The 12 Labors of Hercules
I probably would not have climbed Florida Peak if not for the 12 Labors of Hercules. That was the name Weeds gave to the geo-caching Tour-De Force he had created over the past year. Combining his unquenchable thirst for peak bagging with his love of puzzles and geo-cashing, and a quirky penchant for Greek Mythology, he weaved 12 rugged mountain tops into the classic story of Hercules. The champion who could get to all of them first would be able to collect and assemble the coordinates of a 13th cache which held untold treasures. By that I mean a $40 gift certificate to REI.
Though not a cacher myself, I’d accompanied Weeds on several trips to place the “Labor” caches. Cooke’s Peak, Carrizo Peak and Anthony’s Nose were all great day hikes, and they all certainly lived up to the theme of hard work. On Cooke’s Peak there was the heat. July in the Southern New Mexican desert posed serious risks, and my four liters of water ran out well before the 7 hour hike was over. The summit of Anthony’s Nose was defended by two miles of thick Ocotillo, Cholla and Spanish Dagger cactuses. The “hike” was such an ordeal that on several occasions, we opted to climb, unroped, on sharp limestone bluffs in order to cut the distance and spare us from the plants that threatened us with a thousand pin pricks.
One of the more adventurous Labors I missed out on was Florida Peak. 20 miles South of Deming, the Florida Mountains look like a giant ghost from lonely I-10. From that distance, their detail is forever greyed out by the intense sun and all that can be discerned of their nature are the twin summits that quietly argue over which is taller. I apparently had something better to do the day Weeds and his wife placed the cache upon the West Summit (supposedly the tallest), but became intrigued by their obscurity and remoteness. I’d never thought about climbing the peaks before Weeds brought them up, but was a bit jealous to hear he’d gone without me.
My curiosity soon wore off, though, and I got back to climbing mountains with more tangible stats. Organ Needle, Crestone Needle and Medicine Bow Peak. I forgot about Florida Peak until Weeds mentioned that we was going back to lead up one of the Cachers who had complete 11 of the 12 Labors. “Mr Waldo” had actually attempted to climb Florida, but the final 30 feet were protected by fifth class rock that he was not interested in attempting without qualified help. Weeds had graciously offered to accompany him back to the peak and set a top-rope on the final pitch. Mr. Waldo had certainly put forth a Herculean effort to complete 11.9 of the 12 Labors, and Weeds felt that seeing him safely to the final summit was well in order. So at 6am on the 15th we hit the road to Florida Peak – gas station burritos in hand. Max, a coworker rounded out the team.
A New Speed Record
Highway lead to State road which lead to County road which lead to dirt road which lead to 4x4 path which lead to two old rusted water tanks that had been shot dead years earlier. We parked and the geo-nerds immediately marked our coordinates with their fancy GPS units. We were 1 mile from the summit…as the Crow flies. Not far at all even as the cacher walks.
The main Labor of Florida Peak is that there is no trail. It is a true wilderness area. In place of a trail there were cacti and prickly plants of type too numerous to name. Loose rock and rattlesnakes also provided some excitement. From the very start of the hike, I could not figure out why anyone would do it more than once. But it doesn’t have to be fun to be fun… that’s what I tell myself when necessary, and this was one of those times.
We carefully picked our way up a gully that pointed straight at our peak. It was in that gully that I had my first encounter with Nettles: A tall, skinny, harmless looking weed that deposits scores of small stingers on anyone unlucky enough to brush up against them. The pain resembles bee stings but luckily lasts for only 15 minutes or so. Nevertheless, we found ourselves in the middle of several patches of them, and even the usually stoic Weeds whined like a little girl after the attacks. The constant urge to climb out of the overgrown drainage caused us to stray a few times on to the dry, loose hillside on the right, but rock outcroppings and tributary drainages forced us back down.
At long last, the gully gave way to the upper slopes of Florida Peak. The potential paths to the top were more numerous there, and we enjoyed a few nice stretches of flora free talus slopes. That’s where we encountered our first rattlesnake. I was leading at the time and let out a series of manly “whoas!” when the snake announced himself. He was about 3 feet long, fat, and pissed. He gave me plenty of warning, which I greatly appreciated, but I still had to take a few moments to reassemble my cool. Mr. Waldo pushed the snake off the talus and into the brush with his Gandalf style walking stick and we continued on.
More plant dodging, sweating and huffing and puffing finally brought us to the base of the West summit. It had taken us 3 hours to hike one mile! I was elated to be out of the brush and on clean rock. The technical climb was not very technical, but a fall would have lasted for about 300 feet - certainly reason enough to rope up. I did so and quickly made it to the top. From there I belayed up the other three and that was it, we were at the summit of the final labor of Hercules. Mr. Waldo quickly found the cache and congratulations were passed around. “Beer’s on me!” he exclaimed with youthful excitement and sincere appreciation for the team effort. We all soaked in the views of the greater Florida range and it’s Rhyolite domes, Cooke’s Peak off in the distance, and other ghost peaks further South, probably in Mexico, then headed down.
Back at the saddle between the two peaks, we ate lunch then started up East summit. That was much easier technically, but we were back in the brush until the very last stretch. There, on the final rocky slope we met our second rattlesnake of the day. This time Max was in the lead and also let out a “Whoa!” I was second and caught a glimpse of the snake just before is dodged under a small bush. Mr. Waldo got and even shorter glimpse and proclaimed it a Bull snake on account of its light and dark bands. It truly did looked very different from the Diamondback we’d seen earlier, but Max and I tried to convince Mr. Waldo that we’d heard and seen a rattle. We argued half heartedly for a few seconds until a well aimed poke in the bush by Mr. Waldo’s staff extorted a violent rattle. “Oh! There’s the rattle” said the snake expert. We laughed, chided Mr. Waldo for his gaffe and then moseyed up the last few feet to the summit. The summit register, a plastic prescription medicine jar with a few gas receipts inside, showed about 15 or so summiters since 2000. That sounds about right to me.
The descent was quicker than the climb, but not quick enough. More nettles and cacti were endured, but thankfully no more snakes. We made it back to the car 8 hours after setting off.
The Adobe Deli is an eclectic cowboy bar just East of Deming in a spot you would never find by accident. It’s in a dilapidated structure that looks abandoned, has an indoor balcony with an oxygen bar, and a sign on the front that reads “Hippies use side door”. It’s a true gem of New Mexicana. Weeds and I had been there before and suggested a stop for some celebratory beers. Mr. Waldo jumped at the suggestion and immediately insisted on paying. Nobody argued. We drank two pitchers of Sam Adams and bought four Honduran cigars before heading out to the parking lot.
Just as we were about to leave, a stretch limo rolled up and half a dozen happy drunks spilled out. “What’s the occasion?” Weeds asked as we were finishing off our cigars. “Two years cancer-free!” said the husband of the survivor. He proudly told us of their struggle, with delight in his voice and tears seeping into his eyes. We didn’t mention what we were celebrating. It clearly didn’t matter in the face of such an achievement as conquering cancer. We just congratulated them, wished them all a long and healthy journey, and headed home, exhausted from ours.