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Mohawk Mountain Madness
They rise above Interstate 8 in subtle geologic splendor, their rocks blackened by a million suns, their ridges sculpted by desert winds, rare winter frosts, and infrequent rains... living reminders of the Old West in a brutally harsh environment which can spell trouble or even death to the unwary or inexperienced climber. Lying in a north-south orientation, the Mohawk Mountains are bisected by Interstate 8 between Arizona mile markers 53 and 54, with a dramatic thumb-shaped spire dominating the northern half of the range. For years, I studied this lesser-known AZ landmark while driving past, contemplating its rugged nature and defiant aspect. Namesake of a fierce tribal warrior, it towered above the surrounding desert, silently challenging all who would scale its magnificent walls, crushing dreams and aspirations of the weak-willed and ill-prepared with all the historic cruelty of a grim and savage enemy.
Late one afternoon, while returning to San Diego after a trip to the Carolinas, I found myself in the vicinity of the Mohawk Mountains just before sunset. Pulling into the "pickle park" (rest area) which lies below the east side of the range, I resolved to camp there for the night and tackle the spire at dawn. I was in no hurry on this particular backhaul, since the load went straight to the yard in Otay Mesa and I had no scheduled delivery appointment---the time had come for me to accept the challenge hurled down countless times by this forbidding spire. Excited by the prospect, I grabbed a cold beer from my cooler and walked a hundred paces toward my objective in the gloaming, marvelling at its silhouette against the western sky... dark and indomitable in a sea of dying fire, like a warship seen in fading light upon the open ocean.
I returned to my truck, cracked another beer, and started sorting my gear: alpine summit pack, climbing shoes, chalkbag, compass, magnifying glass (for studying field specimens), sunscreen, extra shirt and socks, camera, two ripe tangelos, and two quart canteens full of lemon water (temporarily stored in my cooler---an old field trick, the juice of fresh-squeezed lemons enhances refreshment and eliminates the taste of plastic). I also raided my wardrobe for suitable attire: thick oversized field shorts, tank top, bulletproof Vibram-soled hiking boots, and goon cord for my sunglasses. No hat required, as I planned to ascend the western slope of the range while it was still in shadow---a wise policy to which I religiously adhere, allowing the desert to cool overnight and doing the hardest physical work in the freshness of dawn.
I woke to my "Screamin' Meanie" alarm while it was still dark, guzzled heaps of water, and pulled the field shower routine on the catwalk of my tractor. I pounded a fruit smoothie before putting the truck in gear and rolling out of the pickle park. The next (immediate) exit led to Mohawk Valley Road; by first light, I was parked in a wide dirt lot adjacent to some railroad tracks, studying the approach to the western slope of my objective. A tall steel tower 100 meters from my vehicle made an excellent reference point for my return---I took a compass bearing on the spire to be safe, since objects of all sizes can readily disappear as one hikes across deceptively irregular desert terrain. Taking several long draughts of water from a jug in my tractor, I made last-minute adjustments to my pack before locking the cab doors and setting out for the spire.
I hadn't traveled a quarter-mile when I dropped into a shallow wash and lost sight of the truck. A low ridge soon obscured the steel tower as well, but the spire loomed above me and I plodded steadily toward it, picking my way through loose rocks and brush. I hooked up with a jeep trail that meandered toward my destination... thirty-five minutes after leaving the truck (stopping several times to photograph the approach), I was slogging up one side of a ravine choked with brush and talus. The incline was steep, but this side of the range was entirely in shadow and the temperature was quite pleasant... by now, the eastern slope was warming under a brassy sky, and I quietly rejoiced in the knowledge that most of my climbing would be done in the shade. I normally prefer to lay my hands on sunlit rock, warm and comfortable to the touch, but steep, direct, alpine-style ascents are no fun in the heat of a blazing desert sun.
Angling toward a crack and chimney system northwest of the spire, I topped out of the ravine and took a breather as I swapped socks and donned my climbing shoes. Out came the chalkbag and a canteen of lemon water (hydration was important---people have DIED in this desert, and I didn't feel like adding to their number). Carefully stowing my hiking boots and canteen, snapping a photo, securing my pack and chalking up, I began to ascend the chimney of my choice. The rock was solid in some areas, friable in others; I calmly tested each hold before weighting it, tossing several pieces of rock which broke off in my hand. I'm not the world's best soloist by any stretch of the imagination, but I've stayed alive over the years by exercising caution.
In the desert, particularly when traveling alone in remote areas, one must rely upon judgement and experience in order to avoid becoming a casualty in a land where every living thing seems capable of biting, stinging, piercing, scratching, poisoning or otherwise harming the unwary hiker or climber. This is no bullsh!t: bees swarm, bats roost in crevices or behind flakes, and snakes coil up on ledges (I once came face-to-face with a large Western Diamondback while soloing the South Ridge of Indianhead in Borrego---it was early and the reptile was sluggish, so I hastily ducked and traversed around at speed to put the sonofabitch below me). Even the flora can do a number on the inexperienced, jabbing thorns into the flesh, gouging bloody furrows in the skin, causing serious rashes if one runs into poison oak, etc., etc. Then there's the vertical world, with all of its objective hazards: rockfall, friable holds, long runouts with maximum exposure on steep faces where traditional protection is unavailable... Factor in free soloing, which to me is the ultimate wilderness adventure (barring close proximity wingsuit flight), and the stakes dramatically rise.
Straddling Interstate 8 as they do, the Mohawk Mountains aren't exactly what I call remote; on the other hand, there wasn't a single human being in sight as I took another breather above the broadened exit of the chimney. Solitude in the wilderness can be a good thing when one has seen too much of the rotten human race, but with it comes responsibility for one's own personal safety. This includes knowing one's limits and being properly equipped for the venture---too many solitary travelers burden themselves with desire instead of equipment. These are the ones who wind up making the local rag---disoriented, crazed with thirst, roasted under a broiling sun, torn to shreds by unnecessary bushwhacking, seriously injured or killed in the field, all through lack of knowledge, experience, and equipment. I considered these facts as I surveyed a rather ugly and uninviting buttress which stood in resolute fashion above the broad chimney exit.
The rock in this exposed section appeared to be loose and somewhat flaky, but it undeniably supported the most direct line of ascent. A "double dip" of chalk and an extra dose of caution saw me past the worst of it; capped by a small dome, the buttress backed off as I climbed higher. A rounded spur led to the backbone of the range, and I soon found myself at the base of a narrow ramp leading to the summit of the spire. The ramp proved to be fairly solid, just a few loose flakes here and there, easily avoided, like crackerheads in a truck stop parking lot. Within seconds, I was on the sunlit crest of the spire, a small oblong platform corresponding with the very tip of one's elevated thumb. The sun was already well above the eastern horizon, though its warmth was offset by a cool breeze which swept the summit. Dropping my pack, I breathed deeply while admiring the panoramic view. This was my ultimate destination, this remote elevated platform.
Stripping the damp shirt from my body, I splashed lemon water on my face and torso before guzzling another pint. Out came the camera to record magnificent views for posterity, followed by a bit of sunscreen for my rapidly-drying body. Then came juicy rewards in the form of perfectly ripe tangelos... somehow, fresh fruit always tastes better in the field (pineapple is my favorite, with incredible flavor in the wilderness; fresh Georgia or Carolina peaches are also delicious, though difficult to transport wholly undamaged). I spent about thirty minutes on the summit of the spire, reveling in the solitude, examining the runout approach from the overhanging east face, taking bearings on two distant peaks for future reference and map consultation, pinpointing the exact location of my truck (microscopic at this distance), etc., etc. As the sun climbed ever higher, I swapped socks again, donned a fresh shirt, gathered all that I had brought (including the citrus rinds), and headed for the ramp to begin my descent.
I worked my way down to the base of the ramp and stopped to consider my options. A route leading south under the west face of the spire looked to be easier than the dicey buttress I had chosen on my way up. It was clearly the route of ascent used by those who had visited the spire before me---I had chosen my route as a climber, not a hiker, thus I had angled toward the crack and chimney system as a means of directly accessing the buttress which led me to the summit. Downclimbing, especially on friable rock, is always more difficult and dangerous; one can't see the holds as well, and dicey holds seem to break more easily under one's descending weight. The alternate route of descent was much safer in my estimation. Having absolutely nothing to prove, I turned in that direction.
As I traversed a narrow path beneath the west wall, I kept an eye on several overhanging rocks above me. Not quite as impressive as the overhanging east face of the spire (my choice for any roped climbing in the future), the west wall was still gnarly and downright dangerous... two or three blocks large as Volkswagens looked as if they might come crashing down at the slightest provocation. I trod softly in my shoes and did not mentally relax until I was no longer subjected to these hazards. The path eventually petered out onto the steep western slope, and I stopped to swap boots before continuing my descent. Halfway down, I had to retrace my steps for a short distance when I came to the rim of a steep little cliff, its base surrounded by brush; I saw a steep slab nearby which could be downclimbed, so I headed toward it in order to circumnavigate this unexpected obstacle.
As I was carefully downclimbing this slab, I noticed a hive or nest of stinging insects in the rocks below. I immediately altered course to avoid this new hazard, but one pesky insect started buzzing around my head. As gently as I could, I waved my hand in an effort to dissuade this winged varmint from further investigation... in a flash, I was attacked by a an angry swarm of vicious insects, and a perilous session of speedy downclimbing ensued. I slapped the vicious little bastards with one hand while hanging on with the other, alternating hands as I scrambled downward as if starring in some comic opera. Needless to say, I was stung multiple times, and I never downclimbed anything so quickly and unstylishly in my life. A ludicrous spectacle indeed, I dare say it rivalled various exploits of The Three Stooges and The Keystone Kops.
The battle poured onto the slope below, which was still steep but not quite as dangerous. I waged a fierce slapping war with my die-hard assailants, killing half a dozen more during my ignominious retreat. One stung me squarely on the back of my neck as I ran, and the slap which flattened him must have injected additional venom into my bloodstream, for I suddenly felt light-headed as I hastened down the slope. I've encountered swarms of stinging insects in the field before, including one massive swarm which flew past as I climbed high on a crag in Mission Gorge, but never was I given so much grief as I was by these pesky little f____rs... I think the bastards were killer bees, and they followed me for more than an eighth of a mile before finally calling it quits.
Thus I had an unexpected dose of pain to heighten my experience: Nature's way of telling me that I had made the ascent too easily, and that I should never take anything for granted in the wilderness. A good reminder, impeccably timed during the concentrated task of downclimbing. Once I was safely on the flat, I inspected myself for damage and drank the remainder of my lemon water. The sun was now over the ridge and the temperature rapidly soared. My light-headed condition persisted as I methodically trudged toward the steel tower and my waiting truck. Rocks blackened by the sun offered silent proof of powerful insolation in this region. Distant terrain shimmered in the heat as I descended into a shallow wash. Upon reaching my truck, I aired out the sweltering interior before cranking the ignition and gratefully blasting the A/C. Fifteen minutes later I was thundering down the interstate, laughing at my latest adventure while steadily rolling west at eighty miles per hour.
Author's note: Photos of the Mohawk Mountains (including views from the summit spire) can be seen at TRUCKFORUM.ORG, on Page 6 of the thread titled "Got Chrome??? How about Armor???"