Day 17: Middle Fork of the Gila River


From the first few moments in the tent after waking up, it should have been obvious of what kind of day we were about to endure. Overnight the temperature had dropped a lot, and frost had accumulated on the outside of our tent on the side facing the river. We had twelve more miles of river with a good sixty more crossings.


Thus far being in the river canyon had been so bittersweet. As one of the most beautiful places we have ever been it was also some of the hardest hiking we have ever done. It was near impossible to find a rhythm on this section for some reason. The water was shallower but the rocks were far more slick than the section below Doc Campbell's.


There was a bunch of debris on the "trails" that were established, and there was no shortage of sand and large rocks. All of these things were a recipe for difficult hiking, and today it was cold. If the cold water temperature did not get us, the cold wind that pierced our wet skin did. Not even the sun could save us. We started out with our down jackets, rain jackets, and gloves on and ended up never taking them off as the day never got warmer.

The first thing we had to do after beginning to hike for the day was cross the river taking every bit of warmth we had saved up from standing in the early morning sunshine at camp. We probably crossed forty times in the five miles we walked before noon. These were long, hard, and slow miles. Regardless of the beauty of where we were at, the pain of the cold set in and made it miserable. Yes, miserable. We know that is a strong word, but our beautiful heaven of a place was now beating us up and breaking us down. The air was not getting warmer even though the day was getting later and the sun higher. Each time we crossed the icy cold water sharp pains would inflame our feet which were getting heavier and more numb. Our plans had to change. Seven more miles of this would leave us destroyed without making very many miles.

Thankfully, at the most perfect timing, we reached a junction where the route we were on crossed over the High Route which as the name implies takes you out of the canyon and instead on top of the plateau. Bingo, this was our chance to save whatever little energy we had left to get a little bit farther than would have been possible following the river. We took a quick break in a cave, realized we were all on the same page, and then headed up the trail away from the river.


There was a slight feeling of defeat due to what seemed like a bail out, but with a little hindsight blindness we soon agreed that we made the safest and right decision based on what the rest of the day was about to entail. We climbed out of the canyon straight up, the sun finally feeling warm, but the wind still felt like thorns. Our legs, chapped and dried out from the wind and water, were burning and red.


The trail took us through a beautiful meadow with evergreens peppered throughout. We stopped for lunch and started to eat when we noticed heavy, dark clouds rolling in over the mountains. We quickly packed up, threw our warm layers back on, and scurried up to the top of the climb for the day. That is when it started to snow. Small pebbles of snow started tapping the hoods of our jackets. From where we were, you could see the canyon we came from and the mountains on the horizon each experiencing a different part of the storm front. We watched as the snow storm moved across the sky and the land. We started a descent down the other side of Loco Mountain when it started to snow on us again. As we hiked for the next couple of hours the snow got heavier and the wind picked up even more. Even though, the hiking was easier than the hiking during the morning, the wind and cold were still wearing us out. However, this time we had dry feet.


Around 5:00pm, the sun came out, and we had clear blue skies. Behind us, the mountains in the distance were dark from the retreating storm making the colors all around us bright and illuminated in golden light. We could see a distinctive line in the sky made by the two storm clouds.


Just before we were ready to start looking for camp dark clouds appeared once more headed in our direction. We picked up the pace, found a camp spot and set up camp as quickly as we could. Right when we had everything set up snow began to fall again. This time coating everything in a white layer. We sat in our tents, escaping the wind, wrapped up in our sleeping bags and jackets as the world around us went white. Before we knew it, the ground was covered and so was our tent.

Timing seemed to be the key to today.

Looking back on our situation, we had made the best call to get out of the river when we did.

Each day is tough out here, but some days are even tougher. The only thing that comes easily is sleep at night, and that is not always a guarantee. You just have to keep going. Each step gets us closer to whatever it is we are walking towards. That is where pure determination with a bunch of stubbornness on the side help out. Each day is different. Over each mountain and around each bend of the river, there is something new and something beautiful.  It is the beauty which drives us when the going gets tough. No matter how tough it is, no matter how much pain there is, there is so much beauty, even if it is just found in the strength of each other. 

Today beat us up, but tomorrow is another day.

Cheers to the adventure and being stubborn! Garbelly & Critter