The Arroyo Venado Loop to Gregorio Marufo’s Vega and Beyond, the Final Frontier
Feb. 6th-10th, 2017
60 miles walked, 48.5 with pack, 11.5 without
Note: A lot of people read this report because it says it is a loop but this is about the most difficult hike in Big Bend.
Like most of these trips this one has been rumbling around in my head for some years now. I guess the seed germinated in 2006 with a Big Bend Chat member’s inquiry and subsequent trip into the upper reaches of Arroyo Venado (AV). It sat for a few years and then was encouraged to grow a bit with a 2011 discovery of an extension of the Marufo Vega (MV) trail down river from the North fork to what seemed to be the site of Gregorio Marufo’s vega. In 2013 the seedling had another growth spurt when another member proposed a route along the river from Marufo Vega trail and on up to Telephone canyon via Cow Canyon, which he never attempted.
After our 2014 Down the Eastern Side trip, that was rearranged due to unusually cold weather and forced us to miss Ernst Basin and Tinaja it burst into full bloom as the “Arroyo Venado loop”. Plan A was to start at the Strawhouse/MV/Ore Terminal trailhead take the MV trail down the North fork to the river. Bushwhack down river to Arroyo Venado, if we could get past the cliff bands along the river. Explore AV up and back then take the cross country route north to mid Cow Canyon then all the way to Telephone canyon. Follow Telephone canyon back west to the upper Ernst Basin trail, following it south all the way to and past the Ore Terminal back to the car, descending Ernst Tinaja canyon along the way to get water. See the map link below.
Of course the added level of difficulty is that the only known water in that part of the park are the Rio Grande and Ernst Tinaja and it is about 27 miles of hard walking between the two, via Cow Canyon, unless you are there right after a rain and can find some pothole water.
This would be the final frontier, no one had ever reported going down river from MV trail to Arroyo Venado much less up it or over to Cow Canyon. The Arroyo Venado zone is the least visited in the park and holds the most remote place, nearly 7 miles as the crow flies from the nearest road. For the three and a half years preceding Dec. 2016 there had been one permit written for 1 person for one night! For some crazy reason two different groups went into the AV zone from Marufo Vega (at least that is what it seemed like from the permits) during the week around Christmas and New Year’s adding 5 more people and 12 people nights (5 nights total).
My compatriots from the 2014 trip were on board for a February 2017 attempt but during the Holidays they both had to bail due to unforeseen work complications. I understood but now at age 60, I don’t know how many more years I will be able to do this kind of arduous trip. On the off chance that he could get away I contacted Robert (from BBC who I had a great trip with last year) to see if he was interested and he was for even the same week we had originally planned! He wanted to see if his long time hiking partner Mitch wanted to go and I said sure.
With Robert’s truck we could now consider my more elegant Plan B that would start the counter-clockwise loop at the western end of the Telephone canyon trail at the TC2 campsite, 14 miles down the rough Old Ore road (OOR). This would allow for slightly lighter packs because it would split the waterless stretches up, along with a food cache to be picked up on the second day. Here is a Caltopo map of the route with mileages and other important points.
Plans were made, plane tickets bought and motel rooms booked and then two weeks before we were to go Robert let me know that he might have a stress fracture in his lower leg. We waited for a doctor’s appointment and X-rays that fortunately showed nothing, he started light training again and seemed to be fine. The trip that had tried to die a thousand deaths was back on again!
I flew into San Antonio late on Saturday the 4th and Robert picked me up the next morning at the motel at 6:00 am for the drive to the park. We picked Mitch up in Junction and made Panther Junction visitor center by 1:00. Quick through the permit process and the young seasonal ranger/volunteer didn’t blink when we told her the zones we would be camping in, clearly she had no understanding about that part of the park.
We headed down to the Strawhouse/MV/Ore Terminal trailhead to drop a food cache at the Ore Terminal trail split. Quickly back to the truck by 2:30 and there was a NPS ranger there. They had received a report of three men on horseback with rifles where the MV trail forks and of three men (us) carrying water in. We told him we had seen no one and had only carried bear canisters in for a food cache. He asked to see our permit, which verified that we were indeed doing the loop we said. He said OK and we headed to Terlingua.
We checked into the Chisos Mining Co. motel to pack and then off to the front porch for a beer and dinner at the Starlight. Big crowd with the warm weather. We made it over to La Kiva for the second half of the Superbowl which ended in disappointment as the yankee team won.
Trail Day 1, Feb. 6.
We were not sure how long it would take to get to the trailhead and knew that the forecast was for warm weather and we wanted to get walking as early as possible. 6:00 we were driving towards the OOR which took an hour and then the slow, rugged 14 mile drive to TC2 took another hour and a half. The best sunrise of the trip happened on the way.
We also got to check out Carlota Tinaja which was holding lots of good water which we took as a good sign.
Last bit of packing under the hulk of the Alto Relex
And we hit the trail at 8:30 with the initial climb up to the pass on the northern end of the Alto Relex
Heading down hill now towards Ernst Basin and into the washes that drain into it from the north. By 10:30 we meet up with the main wash and “trail” that leads up wash to the Telephone canyon trail and down wash towards Ernst Basin. The pass we came over is on the far left.
We pass through a short twisting canyon before things begin to really open up.
It is beginning to get hot and we find some meager shade under some bushes for lunch before we take a side trip up to try and find Tinaja Verde. The tinaja is supposed to be in the rocky cleft left of center.
We climb up to the area it is supposed to be in and are stopped by many boulders and dense brush but with no sign of water. Getting hot and not needing water we turned back towards the packs.
We still had about two miles to go to the mouth of Ernst Tinaja canyon and some real shade. On the way we walked through the Ersnt Basin crossroads, straight ahead is the old road to Willow Tank and behind me the other end going to the Ore Terminal. To the left is the way over the Cuesta Carlota and the mouth of Ernst Tinaja canyon. To the right upper Ernst Basin and the TC trail.
I can find no sign of Robert Johnson.
We run into a guy out day hiking with nothing but shorts and boots on! We are about cooked and stumble down to the shade of the canyon and take a long break. We knew it was warm and it turned out the high for the day at RGV was 87 degrees! In a place like Ernst Basin that is only amplified, just add 10 degrees.
About 5:00 we started down the cool of the shady canyon and the cool rock formations.
It was unclear from the few descriptions we had as to how difficult the drops were but all of them proved no real problem and most are easily bypassed on the right, going down canyon. There are really only 3 or 4 drops that take some attention. These two and the last one with a large chockstone.
No water in the upper section but by mid canyon water began showing up in the small tinajas. We made it to the chockstone drop and I went on down alone to Ernst Tinaja itself. I had never managed to see it before but Robert and Mitch had, pretty amazing.
Headed back up canyon and the rock formations are unreal.
The climb back up the chockstone drop was no real problem as there was no water at the base. We made quick work of walking back up canyon now that we knew the secrets of how to get around each drop.
We did gather an additional quart of water each to make sure we had enough for tomorrow’s shadeless walk across lower Ernst Basin.
We picked up the packs and walked a few minutes back up wash from the mouth of the canyon to a fine flat bench with tremendous views all around and a bit of a sunset. Good start for the trip about 9 miles today with packs and another 3 or so checking out the tinajas.
Trail Day 2, Feb. 7th
The moon would be full in a few days and was obnoxiously bright but it did finally set behind the Cuesta Carlota and then it was dark. Anticipating the heat we were up and cooking breakfast and packing by 6:30, in the dark at 37 degrees which would be the lowest of the trip. It is light enough to see without headlamps just after 7:00 and we are on the trail just before 8:00. A scant bit of sunrise color to the north
and the ever present El Pico to the southeast.
Ernst Basin is a big place with a long eastern skyline.
We leave out from camp and the mouth of Ernst Tinaja canyon as the first rays of light arrive.
The view north of Roy’s peak up past Willow Tank.
The old road to the Ore Terminal climbs out of the washes and the views show just how big Ernst Basin is.
Looking north towards where we came through the canyon yesterday and the Dead Horse ridge we will hopefully climb back over in a few days on the Telephone Canyon trail.
Quick and easy walking we soon come to the split in the old road and follow the more established route that turns left. A last look at the mouth of Ernst Tinaja canyon as the Chisos rise above the Cuesta Carlota with the shadows still long.
Ore Road Trail
We head east towards some hills where the old road works its way around the hills and up some washes to a higher level. Even in the washes it is in much better shape than the current OOR.
Finally we crest a rise and can see the remains of the Ore Terminal in the distance in its own basin. Along here I finally could identify two sets of foot prints in the crusted road surface, only two people had walked this way in the two months since the rains in early December.
We get to the Terminal at 10:00 and spend a bit of time poking around. This area of shiny material I thought at first was remains of the ore but now I think maybe it was coal to fire the engine that moved the cables?
For those unfamiliar, the Ore Terminal was the end of a long cabled tramway from the Puerto Rico mine across the river in Mexico. Operating in the early 1900’s (pre-park) the ore was then hauled by wagons another 100 miles or so up to the railroad in Marathon along “the old ore road”. Here is a really good description of the whole tramway. Big timbers that finally gave way to time and gravity, it fell over towards me.
Cables still running in from Mexico
On top looking back towards the mine, a huge counterweight box filled with rocks to the back right.
One of the key metal features still left is the huge pulley that the cables turned around from that long distance back to the mine. It is broken in half, including the hub and spindle. In many ways it doesn’t look sturdy enough to handle the weight and tension it would require.
The trail leaves east towards the head of the canyon that runs down towards RGV, one last look back towards the Terminal and Ernst Basin
Looking down the canyon towards RGV that an old abandoned trail comes up.
It then runs down the ridge on the eastern side of the canyon with big views of the Sierra del Carmens and towards the mine in Mexico
Zooming in on Boquillas you can see the improved road on the right and what looks like a runway in the center.
The trail is far more interesting than I thought it would be as it crosses back over the ore tramway to the south and works its way down the 900 foot drop to the Strawhouse/MV trail via some small side canyons
At one point you get a view of the last standing tower on a far slope. It was along here that we ran into a couple day hiking up the hill.
The trail works its way back to the tramway line with remnants of towers and several ore buckets laying along the way. At one point you get an excellent look across the valley and can see the MV trail on the left, snaking its way up the steep climb from the bottom of the valley. I was not looking forward to humping it up that hill in the heat of the afternoon with heavier packs after the cache.
Heating up pretty good again as we hit the bottom and our cache. We spent a long lunch in the shade of a small alcove and refilled our food bags with the four more day’s worth.
We pushed out into the heat and the steep, steep climb up the MV. Fortunately we had a good strong breeze but Robert and Mitch are in much better shape than me and I was sucking wind by the time we hit the top of the 600 foot climb. We moved steadily towards the canyon before the forks split where we knew there was some good shade along the canyon walls. We stopped for a long cool off and then made the last push up to the top of the drop down the north fork.
I much prefer the north fork for its better footing even though it does drop precipitously down the canyon at the beginning and 1000 feet overall to the river, and much of it in the shade.
Near the bottom looking back up
The first view of the river
We find and follow what looked to be a pretty well used trail down river which turned off the MV just as it makes its turn towards the south fork but well above the river and the silt banks left from the 2008 floods. We get our first view of the cliff bands we need to get by in the morning, “the crux”.
Just before we push through the mesquite to get down to river level we see a fox going over the hill. We find a great campsite on a bench slightly above river level but with easy access to the water. We individually went down and rinsed the salt and sweat off. Robert wisely brought a collapsible bucket that proved indispensable for getting water out of the river later in the trip when the banks were too high to be able to reach the water level.
13.2 miles today, all with packs. It was a hot day with the high at RGV again 87 degrees and at one point the thermometer buried in one of my side pockets reached 114 degrees! Still 80 degrees at 5:00 in the shade. This heat is not what we had really wanted but with careful planning we will be able to deal with.
Trail Day 3 Feb. 8th
So this is the day that would make or break the loop. We were pretty sure that Gregorio’s old trail went on down the river but was that along the US side or did he cross the river? Certainly the banks were different now especially since the massive 2008 floods and then there were those cliff bands. We had looked at it closely via satellite and it was hard to tell other than the appearance of some burro trails.
We designed the loop to go counter clockwise in the case that we hit the cliff bands and could not go on. It would mean only back tracking about a half a mile to the MV trail and then working our way back to the vehicle. If we went the other way we would have a much harder time, with a big water carry, to go back via Telephone canyon.
If those folks who went into the AV zone in December had indeed gone in and out from MV then it was probably doable and we would soon find out. We had planned the day to make sure we had plenty of time to figure out the puzzle and make the rest of the way to AV in case some bushwhacking was involved.
It was very warm overnight with a low of only 50 but it was already 58 degrees at 6:30 am. We hit the trail again before 8:00 and began to follow the burro highways down river along the silt banks. Only a few minutes from camp we came across both a dead burro carcass and a fox skull. A bit foreboding.
We soon got a good look at where the lowest cliff band hit the river and it didn’t look too bad.
Following the local residents path we easily were up and over the crux and back down to the wide silt benches riverside. Looking up river just below a cliff band and above the one that hits the water.
Looking down river, almost there.
Burro highway, easy traveling
As we rounded the corner we could see the low ridge and saddle we would go over to drop into AV proper. AV going left, the pass we would go up and over tomorrow on the way to Telephone canyon, right of center.
We wanted to fill up all our water containers before leaving the river even though we would need to return to top them off before we headed out the next day. The silt banks are very high and steep on this inside corner but we found a spot marked by a staff stuck in the ground right near a neatly stacked rock pile, not a grave or a house but deliberate.
We didn’t manage to take any pictures of getting water but with the use of Robert’s bucket I was able to cling to some willows with a marginal foothold and dip the bucket and then hand it up to Robert and Mitch to fill containers. It took some time to gather 9 plus gallons worth but by 10:00 we were hauling heavy packs up the slope towards AV. On the way we found a rock shelter next to a large boulder, including some old tin cans.
Fairly easily done using some intermittent burro trails we crested the ridge and then dropped down into the wash looking for shade.
Not much shade but we did find a large boulder/rock outcropping with enough shade to tuck into. Once again warming up pretty fast at 11:00. We rested a bit and then walked down towards the river to see if one could make it all the way in the wash as the satellite photos were unclear. The answer is no. Several drop offs, none with tinajas, our other hope.
We walked up the hill on the south side checking out both the rest of the canyon to the river and the big views all around, note the fresh rock slide on the other side of the river
but headed back to the packs, shade and lunch after a bit.
1:30 we head up Arroyo Venado to see how far we can get before we have to turn around by 3:30 or 4:00 at the latest. We want to get to the most remote spot in the park (as the crow flys) at least and hopefully further looking for potential tinajas. It is hot and we are working hard in the amazingly boulder strewn wash. We had also looked really hard at this route on satellite but it did not show just how boulder choked it was. We would rest in the bits of shade we found and after nearly two hours had barely made 2 miles up canyon. We did make the most remote spot and just short of where I thought a tinaja might be but it was clear that what I had taken for solid rock that might have a tinaja was just more boulder packed wash. This is as far as we made it, just as the canyon walls really begin to narrow.
Looking down canyon near the most remote spot in the park.
Working our way back down through the rocks.
And more rocks
Back to the packs after 5:00 and we move back down the wash a ways to set up camp on a flat bench that was now in the shade and with good views up Arroyo Venado. We grab our empty water bottles and head back over the ridge to the river below the rock structure we found in the morning. On the way we found many chiquiteros, the tiny rock shelters used to shade new born goats and protect them from predation by raptors. This area had to be Gregorio Marufo’s vega!
We found one small place where we could again barely access the river but low enough to fill up our containers and carry a gallon or so in the collapsible bucket the half mile back over the hill to insure full water leaving in the morning.
Back to camp just before dark and we settled in for a long night with the nearly full moon. 2.7 miles today with packs and another 5.6 without. The high at RGV today was 88 degrees. If we could have added another day we would have stayed here two nights so we could have a full day to explore way up AV but our schedules would not allow that.
Trail Day 4, Feb. 9th
The moon finally set behind the western cliffs of AV about 5:00 and we were up and cooking at 6:00, 55 degrees, the warmest morning of the trip. With a totally unknown cross country stretch and potentially boiling temperatures we wanted to get on the trail as soon as one could see without a headlamp. This was taken at 7:18 with Robert’s headlamp still on, we were walking 12 minutes later.
As we hefted the packs, with nearly 3 gallons of water each, and headed out I said “boys, let’s go see the elephant”, which I think we succeeded in doing.
Our first climb was 400’ up to a narrow pass but was steady and mostly on limestone slabs without any really steep sections.
We dipped a bit and then faced another 300’ climb up a steep drainage
that we first attempted on the left
and then crossed to the other side and were able to follow a good burro trail to the top. By the time we hit the top we had lost our shade but the worst climbs of the day were now done.
With a few ups and downs we then contoured, as best we could,
around the heads of 3 short but steep canyons that drop to the Rio between Arroyo Venado and Cow Canyon.
Again aided by some major burro thoroughfares made it fairly easy as long as we didn’t lose Pedro’s trail.
Finally we reached a low divide in a broad area between the cliffed ridge to the west between us and AV and the high undulating Hubert Ridge to the east
It would be our last look back towards AV and the long crest of the del Carmens with El Pico.
We rolled on down to the southern fork of Cow Canyon’s main western side canyon which turned out pretty easy to negotiate down to its confluence with Cow Canyon (CC)
Looking west back up the side canyon to where it forks north and south
As usual we were looking for some serious shade to hide out in while consuming lunch and cooling down. Just down canyon was just such a place with a high wall. Want to know how I have such a low pack weight? This is my ultralight spoon. More than made up for by the remaining 10 qts. of water next to me.
We pushed out into the afternoon heat and going up canyon did not look too bad, especially in comparison to AV yesterday.
Shortly we started to smell something dead and I hoped it wasn’t me. We first came upon a horse skull but soon found a mostly decomposed Aoudad (we think) and there were signs of drag marks in the wash, mountain lion we assume?
Not too far above the remains we had maybe our last glimpse of what had been the ever present El Pico which had watched over us since Ernst Basin.
As we neared the eastern side canyon we were considering going up we entered a narrow hard rock section and found multiple tinajas, some with water
and one the size of Ernst tinaja but without water. Two months since the last rains and still some water.
2:30 and we come to the side canyon. You can see from the map that our original plan was to go east and drop down into Telephone Canyon (TC). We would drop packs and walk out to the mouth of the canyon at Hubert Ridge to see “the other side” close to the farthest eastern boundary of the park. We would then start back west up TC, poking our heads into North Telephone Canyon if we had time.
It was hot again and when we got a look at the very steep sided and brush choked side canyon
it didn’t take much thought to decide to just head north in the main wash of Cow canyon. So off we went with only 2 plus miles to go to the main wash of TC.
The first mile or so was pretty easy and then the vegetation closed in, damn! The right side was too steep to traverse so we went to the left knowing there were many small drainages coming in. Very dense grass and other vegetation along with the many side washes made for very slow and painful going.
After less than a mile of this abuse we crossed to the other side where there was less vegetation and now a lower angled slope. We finally topped out on the divide with TC to a fantastic view of the whole eastern end of TC. The mouth of TC with Hubert Ridge on the right and North Telephone canyon coming in on the left.
Straight ahead is the long and wide Margaret Basin with Heath Creek (TC) in the foreground.
Here is a panorama with Heath Creek cutting out of the high ridges on the west and running east to the mouth, a view few humans will ever see. Our main goal now was to get off of the lechuguilla covered ridge and down into the shade on the far left.
Finally at 5:00 and after only 9.1 miles for the day we made it to the soft gravels and welcomed shade of Heath Creek. The last 1.4 miles took 1.5 hours to negotiate with plenty of blood paid for it. One tired, shredded but happy guy after one of the hardest days of hiking I have ever done!
Three hikers pleased to be sitting down with a shot of Tequila waiting
The high for the day at RGV was recorded at only 85 degrees but the thermometer on the side of my pack registered 117 degrees at one point! The nearly full moon rose over the eastern end of Telephone canyon, it would be a long bright night.
Trail Day 5, Feb. 10th
Well, the dawn cracked hard just like a bullwhip
Cause it wasn’t taking no lip from the night before
And it shook out the streets, as the stew bums showed up
Like bounced checks, rubbing their necks
And the sky turned the color of Pepto-Bismol
40 degrees, finally a cool night and the moon didn’t go behind the Sierra del Caballo Muerto but half an hour ago, yet these stew bums had to get walking if they were going to beat the heat and make it back to the truck by this evening.
We had enough food and water to stay out another night if we needed to but it would be best if we could get back to TC2 this evening to allow for an early exit the next morning. In my original grand scheming for the trip I said to Robert “this will probably be the last time I am in eastern Telephone Canyon so I would like to explore up and down the major side canyons (North Telephone, Margaret Basin, Heath Canyon) if we have the time and energy”. That was not going to happen, the heat was pushing us to be efficient and practical.
Walking by 8:00 the game for the day was choosing the right line through the braided bottom of Heath Creek. Fairly easy walking in the wash with mostly firm gravels but occasionally we caught the wrong branch which resulted in thorny dead ends. We were killing it below Heath Canyon but had a little more difficulty in the upper sections of TC. Headed into the mouth of the Dead Horse
At a sharp turn in the canyon we stop to look at the drainage that leads up to the top of Arroyo Venado, looks steep and thorny
By 9:30 we come to the exceedingly well marked junction with the Strawhouse trail, beyond the huge cairns note the spire on the hill above.
Also note the big cairns leading you up the hill on the left side of the drainage.
Just around the corner you get a long view up canyon towards the mouth of Heath Canyon and the highest and most eastern of the two Sue Peaks at 5854’
We make it to the broad intersection of Heath Creek and upper TC by 10:30 and take our first heat break.
Mitch and I were wearing convertible pants with zip off legs but Robert had a set of long pants with side ventilation zippers. Midway through yesterday morning he couldn’t take the heat any longer and decided to hike in his fashionable boxer/undershorts. It wasn’t quite like Colin Fletcher walking naked in the Grand Canyon but we could imagine it from where we stood.
We pushed on up to near where the TC trail exits out of the canyon and starts its climb over the Dead Horse ridge for lunch and then once again walked out into the heat for the climb. Upper TC starts to close in with vegetation and you begin to wonder if you passed the exit and then some modest cairns appear. We started up the climb at first not sure we were headed the right way as the trail is very overgrown and little used but we could see ahead on the slope the outline of the old horse trail.
It then winds around the brow of a hill, drops into a wash which you follow up hill but it is extremely hard to find except for the copious cairns. Finally you exit the wash on the right and make the last climb over mostly solid limestone to the top.
I warned Mitch to expect tremendous views and we were not disappointed other than the haze
You can see all the way from Ernst Basin in the south to Santiago Peak in north, one of the best views in the entire park
It takes us an hour to drop the steep and rocky 1000’ to the wash that eventually runs down into Ernst Basin, the intense west sun beating down with almost no breeze. We hit the bottom and flop down into a narrow sliver of shade provided by a wash cut bank to air out our hot feet before the last run to the truck
At 4:00 we start on the last 3 miles. It begins with a short but straight up climb out of the wash as the TC trail goes west and the Ernst Basin trail heads south.
Pretty good trail now and we move along as fast as we can comfortably go without any breeze but as I said to Mitch as I stopped once again to wipe the salt sweat from my eyes “It is just butt ass hot!”
We finally top the little pass and begin to gain bits of shade from the Alto Relex as we head downhill past the old dam in the last half hour of walking.
5:30 we reach TC2 and the truck after 13 miles, the trip is done! The shade from Roy’s Peak is still a half an hour away and I slump next to the bear box. The high for the day at RGV was 95 degrees! See my comment above.
We slowly restored ourselves, hydrated up inside and out (bucket baths all around) and changed into clean clothes. This is my salt crusted shirt
I love this picture of a trail worn but satisfied human
Settling into one more night in the desert we enjoyed the big views all around TC2, had a grand dinner and proceeded to drink all the remaining liquor, as you cannot bring it out of the backcountry!
Return to the front country, Saturday Feb. 11th
Mitch had to be in Dallas as early as possible this evening and I was flying back home tomorrow so we did in fact need to make our way back. Driving at 7:30 so that we could see the bad sections of the OOR well. We were amazed at the monster dually camper in TC1 as we drove by and then that every roadside campsite was full except the two furthest south. We went to pick up our bear canisters at the Strawhouse/MV/Ore Terminal trail junction and the trailhead parking lot was full with 8 or more cars. On the road to Persimmon Gap by 10:00 and there were more cars on the road than I have ever seen, what the hell is going on? It was a Saturday but it was not a holiday or anything.
We decided to stop into the new Fossil Bone exhibit and they have done a really beautiful job of it. The parking lot there was filling up fast too.
We pulled into Persimmon Gap to check the daily report and that is when we confirmed just how hot it had been yesterday, always good to know that you were not imagining the heat instead of just getting old and weak. Marathon for lunch at the Oasis Café, the only thing open I think. We dropped Mitch at his car in Junction at 4:30 and then off to SA. Robert and I had a great meal at La Paloma Blanca and despite being “unshowered” and underdressed for a Saturday night we didn’t care and the beers and food were perfect.
Robert dropped me at the motel and he headed home. I relished that first hot shower, even though it made my shredded legs sing a bit. Next day I flew home and back to regular life.
Post trip thoughts:
First I would walk anywhere with these two gentlemen. I cannot believe that they agreed to do this trip with me but I am glad they did. Despite the difficult nature of the route and the heat, they were always jovial and clearheaded. Robert had researched the route as much as I had and taken the time to carefully enter it into his GPS. It is great to have experienced minds to look at the terrain ahead and easily decide what is the best way forward, like on 4th day coming up Cow Canyon when we went with plan B instead of going east.
Mitch and Robert have walked a lot together and it is nice to see such well-oiled team work. Mitch is always steady, calm and unfazed. He made the walking look effortless (see how cool he looks in the pictures the last hot afternoon) maybe it’s because he is the young guy at 56. Everyone has important duties on a trip like this. Some navigate, some trail find or lead the climbs, some cook or deal with water. Mitch was serious and polished in his job as expedition bar tender. The first thing that would happen when we settled into camp, even before he would take his hot boots off, was to carefully slice some lime wedges to go with the daily shot of fine tequila and salt.
Robert’s generosity made it all possible from picking me up in SA to the use of his truck that allowed us to start at TC2. Cooler full of beer and water, doing all the driving and even going to dinner the last night when I am sure all he wanted was a hot shower. Thanks to both of you!
Even without the heat, this is a difficult and remote area not to be underestimated. With essentially no access to the eastern end of Telephone canyon now due to its ownership by Cemex, one has to come in from the west or the south. Now that we know that the access from the Marufo Vega trail is possible that opens up possibilities but if trying to do a loop the lack of water will make for long days no matter which way you follow a loop.
Arroyo Venado is not a technical route (ropes required) except at the very bottom where it does have pouroffs to get to the river but going over the low ridge to the south is easy enough. I would not want to have to carry a heavy pack through the boulders but if one did want to walk the length then I would start from the top and go downhill.
I also think if you want to go down Arroyo Venado it is best to access upper AV by crossing over from the Strawhouse trail from looking at the approach from Telephone canyon it would be easier to come in from the west.
I can’t speak about lower Cow Canyon but it too looks to be non-technical all the way to the river from satellite views. Whether you can get from the mouth of Cow Canyon up river to AV or not is another question, lots of cliffs but also lots of burro trails too.
No matter what, the use of Rio water is mandatory to make any trip into this area. With the use of Robert’s collapsible bucket we were able to dip water out of the river in places it would have been impossible to get to otherwise. We treated with chlorine dioxide tablets and drops, using a slightly higher dose and letting it work for the full 4 hours or more. We also boiled any cooking water too. Other than the usual Rio aftertaste it was just fine and no one had any problems. With some Nuun tablets or other light flavoring it was no different than drinking any other desert source.
Even with water from the river it is a long way back to the truck or the next water (Ernst Tinaja). It is 19 miles to TC2 from where Heath Creek meets the Rio and up to 27-28 miles from AV, via upper Cow Canyon to Ernst Tinaja if doing a loop. In and out from Marufo Vega is of course the shortest possibility. That means some large quantities of water and heavy packs on rough off trail terrain.
We had an average capacity of 3 gallons each (Robert had a bit more capacity I think and I had 11 qts worth). The most we did carry were the full loads leaving AV the 4th day. My heaviest load was that day at about 37 pounds but by then was down to only one day’s food. Even in the hot weather 5 qts. a day worked fine for me, I came out with 1.5 qts. which would have been just enough if we had stayed out one more night with a just a few miles left to the truck the next morning.
My base weight was 11#. I carried the kitchen, Robert a small tarp and Mitch the bar. I used every last item in my pack and could have maybe cut a few ounces by not bringing my 4 oz. windshirt and maybe 3 oz. with a lighter long sleeve base layer shirt but who knew it would be that hot. We went in expecting high 70’s and low 80’s and lows near 40 or a bit cooler so packed for that.
One and a half good things I did. I finally replaced my old Railriders shirt, which is a pull over with just elastic cuffs, with one that is a full botton front and roll up sleeves with a tab that holds them up. Worked much better and with better ventilation. The half a good thing was I brought my low gaiters again but didn’t use them until the 4th day because I thought they might keep my feet too hot. That was stupid because a) they didn’t make my feet any hotter and b) the amount of crap that I got in my shoes and socks the first 3 days was harder on my feet and socks than needed. Can’t recommend low gaiters enough.
Finally here is the GPS track from Robert in Caltopo, laid over our original plan.
It was a great trip that mostly unfolded the way we thought. I am sorry we didn’t have an additional day or two to explore both AV more and the side canyons off Telephone canyon. Now the next one looms…