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Mesa Anguila trip report -- Nov/Dec 2000

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Offline trtlrock

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Mesa Anguila trip report -- Nov/Dec 2000
« on: October 16, 2006, 09:04:17 AM »
Hi.  We're thinking of going back to BB this winter.  Glad to see this new forum; took me a while to find it.

I'm re-posting a Mesa Anguila trip we took in late 2000; I figure it's bound to be useful to somebody out there...

John & Tess

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TRIP REPORT: Mesa de Anguila, Big Bend National Park, Texas

This is being sent to various friends, relatives, the BB chat page, etc…so apologies in advance for the length.  Skip over whatever bores you…

Take care,

John & Tess

**********

WHEN:  11/27-12/1, 2000

SPECIAL THANKS: Jack on the Big Bend chat page for all the critical water info.  Jim (or Joe?) the ranger at Lajitas who told me about terraserver.com, where you can view aerial photographs of the mesa.  Big Bend Shuttle for a friendly conversation and good shuttle service.

HIKE:  a 5-day, 4-night exploration of the mesa.  Ascend the mesa at Lajitas and descend towards Terlingua Abaja.  No re-supply, carry in all food and hope to find water up on the mesa.

ARRIVAL:  Tess & I flew in from DC and met my sister Katharine in Austin.  Drove to Lajitas on Sunday and stayed at Lajitas on the Rio Grande for the evening.  Hadn’t driven into BB via this route before.  Seeing Santiago Mtn. & Elephant Mtn. from the west was stunning, catching the sunset as we drove south.

NEAR DISASTER—DAY ONE: Monday morning we planned to hit the trail at about 9am but a series of near disasters delayed our start until 12:30.  I woke at about 6:30 with the coyotes yipping and light just beginning in the sky.  The mesa, previously hidden in the darkness of last night’s arrival, began to reveal itself.  My excitement mounting, I turned to go in and pack up when I noticed a flat tire on the truck.  Darn!  Since we were leaving it for Big Bend Shuttle this would have to be dealt with now.  

After finally mastering the sadistic spare & “jack” setup of my sister’s ’94 Ford Ranger, I changed the tire and rolled the bad one towards the rear of the vehicle.  With my left hand I tipped the tire over and down to the ground but I was careless and the tire bounced back up about 4” and slammed into my straightened & stiffened fingers…YEOWWW!  Pain shot through my fingers--the whole hike was in doubt for a few minutes until it was clear that my fingers weren’t broken, just very badly sprained.

I decided to shower up & see what happened with the damaged digits.  The hot shower felt good…and the water pressure was awesome.  Finally ready to rinse, I maneuvered my back directly under the nozzle.  Mmm…AAHHH!  The cold water had abruptly ceased.  I rocketed screaming out through the shower rod and curtain in a desperate attempt to escape the scalding water; my entire back turned bright crimson within seconds.  Instinctively, I grabbed for a towel—OWWW!  I had, of course, forgotten that my swollen fingers couldn’t bend or grip.  My back felt like it was melting and as tears welled I began chuckling at the sheer absurdity.

Well…you get the idea.  Five hours, two tire-plugs and a hotel-discount later we finally embarked towards the saddle leading up to the mesa.  My back was fine and the fingers started working again the next morning.  Nothing like a little excitement!

MESA:  For the uninitiated, consider the Mesa de Anguila to be a 12x5 mile lozenge with pointed ends and the 12-mile span aligned roughly WNW-ESE.  The Rio Grande defines the mesa’s southern edge, mainly undulating through the Santa Elena canyon (1500’ sheer cliff walls).  At Elena’s mouth the mesa’s southern cliff face turns back on itself about 135 degrees and heads NW, the cliff now tracing a huge fault line and forming the mesa’s northern edge.  A few miles further NW Brouja Canyon jaggedly interrupts the cliff line before it heads back to Lajitas at the mesa’s WNW tip.  Without climbing gear you can only reach the mesa from the Lajitas end. [edit 3/08 -- not true.  one can ascend & descend easily via the old trail leading to the Mesa via Dam Tinaja -- this is an isolated & spectacular route]

On top of the mesa are many smaller mesitas as well as the two most prominent formations, Canyon Flag (3900’) and Mariposa, which dominate the central portion of the mesa.  The sheer size is exciting.  As soon as you ascend the saddle from Lajitas you can see the deep slice of Santa Elena 12 miles away as the crow flies [edit 3/08 -- patently false...can't see the canyon from here, must have been a little revisionist exaggeration on my part  :icon_smile:  however, we did climb the highest point at the mouth of the saddle.  I suppose one might be able to see the canyon from there; maybe that's what I remembered?].  There are also several small canyons, many deep drainages and thousands of smaller washes on the mesa.  These washes look like cute little ripples when viewed from a distance but don’t be fooled—it takes a long time to get to something that looks tantalizingly close!

ROUTE:  Each day involved 8-12 miles of hiking.

DAY ONE: Lajitas to Tinaja Blanca and then camp on the southern shoulders of Flag above the cliff.
Steep ascent then moderate.  Good trails.
DAY TWO: Canyon Flag to the northern mesa rim near Elena.  Sometimes arduous in the washes.  No trails to speak of much beyond Canyon Flag.  
DAY THREE: Brunch at Elena, then NW along rim, passing Brouja cleft on right and Tinaja Grande on left.  Ascend NW up the wash with mesita on left until intersection with Canyon Flag crossover trail.  Long day.  No trails.
DAY FOUR: Descend the mesa down the steep path at the NW edge of the northern rim and follow at the bottom of the cliff going back SE to Brouja canyon.  Long day.  Some tough going both on mesa and at bottom, combined with very easy parts.  The actual descent is steep at times.  Sketchy trail on top only.
DAY FIVE:  Explore Brouja and hike out to Terlingua Abaja.  Piece of cake.

We stuck to the schedule well but lollygagging in the mornings caused a few late arrivals at camp, especially at Brouja.  We got to camp late and had to get water from Brouja, about a mile away over many hillocks.  On our way back the last light faded as we meandered and climbed over the moonscape.  Upon reaching the plain where we’d left our packs we found we hadn’t taken a compass bearing (drat!) and we all raced out onto the plain (wearing our feeble little headlamps) trying to find our packs.  We finally spotted some dark shapes about 50 yards away—woo hoo!  Although we laughed it was really quite a close call.  I think that even five minutes later we wouldn’t have seen them at all.  

VIEWS:  The views rivaled any I’ve seen.  Positioned anywhere on the northern cliff edge between Brouja and Elena you could see a stunning 360…Canyon Flag and Mariposa back to the west, the Chisos Mountains, Mule Ears, Castellan et al to the NE, and Elena and the wildly canyoned Mexican Chihuahuan Desert to the south.  Looking NW you could trace the rippling uplift in the mesa beyond Brouja as it leaned out over the desert below.  Sunsets climaxed over Mariposa and were suitably surreal, although there were too few clouds to really do it justice.

The northern view (Chisos, etc) is especially cool due to the pent-up suspense factor.  After you pass Mariposa and Canyon Flag the mesa devolves into a thousand washes, mainly running NNE-SSW.  To get to Elena you need to constantly bear E & NE, cutting the corner of these washes to get to the northern rim of the mesa, where you can follow the cliff edge comfortably along to Elena without becoming coyote bait out in the furrows.  Since the northern uplifted mesa rim is several hundred feet higher than the southern rim, it’s not until you finally climb out of that last blind wash that you finally see the 8000’ Chisos peaks and what seems like the whole world in front of you.  Awesome.

ISOLATION:  Although we saw NOBODY until Terlingua Creek there were signs of civilization.  Monday night you could actually see some light pollution from Lajitas looking west back towards the saddle.  Tuesday night we could see the lights of a small village somewhere in Mexico.  Daytimes on the mesa with any view except north off the rim felt truly isolated.  Overall though, I’d say that the ’98 Marufa Vega hike in Big Bend seemed more like being in the wilderness.

FAUNA:   Aside from the snake (see below) we also saw various hawks and eagles, including one that soared above Terlingua Creek for about 20 minutes showing off as he searched for prey.  He hung out so long we finally got bored with him and he left, having lost his audience.  A very cool but regrettably dead spotted newt or salamander at Grande.  A large, multi-pointed mule deer buck who we flushed from a wash on top of the mesa.  A frog.  Heard coyotes in the mornings and saw numerous tracks but no sightings.  Smelled javelina, numerous tracks and a nifty skull on the flats near Brouja but no sightings until Tess saw one from the car north of Persimmon Gap.  Numerous deer tracks.  An unidentified mammal in a wash on the mesa (coyote pup? Bobcat?).  Katharine sighted all four tarantulas, although it’s worth noting that twice she didn’t see them until walking past them, a matter of inches.  Dozens of swallows cavorted in Santa Elena Canyon and over the cliffs.  They buzzed us and chittered away while we brunched at the intersection of the two cliffs; 1500’ down—the desert on one side and the Rio Grande emerging from Santa Elena on the other side.

FLORA:  The desert was IN BLOOM!  It was truly amazing.  Yucca and giant dagger, 6 or 7 different types of yellow wildflowers, 2 or 3 in purple and some in white as well.  The yellow flowers were literally everywhere, cheekily blooming even in the most lunar of landscapes.  Many of the washes resembled lush gardens, especially the drainage running NW from Grande (bear right as Grande’s cliff peters out on your left and a mesita appears in front of you) all the way up to where it intersects the trail coming over from Canyon Flag.  At times I thought I was in a patio or courtyard in Seville perhaps…the slick-rock underfoot and yellow flowers tracing the walls.  Just about ? miles ENE of Brouja we camped in a sandy plain (about ? mile by ? mile) that was almost entirely dotted with yellow flowers, in some places so thick you couldn’t see the sand beneath.

Other than flowers there were many grasses, ocotillo, lecheguilla, nopal (prickly pear), some small “fuzzy” columnar cacti and just a touch of small scrub chollo on the NNW side of the mesa.  Also creosote (in bloom) leather-stem and lots of acacia.  Down off the mesa the chollo increased, being joined by a healthy dosage of horse-cripplers the closer we got to Brouja.    

TEMPERATURES & WEATHER: The timing and the weather couldn’t have been more perfect.  It rained sporadically (rare!) over the 2-3 weeks before we arrived, filling the mesa with water and the desert with flowers.  We had nary a threat of precipitation and clear, starry skies.  The moon was waxing towards ? and set before midnight.  The Milky Way, Orion, etc were crystalline.  No planes, no noise pollution.

Temps varied in the 70s touching 80 during the day and dropped down to the low 30s at night.  We had frost on our packs one morning.  We were caught in a cold, heavy dew overnight and spent a miserable hour or two that morning damp in the chill breeze before the sun dried everything out.  The temp went from the upper 30s to the low 60s in a couple of hours.  We also were “dewed” in the plain near Brouja but had set up the tarp when we felt the clamminess creep in.

NEAR DISASTER—DAY FIVE: So, there we were.  Happily tromping along in the dry wash, heading towards Terlingua Creek where our truck lay waiting.  Five glorious, perfect days on the mesa under our belts.  

We reach the creek.  Across are some nice cottonwoods and the gauging station.  On our right is a sandy ledge about waist-high.  Perfect pack-height.  The shade is also appealing as we shrug off our packs onto the ledge and start pulling out our lunch stuff.  We toss various things here and there on the ledge and next to the thick grasses at the back of the ledge.  I sit on the ledge, next to my pack.  Tess looks back to get something she’d forgotten…

…and sees the snake.  A big (5-6’ long), thick (2-2.5” diameter), RATTLESNAKE!  He is NOT happy, and rattles and hisses as we leap away to safety.  Apparently all of us had been bustling about within a foot or two of this literal snake in the grass for several minutes, and as he slowly moved off we reflected on our dumb luck.

MAPS & COMPASS: We thought we would need the USGS topo quads, a good compass and the skills to use both.  Turns out all you need are the topos and common sense.  A good thing since we didn’t really have good compass-related skills.  The topos are critical however…finding water, the northern descent down the cliff and avoiding cul-de-sacs make these maps a necessity. [edit 3/08 -- now I would be using GPS, perhaps also taking along paper topos...]

WATER:  We originally assumed that we would have to hike in carrying ridiculous amounts of water, but Jack’s info, the fortuitous rains preceding our arrival, and the reports on the BB chat page allayed our fears.  We ended up ascending with just two liters each and counted on finding water at Tinaja Blanca 7-8 miles later up in the middle of the mesa.  We did.  There was water everywhere!  All the tinajas were full and countless other washes and drainages held water as well.  We did carry a lot of water east from Blanca to Santa Elena as there were no tinajas en route and the drainages tilted south towards the river, away from the northern rim route we wanted to take.  Since we only found water in a couple of washes among the dozens that needed traversing we felt better for having schlepped the extra 10 lbs. of water all day.  For the remaining 3 days we were back down to carrying a couple of liters each as we knew Grande would be full and there was water throughout our descent.  We counted on finding water in Brouja Canyon after the descent from the mesa and we weren’t disappointed there either—a virtual Appalachian stream danced among the rocks long before actually ascending into Brouja’s mouth.  Yes—the water was FLOWING!

Fwiw, we decided to ditch our Pur Scout filter for this trip and went with the Pristine (Canadian brand) water treatment.  AKA Aquamira (US brand).  Combine 7-14 drops of part A with an equal amount of part B.  Yields chlorine dioxide.  Wait 5-10 minutes then dump solution into 1 liter of water.  Shake and in 15-30 minutes the water is ready to drink.  Tastes like a mountain stream…even that funky old green tinaja water.  Increase dosage appropriately for larger quantities of water.  Two 1-oz bottles treat 15-30 gallons.  Kills crypto, giardia, viruses, bacteria, etc.  Prefilter with a bandana to remove the fun chunky stuff.  Works as advertised and saved all that energy spent endlessly pumping, and then cleaning the filter when it clogged.  Bye bye Pur.

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Hope this helps out any potential Mesa Anguila hikers...
« Last Edit: March 13, 2008, 01:21:17 PM by trtlrock »
John & Tess

"...and I'll face each day with a smile, for the time that I've been given's such a little while..." - Arthur Lee

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BigBendHiker

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Mesa Anguila trip report -- Nov/Dec 2000
« Reply #1 on: October 16, 2006, 09:21:23 AM »
Great story!!  Thanks for posting.   (Definitely a rough start, between the tire, smashed fingers and scalding)...


BBH

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Offline okiehiker

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Not too long...
« Reply #2 on: October 16, 2006, 10:45:39 AM »
TY for the report trtl.  It was definitely not too long!  (said the most verbose poster on BBCHat...)

Any pictures?  Your yellow flower comments got me thinking.
Funny... I have a story about that...

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Offline mule ears

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Mesa Anguila trip report -- Nov/Dec 2000
« Reply #3 on: October 21, 2006, 08:50:35 AM »
John,
great trip report.  Can you give some more clarification on this descent route (map descriptions, etc).  It does not appear to be the more technical down climb near the mouth of Bruja canyon.

Quote
Descend the mesa down the steep path at the NW edge of the northern rim and follow at the bottom of the cliff going back SE to Brouja canyon.


Thanks,
Mule Ears
temperatures exceed 100 degrees F
minimum 1 gallon water per person/day
no shade, no water
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Offline TheWildWestGuy

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Mesa Anguila trip report -- Nov/Dec 2000
« Reply #4 on: October 21, 2006, 11:19:04 AM »
You must have rappeled down the cliff in uppermost Bruja Canyon or is there a non-rope route down?  

There are 2 other routes off the Mesa one that goes to what is now the airport (Dam Tinaja Route) and another that goes back to Lajitas trailhead along the frontal fault scarp.   Both are badly overgrown and barely visible.   Back in the 70's I think these were regular trails but now they are more like isolated trail fragments.

Did you make it out to the "Point" above Santa Elena Canyon?  ... TWWG

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Offline trtlrock

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Mesa Anguila trip report -- Nov/Dec 2000
« Reply #5 on: October 21, 2006, 02:04:01 PM »
No pics to post, I'm afraid.  I took a camcorder and have a lot of live footage but this was before we got the digital camera.

I've made an edit FYI.  I had said we ascended from Lajitas to Grande when I meant Blanca...

Here's some clarification on our route.  In all cases I'm referencing the USGS Mesa de Anguila 1:24,000 topo quad.  This paper topo was "field checked" in 1971...

Day One:  Lajitas up saddle, follow "Pack Trail" to Tinaja Blanca for water (get enough to get to tip of Santa Elena canyon on Day Two).  Topo shows trail leaving Blanca heading E, then threading N, passing between Canyon Flag on E and unnamed 3780' peak on W.  When this trail turns N keep going SE instead, keeping Canyon Flag to your left and the cliff on your right.  If you drew a line from the 3800' altitude symbol on the topo (directly below the "D" in "DE") to the unnamed 3250' peak SSW of there...we found a good place to camp on the flanks of Canyon Flag to the W of that line.

Day Two:  Canyon Flag to the northern cliff face of the mesa, then follow that as far towards the tip of the mesa at Santa Elena Canyon as the day will allow.  Once you leave the trail at the end of Day One it's time to use the topos & your eyes...all trails pretty much end.  Head due E, keeping Canyon Flag on your left, then keeping the 3713' peak on your left.  Keep hiking E through the word "ANGUILA" on the topo.  At the end of the word "ANGUILA" head due E from the 3400' towards the 3322'  and beyond towards the 3200' altitude symbol on the topo.  I believe we hit the northern cliff near this 3200' symbol, although it could have been SE of there.  Once you're at the northern cliff it's easy hiking towards Elena.  Since Day Three is going to be a long one, I would recommend getting all the way to Elena if you can, so you can linger over breakfast on the "point" directly over the mouth of Santa Elena Canyon and still have time to do a long hike afterwards...

Day Three:  Re-trace your route from yesterday back NW along the cliff face.  Keep the 3322' peak on your left and the 3208' peak on your right.  The idea is to keep Brouja Canyon (directly N of the 3208' symbol) on your right and the 3288' symbol on your left, as you hike NW towards the word "PARK".  Tinaja Grande is somewhere on your left; I think I remember it being at the foot of the cliff just NW of the 3288' symbol, at the pouroff below the 3200' altitude symbol.  Get water here...a reasonable supply if it's been wet lately, as much as you can carry if it's been dry.  Proceed NW from Grande, hiking up the wash through the word "PARK" and beyond until you come to a "junction" just SE of the 3200' altitude symbol which is just NNE of the letters "NAL" in the word "NATIONAL".  If you want to or need to get to Tinaja Lujan I suppose you would bear left; we didn't.  We went right and proceeded NW up this wash, coming to the a good campsite somewhere near the word "TRAIL" on the "Pack Trail" due N of the word "Lujan".

Day Four:  This is a long day, needing to get to the desert floor and then all the way SE to Brouja for water.  Leave early so you don't run out of daylight at the end.  We had water opportunities throughout our descent, but once at the bottom...no more water till Brouja.  If it's been dry you won't be so lucky.  Follow the "Pack Trail" N, keeping 3324' on your left and 3388' on your right.  Notice on the topo that there are two trails appearing to junction off and head NW back towards Lajitas.  If you draw a line from 3324' NE to the 2654' peak the line will pass through all these "trail junctions".  You also see the trail descending the cliff by turning E, keeping 2654' on your left (N).  The trail continues E, reaching the desert floor NNE of the 3388' symbol.  

I don't remember this being well-marked, but it's easy enough to figure out by constantly referencing cliffs & peaks with your topo & compass.  I also remember the descent being steep & a bit dicey in places, but nothing careful footing, a couple of Leki poles & constant vigilance couldn't handle.

Even though the trail stops there on the topo, it's obviously easy to get to Brouja...just keep the cliff on your right (and the 2662' on your left) as you hike SE towards Brouja.  This portion is beautiful if you like bleak, lunar desert landscapes.  As you near Brouja, you will see (on the topo) where multiple washes converge into one larger wash (right at the 2400' altitude symbol, just E of the 2650' peak).  Keep threading SE through here into the large open plain you see S of the word "AGUJA".  This is a great place to camp.

**************************************

It's worth noting that we had several backup plans in case of trouble.  First, ascending the mesa w/two litres of water per person may sound stupid, but we had good reason to believe we would find the water we needed up top.  However, had Tinaja Blanca been empty or sketchy, we would have camped near there that night and headed back to Lajitas in the morning.

Also, the topo showed we could safely descend the mesa on Day Four as I described above.  However, if that proved to be dangerous or impossible to navigate we would have followed the path(s) back NW to Lajitas.

Lastly, I would say I've got pretty good skills in regards to following a route on a topo, and constantly comparing that to what I see in front of me.  I would occasionally use the compass to keep a general heading while we were buried down in the washes.  But the great thing about BB (or any desert hiking) is that you don't need exceptional orienteering & compass skills since you can see everything all the time.  On Day One Mariposa & Canyon Flag were always visible.  After that Canyon Flag was visible 90% of the time to use as a reference point.  There is NO WAY I would undertake this kind of free-form bushwacking trip in a forested environment (at least without GPS), since that would require a level of orienteering skill I don't have.

Take care, John
John & Tess

"...and I'll face each day with a smile, for the time that I've been given's such a little while..." - Arthur Lee

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Offline Casa Grande

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Mesa Anguila trip report -- Nov/Dec 2000
« Reply #6 on: October 21, 2006, 02:38:23 PM »
Great Report, John. Thanks for sharing it. It'll definately come in handy when I finally decide to do the Mesa myself. Jeff, have you decided yet?

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Offline Goldilocks

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« Reply #7 on: October 21, 2006, 03:19:00 PM »
Trtlrock, what are you thinking about doing when you go back this winter?

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Offline lighter fluid

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Re: Mesa Anguila trip report -- Nov/Dec 2000
« Reply #8 on: March 13, 2008, 08:35:30 AM »
trtlrock,
Fantastic trip report. Thanks for sharing it.
"...There is a pessimism about land which, after it has been with you a long time, becomes merely factual. Men increase; country suffers. " John Graves 'Goodbye to a River'

 


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