Hilltop Ruins - Part II
By Matt Marine
Click here for Part II of the Hiiltop Ruins Adventure!
Mike, Angel, Cat-dog and I were on an extremely steep section of a hill overlooking some hilltop ruins we were trying to get to near Oak Creek Cabin and I had dislodged a large rock. It was currently tumbling down the hill – directly at Cat-dog!
I yelled at her to get her attention, but when she looked back at me, I feared it was too late. The larger than soccerball-sized rock was almost on top of her.
Seeing the danger, Cat-dog attempted to get out of its way, but the footing was too loose for her to move quickly. She put her hind legs under her body in an attempt to make herself smaller and to gain traction.
I held my breath as the rock smashed through the cactus just in front of her.
And then all I could do was wait for the yelp as it crashed into her.
But it never came.
At the very last minute, Cammie was able to get just enough traction to get out of the way – mostly. The rock just brushed her as it flew past.
That was a close call.
I made it down to her as quickly as I could given the loose footing and that I didn’t want to dislodge any more rocks in her direction. She waited for me and gave me a look like “What the hell was that?” or “Why do you bring me on these insane adventures?” or “I’m hungry and want to eat your sandwich in the cooler.” Sometimes I can’t tell what her look is really trying to tell me.
I used my hands to go over her body to make she sure wasn’t injured. Finding nothing, I let the rest of my breath out and told myself to be more careful in the future. We had to make sure we knew where we placed every foot.
Or rear end.
It was just about at that time I heard a sharp yell from above me. Mike had just backed into a prickly pear. Angel produced a pair of tweezers (they are pros at this) and carefully picked the spines out of Mike’s backside.
It wasn’t a long time after we began moving again before there was another call for tweezers. This time Angel had gotten into a tangle with some sharp spines. As she and Mike pulled them out of her leg, I gave Cat-dog another thorough inspection. This time, she had one spine in her cheek about an inch below her eye and another on the side of her nose. I used my own tweezers to pull them out. She was a very good dog and let me do it without too much protest.
Cactus free for the moment, we continued on our descent and reached the saddle without any more cactus encounters or rock slides.
Wow! Being on level ground felt wonderful. As we rested our sore legs, we took turns looking at the spire through binoculars. My initial evaluation didn’t change.
“50-50,” I said again.
“60-40,” was the response I received.
Mike and Angel were more optimistic than me.
“We’re not going to find out standing here,” Angel said and we began picking our way through the cactus again. I made quick work (compared to moving on the steep slopes of the hill) of the saddle and climbed up to the base of the spire. It was littered with fallen and broken rock. I looked up. The top of the spire was about thirty feet above me. Straight up.
So close, but yet so far.
At this point, Mike and Angel were about seventy five feet behind me.
“I’m going to take a look at the east side,” I called back to them. It had been a tough hike so far and I didn’t want to come up empty handed. I was determined to make it to the top.
As Cammie and I made our way around to the east side, we walked under an overhang. That’s when I heard the large boulder above me shift and I almost crapped my pants. Cat-dog and I made a hasty retreat back to the safer side of the spire’s base. As my heart began to return to a normal pace, I found that a large portion of my determination I had felt just a few minutes ago had evaporated, replaced with a much larger portion of fear.
I definitely wasn’t going to put Cat-dog in any more danger than I already had. And I wasn’t really keen on going back there myself.
Mike, the most able climber (and most fearless) of all of us, said, “You guys stay here. I’ll check it out and see if I can get to the top.”
Given that my legs still felt wobbly. I couldn’t think of a better plan, so I told him to be careful and took Cammie to a small section of shade where there was a good breeze. We sat in the shade and shared some cool water. Angel looked for interesting things in the piles of rocks at the base of the spire.
It seemed like only a few minutes before we heard Mike call from directly above us, “I made it up!”
Woohoo! Sometimes I think he’s part mountain goat.
Then he told us the bad news, “Cammie and Angel won’t be able to make it.”
His words didn’t surprise me however. He went on to explain that the ledge was very narrow and Angel’s fear of heights (which is greater than mine) would make it too much for her. She was disappointed, but I also think she was slightly relieved.
The good news was that Mike thought I could do it. I clicked Cammie’s leash on her and handed her over to Angel so she wouldn’t try to follow me. Mike said he was going to come back down to lead me up the path he’d taken. My own personal guide!
After Mike arrived, I carefully followed him past the spot that Cammie and I had almost been flattened on, my eyes and ears wide for any sound of death coming from above. Luckily, nothing moved.
We started up the spire. I took a quick glance to my left and felt my stomach tighten as I saw the ground angle sharply to the canyon floor 200 feet below. I knew if I let my fear of heights get to me I wouldn’t be able to make it. My determination kicked in again and I decided not to let it stop me today.
To keep going, I needed to concentrate on what was directly in front of me – which was Mike’s boots. I mentally put on a pair of horse blinders as I followed Mike up. I narrowed my field of view down to about 2 feet wide, ignoring what was on either side and put all my trust into Mike and where he was placing his feet.
It worked better than I could have imagined. Even when we had to scale along the side of a rock with not much more than a few inches of foothold for foot placement, I kept going. We passed a large saguaro seemingly able to grow right out of sheer rock and made a sharp turn into a crevice in the rock. A ten foot tree grew in the crevice. I could see the top of the spire about level with the top of the tree.
We paused for a minute to catch our breath, then Mike said, “You’re going to have to crawl through the tree and then use it to climb up to the top of the rock. It’s too narrow for you to fit with your water pack on, so I’ll do it first and you’ll have to hand it up to me.”
It looked easy – for a gymnast – or maybe Gumby. Didn’t he understand that my back is fused and I am about as limber as a brittle piece of 2x4 lumber?
I watched Mike work his way through and up the tree. Piece of cake. I took off my pack and handed it to him. Then I went under the first limb, hooked an arm around a branch above me and pulled myself up. Not too bad. I was half way there. I climbed up the remaining five feet and pulled myself onto a large rock ledge.
I had done it! It wasn’t quite Mount Everest, but I’ll count it as a win any day.
The top of the spire was flat and mostly open, about 150 feet long, by 75 feet wide, with an amazing view! A series of rock walls were constructed in roughly square shapes. I couldn’t believe where I was standing. These had been homes of people who had lived there many hundreds if not thousands of years ago. I doubted if more than a few modern people had ever set foot here.
I could barely contain my excitement.
Mike and I began to explore. One fifteen foot square set of ruins was directly in front of where we’d climbed up. The rock walls were about three to four foot high. I could see another similar set of ruins not far away. The second ruins had a small door in the south wall. A third set of walls which sat at the edge of the east cliff.
It was an amazing sight (and site). We had 360 degree views of the surrounding area and I could see why these ancient people would build an outpost on top of this spire (if that was what it was used for). It was a great place to keep watch on the area.
I continue to be amazed at the construction of these places. The rocks are intricately placed to minimize open areas and stability. It’s hard to imagine these walls have stood unaided for hundreds and hundreds of years.
We didn’t spot any pottery shards, which is typical for these hilltop ruins. Either they weren’t lived in long enough to have large amount of broken pottery around or they had been picked up by those who came before us. My guess is the former rather than the latter.
After about twenty minutes, we decided to head back down the spire. I was really dreading it. On the way up, I’d been successful at limiting my view to Mike’s feet, but that wouldn’t be possible on the way down. It would be difficult not to look at the view below. But, as there was no helicopter coming to take me off, it had to be done.
Mike climbed down the tree again as if he’d done it a thousand times. I handed him my pack and surprised myself that I did it without getting hurt. We crept by the saguaro around the corner and skittered along the spires edge. I recorded some of this on my little camcorder, which kept my mind off the height, but also made walking more treacherous. Sometimes I needed to use both hands to keep upright and doing this with a trekking pole and camcorder proved challenging (as you can see from the video).
I was surprised again that in just a few minutes we’d made it down … and that I had been able to keep my vertigo at bay. We made our way to where Angel and Cat-dog were waiting for us.
We gathered all our gear and looked at the looming hill in front of us. It looked steep and high, but it was the only way back and we began retracing our footsteps that had brought us here. The climb out was indeed difficult and during the steepest part of the ascent, we would stop every 100 feet or so to rest our legs and catch our breath.
Cat-dog would seek out a rock during our breaks, preferably in the shade, to curl up and rest. She was a really tired pup. For the most part, she led the way back, using her nose and instinct to follow the track we had come down (which wasn’t a path you could see). This helped us move more quickly than the way down even with taking rest breaks since we didn’t get ourselves stuck in cactus gardens and had to backtrack all the time.
I was very happy to see the Jeeps again after four hours of hiking (in which we covered about a mile in horizontal distance). We found a nice tree with some cool grass under it and ate our lunch.
After lunch, we were packing up the Jeeps and Angel yelled at me to come see something. It was the biggest Gila Monster I had ever seen, probably twice the size of all the others I’d encountered. What a great sighting.
The Gila Monster tottered off into the brush and cactus and we hoped into our Jeeps. We drove back to the main road and continued on for a while until we found a nice place to stop and explore some more. Mike and Angel began looking around while Cat-dog and I found a nice spot in the shade along the road and had a little nap. When I woke up, I could hear Mike and Angel talking excitedly. Although the brush was thick enough to be almost impenetrable, they had found the remains of what appeared to be a large Indian settlement. The walls could barely be seen in the tangle of brush, but they were there. You could pass within five feet of the area and miss it. After checking this area on Google Earth when I got back home, I verified no trace can be seen via satellite. They also said that within the brush was the highest concentration of pottery shards per square foot they had ever seen.
Cat-dog and I were too tired to battle the cactus and Manzanita to have a look and Mike and Angel decided the brush was too thick to explore anymore, so we packed up and headed home.
As we drove back to Tucson, I took a quick look at Cat-dog sleeping in the backseat of the Jeep. I thanked the stars above that she hadn’t been injured on this trip. We had a couple of close calls, but came through fine. She puts her trust in me and I need to be more careful not to put her in danger.
Unfortunately, I’m not all that good at doing that.
Part I video
Pictures from the Trip
The daughnting spire we had to climb
The ruins on top of the spire
The tree we had to climb up and through to get to the top
Cat-dog taking a short break to sniff the flowers
Angel resting on the way back
Cat-dog resting her paws on a rock (away from all those cactus spines)
The ruins from the top of the spire
View from above the ruins
Cat-dog and I resting in the shade on the trip back up
Ahhhhh, cool shade
Selfie of me climbing up through the tree
View from the top
You can see Angel in the rocks below the spire
Cat-dog in the flowers
Time for some cool shade
Resting in the cool grass
Have you been on this adventure? What did you think? Comments and updates welcome by clicking here.
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