Peter's Canyon winds and twists for a short distance through the northern Superstitions before joining up with Tortilla Creek and emptying into the Salt River. It starts near Music Mountain, drains the north side of Peter's Mesa and the shoulders of Tortilla Mountain, then cuts a deep gorge next to Malapais and Geronimo Head. It is a difficult canyon to hike, with rocky banks and deep water pools, and it was my route for getting back home.
To back up a bit: I was standing on a ridge on Malapais Mountain around 2:30 in the afternoon and I wasn't feeling that great. Today I had climbed two mountains, bushwhacked across loose rock and open desert, and had a decent fall that left my shin sliced open and my knee tweaked. My legs were cramping and I was feeling slightly wobbly from the exposure. The five miles of rock-hopping within Peter's Canyon sounded absolutely dreadful, and I wasn't even in the canyon yet. A thousand feet of downhill scree stretched out between the distant wash and my battered boots.
I heaved a deep sign and carefully started down the slope, cutting small switchbacks across the steep hill while favoring my hurt knee. At least I had trekking poles to lean on. The descent was complicated, with multiple areas that the hill gave way to sharp cliff, clusters of brush that made things impassable, and, every once in a great while, a hint of a path. That was a weird part. It could have been animal trails, or just tricks in the erosion, but I could trace segments of a horse path for yards at a time.
Outside of the occasional glance of Four Peaks or Tortilla Mountain my eyes were kept low. Part of it was to watch for loose boulders (I once stepped on a 500 lb boulder that broke free and almost bowled over Chris over on Yellow Peak) and part was to look for a good piece of rose quartz. Malapais Mountain is covered with the stuff and I wanted to find a nice rock for Katie. I did find a pretty piece, eventually, and something else as well: an old horseshoe.
All the stories of the Lost Dutchman suddenly leaped out at me. I was on the slopes of Malapais Mountain, in a north-facing canyon, was finding hints of a trail, and had just found a horseshoe. I was miles from any forest trail or historic trail - there was no reason for a horseshoe to be here. With freshly sharpened eyes I looked around and saw two curious caves, one of which looked to have a pile of debris piled up inside.
Briefly I thought about milling about over there, looking for more signs of past activity, and quickly threw the idea out. The legends of the Peraltas and Dutchman are over a century old and thousands of treasure hunters have combed this area. If there was something out here I wasn't going to find it today on a whim. I had more important things to do right now, like try to get back to my car on what little steam I had left.
Milestones came and went on my slow descent. I reached the top of a long spine, swung around a large outcropping, passed the base of that spine, cut across the thick growth at the base of my north-facing canyon, and came out within a shout of Peter's Canyon. Clouds were beginning to pass over the sun and cast a most welcome shadow over the area. I paused and stood above a wall of thick green trees and tried to plot a path into the white stripe of clearing within the very bottom of the canyon.
Twenty minutes later and I was still fighting through the thick brush. As frustrating as dodging prickly pears and cholla can be, the low branches of these trees that cluster within desert canyons are impossible. They grow as thick as tag alders and won't give, and they fill the air with dust as you push through. I'm not sure what they are (cottonwood, maybe?), yet they are quickly becoming one of my least favorite plants.
When I finally broke through the last barriers and tumbled out onto the wash I was shocked at how bleached the white stripe of rocks was. And at how rugged the ground was. There wasn't sand like the base of Fraser Canyon, or easy banks like La Barge - this was going to be a boulder filled walk. The rocks were smooth and my boots had difficulty gripping, and a few experimental steps showed that plenty of the rocks rocked around scarily. Peter's Canyon was not going to be easy going.
The time was now 3:30. An hour to descend down most of Malapais wasn't bad. What was bad was that I had two hours of daylight to hike five miles. On a flat trail this wouldn't be a big deal, or even on flat ground. With smooth, loose boulders like this, I'd be lucky to make it a mile an hour. Well, no time to sit and rest. I pushed quickly down the wash.
A few minutes later and a misstep left me curled up on a rock slab. I had pulled out some nuts to munch on, stepped on a round rock with a small branch dangling inches above it, and my foot had gone out as if it was ice. This time my wrists and hip took much of the fall. I wasn't hurt, not even as bad as the fall up on Malapais, but it shook me. And I lost most of my nut mix. I got up gingerly, tested my leg and finished the nuts, and continued on more carefully.
Dry rock-filled wash began to give way to stinking puddles of green moss and water. The sight filled me with some relief. I didn't have a filter on me, though if things got too rough I could scoop up something. I waited until the pools began to clear up from moss before stopping and wetting down my arms and neck. If I wasn't desperate enough to drink it at least I could give my sweat glands a break.
Water began to pool up between the rock walls as the canyon changed and deepened. What was once an open, rocky creek was now fenced in with long stretches of hard rock walls. I made a note to return here in the summer - this looked to be just as reliable, if not more so, than Charlebois Springs further to the west.
With the change in the canyon came a more difficult hike. With the boulders it was just careful rock-hopping without much thought. Now I had to look on both sides of the pool, figure out which rocks to jump on and which ones were dead ends, and even cut up to the banks at times to avoid a dunk. I was already physically tired, so why not add a bunch of thinking and double-guessing on top? At least there were tiny waterfalls along the way to check out, even if they usually meant precarious sliding detours for me to get around.
I couldn't help but feel bitter about my situation. Sure, this was all technically off trail hiking, but plenty of hikers over the decades have climbed Malapais Mountain. And many more have traveled up Peter's Canyon. And there was no footpaths, almost no cairns, along my route today. I didn't expect a paved walkway or boardwalk... Just, just a break would have been nice.
After struggling along the bottom of the canyon for an hour I began to realize that there was no way I was getting out of here before the sunset and, even worse, there was no way I could navigate through this in the dark. Unless something drastic changed there was a real chance that I was going to be stuck out here much longer than I planned on. Part of me didn't want to accept this, so I began to look at my topo map and gaze up at the walls around me. Maybe I could cut some distance by cutting a loop short, or even just walking across desert instead of this restrictive creek. The steep rock walls and topo lines disagreed. The only way out was by sticking to Peter's Canyon.
Stubborn to the end I pushed on and tried to go ever faster. I swung dangerously close around deep pools, wondering if the water was even deep enough to avoid a painful fall on the rocks below, and tumbled forward over sections of loose boulders. There were a few falls, trips and wobbles over loose stuff, that hurt my knee even more and shook my confidence. And then there was the cairn.
A single cairn, the first one I had seen since the peak of Malapais Mountain, balanced on top of a huge boulder. And beyond that, a trail leading up the bank. I huffed up quickly hoping that this was the beginning of an easier go - if enough people had made it this far to make a trail, then it could be easy going from here to Tortilla Flat. I crested the small ridge, out of breath from the little forty-foot climb, and found a small abandoned camp. And a trail leading back down to the creek. This little path led to a campsite and cut off a little hook in the creek and did no more.
I sank back down to the creek and found a weird pool of water and sat down for a rest. My pack had two more snacks, some first aid equipment, a headlamp, and less than a liter of water. Not enough gear to feel comfortable spending the night out here. I checked my map one last time. There was one point coming up that I could climb a few hundred feet, drop twice as far, and end up on Tortilla Creek. This would save me maybe half a mile of distance and force me to bushwhack through who knows what after the sunset and I'd end up in an unknown creek. No, it only made sense to stick to the plan.
Getting up was difficult, with my cramping legs and over tired body, and I decided to try a new tack. Instead of rushing through and increasing my risk for injury I would take my time. I was going to be hiking after dark no matter what I did so there was no need to push. Slow and steady and maybe I'd get out of here.
The canyon narrowed dangerously and I was faced with tougher obstacles. Jumping higher up on the banks to avoid them was no longer an option. The steep rock walls were smooth and reached high, high above me. On one particular stretch I was forced to the right side, about fifteen feet above a narrow chasm, and was hugging the rock face as I side-stepped along a narrow toehold for a dozen yards. I looked up at the sky on the opposite bank and saw four bighorns watching me, judging my clumsy progress. It was tough to get a picture of them while hugging the rock, though with such an elusive animal, it was also mandatory.
Beyond that chasm and the sheep was a second harrowing crossing, this time on the left side, and I made it across by crawling and scooching on rock that my boots just couldn't grip on. Once I dropped down off that one (strangely enough, via a two-foot ladder), the creek jagged sharply to the left with a tall waterfall and deep pool. I had finally reached the pinch of Peter's Canyon, the spot where it jags sharply and starts to make serious westward progress. I was finally past Malapais Mountain.
One of the sheep had followed me and, after I got past the waterfall, stood twenty feet above my head. Wonder what the guy was thinking. Did these animals care about turf wars? Was I interrupting his evening drink? Or was he just curious? I couldn't put up much of a fight in my tired state, not against a wild animal with those horns on its head, so I simply ignored him and pushed on.
The sun was down now and I walked another hour in the twilight. I didn't make it far. My legs were wooden and I stumbled too many times. There were a few spots where I was forced onto barely-covered rocks, water seeping in just over my soles, in order to continue on. My worn boots didn't stand a chance to grip on the smooth rocks with wet soles. I passed a few caves and idly wondered if it made sense to stop and spend the night in one of them.
When the canyon was too dusky to contine on I stopped and sprawled out on a rock. I was still hot from the day's heat and my hiking and enjoyed the cool stone on my back. Shoot, I think I may have dozed off even, lying on that uneven rock. Once my eyes were adjusted I donned my headlamp and continued on.
I made it another mile in the dark, though it took well over two hours for that distance. The creek split and rejoin a few times, making for confusing wanders along side paths, and there was more than one rolling boulder that tossed me hard. After one tough fall I decided to call it. I was too tired and my light too dim for navigating this unknown creek for safely. I did what I should have done hours ago: I pulled together a lean-to on the side of the canyon and crawled in for the night.
In the meantime, Katie was worried sick about me. The check-in time was 8, and by 10 she finally gave in and called for help. I had no way of contacting her to let her know I was safe, just holed up for the night, and she knew that this loop was a particularly dangerous one. I'll skip some details and just say that the team found me around 11:30 and was able to haul me out with no difficulty. Chris was helping out the team and also helped drive me back to Gilbert.
So Malapais Mountain, the peak that I had been aiming to bag for close to a year, ended with a rescue chopper. I like to think that I would have lasted the night and gotten out of there the next morning (even though I was completely out of water and food), but it wouldn't have been easy. The shin took over two weeks to heal up and my knee is still off, so I'll be wearing a brace for the next few months to let it recover. Definitely not my most successful hike, and its one that I'll be basing future decisions on for a long time.