of grass) to make it to scale the almost vertical slope. When I reached top, I looked back and said 'how did I climb that?' It's a good thing I didn't look down until now."
- Scott talking about his climb up to the ruins
“Do you think Cammie can make it?” I asked.
A long pause. “I don’t know. It’s tough,” he finally said.
I thought about it. We had come so far and were so close, I didn’t want to go home empty handed. Cammie had done really well so far, much better than I thought she could. Maybe…
Scott said, “Why don’t you climb up to the top of the first rock face and check it out. I think I’ll be able to see you from there and direct you on a good way to go.”
Sounded reasonable. I put Cammie’s leash on her and gave her to Steve to hold her while I climbed up. I didn’t want her following me and not being able to get down.
I looked up at the rock face. Even if I wasn’t afraid of heights, it looked daunting. But we were so close. Time to suck it up I told myself. This is your one chance to do this.
I put my hands on the rock and began to climb. The first 15 feet were easier than expected. I can do this! Cammie whined while Steve and Scott offered their encouragements. After 30 feet, my legs began to turn into wet noodles.
“Does it get any easier?” I radioed Scott.
“That’s the easy spot,” Scott called back. “It’s steeper and tougher near the top.”
That was all it took. Put a fork in me because I was done.
“I can’t do this,” I said. “And I don’t think Cammie can either.” At that moment I came up with a new rule of life for me: if my dog can’t physically do something, maybe I, being 50 and brittle, should think twice about it. I climbed back down on shaky legs.
Now, Steve had a decision to make. Would he give it a try? He thought about it for a few minutes, then decided to give it a shot. He got to the exact point I had made it to, then made the mistake of looking down and out. He saw a lone tree on the verge of falling off a sheer cliff.
And one more of us was done.
When he turned to make the descent, he froze. “Oh, Jesus. I don’t think I can do this.”
It was at that moment I thought about my SPOT Emergency GPS and that I’d left it back in the Jeep. Not good.
“Don’t worry, you’ve got this,” I called up to him. “You’ve got a good ledge about a foot down on your right.”
Steve took a couple deep breaths, stated for all to hear that this was crazy, and slowly moved his foot downward until he felt the ledge below.
“Good. Now there’s a good hand hold on your left and another ledge just six inches down.”
This sequence was repeated a few times until Steve got about half way down and he scampered down the last half like it was nothing.
"It was that tree. If I hadn't seen that tree about to fall off that cliff, I think I would have been okay."
- Steve talking about what went wrong
“How the hell did you climb up that?” I called to Scott on the radio.
“I didn’t look down,” he said. “And once I got so far, I knew I couldn’t go back, so I kept going.”
“But there’s no way I’d do it twice,” Scott said as if that would help disprove his insanity.
Steve and I looked at each other and shook our heads.
Heading Home - Dejected, but not Defeated
I wanted to see the ruins, but not that badly. I let out a deep breath and resigned myself to the fact that although I was only a few hundred feet away, I wasn’t going to be able to make it to the ruins. Only one out of four had made it. I wasn’t as disappointed as I imagined I would be. The hike was great, the views incredible and the climb full of adventure. It was still a great trip. I guess Steve and I would be cooking Scott dinner.
I called Scott back on the radio and told him to take some pictures of the ruins for me, then head down the correct trail to the mining road where we would meet back up. He agreed.
I took out my GPS to mark this waypoint. I wanted to note that it was NOT the way to go. I knew at first glance something was wrong. Different colored lines crossed the screen and there was what looked like an impact point. The GPS was unreadable. My best guess is that it got crushed against a rock during my trip up the rock face. It takes about three steps to create a waypoint with my GPS and I was too tired to try to do this without being able to see the screen. In disgust, I turned it off. Why waste good batteries on a useless GPS? Looking back, this was really dumb, but hindsight is 20-20. Granted, I couldn’t use the GPS to see where we were going, but I could have used it to record where we had been. Now we were flying blind. But what would it matter? Making it all the way to the ruins didn’t seem to be in the cards.
Little did I know that the adventure had just begun. Two more of us would be successful and come face-to-face with the Cold Spring Canyon Ruins.
But one of us would not.
Click here for Part III (the final chapter) of the adventure
Additional and Full-sized Pictures From the Trip
One of my favorite parts of the old mining road was where there were large trees and the leaves littered the ground
Rocky mining road
Overgrown trail - where long pants and long-sleeved shirt!
Our first view of the ruins. The trail actually took us down a little before we climbed up between those cliffs
Google Earth image of approximate trails (Blue=our ascent, Red=descent)
Different Google Earth view showing how freakin' steep it was
Picture of the old mining "road" that was only as wide as a foot trail at certain times. Also shows how steep some of the slopes we would be climbing in the distance
A picture of a portion of the rockslide we climbed up and what we had to negotiate through
Steve waiting his turn at climbing the rock face
The view Scott had of Steve and I (circled in red) from on top of "The Bowl"
Steve climbing the almost vertical rock wall (about where both of us turned around). The ruins could not be seen from where we were, but they were about 70 more feet above us
Faithful Cat-dog guarding us from anything coming up from the canyon below (like there's anyone as dumb as us)
Cammie and Steve as we began our descent
Our goal - The Cold Spring Canyon Ruins
Have you been on this adventure? What did you think? Comments and updates welcome by clicking here.
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