Mogollon Rim Trail day 29: The Black River is f*cking cold


Mileage: 20

391.2 miles hiked

I dream we eat donuts from Le Caves, the very good donut shop in Tucson that is “accidentally” vegan (so Muffy can have them!) and I wake up warm and cozy in our shelter, which is stiff with sheets of frozen condensation. Just one week until Le Caves! I walk uphill into the ponderosa forest to poop and find a small stone structure with an iron door, like a tiny cabin. There’s a sign saying not to mess with historical artifacts, but the sign says nothing about what the structure actually is. I try to guess while pooping, but can’t figure it out.

Right away this morning we’re on the trail along the Black River, which we’ll ford a number of times. The sky is overcast and it’s sprinkling a bit, and we’re wearing all our layers. I’d guess the temperature is about 40 degrees. The river is slow, but looks deep, and will only grow deeper along the 12 miles that the MRT follows it, as it absorbs tributaries. I looked up trip reports for this river while we were in town, and could find reports from summer and fall, but nothing from spring. It seems as though in spring the river eventually becomes too high to ford, as one travels along it. And this is an extra wet spring besides. Ah well, we’ll see how far we get. There are a number of bail out options along this stretch, that all lead to an alternate. I hope we can see at least some of it. It’s supposed to be a real highlight of the MRT.

The first ford comes to the bottom of my running shorts, and the water is so cold I want to cry. It’s some of the coldest water I’ve ever crossed- I imagine it’s close to freezing. I look back at Muffy, and she actually is crying.

“I’m fine!” She says. “I’m fine!” I shiver on the other bank, and wait for the feeling to come back in my legs. Is it snowing? It’s snowing, just a little bit. Muffy joins me, and we walk along the bank to the next crossing. I eye the dark water apprehensively.

The second ford is a bit deeper. The rocks are slippery, and it takes us a minute to get across. Afterwards Muffy says that her legs got so numb by halfway across that it was hard for her to move. Ford number 3 will be after the river absorbs Beaver Creek, so potentially deeper. We can’t know for sure, though, until we reach that junction, and first the MRT climbs up onto the slope high above the river and contours there for a bit. And here’s the thing- much of section 6 is unvetted. It hasn’t been hiked by anyone. It’s unknown. Trails we are hiking may or may not exist on the ground, and if they do exist they may or may not be routed the same way they appear on the map. If they don’t exist we’ll have to travel cross country, which could be the good open understory of living ponderosa forest or the blowdown explosion hellscape of a recent burn. This level of unknown is fun for me- it makes this section feel like a real adventure. Muffy is down for the adventure as well which is incredible, considering how new all of this is for her. She is an incredible sport about just about everything, and I am so grateful for her. She’s the BEST adventure partner!

The start of the trail that contours above the river is the latter kind of cross country- blowdown explosion nightmare. The trees in the way are so bad that we literally cannot figure out how to get through. I stand straddling one, pushing sticks out of my way, unable to see a way forward. Above us, however, is a bench of open unburnt ponderosa forest, and we know that if we climb up there we can walk cross country along the rim above the river, unburdened by blowdowns. And so we do, and it is awesome- open land and the tall trees, their trunks scarred by fire.

We can just like, walk, man! After a bit I start looking for a route back to the river trail before the next ford, but now there’s a cliff between us and the river, which rushes far below, shining like gunmetal. I can see ahead to a spot where the cliff mellows, though, and a steep forested slope should take us back down, and when we get there we follow deer trails down, plunging our feet into the deep pine needles, and soon we’re back on trail again and then we’re at the confluence with Beaver Creek. The river after the confluence appears to be deeper, and more roiling in parts. To continue on we’d ford here, just above the confluence and again, just below it. And the again and again for the next 9 or so miles. The ford below the confluence looks like it would be waist deep on us, at least. The air temperature is still right around freezing, and gentle rain alternates with a little snow. We’re still wearing all our layers. The water is still ice cold. It just doesn’t make sense to ford water this deep and cold over and over this time of year without wetsuits, especially if there’s a chance it could get so deep we’d have to swim, in which case there’d be a real danger of hypothermia. Dammit. We’re going to have to bail onto the alternate.

The route has us bailing after fording the river two more times, which we realize we don’t have to do. We cross Beaver Creek and hike cross country back up to the bench of ponderosas, finding the bailout trail and then leaving it because it’s not actually going where we want to go. We make our way to the forest service road that is the first part of this alternate, grateful for the chance to walk fast enough to create some body heat.

We walk as fast as we can on the graded forest service road in the cold snowdrizzle, heads down. I play music on my phone and focus on my feet, ignore everything else. We reach the trail down into Fish Creek which is faint, with some blowdowns but overall good and we reach the bottom and pitch our shelter next to the water to hide from the weather for lunch. The sun breaks through the clouds and our shelter turns into a greenhouse, we strip off our clothes and absorb the warmth with our skin, eat potato chips and peanut butter in sheltered, decadent luxury, laughing. We’re so hungry, no amount of snacks from our bags will fill us up. I look at the contents of my food bag. Do I have enough? In this last section, what I’m carrying would’ve been enough. But now, this unprecedented hunger. Is it the cold? The climbing? The fact that we’ve been on trail a month? The world darkens again and we’re shivering back into our layers when hail begins to fall, pounding the cuben fiber. We pull our things close to us and fumble the vestibules closed, watch the walls of the shelter nervously. A torrent of hail. A deluge. The timer on my phone goes off- our lunch is over, we’re supposed to be hiking now.

“How are we supposed to leave the shelter in this?” I say, drawing my sleeping bag around me. I’d taken it out to dry in the sun, however briefly.

“Let’s just put on an audiobook, braid each others’ hair and wait to die,” says Muffy.

The rattle of hail turns to the softer though no less foreboding sound of falling snow, and we pack up quickly. We follow the creek downstream, crossing the small water again and again, working our way through thorns and blowdowns along its bank. We reach the next waypoint, the spot where we’re supposed to climb cross country out of this drainage, to the ponderosa forest above. And we find- a nightmare explosion of blowdowns and thornbushes all the way up the slope, so thick as to be more or less impenetrable. The route in section 6, since much of it hasn’t been hiked, is more of a suggestion than a rule- the waypoint might be in this spot, but that doesn’t mean this is the best spot to climb out of the drainage. That’s what we’re here for- to find out what works best on the ground. I can see that there’s a slightly more clear slope a bit to the east, and so we start the slow climb out here, instead- working our way over blowdowns, pushing through thorns, all as the snow softens, and grows wetter, and begins to soak through my rainjacket, which was never really super waterproof in the first place and has been further compromised by the thorns that grab at me as I wend my way through them.  It’s cold, I’m cold. I’m wearing my puffy jacket because that’s the only way for me to be warm right now, even though I know that once it soaks through it’ll be useless. How much time do I have left before this happens, how much longer will the rain/snow last. Making our way through the mess of this burned slope is incredibly slow going- are we hiking 1mph? Less? What will the terrain be like at the top, and what mph will we be able to hike then? Will we be able to hike fast enough to stay warm? How long will it take us to reach the trailhead where we can drop a few thousand feet down in elevation, to where it’s warmer? Can we get there by the end of the day? This is the math of survival, of navigating wintry weather with just three season gear. There is a small warm room in my core, and it must be protected at all costs.

At the top of the climb we find a good dirt road, straightforward and climbing, and we follow this for a long time. We walk as fast as we can, heads down. We don’t drink water, we don’t eat. I watch the slushy snow land on my jacket but the climbing heats my body, and my body heat helps dry me. The sun breaks through the clouds for a moment and suddenly the whole world is sparkling and steaming, the patches of snow on the ground so white they hurt my eyes. Everything around us is burned forest, the standing charcoal snags, the whistling of the wind. We turn onto a lesser dirt road and find it overgrown with thornbushes and tangled with blowdowns, like so much else here in this part of the White Mountains so affected by the wallow fire of 2011. We walk cross country above the road or below it where it’s clearer. We make our slow way. The sky is so dark with leaden clouds, daylight couldn’t possibly get any darker. It’s too far to the next sure water source, too far to the trailhead that will take us down, out of this cold high place. We’re not going to make it tonight.

The road we’re on has flat spots that would be good for camping, but there are so many standing snags that sway and creek in the wind and aren’t safe to camp under. Conklin creek drainage is maybe a thousand feet below our blowdown road, and there might be water there. We leave our road and start the descent, plunging into the loose duff. At the bottom we find not just the trickle of clear, pooling water but, magically, another flat old road bed, this one with fewer standing burned trees. I find a spot where, even if every single dead tree around us fell, none of them would reach our tent, and we pitch the shelter there, fingers numb. We shiver inside, unstuff our sleeping bags and cook dinner from this safe haven just as the dark, dark sky open up heavy freezing rain begins to fall. Our clothes, which we have to sleep in to stay warm, are damp from hiking in them all day, as is the shelter and our bags from last night. I move items within the perimeter of the tent as rain drums down, nervous about the small drips that might make their way in. Water is like a disease, it can spread and infect everything if you’re not careful. I’m worried about tonight. I’m worried about tomorrow. Hot food puts warmth back inside of us. The rain lets up but the black grey clouds remain. Wind howls in the burn.

Thanks to everyone who donated to Francis’ asylum appeal fundraiser, we reached our goal!!! This is so awesome!! You can view his fundraiser here, and you’re welcome to still donate if you’d like!