|Signal Peak & Black Peak & the Twin Sisters, NM|| |
Signal Peak & Black Peak & the Twin Sisters, NM
|Hiking||13.29 Miles|| 8 Hrs 11 Mns ||1.73 mph|
|4,003 ft AEG|| 29 Mns Break|
||no linked trail guides|
|Day 5 (NM Peak Bagging Trip, Part 2)
With a 3+ hour drive ahead of me and a full week of working beginning bright and early the next morning, the last thing I wanted was for my final hike to turn in to some wild bushwhack adventure, resulting in several extra hours of hiking and arriving back at the Forester well after dark. Thus, I’d planned what I thought would be a relatively straightforward “exit hike”… let’s just say, today’s adventure gave me the best of all worlds: from a trail that someone who’s never hiked before can follow with ease to several miles of “blind” bushwhacking; and from cruising along excellent stretches of dirt & pine-covered slopes, to performing a Class 4 climb and what was no doubt the equivalent of a Class 5 bushwhack, this adventure truly had a little of everything. To top it all off, [not only did it turn into an awesome bushwhack adventure], I also somehow managed to make it back to Elign at a very reasonable hour [~7:30 PM].
The initial game plan was a super-straightforward out-and-back hike, involving very little bushwhacking [10% tops according to my pre-hike GPS route planning calculations]; and consisted of the following:
1. Take the Signal Peak trail to Signal Peak / the Signal Peak Lookout
2. Then pick up the Continental Divide Trail [CDT] heading towards Black Peak
3. “Bushwack” the uber short distance up one of MANY well-defined routes to the summit of Black Peak and then back down to the CDT
4. Continue Southward along the CDT toward the Twin Sisters
5. “Bushwhack” to the top of each ‘Sister’ via one of MANY well-defined routes that are very clear from satellite imagery
6. Retrace my steps back along the CDT and then back along the Signal Peak trail to get back to my vehicle
As they say, ‘The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry…’ In a nutshell, things started to ‘go awry’ after item #3 above… and what was supposed to be an out-and-back type of adventure with a maximum of 10% off-trail turned in to a true loop type of ‘course’ w/ a thrilling bushwhack return, resulting in just over 50% of the adventure taking place off-trail. The above items played out as follows –
1. It’s not hard to see why the Signal Peak Trail / Signal Peak / Signal Peak Lookout came up in several of my online searches while researching quality summit hikes in the area. The trail is very well maintained, exceptionally easy to follow, and it doesn’t dick around, taking you from the TH that sits at just under 7,300’ feet to the summit which sits just below 9,000’ in 2.5 miles. I thoroughly enjoyed the workout and found it similar to one of my favorite trails in the Santa Ritas, (which would be the Vault Mine Trail ); although the Signal Peak Trail felt slightly less steep, had a lot more shade and MUCH better footing. While I didn’t find the distance views from the peak to be overly impressive, the summit area was very peaceful and nicely laid out. Near the base of the lookout tower under the shade cover of the trees is a picnic area, equipped with bench & grill, and trash can; and on the sunny side of the summit is a nice helipad. There are also some very large solar panels, radio towers, an old shed… there’s lots to check out up on this summit! I wasn’t able to find a register but located two nice survey markers. The sign at the base of the Lookout seems to imply that it’s fine for visitors to climb up as long as it’s outside of fire season; exact wording =
USFS Work Station
During Fire Season
As nice as it would’ve to climb up, I noticed some bees flying around mid-way up [and could hear the buzzing from the ground]. They were minding their biz, and the last thing I wanted to do was head straight toward what appeared to be their territory. Besides, I touched down on the highest natural surface [boulders] in question and that was good enough for me.
2. Heading SE off Signal Peak, the Signal Peak Trail overlaps with the service road that leads up to the Lookout for the first quarter mile or so, at which point it diverges; and about 0.75 miles after that is a well-marked junction where I picked up the CDT for a little of 1/2 mile before departing from the trail for the super short “bushwhack” to the summit of Black Peak. The stretch of trail from Signal Peak to Black Peak is well-marked and easy to follow; but its around this point that the fire damage really starts to jump out at you… folks who tend to get rather sensitive over the sight / talk of fire damage will probably want to keep clear of this area and retrace their steps after visiting Signal Peak…
3. The small summit of Black Peak was not nearly as nice as that of Signal Peak. With a tree cover in most directions, there were far fewer views and they were not nearly as nice. There were a couple of old, run-down sheds along with some newer looking solar panels & radio towers, [which made it was fun to have some things to check out]; but they too were not nearly as nice or interesting as the beautiful lookout or the helipad atop Signal. Like with Signal Peak, I was also able to locate two survey markers atop Black Peak. And, aside from my first peak of the trip [Attorney Mountain], Black Peak was the only other where I was able to find a register. Given that the 9,000’+ peak also has over 2,300’ of prominence [and is therefore very popular with true peak-baggers], I would’ve been more surprised to not find a register. There were quite a few names in the small log book, [which was getting rather full], and I wasn’t in the mood to read it in detail like I often do when there are only a handful of sign-ins. However, in very quickly flipping through, I noticed a couple of the guns in the AZ peak-bagging circle: Bob Packard [who summited in November of 2005] and John Klein [who summited very recently at the end of March of this year]. The register was sitting out in the open on a slab of concrete by the base of one of the old sheds, and it was tipped upside down. On one of the pages in the log, someone had written, “leave the can upside down keep rain out.” Forget about the rain, I’m surprised a strong gust of wind hadn’t come along and taken the small jar half-way down the mountain… or cause it to shattered on the concrete. I decided that some register duty was very much in order. First I took a medium-sized plastic bag from my hiking pack and put the jar inside that to add an extra layer of protection. There was nothing wrong with the lid that I could see, but if you didn’t secure it just right, then I could see how water could get in. Next I returned the jar to its spot against the shed on the slab of concrete, [and in the upside down position]; and lastly I placed three small to mid-sized rocks around the other sides so that it wouldn’t get taken away by strong wind.
4. The next segment of the journey was where things started to go South, both figuratively and literally. After the super short descent from Black Peak and back to the CDT, the trail was supposed to head Southwest… but I soon got an overpowering sense that it was leading me in the wrong direction. Sure enough, a quick GPS check revealed that I was headed Northwest. Oddly enough, neither Cal nor FS Topo show any other trails in this area… and after bushwhacking the short distance back over to where the CDT should’ve been, the path that the trail was supposed to be following [according to the topo maps], was not at all obvious. There were occasional stretches spanning about 10-40 feet that resembled trail; but I’m talking bare resemblance… in fact, if I were bushwhacking and suddenly encountered this section of “trail”, I likely wouldn’t even notice it, [and at best assume that I’d happened upon a short, faint animal route]. By this stage of the game, I was literally hiking with Route Scout topo in hand and constantly checking my track against what I’d drawn up for myself pre-hike in order to stay on course.
Granted, the confusing section of trail runs through an area that experienced some pretty extensive fire damage… but oddly enough, a short while later, [while still not out of the clear of the fire damaged area], I suddenly came upon what appeared to be the main trail. Not only was it extremely well-defined, according to both Cal & FS Topo, there aren’t any other trails around; thus, I figured it had to be the trail I should be following… yet once, about a tenth of a mile later, I got an overpowering sense that it was leading me in the wrong direction; and yet again, a quick GPS check revealed that I was right. This time, whatever type of trail I had picked up was taking me Southeast instead of Southwest.
After that, I was sick and tired of trying to find the damn trail whose existence was almost entirely obliterated… and it would be a total understatement to say that I was not having a particularly fun time hiking with phone in hand in order to perform constant GPS cross-checks to stay on course. In fact, I was not even halfway through the hike in terms of both total time and total distance; yet the battery life on my phone was already drained to just 49%; enough said! By this point, I decided to take matters into my own hands and proceeded to bushwhack in the general direction that the trail was supposed to be going; and I started having a much more enjoyable time. Occasionally I would run into very faint segments that vaguely resembled trail, and I half wondered if it was in fact the trail or just an animal route… a few of these times I actually spotted the little metal sign, [indicating that you’re on the CDT], secured to a tree situated right by the side of what now barely resembles a trail. For a section of “National Scenic Trail” that’s located just 10-11 air-miles outside of Silver City, the conditions were appalling to say the least… but even more appalling was the lack of any kind of sign by the popular Signal Peak TH to warn hikers of the nonexistent trail conditions a little further up…
By the saddle area to the NE of the Twin Sisters, there is a well-marked trail junction; and oddly enough, it’s around this point that the trail rather suddenly goes from nonexistent to completely obvious. However, already in bushwacking mode, I decided to just head along the ridge leading to the first of the Twin Sisters vs. staying on the trail and then making a shorter, steeper ascent via the Western flank.
5. From a distance, there looked to be a huge, fairly vertical outcropping that I thought would need to be skirted. However, the well-defined route I’d picked up headed straight for it, and as I approached, I could see that the angle was just gradual enough to potentially make it doable. Upon reaching the slab and examining the quality of the rock, I knew that the very good grip would allow it to be easily doable. That said, while the maneuvers proved fun and easy, my guess would be Class 3 due to a bit of an exposure factor. After the rock slab, I continue along the route for the short rest of the way to the summit. The views were actually very decent… better than both Signal Peak and Black Peak as far as I was concerned. As for a register & survey markers, my guess would be no to both, but I didn’t exactly give it a fair search… despite very little brush on the ascent, the summit was badly overgrown. The other super brushy spots I blasted through up to that point of my trip had been thick from the waist up, [but on the light side from the waist down and didn’t even come close to requiring shin guards]. However, the summit of the North most Twin Sister had primarily the type of brush that is extremely thick from the waist down, [including some bright green, bush-like shrub that had me thinking: SNAKE HAVEN…!]. Luckily the summit also had several small to mid sized boulders. Although I wasn’t exactly sure which one was the highpoint, the thought of snakes lurking below had me setting foot on all of the summit’s tallest boulders by default!
For my descent, I was planning to continue Southward and hit up the other ‘Sister’ which was the lower of the two, but the thick brush in that direction was making me very uneasy, given the snake potential. As luck would have it, I noticed what appeared to be a faint route in the direction I planned to go and I hopped on it. The route was actually very well blazed but appeared faint at first glance due to the surrounding brush, [which luckily faded to nothing not more than 0.05 miles into my descent]. There were several areas that had been mined, [which explained the excellent routes]; and at the base of a very large hole I encountered mid-way down, [which had been mostly filled in], there was literally a small wooden bench to rest on. It was actually rather amusing… not more than 2 minutes earlier, I was bracing myself for a bushwhack from hell, only to encounter many well-blazed routes – and a freakin’ bench – mid-way down the small mountain in an area that was supposed to be ‘off-trail.’
As I continued my descent, what initially appeared to be just a massive rock outcropping suddenly came into full view, and it immediately because obvious as to why the Twin Sisters earned the name: the massive slab of white rock proved to be a little more than just some huge outcropping; it literally comprises the entire saddle area between the two summits, making it appear as if they are fused together with cement/glue. The rock slab is very large and wide enough that you can walk right on out and most of the way across without feeling any exposure. It’s also very beautiful; and there are other boulders atop the main slab, as well as a few full out trees sprouting right up out of the rock. While formations like this are probably quite common in areas like Yosemite / parts of Utah, it’s not very often that I get to experience something this neat; and as someone who loves rocks/boulders, I found it especially awesome and could not have asked for a better summit / surprise to conclude my trip.
After simply walking about 80% of the way across the rock slab saddle that separates the two sisters, there’s unfortunately a large gap in the main rock that would definitely require ropes/gear for the normal person to safely get across. Luckily, there appeared to be several rather doable exit spots off the West side of the rock slab saddle, which would then allow the cliffy gap to easily be circumvented by contouring around via the pine-covered slopes to the West. I opted for one of the first exit sports I could find, which was a short, moderately dicey, [but super fun], Class 4 climb. Given just how well routed the area is by the rock slab saddle, I’m guessing that other less dicey options exist.
Once off the saddle, I followed a route up the soft, steep slope for the short rest of the way to the summit. Go figure, after encountering little to no brush on the way up, the summit area was extremely brushy [upper body type of brush]; and there were no views to be had from the summit area. I touched down on the handful of highpoints in question and then headed down. While the summits of the Twin Sisters were less than impressive, the ascents / descents were a total blast, and the saddle area joining the two sisters was one of the neatest things I’ve encountered to date.
6. As if I hadn’t had enough adventure already, my bushwhack return proved to be an adventure in its own right. As noted previously, I did not stick with my original plan of an out & back. Unlike most occasions where my good intention to stay on trail is overpowered by the fun involved with heading off the beaten path, [along with the opportunity to return via a different route], I was fully intending to return by way of the trail on this adventure… however, no way in hell was I repeating the 1.5+ mile stretch where the trail all but disappears as it heads up toward Black Peak. Thus, without a second though, I proceeded to execute a mostly *blind bushwhack return. *The topo was being finicky and as a result, all I had to guide me in the direction of my planned return, [in terms of GPS assistance], was my starting waypoint… along with the waypoint I strategically added during my hike as a “mid-way” point to help keep myself on track, which I’d pinged with the help of the physical topo map that John Klein had left on the summit of Black Peak, in combination with the small slice of topo map that Route Scout had successfully displayed…
…come to think of it, having pinged the waypoint from Black Peak meant that I did so before encountering the severely fire-damaged stretch where the trail was nonexistent… so apparently I was already toying with the idea of a bushwhack return even before the shitty trail conditions.
Aside from one very short, [but absolutely hellacious] stretch of just over 0.40 miles, (which involved blasting through some of the hands-down worst brush I’ve encountered, EVER ), the return trip was a total blast and incredibly smooth sailing. And after having the opportunity to review my track upon my return, [i.e. with the topo contours fully displayed in the background], I was rather impressed with how well I’d executed the bushwhack, especially in a situation where push came to shove… now if only I could learn to tap into that potential in normal situations [when the topo IS displayed in full along with my route]…
…as for the hellish bushwhack, it took place just after passing by my midway way-point. I had decided to head out of a drainage and up & over the rather brushy looking ridge in front of me. I guess I was having a bit too much fun with using the ‘line of sight’ method in combination with just the two waypoints to guide my return; and, [although I could see other parts of the ridge with much less brush], I figured that at the very worst, the more direct line I was about to make would involve a little zigzagging as I worked my way along overgrown animal routes to circumvent the extremely brushy spots. Similar to how animal routes in a drainage tend to rather suddenly start banking out altogether as a tall waterfall is approached, I should’ve taken the hint early on when all of the animals in my near vicinity literally dead-ended or diverged. All I can say is, in addition to gloves, safety goggles, head-butting brush, crawling on all fours, etc.; this short bushwhack from hell took things to an extreme. During the 0.40 mile of brushy madness leading up to the ridge, more time was spent on all fours than on two feet… and, [after bagging several hundred peaks, logging several hundred miles, and spending countless hours hiking in the 8-10 pairs of Five Ten Camp Fours that I’ve gone through since I started wearing them two years ago], it was the first time ever that my trusty partners in crime were penetrated. It occurred mid-way during my ascent. Desperate for relief from the brushy abyss, I decided to try walking over a small patch of Agaves… trust me when I say: this tactic is best saved for the shin daggers!