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Skull Mesa RuinsPhoenix, AZ
Phoenix, AZ
Hiking avatar Jan 21 2014
Hiking22.50 Miles 4,469 AEG
Hiking22.50 Miles   9 Hrs      2.50 mph
4,469 ft AEG29 LBS Pack
 no routes
1st trip
Partners none no partners
I’ve always said that every adventure is complete only when you are safely home, sipping a cold drink, admiring your photographic attempts, and reveling in the completion of yet another fun outing. It is a rule with me, never to be broken. This trip put my devotion to that concept to the test.

The Knifeback on the north end of Skull Mesa with its Indian ruins has long intrigued me. Different routes and scenarios have crossed my mind at different stages. The hike from either Spur Cross or Seven Springs always seemed at the edge of my ability given the amount of water I’d need to carry. Lately I’ve craved a backpacking trip as well. Slowly a plan formed. I’d hike from Spur Cross to the 6L Ranch, overnight, and then assault the Knifeback and return via 6L and Spur Cross. Cave Creek could supply plenty of water.

Day 1 - 6 Miles

Mary Jo, the wife, decided to hike in to 6L with me and then return home before sunset. She is not a backpacker, but was good company. We had lunch at 6L and she helped gather firewood for the night before returning to Spur Cross and seeing a nice mule deer doe. She thinks any trip without seeing a large animal is a bust, so I was happy for her.

We’d been seeing fresh horse tracks on the hike in and sure enough when we arrived at 6L there were eight horses with cowboys and cowgirls taking a break. One horse was standing exactly where I planned to sleep. Luckily he only stood there. These folks were really decked out in well worn authentic western gear. Figured it was some sort of local club. Made some conversation with one of the older gents who told me they were from Washington. He must have seen my facial muscles tense when he said that. I tend to frown pretty bad when someone says Washington. He quickly and emphatically added “STATE” and we were fine. The group of friends have trailered their mounts here for the winter for the last 15 years. Nice folks. Later I noticed wispy horse mane clouds spanning the northern sky. Seemed appropriate.

Christmas and my impending birthday had provided some new toys for me to play with on this trip. A fancy new knife (Fallkniven Idun), cookpot (Snowpeak Kettle #1), and a Kelty tarp gave me entertainment for the afternoon as I set up camp. When the light turned good I played with the camera some.

Dinner and then a fire took me into evening. The creek had assembled a nice pile of driftwood from various floods just upstream. This provided most of my firewood. Who would ever think you could have a driftwood fire in the desert? The evening brought a slightly chilled breeze in from up canyon as the slopes shed their cooling air down into my low camp. Just like the hills and mesas drain their water into the springs that feed Cave Creek, so too do they give up their colder air every night. The fire felt good.

Last thought I remember before drifting away came from my favorite Bon Iver song, Calgary, with its haunting sounds and uninterpretable lyrics.

There's a fire going out,
But there's really nothing to the south

Sold, I'm Ever
Open ears and open eyes
Wake up to your starboard bride
Who goes in and then stays inside
Oh the demons come, they can subside

Day 2 - 16.5 Miles

Awoke from a nice night just before sunrise. A quick breakfast preceded a quick shuffling of packs and gear. I’d brought along an REI flashpack, both as a stuff sack and my pack for the assault on the Knifeback. I’d backtrack to pick up my large pack on the way out. Loaded essential gear, some lunch and 4 liters of water, a bit more than I’d need but who knows what might happen along the trail.

Headed up the old horse trail and made the bench between Cave Creek and Skull quick enough. Pretty close to where that trail intersect the #4 trail there is an old airplane crash site. Stopped off to check it out for a few minutes and then hurried to the Skull upslope.

Going up the north end of Skull starts steep and gets worse. By the last few hundred feet there was more exposure than I was comfortable with, but being close urged me on. I’ve been reading Death in the Canyon in preparation for an upcoming rafting/hiking trip in the Grand Canyon. One common thread with deaths inside the Canyon was solo males, off trail, with lots of vertical around them. Looking back down I decided the authors had a point. I wasn’t going to be at all comfortable going down without a rope. Had some paracord in my pack, but ascending or descending on that stuff, while doable, is definitely an emergency procedure in my book.

Made the ridgeline safely and worked over to the fortress first. The top of the ridge north of the fortress makes the hike to Angel’s Landing in Zion look pretty tame. At least they have chains to hold onto there. The fortress is impressive. The builders of this place had to be agile and strong to get that amount of rock up these steep slopes. Took photos and then worked down to the village remains below. Pottery shards everywhere. Explored around some but the route down was on my mind.

Stopped for a quick snack and drink and some serious thought. Had to retrieve my pack, yet be home tonight (work tomorrow). Wasn’t going down the way I came up. Other routes off the north and west sides looked possible and I was sure some were, but which? If I cliffed out, then what? If I broke something in a fall, THEN what? I had calculated the mileage and time to go off the south end of Skull via the trail I was familiar with, then Cottonwood to the Creek and then north to 6L and then back down to Spur Cross. If I moved now and with a purpose I had the time and water. If I attempted a direct descent back to 6L and failed then that option was lost to me. Two risky miles or eight fairly safe familiar miles.

I remembered my prime directive. And what the heck, I was here to hike right? So across the mesa I went, then down to the intersection with the Cottonwood. Managed to get a cell phone call out from the top of Skull. Answering machine at home of course, but at least the new plan was communicated. Kept doing the math. Sunset vs miles to go and how fast I needed to move. Always carry a nice headlamp, but I hate hiking after dark though the last few miles into Spur Cross could be done in the dark, so there was a cushion there. Water and my own energy level were the other factors.

Cottonwood is all rollercoaster west of the intersection with the Skull ascent. Seems forever and the footing never gets good. Did a little work on my feet where some hot spots were forming. Leukotape P is my replacement for moleskin. It’s inexpensive and fantastic. Stands up to both wear and water.

Finally made the Creek, turned north and moved. Suck my camelback dry as I hit the first fence at 6L. Changed socks (never anything but smart wool and always a spare pair), reconfigured the packs, filtered enough water to gulp down a liter and carry two more for the hasty exit to Spur Cross.

A pack of coyotes serenaded my last mile into Spur Cross. Wasn’t sure if they were complaining about me or congratulating me. More likely they had just caught a rabbit dinner and cared not one iota about us hikers. But I liked their tune either way.

Tossed the pack in the Jeep 30 minutes before sunset and pulled into the garage looking at one of those Arizona Highways sunset scenes. Cold drink, download the photos, tell the wife about the fun I had. Tomorrow is back to the grind. Today is one of those you remember. Done the Knifeback. Hmmm, Sugarloaf looked pretty cool in the afternoon sun.
All you have is your fire...
And the place you need to reach
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