Kino Peak 3197′
Total Time: 6 hours
Roundtrip Mileage: ~13 miles
Elevation Gain: 2400′
Crux: Class III
Trailhead: Bates Well Road, no services, high clearance needed
Kino Peak is arguably the most dangerous peak in the Sierra Club’s Desert Peak Section (DPS) Peak List. The danger doesn’t stem from the typical hazards of a remote desert scramble, but rather it’s proximity to the Mexican border and location along an established drug-running route. In 2002 park ranger Kris Eggle was shot and killed in the park while pursuing members of a drug cartel, resulting in a closure of 75% of the park in the interest of public safety. For years, only the eastern portion of the park was accessible, and Kino Peak was “suspended” from the list, technically illegal to climb with the closure in effect. In response to Kris Eggle’s death, the park service began construction of a border wall in early 2004, completed 3 years later at the end of 2006. Hardly the wall of Trump’s dream, the steel fence stands about 3-4′ high and mostly serves as a barrier for illegal off-road vehicle travel from the border across the monument, while still allowing animals, and people, easy passage through. The border patrol presence of the area increased from 50 officers to nearly 500, and multiple towers were built along the monument border. Finally, after 11 years, the park service announced the illegal activity through the area had dramatically decreased to the point that the entire monument would reopen to the public, and Kino Peak was reinstated on the DPS list shortly thereafter. Now, as I mentioned, the border wall does nothing to slow foot traffic across the monument. In fact, a quick glance at a map shows the mountains form a natural funnel into the Bates Mountains and the canyon just below Kino Peak.
Climbers that have been through the area since it was reinstated report fresh trash, suggesting that although illegal trafficking had decreased, it still continued through the park (although no climbers had reported a direct encounter in that time frame). Looking at the route options, it looked as though an approach from the NW (often referred to as DPS Route B), would avoid the trafficked canyon and minimize the chance of any unwanted encounters. I also reasoned that movement would be more likely to occur at night when it was cooler and there was less chance of being seen. Furthermore, these drug runners make a living off not being seen, and confrontation is bad for business. They’re just as likely to run from me as I am from them. These were all the arguments I ran through over and over as I drove in the dark down AZ Route 85 south towards the monument from Phoenix. Just through the town of Ajo, I turned onto Darby Mine Road and drove ~20 miles on a good dirt road onto the northern edge of the monument just north of the peak. I drove another 2 miles past Bates Well, a historic desert ranch at the mouth of the canyon where Border Patrol will sometimes set up camp to catch people traveling north through the main canyon. I parked at an old closed dirt track angled south off the main road and left a note for Border Patrol about who I was, what I was doing, and when I expected to return. I started off through the desert around a maze of small volcanic hills, more or less aiming directly towards Kino Peak ahead. It wasn’t long before I encountered the park’s namesake Organ Pipe Cactus, a feature that would be present the remainder of the route.
I thought that the only chance of me encountering anyone would be in the open desert from my car to the mouth of the NW canyon for the approach; there would be no reason for anyone traveling north to hike up canyon unless they were lost. The desert was initially quite open, with views for miles in every direction. I saw no footprints, and the little trash I did see looked quite old, reassuring me of my route choice. My anxiety kicked up a notch as I approach Growler Wash, a wide, sandy drainage on the west side of the range. The banks were thick with Palo Verde trees and the wash itself would probably be the second best north-south route around the mountains aside from the main canyon through the heart of the range. Tire tracks through the sand suggested the steel fence may not be as effective as the Border Patrol would hope, and I moved quickly through the wash and over a shallow ridge to the wide start of Kino’s northwest canyon.
The deeper I hiked into the canyon, the more at ease I became, my anxiety shifting from unwanted encounters to the climb at hand. As the canyon narrowed, the brush became a little thicker and as I reached the steep walls of the canyon proper, I took a short break in the shade to suck down some water and reapply sunscreen. I unfortunately found my GPS had already died despite checking the batteries before leaving, and my GPS track was hand drawn from the mouth of the canyon to the summit.
The next section of the route from here was fairly straightforward: hike up the canyon to a notch north of the summit between Kino Peak and a block like false summit to the north. Near the base, I primarily stuck to the sandy wash, working around the occasional Palo Verde Tree and taking left branches when possible. About halfway up I encountered a major split in the canyon, the right leading to an incorrect notch west of Kino Peak, and the left taking me to the appropriate saddle. The steepness of the canyon increased dramatically and the brush grew thicker, resulting in the most challenging portion of the climb.
As I encountered taller and taller dry falls and increasing locust brush, I abandoned the canyon floor and worked up along volcanic slabs to the left to bypass the worst sections. Dropping back into the canyon from above was fairly simple, but I did not stay low long as I aimed for the notch above. There was a steep looking canyon that led to the notch directly, and a nearly as steep but less loose looking ramp just to the right. I opted for the right ramp and looked up to seeing a handful of Desert Bighorn Sheep scrambling out of the way as I loudly and ungraceful worked up the talus slope. The ramp led to a sloped ledge just west of the notch and the start of the complex route up the north face. I looked in vain for a cairn signalling the start of the route, and started ascending the goat trails, working back to the NW as I climbed. Early on was a deep volcanic notch to the left that looked fourth class. But a bit past was some easier class 3 with the cairn I had been searching for, and from there it was a game of ‘find-the-next-cairn’ up through a break in the upper cliff bands and on to the summit ridge.
The high point was still two false summits away, a small volcanic block with a cave carved into the summit rocks. I reached the highpoint in about 10 minutes and startled a herd of Desert Bighorn Sheep at the notch further south, at least 10 strong with several young goats trying to keep up with mom and dad. I sat down to pull the various cacti from my legs and arms and took in the views. To the SW was Mount Ajo, my plan for later in the day barring an uneventful descent. To the SW was Cerro del Pinacate, the high point of El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve in Mexico. To the far NE was Table Mountain south of Phoenix.
A fine climb indeed. The summit register showed an uptick in visits since the peak was relisted (and by that I mean a few parties per year), almost exclusively from fellow DPS peakbaggers, with only 1-2 parties per year during the closure, some of which made the 20+ mile roundtrip haul from AZ Route 85. Satisfied that I had removed the majority of the cactus spines from my body and clothes, I started back down the way I came, utilizing various cairns on the descent to keep from traversing east to the notch too soon and wind up cliffed out. I took the ramp back down toward the bottom of the canyon, the line from the notch directly looking extremely loose and unpleasant. Back at the canyon floor, I wanted to see if it was possible to descend the dry falls directly and avoid the sketchy volcanic ledges above the canyon floor. This was a mistake. The first few dry falls I descended without issue, but they became larger and more choked with brush, with no easy way to climb up aside from completely reversing course. I reached one fall that was about 10′ with overhang, and I bailed to the ledges above. Once past the dry falls, I worked back down to the wash below and started hiking out the wide canyon.
Trying to locate my car in the open rolling desert with a dead GPS was a bit challenging, and I used a large rock pinnacle to the north as reference to make it make to Growler Wash. From there, I split the two largest hills straight ahead to find my way back to my vehicle. If Border Patrol had stopped to look at the note I left them, there was no response written or sign that anyone had been by. I pulled out of the desert and back on to Bates Well Road, passing several Border Patrol cars along the road pulled off at various points along the way. About 30 minutes of dirt road brought me back to Route 85 and I cut south to try for Mount Ajo in the afternoon, hopefully without getting stuck after dark.