Old Baldy Saddle

Most dumb ideas require only two idiots. Really dumb ideas require three. So when we decided to camp at Old Baldy Saddle just as the last tendrils of winter melted, I asked Russ to go along. Having never seen the place, he didn’t know the trees there were stunted by ice and frost, twisted by wind, charred by lightning. Even the grass clings haphazardly to the sparse dirt. Only the mountain’s granite spine is secure–though even it is broken and pulverized in places. So Russ didn’t bother asking about the weather. And I didn’t bother explaining that it might be, um, variable. To be clear, his original plan for us that weekend had been to climb Absinthe of Mallet, a sketchy route up a tall granite dome in Cochise Stronghold that he had never finished and I knew nothing about. When that fell through I felt I should offer a direct replacement adventure. I owed Mary an adventure too: I’m pretty sure she’d wanted to bag Ajo Peak in Organ Pipe on a trip where I just wasn’t into stumbling through the desert after dark. So off we went.

Getting to Baldy Saddle is no adventure. Oldsters, youngsters, toddlers, ramblers, runners, and dawdlers do it with clocklike regularity. On this trip we would even see a pod of Boy Scouts. And Old Baldy Trail has killed more Boy Scouts than any hike I know. Nope, getting there is easy. Staying there is the adventure.

As for me, I had gotten so focused on preparing for the weather I’d forgotten that I’d need to get a 30-pound pack up to 8800′ before I could be blown off of the side of the mountain. I arrived exhausted. Russ had detoured to climb the craggy north face. The steep, oxygen-thin route up the trail proper wasn’t tough enough. Now he was nowhere to be found. Mary and I scurried forty yards along the ridge looking for a level spot for camp. There wasn’t one. I propped my pack against a tree and we pitched her tent anyway. Leaving Mary to find Russ, I gave myself a head start to the peak. I’d just reached the snowy patches in the peak’s cold blue shadow when I heard my two companions below, chattering like magpies. Too tired to talk, I was glad to be alone.

We made the summit, 600 feet above the saddle, in time to bathe our faces in the last golden sunlight. The mountain’s shadow stretched across the border, to the horizon, perhaps as far as Santa Cruz. I didn’t like the look of some of the clouds that were hanging around. Nothing about them threatened rain or snow, just a change in the weather that wasn’t in the forecast. Worried, I led the descend into the thickening gloom.

It was still windy when dinner was over. No one cared. By the time the first four stars appeared in the Pleiades we were all asleep.

I woke up to nylon rippling in gale force wind. While we’d bagged the peak, the Boy Scout pod had set up camp all around us. Their tents were rippling and straining at the stakes. One on my upslope side, the scout master’s, had already rolled over. Mary’s tent was bouncing up and down like it was on a paint shaker. Russ and I had no tents to worry about. So I closed my eyes to find the rest of my sleep.

I woke again when the first 60 mile per hour gust hit. A peek through the snorkel in my ballooning bag showed we were in whiteout conditions. Before pulling my nose back in I was pretty sure I saw chihuahuas flying overhead. Probably from down in Santa Cruz. And that’s how the night went. When the wind settled to gale force, I’d get warm and cozy and feel like sleeping. Then it would gust, ballooning my bag, making it cool and extremely well ventilated. Ice crystals whipped across the bag’s nylon skin all night.

After a long night of Type III fun, the sun finally rose, warming nothing. Or slowing the wind one iota. But it did reveal the hoarfrost slathered on the paltry trees, the frosted grass, our frozen water bags. All of the tents that survived the first big blast were still standing. And I, oddly, was very happy. Even small adventures are tough to come by these days. I thought by this point in life I’d be settled into a routine. That didn’t happen. Work life particularly has refused to simmer. It goes at a steady boil, requiring more time and effort than ever. Mary is in the same boat, working more and more hours. There is no time for skipping off to Mount Hood or the Costa Rican jungles. We take our adventures where we can get them. Old Baldy Saddle had delivered.

Eventually Russ peeked out from his bag, and Mary’s voice from inside her tent insisted that it was time to blow this pop stand. We hurriedly stuffed our gear into any open cranny in our packs and skedaddled toward the saddle. I knew that twenty steps down the trail would take us out of the wind. It did. And we settled into a nice cool walk down the mountain. Our night in the storm was over and a day full of warmth and promise lay ahead.

Mary at the peak
Mary at the peak
Wrightson 2
Russ’ first trip to the top
Wrightson 5
Hoarfrost on the pines
Wrightson 4
Boy Scout tents at first light
Wrightson 3
Russ decided to sleep in
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