No moon lit the dark night sky over the Superstition Wilderness trailhead. I stepped away from the parking lot alone with only a meager headlamp to guide me to Garden Valley. Hiking in the dark had become standard fare for long days in the desert, since both Chris and I were willing to wake up and get started before the sunrise to avoid the sun and heat, yet this was the first time I was trying it alone. A thrill of fear ebbed in the background as I set down the trail, taking the first yards of a long day with a good deal of regret.
There was a reason I had to start so early. I had a wildly ambitious idea that had been rattling around in my head for some weeks: tackle Malapais Mountain from the southeast. The best way to do this would be to hike up and down Garden Valley, cut over to La Barge, follow that down to Squaw Canyon, then come up Peter's Mesa to the peak. Getting back down would either be a scramble between Geronimo Head and Malapais or a long loop around to Tortilla Flat and back south to Garden Valley. Some twenty miles and eight thousand feet of elevation change lay along that route. So yeah, it was wildly ambitious.
I had grave doubts on the feasibility of that plan. Climbing up Squaw Canyon would not be easy, there is no good trail on Malapais, and finding a way down the mountain could involve hours of route finding. Even in the dark I could make a good pace on the Superstition trails, some three miles an hour depending on elevatin change, but climbing on loose rock and circling around spiky cactus is not a quick or easy option. Twenty miles of hiking could take longer than twelve hours.
Going over the plan helped distract me from the dark hike. I ate up the distance quickly, zig-zagging around First Water Ranch and climbing up Garden Valley. There were a few campers in the valley, several clusters of tents huddled together just off the trail. There was also plenty of owls hooting to give me the occasional fright. Otherwise there was nothing to distract me from my speedy crossing down towards Second Water.
Well, there was nothing until I entered the narrow valley between Hackberry and Black Mesa. A dark flash and some rustling to my left stopped me in my tracks. I still don't feel comfortable with desert animals, uncertain of the variety and patterns of life out here. I peered off trail and saw a tiny creature, barely larger than a cat, with a long bushy tail. Think it's a coati. I passed the fuzzy little guy by and let it have the rest of the night to itself.
Descending down to Second Water was more difficult than I remembered. The trail turns from smooth sand to loose basalt rock with little warning. With darkness still ruling the sky I had to keep my headlamp low and creep down the steep path carefully. When I reached the tall reeds around Second Water I got another taste of wildlife when half a dozen quail exploded from a nearby tree and just about stopped my heart. I hate quail.
By the time I reached Boulder Canyon there was a hint of dawn up over Malapais Mountain. Finally. I looked around, judging my surroundings. There was a trail that followed the wash here, though last time Chris and I were here we had a tough time tracking it. The dim light didn't help. After ten minutes of wandering around I found two cairns that led me across the wash and along a well-trod footpath.
While the wildly ambitious plan had me cutting over to La Barge, there was a barrier to cross first. Battleship Mountain sits between Boulder and La Barge Canyon, that mountain that Chris and I had only climbed halfway before retreating. I don't like climbing mountains halfway. So instead of circling around I decided to climb over it.
The difficulty of climbing Battleship Mountain is that there is only one way up the thing. The mountain is a ridge, with cliffs hundreds of feet high on all sides except the southern tip. So I'd have to head south, climb up the stern, then follow the ridge north to the peak, and then just turn around and descend down the stern again. I wouldn't be saving any time by climbing Battleship Mountain, but the detour would be worth bagging the peak.
Boulder Canyon Trail was easy to follow. I'm not sure why it was so tough to find last time. I booked it along the narrow footpath, ducking a few times under branches, and made good time south. Soon I was at a familiar little gorge that led east, the same little gorge that I had taken down on my last visit here, and I cut off the trail and tackled the climb. It was a tough change, going from level strides to a steep climb and from an easy footpath to bushwhacking, and it took me almost a half hour to reach the side of the ridge above.
The sun was starting to poke out, a few early rays hitting the higher peaks in the distance. It was still cool, though. I kept my sweatshirt on as I made my way along the ridge. I was looking for the way up, a point where the steep cliffs ease up. This far south on Battleship and the once-towering cliffs are only twenty or thirty feet tall, still too far to hop over. The tip down here has a section where the cliffs smooth out and a few cracks show up, just enough to grasp and pull one up.
Once I reached the spot it took mere minutes to clamber to the top. I gazed around with excitement. If I was going to use up time and distance to conquer this mountain than I might as well catch some good views of the dawning morning along the way. The whole length of this ridge was still dark, blocked from the sun by the bulk of Malapais sitting in the east, though plenty of other land was starting to brighten up. The relatively flat lands on the other side of Canyon Lake had few shadows and some of the taller peaks around First Water were lighting up.
Everything to the east below Malapais was dim and scary. The box canyon of La Barge looked cool enough, but the steep hillside leading up to Geronimo Head was intense. If I continued on my ambitious plan I'd have to find a way down that. I shrugged and started to make my way north along the ridge. There was more than enough time to fret about that path.
Battleship Mountain is a fun climb. The first third is oddly flat, a weird little butte shoved up from the surrounding desert hills. Then it ducks down into a little narrow valley, no more than ten feet wide, before bucking up and down over boulders and thrusts until it peaks near the north end. Last time I made it just past the valley before turning around. Today I was gunning for the northern tip, the very bow of the battleship.
As I crossed the valley and started up the bucking technical leg the sun also continued on its journey. Sunlight grew stronger and more of Black Mesa was lit behind me. I dropped my gear, knowing that I'd be back this way soon enough, and left my sweatshirt too. The sun would be breaking free of Malapais Mountain and warming this little ridge before long.
I shimmied through narrow gaps, leaped between boulders, and crept up little clefts. And slowly climbed. Within twenty minutes I reached the point where Chris and I had turned around so many weeks ago, discouraged by a second little valley and sudden upthrust beyond. Today I stopped only long enough for a quick photo before pushing forward.
The trick to the second valley was not to try to climb out of it right away. A narrow footpath led around the left side, avoiding the steeper sections, before shooting up a crumbling climb. There wasn't much to grab on the climb, just a green-skinned thorny bush, and I had to pull myself underneath to get over. Between crawling over sharp rocks and the bush's thorns I walked away seeping blood from a half-dozen little cuts.
It was worth the tough route. I was now right below the peak of battleship with a clear, if ugly, route ahead. I'd have to drop down again to the left, this time over a loose gravel chute, and then pop out on the very bow of Battleship. Half-crawling over the shifting gravel, with only twenty feet of steep slope between me and a hundred-foot drop, I slowly made it around the peak and onto the bow.
There was a few mentions of this mountain online, discussing the difficult yet fun approach and different access points. One thing that many of them agree on is the expansive north side. I had paid little attention to that, assuming that the north side would be about the same size and shape as the sterm. It was not. The bow spread out in a wide semi-circle at least a few acres in size with multiple dips and ridges spread out. I could easily waste an hour or more exploring this thing.
Instead I cut straight to the northernmost end, or at least as straight as I could with the dips and rises complicating the hike. Canyon Lake showed up to the north, the junction of Boulder and La Barge below, and so much more was visible all around. One thing that stood out was a thin red trail below me, connecting the two washes before their junction, which would probably have excellent views back up to Battleship's bow.
After getting my fill of the views around I decided to head back. I was thirsty and anxious to continue on my hike. Exploring the bow more fully could wait - I'd be back on this mountain again with Chris in the future. I circled back around the peak and retraced my path back, even the painful journey under the thorny bush, and soon made it back to my where I dropped my gear.
I stopped here and sat, taking my first real break of the day. Supping on water and nibbling on a Clif bar I reviewed my maps and general knowledge of the area. My legs were a bit more shaky than I expected after the technical sections of this ridge. If I was to try to hike all the way to Squaw Canyon, several miles away, then climb Malapais, I'd be in sore shape to try a return. On the other hand, if I tried to climb up near Geronimo Head, returning down La Barge and having to fight my way around Battleship could turn into a death march. Malapais Mountain wasn't going to happen today, not from this approach.
There was still plenty of options. I could play around in La Barge, or head south on Boulder Canyon and see what lies down there. Or I could turn around and be back home before noon. That didn't sound like fun. Without much direction I decided to head south, following Boulder Canyon, and either check out Cavarly Trail or Black Mesa or Lost Dutchman. I didn't have a lot of maps of that area, so I wasn't really sure where I was going, but finding a way back to First Water couldn't be that hard.
Shouldering my gear I headed south along the rest of the ridge and dropped down off Battleship Mountain. There was a half-trail here that I didn't know about, one that led south a bit before slowly looping back west to Boulder Wash. Along the way I bumped into a group of a dozen hikers of mixed ages heading up to tackle Battleship, the first people I had seen today, and wished them well.
Back on a maintained trail I made quick time south, stretching my legs and munching on some greasy jerky. It was still pretty early so I just pretended the smoked meat was bacon. I kept an open eye out, gazing around for options, and was surprised when I bumped into a sign for Cavalry Trail after a short ten minutes. I think Cavalry heads east to Squaw Canyon, and another path (Red Hills Trail) would lead me back to Needle Canyon, which should drop me back near Lost Dutchman. It was worth a shot. I had water and time and some energy left. I turned and headed up the narrow chalky trail with only a faint idea of what I was getting myself into.