Granite Mountain Buck Nelson
March 18-20, 2012


Buck Nelson was to be the first person to attempt to backpack the Desert Trail From Mexico to Canada starting on March 1st. Several DS trip leaders communicated about this trip with the suggestion that we could support him with supplies and consider joining him on a segment of his trip.

He would be doing the Granite Mountain section that is said to be the “most difficult section of the Desert Trail”. I had just done this route on a Bob Lyon backpack trip a month previously. The difficulty consists of bushwhacking through narrow boggy canyons, unavoidable steep sided rock narrows with pools of water, and a triple waterfall with no reasonable bypass known so far.

I wanted to meet this seasoned through-hiker to learn from him and see if we could find a better way around the waterfalls. He was taking an iPhone for communication and planned to regularly post his location on a route map and to publish an online progress journal. It seemed strange to me to phone someone in the deep backcountry but I tried it anyway. He answered immediately. He was as surprised as I was. He had done all of the national trails as well walking across Alaska but he had never received a phone call while in the field.

We agreed to meet for the Granite Mountain section of his trek. The subsequent communication to prepare for the trip was by email. He ordered supplies shipped to me to bring to him and requested that I bring him "real food - a cheeseburger, fries, a chocolate milkshake, a banana, an apple and an orange.  On my way to meet him I stopped near Barstow for my usual vegan burrito at Chipotle and picked him up a double-double cheeseburger et al. from an In-N-Out Burger.

Before meeting him I drove around the mountain to make a cache where we would end our  trip together. This would supply me for my walk back around the mountain to my car. Before returning home I would drive back to get the cache.

It had been raining lightly before I began burying my cache, As I started digging the rain became fierce. What a contrast to be digging a hole in that dry desert soil while getting soaked and seeing puddles forming in the road. I later learned that Buck experienced a similar downpour on his way to our meeting.

I drove to our chosen location to met Buck. He enjoyed his “real food” and was glad to get his new gaiters and camera. The next morning was cool and clear. We found our way to Budweiser Spring with minor variation from the standard route. The spring is diverted through a metal pipe from an excavated cave that has partially collapsed. The pipe runs half buried about a hundred yards from the cave to a low concrete tank full of water and choked with reeds. The tank is in an old cattle pen complex and is surrounded with dense willows. There is a steady flow of clear water from the end of the pipe. Bushwhacking through the willows is requiring for access.

Going up Budweiser Wash consisted of hopping rock, whacking reed, avoiding catclaw and walking on dense undergrowths of dried grass, thick low bush and cattails over boggy ground. We flushed a covey of 25 to 30 quail in this wet area.

Showers and cold had been predicted for the day. However, the sky was clear that morning. I thought, “The storm has bypassed us.” As the day went on and we proceeded up the side of ever-steeper Granite Mountain, cold winds and clouds rolled in. Along the face of distant Old Dad Mountains there were a series of big grey clouds trailing virga, like a procession of giant air-born jellyfish. I thought, “It won’t rain over here.” A few light snowflakes began swirling around us. I thought, “The snow won’t stick.” Graupel began to fall like wedding rice and then to cover the ground. As we reached the mountain crest over 6,000 feet, we sought wind shelters. I thought, “The cold spell will recede quickly.” The wind blew over night, the temperature dropped to 25º, and water bottles froze. The next morning as I brushed against my tarp I was surrounded by what first seemed to be  snowflakes blowing in but that resolved to be hoarfrost covering all exposed surfaces. Fortunately, the sky was clear. I thought, “The sun will warm us soon.” We wore all of our layers and walked on frozen ground for half a day. I decided to quit predicting weather in the Mojave.

The triple waterfall area is a series of ramps of varying widths and increasing steepness. The last two ramps are wide expanses of steep unbroken smooth rock slabs. On previous DS trips Steve Tabor went down these slabs. He recommended against this route. Tabor also had descended along a ledge of the right side of the canyon wall. This route ended with a slide down a bush filled steep rock ridge. Again, not recommended. Others had bypassed this narrows by going up over the wall to the west. Bob Lyon explored the direct route that ends in the two steep slabs and recommends against this route. The group explored the canyon wall to the west. About half way up the wall four steep open book slots were encountered. The best of these was selected. The experienced rock scramblers had no unusual difficulty while those with less experience required coaching.

On our trip Buck found a direct way up the left wall. There was a crux move with significant exposure that required swinging a leg over a big spiky agave. The remainder of that route was a routine uphill scramble and an easy ridge to the canyon. A better way around this waterfall area should be found to benefit future through-hikers.

Below the waterfalls there were a series of steep-sided rock narrows containing water-filled pools. None were deep enough to require swimming but advanced rock friction moves were required to avoid getting wet. Buck managed to succeed through all of these. I was equally successful minus one.

Last month the pools had been intermittent in Bull Canyon.  Now, from the point of entry into Bull Canyon to well below the waterfalls, Buck and I found considerable more water in a continuous stream and the pools in the narrows were around twice as deep.

At the end of out trip together, we arrived at my cache where we shared the stashed there, said goodbye, and parted ways. I resupplied my food and water and left a base layer of clothes no longer needed because last nights cold front had receded. With four hours of daylight remaining I started on the return around the west side of the mountain. After a comfortable night in a soft sandy wash I turned south in Budweiser Wash in the Bristol Mountain Wilderness between Granite Mountain and Old Dad Mountain.

Heavy showers had occurred in this area during the past two days. Tracks in the soft sand of the wash and roads were dramatic. There were flood tracks outlined by woody debris that abruptly stopped. There had been enough rainfall for these washes to fully flow with water occasionally.

There were many distinct rodent, lizard and bird tracks. Near the end of this trip there was a row of mountain lion track in the road. A single paw print was 5 inches in diameter. I saw coyote, chucker, phainopepla, quail, roadrunner, ground squirrel and an old desert tortoise shell.

During this day in the wilderness the only evidence of an encroaching civilization were commercial jets with their noise and contrails plus the most frequent desert trash - Mylar balloons.

After walking through rounded boulders that rise up out of the flat desert floor in the form of hills, pinnacles and fins, I arrived at my car for a quick meal and to get ready for the next day.

   
 

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