Ascent of Sierra la Madera High Point on 2019-12-04

Climber: Denise Mclellan

Others in Party:Richard Mclellan -- Trip Report or GPS Track
----Only Party on Mountain
Date:Wednesday, December 4, 2019
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
    Motorized Transport to Trailhead:Car
Peak:Sierra la Madera High Point
    Elevation:9908 ft / 3019 m

Ascent Trip Report

Getting to the trailhead:

The suggested starting place is the pretty and touristy town of Cuatro Cienegas, which has a distinct colonial feel. It’s about a 5 hour drive from Monterrey, though we climbed Madera after Centinela and before Tia Chena and Potosi. Cuatro Cienegas has several hotels and hostels, a supermarket and petrol stations. It’s famous for its proximity to the dazzingly white Yeso Gypsum dunes and biologically diverse Chihuahuan desert which has unusual turquoise pools with cyanobacteria- both worth a visit.

We had hoped to camp at Abuelo farm, NW of the centre, on route 48- based on internet research- but when we visited in November, there was no sign of a campsite there. It’s apparently only open in peak season (April) but can be opened by arrangement with La Casa De Abuelo Hostal, a few blocks NE of the central square in Cuatro Cienegas. We ended up at the Posada de Valle as it was one of the few places open; it had characterful ensuite rooms for c £40 per night opening onto a terrace where we could cook our own food - hotel restaurant not open.

The hotel staff put us in touch with an English speaking eco guide (a professional herpetologist, not a mountain guide) called Arturo Contrares, Mexican mobile no 8691005352, e mail: He said, as we knew from the late Adam Helman’s trip report, that the issue with climbing Madera is getting through the locked gates on a 20km track to access a high trailhead. Arturo was exceedingly helpful; we paid him a small fee.
Arturo explained the land is owned by someone called Raul Flores who lives in Monclova, but his agent is Juan Regina. Arturo is friendly with Juan, but Juan is elderly and no longer able to climb the mountain himself and also does not have a phone. Juan’s son, Ramiro lives high on the mountain and has a phone and the keys to the gates but is hard to get hold of and only speaks Spanish. The answer was to visit the father, but Arturo was clear, permission is not guaranteed.
The father, Juan Regina, lives in Ocampo, the adjacent town, c one hour’s drive/ 50km NW of Cuatro Cienegas. Once you go under a concrete bridge saying, ‘welcome to Ocampo’, turn next right after 0.6km, ie off tarmac and onto gravel, immediately after an LPG fuel station. Pass a blue police base with tall red and white comms aerial on the left and go straight, following power lines, till you reach a metal bar gate straight ahead. In front of you should be a yard with house on left and penned horse enclosures on right, 0.2 km from the tarmac/gravel junction. This is where our GPS track starts. The father is very friendly but speaks no English and apparently has no phone. After some chatting, he said he would give us permission but that his son needed to escort us up the track through the locked gates to his son’s house. He said the son was very busy but only his son could escort us, no one else and this was to the track end only, not up the mountain, from where we needed to be self-sufficient. He said there is usually fresh water in the canyon all year round and there is a path to the water, but not beyond. He said he would try to get someone to ring his son and get a message to Arturo. The father told us that the ‘Casita Bella’ (which is where Arturo had started the route before when accompanying some scientists and where Adam Helman had apparently started some years ago) was ruined and inaccessible, but there was another slightly longer route.

Fortunately, we got a message late that evening from Arturo that if we met Ramiro at 10:00 at his father’s ‘ranch’ the following day we might be escorted up the track- with a payment of ‘1000 pesos for fuel’.

Trip Report:

We arrived at Juan’s house at 09:50 the following morning as agreed, the father cheerful as ever and pleased to converse with us in my limited Spanish. Ramiro, a man of few words, was there fixing a jeep and shaking his head, apparently unable to understand my Spanish ( ? or fix the jeep?). Then he started the jeep and disappeared, apparently to get fuel. After c 40 minutes he returned with about 10 children. We were not sure what is happening but shortly one of the lads gets in the front seat of our basic SUV (no 4WD) and indicates we should drive, and we depart.

We go back under the concrete ‘welcome to Ocampo’ bridge and follow the route 48 in the direction of Cuatro Cienagas on tarmac. After 5.5km from Juan’s house we go through an indistinct locked gate on the right (N 27.29084 deg W102.38304 deg) and onto a well-used gravel track with spiky scrub either side. Sections of it are quite rough for our car- particularly steepish exits from stony dry riverbeds and some sections are overgrown with scratchy bushes either side. There are many junctions and at least 6 gates plus some barbed wire gates, of which at least 3 have large padlocks. It would be possible to walk or lift a mountain bike over the gates/ fences. After 23 km, c one hour’s drive, from Juan’s house, we reach a barbed wire enclosure and turn in- this is the end of the track.(N27.13724deg, W102.37721deg, Alt 1145m). Outside the enclosure are low spiky plants and grass. There is a muddy pond where cattle drink, fed by a long pipe from up the mountain, horses in pens, a small house, lot of chickens and some snappy chihuahua dogs. Ramirez arrives shortly after in his jeep with lots of children- this is evidently their home, called Rancho Mirador. He points vaguely to a faint track, starting at a gate at the back of the enclosure. We agree in my limited Spanish he will escort us back down to Ocampo at 10:00am in two days’ time.

We, i.e. Richard and I, eventually set off at 12:55 carrying 3.5 L of water each with us (as we are uncertain about water), tent and dried food. It’s pleasantly warm and sunny. There is a myriad of tracks undulating through the dry grass and spiky scrub, but we try to follow the main one in line with our perception of where the Canada de Agua is. We cross a barbed wire fence through an open gate. We have some lunch in the shade of a huge cactus and see a scorpion on the ground.

This wide track (with horse/ cattle prints, no vehicle tracks) takes us to the edge of a steep dry canyon where there is a rusty metal tank and broken enclosure (14:30). We can see a wide track in the grass some distance away on the other side, but no obvious way of crossing. We look around a bit and then find a break (possibly an old vehicle track blasted through) in the side of the canyon next to the tank which takes us into its base. We follow the base of the canyon up hill, full of smooth pale grey stones. But this is slow going and we decide Juan said there was a path, so with some difficulty we exit the canyon and head through spiky under growth back to where we think a path exiting the canyon opposite where we entered might go. Luckily, we found a well-defined path (not track) and on return followed this to N27.10802deg, W102.39595deg, Alt 1305m) joining a larger track which easily crosses the branching canyon opposite where we had entered.

On the path we are encouraged to see some exposed sections of white plastic water pipe, presumably to Rancho Mirador? This pipe helps us follow a narrow path through scrub uphill until, at 15:46, we reach a large 15m by 15m open topped concrete water tank with animal trough along one side on top of a vegetated ridge. No water is flowing in as the pipe is apparently broken but it’s about 20% full of a murky green water. There’s a flat gravel bivy site above. The height is 1464m.

The path now traverses the left (east) side of the ridge eventually joining the Canada Agua, with partly buried water pipe. When you look down left, you can see a track end and ruined hut which we think is probably the hut above Casita Bella, the trail head used by the late Adam Helman.

The path enters a flattish river wash area with lots of grey stones and bushes (as opposed to cacti and grass) – c 16:15. As it gets dark by 17:00, we decide to camp here at 1558m. The summit is 4 miles away as the crow flies and 1600m of ascent. The temperature falls fast and we cook dinner on our MSR stove. We take standard bear precautions. Cicadas rasp, the moon rises and it’s a privilege to be camping wild in this remote spot.

The following morning, we depart just before first light at 7:00am, leaving the tent up and spare food on string in a tree. The path is quite hard to follow through braided gravel ‘washes’ with metisque bushes but we occasionally see the white pipe, although it’s obviously been repaired many times, and many are old sections without flowing water. The path settles on the left hand (east) bank of the river, with lusher vegetation. We hear bird alarm calls, see fresh bear droppings and then a black bear ambling easily away from us up the opposite side of the valley.

At 08:18 water gushes out of a broken pipe, providing some reassurance we will find water above. We are now quite high above the valley floor, ascending gently on a well-defined path through deciduous vegetation.

At 08:49 the path joins the valley floor again (N27.06066deg, W102.41166deg, Alt 1892m). We mark this point with a cairn as it’s critical for descent, to avoid missing the good path down. The limestone valley has steep sides and many orange-leave maple trees and their leaves carpet the floor deeply- most unexpected and different to other Mexican scenery. We continue upwards and soon (08:56, 1924m) reach a series of leaf -covered pools of flowing water, some with concrete dams with various pipes, for a distance of c 350m. Within this area is a steep rock wall, easily bypassed. There are small flat slabs on which you could bivi, but no large tent sites and surprisingly no rubbish or fireplaces. We fill up good quality water here, the Canada de Agua, on our return.

We follow the canyon gently uphill on a much less obvious path which often disappears altogether, sometimes into muddy leaves. There are many fallen trees, obstructing tree branches, and washed out boulders and gravel sections to get around. We bypass a second 20m rock wall (dry waterfall) on loose rock and vegetation to the left, using common sense. It’s slow going but cool and shady. The maple changes gradually to holly oak, then pine and cedar with more, then less undergrowth. Some of the pine sections are burned with dry branches at eye level. We wear leather gardening gloves which offer protection but are not essential. At 11:00, 2375m, we follow the main valley right, now in predominantly pine and cedar, with evidence of tree felling, not recent. By 11:30 the stream bed we have been following has disappeared and we are just struggling upwards through tree trunks, either upright or fallen, with mossy limestone boulders littering the angled floor. Luckily, our GPS tells us we are making progress but it’s hard to tell!

Finally, at 13:10, we reach an obvious domed high point covered with pines, pine needles, fallen trees and limestone boulders. There’s no view and no cairn and no rubbish of any sort, but the GPS coordinates agree we have reached the top. The scent of pines is pleasantly overwhelming, and we have a snack, delighted to be here. By clambering over fallen trees, we do manage to get a bit of a view of the white Yeso dunes and rocky ridges and find a small sunny natural clearing.

We begin our descent at 14:00 and retrace our route down reaching the shallow flowing pools at 17:01, filling up with water. We manage to locate the exit from the valley floor onto the path and reach the gravel wash out area in the last light. It’s all quite confusing here by torchlight but following our GPS track we reach our tent at 19:00, apparently undisturbed. We have walked 21km today.

Again, we cook to the sound of cicadas. No biting insects, no bears, a joy to be here. All day we have been in warm shade- long trousers and t shirts- but the air cools fast with clear skies and a light breeze to 8 degrees centigrade. Feather duvet jackets are donned.

The following morning, we again leave at 07:00, at first light and return to the Rancho Mirador, crossing the canyon more efficiently than on our ascent. You can see the whole route if you look back. There is a distinctive double- peaked, squat, vegetated, but not pine- covered tower-like summit. To the right of this you can see the pine- covered Madera summit with the Canada de Agua curving up to it. We arrive at Rancho Mirador at 09:15. The family is busy with various tasks but at 10:00 Ramiro stops and gets into the front seat of our car- the jeep they came up in is not there. We descend – he does not chat- and reach his father who is delighted to see us and hear of our success and gives us a bag of homegrown pecan nuts.
Summary Total Data
    Grade/Class:minor scrambling
    Quality:8 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
Maintained Trail, Unmaintained Trail, Open Country, Bushwhack, Stream Ford, Scramble
    Gear Used:
Headlamp, Tent Camp
    Weather:Pleasant, Calm, Clear
good, mainly in shade

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