The idea for the expedition began with a family trip out into the desert to climb around Kilbourne Hole. I’d visited Kilbourne before, and this time we decided to do as the Romans do and bring a gun (bb that is) to shoot at targets on the crater rim. We did a little scrambling into the maar, followed animal tracks, and plinked at the remains of bottles left by other visitors (I would never bring my own garbage to litter such a cool site, but what’s the harm of using what others have left).
I always get lost driving through this part of the desert. We have a recreational atlas, but it’s hard to tell which little red lines are roads, which are arroyos, and even if I can follow the road, it’s nearly impossible to pinpoint where I am. Lots of wrong turns and backtracks are unavoidable. Landmarks aren’t super helpful. On this trip, I drove around much of the rim of Hunts Hole before realizing that it wasn’t Kilbourne. Like I said, I’ve been there before, but one maar looks pretty much the same as the next.
It was getting close to dusk as we headed home. I decided to take the shorter route to state road 9, the paved road that follows the Mexican border between Columbus and Sunland Park. That was when I noticed the three volcanic mounts that form a weird signpost between the East and West Potrillo Mountains. They really stand out in contrast to the flat landscape around. The two smaller mountains are Mount Riley and the prosaically named Point 5872. I feel bad for 5872 and would like to volunteer to name it after myself. The tallest of the trio is Cox Peak at 5936. As we drove between the north ridge of the East Potrillos and the three volcanoes, my son and I took one look and decided we would be back.
We’re on lockdown, so we don’t have a whole lot of structure in our schedule. That left us able to come back just a bit more than a week later. I’m not good at leaving early for hikes, so we didn’t even leave the house until after noon. Sticking to the paved roads, we still took more than an hour to get to route 9. I had planned to follow our exact route from the earlier trip, but instead I thought it might be fun to get a good look at the East Potrillo mountains. So, we took a county road that follows their eastern slope. Aside from a few jeep trails that die at the foot of the ridge- probably remains of mining operations of varying degrees of success- there seemed to be no human presence at all in the mountains. On a whim, we took one of the trails and found just what I had expected, a pile of scree and a scar from some extraction. When we tried to explore a bit, we were immediately covered in aggressive flies and retreated quickly. I hoped the hike to Cox Peak would be more pleasant.
Hopping back in the truck, we swung back through the mountain gap, then followed a packed earth road clockwise around the volcano base. I took a few wrong turns trying to find the trailhead. All I had was an odometer reading, and with our unplanned diversion to the Potrillos, I was left guessing. Both turns led to a place where it looked possible (just) to climb the mountain, but I kept going. The road we wanted led into the basin between the three mountains. It looked like the setting for an unimaginative painting of the Mesozoic.
We parked at the end of a bumpy track. The only way I could see where the “road” ended there was that other people had left circles of stones from old campfires. There was also a slightly higher concentration of spent shell casings. Looking up the slopes of Cox I could see no obvious way to climb up. I would have paid better attention to my topographical map, but there was absolutely no cell service, so we were on our own. I had googled the mountain and found another hiker’s description of climbing Cox. He talked about following a scree trail up the slope. As we hiked over the rolling foothills, we could see tongues of broken rock dipping down from the peak like lava in a child’s drawing, so we chose one and followed it upward. It was rough going. The rocks shifted treacherously under our feet, with a sound like stacking dinner plates. They were at least three or four deep, leaving caverns under our feet that seemed like perfect hiding places for snakes. I just had to tell myself that any rattlers napping in the rocks would be happy to let me pass over them peacefully and hope that was true. Aside from fence and tree lizards, we saw no living creatures as we climbed.
Three quarters of the way up the slope, the climb got even steeper. I began to slip from time to time. I felt a bit woozy, either from a bit of fatigue, the altitude gain, or maybe from the sharp grade playing hell with my equilibrium. We slowed down a lot. I should mention at this point how impressed I was with my son’s performance. He followed behind me, moving only slightly slower than I was. I was impressed. At nine, if he’s keeping up with me, it won’t be many years before he’s the one leading the way.
But today, I was the first to reach an outcropping of rocks that we had seen from the base. I climbed up to a flat, comfortable resting spot and watched him make his laborious way up after me. I ate a Snickers bar, nibbled on homemade trail mix, and wished I was a bit higher up. From the north side of the slope, I couldn’t quite see over the two mountains to the north. Our views would have to wait. When my son caught up, we hung out a bit longer. The late start had me watching the time carefully, but I figured as long we started heading down by 5:30, there would be plenty of time before sunset. I really don’t like being out in the desert after dark, especially off-trail.
After getting our breath, we made the final push to the summit, which turned out not to be the actual highest point of the mountain. So, we trudged along the ridge, following piles of deer scat and came to a large rock cairn with a metal pole sticking out like a flagpole. Inside the cairn we found a climbers’ log in a protective glass jar. I fished it out and took the helpfully provided pencil to write our names along with a comment about how the coronavirus couldn’t get us up here. Hardy har, I know, but I was tired.
From the true summit, we really could see everywhere. To the west we could pick out both the Big and Little Florida Mountains. They’re still a bit of a mystery to me, but I know they have introduced Ibex climbing in their heights, so I plan to hike there sometime soon. Between us and the Floridas is the north south oriented field of the West Potrillo Mountains. Mountains are a bit of a misnomer for that range. Especially from high up, they look more like a scattered field of modest cinder cones. As far as I know, they are an active area of volcanic activity. We could conceivably have a lava bursting forth from the earth less than fifty miles from Las Cruces at any time. As far as I can tell, that would mostly be cool, not dangerous. Of course, if the magma beneath our feet boiled enough groundwater to create another maar like Kilbourne, that would be a lot more exciting.
South of us, we could see far into Mexico, but I haven’t learned that landscape yet aside from being able to pick out the aptly named Tres Hermanas mountains south of Columbus. I wasn’t thrilled about the idea of picking our way down the same broken slope we had just climbed, so I decided to get creative. From the summit, I could make out that the mountain had a much more gently sloping ridge down and to the west, so we walked that way. The way was still unfriendly to my middle-aged knees, but we had an easier time of it. I zigzagged down the talus and only had a few slips along the way. At one point, I took a little video of my climb and of course that was when I had my most dramatic stumble. I got a hilarious movie from the perspective of my phone as it tumbled down the rocks and into a hole. Otherwise, it wasn’t long before we were working our way across the gentle grade of the open desert. Of course, that was when the one blemish on our successful mission happened. My son had fallen behind me, and he suddenly became very distressed when he realized he had left his camera somewhere. The sun was headed down, time was short, and we weren’t following a trail. So, I had no idea where to start looking for it. I had to make a hard decision to leave it and that was hard on him. I felt like a terrible dad, but the fact is that he might as well have dropped it into the ocean. I’ve heard stories about people finding things like rifles just sitting against a tree a hundred years after someone misplaced them in the desert. It was crappy, but we had to leave it. Overall, it was a successful adventure, but it was unpleasant to leave it on such a note. Not only did the camera cost a little bit of money, but there were pictures of my recently deceased mother on it. I hated to leave the day on a down note, but there it was.